The Rickie Report first met Juan Plaza at the Hatsumi Fair over a year ago. We were immediately struck by his drawings which contained pointillist dots, drawn lines, sometimes musical notes, and always a certain figure, Dr. Wiggls. This is the genre of artwork which you need to really study, taking into account the title and the action going on within the frame. This Feature Story is an interview with Juan, who shares more than just his artwork with us. A geodetic engineer, surveyor, aviator and cookbook author, Juan is waiting for his first screenplay to be produce and has recently published a second book! Juan fascinates and literally draws us into his life! Juan is exhibiting his work at OSGS (Ortiz Smykla|Gallery Studio) at 500 Northwood in W. Palm Beach. Be there for this month’s Wine Promenade and watch as he demonstrates his techniques!
“Witty Illustrations, Intelligent Art’ through Life, Love, Music and Business”
Friday, March 29th
6pm – 9pm
Ortiz-Smykla | Gallery-Studio
500 Northwood Village West Palm Beach, FL
Juan Plaza describes his as “complicated life’ and yet fulfilling. As husband to Alison and father to two adults, Juan is trained as a Geoditic Engineer. His family-owned company, Kugayua, designs, develops and sells surf boards. In addition, Juan is an aviator – but more about that later…
He is in the midst of writing a cookbook for engineers (you’ll need a laser thermometer for this one) with each recipe reading over 20 pages. He chuckled as he explained that as an engineer, he sees cooking as an applied science. Not to worry – there will lots of photos for each recipe!
His second book, to be published this April, focuses on his experiences as a surveyor in the Amazon jungle of South America. He was part of a team overseeing open pit gold and diamond mining operations for a year. ”Juan, the Surveyor” is currently being read in Hollywood as a possible screenplay.
TRR: Tell us more about your cookbook!
The difference between science and engineering is that engineers apply science. This cookbook will help people replicate my recipes exactly. You need to know the altitude of your kitchen, your ingredients, temperature, air pressure and humidity which will all influence your product. If you were building a big office structure, you would take all of these things into consideration in order to not have the building fall down! You can’t take the chance of making an assumption or there might be a disaster. This book will be a great gift for an engineer who likes to cook and it will make it easy!
TRR: Does your family have a history of artistic talent?
My grandfather was a musical composer, my father an intellectual. One sister is a soap opera star in Venezuela, South America. Another sister is a writer and textile artist and my brother who lives in FL works as a nature photographer. I want to be a good father and help my children understand that they have choices in life. They can meet their physical needs by doing what is necessary to earn a living and yet fulfill their creative needs by doing other things, like I am.
TRR: How do you find the time to accomplish all of this wide-ranging work?
For me, Dr. Wiggls is a complete project. These other ventures are still mobilizing and moving toward fruition. This past December, I had a sense that my internal clock was telling me to share more of my work : my music, my numbers, my graphics. So I am trying to focus on accomplishing one thing each day for these projects. I feel driven to paint, to write, to make surfboards. But I need to find a balance. Life is about finishing, putting a square around it. Much like I do with Dr. Wiggls. I put the square on the paper , draw the inside, sign it and now I can go to the next thing.
TRR: How was Dr. Wiggls born ?
He is a complex character. I found myself doodling during some intense meetings in my role as a geodetic engineer. It almost felt like the drawing was being done by someone else and pushing to get out of me. So as I sat in corporate America offices, with very complex analytical issues, this art appeared. And when I finished the call, and had given my report and sat back and looked at what I had drawn, I was amazed!
The Delicacy of Risk
TRR: How did that feel?
It was liberating, not scary. I realized I was also an artist, like the other people in my family! I was so excited! Being an engineer, up until now, I was like the “black sheep ” of the family. I obtained my engineering degree from Central University of Venezuela and later my MBA from Florida International University. Now I finally fit in! I had the rest of the weekend in Buenos Aires and immediately found a store to buy paper and pens. Then I started doodling inside the frame. I came back to the U.S. and showed my wife and said “I’m wiggling!” She said, no, you’re doodling”. But by that time it was too late! I had already created this character, the artist, Dr. Wiggls.
TRR: Do you use any special tools or paper for your work?
I prefer Conqueror Paper, which is acid free and Rotring Pens from Germany and I use China ink.
When Chaos Become Bach
TRR: Take us through the process of a drawing.
Dr. Wiggls is the artist messenger. Everything begins on one of Dr. Wiggls’ back arm or limb. To understand this art, you must first look at the Title. This leads you to a philosophical proposition. Then you look at the words, the music, the graphics, the dots and the equation. My job is to find a way to represent it so you understand it.
It may take months for an image to come and when it does, it is very powerful. Some are images more whimsical, but I always begin with the title first. Then I come up with what I call “contrast dictions”. This is fun for me, as I speak Portuguese, Spanish, English and Italian. I can use all of these languages together to make my point. For example, by adding brackets within a title, it changes the meaning. Language offers me so many different meanings! I can combine impossible structures.
Literati At Night
TRR: Do you have a particular artist whom you admire?
I am a big fan of graphic artist, M.C. Escher. In fact, there is an Escher scholar in CT who collects my work, which makes me quite proud. Seeing someone looking at my work and “getting it” gives me the most satisfaction. That “aha” moment when the art looker understands the deeper meaning is so profound for me. I have been drawing Dr. Wiggls for over 10 years now. I call this art ”Intellectual pointillism”.
TRR: Dr. Wiggls seems to have a few different interests.
My drawings tend to fit into four categories: Love, Life, Music and Business.
In my music series, I actually use the musical score and I try to define the Italian words that define the movements and bring that meaning into my drawings. In 1994 I met a Canadian composer, Peter Paul Koprowski, who composed “Ancestral Voices:. We became life long friends as I share some of my grandfather’s compositions with him. I selected 9 movements of Ancestral Voices and drew nine original pieces. These are signed by both the artist and composer.
TRR: As Juan shows them to us, we are truly amazed at how expressive they are! They truly do combine words and graphics with a true sense of justice.
I need to make sure that the words do justice so that the graphics represent what I am trying to say. Dr. Wiggls is a genderless messenger, with a body like my wife, Alison. He is my alter ego.
