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THE MIAMI HERALD

THE MISSION

Sunday, June 21, 1987

Section: TROPIC

Edition: FINAL

Page: 10

CANDACE M. TURTLE Herald Staff Writer


Illustration: color photo: Janet Weininger with photo of father (t),
Janet Ray in first grade (r); photo: Peter Ray in high school
(r), Janet with mother Margaret and brother Tom (n), Pete Ray
(r)

 

All day and all night the planes take off and return. The steady, powerful, mesmerizing roar of their engines blankets the neatly trimmed lawns and the government-issue housing below.

Janet Weininger lives here at Homestead Air Force Base with her husband, a pilot, and their two children, a 6-year-old boy and an infant daughter. They are the picture of military normalcy. On Friday nights the parents go to the officer's club for drinks. Her red-haired, freckled-faced little boy sneaks his Cub Scout uniform into his backpack and puts it on when he gets to school because he likes to be in uniform just like his father, and on Saturdays the whole family eats pizza together.

The furniture is sturdy and neutral, the kind that can blend in anywhere. The only note of disorder in the house is supplied by the pink vinyl valise, the kind a teen-ager might take to a slumber party, fully opened on the beige plush carpet of the living area, bursting with yellowed newspaper clips and old snapshots and cassette tapes and hand scrawled notes and letters and finally, most improbable of all, a tissue-wrapped set of dental impressions that Janet has carried with her everywhere for 26 years. She has stared at them; she has studied them; she knows how to identify a body from them.

There is no need for that anymore, of course. But Janet clings to them, like all the other items in her suitcase,
because they are her history, the relics of her life, and all she will ever have of her father.

Her family doesn't understand, nor do her friends, nor the Americans in whose service her father died at a place called the Bay of Pigs.

Only Cubans understand. Only Cubans, with their own suitcases overflowing with yellowing photographs and the documents of despair. The Cubans understand, and they embrace this girl-sized woman from the Deep South, recognizing that her loss is as large and as personal as theirs, and her obsession as enduring.

Janet Weininger is one South Florida Anglo who does not need to be persuaded that some struggles never end.

Janet was excited. Her mother had told her to stay at home and wait for her brother, Tom, to come home from school
because she had something to tell them. Janet, 6, had tried teasing the secret out of her mother earlier, but it didn't work. Didn't matter, she was pretty sure she knew anyhow. Her mother was going to tell her that her father, a pilot, was coming home.

Janet was waiting on the front porch with Chase, her dog. "Hurry up," she yelled when she saw Tom across the street. "Mom's got a secret to tell us."

The children ran inside their grandmother's house where they were staying while their dad was away. They sat side by side on the bottom of their bunk bed.

At first her mother didn't say anything. Janet could tell something was wrong.

"Daddy isn't going to come back anymore," she said. "He died. He's going to look after us from heaven."

Janet felt only rage. "What a lie," Janet thought. "Why would grown-ups tell me such things?"

Her daddy wore flight suits. He was special. He took her up in a plane, and together they'd look down on the world transformed, a place she called Midgetland. "My father is coming home," she shrieked over and over again. "He always comes home."

Her mother reached out to console her. How she hated those pats, that touch. She pulled away from her arms. Her body was stiff and hot. "I don't want anyone to touch me," she said. "Leave me alone."

Janet had never even said a proper goodbye. Her father, Pete Ray had come home for a quick visit about three weeks before the invasion. When it was time for him to leave, Janet was watching Tarzan on television and wanted to see the end of the episode. At the last minute, she changed her mind. She jumped up and ran to the door, but she was too late. She could see the back of her father's head as the car drove off, but he didn't hear her call, he didn't turn around for one last wave.

Tom wasn't crying. She hated him for that. She said the meanest thing she could.

"You stupid fool," she shouted at him. "Why aren't you crying? We just lost our daddy."

Of all the people in her family, she was most like her dad. Not like her mom and Tom who were quiet and good and neat.

