82.

“ONLY IN AMERICA”

The post-ICBM years were an anticlimax for Bernard Schriever. He received the fourth star of a full general in July 1961 after he became responsible for shepherding all aircraft, missiles, and other weapons from research and development right into production as chief of the new Air Force Systems Command. Bennie and his younger brother, Gerry, had preserved their boyhood relationship down through the decades since San Antonio. Now they were united professionally. Schriever brought Gerry, who had retained the eagles of a full colonel that LeMay had awarded him on Iwo Jima in 1945, to work for him as his chief of personnel. There were no accusations of nepotism, but Schriever would not have paid any attention if there had been. He knew that he could count on his brother.

Four stars did not bring contentment. Schriever did not get along with Robert McNamara and the civilian “Whiz Kids” from the RAND Corporation whom McNamara brought into the Pentagon with him to organize a new Systems Analysis Division. These self-styled experts on military affairs had no respect for experience and considered seasoned senior officers like Schriever dinosaurs who ought to quietly fade into extinction. They claimed to base their decisions on statistical analysis and other mathematical factors. To Schriever’s mind they acted from preconceived and untried notions that they packaged in statistical wrapping. He found himself being constantly harassed and overruled.

LeMay, who had risen to chief of staff in June 1961, never put his hand out in peace to Schriever. The two men stalked around each other. In one sour encounter, LeMay glanced at the four stars on Bennie’s shoulder tabs and said, “You realize if I had had my way, you wouldn’t be wearing those.” Schriever said he understood that. Having come so far he could not help aspiring to be appointed chief of staff when LeMay retired at the beginning of 1965, but the Vietnam War was on and the airplane drivers argued that an operational type was needed. General John McConnell, who had worked for both LeMay and Power at SAC, got the job. On August 31, 1966, two weeks before his fifty-sixth birthday, Schriever retired in an elaborate ceremony near his headquarters at Andrews Air Force Base. He had served thirty-three years as a commissioned officer and could have held on for two more years until the mandatory retirement limit of thirty-five years, but it seemed pointless.

He decided he did not want to trade on his prestige and get rich by accepting a high position in one of the military industries. Somehow that did not accord with his self-image. Instead, he formed a consulting firm in Washington with another retired general, William “Bozo” McKee, who had been the first head of the Air Force Logisitics Command, the other half of the Air Matériel Command after the reorganization in 1961. They naturally availed themselves of their connections and prospered, but not to an unseemly extent. Schriever also accepted a number of directorships on corporate boards. His marriage to Dora, which had seemed to take a turn for the better after his retirement but never really recovered, went over the cliff in 1968 when Bennie began an affair with another woman. As a fervent Roman Catholic, Dora was opposed to divorce and so, after a failed reconciliation, they separated but remained friendly. Bennie made certain she did not suffer in a material way, buying her an apartment in Washington and deeding her his share in a house in Palm Springs, California. He settled into a reasonably satisfying Washington life, playing golf at Burning Tree, an exclusive club in nearby Maryland; promoting his consulting business; serving on several presidential commissions, and as a member of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board under Ronald Reagan. He especially enjoyed mentoring younger generals still on active duty who would quietly seek his advice when confronted with a problem.

Every year there were reunions of those who had participated in the ICBM adventure. At first these were big, lavish affairs sponsored by Simon Ramo’s TRW, Convair, Lockheed, Boeing, and the other companies involved. After a time, Schriever got bored with them and the companies no longer saw much advertising value in paying for them. There was a lapse and then Jacobson, Jamie Wallace, and others who had been with him at the beginning suggested that they hold a modest annual gathering called the “Oldtimers Reunion,” by invitation only, at some Air Force base willing to host them. There was never any difficulty finding a base, such as Patrick down in Florida next to Cape Canaveral, or Vandenberg out in California, whose commander was pleased to welcome them, for Schriever had come to be recognized as the father of the modern, high-technology Air Force. The reunions were touching events. “Those were the best years of our lives,” Bennie said, looking back. A visitor invited to participate could see how these men venerated “the Boss,” as they invariably referred to Schriever. There would be dinners, a “staff meeting” on one morning to decide where to hold next year’s reunion, briefings by the base’s specialists on progress in missile and aerospace activities, and afternoons of golf.

In 1986, at a dinner at the home of a friend in Palm Beach, Florida, he met Joni James, who had been one of the biggest pop singing stars of the 1950s. The records of her hits, songs like “Why Don’t You Believe Me?,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” written by Hank Williams, and “How Important Can It Be?,” had sold in the millions. In 1959, “America’s Princess of Song,” one of the appellations Joni had earlier gained in the heyday of her career, performed in New York’s Carnegie Hall. She was accompanied by a thirty-voice choir and the renowned Arturo Toscanini’s one-hundred-member Symphony of the Air radio orchestra, on this occasion conducted by her husband and manager, Anthony “Tony” Acquaviva, an accomplished musician who had studied under the maestro. In the 1960s popular music tastes changed rapidly. Acquaviva was accidentally given an overdose of insulin for the diabetes from which he suffered and the effects made him so sick he could no longer work. Joni dropped out of the music world and devoted herself to nursing him. He died in 1986 and Joni’s acceptance of the dinner invitation in Palm Beach was one of her first steps out of the cloister in which she had secluded herself.