Impetuoso e Agitato
TRR: We want to clarify that this is not cartoon art.
It is intellectual art. Dr. Wiggls can share my fascination of how things that are not supposed to be graphic can actually look. Loving words, I need to create something that would show the intensity of those words in a graphic sense. I feel the same urgency with equations. Dr. Wiggls jumps, dares, has faith that it is going to work.
An Exercise in Futility
TRR: Is there a certain type of person who likes your art more than others?
I find that mathematicians and physics professors love my art. I am currently collaborating with a professor in New York City who is given me two equations and the goal is to find a resolution for human conflict resolution – possibilities of the resolution is endless. It is very powerful and dramatic to get the effect and the image. The more whimsical pieces of art seem to come to me faster.
Buy The Rumors; Sell The News
TRR: Can you give us an example?
In the piece, “Your reputation precedes you”, I show that everything that you leave behind comes to be in front of you. I have to find a way to represent this idea. It becomes an obsession.
Jumping In Love
TRR: How do you create the titles?
I keep a list of titles. They may or may not become drawings. I call it my list of “contrastdictions”. Like “contradictions” they give me the ability to contrast or juxtapose words and I use them as jumping off points. Since I speak more than one language, I have more flexibility to express myself with words and graphics.
For example: ”I don’t want to be long in your nightmare” can be written in so many different ways: ”I don’t want to belong in your nightmare” ”I don’t want to (be) long in your nightmare” and I use brackets to show this play of words. When you can combine the impossibility of the words and language then you are onto something! I do this for fun, but I live for the moment when someone gets it! It IS possible to combine math and music and graphics.
Temptations Live in Large Houses
TRR: Can you share a few titles you’re working on with us?
- The underwhelming illusion of a slow moving wave
- The explosive whispering of a gas leak.
- The remote awareness of remorse.
TRR: Tell us more about your surfboards
Growing up in Venezuela, we were totally disconnected from the surfboard evolution that was happening in California and the United States. Before starting college, I went to CA to look for a place to surf and maybe find a part-time job. I ended up at Infinity Surfboards, with Bob Anderson offering me a job and a place to live. For the next six months I gained a lot of knowledge and contacts within the industry.
I returned to Venezuela and showed off one of my own boards to a good friend, Ricardo Durrego. It turns out that he was my best marketing investment! Word spread like gunpowder and in a few months I was making money and surfboards! I named my board, Kuyagua Surfboards”, after our favorite beach in Central Venzuela ( I changed the “c” to “k” for originality).
Kuyagua Surfboards paid for my university years. After graduating, I worked in my field and abandoned my shop. Later, I had two kids, moved to Canada and took up snow boarding and forgot about surfing except for the occasional trip to a place where I kept my skills somehow alive.
Since June 2001, and due to a corporate transfer to South Florida, where surfing again on a regular basis became a reality: Guess what? There are no boards in FL that I truly liked, so I decided to revive Kuyagua Surfboards! For more information visit: www.kuyagua.com
TRR: Anything else you would like to share with our readers?
I am working on the legacy I will leave to my children and I believe the universe will conspire to make it happen. I also wrote a short story about an experience I had during my early adolescence.
- Last Lie
The Rickie Report cannot urge you enough to go to OGSG and meet Juan Plaza! Better yet, stop by before the Wine Promenade and take the time to really look at his amazing work. We can only imagine how satisfied you will feel as you sit and look at one of Juan’s pieces in your home or office.
Come to OSGS to meet Juan Plaza. He will be drawing as well as talking about his work during the monthly Wine Promenade on Friday March 29th between 6 and 9 pm. To reach Juan call 561-212-2044 or email@example.com or
For more information call the Art & Wine Promenade Event Hotline at (561)822-1551. Don’t miss this FREE event! Northwood Village is located one mile north of Palm Beach Lakes Blvd on Dixie Hwy. Free and valet parking available. event parking located on 24th street, 25th street, lot on 23rd street and throughout the village! Free Rides! Catch the Village Bus to & from the Downtown Library from 5:30-10:00pm.
TRR: After our interview, Juan emailed us this story and gave us permission to share it with you. As astounding as it is, this is not fiction. Juan’s life now was shaped by these experiences during his adolescence. Enjoy!
First Serial Rights ©2013 8,600 Words
Chicago, We Have a Problem!
Or How I Became the Dad Who “Invented” the Shuttle
Chicago we have a problem
(The Full Story Follows at the Bottom of this Article, if you have difficulty clicking through to the attachment above)
For coverage of your events, to place an advertisement, or speak to Rickie about appearing in The Rickie Report, contact The Rickie Report at:
Rickie Leiter, Publisher
The Rickie Report
Palm Beach Gardens, FL 33420
First Serial Rights ©2013 8,600 Words
Chicago, We Have a Problem!
Or How I Became the Dad Who “Invented” the Shuttle
My trek towards fame and glory began like any other trek: with a first step out the door of my home in Caracas, Venezuela.
It was the end of March, 1967, more precisely my 12th birthday and my father gave me some money to go to the local toy store and buy yet another model plane. The old lady who owned the store was by now closer to me than my real grandmother. She looked at me walking into her store and said:
“I don’t think I have any new planes for you, young man.”
Walking into a store and being recognized is bad enough, but knowing that said recognition comes from a specific item in the store is adding insult to injury.
“It’s my birthday” I said sheepishly.
“Oh, I’m so sorry…I mean, I’m happy for you, but I’m sorry that I don’t have any new planes.” She said, walking from behind the counter and kneeling beside me.
“You have bought them all!” She said
I lowered my head and began squeezing the bills in my hand as if trying to find solace in compressing the local currency into pulp.
“But maybe you might be interested in space models.” She said with a big smile.
“Space models?” I asked, releasing the bills from the grip of death.
“Yes, look here.” She said walking to a nearby shelf.
“Here’s the Mercury rocket with the platform and everything.” She said excitedly.
“Wow, looks beautiful.” I said, completely hypnotized by the illustration in the box.
“Well, there you go, take it home and start putting it together!” She said smiling and patting me in the back. “It’s only 15 Bolivares; cheap!” She added.
“I only have 10 Bolivares…” I said returning to my state of despair.