She squirmed away from her mother's embrace and picked up Chase. They sat on the front porch for hours while Janet cried. Her mother could say whatever she wanted to. Janet would listen only to the new voice inside her. It said:

Find him.

Janet was in first grade when Pete Ray's B-26 was shot down over Cuba. He was one of four Americans killed during the aborted April 1961 invasion.

Ray had been hired by the CIA. He was to have supplied part of the massive air support the United States had promised the more than 1,400 U.S.-trained Cuban exiles poised to storm Castro's island two years after his revolution had dispossessed them. Ray's mission was to train Cuban pilots for three months in secret Guatemalan and Nicaraguan bases, then fly bombing raids in the invasion itself. When the time came, he flew in cutoffs and a T-shirt, without insignia, in hopes of maintaining the illusion that the invasion didn't involve Americans. With his fair hair, closely cropped in the American style of the time, it was a vain hope.

The B-26 was a big, slow World War II-era bomber. The pilots set out from Nicaragua expecting to meet an escort of American fighter jets near Cuba. But President Kennedy changed the plans at the last moment; the fighters never showed. Ray was a sitting duck.

Janet didn't understand the invasion, she didn't know anything about Fidel Castro. She just wanted to know why they didn't have a funeral if her father was dead.

No one would tell her anything about how her father had died -- not her mother or her uncles or her grandfather. They couldn't even tell her for sure that her father was dead. There were rumors that he was a prisoner in one of Castro's jails along with more than 1,000 Cubans captured in the invasion.

"If he was dead," she thought, "why wasn't there a body?"

She asked questions at home. "How did my dad die?" she asked. "Is he a prisoner? Where's his body?"

"Shush," her aunts said. "Don't upset your mother."

"Now, Jan, don't go on so," her uncles said. "Your father wouldn't like it."

Grown-ups stopped talking in front of her and changed the subject when she came into the room.

At night, she made paper airplanes for her father to fly home on. She hid them by the mailbox.

He'd always returned from Midgetland, hadn't he?

It took years for the U.S. government to admit that any of the Americans involved in the invasion were employed by the CIA. The Americans who died had been on their own, mercenaries, official statements insisted.

The problem was that Pete Ray had told his wife that he was working for the CIA. Margaret Ray knew the official version was a lie. She had lost her husband in a military action in the service of her country, and all the government could come up with was the word, "mercenary." She was angry, horribly depressed, and soon she would become frightened. The Rays had been caught up in the bizarre world of international intrigue and covert action. They were briefly living under a media spotlight that brought out reporters and kooks. They may or may not have been the target of an official campaign of intimidation. In retrospect, it is difficult to know how much of the paranoia that blossomed in the Ray family was justified by reality, and how much was justified only by grief.

But Janet's memories of those years are colored by a wash of peculiar events. Strange men would stop the children on their way to school and question them. The children found cigarette butts under the trees near their home.

"Maybe people were watching us to keep us safe," said Tom Ray. "We don't know."

Janet's grandmother contacted the general of the air base to try to find out more about Pete Ray's death. The next day, a new man was hired at the JC Penney where she worked. He walked up to her in the lunchroom and told her she would be in trouble if she didn't stop asking questions about the Bay of Pigs and what happened to her son. Several months later, when she quit, he quit.

Janet's mother's grief turned to terror. She would sit up nights holding a pistol, afraid of intruders. Communist agents? The CIA? Local pranksters drawn by the publicity? She didn't know which. She told her family that a lawyer, supposedly hired by the CIA to handle the financial affairs of the widows of the downed American fliers, took the four women on a tour of the Birmingham jail and threatened to have them imprisoned and their children taken away if they didn't stop asking questions.

The children took their cue from the adults. When the family returned from an evening out, Janet and Tom would take butcher knives from the kitchen and slash them through closets, under beds, through the dirty laundry in case someone was hiding. This went on for two years.

"When we would come home, when it was dark, we would just normally go get the butcher knives," Janet says now. Nothing made any sense, but it all fueled Janet's anger, sharpened her conviction that things were being kept from her, secrets that she would have to discover for herself. That was when she began to hide her tape recorder under the living room couch.

