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Under Cover of Night, A Story About Captain Jack

It’s hard to read Captain Jack. Something about him screams military, yet he’s not a veteran. But, somehow, somewhere, there’s a connection to the military. Something in his past caused that look in his eye, that manner, and that undying love of American troops. So, we ply him in with promises of a good lunch and a few beers to hear his story.

It is another gorgeous, hot day in Central Florida, and we meet Captain Jack on his boisterous tiki boat, docked and ready for its next set of vacationers. Bahama Mama, as she is christened, is always prepared to take them out for a leisurely ride, bar included, to a variety of destinations. Captain Jack himself is always at the Bahama Mama’s helm with a glimmer in his eye, a joke to tell, and an adventure to seek. 

The road that led Captain Jack to where he is now began on Mount Minsi, on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware Water Gap National Park River, in the early ’90s. It was a time in his life when he was just floating around, trying to figure out what he was going to do with his life.

We can’t help but think, knowing the end of this story, that it was all about fate. Being in the right place at the right time.

For now, we will shorten his name to Jack and get back to the “Captain” later. 

Thirty years ago, Jack dreamed of climbing Mount Everest and would spend his days rock climbing with his buddy Jesse Junior, training for that next big adventure. 

But wait, who is Jesse Junior?

“I met Jesse one day when another buddy of mine and I were driving up the mountain and decided to pull off into a little gravel parking lot near the cliffside. I looked over and saw a rope hanging off the cliff.

“‘You see that rope?’ I asked, and my buddy said, ‘Yeah.’

“I walked over and tugged on it, and it felt pretty solid. I hung on it, and it felt pretty solid. I started shimming up the rope and climbed the cliff. When I got to the top and put my hands over the side, I saw this guy, sweating his ass off, holding onto the rope and trying to keep himself from going over. He had just summited up to the top and hadn’t pulled his rope up yet, but all of a sudden, there was weight on it. He was holding onto this rope for dear life with no idea what was climbing toward him. So, that is how I became friends with Jesse.”

Through their friendship, Jack learned many rock climbing techniques, including how to properly use ropes and hammer cams into cracks in the face of the rock. The pair climbed together for a few years at the Delaware Gap—until the day…

“Jesse and I were in a parking lot getting ready to climb when a group of crazy-looking dudes that looked like something out of the ‘Lost Boys’ pulled up in a pickup truck. They were screaming, yelling, and hooting like high schoolers. We just kind of waved and started walking with our gear toward the trail.

“One of them yelled, ‘Hey, you guys, have you climbed here before?’

“‘Yeah,’ we answered. Then he asked, ‘Do you mind if we follow you? Tag along and follow you up the cliff?’

“‘No problem,’ we said.”

“When we got to the base of the cliff and began getting our gear together, we noticed a big storm rolling in, and I mean big. A menacing black storm cloud on the other side of the river was rolling towards us. Jesse and I decided we had climbed here enough and would sacrifice this climb and hunker down to let that monster storm pass.

“But the ‘Lost Boys,’ well, they decided to go for it.”

Jesse and Jack wished the “Lost Boys” good luck, not sure what their actual climbing skills were. But they appeared to be “pretty badass dudes that weren’t afraid of anything,” says Jack.

As the storm rolled in, dumping rain sideways like bullets, Jesse and Jack hid in a wolf den under a cliff ledge, where they found the girlfriend of the “Lost Boys’” lead climber. 

She happened to be on coms with him, so Jack asked, “What’s going on? Are they okay?”

But the girlfriend just sat there with a horrific look on her face. 

“I asked her how high they were, if they could move, and if they had a good grip. She said her boyfriend, lead ‘Lost Boy,’ thought they were about 700 feet up, but he did not know how the other guys were doing since they were below him on the same rope.” 

The lead climber had frozen in fear. With the rock being wet and slippery, if he made one wrong move and slipped, he would fall and take his climbing mates with him to their deaths. 

For Jesse and Jack, there was really no choice. They knew any effort to help the “Lost Boys” could end badly. But they could already see the rocks as the steam evaporated off them and determined that things should be pretty dry by the time they reached a significant height. 

“We shimmied up alongside these guys and, one by one, shifted them from their rope clips to ours,” Jack recalled, “The lowest guy clipped on first, and then the next, and the next, until we had them all on our line.” 

The climbers were on a 1000-foot cliff leaving another 300 feet for them to reach the summit.

“It was a significant feat to get to the top. When we did, we became brothers; we were all alive,” explains Jack. “We were like, ‘This is freaking crazy!’ We literally thought we were all going to die. There is nothing worse than having climbers you don’t know on your line.” 

