“I think I know what you guys think they are,” Lundahl said finally, referring to the small alien shapes in the photos, “and if I think they are the same thing and we both are right, we are sitting on the biggest story of our time.”
On Tuesday — 50 years and one day later — Brugioni, 90, sits at the kitchen table in his ranch-style home in Hartwood, Va., northwest of Fredericksburg. Before him, on the table, is a stack of enlarged photos, some of which he used to make three 20-by-22-inch briefing boards for President John F. Kennedy. The boards illustrated, simply and definitely, that the Soviets were positioning offensive missiles in Cuba.
And off went the Cuban missile crisis.
Outside Brugioni’s kitchen window, blue jays zip between orange-leafed trees on his grassy acreage. Fifty years ago could be yesterday.
“I had a cot next to my desk,” Brugioni says, a hint of his native Missouri in his strong voice. “And I was answering phones, but I also got down on my knees and prayed.”
His journey to that moment began decades earlier at a dairy in Jefferson City, Mo., where he worked for 10 cents an hour and saved $8 to buy his first camera. His grandfather had emigrated from Italy to work in coal mines; his father followed suit but wanted his sons to pursue above-ground careers. Brugioni went to college and enlisted in the Army Air Corps when World War II started. He flew 66 bombing missions and about 15 reconnaissance missions all across Europe, lying on his stomach in a B-25 at 5,000 feet, snapping photos of enemy troops.
“Only in America could an Italian coal miner’s son be given that kind of a privilege,” he says.
After the war, Brugioni couriered for the Tennessee Valley Authority to pay his way toward an international economics degree at George Washington University. He met his wife, Theresa, while on an errand at the Library of Congress, where she worked in the photo-duplication department. The first time he saw her, she was decorating an office Christmas tree. Her legs were at eye level, as he tells it, and that was that.
Brugioni joined the intelligence community in 1948, became an expert on Soviet industrial installations and, in 1955, a founding member of what would become the National Photographic Interpretation Center, which provided the intelligence community with visual analyses of foreign military installations, among other scenes. A sign fixed to the wall of the Fifth-and-K office outlined the mission in this new age of nuclear armament and electronic innovation: “Anticipate all problems prior to their occurrence.”