He slides the old wallet into his pocket. It is a miracle of physics that its molecules still hold together. It is so old. He doesn’t remember now if he bought it or someone gave it to him. He thinks, “Time is evil.” Time takes away youth and beauty, and leaves in their place frailty and pain. He fumbles in his pocket for his car keys but then decides to walk. It is not a terrible day, warm and sunny. He lets himself out of the front door and deadbolts the lock.
Out on the sidewalk, he produces a cigarette from one pocket and a lighter from another. He lights it and drinks the smoke. He knows he should quit them, but he loves the smoke. He loves the taste and smell and the way tobacco makes him feel. He considers if life without cigarettes is worth living. This is an open question.
He wants something, but he doesn’t know what. Sex comes to mind quickly, as usual, but he isn’t sure if that is it. Sex is complicated, a lot of worry and maneuvering for a little bit of pleasure. He decides to go for coffee. He isn’t sure if coffee is what he really wants, but it is far less complicated than sex. He begins to walk. Four blocks away there is a coffee shop where college students mooch the wi-fi and nurse cold cups of coffee.
He begins to walk. The sun is hot and he seeks the patches of shade beneath the massive maple trees. There is a moment of coolness beneath the maples. He likes to walk. It makes him feel good and sparks his curiosity. He walks past houses he has passed a thousand times but every time he wonders about the people who live there, what their stories are, how life brought them to inhabit that particular structure, and what they do there when the shades are drawn.
There are angels standing on the rooftops. No one else can see them, of course. Actually, he can’t see them either, but he knows they are there. They have always been there, watching silently through every awkward moment. It creeps him out. He keeps on walking.
He thinks about The Day. It was a warm day in the summer, not unlike this one, the day when the police cars came, two to his house and two to the boy’s house. The police cars came to his house to stop his father from killing the boy. They went to the boy’s house to arrest him. That was fifty years ago and he was still thinking about it. He remembered every small detail of the gun belts the police officers wore – the large revolvers in their black leather holsters and extra cartridges in leather loops along the back, just like cowboys in the movies. He remembered thinking that when he grew up, he wanted a gun like that.
He is sweating now. The sidewalk is hot, but he keeps up his pace, walking briskly toward the coffee shop where the college students mooch the wi-fi. He steers for every patch of shade to escape the relentless sun. He finally stops, finding a place to sit down in the shade. He pulls another cigarette from his pocket and lights it. He inhales and feels the smooth wave of nicotine wash across his nervous system. There is a dead bluebird on the sidewalk, blue back and wings with an orange belly. He wonders what killed it and why it breathed its last on this piece of sidewalk.
It was his fault. He talked. He told Stewart and Stewart told his parents, and Stewart’s parents called his parents, and his parents called the police who came with their black leather gun belts and cars. He didn’t know that this would happen. He would have never said anything had he known what would happen. He wondered if the angels were watching. He wondered if the angels saw what he and the boy did. Someone said that the angels were blind because they could not bear to view human sin, but he didn’t believe that. Would the angels tell? Were they as stupid as he had been?
He looks up to the rooftops and catches an angel in the corner of his eye, but when he looks at it directly it is gone. He gets to his feet and begins to walk again. It feels like the sun is burning holes in his skin. He wears sunscreen, but he doesn’t believe in it. He doesn’t see how a little smear of cream can stop cosmic rays from scrambling the DNA of skin cells, but he wears it anyway because the doctor told him to. He thinks about baseball. Baseball is his favorite diversion. He can watch it mindlessly for hours without the slightest regard for who is playing or who is winning. It really doesn’t matter. He watches the handsome young men with their bats and gloves, pitching and catching, hitting and running. The head games the managers play against each other fascinate him.
The boy was sixteen and he had a pet raccoon. He would go over to see the boy and play with the raccoon. His parents would be working and the house would be empty. Eventually they would go inside and things would happen. The boy would ask him to take off his clothes, and he would touch him in ways that felt really good. He had never felt those sensations before. He was only seven, but he liked the things the boy did. He didn’t know that what they did was wrong, that the police would come with their cars and leather gun belts if anyone found out. He never saw the boy again. The police took the boy away, and his family moved to a different town a few months later.