On her way home from school one day 18 months after her father disappeared, when Castro was releasing prisoners taken during the invasion, Janet was stopped by a man in a suit, a stranger. "Is your daddy coming home today?" he asked.

Janet's heart pounded; this was exactly what she had dreamed about. The man must know her daddy was coming back.

She flung her schoolbooks to the ground and started running. Her braids slapped her back as if urging her to run faster and faster. She slipped and rolled into a ditch and was covered with mud. Without stopping to brush herself off, she tore through the woods. "Daddy's coming home, Daddy's coming home," she yelled. Up the steps she ran and into the kitchen. "Mom, Daddy's coming home," she said. Her mother looked at her hard and didn't say anything.

When the prisoners flew to Homestead, Janet watched them land on television, her nose inches from the screen. She scanned the black and white images for her father. When the last liberated prisoner disappeared from the screen, Janet began to weep.

Later, the Rays went over to Janet's great-grandmother's house. After they ate, the children were sent to bed in the pea room, a back bedroom lined with jars of preserves and pickled vegetables.

Janet waited until her brother fell asleep. Then she sneaked out through the bedroom and under her great-grandmother Bailey's bed. There she could see across to the living room and hear the grown-ups.

While she hid under a bed on the cold floor, peeking out behind the white fringe of the bedspread, she listened to her grandmother and mother talking. Something is wrong with Janet, they said.

"Every time Jan sees something on TV, she gets her hopes up," her grandmother said. "She's just not accepting that Pete's gone. Maybe we should take her to a doctor."

She was still hiding when Granny Bailey, her daddy's grandmother, came into the room, seized her by the foot and dragged her out from under the bed.

Janet thought she was in trouble, but Granny Bailey didn't tell on her. "What's the matter," Granny Bailey asked. "Can't sleep? Come on let's go out on the front porch."

She grabbed one of her handmade quilts from the foot of the bed, and the two snuggled together on the old wooden porch swing. Janet's feet couldn't touch the porch, but her great- grandmother kept the swing moving back and forth, making the stars look closer, then farther away, as if they were flying. The air was cool against Janet's cheeks, but there was a warm cloud of air under the quilt.

"I'm not going to promise you life is fair, because it is not," Granny Bailey said. "But no matter what happens to you, always fight for your happiness, fight for what you know is right and fight for your dad."

Two years after Pete Ray was shot down, President Kennedy was assassinated.

Janet Ray heard the news when she was climbing onto the school bus.

"Did you know the president was shot?" her classmates asked.

They were sad. Janet wasn't. "This serves you right, Kennedy. You didn't give my daddy a chance, now you didn't have a chance," she thought. She watched his funeral on TV quietly and felt a little sad for Caroline and John-John. They were like Tom and her now. They didn't have a daddy either.

"If he can have a funeral, my dad should too," she decided.

Janet rigged her tape recorder so she could turn it off and on from the hallway with a string she ran under the rug.

Mostly, she listened to her mother talk about her father to friends. Her memories of him were worshipful, but not very long on information. By eavesdropping, she learned the names of other pilots or her father's friends and carefully wrote the names in a spiral notebook, so she could find the men later on.

She became independent and single-minded, probably not the kind of girl her father, a man who believed that women should be naive and protected, would have understood. She clipped newspaper articles about the Bay of Pigs and slipped them into a box with the family album. When she was older, she spent the weekends at the Birmingham library reading and copying old newspaper clips. She added those copies to the album, until her clips overflowed into another box and eventually into the pink suitcase. Nothing she had read or heard stripped her of the hope that her father was still alive.

The Rays made frequent trips to relatives and friends, sometimes to the widows of the other three Americans who died in the invasion. Wherever the Ray family went, Janet carried the heavy family album, and the dentist's impression of her father's teeth. She was afraid they would be lost or stolen. They were all that remained of her dad.