As they sat there on the summit, catching their breath, Jesse and Jack just had to know, “How many climbs have you guys done?” 

As it turned out, the “Lost Boys” revealed they weren’t rock climbers but bungee jumpers.

“Yeah, Brian here; he makes bungee cords. You know, the ones they have at the amusement parks and use on the cranes? We break them in.”

They excitedly explained that Brian made the bungee cords, and the rest of the “Lost Boys” helped to test them.

“Where the hell do you do that?” asks Jack.

“On train trestles! You wanna try?”

“Hell yeah!” Jack replies, excited at the idea.

Jack and Jesse meet the “Lost Boys” the following weekend at an old train trestle in the Jersey mountains.

“They told us to get off the road at a specific mile marker and find a small maintenance access road. We followed this road through a mountainside that had been tunneled through for the train that was no longer running.

“When we came out the other end, there were a bunch of tents set up, a bonfire, and loud music. They were all jumping off the train trestle in the middle of the night. I was like, ‘Wow, this is different. I like you guys!’”

From that moment, Jack became a bungee jumper.

“It was a psychological shift because, with rock climbing, you’re always micromanaging every decision of your next move like a game of chess.”

As a rock climber, you must understand how your next move will impact your next five moves. At any time, you must be able to retrace your steps in case one doesn’t work out. 

“So, here I am, jumping off into darkness attached to a giant rubber rope, one hundred feet off the ground and over a river. It shifts your whole thought process. Whether I was rock climbing or bungee jumping, the way my mind processed things was with faith, not fear—everything I did was with faith, not fear. That became my personal slogan. Every time I faced a critical move, not just in climbing or bungee jumping, but in life, I stuck to that.”

For Jack, it wasn’t a matter of faith that he would be okay. Rather, it was an acceptance that when it was his time to go, it was his time to go.

“You build a relationship with death. When you have stared death in the eye enough times, you begin to have conversations with him. It’s not fear anymore. It’s more like, ‘So, you’re going to get me this time? You better have a steam roller and come at me at a hundred miles an hour, motherf****. That is the only way you’re going to catch me!’” 

Jack developed a relationship with death and became very comfortable facing fear. He did this through faith.

“Every time God has pulled me through, whether it was a gas tank empty in the middle of the desert, or the stuff I did overseas, it didn’t matter, it was faith.” 

For Jack, this is where it all started. It started with rock climbing, then bungee jumping, and building a mindset over the years to face fear. This ultimately carried over into Jack’s business life, impacting and developing his moral compass. 

Jack eventually made his way to Mount Everest.

“When you are talking about that level of height on Mount Everest, one of the biggest fears is letting go of the possibility of death. The real training is not as much physical as it is mental,” Jack explains.

“When I climbed Mount Everest, it wasn’t what I expected physically. In some ways, it was much easier. I was over-prepared, and in other ways, I wasn’t. I never expected my legs would feel like they weighed a hundred pounds each on that mountain.”

As Jack shares about the relationships he built, we begin to see that first perceived resemblance of military service. Sharing in extreme danger, protecting each other, having each other’s back, those experiences build bonds that last a lifetime.

“That last guy on the rope thirty years ago was just here visiting with his daughter. We have been friends for all these years. We remembered a time we were sitting atop a mountain drinking a beer over a campfire. There was a full moon, and the fire was making crazy shadows on our faces. We were laughing and talking about stupid shit.

“I remember telling him, ‘You’re going to be a funny-looking old man.’”

“No, you’re going to be a funny-looking old man!” he countered.

Now, here we are in our fifties going, “Yep, you’re definitely funny looking!” 

There was a time when Jack lived in a Denver canyon where he could hear the yells of other climbers from his kitchen window. He lived there with the now “old guy,” Mark, and his girlfriend, who was in the States on a group visa from China. 

Jack was working for a Chinese-American joint venture company when his girlfriend’s visa expired, and she had to return to China. He was devastated to see her go and was facing unwelcome changes at work. So when his girlfriend called and said, “Hey, I have an opportunity for you in China if you’re interested,” he decided to go.

In China, Jack became a hiking guide on the Great Wall.

“I would hike across the Great Wall and get paid. I knew nothing about China; I barely used chopsticks. But I ultimately asked that girl to marry me on the Great Wall.” 

Life was good for Jack in China. He was there at a time of significant financial growth. China had just been awarded the bid for the Olympics in 2008, and he knew property values would soon go through the roof. He and his new wife purchased a condo, and the value increased tenfold. 