What do the angels see with their blind eyes? He knows now that what he wants he can never have. There has been too much time and he could never find him. He wants the boy to forgive him for being stupid, for talking, for ruining his life. He pushes open the door of the coffee shop. It is cool and dark. He steps to the counter and orders a cup of Columbian. The boy working the counter is cute and friendly and he gives him a dollar tip on a two dollar cup of coffee.
I was sitting in the Air America bar at “Alternate” also known as Long Tieng. Long Tieng was the stronghold of General Vang Pao, leader of the Meo army in northern Laos. Long Tieng was also a secret U.S. airbase used by the ultra-secret Raven forward air controllers (FACs) and my employer at the time, Air America. I had delivered a couple of FNG’s (figure it out) to their new assignment in a Volpar Twin Beech, and I was waiting for a dispatch for the return flight. I was feeding quarters into the juke box and playing Rolling Stones tunes. I found out later that it would play whether you put money in it or not. All they had was Vietnamese beer which I hate, but beer is beer, and even Vietnamese beer is better than no beer at all.
A little kid, couldn’t have been more than 14, came into the bar. He was wearing a set of tiger stripe BDU’s, which were too big and seemed to engulf his slight frame. He was packing an M-16. “Vang Pao see you now. You come with me,” he said. You didn’t turn down an invitation from Vang Pao, and besides, the General’s headquarters was always interesting. At least I wouldn’t have to finish that wretched beer.
Vang Pao greeted me warmly, “Captain Weedon, good of you to come. Please sit down. Would you like a drink?”
“A beer would be nice.” He made a quick gesture toward one of the guards who disappeared and returned in a few minutes with two ice-cold Pearls. “General, you’re a man after my own heart.” He laughed and lit a cigarette. He took a deep drag, looked up at the ceiling and exhaled.
“Is it well with your family?” he asked.
“You know I don’t have a family, General.”
“Better than that, I’m dead.”
“You look good for a dead guy.”
“I bet you say that to all the girls.” He looked at me strangely and then he got the joke and laughed.
“You are a spirit, then? This is why you so lucky?” It was my turn to laugh.
“So, are we here to discuss my health?”
“I need favor, Captain,” he said.
“Always happy to do favors for generals, sir. What is it?”
“My nephew, Vu Li, is commander at Xieng Khouang. Base is in danger – overrun by Pathet Lao. You evacuate Vu Li. All Ravens out working.”
“No, just him,” Vang Pao said. Those words fell on my ear with a sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach. Vu Li was abandoning his command. Everyone would be shooting at us on that takeoff. Without some extraordinary luck, those left behind would not be getting out. I took my leave of Vang Pao and walked back to the airfield. I found the air boss and filled him in on the deal. He told me to take the Bird Dog with the least holes in it. I found one and gassed it up. The Ravens had more planes than pilots. There was no advantage to be gained with the speed of the Volpar Beech, so it was pointless to risk the more expensive airplane. The Bird Dog would be quieter and a smaller target. In fifteen minutes I was launching and on my way to Xieng Khouang. At 10,000 feet I leveled off and cleaned up. I fiddled with the throttle and trim until I had the plane in level flight. The Bird Dogs didn’t have autopilots. You flew them by hand. I found myself thinking that what I really wanted was to be sitting in my car at an A&W drive-in with a real hamburger, fries and root beer.
Xieng Khouang was only about twenty minutes by air from Long Tieng. Soon, I was lining up for my landing. I didn’t request clearance; I didn’t want to notify anyone that I was coming in. Before I could clearly see the runway, I was already seeing little points of light that bloomed and then faded. Damn, mortars. This is going to be interesting. As I got closer, the whole place seemed to be on fire. There was a B-52, hull down off the side of the runway and burning. I came in steep and hot, applying just enough flaps to keep from going over-speed. I dived for the runway and flared only at the last second. The airframe creaked and groaned. A landing like that is hard on the plane, but it makes you a much harder target. As soon as my wheels touched the pavement, the radio crackled, “Raven, hold position.”
“Roger, tower.” Like bloody hell. I kept moving. I didn’t want someone sighting me in with a mortar. Soon, I saw a jeep racing and weaving toward the runway through the columns of smoke. I kept driving until I was near the end of the runway, and I turned the plane around. The jeep caught up with me. I stopped the plane and hopped out. All the Meo looked small in stature to me, but Vu Li looked really small. He was wearing tiger stripe BDU’s with no sign of rank, a boonie and a pair of aviator shades that were too big for him, as if this lame disguise would keep his troops from knowing he had run out on them. I really respected the Meo, but I felt nothing but contempt for this guy. The driver scurried over to the plane with a couple of small bags, but Vu Li just stood by the jeep, almost at attention. “What’s his problem?” I yelled over the noise of the engine and the incoming. Three mortar shells landed in a pattern two hundred yards up the runway.
