Lead from the front: Hector Marcayda
Interior of the Kingsbridge Armory, circa 2012
In his sophomore year at the Bronx High School of Science, a student who was a Civil Air Patrol cadet gave a recruiting presentation in the cafeteria. He made quite an impression as Hector noticed “He was impeccably dressed in his summer dress uniform – a short sleeve blue shirt with razor edge creases, perfectly tailored, displaying several ribbons and wearing the insignia of a Cadet NCO. His trousers at the right length with a slight break over his ‘spit-shined’ leather shoes which appeared to glow under the lights. His hair was well groomed, sporting a ‘Regulation Cut’, precisely tapered down the sides and back of the head. I was impressed by the time, effort and care he spent on his personal appearance, particularly his uniform. And even though he was only one or two years older than me, he was eloquent in his ‘recruiting pitch,’ spoke with command authority, and conveyed a strong and imposing presence – this is precisely what I had been searching for years.”
Hector was “captivated by the demeanor… of a genuine leader” and joined Bronx Cadet Squadron 3 in the late spring of 1979. The commute to weekly meetings from Washington Heights in Manhattan to the Bronx took 30-45 minutes on a city bus. Meetings were held every Friday night from 1900-2200 at the formidable Kingsbridge Armory – purportedly the largest armory in the world. On an average Friday, 25-30 cadets drilled on the immense concrete floor of the armory, surrounded by hundreds of Guard vehicles. When the fumes became overwhelming the cadets moved to the labyrinth of basement and sub-basement halls and offices. Hector recalled that while his squadron was exclusively male, it was not by design or discrimination: “[CAP in New York City] did not appear to attract women in the 70s and 80s. Other New York Wing squadrons had equally low female cadet populations, but I cannot attribute a reason for this occurrence.” Meetings started with an opening formation, followed by an hour of drill. Two hours were devoted to classes. Finally, there was a closing formation and announcements.
Hector at work in an office at the Armory, 1980.
While emergency services was a mission for CAP, New York City had a multitude of professionally trained and equipped organizations available to perform what was volunteer work in other parts of the country. Consequently, New York squadrons focused intensely on cadet leadership development. It is obvious that these cadets considered themselves guardians of the image and reputation of CAP cadets. Very high standards were an inheritance passed from cadet to cadet. Simply joining the cadet program was not a given, and potential cadets were held in a recruit status until their Flight Sergeant or Commander recommended actual membership. At a time when most squadrons would take all comers, this process could last 6 to 9 months. Cadet recruits wore pressed dark colored pants with a white button up shirt, black belt, black socks, and shined black shoes. His haircut had to meet uniform standards, even in the civilian uniform. Only when approved, a recruit was accompanied by an experienced cadet to purchase uniforms at local Army/Navy stores.
For cadets in Air Force uniforms, Hector quoted Axel Ostling’s description of expectations: “having a very sharp, perfectly tailored uniform was expected… ironed with precision… we were all expected to do this ourselves… no excuse that our mothers had done it… shoes were brilliantly spit-shined leather – Corfams were not allowed.” He added that the drill team, and cadets at type-A encampments, were expected to wear heavily starched fatigues with spit-shined boots.
Since the focus was on quality, not quantity, Bronx Group only attracted the “best of the best.”
This suited Hector just fine: “I thrived in an environment where strong leadership defined our squadron, decisiveness was a common trait, and where senior cadets and some Senior Members shared their leadership experiences. This would serve as a continuous source of inspiration.”
If rank and file cadets were expected to be the best of the best, then their leadership had to be exceptional. Hector explained “that each generation of cadet leaders was principally focused on training their replacement to assume billets of increasing responsibility and leadership… Thus maintaining leadership continuity was the norm.” Cadets ran the meetings, with limited Senior Member involvement. To an extent, cadets also ran the cadet program: “To prevent accelerated promotions the cadet leadership determined when a cadet would ‘test out.’ So in a sense, Axel [Ostling’s] merit based system was in practice even when I was a cadet.”
Hector and his two younger sisters were raised in Washington Heights, a neighborhood with “a heavy Irish Catholic and Jewish population.” He described his upbringing as “conservative and strict[ly] Catholic” which “fostered an environment of honor, integrity, and excellence.” He went on to say “My father was a man of honor, respected among his peers and neighbors, and my mother was a morally strong woman -- so ‘leadership by example’ was common in the Marcayda household. Those were the values we were exposed to on a daily basis, and were reinforced when I joined CAP.” He further described his father as “a staunch anti-communist, a strong Republican, [who] believed in and practiced conservative principals.”
The George Washington Bridge viewed from Washington Heights, Upper Manhattan, NYC, 2014.
Photo by Esra Realty
Young Hector quickly displayed a preternatural drive for superior performance. After kindergarten, he entered the gifted program in elementary school. In middle school he skipped 8th grade, moving directly from 7th to 9th grade. His interest in the military surfaced in grammar school, when his father took him to a meeting of “Army cadets” near his home. “The concept of military service had been a long-time attraction... In fact, I distinctly remember as early as 1975/1976… when I pleaded with my father to join… I was mesmerized by the spectacle of cadets marching with precision, rhythmically beating on drums, and impeccably wearing their uniforms… I knew then that was precisely what I wanted and needed.” To his dismay, his parents did not allow him to join the organization. Disappointment turned into resolve, and he knew he “would eventually join a similar cadet organization as [he] grew older.”
Aerial shot of Kingsbridge Armory, circa 2012
Hector was born in Havana, Cuba under the chaotic and brutal regime of the Communist Party lead by Fidel Castro. His parents found themselves under increasing scrutiny when they refused to join or support the despotic party. Shortly after Hector was born in 1964, his father applied for political asylum in the United States through the Swiss embassy. Punishment for his treachery was swift and delivered through an armed tribunal: he was kicked out of his last year of medical school and forced to repair roads in a government work camp. After three years of tension and uncertainty, the young family finally received their long-awaited visas and permission to enter the United States in 1967. Their flight first took them to Miami, Florida, then on to their new home in New York City. The Marcaydas adjusted quickly to their new life, and embraced the freedom and opportunities America offered. His father’s relief was evident in his memoir: “We thanked God for what we had and we finally started a new life, all of us together.” He also noted on the 29th of August, 1974 “we became citizens of this great country” in a ceremony that “was beautiful and very emotional.”
It’s the City That Never Sleeps, the Big Apple, Metropolis, the Capital of the World – to the average American, New York City is daunting, to say the least. While residents denounce the modern crime rate, and bemoan the city’s financial struggles, their situation pales in comparison to that of forty years ago. There’s no shortage of dark, gritty tales about Gotham in the 1970s and 80s, a seething city rife with drugs and fearsomely high crime rates. The city was broke and broken – it seemed all social order was deteriorating. The Big Apple was rotting. In 1975 the New York Council for Public Safety helpfully published Welcome to Fear City: A Survival Guide for Visitors of New York City. It advised travelers to “stay away from New York City if you possibly can.” No one published a guide on how to safely raise children in the middle of an urban civil war. This is when and where Hector Marcayda grew up. Despite its iniquitous reputation, Hector asserted “while crime was a problem the rule was that if you don't look for trouble in NYC, you won't find it… if you actively seek trouble, it will most definitely find you.” However, in a city infested with trouble it takes true strength of character and a conscious decision to pursue honor, integrity, service before self, and commitment to lead from the front.
A small break in discipline:
Mario Massa (L) and Hector (R) react to an errant noise during formation, 1980.
Numerous units from multiple organizations participate in the Armed Forces Day Parade, including NYC CAP cadets at 2:10, New York City, 1980.