“It’s OK, give me the 10 and the rest is my birthday present to you for being such a loyal customer.” She said, handing me the shiny Revell box.
To say that I ran home to open the box is an understatement. I spent the next 48 hours absolutely transfixed with my newly acquired rocket. The level of detail was extraordinary. There were pipes and ladders and platforms and a slim rocket in white and red that completely captivated me.
Something inside me clicked like never before.
I suddenly understood that all the planes I’ve put together in the past were just preparation for this. Assembling and painting the Mercury rocket was just more than adding glue to plastic surfaces. There was a purpose in this. This was the space race.
Americans and Russians were trying to beat each other to the moon. I knew this because my father worked at a newspaper and we talked about these things at dinner or during long car rides.
“I want to be an astronaut.” I declared solemnly that night at the dinner table.
For you to understand the magnitude of that statement, I have to give you a bit of context. In my family, we were five siblings, three girls and two boys; I was number two after Elena, who was 14 and already a very beautiful young lady. After me came Alicia, 10, Mariella, 8 and Carlos 6.
My parents were recently divorced and for reasons that are not worth mentioning here (or perhaps are material for another story) we were living with my father.
My father was extremely busy, to put it mildly. With five kids and a full time job, the poor guy didn’t have time for much free time, but he did his best and we all thank him for it.
“Ah, an astronaut?” Asked my father, having another gulp of some Venezuelan delicacy. “How come?” He added.
“I want to go to space.” Was my dry response.
Everyone at the table began laughing and a few peas landed on my plate, from the direction of Carlos, who was very immature for his young age.
“Good for you.” My father said, “It’s important to know what you want to be and the earlier the better.”
And with those words, my faith was sealed. I was a very impressionable pre-teen and for my father to bless anything I said was reason enough to move forward full blast.
To make a long story short, over the next few months I bought and assembled, to exquisite levels of detail, the Gemini Capsule, the first American astronaut who walked in space, the Soyuz and Vostok Russian capsules and finally the Apollo Saturn V rocket, which was taller than me.
By then I was a declared fanatic of the space race. I devoured any information in the newspapers and in Time and Life magazines. I began to clip and collect anything that was printed in any way, shape or form about the space race.
I was obsessed.
“You can’t be an astronaut!” Said Alicia one night over dinner, laughing. “You’re claustrophobic!!” She added, to the glee of the entire table.
She was right. I hated small spaces and sometimes went into conniptions when it was my turn to sit in the middle seat in the back of the car. The mere thought that I couldn’t move sent me into sweat spells that were paralyzing and terrifying.
“Shut up!” Shouted my father over the laughs, shouts and screams at the table.
“Juan can be whatever he wants.” He said, turning to me.
“All you need to do is to fight your fear and find a way to deal with small spaces.” He added philosophically.
Carlos, Mariella and Alicia were giggling while I digested the life lesson.
A few days later my father walked into the house with a large book titled “The Gemini Missions”.
“Here,” He said, “I found this at the library of the newspaper; it explains a lot about how they train and how they deal with small spaces for long periods of time.”
The book was magnificent. It had a precise chronology of the Gemini missions and how they were designed to prepare NASA for the lunar missions. But the best part was in the centerfold. It contained an exact replica of the Gemini cockpit in a 1:1 scale. It unfolded to 6 feet in length by 8 feet wide and contained every switch and every gauge, including the windows and the hatches.
Looking at that incredible 48 square feet of reality I had an idea; an idea that would later make me famous, or infamous if you prefer, with every kid in the neighborhood.
I took everything out of my closet and began gluing the Gemini cockpit inside with insane precision. In a few hours I had a perfect, non-functioning simulator of the Gemini capsule.
In order to illustrate the complexity of these missions, the book contained samples of some of the procedures. For example, the launch procedure involved a long and tedious check list that the astronauts had to go through with mission control during the countdown.
For the next few months I spent north of eight hours a day inside that closet with a tiny flashlight going through the procedures step by step and completely absorbed and convinced in what I was doing.
I became the laughing stock of the neighborhood. I was approaching my 14th birthday and I didn’t have a life, according to the general consensus. I was not interested in girls, well, not the point of pursuing the issue, anyway, even though I was mildly curious about the opposite sex.
I once had a girlfriend for a few days, but she got tired of visiting me in my closet and hated the smell. I couldn’t care less.
One day my father walked in the house from work and called me apart.
“Juan,” He said, “The Apollo 11 mission launch will be in a few months and there’s a feeding frenzy at the newspaper for stories related to space.”
“Aha…” I said, completely uninterested.
Not only was I aware of the Apollo 11 mission, I knew every single detail there was to know about it; at least to the extent of information available in Venezuela during the pre-internet years.
“Well, I mentioned your interest in the space program to one of the journalists and they want to interview you.” He said slightly nervous. “What do you think?”
“Me?” I asked terrified, “Why me?”
“Well, you seem to know a lot about it and you have spent two years assembling every single capsule ever built and training to be an astronaut!!” He said beginning to raise his voice, “How many people do you know that have done that?”
He had a point.
“It’s news in a time when men are about to walk on the moon!” He said excitedly, placing an arm on my shoulder.
“Wow, you are right.” I said softly.
It hit me with fury. I had accumulated knowledge over the past 24 months that was real, valuable and my timing was impeccable.
The journalist arrived bright and early with a photographer that looked as a character from a comic book, completely uninterested and smelling of alcohol.
My first impression was that the gentleman that came to interview me came to see a cute kid with a mild interest in space. The editors needed something to fill the pages of the newspaper with a “Venezuelan angle” to the lunar landing.
Before we go any further I have to say that I’m a late bloomer and therefore at 14 years of age I barely looked 11, which is one of the reasons girls were not abundant, to put it mildly.
Unfortunately for the journalist what he found was a very informed, extremely serious 14 year old nerd. His first question was the beginning of the end because my social skills at the time were nonexistent, which is a very dangerous combination.
“So, Juan, are you planning to go to the moon in your own rocket?” He asked.
There was a brief moment of insulting silence. I was looking at him with a mixture of despondency, condescendence, pity, hatred and a speck of rage.
“What?” I shouted after a few tense seconds.
