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A photograph from the late 1950s captures the image of an attractive woman, her face turned from the camera in order to gaze at a young but already balding Francis Augustus Conner. He is standing in front of the low-lying military buildings that used to line the area just north of the old terminal at Miami International Airport. Abandoned after World War II, the buildings were leased by Conner and others like him who were starting up so-called unscheduled air cargo companies. Using surplus military aircraft, dozens of small companies employed some of the best pilots recently discharged from the armed forces to build thriving businesses that would fly cargo in and out of Miami for anyone, any time, on routes crisscrossing the United States, the Caribbean, and Latin America.
In the photograph, Conner does not return the woman's gaze, but neither is it lost on him. A cigarette dangles from his lips as he strikes a pose A head cocked to one side, lips smirking A and tries to stare right into the camera. He would have the look of the insouciant wise guy were the sun not forcing him to squint. It's that hint of vulnerability that lends the photograph a lighthearted edge, suggesting that in those heady days, macho posturing was just harmless fun.
There's nothing funny about another photograph taken decades later. A cheap flash camera throws its yellowish light onto an old man's bald head, mottled with age, as he sits in a heap at a desk and displays the badly skinned backs of his hands. The hands frame a face drawn tight around fearful eyes that look as though they may never blink again.
The photograph was the last one taken of Conner, who died two days later, on August 17, 1992, when his damaged heart finally quit beating. His death at age 68 was tragically common: an early-morning groan in the bathroom, a fall to the floor, loved ones rushing to see what had happened. Less common, and more disturbing, is the tale told between those two disparate photographic images, the story of "Gus" Conner's plunge from the bright postwar skies to a darkly ominous world of nightmares.
Conner's hands were injured during one of his many confrontations with perceived enemies. Shortly before the photograph was taken, he had physically struggled with agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration, who had thrown him to the ground and handcuffed him. It was his last battle with federal officials, and perhaps the most extreme, but it wasn't uncharacteristic.
During Conner's last years, the Federal Aviation Administration watched his airline with the intensity of a hawk locked onto prey. The FAA viewed the airline, its ornery owner, and his laissez-faire approach to aviation as a dangerous pocket of resistance in the bureaucratic slipstream. Conner reacted with open hostility and a stubborn determination to continue flying by the standards he had set for himself early in his career. He saw himself as a man betrayed by the very government he had so diligently served, first in the war and later through his airline's many contracts with the U.S. military.
Those contracts had sent his planes around the globe, including into the mid-1980s quagmire of Nicaragua. Along the way, Conner encountered people whose business involved secrets A how to keep their own and how to discover those of others. Conner's corner of the airport grew from a tropical backwater to an important hub of U.S. intelligence activity. The CIA and the DEA became as familiar as the FAA.
Conner prospered while adroitly avoiding the murky world of clandestine operations. But in the end, when his aviation company appeared to be threatened by the equally labrynthine world of government bureaucracy, he searched desperately for a simple explanation. Instead of an answer, however, Conner found himself immersed in a convoluted, paranoid plot involving former intelligence operatives, convicted felons, drugs-for-arms swaps, late-night meetings with unidentified men, government conspiracies, and finally his own wounded hands and overburdened heart. It was a bizarre tale spun by people around Conner as much as by him. Some of it was provably true, some of it patently false. Most of it was enigmatic and frightening, and eventually its numerous strands became so inextricably tangled that whatever parachute might have been left for Gus Conner had no chance of opening.
When World War II erupted, the young and adventurous Conner wasted no time leaving his family in rural Quitman, Georgia, and joining the Navy with the dream of flying combat missions. He ended up gripping ladles and spatulas rather than flight controls. "They learned that he had worked in the restaurant business before he went into the Navy, so they put him into the kitchen," says Geneva Conner, his widow.
Conner hung on to his dream after the war and pursued it in Miami, which was becoming an important civil aviation center. Geneva, who had just moved here, unwittingly entered the world of cargo jockeys when, walking with her girlfriends by a swimming pool one summer day, she met her future husband. "He was very good-looking in his younger years," says a smiling Mrs. Conner, who after 46 years of living in Miami has still not lost the lilting accent of her native Memphis. "I took one look at him and that was it."