One sun now rises as another now sets
See, at once both exist in the nature of life and death
Yes, your sunset is another’s sunrise
And whichever your side, time and destiny decide
Peace to know, it goes round and round again
As night reconciles what day cannot
I know there are many stories that could be told about this man Joseph “Sonny” Greco…the son of John and Sylvia Greco…the brother of Shirley…the nephew and cousin to all those relatives of his…the boy from Pueblo, Colorado, who once rescued another kid from drowning…the bright athlete of Central High, popular and well-liked…the young man off to join the Air Force and travel the world…the pilot---how many stories and adventures, whoops of success, rushes of adrenaline and brushes with death must have occurred in his cockpit…Sonny the husband of Wilma and the father of Susan, Terri and Mike…the grandfather and the bus driver…the friend to many…and finally, whether steering wheel or stick in hand, Sonny, forever the commander of his own vessel… I wrote most of this tribute while sitting at my Grandfather John’s old roll-top desk. It’s the desk he had all those years in his Coors Tavern, tucked away at the end of the bar near the front entrance. I remember myself sitting at this desk as a young boy, feeling special to be there…it was an important place, my Grandfather’s desk…it’s where “the boss” sat down to do business. Sitting at this desk today is still a special experience. For this old roll-top, which by now must be at least 80-100 years old, feels symbolic of this family, with its heavy solid-oak craftsmanship…good, strong and durable and made with lots of loving care. This old desk has many good times and stories to share...and I feel it speaks to me. Back at the Tavern, a few other items surrounding the old roll-top figure prominently in my memory. First in my mind, go figure, is the candy stand that sat behind the desk. It was a wondrous display to which I could help myself at will…because that’s what you can do if you’re the boss’ grandchild…that is, as long as I didn’t take advantage of my grandfather’s generosity…and I somehow knew the limit was one candy bar per visit. Right next to the desk I recall there being a very large and impressive metal safe…which I somehow knew, in no uncertain terms, was not a display to which I could help myself…though I dimly recall peeking inside whenever the opportunity was ripe. Facing the desk from high above was of course the big television set. And who could forget, hanging on the wall opposite the bar, the paintings of dogs playing poker and pool and doing God knows what else around those tables. Dominating this whole impressive scene at the front end of the Tavern, as well as in my memory, there hung a huge poster on the wall right beside the roll-top. It was a giant map of North Vietnam with all these little colored flags stuck in it…and right there along with it was my uncle, all decked-out in his flight suit, standing beside his fighter jet. Now for a young boy growing up in the age of the Apollo astronaut, and whose mind is already inclined to fancies of space flight and adventures in the ethers of outer space, seeing my Uncle Joe in that picture made him as good as Buck Rogers or Chuck Yeager. And he not only looked the part---fit, dark and handsome---but as evidenced by the 306 flags on the map, each one representing a successful mission, he was, in the truest sense, a real live fighter jock…a flying ace by any other name. And judging by Joe’s prominent position in the Tavern, whether Johnnie ever said it in words or not, you can bet the farm he was proud of his son. To me, as I imagine he may have been to many of you, Sonny was something of an enigma, a bit of a mystery man. I saw very little of him growing up, as he lived and traveled to many lands outside this country…places all wild and exotic in this child’s mind. But as the curious young boy I was---and still am---I got to know my uncle fairly well by poking around in his old bedroom. To this very day, my son Dominic and I still poke around that little den of a bedroom, finding all sorts of goodies that intrigue the curious adventurer and treasure hunter. A quick look into his bedroom reveals that Sonny, like most boys, liked girls and sports---a young and voluptuous Shelley Winters picture and New York Yankee’s pennant still hang on the walls. A trombone on the floor of his room begs many questions, “Did he ever play it…was he just interested…did it get there by accident, or after he moved out?” Such is the mystery of the hunt. Opening the drawers in his bedroom we find artifacts that tell about the boy Sonny, and clues to the man he would become. All sorts of balls and marbles, toy guns and other assorted stuff show a typical kid. A stack of letters from a publishing firm hints that young Sonny entered a number of contests. A few pulp magazines, dime novels and other books reveal his always adventurous and curious spirit, while various military paraphernalia and literature foretell the lifestyle he was cut-out for. All this on the surface reveals a fairly typical red-blooded All-American boy…or at least the transplanted Sicilian equivalent. I can hear my Uncle chuckling now through that bright smile of his as I fool around with the title of this tribute to him. And as much as I’ve bawled my eyes out writing this piece, I know he wants me to have fun…to laugh when remembering him…and even now, so soon after his “take-off,” I can’t help but smile when thinking of him…even joyful as I feel the continued presence of his strong, playful spirit soar about me.
