For much of Jim Tandy’s nearly 25-year career in aerospace, he worked on the B-1 bomber, the Stealth bomber and other aircraft capable of carrying weapons of mass destruction.
Although the Santa Paula resident undoubtedly had a head for physics, his heart was in other places. It began to nag at him, he remembers, that he was helping to build weapons that might one day be used to annihilate so many people.
“It gave me a queasy feeling thinking what it would be like having (a missile) coming at me,” Tandy said.
But he had a wife, two children and a mortgage. So he continued working on the jets, putting the implications of his contributions out of his mind.
Divorced now, and pushed out of aeronautics by the defense contract bust of the late ‘80s, the 62-year-old Tandy is following a new course. He has been accepted into the Peace Corps.
“I know it sounds like I’m just trying to make up for the bad stuff I did in aerospace,” he said. “And when I analyze it, maybe I am.”
Sunday, Tandy leaves for the Dominican Republic, where he will work with forestry officials to plant trees, among other jobs. The trip is the realization of a decades-long goal.
“Ever since President Kennedy initiated the Peace Corps in 1961, it’s been a dream,” he said.
Unfortunately, reality got in the way for many years, Tandy said.
By 1963, he had quit Cal State Long Beach, a few units short of a degree in physics. He left college in his senior year, Tandy said, because he already had a defense job that kept him busy 12 hours a day, seven days a week.
He worked for Garrett Airesearch in Torrance, testing ways to keep astronauts alive in the command modules being built for the Apollo space program. Already married with children, Tandy worked for Garrett for the next 11 years, marveling along with the rest of the country as Neil Armstrong took his famous moonwalk in July, 1969.
Tandy then began a series of short stints as an entrepreneur. He dabbled in an epoxy-coating business and in real estate. But whenever those ventures didn’t work out, he returned to his lucrative defense work.
It was with defense giant Rockwell, in Rockwell’s Palmdale plant, that he went to work on the now-defunct B-1 bomber. At the time it was hailed as the most sophisticated warplane ever, capable of delivering conventional and nuclear weapons while evading radar.
“It was the first time I got to see the guts of an airplane being built,” Tandy recalled. “As it evolved, I really realized what an effective weapon of destruction it was. If I saw that thing coming at me, I would just bury myself in the dirt. That’s all you could do.”
Tandy later worked on the Stealth bomber, but said he didn’t worry too much about his participation because he only built tools needed to maintain the plane.
“Being far removed from it made it acceptable to me,” he said.
Tandy moved to low-rent senior housing in Santa Paula when the end of the Cold War left him jobless in 1989. He said he looked for another $40-an-hour aeronautics consulting job for months but had no luck.
He ended up accepting a $4.25-an-hour job with the Ojai Ranger District picking up trash in campgrounds at Rose Valley and Piedra Blanca.
“There was just nothing else out there for me,” he said.
He will leave his forestry job to take the unpaid, two-year Peace Corps position. He held a garage sale to sell most of his modest belongings.
Tandy will donate his numerous books to a library and will give other items to Goodwill Industries, he said. He is also selling a 1965 Volkswagen Beetle but will put his Honda 450 in storage so he has transportation when he returns.
Tandy sees his stint in the Peace Corps as an adventure. He will live in a small village, renting a room from a family. The home has no plumbing and has an outhouse, but that doesn’t bother him.
“One of my loves is backpacking and when you go backpacking, there is not even an outhouse.”
Tandy asked to go to a Spanish-speaking country and took two courses at Ventura College to prepare. His goal, he said, is to be fluent in the language by the time he returns.
A colleague of Tandy’s at the ranger district said the former engineer is a natural for the Peace Corps.
“Jim’s a great guy,” said Ranger Dirk Shupe. “And he loves working with people.”
Tandy supervised a youth crew that built hiking trails last summer and did and excellent job, Shupe said. And his love for nature is apparent, he said.
“He was really dedicated to his work here and the forest,” Shupe said. “He hikes all the time. When he’s not working, he’s still out there.”
Although two-thirds of Peace Corps volunteers are between the ages of 20 and 29, many host countries favor older volunteers, Peace Corps officials say. Older workers like Tandy tend to command greater respect and prestige in traditional cultures that value the wisdom of age.
“What the Peace Corps tells me is that older people have a lot of experience that younger people don’t have,” Tandy said. “Life experience.”
Tandy is also looking forward to the freedom Peace Corps officials have told him to expect.
“When I was in aerospace, there was someone telling me almost hour by hour what to do,” he said. “The Peace Corps points you in the right direction, pats you on the head and says, ‘Good luck.’ ”