I first met Harley Arnold Hughes more than 50 years ago.
At the time he was a major in the Air Force and I was a low-level civil servant in the Pentagon. Our careers blossomed and our love for one another blossomed even more. Harley was one of the kindest, most sincere and non-assuming men I’ve met.
He preferred to be called Harley rather than by Lt. General Hughes a rank he had rightly earned during his exceptional 30-year Air Force career.
On this, the week in which our country honors its veterans, I want to share my experience in knowing such a remarkable man of honor and the man I married.
After his retirement from the Air Force, Harley became a successful businessman. We both wanted a place in the country to visit on weekends that allowed us time to relax and enjoy the majestic scenery of the area.
At the time, he was serving on several corporate boards and consultant to even more corporate entities. I was an advisor to the presidential campaign of George W. Bush.
So much of Rappahannock County sold us especially the lack of traffic lights and lack of large stores.
We loved the idea of small mom and pop stores which reminded us of our childhoods, south Texas in my case and the Tulsa area for Harley. We loved stopping at Laurel Mills on our way from our Alexandria home on most Friday evenings to pick up Harley’s favorite bologna and cheese sandwich along with a large bag of Cheetos.
Once our house was built, Harley was happiest on his tractor enjoying mowing a large part of our property. Regardless of who you were, Harley always welcomed everyone into our home with a firm handshake and a happy look on his face.
And if you came at the right time of the afternoon, he’d offer you a drink and invite you to join him with his gin martini in hand on the favorite part of our home, the back deck with a clear view of Castleton Mountain. His unique dry sense of humor and naturally gregarious personality was a great part of Harley the man whom I came to not only love but to highly respect and enjoy hearing many a happy tale of his life adventures from being raised in Oklahoma to falling timber in Montana during a college summer to his Air Force career.
I never saw him lose his temper. He would shrug his shoulders over a bad decision or event and say matter of fact, “That’s the price of doing business, Gracie.”
He often said that the “good people” of Rappahannock County were a reminder of the people he grew up with in his hometown of Adair, Oklahoma, honest and hardworking. His father Arnold was the town’s only barber, and his mother Bernita Hughes was the town’s first female elementary school principal which the school is named after and that sits on the street named General Harley A. Hughes Ave.
A building located in the Whitaker Education and Training center in Pryor, Oklahoma is named the Hughes Educational Annex. One of his role models in life was his uncle Harley Hughes whom he was named after. Sr. Master Sergeant Hughes served in WWII, the Korean War and surprisingly welcomed my husband Harley to Vietnam where he served with a special intelligence unit.
When Harley joined the ROTC program at Oklahoma State he said he did so because he wanted to be a pilot. He didn’t yearn to be a general. And he earned his wings, flying the best airplanes the Air Force had to offer, from T-33s, during his early flight training days, to the legendary B-52 bomber with nukes on board during the Cuban missile crisis to the F-4 Phantom in Vietnam which plane carried his wartime nickname, The Oklahoma Wildman.
There he flew 225 combat missions and earned a silver star in a very risky and dangerous mission. Major Hughes had been in Vietnam about six months when he volunteered along with his back seater Lt. Buckholtz to provide close air support to friendly forces engaged in combat with a hostile force of unknown size. In all Major Hughes and Lt. Buckholtz chose to make five passes even though such a tactic multiplied the hazards to themselves.
The accurate and timely delivery of ordnance forced the enemy to break contact, thus enabling the friendlies to evacuate their wounded and dead. Their heroic determination and courage under such demanding and hazardous conditions provided lifesaving support and reversed the tide of battle and they received a lot of very loud cheers from the troops on the ground.
After his service in Vietnam, Harley became one of the Armed Forces most formidable and recognized war planners.
As one of his friend’s said, “the Russians are more fearful of Harley Hughes than anyone in America.”
That had to do with him being one of the key masterminds of identifying the target areas in Russia that would be hit if a conflict occurred between the U.S. and Russia.
In 2015, Harley and I moved full time to Rappahannock county where we supported many of the county events and organizations from the Castleton Festival to the Pantry. In the early 2000’s we heartily welcomed into our lives, and whom they came to be called our children, a young mother Elsa Rosales and her son Christian I. Martinez from Peru. Christian graduated from Wakefield Country Day School, an exceptional institution which we’ve supported throughout the years.
Christian is presently the Deputy Press Secretary for Governor Youngkin and Elsa married our neighbor, Air Force retired Colonel George R. Dixon. His three daughters, Deb, Denise and Deana from his first marriage loved to visit us in Castleton which they called, “Dad’s slice of heaven.”
In September 2022, the county lost one of its leading citizens and the country lost a heroic veteran and great American.
And I lost the love of my life and best friend.
Harley may no longer be with us but his legacy looms large in the minds of those of us that were fortunate to know him and the institutions he served in.
Grace Flores-Hughes is author of her award-winning memoir, A Tale of Survival and her current book, The Opaque Conspiracy was released in June 2023.
Born in Texas and Harvard-trained, she was senior advisor in the corporate sector and served in senior level positions in the administrations of three U.S. presidents and three state governors and helped coin the term Hispanic for the federal government.