McCain's friends reminisce during ride on Straight Talk Express

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By Carol A. Clark

SANTA FE to ESPAÑOLA – As an infant living in Los Alamos prior to the start of the Manhattan Project, former Secretary of the Interior Manuel Lujan resided with his family in the area now occupied by the North Mesa horse stables.

Lujan, also a former New Mexico  Congressman, spoke of his life here and of his longtime friendship with presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., during an interview aboard the Straight Talk Express Thursday.

Lujan's father was a farmer. He also taught school in Santa Cruz and moved his family from Los Alamos to Santa Fe after the government condemned their property to make way for the Manhattan Project.

Lujan served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1969 to 1989 and recalled when McCain arrived in Congress in 1982. Lujan was already the senior Republican on the Interior Committee.

“We had a subcommittee on Indian Affairs that no Democrat wanted to chair so McCain, in his freshman year, became the only Republican chair in the whole congress,” Lujan said. “When we asked him to be chairman of that committee – he didn't hesitate. He does what has to be done and that's a good trait.”

Lujan served as Secretary of the Interior under President Ronald Reagan from 1989 to 1993 and represented New Mexico as a delegate to every Republican National Convention between 1972 and 2004.

Other friends participated in Thursday's “Victory 2008” bus tour including Frank Gamboa who shared a room with McCain from 1954 to 1956 at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

“John was a very confident guy ... and early on showed a very independent streak but he did it affably,” Gamboa said. “We maintained our friendship through the years and met up in Washington, D.C., after his horrible experience as a prisoner of war ... We started talking and it was as if we hadn't been apart. He never once mentioned being tortured. I told him my wife and I prayed for him everyday and he told me, 'I thought of you everyday pal.' Pal is his favorite name for friends.”

Maj. Gen. Albert Zapanta is president and CEO of the United States-Mexico Chamber of Commerce and chairman of the Hispanic War Veterans of America. He spoke of his 25-year relationship with McCain.

“I've worked on Mexican American issues with John McCain for many years,” Zapanta said, and two of his roommates were Hispanic, Frank Gamboa at the Naval Academy and Everett Alvarez, the longest serving prisoner of war who was John's roommate in the Hanoi Hilton. It's beyond me why New Mexico wouldn't all be for McCain with three of us Mexican-American veterans who are all for McCain.”

President Reagan appointed Zapanta to the Department of State Advisory Committee on International Trade Technology and Development from 1981-1987. President George W. Bush appointed him as a private sector delegate to the U.S. - Mexico Partnership for Prosperity from 2001-present. Zapanta’s military record includes the award of the Silver Star, five Bronze Stars for Valor, the Purple Heart and 10 other awards during the Vietnam War.

Rep. Larry Larranaga, R-Bernalillo, met McCain 10 years ago.

“What I see in Sen. McCain is integrity, honesty and a love for this country rather than for position, politics and power,” Larranaga said. “He understands New Mexico issues, which to me is very important in this election.”

George Weisz, senior assistant to Phoenix mayor Phil Gordon, has known McCain for 27 years and recalled his family helping McCain in his first campaign.

“Sen. McCain has incredible energy, vision, leadership and love for his country,” Weisz said. “He starts his day at 5 a.m. and goes to midnight every night and they talk about his age. He puts all of us to shame...mentally and physically he's at the top of his game.”

Gold Star dad Jim Spiri and Catholics for McCain co-chair Nina Martinez were also on the bus and spoke in support of McCain.

“I'm an independent for McCain, which is a whole lot different than an undecided,” said Spiri who lost one son, a Marine, to cancer and has another son on active duty. “My son is a helicopter pilot deployed four times, so we've got an interest in this game.”

Following the Española rally attended by some 50 people, the group climbed aboard the bus heading for stops in Socorro, Las Cruces and Albuquerque to address grassroots volunteers, participate in voter registration activities and speak to voters through Saturday.