…it’s a bird, it’s a plane…Hey, That’s My Uncle!
Into The Wild Blue Yonder
Concerning those magazines, two in particular happened to jump out of the drawer and into the lap of this young and impressionable 12 year-old boy (Uncle, I hope you don’t mind I assumed these a "prehumous" inheritance). The two magazines featured well-muscled men on the cover: one was called Muscle Power, the other was the first issue of Joe Weider’s Muscle Builder. Inside the magazines were all sorts of articles describing how to get a big strong body, just like the men in the photos. In any event, where my uncle and I weren’t able to connect in the sky, a few years ago we re-connected through that medium which brought us together in the first place, that is through a magazine…only this time it was a magazine that I created called Manitou. And like the F-104 Sonny flew, it was a magazine of daring firsts, including being one of the few publications that spoke-out against the Iraq War before it even started. Now I doubt my Uncle Joe agreed with this stance---though he never said anything about it---nor do I know what he thought of Manitou’s other “out-there” views and themes…but I do know this for an absolute fact…Sonny was by far the biggest single supporter of that magazine, encouraging me all along the way, buying gift subscriptions for his whole family and making added contributions beyond. He mentioned and praised the magazine every chance he got. I think it mattered less to him what Manitou was all about…perhaps he recognized its thoughtfulness and intelligence, or maybe he just admired the edginess of what his nephew was doing. Whatever the case, I could tell he was very proud of me. So again Uncle, from the bottom of my heart, I can’t thank you enough. I think it can be a challenge to understand a man like Joe, who might rather be flying than sitting around talking. It’s apparent he had a restless spirit, as if always ready to take-off for his next mission. And like my grandfather, Joe could be a man of few words, especially when it came to himself. Not that he couldn’t be talkative…he was always ready to share some interesting facts and accounts or give his views on a particular matter. My mother Shirley fondly recalls his silliness and sense of humor. A few years back, just before my grandfather John passed-on, our whole family was able to get together, grandkids and all. I remember catching a good glimpse of my uncle’s personality on that occasion…seeing the jovial, almost clown-like character he could be. I especially remember his big smile and distinctive laughter…it was infectious and you couldn’t help but laugh along with him. Seeing this jester-like part of Sonny explained much to me…and it was during that special reunion I saw the full Greco roots in me…something of which I am very proud. Within a year of that reunion I was delivering my grandfather John’s eulogy. It seemed like yesterday. And it is not long after, that his son has followed in his footsteps…sad but not surprising, considering how alike the two men were---even in their exacting nature and stubborn independence---no wonder they may have had to live far apart from each other. And yet I have no doubt the love between father and son is strong and true. Upon finishing my delivery of his father’s eulogy, I distinctly remember Sonny promptly rising to his feet, clapping with a big smile on his face…I think he even gave a little whoop. This of course, much to the priest’s chagrin I imagine, led to an uproarious standing ovation of which I’m sure the church rarely, if ever, had seen. This singular and simultaneous show of reverence and affection for both his father and nephew, overriding any formal church decorum, speaks volumes about the pride and honor of this man Sonny…I can’t help but love him. It was these magazines that inspired me to start exercising and weight-lifting and ultimately make physical fitness a part of my lifestyle. And while age has compelled me to move-on to exercise more suitable for the older body---such as yoga and Tai Chi---this early introduction to physical culture, as it was called in young Sonny’s day, has ever since made my life all the better. And for that seemingly simple thing, Uncle, thank you very much. Digging a little deeper into the drawer for this tribute, I learned more about Sonny than I ever thought I would…great tidbits of information that I found not as surprising as I did amusing, for they only confirmed my suspicion of his extraordinary character. I see this boy, and man, a wondrous mix of geek plus jock that equals cool. Yes, he did save another kid from drowning. He was also a “Juniper