05/28/2014 03:25 pm ET Updated Jul 28, 2014

Maya Angelou, a "Sign" and Me

I had dinner with Maya Angelou at a friend's home in Pacific Palisades the very day a friend and I dreamed up a humanitarian relief flight to help hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese "Boat People" flooding out of Vietnam as refugees. It was June 16, 1979. We tentatively called our project "Operation California".

We had earlier in the day called McDonald-Douglas' Chairman in Long Beach, CA, and gotten a commitment for a free flight of a DC-10 cargo jet if the federal government would lift its grounding order for all DC-10s which was imposed after the American Airlines crash in Chicago a few days earlier in which over 300 people were killed.

Maya -- notoriously afraid of flying -- had driven across country to advise on a film project and was in town for a few weeks. Our mutual friend, Jim Giggans, a former war correspondent for ABC during the Vietnam War, had her to dinner.

I was typically hyperbolic at dinner, excitedly describing the lightning which struck on the Venice Beach at about 4 PM that day, when we left the beachfront and from my apartment made two "Hail Mary" phone calls: to the Long Beach, CA, McDonald Douglas plant and then 10 minutes later, at 7 PM Washington, D.C. time on a Saturday, reached the head of the Civil Aeronautics Board who had grounded the DC-10s. Langhorn Bond, President Carter's appointee to head the CAB, gave us a green light to use a DC-10 ("Please check first that the engines on that plane won't fall off!").

Maya sat stoically through my tale and then said to me in her calm and most grave voice: "It's a sign, Richard, it's a sign. You must follow it wherever it leads you."

There are many reasons and many people who determined why what is now Operation USA is still here providing relief 35 years later but Maya's admonition has always been, for me, the impetus to get me through that first 29 days until we were airborne on Flight One to Malaysia and, eventually, to 100 countries, hopefully with the same audacity which Maya saw in those first two phone calls.