Wednesday, August 7, 2013

A Spy in the Family

Over the weekend my brother and I cleaned out my mom’s storage trunk, and discovered the death certificate for my uncle, Sonny. According to the cause of death, Sonny died from gunshot wounds.
The gunshot wounds listed had happened thirty-five years prior to his death. But that wasn’t the real oddity on the document. You see, there were two bullets listed, along with their locations. The family had known about the shooting, but not that there had been two bullets and that second bullet was absolute proof that Sonny’s injury hadn’t occurred like he and the Air Force claimed. 

 The family had long suspected that Sonny had been a spy, not a security guard like he’d maintained until his death, but that death certificate was the first proof of our suspicions. Because according to that death certificate, he couldn’t have been shot the way he’d told us.
Sonny was eighteen when he joined the Air Force, and became an intelligence officer.  He was stationed in England on a security detail—guarding the fighter planes on base. The family was relieved to find he’d be guarding planes rather than seeing action.  
But two years later, my grandmother got a call from someone in the Air Force telling her that Sonny had been shot and wasn’t expected to survive. My grandmother got hold of her aunt who was in England, and asked her to go sit with Sonny at the base hospital. Only when her aunt got there, they had no record of a Clifford Gorham in the hospital. When the family tried to get info on where he was at, they were given the runaround; nobody could tell them where he was, or how he’d been injured. They couldn’t even find out whether he was alive or dead. 

Silence followed for the next three months. They contacted every Air Force base and recruitment center they could reach, but all they got was silence. Then suddenly they received another call. This time they were told Sonny had recovered enough to be moved stateside and he’d been admitted to a local VA hospital. They were allowed to visit him there.

Sonny told them there had been a name mix up when his aunt had tried to visit him, and that he’d been in that hospital all along. He also told them his injury had been caused by a freak accident and that his  roommate, had been playing quick draw not realizing there was a bullet in the chamber, and he’d squeezed the trigger as Sonny walked through the door. 

It quickly became apparent that that bullet had caused major damage to his body, including blowing off a chunk of his spine. He’d never be able to walk again. He’d been in the hospital a few weeks when he suddenly crashed. Immediate surgery was required but my grandmother was told they couldn’t operate until Air Force intelligence arrived. Apparently his chart stated no anesthesia without intelligence officers in the room as witnesses. Nor did the intelligence officers let anyone but necessary personal in the room until after the surgery and my uncle was awake and aware. 

 This became a pattern. Every surgery, and there were a lot through the years, was accompanied by two Air Force intelligence officers.  Sonny maintained that the two officers were just there to make sure he didn’t babble sensitive fighter jet info while under the influence of the anesthesia. But by then everyone thought he was a spy. Or that he’d been a spy, although Sonny would never admit it.

It was ten years before the intelligence officers stopped coming to his surgeries, but even after they stopped coming, Sonny’s first question upon waking would be “did I say anything while I was out?”  
The family had their first proof that the shooting didn’t happen the way Sonny and the Air Force claimed twenty years after the incident. For the first time he was admitted to a civilian hospital, and the surgeon spoke with my grandmother and mother following the surgery.  While assuring them that while Sonny was in grave condition, he had strong survival instincts, as borne out by the fact he’d survived the original shot—the doctor said the “upward trajectory” of the bullet had caused such massive internal damage he shouldn’t have survived the initial shooting.

The upward trajectory, that word caught everyone’s attention, because according to Sonny’s account of the event and what little the Air Force had said, the roommate who’d shot him had been standing and the bullet had hit him straight on. But the surgeon said that made no sense, because based on the damaged caused by the bullet, the shooter had to be on his knees—shooting up.

Sonny recovered from those surgeries and went on to ignore everyone’s questions. He never tried to explain the discrepancy. He died fifteen years later, thirty-five years after he was shot—without ever explaining what had happened or what he was doing or why he’d been shot. 

And what killed him, after close to 100 surgeries?

Bed sores. Can you believe it? He survived multiple operations where he was given a 5% chance of survival only to fall prey to bed sores. The bed sores got so deep they formed channels and poisoned his whole body. He’d been on antibiotics for so many years his body had grown accustomed to them and nothing stopped the infection from spreading. Eventually it got in his blood and his brain.

Because the bed sores were a result of his paralysis, which had been a result of the bullet wounds, gun shots were listed as his cause of death. And that second bullet listed on his death certificate was proof positive that the injury hadn’t been because of his roommate playing quick draw.Because there was only supposed to have been one bullet in the chamber of that gun, and Sonny was only supposed to have been shot once.

Yep, everyone is even more convinced: Uncle Sonny was a spy.


  1. Wow.

    He took his secrets to the grave like a true spy :)

  2. Sasha, he certainly did. I always felt that was such a shame. I bet he had some great stories. :)

  3. Wow, what an incredible story! Thank you for sharing this.

  4. Fascinating. Kind of sad to never know the truth, and yet appropriate for him.

  5. remarkable man. im pleased he had an exciting life as a spy, because it couldnt have been much fun after with all those operations

  6. An amazing story. What a hero he was.