"We don't celebrate the day it happened. We don't celebrate the day I came home. We won't give special thanks on Thanksgiving.
But it's a part of me. You can't sit in a cell for 211 days without it affecting you. You don't forgive and forget. You forgive and you live with it."
No one will hoist a drumstick to honor Freeman Bruce Olmstead today - and Olmstead, of Rockville, wants it that way. He would wince if you called him a hero, "because others have been so much more heroic." He says he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time in history, and he paid the fiddler the way anyone would have.
But not every fish in the sea could have done what Bruce Olmstead did: spend the better part of a year in a Russian prison - including a memorable Thanksgiving Day - and not crack.
It was July 1, 1960, when Olmstead and five U.S. Air Force officers were flying an electronic surveillance mission for the Strategic Air Command and were shot down by a Soviet fighter plane over the Barents Sea.
Olmstead, the 25-year-old copilot on his first overseas flight, broke his back as he bailed out of the crippled RB-47 jet. In great pain, he bobbed around in a life raft for hours before being rescused by a Russian fishing boat. Two days later, Olmstead was sent to Moscow's notorious Lubyanka Prison, as was the other surviving crewman, John McKone, the navigator.
Unluckily for the two men, the Russians had shot down CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers only two months earlier and were still holding him. The Russians were jumpy, and they were less than gentle with the two RB-47 crewmen, who kept insisting that they only flew planes, knew nothing of the RB-47 electronic gear and had not violated Soviet air space.
Olmstead and McKone were separated and kept in solitary confinement at the prison. They were harangued and harassed constantly. Olmstead was denied medical care for two weeks. They were asked to sign "confessions." Mail to and from the two men was censored, delayed and in some cases, "lost." Finally, after seven months, the two men were released in a gesture to a new American president named Kennedy.
As a result of his days in lubyanka, Bruce Olmstead says he has "learned to take myself a lot less seriously. I've learned you never know what's going to happen tomorrow. But I've also learned to appreciate life every day."
Olmstead was about as appreciately and celebrated as an Air Force officer could be when he returned home. He and McKone made the cover of Time Magzaine. The Olmstead and McKone families visited the Kennedys at the White House. Best wishes rained in from around the world.
But life has turned textbook normal in the years since.
Now 43 and a full colonel, Olmstead is a staff officer for the Defense Intelligence Agency at the Pentagon. At his ranch-style home in Rockville, th leaves are neatly raked, a Toyota rests in the driveway, a sign reading "The Olmsteads" garnishes the screen door.
He has a wife and three daughters, a growing collection of the model ships he builds in his spare time and a thickening middle that he blames on beer. And he has a measure of peaceful anonymity: None of his neighbors knows about "the incident."
But Bruce Olmstead will be forever marked by it.
In some ways, he relishes that fact. It brought him credibility, and speaking invitations, during the years when American POWs were being held in North Vietnam. "I just might have done them some good," Olmstead says.
In other ways, Olmstead bitterly regrets the incident. "It was a bitch for Gail (his wife) and the rest of my family.A time of terrible anxiety. And I still have trouble coming to grips with the fact that they killed four of my crew members."
Not only that, but being captured ended Olmstead's career as a SAC pilot. "They didn't want any two-time losers," he says. The same happened to McKone, who is now an earthbound colonel assigned to Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana.
In still other ways, the incident is an annoyance. Olmstead seldom runs into an experienced Air Force officer who doesn't remember it - or can keep from talking about it. "So I usually turn the conversation to. 'Well, where were you then?'" Olmstead said. "I don't want to be treated like a celebrity."
And the incident remains a drain on his spare time. "You wouldn't believe how many people still send me the Time cover for me to autograph. I've had hundreds of requests."
But the incident was not without its lighter sides.
The chief one, for Olmstead, was the top hat and formal striped wool suit the Russians forced him to wear for each interrogation. "I looked like a 117-pound undertaker."
And there was the day he muttered a very American curse word at a Lubyanka guard. He was quickly brought before his interrogators, who accused him of being fluent in Russian and lying to them.
But it was all a coincidence. Unbeknowst to Olmstead, the word he had used sounded very similar to a high-octane curse word in an obscure Russian dialect. Once the confusion was unraveled, even the Russians laughed.
But there was no laughing on Thanksgiving Day, 1960. Several letters, initially held back by Russian officials were delivered to Olmstead all at once. In them, in rapid order, he learned that his grandfather had died, his mother had suffered a heart attack and his brother was seriously ill.
"It was a real cheap shot, a real dirty trick. They knew I knew it was Thanksgiving."
And now it is Thanksgiving again. Bruce Olmstead will spend the morning with his family, the afternoon and evening working at the Pentagon. He jokes that even colonels with 21 years on board don't get preferential shifts.
But few colonels with any number of years on board have faced what Bruce Olmstead has.
"Until you've been deprived of simple things, you take them for granted," he says. "Simple things. Like a doorknob. On your side of the door."