I didn’t have to make the flight to Barrow. It would have been easier to turn around in Dead Horse with a cabin full of frostbitten campers and head back to Fairbanks, but I had a job to do, one I hate. I had a pilot in Barrow who was having problems. I had gotten a call from a friend at the FAA in Anchorage that a pilot, Charlie Perkins, was reported to be drunk and erratic by two controllers and a passenger.
Charlie wasn’t some unknown walk-on; we went way back. I met him first in basic at San Diego NAS back in ’67. We flew together in ‘Nam. This was going to be difficult.
I lifted off from Dead Horse in the old “819,” an R4D-6 that I had been able to purchase at a ridiculous price thanks to a windfall we got on the sale of some tubes. “R4D” is the Navy designation for the Douglas DC-3, in case you’re curious. The R4D-6 is a later model with improved performance and range. It was 12 degrees below zero as I climbed into the arctic sky. I had a load of junk in the belly of the plane to pay for the flight, but this was a mission, and had the plane been empty, I would have made the flight anyway. The arctic sky is so extreme that it’s almost like being on another planet, and I looked out of the window and watched the surreal earth as I climbed to altitude. I leveled out and set the autopilot. I pulled out my iPhone and watched a few minutes of the Giants-Padres pre-season game, but my head just wasn’t into baseball.
I was mad. I was mad at the FAA for calling the question. I was mad at Charlie for making it necessary. I thought about the war, the bar fights and poker games. I thought about all the hot LZ’s we had flown into. I thought about Charlie. I knew he could fly better loaded than most people could sober, but he had lost his edge. It was showing, and people were getting scared. I have a whole organization to think about, not just one guy, regardless of the history.
I descended into Barrow immersed in the roar of the big Pratt & Whitney R-1830’s. I almost wished the town wouldn’t be there so I wouldn’t have to carry out this unpleasant errand, but it was, just where I left it – touch down and taxi, and I was at the hangar. I shut down the old bird and exited onto the tarmac. It was cold as Hell. Even in a fur-lined flight jacket, the wind cut like a knife. I knew he would be in the hangar. I don’t know how I knew, but I guess knowing someone for a long time gives you an intuition about things. My glove stuck to the doorknob as I opened the door. It was cold. I went inside and he was sitting there at the mechanic’s bench. He gave a mock-Nazi salute, “All hail mighty grand poo-bah senior command pilot.”
“That’s not necessary,” I said.
“I know why you’re here. I’m in trouble, aren’t I?”
“Yes, you’re grounded immediately, until further notice.”
“That means I’m fired.”
“Pretty much,” I said. This was every bit as unpleasant as I thought it would be.
He looked up at me. His eyes were bloodshot and tired, “You remember that time in Bangkok when I pulled you out of the bar because you were going to take out the whole place because some whore spit on you, and the shore patrol got us in the parking lot, and we spent a week in the brig before the master chief got us out with some bogus documents?”
“Yeah, he was an artist.”
“I saved your life that time,” he said and turned a carburetor over on the bench.
“Maybe. I still think I could have taken them.” I said.
“But the best was Khe Sanh. We were the last flight to land, and we smoked a bong coming in and the gooks punched a hole in the rudder with some AAA. You didn’t even break a sweat. That’s why you were always in the left seat – Mr. Ice Water Veins.”
“I was scared shitless, and that whole thing was stupid. What was I supposed to do?”
“Just what you did: you got us out of there like you always do.”
“You’re not making this any easier,” I said, searching the rafters with my eyes.
“I don’t intend to,” he answered.
“Let’s get you back to Anchorage. You can do detox there. If you clear your medical, you can have your job back,” I said.
“I don’t wanna’ go back to Anchorage. I wanna’ get drunk.”
“You can get drunk, or you can fly for EVA, but you’re not going to do both.”
“You’re a self-righteous pain in the ass,” he said as he lit a cigarette.
My patience was wearing thin, “And you’re a burned out old drunk who’s pushing his luck. Come on. Let’s go back to Anchorage. I’ve got the Candy Bomber. It will be like old times.”
“Really? An R4D?” his eyes lit up.
“Yeah, and it’s a peach. You gotta’ see it.” In a twinkling, the burned out old drunk was gone. Charlie was on his feet like a puppy expecting a walk in the park. He put on his jacket and headset. We walked quickly to the plane. It was so frickin’ cold. We followed the last of 18 passengers onto the plane. I told the co-pilot, a nice but clueless kid from Unalakleet, to sit in the passenger cabin, but to stay alert in case I needed him. “Come on up to the flight deck,” I said to Charlie.
I grabbed the mic and keyed the intercom, “Folks, please find a seat and belt up so I can fire up the bird and get the heaters running, and thanks for flying Eagle Valley Air. The weather is great today and we’re expecting a smooth and fast flight to Unalakleet.” I knew Charlie wouldn’t be any help on the pre-flight, but I had it down pretty well. #1 fired right off. #2 was fussy and I had to prime and count the rotations, but at seven it fired. I turned on the “no smoking” and seatbelt signs, and turned up the cabin heat as far as it would go. “Tower, N262EG, clearance to Unalakleet.”
“N262EG cleared to Unalakleet. Taxi to runway 8 and hold short… and good luck with you know what.”