There are always those opportunities that happen because you’re in the right place at the right time, and once again, fate seemed to have a hold on Jack.

The condo Jack owned was on the 21st floor, and a condo on the 25th floor had a burst pipe, forcing everyone to evacuate the building for repairs. During the renovations, Jack and his wife stayed in a Beijing hotel. 

“I’m just walking around this hotel lobby, bored to death, when I hear a bunch of noise, like a convention or something going on in one of the banquet rooms. I head down the hall and see this white guy, which was uncommon to see—and he is whiter than white! I mean, he is Ronald McDonald white! Super white guy with this big mullet of red hair.

“Turns out, his name is Mike, a Kiwi from New Zealand.”

He asks Jack if he likes to drink, and Jack finds himself invited into a room with a group of old guys smoking stogies and drinking whiskey.

“They were all Kiwis. One of the guys actually wrote speeches for parliament in New Zealand. The other guy reminded me of Mr. McGoo; he was deaf and blind and just laughing all the time, mumbling shit,” Says Jack.  

Over the next few weeks, the group invites Jack to numerous parties and dinners.

“We went to this amazing restaurant. I will never forget it. A marble lobby, a 30-foot fish tank, and an elevator made of jade stone,” Jack recalls. “When I arrive at the dinner party, there is a giant round table with diplomats from foreign countries, five-star generals from third-world countries, and reporters from the AP press.

“The next night, it’s the same thing. Over and over. Until finally, I had had enough of not knowing who these guys were and what they were up to. They were clearly trying to bring me into the fold. I just didn’t know for what.”

So Jack invited the mysterious group to his repaired condo on the 21st floor overlooking Beijing. “Mr. McGoo” is there with another guy named Pierre. Everyone was drinking, and they started talking about Jack’s past, his experiences as a guide on the Great Wall of China, and admiring a large sword Jack had mounted on his wall. Things were loosening up, but they wouldn’t explain what they wanted from Jack. 

Finally, Jack decides to ask them.

“I don’t know what you guys do, but the dinners have been great. Everything’s been cool. I have enjoyed hanging out with you guys, but clearly, you’ve brought me in for a reason, and you’re not telling me what it is. So, I’m going to tell you something. I’m a warrior for the Lord and the Lord only. If you, or what you do, is not in line with the Lord, I don’t want anything to do with it.”

“I can assure you we are in line with the Lord, and every mission we do is in line with the Lord,” Pierre replies.

But Jack needs proof.

He explains to the group that his brothers back home had all proven themselves men of faith, not fear. He tells them he doesn’t want to go to any more of their dinners or meet any more of their people until they can prove they are men of faith, not fear. 

“What would you have us do?” Pierre asks.

Jack’s thoughts are racing. He looks up at the sword but decides that it would be going too far, so instead, he pulls a steak knife out of a kitchen drawer.

“Give me your hand,” Jack entreats.

Jack grabs Pierre’s wrist with one hand, holding the steak knife in the other, and places the knife into the skin just below Pierre’s thumb. Being careful not to break the skin.

“This is going to hurt, and you are going to bleed a lot, but don’t worry, I have ceramic tile floors and can mop it up later.” 

Jack watches the reactions of the other guests. They all have Get me out of here! etched into their expressions. One of them turned a color of white Jack had never seen before.

“Are you ready, Pierre?”

“I’m ready,” Pierre answers.

Jack increases the pressure on the knife a little more, still not breaking the skin. He holds the knife there for ten or more seconds. Pierre doesn’t flinch.

“Okay, I trust you now,” says Jack.

The group makes their excuses, and Jack imagines them thinking, Crazy American! as he escorts them to the lobby, never expecting to hear from them again. 

The next day, the call came with the answers and explanations Jack had been seeking. 

“We run North Korean refugees from North Korea to China, and you possess the skills we need.”

Climbing mountains, saving lives, bungee jumping, risking life, overcoming fear through faith, moving to a communist country, living and working there, had all brought Jack to this…

JOB ONE

The Plan

The plan started with bringing a North Korean refugee to a hotel in China to meet with the Associate Press to share his stories about North Korea.

In China, you must register every event in hotels and report exactly what the event is about, or they shut it down. So as cover, they planned to utilize a visiting South Korean pop star who was staying at the same hotel. 

They would dress the refugee up like the pop star, with a hoodie, sunglasses, and gold chains. When the limo pulls up, and the real pop star gets out, the Chinese girls would go crazy—imagine young women in the ’50s & ’60s seeing Elvis in-person for the first time.

