Many children wish upon stars, but when Carlos Reyes Contreras was 7 years old, riding his bicycle to the airport in Mexico City to watch the planes take off and land, and dreaming of becoming a pilot, the star that would one day grant his wish was his godfather, John Wayne.
“My father was Mr. Wayne’s business manager in Mexico, that’s how he came to be my godfather,” Reyes explained. “I will always call him Mr. Wayne – never John Wayne or the Duke,” he added.
Carlos Senior started as a taxi driver and built a very successful career. He bought a taxi from a hotel and started providing the best customer service possible for tourists. “My father recognized the importance of learning English. He only had a grammar school education, but he learned to speak English very well,” Reyes said.
“In 1937 Mr. Wayne came to Mexico to look for locations for movies. My father was the only taxi driver who spoke English so he was assigned to Mr. Wayne.”
Wayne needed a landscape suitable for shooting western movies, so they went to Durango and made arrangements to buy a ranch there.
During that scouting trip for locations, Mr. Wayne asked Carlos Sr., to take him to an authentic Mexican restaurant. They went to El Carlitos restaurant and cantina.
Reyes relayed the story his father had told him, “As they were leaving, three drunks came out and pushed Mr. Wayne. He didn’t do anything but my father told them to back off. One of them said, ‘Shut your mouth or I will kill you and the Gringo too.’ He cocked his gun and went to shoot but my father knocked the rifle barrel out of the way and the bullet hit one of the other drunk men. My father grabbed a chair and hit the other man in the face. From that point on, Mr. Wayne trusted my father because he had saved his life.”
Carlos Sr, built up his taxi business to include five cars with licensed, respected drivers. Because of his contacts with Mr. Wayne’s associates, he had an opportunity to go to Hollywood and work in the movie business. It was 1942 when Carlos was born. One month later, his mother died and his father sent him to live with his grandmother and aunts in Mexico, but John Wayne became a frequent visitor to Mexico and the Reyes family.
He bought property in Durango, Monterrey and Acapulco, all in the name of Carlos Reyes Bernal because foreigners were not allowed to own property in Mexico at the time. On one of those trips, Mr. Wayne was asked to be Carlos Jr.’s godfather and he accepted, creating a lifetime friendship.
“Every time he came to Mexico to do movies, I was with him,” Reyes said. “He showed me how to ski, ride horses, shoot guns, and I follow the way he was to this day. He even wanted me to become an actor, but that wasn’t for me. I wanted to fly.
“Every time I had a chance, I told Mr. Wayne I wanted to be a pilot. He told me, ‘Once you are of age, we’ll take care of that.’”
Reyes finished high school in 1959, giving much time to learning English because it is the international language of aviation. When he told his father he now wanted to go to pilot school, both his father and grandmother said no. They told him to go to college and Mr. Wayne agreed. “He told me you aren’t of the age to fly commercially yet, so go to college for a year or two.”
He completed his first year of college and agreed to do one more. After his second year, he told his father he was going to pilot school and again his father said no, so he turned to John Wayne for support.
“Mr. Wayne talked to my dad. That was the only time I heard them argue,” Reyes recalled. “Afterward I told Mr. Wayne I was going away from home. He told me to go to the Western Airlines office and ask for the manager, Mr. Enriques. He will give you a ticket from Mexico City to Los Angeles. My secretary will wait for you at the airport. You must take your passport with you.”
He told his father he was leaving, took his passport from the family papers and packed. “I had one peso and 25 cents in my pocket. I took three buses to the airport. When I got there I had 25 cents. I asked for Mr. Enriques. He gave me my ticket, and took me to the airplane. Can you imagine my excitement when I got on that plane?
“My first flight. I wanted to cry. I thought, God I want this, I need this. I cannot live without this.
“Seated in first class, I was looking into the cockpit until my neck hurt. I didn’t feel any (fear) on takeoff. I just couldn’t believe it. The three-hour flight seemed about two minutes. I enjoyed the landing very much. That was the first time I heard reverse thrusters and I thought, this is not normal,” Reyes said with a grin.