Janet's search for her father gathered momentum when she earned her driver license and could travel on her own. She really didn't know what to do. All she knew was that she had to keep asking questions. She'd take the names she'd gathered from the overheard conversations and call every matching name in the phone book until she found the right one. Many refused to talk. They said they'd been told to keep their mouths shut, that they were nearing retirement and didn't need the trouble. Other men wept when they remembered the deaths and the stupidity of the failed mission.

One of these was a man who had gone to high school with her father and was one of the last men to see him alive before he took off. The men had sat on the wing of the plane, and Pete Ray had given the man his identification, but kept his cash. Ray made a joke that he might need it in Havana that night.

Janet collected information any way she could. Once she sneaked a book on the invasion out of her mother's bedroom. It was written by Buck Persons, another of the Alabamians who flew for the CIA operation.

She called him up.

"What happened to my daddy?" she asked.

She wanted to know everything. The tail number of the plane her father flew, the names of the men who flew with him. What time was he shot down? What was he wearing when he flew? Was there an explosion when the plane crashed? She piled question upon question. She needed to pinpoint where his body might be, and whether he was dead or not. But she also had to build a man out of those photos and her fading memories.

"Tell me the good things, the bad things," she insisted.

"That little bitty girl is going to wear Castro to a nubbin," Persons said to himself.

In a street corner on Miami's Calle Ocho, a young woman with a soft Alabama accent stopped passersby and begged for their help. She had flown in earlier that day, a college student on spring break, choosing to spend her vacation on the streets of Miami while her friends headed for the beach. She was directed to a hotel by the cab driver who picked her up at the airport, and who, in what she considered at the least a mildly happy coincidence, happened to be Cuban and happened to know exactly how to find little Havana.

She walked the streets. One of her first stops was Domino Park, with its concrete tables and arbored roof, an utterly old- world enclave, the daily headquarters of many older Cuban men who wear hats, smoke cigars and share a history of exile while slapping the black and white tiles on the table top. A woman, especially an Anglo, who attempts to invade this macho world is conspicuous. There was something particularly needy about the expression on the face of this young woman. She kept thrusting little scraps of paper into the hands of anyone who would take them, and the urgency of her gesture was rendered even more touching and useless by the fact that her message was written in English rather than in the language of the people whose attention she craved.

"Do you know my father?" she asked. "His name is Pete Ray, and he was an American pilot shot down in the Bay of Pigs. He was from Alabama, he flew B-26s."

She scanned their eyes for recognition of his name and pressed the paper with her home phone number on anyone who would take them. "Call me collect in Alabama if you know anything," she urged.

Over and over she asked people. Many brushed her aside, not understanding her English, not understanding the desperation that brought a college student from Alabama to Little Havana. Finally one old man who spoke both languages listened to her story. He told her he would help. He wrote the words in Spanish. Me llamo Janet Ray . . . . She went into a store with a Xerox machine and made copies of it. And amid the mingled odors of a city street, the garlic, the coffee, the car exhaust, for hours every day, in her practical sneakers, she walked into stores, into restaurants and bars.

"Hello," she said. The people would turn, fastening their gaze on the peppy chubby-cheeked childlike face, alive with sincerity. Her voice was honeyed and Southern, soft and swaying, but not her words. They were direct and specific: "Do you know my daddy? His name is Pete Ray."

Janet collected information piece by piece. Men said her father was a good pilot, careful. So he could have landed safely.

There seemed little question that he went down in Cuba. Nobody could tell her for sure if her father was killed in the plane crash, if he was shot by a firing squad or if he was a prisoner. There was even a crazy rumor that the missing men were in Vietnam, flying secret missions for the CIA.

The search had no timetable. Janet maintained her grades and dated. But she also worked on the mystery, and piece by piece she gained a picture of the circumstances surrounding her father's disappearance.

Some claimed they had heard there was a body; others said they had seen photographs of her father taken after his death. There were rumors that an American's body had been kept at a
morgue in Havana.