Street Bat Boy,” and county baseball team mascot…he was a first-prize winning yo-yo champ…member of the boy’s glee club…and always involved, behind the scenes it seems, in a number of school plays. At Central High he played varsity football, completing one game in severe pain which later proved to be acute appendicitis. He also played on the state championship-winning baseball team. And on top of all this, Joe was in ROTC. A number of wallet-sized photos of women hint of his popularity…no surprise upon seeing pictures of the dashing young lad. Outside the treasure trove of his old bedroom, I got to know Sonny very little through the rest of my childhood years. But I knew we had much in common. Our love of flying for one…though his soaring was more physical and mine more mental. And as an adult, I wanted to connect with him on this level. Growing up I was fascinated with all things involving space flight, including high performance airplanes. One plane I was especially drawn to was the F-104 Starfighter. Made by Lockheed and flown just 7 years after Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, the F-104 was the first combat aircraft capable of sustained Mach-2 flight. It also had a sleek, rocket-like look with shiny silver skin. It looked like a rocketship straight out of a sci-fi film, and a modified version of it was even used to train astronauts. But in addition to its high-performance, the F-104 was notoriously dangerous and even outside of combat many experienced pilots lost their lives flying it (including test pilot ace and high altitude record holder Joe Walker). Reflecting its mixed reputation, the F-104 was given various nicknames, including “missile with a man in it,” Super Starfighter, Zipper, Widowmaker, Flying Coffin, Ground Nail…the plane was a favorite among Italian pilots who called it Spillone (hatpin). By whatever name, it was a thrilling but risky sports car of the sky. And I knew my uncle had flown this plane on a routine basis, and as I learned later, he even trained other pilots how to fly it. So there I was, a young adult, all pumped-up and ready to ask my uncle about his adventures flying the Starfighter, eagerly anticipating whatever thrills he might share: “So you flew the F-104?” I asked him. “Yeah, I flew that plane,” he said with a nonchalant nod of the head. And I knew right then, for whatever reasons I might guess, our conversation would end where it began. Sonny, much like his father John, was very tight-lipped about certain matters, as well as very humble. And then there's the ace-pilot mystique. All this is just more indication---and laugh at me if you will Uncle for saying this---that Sonny was a man of “the right stuff.”
This website project is dedicated to my uncle, Sonny
photo from Wikipedia commons
Sonny middle row, second from right
Sonny middle row, third from right
It is with the deepest respect, admiration and love for this man, as well as his family, that I honor Lt. Colonel Joseph J. Greco…Sonny…my uncle. As with his flying the F-104 Starfighter, there’s so much more I’d like to learn and say about my uncle. And perhaps I’ve learned and said much more about the boy than the man, though at the heart of the matter, especially with Sonny, you wonder if there’s really much difference. Besides, you can only dig so deep into the drawer before you start reaching territory that feels too personal and private. Beyond a certain point there’s a sort of sacred space that, for whatever reason, should remain off-limits. For the pilot---as Sonny’s son Michael understands better than I---one such sacred space is his cockpit, his place of decision and command. This is all the more true for the fighter pilot, who must remain in control through it all, making countless decisions…life and death decisions at a moment's notice…when to turn or dive, when to accelerate or slow down, when to attack or back-off, when to hang-on and when to eject. Routinely made with split-second precision, these decisions must come from that deepest intelligence of gut-intuition---a realm of thinking that is difficult for the mind with time on its side to understand and figure-out. Better to just respect and accept the mystery in this case…especially from a man with over 314 recorded successes under his wings, not to mention a Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal with 12 oak leaf clusters, Presidential Unit Citation, Air Force Outstanding Unit Award, American Defense Service Medal...and more. From the day I first walked into Sonny’s room and started scanning the walls and floors, digging in the drawers, finding little treasures and clues to who this man