Class Of 1964 USAF Academy

Manny's History

New York City

The Melting Pot of the United States is where my mother, sister and I ended up after being pulled through the time machine in 1952.

My mother would have never left her native country. All she loved; her family, culture, language and customs were tied to that land. But for the future of her children, she would. So she applied and worked to get the necessary exit and US entry and residence permits, visas and other never-ending paperwork and emotional involvement needed to leave one flag and take up another. The future of your children is a very strong motivator. Still, she did not leave until she earned enough for a round trip ticket. Just in case.

Left behind were all personal possessions, including furniture, toys and books; including one in which my grandfathers and their role in a war were mentioned, and... my bike. The family I knew, my father, the music, the food I knew were now to be memories. Also left behind were the sounds of tanks in the streets, the hustle of an underground economy and the smell of camarones criollos. The sight and sound of a tank rolling in your street is never forgotten.

Armed with that ticket, her entire English vocabulary - consisting of three words: “Zhank-Yuu, wat-ter, toilet,” (a knowledge that she bestowed on us as we were walking to the airplane) and a fierce determination to succeed, she led us through that aluminum time portal and we found ourselves at least five years into the future. She was 40; my sister, nine. I was eleven.

By 1959 we had progressed. My mother had taken night classes in English and pattern making; and was working in sweat shops in the garment district. Her previous life experience as bookkeeper and head cashier had been worthless without a language skill. Thanks to her hard work, we now had our own apartment, learned English, (my sister also learned to network. A talent at which I am miserable.) and I had managed to graduate from Stuyvesant HS. We had also become United States citizens. No one loves this country more than one that has asked and been chosen to be its citizen.

In June 1960 my mother walked with me to the LaGuardia Airport, and with the goodbye hug asked me for the first time: “Is this what you really want to do?” “Yes,” I answered and climbed the stairs with less trepidation than I had felt eight years prior. I only turned at the top of the stairs, too far away to see tears on the face of a woman I had only seen cry two times in my life until then.

It was the same United airplane that Ron Wishart took. After takeoff one propeller stopped, and we landed in Newark. We were shuttled in a Convair to the then-Idlewild Airport to restart our flight to Colorado. Somewhere over Kansas, an engine in this replacement aircraft also decided it had had enough abuse and the propeller was feathered. What kind of new adventures awaited me in my chosen field?

Flying over New Jersey, I realized that the picturesque countryside, spaced out houses, beautiful fields of color pictured in Time and Life magazines were not just propaganda. This was real. This was also part of the real, great, United States. Another portal has opened for me. Though five years working all days in Summers and part time during the school year had taught me an appreciation of a working day, I somehow knew working in those far-below farms and smaller cities had to be an even harder task.

At the Zoo

Older by two years than most of my new classmates, and a contemporary in age to the Second Classmen shaping us up to be Fourth Classmen, I survived Doolie Summer like everyone else but with a slight advantage; The knowledge that "This too shall pass."

Except ... Except when in having screwed up in reciting the phonetic alphabet. I hear: “All right Smack, don't you know the alphabet? You missed a letter, give me the regular alphabet!” “Yes Sir!” And I proceed to do just that. I know the alphabet, I have just ne-e-ver been asked to recite it in English. So I had to translate as I spoke. (It wasn't until years later, putting my kid to sleep with the “ABC Song” that I learned the English alphabet. The Spanish one has a couple of extra characters.)

The table I am sitting at, in fact the whole area, the bustling waiters at Mitchell Hall, all rapidly become silent as they listen to this Smack in a brace-position, eyes on his plate, loudly spouting this very basic piece of material - with half-second pauses between letters. A..B..C... I hear gasps of astonishment and laughter. To my relief, I make no mistakes finishing the piece. It just takes some long, very long, thirty seconds.

But it was a good year. Loved and still love the Honor Code. My grades reflected my own lack of knowledge and understanding. The following three years were better, and I think I managed to stay out of the Dean's “other” list more often than not for the last two years.

After graduation, it was on toward pilot training. Finally! Now to get those coveted wings.


The flying was fine. The low level runs and air refueling were fun. The camaraderie good. Alert duty was not. But SAC was SAC; its mission clear, its bureaucracy and CYA attitude Byzantine.

We had already lost a few classmates I knew. So many were affected by the war. The loss of an ex-roommate, Larry Moore, devastated me. I had been one of those who encouraged him to first get a waiver for flying, and then to go to Navigator School. Now a beautiful family was left behind. Later, an article on “Checkpoints” from a precious young lady's viewpoint born from that union made my heart feel good. I was very happy that Diane and Bill Jones had gotten closer. Two highly respected folks partly brought together by friendship and a tragedy.

Other classmates and fellow alumni also made me very proud to know them. In my mind, you are all heroes. This war was won in the field and lost at the planning tables.

Civilian Life

I resigned my commission and in a bad economy, was promptly hired and then furloughed by American Airlines.

The government was looking for Air Marshalls as airplane hijackings became alarmingly common. I became one of those. Off to DC for school. Yes, that was fun. Lots of legal, evidence, weapon and target range classes. I became an expert shooter and graduated high in the class. I did that for six months. They found out I could fly airplanes. Back to school in DC. More classes on law enforcement, more personal survival and evidence law classes. Again, USAFA training paid off.

I was now a US Treasury Special Agent assigned to an Air Interdiction Unit. That was fun, yet serious, flying. The OV-1 Mohawk, the OV-10 Bronco equipped with FLIR and other aircraft were used. There were some very interesting experiences. The bad guys kept us busy. We were newbies of course, and thanks to experienced agents, learned a lot on the job. It's not combat, usually. But laying on the grass at night with a five-round .38 at the ready, hoping the bad guy fifteen feet away with a .45 doesn't spot you, wakes up your senses.

Three years later I returned to American. There are excellent, professional and dedicated pilots flying your families around the world, backed by extremely knowledgeable support. Detours were taken for HVAC (air conditioning), Real Estate Broker licenses and Philosophy, Electrical (EE yes, Dumbsquat me!), cooking classes, and a bit of volunteering. I hung up my stripes as required at age sixty.

My sister just retired from a law career helping the under-privileged, my son is using the sailboat more than I am, and my flying is now done in my living room on a computer simulator that seems magical when compared to the real simulators on which we first trained.

No “G's “ felt, but how else is a 73 year-old going to fly an F-16 or an F-22?

We've come a long way, guys. I regret not getting to know more of you better.
Manny P Cardenas
[ Operation 3rd Lt. Or “What the hell is that?” ]
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