She made trips to Miami whenever she could. In many ways, it was the place she felt most at home. She searched out the Bay of Pigs veterans, especially other pilots. Most were happy to talk of what they knew. They wanted to help her. Their hands dipped and scooped the air as they demonstrated their air battles. Their voices grew loud with excitement. They told her her father was a hero who died fighting Castro's men. To those who were reluctant to speak of the secret mission, she handed a blank cassette tape. Record your memories now, she told them, and leave the tape somewhere safe marked with my name so it will get to me after you die.

She met children of Cuban pilots who had never returned
from the invasion and felt an immediate kinship with them.

For the first time Janet felt she could share her pain, her mission and her patriotism "without being shamed." She was among people who understood her.

W

hen Janet met Mike Weininger, an Air Force officer who was in flight training at Craig Air Force Base in Selma, near her home, she felt immediately at ease. She had dated other men, but they weren't like her. She was very patriotic in a time when most college students were protesting the Vietnam War. If she learned that a date had enrolled in college to dodge the draft, she didn't say anything, but wouldn't date him again.

She was comfortable around Weininger and his boisterous classmates who were so like her dad with their short haircuts, smooth faces and green Nomex flight suits. They even smelled the same as her dad did after a flight, a mixture of hot fuel exhaust and synthetic flight suit material.

She felt they understood her. She didn't talk much about her father, but she didn't need to. Weininger supported her. She kept hunting.

She learned that her father was not a man of special skills or talent. He fell into history because he knew how to fly the B-26, an aging bomber that happened to be the same type of plane the Cubans used. The CIA hoped the invading bombers would be confused for Cuban air force planes and that people would believe the move to overthrow Castro came from within.

Ray seized the chance. He had been flying on weekends for the Air National Guard, and working on the ground as an inspector for Hayes Aircraft in Birmingham the rest of the week. The CIA would pay him enough to support his wife, and his children, and he would be flying all the time. "If I die flying, you know I'll die happy," he once told his mother.

He almost didn't fly in the invasion at all after Kennedy's last-minute order that Americans be kept out of the fight. Cuban pilots were supposed to do all the combat flying, but they were exhausted after a day or so. It was a six-hour round trip from Nicaragua to Cuba. The losses were heavy.

"It was terrible back at the barracks," said Eduardo Ferrer, a Cuban cargo plane pilot and morale officer for the pilots. "After someone was hit, they would put his stuff on his bunk. There were more and more bunks piled with stuff. You said, Jesus, what is going on?"

Some of the Cuban pilots refused to fly the B-26s without fighter support, saying the missions were tantamount to suicide.

Meanwhile, the men on the beaches were taking a beating.

The pilots had grown close in their months together -- the Cubans who laughed at the Alabamians' attempts to speak Spanish, the Americans who liked to listen to the Cubans' music.

It is not clear if Ray knew of the orders to keep Americans out, but it is certain the decision was up to him: to fly, or to stay in Nicaragua. Ray flew.

Ray bombed Castro's headquarters at the Australian sugar mill about 15 miles north of the bay, finished his run and was ready to head for home when his B-26 was hit by fire from a Cuban T-33 fighter. He was forced to crash land on a grassy field.

His copilot, flight engineer Leo Francis Baker, probably was killed in the landing or shortly after, according to various accounts. Pete Ray came out fighting, pistol in hand. He was hit with a spray of automatic gunfire across the abdomen and in the right hand by Castro's militiamen, but the killing shot probably was one of two fired into his head at close range by a Cuban militiaman.

Pete Ray might be alive today if it hadn't been for the overzealous militiamen. Bay of Pigs veterans say Castro was furious when he learned the blond pilot had been shot instead of taken prisoner. He wanted him alive so he could prove that Americans were behind the invasion. The CIA apparently didn't know if Ray was dead or a prisoner. Castro certainly wasn't returning Weininger's telegrams, sent in care of the presidential palace, Havana, Cuba.

"I tried calling a lot, but I never got through of course," Weininger said. "I must have sent hundreds of telegrams. Short ones, I mean nothing special just like: 'You have children. Would you do the same thing to your children?' "

In 1978, the pieces came faster and started falling together.

Her cousin Tom Bailey, a journalist with The Birmingham News, had started to help her. He steered her to government officials and wrote several stories about the case that put
pressure on politicians to help Janet.