Jack and the group would take the pop star down the hallway and quickly trade places with the refugee. When management asked what they were doing, they would say the person who came out of the limo was a decoy and this is the real pop star, and they were headed upstairs to meet with the press. 

That was the plan.

What Actually Happened

Everything went smoothly until 15 minutes into the interviews when the hotel manager, who could speak English, realized this was no South Korean pop star!

The manager hits the power, and the room goes dark. The reporters all flicked their lighters on and continued to talk, but now, the Chinese undercover military police are on the way. They plan to lock everyone in the room, confiscate every recording apparatus, and interrogate everyone.

Jack is out of there!

“I’m wearing a suit and a tie. I have my briefcase and trench coat. I see 15 Chinese running up the escalator on my opposite side. I know exactly where they are headed.”

Jack heads out a side door to avoid any screening check and finds a beat-up taxi sitting there. He doesn’t think much about it, just wanting to get out of there. He gives the driver the address of his destination, and as they get near it, he begins pulling out the cash to pay the fare—but the driver just keeps going.

“I can’t speak in Chinese right now because I can’t think in Chinese right now. I am becoming overwhelmed and filled with adrenaline. I yell for him to ‘Stop the f****** car!’ but he ignores me.”

Jack rips out the flimsy cage that separates him from the driver and leans over, trying to grab the wheel of the taxi. The car is weaving back and forth across the road, narrowly missing pedestrians. Jack tries to get the key out of the ignition, but the driver is hitting his hand and arm. Then Jack grabs the meter off the dashboard and starts smashing the side of the driver’s head. 

“His head was banging between my fists and the window of the car. Finally, he became dizzy and discombobulated, giving me a chance to pull out the key and throw it out the window.

“I get out and walk around to his side of the car; I’m ready! I’m going to pull him from the car and beat him to death. I’m in ‘you just f***** with the wrong guy’ mode.

“This guy pulls out another key, starts up the car, and drives off!”

Pumped with adrenaline, Jack makes his way back to his condo, where he finds guards at the front gate. He approaches one of them to ask what is going on and if a taxi driver has been here looking for a foreigner.

“Yes, he wanted to know what unit you lived in, but we sent him away,” the guard answers.

Jack turns to see the beat-up taxi and its crazy driver across the street under a tree, probably watching to see what unit Jack enters. 

Jack tells the guards to call the police and the man is arrested, but now Jack must also go down to the police station. At the station, he is put into a room with a phone and begins to receive phone calls. Not from his guys, but from guys who know his guys.

“Just be cool. We got this. We know what is going on. We got our people on the back end working with the head Chinese foreign affairs guy.”

Jack waits. Hours later, a Chinese man shows up with a translator.

“Turns out he is a Chinese 5-star general or something,” Jack recalls.

He asks Jack for his side of the story. When the interview is finished, the man gets up and goes into the next room to visit the taxi driver. 

“I hear screaming, yelling, and crying. I hear all kinds of stuff coming from that room,” says Jack.

After a while, the general returns. He appears to be a bit pissed off. Jack just wants to avoid sounding like the poor guy in the other room.

“What do you want me to do with him?” the general asks.

Eventually, Jack is able to get out of there and meet with his group. They tell Jack to write a report about everything that happened, and after handing over the report, Jack gets called to a meeting with the team.

“Well, that was an incredible story,” they say. “If you can do that, we have a hundred percent faith you’re going to make it back across from the border of North Korea. You’re in.”

Jack then realized the true plan: they were testing him, and he had passed. 

The Missions

“My work was seasonal. The missions took place in the winter months when the river would freeze over. I always had the option to participate in each mission based on the intel I was provided. 99 percent of the time, it was to rescue a woman or a child that had been held in political labor camps where they did hard, unimaginable labor.”

Jack shakes and lowers his head, “It took me years to be able to talk about any of that stuff without choking up.” 

Jack’s moral compass always guided his decision to accept missions.

“I said to myself, You’re going to get that kid. You’re going to get that woman and her kid, or whatever it may be.”

Once a mission was accepted, the waiting began for the most opportune time to begin the effort.

“There is a river that separates North Korea from China. The river would freeze over in the winter months. We had a guy on the North Korea side that would sneak them out of the labor camp in the middle of the night, take ’em through the woods, and to the river where they would wait for us.” 

There Jack would be waiting, tied off with a harness and a rope for his run across the river. This way, if he were shot, injured, or killed, they could pull his body back across to the China side of the river.

“It was typically a female and a child, or one or the other. They were always wearing potato sacks with a rope tied around them and smelling like ass. They would be covered with lice.” 