“He wait for you salute him,” the driver said. For the love of Pete…
“I’m a civilian. I don’t salute people,” I yelled.
“He wait,” the driver shouted back. Great. I can leave without him and disappoint Vang Pao, or… oh, hell… I turned and snapped a quick salute to the little twerp. He bolted to the plane. I got him belted in and motioned for him to put on the headset. I swung myself into the seat and looked at the driver who watched us, probably spending his last hour on this earth. I pointed at the hills to the west and yelled, “Go.” Then I saluted him. He was the only guy there who really deserved it. I went to full throttle and 30 degrees of flaps. We rattled down the runway toward the thickest part of the mortar barrage. The Bird Dog climbs well and I wanted altitude. A couple of small arms rounds thunked into the fuselage, but nothing serious, nothing that couldn’t be fixed with hurricane tape. Once airborne, I banked the plane to the west, away from the barrage.
“You not say nothing about this,” he said.
“My lips are sealed.”
“Americans all lie.” I didn’t like his tone. I was really working with the plane to get altitude as quickly as I could, and get out of the range of the small arms fire and RPG’s. The air was cool and I was getting good power from the engine. As the fear of ground fire faded, my anxiety about the nervous little man in the back seat grew. Not only had he failed to defend his post, he had run out on his men. He had lost face in a big way. He probably wasn’t eager to face Vang Pao either. I climbed the plane to 10,000 feet and leveled out.
I had just turned the plane toward the southeast, toward Long Tieng, when Vu Li said, “You go China.”
“China is a terrible place,” I said. “Not enough women and the beer is awful.”
“You go China now!” he yelled into the mike.
“My orders are to bring you to Long Tieng, sir.”
“New orders. China,” he yelled.
“Did I neglect to mention how we’ll both spend the rest of our natural lives in a Chinese prison camp?” I felt something hard poking the back of my head. “You go China now. I kill you.” I assumed the hard thing was a pistol. “You have a bit of a logic problem there, cowboy.”
“No more talk. Go now,” he shouted into the microphone.
“You got it, Colonel.” I went to idle power, pulled the nose up, and as the plane went into a stall, I kicked hard right rudder, putting the plane into a shallow spin. We would do spins on long recon sorties just to break up the monotony. I knew exactly how long I could spin the plane before I had to pull out. Vu Li didn’t know this.
“You stop. You stop now,” he screamed.
“You know, you’re really loud.”
“You stop now. I shoot.”
“There’s that logic problem again. Give me the gun.”
“You fly China,” he screamed again.
I watched the altimeter – 6,000 feet, “The ground is coming up mighty fast, Colonel.” The spiral continued.
“OK, OK!” With some effort, he pushed the pistol forward against the Plexiglas of the port side window. I grabbed it with my left hand. It was a clean Browning Hi-Power, a 9mm favored by the commandos. It would bring $200 in Udorn. I kicked opposite rudder, that is, away from the spin, and pushed the nose down. The plane yawed, and then slowly straightened out into a dive. I pulled up about a thousand feet above the treetops. I think Vu Li must have fainted or something because I didn’t hear anything more from him.
Long Tieng is a natural fortress because it sits in the bottom of a bowl formed by a high valley surrounded on all sides by 7,000 foot mountains. It almost always snagged the fog making landings tricky, but today it was fairly clear. I crested the ridge and the runway looked really small down in the basin. I eased back on the throttle and began the downhill run. I keyed the mike, “Tower, this is 44 coming in.”
“44, you are cleared to land.” As usual for Long Tieng, I was coming in too fast. I went to sixty degrees of flaps which caused the plane to buck, but then it settled down and slowed. At 75 knots I went back to thirty degrees of flaps and the plane sunk gradually onto the runway. We coasted to a stop and I saw two jeeps sitting at the end of the runway. As we drew closer, I could see Vang Pao sitting in one jeep surrounded by a detail of bodyguards. He wasn’t smiling. I pulled off of the runway and the bodyguards circled the plane. A couple of them pulled Vu Li out of the plane and put him into the other jeep, the one that Vang Pao wasn’t in. The jeeps fired up and were gone, bouncing away between the buildings toward Vang Pao’s headquarters.
