In case you haven’t noticed, Father’s Day is less than 48 hours away. (Who knows, you could have been kidnapped by aliens and lost track of time.)
I can tell Father’s Day is approaching because of all the commercials for tools, tires and mattresses. Particularly painful are Sit ‘n Sleep’s radio ads where Irwin, the company accountant, whines, “You’re killing me, Larry.” (If only.) This is followed with Larry bragging, “I am the king!” I’m convinced that if these commercials were played to terrorists at Guantanamo they’d soon be begging to be water boarded.
But back to Father’s Day and a note to moms, sons and daughters out there, you’re going to have to do something to outdo the “present” that Gary Powers, Jr. is giving to his late father, former Air Force Capt. Francis Gary Powers, Sr. One could say it’s been 50 years in the making.
This is the third column I’ve written about Powers, Sr., who is perhaps the most famous American face of the Cold War, which began in 1945 and ended in 1991. But today, over five decades after his release from a Soviet prison, Powers, Sr. is posthumously receiving the Silver Cross in a ceremony at the Pentagon, all in no small way due to the dedicated efforts of his son, Gary, Jr.
In the summers, Gary used to come to the beach in Santa Monica with his mother and sister and remembers seeing his dad fly over in a helicopter working as a traffic reporter for KNBC. (Unfortunately Powers, Sr. died in a crash on the job when Gary was only 12.)
Flying a CIA U-2 spy plane, Powers, Sr. was shot down by the Russians on May 1, 1960. This was one of many high risk missions Powers spent gathering crucial military intelligence high above Russia.
Assuming the U-2 was destroyed and Powers was assuredly dead, the CIA denied the existence of the spying. (Duh.) The truth was we had been doing it for years in a drama neither country could reveal.
Through remarkable, top secret photographs captured from 70,000 feet, we discovered that the Russians did not have the stockpile of ICBMs that we had feared. But Ike and Khrushchev couldn’t admit it for obvious reasons.
In fact, when JFK famously debated Nixon in 1960 and criticized the “missile gap,” it’s likely he knew there was no such thing. (Which must have infuriated Nixon, who would go on to deserve far worse, like federal prison.) This “game” is reminiscent of when Saddam Hussein couldn’t reveal his lack of WMDs because it would embolden Iran. So, in 2003, we invaded Iraq, and removed Saddam which … emboldened Iran. (Duh No. 2)
Meanwhile this Father’s Day a carefree Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld will probably be riding around in golf carts at the fanciest of country clubs. Meanwhile our vets are committing suicide at the rate of one per day, or sleeping under freeway overpasses or hobbling around on prosthetics. (But hey, golf is a very demanding sport.)
After being shot down, Powers was captured, harshly interrogated and endured a stressful show trial in Moscow where he feared execution. He was given a 10-year sentence and served 21 grueling months in the infamous Vladimir Central Prison, 100 miles northeast of Moscow, before coming home. His return was the result of a cloak and dagger spy exchange right out of an espionage thriller, on a foggy dawn on a Berlin bridge.
But Powers wasn’t greeted back in the U.S. like a hero. Because of Cold War mania, many accused him of treason for having cooperated with the Russians, which was exactly what he was trained to do if ever captured. (Even on current websites I see right-wingnuts posting that Powers should have killed himself and destroyed the U-2.)
Fortunately, because of Powers’ candid and inspiring testimony before a Senate committee, public opinion changed. And in 1998 Powers was further exonerated when CIA documents were declassified. In 2000, he finally began receiving honors for his bravery (albeit posthumously) but none any greater than the Silver Star being given to his grandchildren in his honor today in D.C.
So kudos to Gary, Jr. for persevering all these years to finally set the record straight and give his late father the greatest of all Father’s Day presents. To everyone else, this is not to say a set of tires can’t be a thoughtful gift.
(Editor’s note: This column originally appeared June 15, 2012.)