was, I felt my Uncle had a sort of mythic quality to him---part real and tangible, part mysterious and untouchable. And over the past week, as I’ve learned more about him---contemplating his existence as well as my own, feeling new depths of connection---I’ve felt this mythic quality all the more. My Uncle was a physical man with whom, all total, I spent probably no more than a few days with. But he is also this eternal ethereal character with whom my own soul feels a deep kinship, a relationship of which, however much I try, my words can never fully express, at least without eventually sounding like so much hyperbole. If there’s one last thing I could say about Sonny, it’s that he is a soul of great honesty and integrity…a man of the truest character. Whatever might be said of various qualities in a man---and Sonny had very many good ones---there wasn’t a single phony bone in his body…funny bones yes…but no phony bones! You could agree or disagree with him, see eye-to-eye or not…but in the end you knew that you were dealing with a completely genuine human being. In any circumstances anywhere, from the easiest to the deadliest…you would be most fortunate to have him as your comrade, or wingman…or bus driver for your kids. Writing this tribute to my uncle has been an emotionally powerful, even inspirational experience and is my greatest privilege. It seems so appropriate that I began composing it from our old family desk. And while I might rather stand on top of the old roll-top and deliver this message to a live audience of family and friends and comrades, I think my voice would not carry as far as it should. So instead I’ll let the Internet do what I cannot, and let this tribute to Sonny travel as far as it will. Today on the wall above the old roll-top, there now hangs a poster-print of Raphael’s masterpiece the “School of Athens.” The school is filled with the greatest thinkers, philosophers and important figures of Ancient Greece. And through the arches of the Lyceum’s hallowed hall, where blue heaven casts its light onto the busy scene below…I imagine I see a jet in the distance, streaking through the air, the swiftest bird there ever was…and inside that silver starfighter there sits this jovial pilot…off to accomplish his next mission … Until we meet again Uncle,
Thanks!! You definitely captured the Man/Boy who was one of my Heroes, and he was a National Hero as well, at one time he had tallied more combat missions than any living American pilot.
He was the Odysseus of our family for sure.
Quiet, yes but an enthusiastically loving man.
He was the favorite nephew of every single one of his aunts. He was sweet as a Baby Ruth candy bar, wily as a coyote', as irresistibly charismatic as Kokopelli, and my mom used to say, Sonny was as handsome as the Sheik of Araby (Rudolph Valentino). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9dZNVT-JNok
An excellent athlete who was tough as nails but without a mean bone in him. (His father and I both admired him for this.)
He was an amazingly graceful dancer (who could do a standing back flip while dancing a hot jitter bug!) and a very good, sweet piano player.
Certainly his excellent coordination contributed to his safely flying the "F104 flying coffin" and logging all the combat missions (i.e. he was not lucky;he was good). He never crashed an airplane. When I was a teenager, he took me to his 104's hanger and let me sit in that legendary rocket ship. (I felt as though I was in a great cathedral and Joe seemed like the great Sir Lancelot to me.)
Got to stop now, my tears are messing up my silk kimono. Miles
(from Dr. Miles Yeagley, M.D., a first cousin to Sonny)
My dad had always told me that he flew 312 missions and that just to prove something to himself he flew one more, making it 313. This is where he decided that the number 13 was lucky for him, considering that it seems to be unlucky for others. Since that time, I have also considered the number 13 lucky. Maybe he just told me this so I would never think that 13 was an unlucky number. I still feel 13 is lucky. My dad meant the world to me and it didn't matter what anyone else told me, my dad was always right, even if he wasn't. He was my bud and I really miss him. Did I tell you that I had his piano shipped to my house. He played it faithfully every day. I loved listening to him. I only wish I had some recordings of his talent. Thank you again for the beautiful job you did writing about my dad. I'm sure he is so proud looking down and over your shoulders.
Your Cousin, Terri
If you have stories or memories about Sonny you'd like to share, please get in touch and I'll post them here.