By the end of the week, Vu Li had defected to the Pathet Lao. Two months later, he was killed in a Raven-directed air strike. I heard back-channel that the air strike was personally ordered by Vang Pao.
[Editor’s Note: This story is fiction. While Vang Pao was a real person, Vu Li was not. To the best of my knowledge, Gen. Vang Pao never ordered an air strike on one of his own nephews.]
This is a story my dad told me…
I was sitting in Sloppy Joe’s in Key West one afternoon playing chess for beers with old Roscoe. He couldn’t beat me to save his life, but that didn’t stop him from trying. A large man wearing a Stetson fedora entered the bar and strode to the table where we sat. It was Papa. I was two moves away from a mate and a cold beer as Roscoe strained his meager mental resources trying to fend off his inevitable doom. “Pilot, I need conveyance to Bimini immediately.”
“I’m busy,” I said. He tossed a wad of bills wrapped in a rubber band into the middle of the chess board. “OK, maybe I’m not so busy. Right now?”
“Right now,” he replied. “I have an artist friend in trouble on Bimini.”
Roscoe’s eye’s lit up, “Default?”
“Default,” I said.
“I knew I could beat you,” he crowed.
“You didn’t beat me. This world famous celebrity needs a flight and he’s paying cash.”
“I beat you.”
“In your dreams.” I got up and went over to the bar and asked for the phone. I dialed our crew chief at Key West and asked him to prep the Twin Beech for a flight to Bimini. Within a half hour we were taxiing to runway 9. Often when I only have one passenger, they will ask to sit in the copilot seat, but Hemingway didn’t. He settled into one of the cabin seats and began busily scribbling away on a notepad. What a strange man he was, I thought. I had heard the stories about him. I hadn’t read any of his books – too busy, I guess – but I knew the literary world considered him the cat’s meow.
I got clearance and the D18 roared down the runway. I loved the D18. For its time, it was the most advanced airliner in the world – fast and capable, and I felt like I could do almost anything with it. I had cut my teeth on Tiger Moths and Stearmans, and compared to those, the D18 was like a space ship. You had to earn its respect and it didn’t suffer fools gladly.
I climbed out over Key West NAS and tuned my navigational radios. At 4,000 feet I began to lean the engines. I would cruise us across south Florida at 7,000 feet.
At cruising altitude, I fiddled with the engines, tuning props and mixture until the engines had a musical hum and we settled into a smooth 160 knots TAS. I had just finished trimming her out for level flight when I heard the unmistakable sound of the opening of the cabin door. For the love of God… I set the autopilot and unhooked my harness. I stepped back into the cabin, and there was Papa, holding the door open with the wind whipping his hair wildly. The door of the D18 opens toward the wind, and I don’t see how he was able to do it, but he was standing in door, holding it open and laughing into the roaring wind.
“Close the f*****g door,” I screamed into the roar, “You’re going to kill us both,” but he just laughed.
“I will be the lover of the sky,” he yelled.
“Not on my airplane you won’t,” I yelled back. He laughed again.
“I will be the father of sky children,” he yelled.
This S.O.B. is crazy. If he could get that door open, there would be no man-handling him. He was strong as an ox. I could feel the pitch of the plane change as our movements altered the center of gravity of the bird. I unholstered the Government Model .45 that I wore in a shoulder holster under my jacket. “Ernest, I order you, as commander of this vessel to close the damned door and take a seat.”
He thought this was really funny, “Ah, what a glorious way to die, Lover of the Sky! Shoot, pilot, shoot.”
Silly me. I keep forgetting who I’m talking to. I stepped up right behind him and shoved the muzzle of the big .45 into his right butt cheek. Over the roar of the engine, I yelled, “OK, Ernest. I’m not going to kill you. I’m just going to put a 230 grain hardball through your ass, and you won’t be able to sit down for a month. It’s going to hurt like hell. Now, are you going to sit down?”
“You have the soul of an old maid,” he said.
I clicked the safety off with my thumb, “Last chance.”
“All right, all right. It must be hell to spend one’s life with the instincts of a librarian.”
“I have a set of handcuffs. Do I need to use them, or will you behave yourself?”
He plopped down into his seat, “Yes, ma’am.”