The photographer snapped a shot of my red face, but I don’t think they used it; it was for his own artistic amusement.
“Do you have any idea of how complicated it is to go to the moon?” I exclaimed, trying to calm down, “Do you have any idea how expensive it is to launch a man into orbit?”
“It is impossible for just one person to do anything in space!!” I continued, exasperated and walking around the room.
“Space is a team effort!!! Not an individual achievement.” I told him, getting closer and lowering my voice. “The Apollo 11 mission is about NASA and the thousands of people who have labored for almost a decade to put these two men on the surface of the moon. It is not about Armstrong, Aldrin or Collins. It’s about humanity and what we can do when we work together.”
Both jaws dropped. The photographer and the journalist were looking at me in disbelief. The 14 year old cute kid had just metamorphosed into a Harvard professor in front of their eyes. And the lesson was sinking in.
“How can you ask me such a question?” I said, sitting down and holding my head with my hands.
“I’m sorry.” Said the journalist.
“Me too.” Said the photographer, suddenly very interested.
“What do you want to talk about?” The journalist asked.
“AH! Now we’re talking.” I said, jumping from my chair, “Follow me.”
We walked into my room and I could see in their faces that they were beginning to understand what was coming.
The journalist sat on my bed while I walked up and down the room talking about how Sputnik changed the rules of the game, how JFK inspired a generation to go to the moon. How Mercury progressed towards Gemini and how Apollo was conceived and realized to reach its pinnacle in July of that year with Apollo 11.
The journalist was taking notes furiously and the photographer spent various rolls of film on me and my exquisite models. Then I showed them my closet and I went through one of the short procedures, to give them a sense of the complexity of each mission and the level of detail required to make sure everything went fine.
A few hours later, the journalist, having run out of paper, stood up from the bed, stretched and shook my hand.
“Wow, Juan I had no idea about any of this.” He said, sounding tired, “Thanks for the lesson and for the time.
The photographer was nodding in agreement.
“No, thanks to you for listening!” I said excitedly, “Not a lot of people my age are very interested in all this stuff. I enjoy talking about it.”
The headline the next day in the newspaper was something along the lines of ‘Child Prodigy Self Trains to be an Astronaut.’
The article that originally was meant to be a short feature in the social pages of the newspaper, turned into a full two page article with over ten photographs in the first section of the daily.
I was sitting in the living room reading the article when the phone rang.
“Good morning, is this Juan?” Asked the sexy female voice.
“Yes,” I said cautiously.
“Juan, my name is Isa Dobles and I have a TV program called “News for the Young Generation” have you heard of it?” She asked.
“No,” I replied a bit ashamed.
“Well, it’s a recent addition to the schedule of Channel 5 and what we’re trying to do is to have the news presented in a way that’s more interesting to the younger audience. Do you understand?” She asked, trying to gauge if I was following her.
“Yes I understand.” I replied dryly, not knowing where she was going with this dialogue.
“Well, we just read the article in El Nacional and are all very excited that you might be the perfect person for our new segment covering the news from the Apollo missions. Would you be interested?” She asked.
“In what?” I asked frightened.
“Well, appearing on TV and talking about the Apollo missions. Informing the public, your generation specifically, about the mission and how it’s going, etc. Telling them what’s going on, what’s happening in layman terms, you know, being a TV host.” She said casually, like this is something one gets offered every day.
“Oh, I’m not sure; I’m not an expert in TV talking, if you know what I mean.” I said defensively.
“Oh, come on. I will teach you everything you need to know about the TV part and you teach me everything you know about space. How does that sound?” She asked excitedly, and continued “We will be working together. I’m the anchor and you’re my expert. Whenever there’s a mission in space, you’re our guest in the studio. You bring your plastic models and you educate the public about the mission. I think this will be exciting for everyone!”
“I think I like the idea but you have to talk to my dad.” I said, feeling a tingle down my spine.
“Of course!” She said, raising her voice a bit with excitement, “It will be a pleasure talking to Gonzalo again, we met a few months ago in a cocktail and on top of everything else, I’m a huge fan of your grandfather’s music.”
She talked a lot and very fast; her enthusiasm was contagious and I said yes. In retrospect I believe this was the first time I was unapologetically seduced by an older woman. Thankfully for me it was not the last time.
But I digress…
My father arrived that night in an unusually happy mood. He was normally a pleasant man, but the rigors of a full time job and five kids, was taking its toll on him. The maid had dinner ready and the five kids ran to the table to the usual hugs, kisses and Venezuelan cuisine.
“My, my!” He said, sitting at the head of the table and beginning to pass the various serving dishes around, “Juan is famous!” He continued, “I received a call from Isa Dobles at Channel 5 and they want to hire him to be on TV!”
The announcement was received with mixed emotions because I don’t think any of us understood the ramifications of what was about to happen to a member of the family. My father explained in detail the responsibilities of the job and the conditions of ‘employment’. They were even paying me a nominal amount to make it official.
It was the beginning of May 1969 and Apollo 10 was about to be launched to test all systems in lunar orbit in preparation for Apollo 11.
It was a perfect time to introduce me to the Venezuelan audience and so they did. On May 15th 1969 I made my debut as TV personality. My father drove me to the station where there was Isa and about five other people waiting for me and all my plastic models.
Isa hugged and kissed me profusely and then kissed and hugged my father a bit too profusely. After the pleasantries at the parking lot we carried all the boxes to the studio where I was supposed to set-up and leave everything ready for the weeks ahead.
I had a few minutes to prepare, so I walked around the TV station practicing my speech and being greeted as a star by everyone I encountered.
And then something happened that I will remember for the rest of my life; an image that was imprinted in my head as a hot iron mark.
I was walking up and down one of the corridors with studios on both sides and one large set of swinging doors at the end; the red light on top of it was brightly illuminated with the words “On Air”.
Suddenly the light went dark and a few seconds later the swinging doors opened wide. A very tall woman wearing what seemed to be impossibly small hot pants walked out of the recording studio surrounded by people all talking at the same time. She had mile long legs and dark skin made of pure silk.
She looked at me and lifted her hand, commanding everyone to shut up. She walked to me with the stride of a panther. Unfortunately for me I was the proverbial deer in the headlights.
