The 13-year-old Cortez previously had noticed Frank Pagel, who had joined the U.S. Air Force and was a jet pilot in the Korean War, attending Mass every Sunday. And Cortez was captivated by Pagel’s uniform, his piloting ability and his reputation as a good citizen.
“His uniform was very impressive. He and his mother would go to Mass, and he would go in his uniform,” Cortez said.
“He was a very nice young man. I always tried to sit by him in church.”
“He knew there was a little boy sitting next to him, but he didn’t know why,” Cortez said.
Cortez said he’d always been fascinated by airplanes and flying.
“I watched crop dusters, commercial airplanes and others. I’d watch them ’til they would disappear,” he said.
But Cortez’s family also was a military family, and he was enamored by military service.
“A lot had to do with my close cousins in San Antonio. One joined the Army at 17. Six months later he was taken prisoner.”
That was Cortez’s cousin Oscar, who was a prisoner of war in North Korea.
“I’m going to go get him out,” Cortez had thought. So at 17, Cortez decided to join the U.S. Air Force. That was in December 1953.
Cortez was in the 10th grade at Austwell-Tivoli High School with only about two years to go until his graduation. But he had to go.
“I was a pretty popular young fellow. I had lots of friends ... both boys and girls. A lot of girls were after me,” he noted. His wife, Ophelia, laughed and agreed.
Austwell, he said, was a lively town when he was growing up there.
“Austwell was a lot bigger then. It used to be booming with beer joints. It had a mercantile store, three grocery stores, a drug store and a couple of filling stations,” he said.
But over the years people moved out.
So the following month, after making his decision, on Jan. 8, 1954, he joined the Air Force.
“I left Austwell and only came back to see my parents. A lot of people wanted me to come back. My youngest son Gilbert has the home now. and my brother Frank lives there, too.
That was 60 years ago when Cortez left Austwell.
He was first stationed at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio where he underwent basic training.
From there, he was sent to Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi, where he spent nine months in intensive technical training.
While at Keesler, the Air Force Office of Special Investigations conducted a background check on the young airman.
“They gave me a top secret clearance and put me in intelligence. I worked for the U.S. Air Force Security Service.
His next stop was Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. He was trained by the Central Intelligence Agency.
Included in his training was how to resist pain and counter intelligence.
“That was in case I was caught by the Russians or Chinese who I was spying on,” he said.
“One of the tests was an AC/DC electro charge. Also water boarding. I can’t tell anymore about it,” he said.
He said the training primarily involved training the mind to control pain.
Cortez will tell you that the training helped him over the years, including the time he broke his right ankle in five places.
He said he will never forget Langley.
“Six of us went over there. We got off the plane and were greeted by men in civilian clothes. All six were taken to different areas,” Cortez said.
“I don’t know what happened to my friends.”
Cortez finished his military career after serving during Vietnam and completing a 22-year career. Oh, and his cousin Oscar who was a prisoner of war in North Korea, was freed after three years.
Now, Cortez proudly displays his honorable discharge on his wall at his Victoria home.
He even earned his private pilot’s licence and flies a Cessna 150 and Cessna 172.
But something is missing, and it has bothered him all these years.
Despite getting his high school equivalency diploma and earning a college degree from the College of the Mainland in Texas City with a degree in Criminal Justice, he said there was one document he thought about over the years.
“Yes, I earned the equivalency high school diploma. But that was from California,” he complained.
“It’s always been in the back of my mind: A Redfish High School diploma.
He advises students to not quit high school.
“This is a message to youngsters who are not there at graduation level yet: Don’t quit. Don’t drop out.”
He said nowadays student “practically have to have a college degree” to work at a fast food restaurant.
He said students can’t do what he did because the military now requires a high school diploma.
“Think big, and never give up. That’s a message to parents, too.”
Friday night, at Austwell-Tivoli High School in Tivoli, Cortez, now 77, will walk with other graduates to receive a long-awaited Redfish A-T High School diploma.