I went back to the cockpit and strapped in. The plane had climbed three thousand feet. I put the plane into a shallow descent and looked back over my shoulder. Papa was happily scribbling away, the poetic frenzy apparently passed.
We hadn’t flown five minutes when I felt the nose pitch down slightly which said to me that the load had shifted. It could only mean that Papa was moving around. I put my hand on the grip of my pistol while holding the yoke steady with my left.
“May I join you, pilot,” he yelled over the roar of the engines. “I promise to behave myself, scout’s honor.” I motioned for him to sit down and put on the headset. “You know, you probably saved my life back there,” he said.
“Correction: I saved my own life. You were just an unfortunate bystander.”
He laughed at that. “A man in my profession must live on the edge.”
“If that’s anything like crazy as a bed bug, I’d call it ‘mission accomplished.’”
“You’re a hard man, pilot.”
“Not really, just not tired of living yet. Are you feeling depressed?”
“Old and past your prime?”
“Yes.” He looked down at his massive hands for a while and didn’t say anything. Then he raised his eyes and began scanning the endless ocean below us. The introspection had been forgotten. Something else commanded his over-active imagination.
“What are you looking for?” I asked.
“U-Boats. I want to catch a U-Boat. These waters are thick with the Nazi vermin.”
“And what are you going to do with it when you catch it? Pee on the hubcap?”
“I aim to sink it – send the Nazi swine to Davy Jone’s Locker…” With both hands he simultaneously reached into the big pockets of his safari vest and produced four live hand grenades, two in each hand. “…with these.”
Sweet Mother of God… and to think, I gave up a chess game with Roscoe for this. He threw his head back and laughed that crazy laugh again, the laugh he had at the open door.
“You can’t sink a U-Boat with a hand grenade,” I said.
“Au contraire, I have studied the matter in some detail. They have some thin metal on the conning tower, but your timing must be perfect. You must see them all the time.”
“Not really. Most of the time I’m busy with not becoming fish food and getting people where they need to go.” To tell the truth, I was lying. I had seen a half dozen Unterseeboot in the last week, but I didn’t want to feed the craziness. Maybe we’d get lucky and not see one. They didn’t like the broad daylight, preferring the dim visual confusion of the early evening. The U-Boats would surface and sink their prey with their deck gun. Shells are cheaper than torpedoes. They would save the torpedoes for cruisers and battleships.
“Are all of you guys this crazy? Faulkner? Fitzgerald? Lewis? Dos Passos?”
“They’re worse,” he said. “Well, maybe not Lewis, but he’s boring.”
He looked down at the grenades in his hands, “We don’t have to discuss this when we get to Bimini, do we?”
“I’ll tell you what. You put the grenades away and I’ll have the best damned case of amnesia you ever saw.” Back into the pockets went the grenades. The powerful radial engines throbbed, filling with their thunder the space that would have otherwise been an awkward silence.
“I have come to understand that the act of recording, be it the written word, image, sound or video is an important and valuable thing in itself. I have gigabytes of still pictures and I don’t regret shooting a single one. I only regret the pictures I didn’t take and the journal entries I was too busy to write. The funny thing about my mind is that I’m really pretty smart when it comes to understanding things, but my memory isn’t worth a damn. If I don’t shoot a picture, jot down a journal entry or something, I lose it…”
This is a collection of my recent creative work in writing, photography and graphic art. I hope you enjoy it.
Topics: Singular Vision, Remembering and Recording, Dying, Mt. Carmel, Doug’s Spurs, Inner Fires, I want to go moose hunting with Sarah Palin, Heaven Bends Close, Thinking about the Beats, Art, Graphics, Photography, Poetry
The phone woke me up really early. Three guys just had to get to Dominica right now. Honestly, I did not want to take the flight. I had been up way too late last night and the only plane I had on Antigua at the moment was a pokey little Skyhawk. These guys would not be deterred. They offered me $25,000 to fly them to Dominica. "A fool and his money…" I agreed, pulled myself together, and caught a taxi out to the airfield.
Three young men were waiting for me at the plane. They were all dressed alike: black slacks, white shirt, black tie. Oh great, Mormons.
"You guys haven’t done anything illegal like recently robbing a bank or something have you?" They assured me that they hadn’t broken any laws, so we loaded them into the bird and fired her up.
"Tower, November 3-9 Echo Golf, Clearance to Canfield."
"November 3-9 Echo Gold, Cleared to Canfield."