The flight attendant took him to the first-class passengers lounge where Mr. Wayne’s secretary, Mary St. John met him. That day he met Michael, Toni, Melinda and Patrick, John Wayne’s first four children. For the next three years he would live with Wayne family members, attending pilot school in the San Fernando Valley.
Michael and Patrick were driving him where he needed to go – out to the valley, to Mrs. Wayne’s house in Highland, to the offices in Hollywood.
“One Monday, Michael drove me to Mrs. Wayne’s house. Outside was a 1965 red convertible Mustang. I thought to myself, ‘Someday I will have one of those.’ Then Mr. Wayne said, ‘That’s for you.’ I didn’t even know how to drive.”
Wayne made it clear, however that “nothing is for free. You are going to pay me for everything you do here. You are going to be in charge of my fan mail; oh, and also Kirk Douglas’s and Fred MacMurray’s fan mail.”
Beginning then, he would pick up the mail and with Mary St. John sign pictures and reply to mail. Each week he received his paycheck for that work and an allowance from Mr. Wayne. “I never spent a penny of my allowance, I just put it away,” Reyes said.
Wayne had told him that he was expected to get good grades and to not be lazy – he listened. He took his first solo flight after six hours and earned fixed-wing, and helicopter certifications, multi-engine and instrument ratings and finished at the top of his class.
In 1965, on the day of his graduation, Wayne was filming “In Harm’s Way.” Reyes’ father knew where Carlos was but didn’t know that he was going to flight school, so Reyes was alone at the ceremony. The names were read for all the graduates, but not Reyes.
“I thought something was very wrong,” Reyes said. “After he read all the names, the director of the school presented a special award to an instructor who was retiring after 50 years of service and to the school’s first female instructor. Then he said, ‘The last award is for a Mexican national who is the best student we have ever had – the first to fly solo with only six hours’ flying time.’
“But no one was there to hear it. My family was not there. I was disappointed, I wanted to cry, when suddenly I heard Mexican Music – mariachis,” Reyes said, wiping a tear from his eye.
“Mr. Wayne brought mariachis to my graduation. They gave the wings to Mr. Wayne and he put them on me and they repeated what they had said earlier. More important than the wings was having him hear what they had said about me.”
Wayne had stopped shooting the movie to be there that day, but had to get back on location. “Before he left he said, ‘Promise me that you will keep flying, stay the way you are now, remember you always have a friend and you are part of my family.’”
About a year later, Reyes was asked to fly to Phoenix to pick up some of Mr. Wayne’s associates and take them to Los Angeles. When the company pilot took a break from the cockpit, one of the passengers came up to the left-hand chair and sat down. When they looked at each other, both were shocked.
Carlos Sr., looked at his son and said, “What the hell?” Reyes answered, “Thanks to Mr Wayne, I became a pilot.” To which his father said, “You should have told me.” Reyes replied, “No you didn’t want me to be a pilot,” but he could see the pride in his father’s face and felt good to have him know.
Reyes flew for a commercial airline for 23 years and became a simulator instructor for the Airbus and Boeing 777. He flew fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters for private companies as well. Though he is still recruited as a simulator instructor, he said he thinks he’ll retire and spend more time with his family.
He and his beautiful wife Julieta have three grown daughters, Karla in Denmark who works as a customer service manager, Gabriela who is in online marketing, graphic design and is a certified English teacher, and Julie who is an English and third grade teacher at the Puerto Peñasco Montessori School.
He also has two grandsons, Maximo and Carlos Alfonso Valezqeuz, the sons of Julie and Alfonso Valezquez, owner of the Healthy Kitchen restaurant in Peñasco.
Always a part of the Wayne family, Reyes was with them in 2007 when John Wayne lost his battle with cancer.
“After my graduation from flight school, I gave Mr. Wayne all of the allowance payments he had given me over the years. He couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘You told me nothing is free.’ He took it and when he died, it was returned to me through his will.”
Though Captain Carlos Reyes Contreras had help from a star, it was his own “true grit” and focus on his goal, that turned his dream into his reality – a life soaring in the clouds and a true hero to thank.