If you want to meet someone who has lived, park your car and walk into an American Legion.
That's where I find Dennis Guinane on a recent afternoon. The 73-year-old has just finished volunteering in the honor guard at a veteran's funeral, and now he is sitting with a table full of old-timers at Millard's Post 374.
Dennis is sipping on a coffee with one hand and a whiskey with the other. He is tapping his foot to a Hank Williams Jr. song playing on the jukebox. He is advising his buddy which type of pickle cards to buy.
He is just another Vietnam vet and another Air Force lifer in a city filled with them.
Except Dennis has flown on planes that purposely flew into the middle of hurricanes. He has also flown missions aimed at “weather modification.”
He has said hello to three U.S. presidents. And he has witnessed one of the iconic events in the last 50 years of the American presidency.
“I'm no hero,” says retired Master Sgt. Dennis Guinane. “But I have seen some cool stuff.”
The cool stuff began after Guinane returned from Vietnam, where he spent 16 months as a crew chief on a C-130 and saw some things he would rather forget.
In July 1970, he joined the 55th Weather Reconnaissance Squadron based at Sacramento's McClellan Air Force Base.
If something named the “weather reconnaissance squadron” sounds interesting, that's because it is.
For a time, Guinane worked as crew chief on a C-130 nicknamed the Hurricane Hunter. Its job: Fly toward a hurricane as other planes were flying away. And then fly directly into the hurricane and drop a series of devices that measure wind speed, wind direction and other important information and transmit it to Air Force weather experts on the ground.
It was much less insane than it sounds, Guinane says. They would buckle in for the bumpy ride into the hurricane, enjoy the brief calm they usually found in the eye of the storm, and then buckle up again for the bumpy ride out.
“Just a little rough at times,” he says. “No real danger.”
There also were the flights that Guinane refers to as weather modification missions.
“So, a mission to modify the weather?” I ask, incredulous.
“Sure,” Guinane says.
On foggy days, the weather modification crew flew over runways and sprayed chemicals meant to disperse the fog and make it easier for other Air Force aircraft to take off and land. And during the summer of 1971, Guinane's plane flew over Texas, which was in the middle of a terrible drought.
For 35 straight days, they seeded clouds. It started to rain on the Rio Grande Valley. And then it rained and rained, he says.
I look at Guinane skeptically. He shrugs.
“We definitely did a lot of crazy weather things we didn't understand,” he says.
And indeed, Texas governmental websites confirm the 1971 drought, the seeding effort and the resulting rainfall.
Guinane went from battling droughts to serving presidents. He applied for and was accepted to the 89th Military Air Wing, which then controlled the 46 aircraft, including Air Force One, that flew the president, his staff and family, other White House-related personnel and associated dignitaries.
Guinane didn't fly on these flights — he was part of a four-man crew that maintained one of the planes, ensuring that it was safe. But he was often there when President Richard Nixon's family climbed on his plane, a nine-seater first used by President Lyndon Johnson.
He regularly greeted first lady Pat Nixon — “a really down-to-earth lady” — and he regularly said hello to Nixon's staff, too. You may remember them: Haldeman. Ehrlichman. Dean. The guys made famous by a little thing called Watergate.
And he met Nixon himself, once, when Nixon took the little VC-6 to New York City.
“He seemed like a nice man, too,” Guinane says.
Guinane would keep that job through the Ford administration and into the presidency of Jimmy Carter. He would go on to take a reassignment to Offutt Air Force Base, where he became the maintenance section chief for a fleet of airplanes that regularly flew politicians and military brass all over the world.
He would retire in 1989.
The day he remembers best: Aug. 9, 1974.
That day, Dennis Guinane followed a crowd out onto the private tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base.
He watched as a helicopter landed, and Nixon got out and hurried toward his waiting plane, the one that would fly him across the country to his home in California.
He watched Nixon climb the steps of the plane with his wife, turn around and wave.
Nixon had just resigned, a resignation that would take effect as he flew toward his home in California.
Dennis Guinane watched with hundreds of others in the dead silence as Nixon boarded his final, presidential flight, and the plane taxied down the runway and flew away.
“Quite a moment in history,” Guinane says.
Another sad country song comes onto the jukebox at the American Legion. The smell of fresh popcorn wafts toward the table where we sit.
Guinane's coffee is gone, and his whiskey is half-gone.
“You sure you don't want anything?” he asks.
No, I'm good, I say. The story is enough.