After she and Schriever were introduced and Bennie seated beside her that evening, he said he was sorry but he knew nothing about her singing career. She was amused rather than irritated and said she knew nothing about the Air Force. A courtship began. She was drawn to him and decided he was good for her. He encouraged her to resume her career, which she did. There was no hope of regaining the glory days of the 1950s, but she still had a voice and made a go of it. She would have married him quickly, but Schriever stalled. His attitude toward women was one of his flaws. He was an old-fashioned sexist and, with the exception of his mother, did not appear to regard any woman as an equal. The one issue on which his former subordinates had mutinied and overruled him had been the question of whether they could bring their wives to the Oldtimers Reunions. He had argued to keep the occasions stag affairs and they had voted him down at a staff meeting. At Burning Tree, he had been one of the leaders in the fight to keep the place all male, even though continuing to bar women cost the club a hefty tax deduction the state of Maryland grants to golf clubs for the open space they maintain. He regarded a second marriage as an encumbrance. He had been exploiting the marital limbo with Dora to tell women with whom he had become involved over their eighteen-year separation that he could not marry them because Dora would not give him a divorce. She would have agreed to one, but he was careful not to ask.

He tried the tactic with Joni. They could live together in Washington, but for appearance’s sake not at his house. He would buy a separate apartment for her so that everything would seem genteel. Becoming the mistress of a technically married man was a proposition Joni could not accept. She was also a practicing Catholic who had been born Giovanna (Italian for Joan) Babbo to a poor but respectable Italian-American family on the southeast side of Chicago. Her mother had been widowed young, while pregnant with her fourth child, and raised Joni and the three other children on her own. In the 1940s and 1950s entertainers with ethnic backgrounds usually changed their names to Anglo-Saxon ones. Tony Acquaviva had invented Joni’s name for her. “That’s not our way,” she replied to Bennie’s nonproposal. Because he was also a stubborn man, the courtship dallied for eleven years until Dora at last divorced Schriever. He called Joni and made a proper proposal. “I’ll take you,” she said. They were married on October 5, 1997. He was eighty-seven and she was sixty-seven, but Joni thought there was still time for some happiness.

Schriever had always been a lucky man. He had not perished flying through a snowstorm during the air mail fiasco of 1934 as twelve of his fellow fliers had. He had escaped being exiled to Korea by LeMay in 1953. He had prevailed in all the gambles he had risked to build the rockets. His last turn of good luck was Joni. Life-enhancing and compassionate, she dedicated herself to seeing to his wants. She transformed his house in the northwest corner of Washington, which had acquired an atmosphere of bereftness while he lived there alone, into a warm and comfortable place where she entertained his Air Force acquaintances and other friends. She sang for the Oldtimers and their wives at the reunions and performed on other occasions when Bennie received some honor. He realized what a fool he had been not to have married her earlier. “We should have done it years ago,” he said one evening not long after their wedding.

The honors had also been rolling in to console him as the afternoon lengthened into the evening. In 1994 a chair in astronautics had been endowed in his name by Emerson Electric at the Air Force Academy near Colorado Springs. Then, in 1996, he had been given the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum Trophy for Lifetime Achievement. In June 1998 came the finest honor the Air Force could bestow. Falcon Air Force Base, the center for the control of all satellites a few miles from Colorado Springs, was renamed Schriever Air Force Base. The Army had once named an airfield for a living person, but the Air Force had never done so before. When a friend telephoned to congratulate him on this unprecedented laurel, Schriever’s response reflected the gratitude, always within him, to the nation that had taken him in and given him such extraordinary opportunities. “Only in America,” he said. “Only in America.”

The annual reunions thinned as Oldtimers died or became too enfeebled to attend. Jake Jacobson passed away in mid-May 2001, just two weeks from what would have been his eighty-first birthday. He and Peg Davies, the English brunette beauty he had won with his persistence despite his prematurely balding head, had been married for fifty-seven years. Vince Ford, who had long been retired in the Washington suburb of McLean, Virginia, went that fall. The last reunion was held in April 2003 at Bolling Air Force Base across the Anacostia River from the rest of the capital. General Richard Myers, an Air Force officer who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General John Jumper, the Air Force’s chief of staff at the time, and General Lance Lord, commander-in-chief of the Space Command, were among the generals who came to dinner on the final evening in a gesture of thanks, not only to Schriever, but also to the other Oldtimers present like Jamie Wallace and Dick Henry. Shortly afterward, Jamie joined his buddy Jake.

On May 25, 2005, General Lord flew in from Colorado and drove to Schriever’s home in northwest Washington to present him with the new badge the Air Force had devised for members of the Space Command. The ceremony took place in a bright, cheerful sunroom off the house’s living room. Bennie, unable to stand anymore, sat in a special lounge chair Joni had bought for him. The badge was mounted nicely behind glass in a small brown lacquered wooden frame. It was silvered, with a rocket superimposed on a globe representing the earth and satellites circling behind it. “This is the first one and we want you to have it,” Lord said as he handed the framed badge to Schriever. A citation on a little plaque within the frame read: “Gen. Lance Lord to Bernard A. Schriever, General, USAF (Retired), the First Badge to America’s First Space Operator.” Lord then bent down and draped a blue-and-white checkered scarf the command had also just adopted as a new accoutrement to its uniform around Schriever’s neck. Bennie smiled. He seemed to understand what was happening and to be immensely pleased.

Joni had refused to send him to a nursing home after he became too weak to take care of himself. She had a hospital bed brought into the house and organized a team of nurses to care for him, also tending to him herself. As the end approached, she leaned over the bed and told him that he didn’t have to hang on, that he had done everything he had wanted to do, he could let go now. She didn’t know whether he understood or even heard her, but he opened his eyes and looked at her and she thought he had. He died on Monday, June 20, 2005. He was ninety-four years old.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.net. Thank you!