She met Alabama Sen. John Sparkman, then head of the Foreign Relations Committee, and asked for his help. Sparkman actively worked on the case, writing letters to people within the Cuban Interest Section in Washington as well as within the United States government, until his retirement in January 1979.

Janet told Sparkman that the CIA had promised to give the
families of the four Americans medals but never had.

Within a week, a CIA agent called the Ray family and said the agency would present them with the CIA's Distinguished Intelligence Cross, the highest medal the CIA awards civilians, at their home in the evening.

Before the men arrived, Janet went outside. She adjusted the floodlights that usually bathed the exterior of the house at night to focus in a pool of light just in front of the porch. When the men approached the house, she was ready. She snapped their photo. She did it deliberately because she knew how much it would bother them. She kept the picture so she would have something on them, an edge.

She had never really trusted what they told her. They had soft hands. She wanted to hear from the men with calluses, the men who were actually involved in the invasion.

The agents weren't happy about having their picture taken or that her cousin the journalist was there. They handed over the certificate and the medal, a flat bronze disc about three inches in diameter.

"You can't show anybody any of this," the men said.

Without hard proof of her father's death, Janet kept pushing government officials to tell her what had happened to him.

In April 1979 Janet was living with her husband at Hahn Air Base in Germany. It was a rare sunny day. She rolled the windows down on the car when she went to pick up her mail and enjoyed the warm air blowing her hair, the roar of the jets low overhead.

She grabbed the mail, jumped back in the car and started for home. At a stop sign, she idly glanced at the envelopes. One was from Peter Wyden, a man who was writing a book about the invasion and had interviewed her months before. During the interview, Wyden told Janet the Cuban government had a Bay of Pigs photograph of two dead American pilots, probably her father and his copilot. He had said he would try to mail a copy to her.

The envelope was heavy and stiff, as if it contained photos.

Janet froze. The wind, the jets roaring . . . the sound just turned off. Her heart pounded and her hands shook as she tore into the envelope. The prints were rough black-and-whites without much contrast, and the two men's faces weren't completely clear.

They were clear enough.

She recognized the man in the white T-shirt, with the bullet holes in his face.

It was April 19, 1979, the 18th anniversary of her father's death.

It was the hard proof she had been waiting for, but it wasn't enough. She still wanted to know what had happened to his body.

Ask her about it today, and she says this: "Emotionally, I just couldn't accept it."

In the summer of 1979, after years of lobbying senators, and hundreds of letters and telegrams from Janet to the presidential palace in Havana, the Cuban government confirmed that it had Pete Ray's body. It had been kept in a Havana
morgue.

Frozen.

Intact, after 18 years.

They agreed to return it.

There was a light drizzle at the Birmingham Municipal Airport. A few weeks pregnant, sick to her stomach and exhausted, Janet waited for the plane carrying her father's coffin. It would land on the same runway 30-year-old Pete Ray had taken off from 18 years before.

Janet waited next to the ambulance. The plane taxied up, and the body was quickly transferred. She wanted to accompany the body to the hospital morgue, but the driver said it was against the rules.

Janet hadn't taken no for an answer from senators, CIA agents and Cuban officials. The driver was out of his league.

For the 30-minute drive to the morgue, Janet huddled over the pine box that contained the coffin, her cheek resting on the cool damp wood. Her arm was draped over the top, where an American flag soon would lie.

She remembered again her father taking her flying. How he listened patiently to her talk when everyone else called her motor mouth and how she loved to watch him shave his whiskers in the mornings. Daddy, she thought, I'm glad you're home.

Ray's body was taken to the morgue at Cooper Green Hospital in Birmingham for an autopsy. A Cuban doctor volunteered to perform the autopsy. Janet gave permission.

Her cousin, Tom Bailey; her husband, her brother and her father's brother were there. The coffin, a simple black box covered in black material sat on a dolly at waist height.

Janet had made up her mind. She was going to look at her father's body. After all the years of questions, rumors and disbelief, she had to see for herself.

