Never Stop Trying: Maj. Clifton Cushman


Never Stop Trying

by Jan C. Scruggs

CLIFTON EMMET CUSHMAN is honored on Panel 11E, Row 13 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.


All of us have had the experience of wanting something so badly and then not achieving it. As we are taught from our youth, most of us pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and try again.

This reaction is not always instantaneous. Some might need time to nurse bruised egos or lick their wounds—but not Clifton Cushman.

This extraordinary young man from Grand Forks, North Dakota, had known incredible success and heart-wrenching failure in his young life. He won a silver medal in the 1960 Olympic games in Rome in the 400-meter hurdles.

In 1964, while competing in the Olympic trials in Los Angeles to earn a spot on the American Olympic team, he hit a hurdle during the race and fell, eliminating himself from the competition.

We can only imagine how crushing this disappointment was to the one-time Olympian. But instead of sulking, Cushman wrote a remarkably upbeat letter to the young people of his home town, encouraging them to set goals for themselves. At the time, the letter was printed in the Grand Forks Herald on the front page and has been reprinted nationally many times since then.

He did very well in sports at the University of Kansas and, after graduation, joined the U.S. Air Force and was stationed in Vietnam.

On Sept. 25, 1966, he was conducting an afternoon combat mission to bomb a railroad bridge located on the northeast railroad line approximately one mile north-northeast of Kep MiG base and 29 miles northeast of Bac Giang, Lang Son Province, North Vietnam. His plane was hit by anti-aircraft artillery fire and broke into several pieces. Observers saw his seat eject from the wreckage, but his body was not found. He was declared dead in 1975.

It has been many years since Cliff Cushman set athletic records in his hometown, but the people of Grand Forks have not forgotten him. Grand Forks Central High School named its football stadium after him, and some of his high school athletic records have stood for 50 years.  In 1997, the Cushman Classic was inaugurated, a high school football match up between Grand Forks Central and Red River High Schools. Most local athletes have heard the letter, and it is read annually before the kickoff of this event.

The letter is reprinted here. All these years later, it still has the power to inspire. After all he had been through, Cliff Cushman sought to use his experience to help other young people. Knowing what was in store for him and how his life would end in service to his country just a few short years later makes this hero seem even more remarkable and selfless.

To The Youth of Grand Forks . . .

Don't feel sorry for me.  I feel sorry for some of you!  You may have seen the U.S. Olympic Trials on television September 13.  If so, you watched me hit the fifth hurdle, fall and lie on the track in an inglorious heap of skinned elbows, bruised hips, torn knees, and injured pride, unsuccessful in my attempt to make the Olympic team for the second time.  In a split second all the many years of training, pain, sweat, blisters, and agony of running were simply and irrevocably wiped out.  But I tried.  I would much rather fail knowing I had put forth an honest effort than never have tried at all.

This is not to say that everyone is capable of making the Olympic Team.  However, each of you is capable of trying to make your own personal "Olympic Team," whether it be the high school football team, the glee club, the honor roll, or whatever your goal may be.  Unless your reach exceeds your grasp, how can you be sure what you can attain?  And don't you think there are things better than cigarettes, hot-rod cars, school dropouts, excessive make-up, and ducktail grease-cuts?

Over fifteen years ago I saw a star-first place in the Olympic Games.  I literally started to run after it.  In 1960 I came within three yards of grabbing it; this year I stumbled, fell and watched it recede four more years away.  Certainly, I was very disappointed in falling flat on my face.  However, there is nothing I can do about it now but get up, pick the cinders from my wounds, and take one more step, followed by one more and one more, until the steps turn into miles and the miles into success.

I know I may never make it.  The odds are against me but I have something in my favor-desire and faith.  Romans 5:3-5 has always had an inspirational meaning to me in this regard, "...we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us..."  At least I am going to try.

How about you?  Would a little extra effort on your part bring up you grade average?  Would you have a better chance to make the football team if you stayed an extra 15 minutes after practice and worked on your blocking?

Let me tell you something about yourselves.  You are taller and heavier than any past generation in this country.  You are spending more money, enjoying more freedom, and driving more cars than ever before, yet many of you are very unhappy.  Some of you have never known the satisfaction of doing your best in sports, the joy of excelling in class, the wonderful feeling of completing a job, any job, and looking back on it knowing that you have done your best.

I dare you to have your hair cut and not wilt under the comments of your so-called friends.  I dare you to clean up your language.  I dare you to honor your mother and father.  I dare you to go to church without having to be compelled to go by your parents.  I dare you to unselfishly help someone less fortunate than yourself and enjoy the wonderful feeling that goes with it.  I dare you to become physically fit.  I dare you to read a book that is not required in school.  I dare you to look up at the stars, not down at the mud, and set your sights on one of them that, up to now, you thought was unattainable.  There is plenty of room at the top, but no room for anyone to sit down.

Who knows?  You may be surprised at what you can achieve with sincere effort.  So get up, pick the cinders out of your wounds, and take one more step.

I dare you!