I was very short at the time (remember the whole late bloomer thing?) and her privates were almost at the same level with my eyes; or at least that’s what I remember.
She grabbed my jaw and softly lifted my face to meet her eyes.
“So you are the boy genius?” She said smiling, “What gorgeous eyes you have. I hope we can do a segment together sometime, if Isa allows you!” she said laughing.
Her entourage laughed with her in a synchronized way.
She let go of my jaw and continued on her way; the chattering resumed.
I stood there digesting the few seconds in the presence of a goddess.
“Juan!” was the shout that woke me up from my stupor, “We’re ready! Come quickly.”
One of the technicians with large earphones grabbed me by the arm and walked me to the studio, where all my models were beautifully arranged.
I took my place behind the counter and waited nervously for the sign. A makeup artist came quickly to my side and applied some sort of powder to my face while the Coordinator was counting with his fingers, three, two one.
It was a live show.
That first transmission was a great success and we spent well over 15 minutes going through the genesis of the Mercury – Gemini – Apollo programs and why it was so important to have all three in order to guarantee a successful moon landing.
I spent the last minutes of the broadcast preparing my audience for the Apollo 10 mission in particular and what we should expect over the next few days.
As soon as I left the studio, a manager in a very elegant three piece suit came running out of an office and announced that the phones were ringing off the hooks with praise for the Space Segment and asking for more.
My father was radiant with pride; standing in a corner and enjoying it all.
The next morning, a few minutes before walking to my school, the phone rang again.
“Good morning, may I speak with Mr. Juan Plaza?” A male voice with a foreign accent asked.
It was the first time I heard my name preceded by the word Mister, so it took me a few seconds to realize they were asking for me.
“Yes?” I said tentatively, “It’s me.”
“Good morning, Mr. Plaza, my name is Mr. Alminiana and I’m calling from the American Embassy, how are you?” He said excitedly and using all his polished selling skills.
“Good morning, I’m fine.” I replied.
“Can I call you Juan?” He said, noticing the nervousness in my voice and trying to break the ice.
“Yes.” I said, easing a bit.
“Juan, I just read the article in El Nacional and saw your segment in Channel 5 last night. I’m very impressed. Congratulations.” He said sincerely excited.
“Thank you.” I replied very uncomfortable.
I was not used to being popular. Au Contraire, I was used to being shunned by my peers because of my premature eccentricities. It felt as if Mr. Alminiana saw something in the article and the TV show that my friends were not able to see and it felt good.
“Listen, I was wondering if we can arrange a meeting with you and your dad?” He asked, “We have a proposal from the Embassy that might interest you.”
“OK, you can call him at the newspaper and arrange it.” I said, very uncomfortable to be swimming in an adults’ world without anesthesia or previous notice.
I gave him the phone number and rushed to school.
My lack of popularity increased with the notoriety. The big boys, today called bullies, pushed me around and made fun of me, while the girls smiled more than usual and made witty comments. Not bad for a guy who wore his pajamas under his school uniform.
That night over dinner my father made the announcement.
“Today I received a call from the American Embassy and they’re offering Juan a job!” He said excitedly, to the delight of the immature crowd.
Peas flew and jokes abounded.
“We will talk after dinner,” He said, resigned to the idea that this was not the best place to have this conversation.
A few minutes later we were sitting on his bed and he explained the situation. The American Embassy felt that if I was so knowledgeable and I had my own TV program I might as well get my information from the source instead of the news agencies.
The formal proposal was to give me the title of “Official Spokesperson of the American Space Program for Venezuela”, which my father immediately accepted on my behalf. The remuneration was not a big deal, but it helped.
Mr. Alminiana was to be my assistant and the plan was that he would pick me up in an embassy car with a driver and on the way to the station he would brief me on the developments of the day, hand me the official NASA photos that the embassy had received that day and between the two of us we would prepare the broadcast.
The days preceding the first official broadcast during an actual mission were very tense. I was nervous and spent a lot of time reading my notes and re-reading my books.
One afternoon after school, a group of my neighborhood friends came to the door inviting me to go play. I accepted immediately. It felt good to be doing things more in concert with my age.
Unfortunately during the first skirmishes trying to flee one of my captors in a violent hide and seek game, I fell from a tall wall and broke my foot in five places.
My first trip to the TV station with Alminiana was a little bit of an ordeal with my large cast and my aluminum crutches, but it went flawlessly.
The program or at least the Space Segment was a huge and instant success. Ratings went through the roof and we became the standard for space reporting in Venezuela.
Apollo 10 was followed by a month of hiatus when I went back to school full time waiting for the big event of Apollo 11.
My newly acquired taste for the limelight also brought a renewed interest in real science. In other words, I saw science and technology as activities that I would like to do for the rest of my life, and not only on the side as a hobby.
Between missions, I became obsessed (how typical of me…) with the idea of colonizing the moon and having a permanent base there. Someone in the TV station mentioned that there was an organization called ASOVAC, the Venezuelan Academy for the Advancement of Science and that this organization held an annual youth science fair.
I immediately contacted ASOVAC and requested the information. Very politely I was informed that in order to participate I had to be enrolled in either my junior or senior high school programs. Students of middle school were not allowed to participate.
I was furious.
During the first broadcast of Apollo 12 I prepared an editorial, something that I had never done before. I didn’t tell Isa or Alminiana about it, but when the coordinator in that first broadcast gave me the usual, three, two, one; I started my mission broadcast with a very different tune.
“Dear Venezuelan public, today we begin the series of daily broadcasts that will culminate with the landing of yet another Apollo mission on the moon. These extraordinary events are only possible because of the science and the technology that we have been able to develop over the last few decades. These advancements in science are only possible when we promote the imagination of the new generation and inspire them to dedicate their life to science.”
“Unfortunately in Venezuela we have an organization called ASOVAC that believes that science only exists in the junior and senior years of high school and they explicitily discourage students from middle school to have dreams and to exhibit their projects in ASOVAC’s annual youth science fair.”
And then I began my usual broadcast using NASA’s photos and information in preparation for Apollo 12 launch.
Boy, did I get into trouble.
The Minister of education called the station that afternoon and requested a meeting with me the next day in his offices.
