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Bob Lind, Published January 25 2013

Lind: ND Air Force pilot almost attacked Cuba, walked Roger Maris

Three past columns that were unrelated at the time come together today. One concerned an Air Force pilot; another was about the Cuban missile crisis; and the third was about Fargo’s famed baseball player.

The pilot story was about the late Theodore “Joe” Mertes, of Mantador, N.D., who flew during both World War II and the Korean War, and was a member of the North Dakota Air National Guard.

His son, Roger Mertes, of Detroit Lakes, Minn., who is a retired Air Force officer, sends another story about his dad, this one relating to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Neighbors recently ran a story about an area family’s experience during that dramatic time.

Roger’s father, Joe, was in training at Keesler Air Force Base, Biloxi, Miss., in the early 1960s, training, Roger says, “for a second career after flying; his peepers were starting to go.”

Then, Roger says, “Guess what? Yep, Cuba pops up,” with Russian missiles there posing a threat to the United States.

“Keesler had four T-33s to keep the two or three other pilots on base qualified in flight,” Roger says. “Dad was a visiting pilot.

“The next thing you know, Dad is sitting in a T-33 ready to attack Cuba. He didn’t have any armament, but the good folks at Keesler gave him two .45s and a bucket of ammo. His mission was to simply fly toward Cuba and be a decoy.”

Fortunately, the crisis ended before Joe had to become that decoy.

Later, when he was with the Air Guard – nicknamed the Happy Hooligans – Joe pitched for the Guard’s baseball team.

One day, Roger writes, the Hooligans’ team was to play “a Fargo team that featured a kid named Roger Maris.

“Preceding the game, many suggested Dad had no chance of keeping Maris from hitting a home run.

“Dad got miffed, and at game time he proudly marched out of the dugout saying, ‘No hit for this kid.’

“He faced Roger in the second inning and promptly threw four mean fast balls at Roger’s ankles and walked him. Made him dance a little during his at-bat, too.

“But at the end of the inning, Dad walked proudly back to the dugout and asked, ‘Did anybody see any home runs?’ ”

Clearly, you didn’t mess with Joe Mertes.

But going back to his Air Force career, here’s a note from John Clark, a retired Air Force officer, who liked the story about Joe because he was a friend of Joe’s son when both were assigned to the Minot (N.D.) Air Force Base.

John, also the son of a veteran, thanks The Forum for writing about veterans from this area; veterans like Joe Mertes.

If you have an item of interest for this column, mail it to Neighbors, The Forum, Box 2020, Fargo, ND 58107; fax it to (701) 241-5487; or email blind@forumcomm.com