Several members of my family kept many secrets for many years about their work to themselves. I want to begin sharing their stories to highlight how proud I am of them and to encourage others to ask, find out and share their family background as well.
There were many times before I started high school that I would ask my father and uncles about what they did at work and the response I normally got was, "I can't talk about it." I always wondered why they couldn't tell me. When they gave me that response I thought, as a youth, that perhaps they were ashamed of what they did for a living. It was not until my freshman year in high school when I read the book "Forty Seconds Over Tokyo" did I finally come to understand many of the odd circumstances and secretive conversations my dad and uncles would have.
I can still recall closing the book that day and thinking back about many of the odd circumstances that had occurred as a child and they never made much sense. I still recall sitting there and watching in my head how many pieces of what seemed unique situations seem to be coming together and making sense.
I started to immediately understand why certain things that were said or things that they did started to fit and become clear. I finally understood what was going on in their world and that I was part of it. I was speechless and astonished.
I thought back to the time when my father was traveling throughout the nation when I was in the 1st grade. I knew he was traveling because I would receive postcards from different cities and states. I missed him so much during those years. He was gone for almost 18 months. He returned home a couple of times for a few days but he then he told me that he had to leave immediately. I asked my Mom why he had to leave and she just said, "Ask him next time he comes home".
When my father finally came home to stay I would ask him what he did. I recalled that he would tell me about the many wonderful places he visited and the adventures he had but he wouldn't tell me what he did while he traveled. I did eventually find out why he traveled so much during those early years before I finished high school.
Other circumstances had come to mind while in the library was the number of times, while growing up, that made me curious and almost deeply suspicious about what my father and family members did for a living.
I recalled another time when my uncles and my dad were drawing what seem like diagrams in the dirt with a long stick. As soon as I approached them, they immediately erased them. Their conversation seemed to shift quickly to something trivial. I just walked away but I wondered why they were being so secretive.
I also started to recall a moment when my father and I were in a store by ourselves and a stranger came up to my dad and started talking to him. I must have been 4 or 5 years old. My father seemed annoyed with the man and he picked me up and we left in a hurry. I asked him who the man was and I still recalled his answer but I didn't know what he meant. He answered me in Spanish and I didn't understand the word. He said, "russo". I still remember repeating the word because it sounded funny but I don't recall asking what it meant.
I put the book down and decided to go home and felt it was necessary to talk to my dad about what he did for a living. I was determined not to let him stop in my inquiry with the usual vague common response I got which was, "I can't talk about it". I was set to find out and see if my suspicions were correct. It turned out that I had figured it out.
My uncles and my father had been working on secret military projects since I was born.
My father was working on making modifications on B-58 bombers during those years he was away from home. These planes were the first supersonic bombers carrying nuclear armament. He had signed papers that required him to keep the information about his work to himself. I don't think my mother knew exactly what my father worked on. Her not knowing protected her and us.
My father did not know that I had remembered the day that he talked to a man, which he labeled "russo" (Spanish term for Russian). He explained to me that because of the nature of the work he did that he was sometimes under surveillance. Their secret clearance required it. Now, whether that person that approached him back then was a US agent, or other, he would never know. It was that same day that my father informed me that at times I, and my immediate family members, would also be followed and investigated occasionally. It was just the way things worked back then as we were in the middle of the Cold War.
My dad seemed open to talking that day so I kept probing and asking.
What about my uncles living near us? He shared that they had worked as "private contractors" doing aircraft and helicopter maintenance for special military operations somewhere in Asia. My uncles later shared with me that they had worked with the Green Berets and that the Vietnam War had not yet started. They also repaired and maintained some of the Air America planes. Some years past and I eventually learned that they had approached my father to also work in other bases but my father refused because as he said, "There is always bombs going off around you and it makes it hard to concentrate when you are working." My father and I laughed about this idea many times.
I asked him if he could share with me about his current work and he told me that he hadn't shared because he didn't that I would be interested in it. I discovered that he was working on the seat ejection system for the Gemini space capsule.