The meeting was a bit tense and in attendance was the Director of ASOVAC, obviously very uncomfortable with his newly acquired notoriety. Even though ASOVAC was not a department of the Ministry of education, they all reported to the President, and obviously he was a fan of my program. So both men were ‘required’ to get together and solve the impasse.
An agreement was reached that all students of all levels will be allowed to participate and show their projects in the annual youth science fair, but only junior and senior levels would compete for the scholarship and the prizes.
Believe it or not I was the one that agreed to the compromise. I was getting very comfortable with my new position and the power of my pulpit.
The next broadcast I made the announcement that ASOVAC would now accept applications from all levels of education.
That year, according to the organizers, ASOVAC received three times the number of applications of previous years and attendance to the event quadrupled.
Apollo missions continued with the thriller of Apollo 13 and then the more scientific and less adventurous Apollo 15, 16 and 17.
Alminiana and I became very good friends and during those years I became a young man with a nascent facial hair and a new voice.
One day, during one of our long rides to the TV station, Alminiana turned around and asked me: “You have never told me which is your favorite mission.”
“Apollo 8.” I said without hesitation.
“Why?” He asked.
“It was the first time mankind abandoned the safety of home Earth and flew to another celestial body.” I said convincingly, “For me there’s no higher historical achievement. Walking or not on the surface is irrelevant. Leaving Earth for the first time is significant.
In 1969 I exhibited the Lunar House in that year’s ASOVAC fair. In 1970 it was the turn of a new, futuristic airport for Venezuela with hydraulic pontoons that would elevate the entire structure to avoid flood. In 1971 was the turn of a space lab orbiting Earth and in 1972 came the trip to Mars.
None of my projects ever made it to the category of winners; they were too farfetched for the mind of the Venezuelan science judges and I was not very popular in ASOVAC anyway.
Another unintended consequence of my fame and the distractions that came with it was the fact that I failed my junior year twice; in other words I spent three years of my life in junior year. I was so enthralled with science and space travel that I didn’t see the need to study, attend classes regularly or do anything that was conventional.
It was the end of 1972 and Alminiana and I knew that our adventure together was coming to an end.
During those three years we became very close and I always shared my ASOVAC projects with him, asking for advice.
It was in December 1972 during our first trip to the TV station for Apollo 17 that I told Alminiana about my “Mission To Mars” project and shared with him the problems we were having with making it feasible.
During the beginning of classes in 1972, a new student joined my school. His name was Rafael de la Cruz and he was a real genius of mathematics and physics. It was love at first sight when he discovered that the famous space broadcaster was in his class and together we agreed to join efforts and participate in ASOVAC 1973 with a project theorizing how a mission to Mars would look like.
During the initial analysis of what was required to get to Mars Rafael broke the news to me that, in order to get to Mars, the rocket had to be so huge that it would never lift off from Earth.
“It will have to be assembled in orbit” he said in a somber mode.
Rafael was a tall, thin individual with long black hair and piercing brown eyes. His gaze was always intense and nothing was ever light with him. I was an amateur of science; he was a professional and he knew it.
He grounded me in ways that nobody had done before. He showed me that I was superficial and supine as he dug deeper and deeper into the science of space exploration, while I played with my models.
During the heavy arguments of the Mars project, we decided that I was going to design a vehicle that would deliver the parts of the Mars rocket to orbit. Rafael would focus on the rocket itself and the problem with the quantity of water, oxygen and other essentials.
I began putting together my initial ideas for this reusable vehicle and came up with a design that satisfied the basic rules of an airplane that would have to lift off vertically and land horizontally.
The vehicle needs to be short and robust; it needs to have a lower wing, to help with the reentry requirements. The wing cannot be too long, it needs to extend alongside the axis of the vehicle to increment wing surface, but it needs to be short. Engines need to be located in the back and thrusters need protection from the reentry heat.
In other words, I went through the rigorous process of designing an airplane that would survive reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere.
One evening after dinner I showed my father (who did his high school in Greenwich, Connecticut and spoke perfect English) my wooden model.
My father was an intellectual, not a scientist and our relationship had deteriorated somehow since I became so famous and a bit self-centered. He respected me but he didn’t know how to handle a scientist in the family. My grandfather was a music composer, my grandmother a pianist, my sister Elena was studying Literature at a local university and Alicia was showing signs that she would be an actress.
I was the scientific black sheep of the Plaza family.
“What do you call it?” He asked, holding the delicate model in his hand and turning it around to have a better view.
“The Extraterrestrial Orbiting Cargo Module or EXOCAM for short.” I said proudly.
“Wow, what an ugly name.” He said, walking to his book shelf and grabbing a large green book.
“Let’s see here.” He said, opening he book, “I’m sure we can find a better name for it here in the Webster’s Dictionary. What did you say it was for? Taking cargo into orbit?”
“Yes, basically it will take payloads of stuff to orbit, where the technicians will assemble them into a space vehicle to go to Mars.” I said convincingly.
“Hummm.” He mumbled, flipping pages and stopping briefly every two or three.
“How about Space Truck?” He asked, “No, too pedestrian.”
“Is it reusable?” He asked.
“Yes.” I responded.
“AH!” he exclaimed, “How about Space Shuttle?”
“Here, look, Shuttle: vehicle used to travel back and forth over an established route, often short and repetitive and for purposes of delivery of people or cargo.” He said excitedly citing from the thick book, “How about that?”
“Sounds like our little friend here.” I said holding the wooden model in my hand.
“Space Shuttle it is then!” Said my father closing the book, placing it back in the empty slot in his book shelf and walking out of the room.
A few days later I had completed all the blueprints of the Space Shuttle and was preparing for my few last rides with Alminiana in the embassy limo to the TV station.
Apollo 17 was a night launch and Alminiana was at the door of the apartment building early, as usual. I walked down the corridor holding all my blueprints and my notes for the broadcast. He was very excited.
“This mission will be amazing!” He said, looking at me and tapping the driver over the shoulder in a gesture of let’s go!
“I know.” I said, “Finally we’re sending a scientist to the moon!”