I climbed the C172 to 5,000 feet, which takes a while, but the little bird is delightfully steady in the thermals. The weather was fairly decent with a few spots of turbulence but no serious storms. The sun rose as I climbed.
Despite my best efforts, I picked up that they were on their "mission" and they were on their way to Dominica to convert the "natives" to their religion. I thought, Yeah, the Santaria guys are going to love this.
I really hoped they’d forget that I was in the plane, but eventually the inevitable happened. The kid in the copilot seat said, "Sir, have you heard the Good News of Jesus Christ?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact, I have. Nice guy meets terrible end, rises from the dead and freaks everybody out. Got it."
"Oh, but there is so much more than that," said the young man. "Have you heard of the Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints?"
"You mean the guys who wear funny underwear? Yeah, I have."
"We wear our prayer garments as a sign of our devotion."
TMI. "You know, I have been feeling kind of suicidal lately, and considering that I have my hands of the yoke of this plane, if I were you, I wouldn’t want to say anything that might push me over the edge, like this religious talk."
"God will protect us," he said.
I turned to him and looked him in the eyes, and in my best Jack Nicholson said, "Well, would you like to meet Him?"
"Well, uh… yes, but… maybe not right now."
"Good. There might be some hope for you yet. Now, shut the hell up."
"Yes, sir." The rest of the flight was uneventful. I am sure my young charges spent the rest of the flight praying for my lost soul. ATC brought us in over the mountains which is always fun. I guess the winds were too strong to approach from the sea.
I was sitting in the coffee shop at Nassau International. I had just come from Dr. Paine’s office. The news wasn’t great. Blood pressure, blood sugar and triglycerides were all elevated. I’m sure EVA had nothing to do with it, but he had put me on the “anything you really want to eat, don’t eat it” diet. So, I was staring at a bowl of cottage cheese trying to use The Force to turn it into a plate of French fries. It wasn’t working. My iPhone started playing “The Flight of the Valkyries” and I had only assigned that ring tone to one number, Esmeralda, our dispatcher at King.
“Talk to me, darling”
“I have a flight for you, Senor.”
“Sorry, luv, we’re socked in here.”
“It is VIP Priority One, Senor,” she replied.
“Who is it? Trump?”
“It is Mrs. Cleenton.”
“Aw, come on. Tell me you’re just really bored and playing with the radio.”
“I sheet you not.”
“Do you really mean Hillary freakin’ Clinton, Secretary of State of the United States?”
“Tell them I was kidnapped by Al Qaeda.”
“Pappy won’t buy that.” The weather was absolutely terrible. Lighting flashed in the windows and thunder shook the building.
“What did I ever do to you?”
“Usted tiene mi condolencia, Senor.”
“Tell them to meet me at the hangar in 15 minutes.” There was only one plane that would do this job, the Beechcraft Duke with the turbine engine modification. I needed something with the muscle to get above the clouds quickly, and fight the wind shear if necessary. I called our crew chief, Oliver, and told him to ready the plane. He answered with something cute like, “It’s a nice plane to die in,” but I ignored him.
The secretary of state arrived promptly with her entourage of sycophants and security. One young security dude strode up to me and said, “I need to see your credentials and log books.”
I told him, “If you don’t want to be walking perimeter patrol at the embassy in Zimbabwe, you will get out of my face.” He stared at me for a minute, but I guess he decided I wasn’t bluffing and got lost. There had to be thirty people in the hangar. The Secretary walked up to me and extended her hand.
“I’m Hillary Clinton.”
“Syd Weedon. Pleased to meet you. This really isn’t a good night for flying, Ma’am.”
“I know that. Bill is in Key West, and we have a date.”
“I can only take you and four others.” She conferred with her chief of staff and selected her, the press secretary, a reporter from the Washington Post, and the young security dude who had demanded my credentials. I got them all loaded into the plane. Hillary insisted on sitting up front in the copilot seat because she "wanted to see.” I lit up the Duke. “Clearance, N85EG to Key West.”
“N85EG, cleared to Key West, contact ground when ready to taxi. We have severe weather to the northeast.” I made the necessary magical passes and in a few minutes we were sitting on Runway 14 ready to take off. “Ma’am, do you see those clouds up there with all of the lightning and stuff? They’re full of hail and wind shear. Are you sure you want to do this?”
“I read your CV,” the Secretary said. “Is there anywhere you haven’t flown?”
