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Vet wanted an education, and Cold War provided lesson

Dennis Seekins lacked certainty on what he wanted to do in life, but knew he needed an education if he was going to have a chance at success.

So rather than wait to be drafted into the military like some of his friends who also had graduated from Medina High School, Seekins enlisted in the Air Force after the recruiter made a tempting offer.

He promised Seekins a full year of electronics education.

That education opened some pretty big doors when he returned to civilian life – employment at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, NASA and the National Weather Service.

But it was in the Air Force working as an electronics technician that he received a firsthand education in the political volatility of the world. The lesson came under the heading of "Cuban Missile Crisis," which took the world to the brink of nuclear war.

Seekins had been working at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina with the 482nd Fighter Interceptor Squadron when he and other members were shifted to Homestead Air Force Base near Miami in the fall of 1962.

"They had sent our four best F-102 fighter jets to keep an eye on Cuba, and myself and three other technicians were also sent to maintain the air-to-air missile control systems on the jets," Seekins said.

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Dennis Seekins, 78

Hometown: Medina

Residence: Lyndonville

Branch: Air Force

Rank: airman 1st class

War zone: Cuban Missile Crisis/Cold War

Years of service: February 1959 – December 1962

Most prominent honors: Good Conduct Medal

Specialty: airborne air-to-air missile control

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It was discovered that the Soviet Union was installing nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles in Cuba. President John F. Kennedy ordered a naval blockade of all further shipments to the Communist island nation. Everyone was afraid that a nuclear war might start at any moment.

"Our four F-102s were assigned to keep tabs on everything around Cuba. Each was equipped with six missiles," Seekins said.

One of the four pilots, he said, was a "top gun," whom the technicians turned to when they wanted to make sure a repair would hold up under extreme flight stress.

"He would dive down toward the ground and the radar system on the plane could get confused, but if it stayed locked onto a ground target, then we knew we'd done a good job repairing it. Locking on to another plane in the air was easy," Seekins said.

But the pilot's fearless ways could have resulted in catastrophe.

After his discharge papers sent him into civilian life, electronics expert Dennis Seekins worked at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, NASA and the National Weather Service. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

"He told us how he had intercepted a Russian MIG fighter pilot and followed the plane down to the runway at the Havana airport. He was wing to wing with the Russian and looked right at him. He touched down on the runway and then immediately kicked on the jet engine after-burner and took off," Seekins said. "We all got a big kick out of that. We were proud of this guy."

But after Seekins left the service in December 1962, he started reading about how close the world had come to nuclear war.

"Kennedy was very afraid of a verbal misstep, let alone a physical one, triggering a war. I came to believe that with that pilot's touch-down, that if he had been shot at, destroyed, killed, whatever, this was the sort of thing that could have started a nuclear war."

Seekins said he was grateful none of that happened.

In civilian life, his background in electronics improved by attending several years of night school while at Johns Hopkins. After leaving the university lab, he was hired by NASA and helped design computers for satellites.

When manned flights to the moon were winding down in the early 1970s, Seekins realized he might not have a job and started looking around.

"I transferred to the National Weather Service in 1980. I knew they would always be using computers and my job would be safe."

Seekins, who lived in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., worked for the Weather Service 15 years before retiring in 1995 and moving back to Orleans County.

These days he and his wife, the former Janet Hartman, operate a used and rare books business out of their Lyndonville home. Their four grown children, he says, "are scattered from Baltimore to Florida." He says he and his wife are also the proud grandparents of Irene and Jasper from Baltimore.

Certain his education brought him success, Seekins wants others to have the chance to get ahead. As a volunteer with the Orleans County Adult Literacy Program, he serves as a tutor. He also visits the Lyndonville Elementary School.

"I listen to the kids read and of course help them."

He says he feels an obligation to give back.

"The military service and the government did so much for me."

 

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