Harrison ‘Jack’ Schmitt was a Caltech geologist who had joined the astronaut program as the first non-pilot man to do so. He logged over 1,500 of flight time in preparation for the Apollo 17 mission and was going to add a twist of ‘real science’ to the moon adventure.
“Here are the bios of three astronauts and the particulars of the mission.” Said Alminiana handing me a bunch of stapled pages with mug shots of the three men.
I read through the papers, we discussed the particulars of the first broadcast and then we relaxed for a few minutes.
“What do you have there?” he asked me, pointing to my thick binder.
“This is my project for the 1973 ASOVAC science fair. It is a theoretical exercise on a mission to Mars.” I said excitedly.
“Oh, sounds interesting.” He said without much excitement.
“Yes, and for the first time I have a partner.” I continued, “His name is Rafael and he’s a real math and physics whiz. He’s helping me a lot with the details of the science involved.”
“Show me.” He asked me.
I opened the file and there it was: my blue print of the Space Shuttle in all his magnificence.
A deep silence descended inside the car and I felt Alminiana getting very tense. I turned to see him and he was pale; his mouth was slightly opened. His eyes were wide and he swallowed hard.
“Where did you get that?” He asked very rudely, “Where?!” he repeated raising his voice.
“I….I designed it…” I said cautiously, looking at him with fear, “Why, what’s wrong?”
“You can’t have!” He said emphatically, “It’s impossible. How can you design that on your own? Who helped you? Is that your new partner, the Rafael guy?” He was being inquisitive in a way I’d never seen him before. Rude and to the point; measuring his words and looking me in the eye, trying to read between the lines.
“NO!” I exclaimed, “Rafael is in charge of the orbiting spacecraft. This is my baby.”
“How is this possible?” he said, talking to himself, “It can’t be. Holy shit…”
“What?” I asked, really worried now, “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing; I mean, I can’t tell you.” He said lowering his voice and looking out the window.
“Please Juan, if you value our friendship and the great job we have done over the past three years, you will not show these diagrams to anyone.” He said solemnly, “Promise!”
“I promise, but you’re scaring me!” I said defensively.
“Don’t be scared; just swear that you will never show these to anyone until I tell you to do so, perhaps in a couple of years.” He said placing an arm on my shoulder and softening his tone. “Can I keep these blueprints, please?”
“Yes of course.” I said, relieved “But that will ruin my mission to Mars. Rafael will kill me, but I promise.”
After the broadcast of Apollo 17, Isa Dobles and I parted ways, She hugged, and kissed me profusely, and considering I now was 6 feet tall and quite handsome (and modest!), she was a bit more ‘effusive’ if I might say so myself.
Alminiana and I say goodbye at the door of my apartment building. I was quite emotional and he tried very hard to be strong and not affected, but I recognized in the inflection of his voice, the frog that was beginning to form inside his throat. He shook my hand firmly and said:
“Remember your promise. I will be in touch.”
And with those words he jumped into the back seat of the limo and left.
That day marked the end of an era for me.
A few months later my sister Mariella died in a car crash one night when she sneaked out of the apartment, and drove with under aged friends to the beach to see a storm. They never made it.
A few months after that my father decided to move the family to a house in another part of town to try to erase the memories of the apartment.
I discovered girls, motorcycles and surfing and the space race became a thing of the past.
In late 1974 we received a call at the house and it was the secretary of the American Ambassador inviting me and my family to an event in the American Embassy. My father answered and confirmed that we would be there.
We all dressed very nicely and attended the event at the Embassy. To my surprise, it was an event in my honor. There were over 200 people all dressed up. Isa Dobles was there, and many of my colleagues during the Space Broadcasts were there too. Alminiana was there with a huge smile and lots of grey hair.
We hugged, Latin style. He walked a couple of steps back and said:
“Look at you! You have lost weight, grown to be taller than me and are quite tanned.”
“Well,” I said, apologetically, “All I do now is surf and build surfboards. I’m enrolled at the university in Geodetic Engineering, but’s it’s really an excuse to be studying something.”
“I understand,” He said, “But don’t worry; you will find your way.”
The Ambassador called the crowd to order and the ceremony began.
“We are here today to honor a young man that a few years ago had the courage to think differently. He was in love with space and, even though he was barely a teenager, he amassed an outstanding amount of knowledge and information about the space race. With that knowledge and a series of fortunate events he became famous throughout the country and in the span of a few years became quite a celebrity.”
“We are here today honoring this young man, because unbeknown to us, he was also embarked in developing real science of technology of his own.”
“What’s he talking about?” Whispered my father.
“I have no idea.” I said surprised.
“In December 1972,” the Ambassador continued, “This young man was toying with the idea of participating for the last time in a youth science fair and he was bold enough to theorize about a manned trip to Mars. In order to realize the trip to Mars, he determined, the rocket had to be assembled in orbit and in order to do that he needed a vehicle to bring the cargo to Earth orbit and return for more”
“This young man designed a vehicle which he called the Space Shuttle and resembled very, very closely what NASA was working on at the time and that they too called the Space Shuttle.”
“Your idea,” I told my father to his ear.
“Juan showed his design to his friend, Mr. Alminiana and at the time, Mr. Alminiana was not authorized to talk about the confidential design that NASA was putting together with its private contractors.”
“Mr. Alminiana asked Juan to keep the design secret and Juan kept his promise.”
“Once back in the USA, Mr. Alminiana went straight to NASA and brought the designs with him. The engineers at NASA agreed that in principle, the designs of the real shuttle and its Venezuelan counterpart were identical. They were designed using the same logical principles and, sure enough, arrived at the same conclusion.”
“A few months ago and once the design of the Shuttle was made public, word of Juan’s achievements reached the White House and the President has agreed to extend a formal invitation to Juan to study aeronautical engineering in a university of his choice fully paid by the government of the USA.”
There was thunderous applause and my father stood up and clapped looking at me. My siblings were following the crowd and applauding in disbelief.
The Ambassador raised both arms and made a gesture asking the crowd to be quiet.
“Today we are giving Juan, on behalf of the government of the USA and in recognition of his achievements and the fabulous way in which he reported the Apollo missions, the following gifts:” Said the Ambassador grabbing a paper from the podium and reading.
