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An old debt to the Lopez clan repaid — with interest

In 1934, Hank Cervantes swiped a quarter to buy a pair of shoes. The remarkable life that followed is priceless.

April 17, 2011|Steve Lopez
  • Henry Cervantes, far right, and the crew of a B-17 that survived being rammed by an enemy plane in 1945.
Henry Cervantes, far right, and the crew of a B-17 that survived being rammed…

I get lots of mail from inmates proclaiming their innocence, but early last month I got a letter from an 88-year-old Marina del Rey man confessing to a crime.

A minor crime, to be sure. Petty theft. But it was a crime against my family, and it was committed roughly 77 years ago.

Henry "Hank" Cervantes saw in a column that I grew up in the little fishing and industrial town of Pittsburg, near San Francisco. So he wondered if, by chance, I was related to the people who ran the Lopez market on Black Diamond Street.

If so, Cervantes wanted me to know he'd stolen two bits from the store, in 1934, when he was 10 or 11 years old. He used the quarter to buy a pair of black and white wingtips from the Salvation Army.

"My memory of the crime has troubled me for these many years," Cervantes wrote. "Therefore, if you are a member of that branch of the Lopez clan … my conscience would be relieved if you would accept restitution by means of a check, money order or coin of the realm."

In addition to the letter, Cervantes sent me a copy of his book, "Piloto: Migrant Worker to Jet Pilot." It's the story of his rise from Depression-era poverty to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the United States Air Force, and flying 26 bombing missions over Germany during World War II.

The book, published in 2002, is an inspirational tale of this son of Mexican immigrants, a man determined to overcome racial discrimination, exceed expectations, serve his country and make his family proud.

I called my father to see if the name Hank Cervantes registered, and whether he thought we should charge interest on the quarter. My dad would have been just 6 in 1934, though, and he didn't recall the Cervantes clan, which relocated to the delta area after two years in Pittsburg.

We met for lunch, Mr. Cervantes and I, at the Proud Bird near LAX. In 1934, he said, he had holes in his only pair of shoes. His family had moved to Pittsburg from Fresno so his dad could work at the local cannery, but the fish weren't running, and the family was destitute.

Around that time, Cervantes noticed that my three uncles occasionally milled about in a vacant lot next to my grandparents' market in the evening. Cervantes saw them hide something in a hole in the ground, and he later inspected and found a stash of coins. Their tips, perhaps, for food deliveries?

When they were gone, Cervantes plucked a quarter out of the hole and headed to the secondhand store. The shoes he bought were two sizes too big, but as he writes in his book:

"We stuffed newspaper in the tips, laced them tight, and I shuffled out into a rainstorm feeling like a real dandy."

Cervantes, by then, had already thought about flying. His family chased crops from Madera to Mendota, Clovis to Firebaugh, living in a tent with a dirt floor. One day Hank and his big brother Gus came upon a crop duster in an alfalfa field and they climbed into the cockpit and pretended to be pilots.

The seed was planted, but could a Mexican American expect to become a pilot?

Cervantes got his answer in 1942, when he went to Oakland, hoping to be considered for Navy pilot school. A desk lieutenant blew cigar smoke at him and said the only jobs for "undesirables" were in the mess hall.

"I'd never been insulted so openly," says Cervantes.

A year later, he was drafted into the Army, where he learned of a test for pilots, navigators and bombardiers. Always a smart kid, Cervantes aced the test, but other challenges were harder to overcome. He had entered a predominantly white world, and during his training in Arizona, he remembers signs on commercial establishments: "No Mexicans or Dogs Allowed."

On and off the base, Cervantes felt that he was treated by some people with suspicion or contempt, and the stigma would be an enduring aspect of his career. He struggled to know who he was — American, Mexican American, or Mexican? Second-class citizen or saluted member of an elite corps?

At different times he was all of those things. There were great friendships along the way, too, as Cervantes made his mark as a test pilot after the war and as a co-pilot on those 26 bombing missions, one of which nearly killed him and his crew in 1945 when their B-17 was rammed by a German aircraft.

"The control columns were violently jerking back and forth, the No. 1 engine was streaming smoke," he writes in the book of the collision that ripped apart much of the plane's tail and horizontal stabilizer. But they completed the bombing mission and flew the wounded, trembling craft for hours, landing safely in England.

"Here is a migrant farmworker, who people would not have expected to become a member of the military service elite," says Orange County Superior Court Judge Frederick Aguirre, whose nonprofit group — Latino Advocates for Education — honored Cervantes nearly 10 years ago as a role model and an American hero.

Cervantes offered to pay for our lunch at the Proud Bird as a way to settle his 25-cent debt to the Lopez family. But I picked up the tab and told him the debt was settled, and the pleasure was mine.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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