by Steve Ramos
Even though C. J. Gresham’s plans to become a pilot didn’t pan out, his grandfather would probably say he’s soaring. Decades ago, when Adan Rodriguez was an anonymous laborer, bent over in the fields under a heartless Panhandle sun, he dreamed of a better life for his family. Slowly, methodically, it materialized. On May 29, 2013, then-Secretary of the U.S. Air Force Michael Donley presented C. J., the grandson of an immigrant, with a diploma from the U.S. Air Force Academy. In two generations, the Rodriguez family went from shirtsleeves to lieutenant bars, catapulting out of those hot, wind-blown agricultural fields and landing in the ranks of elite professionals.
“Graduates of the Air Force Academy are among the cream of the crop of American colleges,” said U.S. Air Force Academy Spokesman Meade Warthen. “Not only is it difficult academically, it challenges the cadets in character development, athletics and military. About 25 percent of those who enter the Academy will drop out. It’s hard.”
But C. J. was prepared.
“My mother worked hard to get where she is and to get my brother and me where we are,” he said. “No one handed her anything, and she instilled that drive in us. She pushed us to want more out of life and to work hard to get it.”
Eva Rodriguez Gresham, a Dumas High School Spanish teacher, took the long way to academic success, and she was determined her sons would not.
“I was raised in a culture where girls weren’t raised to go to school,” Eva said. “They were raised to get married and have a family. When I had my sons, I wanted them to know how important education is, but how could I tell them that if I didn’t have one?”
So Eva plunged into college, managing her time to accommodate classes, family – and tragedy. On a day in November 2001, Eva received word her mother was ill. Rushing home from classes at Panhandle State University, to where she commuted, she pulled up in front of her mother’s house as the ambulance was leaving. Lupita Rodriguez died, and before Eva and her family could recover, their father, Adan, died eight weeks later. C. J. was 10 years old.
“I remember my grandpa was a hard worker,” C. J. said. “I wish I could have had more time with him. I see the great influence he had on my mom and my aunt and uncles, so I wonder how much more I could achieve with him in my life.”
Adan Rodriguez was, indeed, a hard worker, and that ethic, which would eventually push his family to prosperity, also caused misfortune.
“My dad was working for Western Sand and Gravel in Channing,” Eva said. “His left arm was almost ripped off in a rock-crushing machine. My mother was trying to be calm about it when she told us, so I didn’t realize until later the severity of his injuries. His arm was completely mangled, and he was permanently disabled. Our lives were never the same after that.”
Adan received $49 a week in Workers’ Compensation, Eva remembers. He received no settlement, no compensation from the company, although another employee was responsible for the accident.
“They didn’t have to remove his arm, but he wasn’t able to use it again,” Eva said.
Adan was left with no employment and limited means to support his wife and three children. Assistance from other family members trickled in, but it was minimal. Other men in that situation might have become a statistic. Public support, self medication, sinking into a victim’s role – Adan might have embraced any of those choices. Instead, he accepted the reality of not only his disability but of his responsibilities as a father. His arm was permanently injured, but there was nothing wrong with his backbone.
“Adan was an extremely good man,” said Antonia Gonzales, one of Lupita’s childhood friends. “After the accident, he was doing anything he could to make a dime. I remember, for example, he was selling metal social security cards. He wasn’t going to be a victim. He was still going to provide for his family. But the one thing that really stands out about Adan is that even though he was disabled, he was the first one to jump in and help someone in need. He was always leading some activity to help others. My parents lived next door to him, and even when he was staring down the wolf at the door, he and Lupita would make sure my parents had what they needed.”
C. J. inherited his grandfather’s humility. He’s modest about his acceptance and graduation from one of the nation’s elite universities. Offers from Yale, Duke University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dartmouth and other top-notch universities didn’t deter his mission to attend the Air Force Academy.
“I realized early on at the Academy that I didn’t know everything, and I knew my limits,” he said. “I think that’s one of the things that got me through those tough four years. Growing up, my mother kept my brother and me grounded, never letting our successes go to our heads, even though she’s always been tremendously proud of us. She never lets us forget where we came from, but she’ll just as quickly point out the heights we can achieve. That has helped to keep me balanced, and it helped me cope when I found out I couldn’t be a pilot.”
The dream of being a pilot, which C. J. had nurtured since the fourth grade, derailed when the Academy discovered his eyesight couldn’t be corrected with laser surgery.
“That was tough,” he said. “I really wanted to fly.”
The Academy’s curriculum did let him realize his dream for a short time, however. The cadets receive about 15 hours flying time through “Powered Flight”, a program C. J. describes as a “crash course” in which they fly two-seater T-53s.
“Half of our grads go to pilot training,” he said. “It also can help cadets decide if they like flying or not. On the first flight, my instructor pilot had us do about seven or eight touch-and-goes where you land and take off without stopping. On the last one, he took his hands off the controls and said, ‘Land it.’ It was scary and very rough, but I put it down without killing the both of us.”
It got even scarier. On one of the “touch-and-goes”, a three-star general asked to go up, and C.J. was selected to take him.
“The lieutenant general was also a pilot, so I knew we were covered,” he said, “but it was still a little unsettling to have a three-star general sitting next to you.”
C. J. graduated with a Bachelor of Science in English, and as a recently commissioned second lieutenant, he will report to his first duty at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana on Monday. He will be in command of about 50 airmen, providing security for the base’s nuclear program. Like his grandfather, C. J. doesn’t contemplate failure, whether as an Air Force officer or when he was a cadet.
“Knowing I had so many people who gave me the opportunity and supported me during my time as a cadet, it would been impossible to fail,” he said. “There’s no way I could quit and come home and explain to everyone why I blew the opportunity they had afforded me.”
His mother said C. J.’s graduation from the Academy was “bittersweet”.
“I was happy and proud, wishing my parents were alive to see what they had started,” she said. “I would tell my daddy, ‘Thanks. Thanks for coming to the USA, and thanks for working like a mule to give us a better life so we could give our kids a better future with more opportunities.’ But I would tell him in Spanish!”