A Family Tradition
On July 29, 2004, Mikey Weinstein took advantage of an unpatrolled stretch of I-25 just outside of Santa Fe to open up his fire-engine-red, five-hundred-horsepower Viper GTS, punching through a glorious desert panorama bathed in bright sunlight.
Dense and compact, his shorn, bullet-shaped head fit snugly on his shoulders and his warm brown eyes set on stun, Weinstein radiated an unsettling mix of composure and coiled spring tension that fit well with his choice in automobiles. He'd bought the car specifically for its prowling, muscular profile, a conspicuous symbol, not of midlife angst, but of a decision he'd made back in 1998 when his wife, Bonnie, was first diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. "That changed everything," he recounts. "In a heartbeat. We decided right then that we had to live for the moment. The focus wasn't going to be about growing old together and dandling grandchildren on our knees. We wanted to get as much out of each day, every day, as we could, to enjoy our lives now, because neither one of us really knew how much time we had left together. We didn't want to take a single minute for granted."
Not that Weinstein is in the habit of letting much of anything slip by. With a taste for plum wine, chocolate pancakes, hard-core punk and metal rock, and profanity, he fueled himself on outsize emotions and unassailable convictions. His practiced ease with the perquisites of power echoes in his resonant baritone, which, no matter how impassioned, is restrained, measured. A quintessential soldier; a high-profile attorney; a self-starting entrepreneur--for all the high points of his skill set, what he seems most palpably to relish is his role as a rogue operative, a dangerous underdog who describes himself as "unpredictable, mercurial, and peripatetic." A man who habitually led with his jaw, feeling deeply, without reserve and sometimes to his detriment, Weinstein had a lifetime allegiance to honor, duty, and service, shot through with a rebellious streak, a fierce integrity, and the impressive ability to balance all the contradictions that define him.
There is, for starters, the incongruity of his nickname, stuck to him since his teenage years because of a resemblance to the stocky, pugnacious toddler in the famous Life cereal commercial, that, even now at fifty-one, five feet eight inches, and 178 pounds, still lingers.
But the dissonances and disconnects of the man reach down further. "There's only a couple of things I've tried to do in my life that I've completely failed at," he will say with a laugh. "One was being a Grateful Dead fan. I thought it would be cool and I gave it my best shot, but I had to face the fact that, to me, they sucked. The other was being an atheist." In fact, Weinstein's almost primal Jewish identity runs up hard and often against any comforting spiritual certainty. "When I look at these mountains all around me or into the faces of my wife, sons, and daughter-in-law, I can't shake the unflagging sense that there must be, in a very Jewish sense, a Supreme Being. That's why I pray twice a day, every day, even though I'm still waiting to get an answer about how a supposedly loving God allows the murder of children in the millions in the Holocaust. I identify absolutely with my people and my culture, but I'm not always sure where I stand on the absolutes of my faith."
The paradox of an assiduously secular Jew who regularly prays is echoed by Weinstein's counterintuitive patriotism, a belief in America predicated on an obdurate appeal to its highest ideals. It's a stance all the more remarkable given his inculcation in martial codes of unquestioning loyalty to God, country, and commander in chief and bolstered by his time served as a legal operative in the Reagan White House, whose evocation of a "shining city on a hill" still serves to inspire his American pride of place.
Weinstein was intimately familiar with the I-25 interstate corridor running from his hometown of Albuquerque to the front gates of the Air Force Academy. The Academy is a little more than a hundred miles across the border between New Mexico and Colorado--through Raton Pass, not far from the Continental Divide and straight into Colorado Springs. Over the years, traveling to and from visits to his cadet sons and various Academy alumni events and college football games, he had clocked it out at precisely three hundred minutes, a time he seemed sure to beat as he wound up the Viper into triple digits.
He enjoyed the run, as much for the memories it evoked as for the stunning scenery along the way. The vast prairies on his right stretched east to Kansas and Oklahoma, while the southern spur of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains off to the west rose higher and became the Rampart Range as he pulled past Trinidad and Aguilar and Walsenberg, up through the bedroom communities that feed directly into Denver, farther north up the arrow-straight freeway.