“Roger that, Tower.”
“Wow, this is just like D-Day,” Charlie said.
“I told you it was a peach.” We climbed out of Barrow through frozen air. At 10K ft. I leveled off, set the autopilot, turned the supercharger blowers to high, and turned off the seatbelt and “no smoking” signs.
Charlie looked at me and said, “You wanna’ smoke a bowl?”
“We have 18 passengers onboard, and I swear to God…”
I really don’t want to write like you as beautiful as it is,
too much pain, too much semen and maggots and blood.
I read you like a junkie shooting up, a rush to the brain.
When I was young I was cute with great hair
and the girls loved me, and I didn’t get turned down
for jobs or sex or clubs I wanted to get into.
My skin was clear. I didn’t suffer your crucifixions.
I was tough and mean with very fast fists,
and no one picked on me because I would hurt them
without even thinking. Not proud of that.
It was simply the way it was for a southern boy who
understood the brutal truths very early.
You were the kind of guy I felt sorry for, a pitiful loser,
foreigner, edge-liver, dredger of all that was ugly
and broken in the world, the ragged sax player on the corner
pumping out heart breaking jazz to the bus stop,
the indifferent traffic with windows rolled up in their oh so
precious cars, and bank clerks on the busses who
felt superior to you as the chrome beasts belched smoke.
Your reed was black with their smoke and still you
played on oblivious to their indifference, knowing in your heart
that your notes mattered, and you just didn’t give
a shit whether anyone was listening or not – you played.
I was not born with that courage or tolerance to pain.
I have a confession to make to you, and I hate confessions.
I believed the world about you, critics and small minds,
that you were the dirty old man who wrote about drunken
sex, vulgar roaches, ugly beaches and bars and whores
and everything that would make us awaken vomiting the horror,
and they were right, but they were so terribly wrong.
So terribly wrong. You were so tuned in, so engaged with what
the rest of us weren’t even seeing, feeling it all, like few
ever have and I thank whatever that I didn’t have to live in your
skin, or feel all of that. Feel all of that and shake.
Feel all of that and shake, the boil on your neck and the last beer
and cigar at three in the morning when no place is open.
You lived with a whore for ten years and loved her purely like an
Old Testament prophet, and when she finally died from
too much booze and life, you grieved for her for the rest of your life.
You wrote poems to her thirty years after she was gone,
poems that I read after you were gone, and I could feel her in them.
That is being a real man, even when you saw yourself as
a frightened child cowering in fear from the playground bullies,
those whose faces I would have broken with my hands.
Your love was so deep, so much deeper than my wicked hands,
so much deeper than Mozart, Faulkner or Freud.
You taught me something about loving people I won’t forget,
loving the broken, damaged, unlovable people.
I am bleeding now, my red life dripping onto the keyboard.
The cat bit me and the wound will not stop bleeding.
You loved cats, five as I recall. I don’t know what your cats
were like but mine is a ruthless killer who draws blood.
A friend of mine said, “You have to draw enough blood to
the surface that some of it comes off on the paper” – art.
Maybe that is why you loved the cats. Did they make you bleed?
Did you curse them in the night for the wounds they made?
Did you admire the purity of their cruel bloody fangs and claws?
Did you call them over to drink of your life as it spilled
onto the linoleum floor, the toaster, the sofa stained with beer?
My cat is in the alley right now because she knows I am mad.
Red and green and blue are safely locked in my head. Night returns with disease and obsession, obsessions. I draw a line on a dirty piece of paper. There is nothing on either side but I have created a boundary. I don’t feel any safer.
He walks to the back of the house without great conviction, out the back door to look at the alley. The painkiller makes his vision flicker around the edges. Painkillers are a gift from God when they are needed, and they are needed tonight.
The red is the blood. The green is the money. The blue is the sky. I think about a bourbon. That will surely put me away. I like the sound of ice cubes hitting the lead crystal rock glass. The red is the blood, the poison river, always escaping, falling, splashing.
He doesn’t try to count the city lights. There are too many and he dislikes them all. They hide the stars. He wanders rather than walking because he has no destination in mind. He breathes a word that only he understands. He exhales it.
I touch the steel because it is blue. I touch the skin because it is red. I touch the earth because it is green, but that is all. I am unavailable. Disconnect the phone because I know the danger. A song plays in my head that I don’t like.
He lights another cigarette and inhales deeply. Smoke trickles out of his mouth and nose, slowly, erotically. The smoke curls up around his face and into his hair. He pulls an old book from the shelf. Without even looking at the title, he begins to read.
This was our Saturday, at KLOU Bowman Field. This is my home field. I live about three miles from here. You will find a significant number of flights in and out of KLOU in VAFS. "Thunder Over Louisville" is part of the Kentucky Derby Festival and it is half air show and half fireworks. We rode our bikes over to the field to watch the planes. A member of the Vintage Warbirds invited us into their hanger. It was a magical day. Here are some pics.
Between young and old,
black and white,
rich and poor —
Between right and left,
gay and straight,
man and woman —
Between Inside and outside,
thought and feeling,
dreaming and waking —
Between now and then,
yesterday and today,
today and tomorrow —
Between them and us,
you and me
We need to build more bridges.
August 19, 2014