I couldn't believe what I was hearing! I was stunned when he told me that I might be bored with his stories about work. I assured him many times that I wanted to know more and how proud I was of him.
As the years followed, my father worked on other "special projects". He was a developmental aircraft engineer technician and he worked on the prototype of the F-18 fighter. I still recall staying over in his hotel room in California City while he was driving and working on testing the plane at Edwards Air Force base. He was on the base for many weeks.
My father informed me one day that he was getting ready to retire and that his last project was once again top secret. In those final years of his work I got tiny bits of information about what he was personally working on but I never knew the full extent of the primary project he was on. One day I was watching the News and they announced that my dad's company had been building the secret B-1 bomber in their Pico Rivera, CA plant. Over the years that followed I learned many technical details about this and other planes he had worked on. One item that stood out was that each B-1 bomber could carry 16 nuclear bombs. They built 21 of them.
Throughout many years, I made it a point never to share specifics with anyone about what my father did nor talk about the details that he shared with me. Much of what he shared with me back then is now declassified.
I want to share that the reality of having family secrets about their work also included my uncle Don. He was my father's brother-in-law. I was very fortunate to have lived several summers with my aunt and uncle. My uncle was a born gifted artist. He started working as an illustrator for an engineering firm. Over the years he became an outstanding leading engineer and he patented an invention that helped saved the lives of fighter pilots who needed to eject from their doomed jet.
Apparently one day he received a call saying that his special seat belt system had been deployed and used by a downed pilot during the Middle East Crisis. He was informed that he had to travel to the crash site to inspect the operation of the pilot harness. I can still recall seeing, handling and even wearing some of the items and souvenirs he brought back. One day, after many years had passed, it dawned on me that his invention was for our Air Force. Now, as I recalled, we did not participate nor fly any of our planes during that Crisis. The history books state that it was a war that involved only the Israelis and Egyptians. So was a U.S. plane downed or was his invention in a plane of another country? I meant to ask him for details but I never got around to asking him.
So why am I now sharing my story?
Well, first of all my uncles and father have all passed away and they have taken their experiences and captivating stories with them. I am sorry that they are gone but I am glad that I had the opportunity to learn about how they contributed to the safety and protection of the US.
I want to share that it was not always easy to get information from my dad and uncles about the important work they did. I am sure they did not want to recollect hardships that they endured, nor did they want to break their vows to silence and secrecy.
However, there are many families in our neighborhoods that have members who did or are doing vital work to protect this nation and they should also be acknowledged and honored for their contributions.
Undoubtedly, we must never forget our active servicemen and veterans. They were and are on the front line of defense. Along with them are many civilians who walk and live amongst us that quietly and unassumingly participated in vital programs and projects that help defend this nation of ours.
I met a man once who informed me that he worked in a factory. Later I found out he in fact worked in a company building parts for missiles. His immediate family didn't know about it.
I met a well-dressed engineer who was the top space metallurgist for a major aircraft corporation. He shared with the group that he was once homeless in Los Angeles.
I sat next, through several presentations, with an older well-dressed gentleman who was a bit hard to understand when he talked. His German and Polish accent was very pronounced. Later I come to find out that he was once a high-ranking intelligence operative (spy) for the US and was captured and imprisoned. He is Werner Juretzko and author of the book, "Years Without Hope".
The story I must share with you soon is my interview with US Ambassador James Sweeney. It's the most important interview I have ever done. I have entitled it, "A Latino Who Prevented WWIII". I'll share the details of this great man in upcoming weeks.
While I could write about many more persons that you may have seen, sat next to or walk by their house and no one knows about the important work and contributions that they have done to protect our nation. Same may refer to them as simply factory workers, secretaries, or construction workers but I invite you to wonder and find out details about what exactly they assemble, transcribe or build.
I am certain that many of you will be genuinely surprised to learn about the important work they do and that they don't get any acknowledgement for it.
It's time we ask them about what they did and let them know how proud we are of them in addition to thanking them for their dedication.