Her brother tried to talk her out of it.

"Jan, you don't want to remember Dad this way, it's not going to look very nice."

The other men appealed to her husband.

"Let her do what she wants," Mike Weininger said.

The morgue attendant hesitated. "If you don't open that casket so I can see him, I'll do it," Janet said.

He pulled up the lid.

A white, gauze-like cloth stretched across the box from side to side, covering the body. Only Pete Ray's face was visible, surrounded by the material, which was gathered close around his head.

Janet knew immediately.

"I don't need any further identification," she said. "That's my daddy."

She stared at the body for about 10 minutes.

This is my last time, she thought. She hated the material being wrapped around his head. It looked like a halo. The cloth was too clean and white and pure. He died in battle, she thought. He needs his uniform. She thought she would hurry home to make sure it was dry cleaned and ready.

Pete Ray was buried Saturday, Dec. 8 1979, with full military honors. Eduardo Ferrer came to represent Brigade 2506, the Bay of Pigs invasion force, and presented the family with a Cuban flag and a plaque. About a dozen Cubans who lived in the area also came.

Gov. George Wallace attended the service in his wheelchair to pay his respects.

"Little girl, I'm mighty proud of you," he said. "The whole state of Alabama is mighty proud of you. You brought us home a fine Alabamian."

Even her CIA caseworker came, ducking his head to hide from the newspaper cameras.

There was a 21-gun salute. Overhead, four jets flew by the cemetery in the ceremonial fingertip formation. Then the lead plane peeled away from the others and disappeared over the horizon.

Janet returned to the cemetery to sit near the grave after the funeral. She needed to be alone with her father after the commotion of the past few days. The phone had rung nonstop with calls from friends, relatives and the media. She really didn't want to talk to anyone else.

Earlier, she had written a five-page letter to her father and tucked it into the breast pocket of the uniform Pete Ray was buried in. She told him she was glad he was home, she told him how proud she was. She told him that at first she didn't understand why he had risked his life to fight in someone else's war. But after her years of talking to Cuban veterans and their
families, she wrote, she now knew he had done it for freedom.

"If you ever had to do it over again," the letter said, "I would want you to do it the same way."

She sat quietly by the freshly turned dirt covered with flowers and wished she didn't have to leave her father so soon after he had come home.

On July 21, 1980, her baby was born. She named him Pete.

Janet Weininger is serious about her job as an Air Force wife. She always says, "That's why we're in the service . . . " or "We feel it's our duty." She is not morbid, far from it. She is lively, cheerful, funny. But death is a matter-of- fact thing for her. She talks about it easily. It's a good thing to do. Death is a day-to-day possibility for jet-fighter pilots. Janet has already attended a half-dozen funerals of her husband's comrades. "I think it's part of my job to be strong and independent and look after the kids."

If her husband died, she said, "I know I could handle it."

Janet stands on a street corner in Calle Ocho.

It's a beautiful Miami spring day. She has been asked to speak on the 26th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Behind Janet is a monument to the fallen soldiers. It includes her father's name.

"She is our daughter now," says veteran Eduardo Ferrer.

Janet steps up to the microphone. She is the only person who speaks in English, but her message is the same -- that the fight against communism must go on.

Members of the brigade come to attention and salute the daughter of the American who died in their country, fighting their cause. And then the ceremony is over. But Janet is not finished. Here is an entire crowd of Bay of Pigs veterans, hundreds of people who may possess one more detail. She can never know enough. Janet steps into the crowd.

"Hi," she says, pulling a notebook from her purse. "Did you know my dad?"

After the speech she returned to Homestead Air Force Base, where she lives in her government-issue house, with a manicured lawn and Pete's bike in the driveway. At the end of the summer, her husband plans to leave the Air Force, but like her father, he too will join the reserves. That night, drained by the emotion of the day, sleep came quickly, surrounded as she was by her favorite sound, the constant enveloping roar of planes leaving and returning, leaving and returning.

 

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Phone: (305) 255-8892 Fax: (305) 232-9933

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