Today would have been my father’s 102nd birthday.
Had Jeronimo Diaz-Granados not been killed in a plane crash on the morning of February 13, 1965, who knows how many birthdays he would have celebrated with Mom, my older half-sister Vicky, and me.
Would Dad – or Papi – have lived to be 102? I doubt it. Jerry Diaz-Granados was a man of his time; like most adults born in the first two decades of the 20th Century, he smoked cigarettes and loved to drink when he was not due to fly. (How much he smoked or how hard he drank, I haven’t a clue. I never asked Mom, who was able to know. But if the habits of my relatives from my parents’ generation and, more relevantly, my mom herself served as a guide, I can guesstimate that he was a two-pack-a-day smoker and a moderate drinker.)
My mother managed to quit smoking in the spring of 1994 – when was 65 years old – so she lived to celebrate (and I use the word “celebrate” rather loosely here) her 86th birthday on October 17, 2014, partly because she had broken that noxious habit. I suppose that if Dad had lived and quit smoking while I was a kid, maybe he would have lived well into his 80s, barring an unfortunate incident – such as the plane crash that cut his life short at the age of 45 years, four months, and nine days.
I was one year, 11 months, and 8 days old when my Papi died. Thus, I don’t have any tangible memories of him. When I lived in Westchester, Florida (a neighborhood in Miami-Dade County) – especially when I was in houses that were close to the last house my dad had lived with us in – I sometimes experienced fragmentary memories of being carried by a stocky, tanned guy with green eyes and a white-and-black striped short-sleeved shirt with the top button undone.
But because my dad died when I was so young, that’s all, folks when I comes to memories of my father.
Most of what I know about my father comes from stories that other people shared with me.
The main one, of course, was my mother. She didn’t talk too much about him when I was little; the events of February 1965 and their aftermath were too fresh and painful then, and I was too young and naïve to understand the circumstances that led to that plane crash that turned our lives topsy-turvy.
It wasn’t till I was a young adult and studying journalism at Miami-Dade Community College’s South (now Kendall) Campus that she opened up a tad more and told me a few things about Jeronimo Diaz-Granados that made him – in my mind – less remote and more human…more relatable.
Not too many things, mind you. Just a few tidbits of information that might seem trivial to others but not to me.
For instance, my dad loved to watch movies. His favorite genre: Westerns, though – since he was a pilot himself – he loved movies with aviation themes, too.
Before he met my mother in the late 1950s in Bogota, he was married to a woman from Venezuela that my mom said was gorgeous. Tragically she died of cancer in her mid-30s, so my dad was a widower “When Jerry Met Beatriz….”
My father learned his trade as a pilot literally from the ground up. When he was a teenager, he became an aircraft mechanic for SCADTA, the German-Colombian airline that later became Colombia’s flag airline, Avianca. He worked his way up the ranks after going to flight school and helped found Aerocondor, a competitor to Avianca, before getting a post to Colombia’s Civil Aviation Board and eventually striking out on his own as the owner of a short-lived air freight company in Miami, Florida.
My father loved music. The first thing he would do after coming home from a flight was to fix martinis for Mom and himself, then turn on the stereo in the living room to play his favorite records. Although he loved different styles of music, including jazz and standards performed by Frank Sinatra and Nat “King” Cole, Papi’s favorite music was cumbia and vallenato from Colombia.
Other facts about my dad:
- At the time of his death, my dad held the world record for most flying hours on the Curtiss C-46 Commando cargo plane, which was the type of plane on which he died
- He was gregarious, generous, and witty, but he was also a by-the-rules, straight-laced guy when it came to flying. He was gentle and kind most of the time, but woe be to the pilot who incurred his wrath by flouting flight-safety regulations. Mom said that other pilots had a not-so-flattering name for my father: “El Capitan Veneno” or Captain Poison
- My father was raised in Colombia and France. During the Great Depression, my paternal grandfather – who was in the merchant shipping business then – sent his children to study in Europe and the U.S. As a result, Dad and his siblings were polyglots. He spoke Spanish, of course, but he was more fluent in French and spoke it like a Frenchman. He also, naturally, spoke English, which is the international language of aviators
- He loved to travel, and he took my mom on several trips to Europe before I was born, including a memorable trip to Paris, the city he called his “second birthplace”
And that, my friend, is all I know about my dad. Unfortunately, his parents, my paternal grandparents, both died when I was a toddler, and his siblings distanced themselves from Mom for years. I only had intermittent contact with his brothers Carlos and Sixto and his sister Alicia before they died, and I only know two of my cousins – Ana Maria, Carlos’ daughter, and Rudy, Sixto’s son. Even there, I don’t know them as well as I know my cousins on my mom’s side.
Anyway, wherever my dad is – Heaven, Valhalla, or “at one with the Force” – it’s his 102nd birthday today. I can only say, “Papi, I hardly knew ye.”