“Brooklyn, Ma’am. I’ve never flown in Brooklyn. All the rest of that stuff was just beginner’s luck.”
“Khe Sahn?” she asked.
“Especially, Khe Sahn.”
Tower broke in, “N85EG, cleared for takeoff.”
“Last chance, Ma’am – do you really want to do this?”
“Fly your plane, pilot.”
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” I went to 95% throttle and the Duke roared down the runway. The lightning looked like artillery in the clouds. The Duke surged into the air aggressively. I set the climb for 1600 fpm, conservative, but I couldn’t be sure of what was waiting for me in the clouds. Up through the crap we climbed. Suddenly hail was pelting the wings and windshield. I turned on the deicer equipment. A bolt of lightning flashed across the windscreen and I thought for sure we were hit, but none of the warnings lit up. We were at 12,000 in eight minutes and I set the autopilot and eased back in my seat. My shirt was wet under my jacket. The air was still rough as hell even though we were above the clouds. The Duke bounced around like a cork.
“You don’t like me very well, do you Captain,” the Secretary said.
“I like you just fine, Ma’am.”
“No really, I can tell. You didn’t salute when I walked up to the plane.”
“I’m Navy, Ma’am. I don’t know what the Air Force does.”
“The Marines on the helicopter salute.”
“Yes, Ma’am. They are guards. The pilots are too busy for formalities. Is there a point to this?”
“I want to know what you’re thinking.”
“I flew contract cargo into Mogadishu in ’92 for the Marines. I’m not your husband’s greatest fan.”
“Oh, I see. But what does that have to do with me? I wasn’t president.”
“You were there. You were part of it. You guys wouldn’t send in adequate firepower because you didn’t want to ‘militarize the situation.’ Good men died for nothing.”
“We were new. We didn’t know…”
“Ma’am, for the sake of yourself and everyone else on this plane, just let me get us through this storm. What’s done is done. You can’t bring them back.”
“Does this plane always bounce around like this?”
“Only when the weather is really dangerous. I tried to warn you.”
“You guys don’t forget, do you,” she said.
“That’s not in the manual, Ma’am.” The weather was bad. It was like bouncing down a dirt road in a ’48 Chevy pickup. The secretary was pale, if not a little bit green. Miami Center began talking us down. I really didn’t like the idea of descending back into those clouds, but the Earth was down there someplace, and we had to find it. We broke below the ceiling at 2,500 feet and I could see Key West on the horizon. Center handed us off to Key West. “N85EG, cleared to land.”
“N85EG cleared to land.” I put down the gear and went to 10 degrees of flaps. RPM’s up, throttle down. The Duke was wonderfully solid, even in the lousy conditions.
“You guys have to learn to forgive us someday,” the Secretary said.
“I’ll work on that, Ma’am. Are you buckled up?” I lined up the Duke on the runway and reduced throttle even more. Twenty degrees of flaps. At ninety knots the plane settled onto the runway with an authoritative “clank.” It wasn’t necessary to use the thrust reversers. The plane coasted to a stop and I turned onto the taxiway. I drove to Gate 5. I shut down the engines, went back, opened the door, and stepped out to help people out of the plane. There was a long, black limo sitting on the tarmac. A rear window rolled down and I could see Bill Clinton’s face in the window. I didn’t salute him either.
This is a story my dad told me.
It was July 4, 1942, a month after the Battle of Midway. Things were looking up for us, but it was still shaky. Even after losing all of those carriers, the IJN was a wounded tiger, but still a tiger and it seemed like Russia would collapse any minute in the face of Operation Barbarossa. I was sitting in Sloppy Joe’s in Key West hoping Papa Hemingway would come in and liven up the evening when a couple of OSS guys came in, and made a bee-line to me. They always wore trench coats and fedoras. They were so obvious. They might as well been wearing sandwich boards saying, “SPIES.” They wanted me to fly to Bimini and pick up a Nazi spook who had jumped off of a U-boat and defected. I was to fly him back to Key Largo in the fastest plane I could find. At the time, that was the Lockheed L12A, a sleek 6-seater that could get 200 knots when the conditions were right.
That morning when I got dressed, I put my Government Model Colt .45 Auto in a shoulder holster under my flight jacket, and strapped .38 Special snub nose to my left calf in a leg holster that one of the local dicks had loaned me. I wasn’t taking any chances with this bastard. One false move and he was fish food. I really didn’t care. A Nazi is a Nazi, and the best Nazi is a dead one.