Jack would continue these missions for the next seven years. 

After a while, however, paranoia set in.

“My face has got to be out there somewhere. When I was in China, walking down the street with my family, I was always looking into the crowds to figure out who was Korean.”

Jack eventually pulled the plug and moved into alternate forms of service. 

“I began being the second line of the mission, taking the refugees from China into inner Mongolia to a group of nomads. This particular group of Mongolian nomads follow their sheep as they graze, carrying big, white, round tents called ‘yurts.’ They set up their yurts in certain areas until there is no more grass, then they move on,” he explains.

“We would take an old communist-looking train as you’ve seen in the movies and travel up into inner Mongolia, which is still part of China, so getting the refugees up there with a fake passport wasn’t too hard. After the train, we would drive out into the grasslands in a waiting car or little van.

“We would drive through fields of hemp for miles and miles. Eventually, we would come to a clearing on a dirt road, where the road would just stop. There would be some horses on horse posts waiting for us. Our guide was typically a kid who would come running out of the grasslands looking like the boy from The Jungle Book. He would jump off his horse and hand the other horses over to us. 

“We would follow him on the horses with saddles half the size of our asses, made of brass. I will never forget the back end of that saddle. It would chafe the skin off your backbone, and your feet would be dragging on the ground; these horses were so damn small.”

Jack chuckles—the kind of chuckle you make when you remember something awful that you know you won’t ever have to do again.

About an hour and a half into the journey, the team would come to a lone Yurt in the midst of the grassland. 

“This Yurt would have a big bonfire going with a lamb roasting on a spit. Then, out comes this old Mongolian guy looking like Dimitri; no teeth and has a hatchet. He walks up, whacks this roasting lamb’s legs off, and hands it to us.

“He would usually go back into his tent and come back with bowls of goat’s milk with Mongolian vodka mixed in and make us drink it.”

Dimitri is ultimately the middleman who would then communicate with “Jungle Boy” on where the nomads are and what direction they are going.

“This is how off-grid this shit was,” recalls Jack. 

The next part of the journey would have the team following “Jungle Boy” to a community of nomads out in the middle of nowhere. The group would come together with the tribal leader sitting in a circle with tables and chairs made of tree stumps, where they would hand off the refugees.

In attendance would always be a U.N. representative who would provide medical attention to the refugees and get them cleaned up with new clothes. The U.N. rep would also document their story through translation.

“My job,” says Jack, “was to bring the report back with me to Beijing, where I would meet with U.N. reps and hand off the report.”

Eventually, the report would find its way to the CIA because the refugees were usually people whose husband or father was a guard or high-level ranking military official whom Kim Jong Un had decided was a traitor. 

“These were people who had been taken into town squares and executed, and then their families—generations of families—were placed in labor camps.”

Consequences

“What I was doing took a toll on my marriage,” Jack recalls, “partly because of the paranoia which made me a little crazy in Beijing. I kept finding myself in random physical confrontations because of my paranoia and thinking they were there to get me.

“Most of the time, I was wrong. They were just there talking shit because I was a foreigner with a Chinese woman and a kid. Situations just triggered false alarms for me all of the time.” 

Ultimately, Jack knew his time of service was ending in China. It was time to go back home. He found and purchased some land in the Appalachian mountains in Pennsylvania and built a house.

He lived on his own in an RV while the home was built, then once it was completed, he brought his family over from China. 

“My wife was from Beijing, like New York City on Steroids. She basically lost her shit living in the mountains of Pennsylvania. One day she told me she was going home.” 

There is another story here for another time that involves death, murder, child abuse, escape, and hiding. But, in the end….

“It ended up just being me, my six-year-old son, and our dog, living in a large house in the mountains.

“One day, I came home to a six-foot snow drift at my front door. I had just picked up my son from martial arts class and was sitting in the car, staring at this snow drift for twenty minutes. I sat there and reassessed my whole life.

“I said to my son, ‘Do you remember Universal Studios? Would you like to go on a road trip and stay there this time?’”

New Life

After arriving in Florida, Jack spent the next six months sitting on the beach contemplating life when one day, he saw a boat pass by.

“I’ve climbed mountains, scaled cliffsides, jumped from bridges, traversed foreign rivers while being shot at, escaped from kidnappers, and saved lives. I think I want a tiki boat now. I will change my name and appearance and blend into a new life on the water,” the now “Captain” Jack says with a cigar in one hand and a cold beer in the other. 

There it is: that seeming military bearing in him finally explained.

“Yeah,” Jack says, “I support the military every chance I get. Who do you think trained me and kept me alive?”

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