“A set of original mission patches for all Apollo missions from Apollo I to Apollo 17, one commemorative coin containing metal that went to the moon and back on Juan’s favorite mission, Apollo 8 and last, but not least, a metal replica of the NASA Shuttle”
“Congratulations Juan on your achievements.” Finished the Ambassador, giving me the patches and the coin.
We were escorted out of the room and into a large area with food and drinks. I was in heaven even though the last thing on my mind was studying aeronautical engineering.
The Ambassador approached me and thanked me personally for the job of broadcasting on behalf of his government. Alminiana was with him.
“Mr. Ambassador,” I said, “I don’t know how to thank you for this event, I’m not sure I deserve it that much. I was having so much fun I didn’t notice that we were making history.”
“Yes, I know what you mean.” He said, “It happens to everyone; don’t worry. So how can we begin the process of getting you to the USA as soon as possible to begin your studies?”
“I don’t know how to say this,” I said, very embarrassed, “but what I want to be is an astronaut. I have no interest in designing rockets; I want to fly them.”
“Oh,” Reacted the Ambassador, turning to Alminiana, “Can we help with that?”
“Sure,” Responded Alminiana, “Let’s talk.” He said grabbing me by the arm and walking to the open bar.
“Now you understand why I was so nervous the day of our ride in late 1972,” He said whispering, “I knew that NASA was working on the Shuttle but the exact design was supposed to be a secret and yours looked exactly the same. When I arrived in Houston, I showed the blueprints to the engineers and some of the astronauts and we all had a good laugh that you designed it without a penny and we were spending billions upon billions on it.”
“During one specific meeting with engineers and astronauts,” Continued Alminiana, “one of the managers of NASA brought your blueprints and began screaming that he needed more people with high ideas and low salaries like ‘the kid’ in Venezuela.”
“The phrase ‘kid in Venezuela’ became emblematic of doing things on a low budget.” And that’s why it came to pass that someone from Washington visiting Houston heard about it and passed it on to someone in the White House and the rest is history.”
“I will make inquiries in NASA about joining the astronaut program and will be in touch.” He said shaking my hand and disappearing into the crowd.
It would be the last time I saw Alminiana.
A few weeks later we heard from the Embassy. We had a couple of meetings filling up paperwork and so on, but eventually I received via mail the apologetic NO because of my height; exactly 6 feet and over the limit for astronauts. Later it was removed as grounds for exclusion, but it was too late for me.
Years went by and in 1978 I met my wife Alison; we married in 1982 and in 1984 I graduated as a Geodetic Engineer. In 1986 my daughter Andrea was born and in 1988 my son Carlos arrived.
In 1990 we immigrated to Canada and in 2001 we moved to Boca Raton, Florida. In 2004 I graduated second in my MBA class at FIU and later that year I earned my pilot’s license, bought a Cirrus SR20 and began flying as a hobby.
During the years when the kids were growing up they always introduced me to his friends as the “dad who invented the shuttle”. Unfortunately sometimes this brought mockery and bullying.
In 2008 we were relocated to Denver Colorado and in February 2009 we were relocated to Darien, Connecticut.
Then came the encounter that would validate everything that Alminiana had told me at the American Embassy during that ceremony over 30 years ago.
It was 6:00 in the morning on February 13 and we were in the line to board American Airlines flight 1502 to Chicago to connect to LaGuardia. It was our exploratory trip to look at houses before moving later that year.
Suddenly Alison tapped me on the shoulder.
“Hey, that’s Jim Lovell ahead of you in the line!” She whispered in my ear.
I looked at the gentleman in front of me. He was a man in his seventies with a leather jacket and a small briefcase.
“That’s not Jim Lovell!” I whispered back.
“Look at his jacket, it says Jim Lovell!” She insisted.
I discretely looked screened the gentleman in front of me. Sure enough, the jacket said Jim Lovell.
“I think it’s one of those jackets that you buy at NASA when you visit Cape Canaveral.” I said discretely.
“Come on!” She said, “It’s Jim Lovell, look at him.”
I looked closely and she was right; it was Jim Lovell right in front of me ready to board the plane. I made a huge effort to look casual and brave.
“Excuse me Sir, are you Jim Lovell?” I asked.
“Yes!” He said excitedly, “Nice to meet you.”
He was traveling with a lady about his age that I assumed was his wife. We boarded the plane and as luck had it, we were seated next to each other across the aisle in Business class. The plane took off and as soon as we reached cruising altitude the captain announced that we had a national hero with us on the flight. Mr. Lovell stood up and waved to the cheering crowd.
When breakfast was served I engaged in conversation with Mr. Lovell who requested that I called him Jim. I obliged.
“I’m also a pilot.” I said.
“Really, what do you fly?” He asked.
“A Cirrus SR20.” I responded.
“Oh, wow, I have heard marvelous things about the plane.” He said, “Is it really that good?”
“Oh, yes.” I said, “It has modern avionics and it’s carbon fiber, no rivets and no drag.”
“Well, I have Cessna 310 and it has all sorts of rivets.” He said laughing.
Then we began comparing our onboard GPS equipment and engaged into an agitated conversation about flying GPS vs. VOR, the thrills of IFR vs. VFR and many other aviation issues. Alison and Mrs. Lovell looked at each other and rolled their eyes simultaneously; boys and their toys.
At some point I gathered enough strength and confessed my link to the American Space Program. I went into painstaking detail about the TV program, the American Embassy job, the Apollo 12 press conference, the Jack Schmitt lunar rock and finally the Shuttle design.
Suddenly and out of the blue, Jim Lovell became very agitated and shouted.
“You’re the kid! You’re the kid!”
I looked surprised. He turned to his wife and said:
“This is the kid from Venezuela that they used to use as an example of small salaries and big ideas.” He said excitedly.
His wife grinned and Alison grabbed my arm.
I was in heaven. Everything that Alminiana had told me regarding the comments in NASA had been validated by an American hero.
I asked him to sign my boarding pass. It is a simple signature with his name and below he wrote Gemini 7 & 12, Apollo 8 & 13.
Very few people in the world can claim such credentials, but during that flight from Denver to Chicago we were just two aviators enjoying a conversation about flying.
Life was good and history was better.