His destination was, after all, ground zero of his formative life experiences, the place where the best things and the worst things that had ever happened to him were staged against a breathtaking backdrop of snowcapped mountains in a cloistered hothouse of high ideals and unsparing indoctrination. His destination that morning represented, in short, the crux of his history and the crucible of his character.
That history and the character it shaped are, in turn, deeply rooted in the American military tradition. His father, Gerald Weinstein, enlisted in the Navy in the aftermath of World War II to escape the abject poverty of his upstate New York childhood. He would go on to earn a coveted place at Annapolis, where he befriended another young midshipmen by the name of Ross Perot. Having already earned his pilot's license as a teenager, he switched service branches upon graduation from the Naval Academy, following that dream of aviation so common to his peers, and joined the Air Force. That trajectory accorded well with his son's own aspirations, and Mikey would in time follow him into that most elite wing of the armed forces.
"My dad ran the house like a military unit," Mikey recalls. "If someone called, you'd answer the phone by saying, 'Captain Weinstein's quarters, Michael Weinstein speaking.' He had a duty roster for every day of the week. My relatives thought he was a real martinet. But he wasn't. He may have been strict, but he was also a very loving man, a very caring father. I was groomed from the beginning for a career in the military, and I never questioned it. I never had a reason to. I was proud of what he had accomplished, and if that was what he wanted for me, then that was what I wanted for myself. But at the same time he was very risk adverse. I think it's a common characteristic of people who grow up poor. He loved the Navy because he could eat three times a day, and if it wasn't for a petty officer in his unit continually prodding him, he never would have tested for Annapolis. Throughout his career, he did all the right things and was very conservative politically, very right-wing. There was a time when I started realizing on my own that being an American meant we had the right, the responsibility, to express ourselves freely, even if it was in opposition to authority. My father loves this country and told me from a very early age that we owe a debt of service to this great nation. He gave something back and he expected me to give back as well."
Those same inviolate principles--duty and continuity and a constant call to high achievement--were passed along to Mikey's own sons. His oldest, twenty-four-year-old Casey, is a graduate of the Air Force Academy, where he met his wife, Amanda, also an Air Force Academy graduate, when they were both cadets. His youngest, twenty-two-year-old Curtis, has also followed the footsteps of his father, brother, and sister-in-law to the Academy, and there is a satisfying sense of completion to the story, a full-circle affirmation that the most powerful pole in Weinstein's life--his abiding belief in military service--props up a large and all-encompassing tent.
"Family is the most important thing I know" is his unsurprising asseveration, even as, characteristically, he has formed an inclusive new definition of kinship. "As I get older," he says, "I find that the lines between family and friends gets blurrier," describing his expansive southwestern-themed home in Albuquerque as a "way station" for young academy cadets a long way from their own homes, as well as a haven for graduates awaiting assignments from the nearby staging center at Kirtland Air Force Base. "Year after year they come down to cool their heels," he says, "and for a while anyway, we can offer them a sanctuary."
Sanctuary. It's a word that resonated as he slowed the Viper into the flow of commuter traffic that ran uninterrupted from Pueblo through Colorado Springs. Yet for all the serenity he lays claim to, there is something contingent and conditional lying just below the surface, a kind of cagey vigilance that keeps him perpetually on his toes. A man of precise and ingrained habits, who appends the exact time, day, month, and year to every phone message he leaves and who keeps careful count well into the consecutive thousands of his daily cardiovascular workouts "to the full point of physical exhaustion," Mikey Weinstein never seems truly at rest, or fully at peace. He can't help but carry his grievances on his sleeve, nor does he disguise the grim satisfaction he feels in having his worst fears confirmed. A man impatient with all inwardness and introspection, his ideals are untainted by doubt. His feelings channeled through steely disciplines, his self-sustaining energies at once exhilarating and exhausting, he is disdainful of any notion of destiny or fate or cosmic causality. Yet it's difficult to imagine how else he might explain the extraordinary confluence of man and mission that were about to collide.
Copyright © 2006 by Michael L. Weinstein and Davin Seay. All rights reserved.