I dodged thunderstorm cells all the way out to Bimini. The weather wasn’t good. When I set the plane down at South Bimini and pulled up to the terminal, I really didn’t know what to expect. It’s a good thing it wasn’t 1944 after my brother was killed in France, because I would have shot the bastard on sight. He was standing there at the terminal in the same dumb trench coat and fedora that the OSS guys wore. I killed the engines, unhooked my harness and went back to open the door. Strangely, I offered him my hand to help him into the plane. “Danka,” he said.
“Take a seat,” I said. I got clearance to take off and taxied out to the runway. The big radials roared to life and soon we were sailing into the sky. I thought then that I should just shoot the bastard and push him out the door once we got over the water. I could tell the OSS guys that he gave me trouble.
“Captain, may I join you?” His English was perfect. He was behind my shoulder asking if he could sit in the copilot seat. “Sure, I love chatting with Nazis.” I’m thinking about how long it takes for my hand to move from the flight yoke to the .45 in my jacket.
“I am not a Nazi, Captain,” he said with a solemn tone.
“Sorry. Cheap shot. Do you have a name?”
“Walter,” he said.
“Ralph. Good to meet you. So why did you do it? I heard you jumped off of a U-Boat.”
“This is true. I was to be dropped off at Galveston to chart the shore batteries. You have some impressive guns there.”
“Yeah, we like guns. But, I mean, why? You know you’ll spend the rest of the war in an internment camp,” I said.
“Yes, I know. I cannot bear what is happening to Germany. The Fuhrer is mad.”
“No argument here.”
We sat in silence for a time. The sky floated by, dream-like. I didn’t know what to say to him. My instincts told me he was a decent guy caught in an impossible situation. “Do you like baseball?” I asked.
“Yes, I love the Yankees – Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio.”
“You have to find another team. Everybody loves the Yankees. Try the Dodgers or the Giants.”
“OK,” he said. “I will choose the Giants. They sound heroic. Dodgers sound like cowards.”
“They really aren’t a bad team, but I read you. Do you have a family?” His face dropped and he looked at the floor.
“I have a wife… and a young son.” You could hear the pain in his voice.
“Me, too,” I said.
“What is your son’s name?” he asked.
“Syd. I named him after the guy who had the best hi-fi system in Bryan, Texas.”
“So you like music? Sinatra, Tommy Dorsey? My son’s name is Walter, like mine. My family names all of its boys Walter.”
“Duke Ellington, Charlie Christian. Dorsey is OK. Sinatra is a pimp.”
“I did not know that,” Walter said.
“You heard it here first. Walter, I know a little airstrip in Cuba where I could drop you off. They don’t have any radios there. I could tell the spooks you jumped out of the plane and committed suicide.”
“’Spooks’ – this is a humorous expression, yes?”
“Your ‘spooks’ need to know what I know. Many lives could hang in the balance. I will go to Key Largo.”
“You’re all right, Walter. After the war, I’d like to buy you a beer.”
“I would like that. I suppose they don’t have Beck’s in your internment camp in Texas.”
“Maybe. I have a couple of friends in Washington who owe me. I’ll see what I can do.”
“That would be very kind. With a Beck’s I can endure almost anything.”
“I feel the same way about Lone Star.”
We ran out of things to talk about. We listened to the big Pratt & Whitney R-985 radials throb through the air. I have to admit that I was stunned by the man’s courage. He was ready to face anything to do what was right. He was a patriot in the truest sense of the word. The big .45 pressed against my ribs and I thought about how I was so ready to shoot him just a short time ago.
I tuned to Miami Center and began the process of descending down to Key Largo. Soon the plane would touch down, and this place would not exist anymore. Two men from opposite sides would go different ways. I would go back to the bar in Key West and Walter would go to a prison camp in Texas. In two years, my brother would be killed in France by Walter’s people.
I kept my word. After VJ Day, I called in some favors and got him out of the camp. I drove him to Austin and we had a beer.
Editor’s Note: This story is completely fictional. My father was not a pilot nor did ever threaten to shoot anybody, and I certainly was not around in 1942. There are elements of truth here from stories my dad told me from the WWII era. The purpose for putting it back in time was that I wanted to write a story using this great vintage airliner which is the same plane Rick put Ilsa on in the closing scene of Casablanca.