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.
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 Barrow 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 NVA 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.”
“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 got a call to pick up a couple of fares at Warm Springs Bay which is out on the island on the other side from Sitka. I got there early hoping to beat the low pressure system that was moving in from the Pacific. No joy. I sat at the dock for a solid hour waiting for my passengers to arrive. Eventually they showed up – a couple of wildlife photographers working on a commission from National Geographic. I thought that was kind of cool. I have had a warm spot in my heart for National Geographic since I was a kid because it was the only magazine where you could see women with no shirts on, at least it was the only one I could get my hands on. Gotta’ love the Bible Belt. Anyway, they tumbled into the plane with their gear and introduced themselves. Their names sounded Norwegian, and I didn’t even try to memorize them, but they seemed nice enough – hippie, greenie types, but they can be fun as long as they don’t try to push their religion on you.
I fired up the Skywagon, and taxied out into the bay. I had to adjust my altimeter three times because the pressure was dropping that fast. It wasn’t a good omen. The C185F doesn’t really have a lot of trouble with weather like this, but still, it’s dangerous; things can happen. Arne sat in the copilot seat with a camera that cost damn near as much as the airplane.
“This is cool. Have you ever flown in weather like this before?” he asked me.
“Yeah, a couple of times.” Idiot. Do you think I’m practicing on you? I climbed to 5,000 feet, hoping I could find a layer where the visibility was better, but it was solid. I didn’t have time to climb to 10 or 12 thousand feet, and there was no guarantee that things would be better when I got there.
Arne was in hog heaven. He was like a little kid. He shot pictures of me. He shot pictures of the instruments. He shot pictures of my feet on the pedals. He must have shot a whole memory stick of those same gray clouds on the other side of the window. Like, how many pictures of gray nothing do you really need? His buddy, Ronald was in the back seat, and not having near as much fun. I got the sense that he didn’t like airplanes very much, and would have been happy to wait for the next clipper ship that might happen by Warm Springs Bay. Arne asked me about every instrument on the console and how they worked. His enthusiasm was infectious and I found myself waxing professorial about whiskey compasses and automatic directional finders. Then I heard that familiar sound from the back seat: Ronald had heaved his breakfast.
“I charge extra to clean up the plane,” I said.
“Not to worry,” Arne replied. “I’ll take care of it.” I opened up the fresh air vent. “The fury of Nature,” Arne waxed poetic.
“No, just a normal day in the Alaskan Panhandle,” I replied.
“Is it like this a lot?”
“All the damned time. If you don’t like weather, this is a place to stay out of.”’
“I love weather,” Arne said, and he snapped a couple more pictures of the wooly gray clouds.
At about forty miles out from Pelican, I decided to drop down lower in the hope of getting just of a bit of visual. I eased down to 3,000 feet, and the bet paid off. At least I could see the water and fjord, and thus, had some hope of finding the LZ. As we broke under the clouds, Arne said, “Wow, that’s beautiful,” and snapped about twenty more frames.
Thirty miles out now, and I tuned to Pelican and radioed my position. Pelican is always busy and I listened to the chatter of Otters and Beavers making their approach into the airspace. Finally, Pelican came into view. It’s a strangely lonely kind of place that processes salmon and entertains fishermen. I disengaged the AP and began slowing the plane for the water landing: one click of flaps, rich mixture, reduce pitch, ease back on the throttle.
Arne aimed the camera at me and shot more frames, “Is this your life?” he asked.
“It’s part of it,” I answered. “Do you ever take pictures of women with their shirts off?”
He laughed, “Whenever I can.”
It was always the same dream: the wheels of the C-123 touch down on the dusty strip at Lao Trinh. A mortar round punches through the wing and the right side of the plane dissolves in flame… I awoke. I was sweating. It was 5:30 in the morning. There would be no more sleep tonight. I got up, lit a cigarette and opened the doors onto the balcony. Out across the sea, the first fingers of dawn stretched up across the sky. The hotel coffee shop wouldn’t even be open yet, but there’s always coffee at the airport. I dressed and headed down to the street.
The streets of Fort de France were empty. The cabbies were somewhere conked out in their rigs. It was a mile and a half to the airport so I walked. Girard, the mechanic was crashed on the couch in the office when I got there. I put on a pot of coffee, but I didn’t wake him. He had been at Claudet’s last night too and I knew how much he had to drink. I would do my own pre-flight – less to worry about that way.
I had just finished bleeding up the brakes when a woman walked into the hangar. The light still wasn’t very good and all I could see was a silhouette, but the creaky cogs of memory began to turn. Then she spoke, “Who do I see about getting a plane to Barbados?”
Time is cruel to us all, but there are some things you don’t forget about a woman: her walk, the curve of her neck, her voice. I stood up slowly and said, “Hello, Barb.”
She paused a moment, shocked, I guess, “I’m sorry, but do I know you?”
“You knew someone I used to be. In those days, I went by the name of Bryan Travis.”
Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.
“I don’t know who you are, but this isn’t funny.” She thought a minute. “What did you write in spray paint under the train trestle on homecoming night?”
“What color was the paint?”
“You bastard! They said you were dead. Why didn’t you come home?” she demanded fiercely, and stepped forward to look into my face. “You look like hell, by the way.”
“It’s a long story,” I said.
“I have nothing but time.” She jabbed her finger toward the gleaming Duke, “Do you think this rattle trap can make it to Barbados?”
Even though I found the characterization painful, I said, “Blindfolded.” I filed my flight plan with the wireless laptop and we got the lady and her baggage loaded onto the plane. “It’s really a very nice plane, high maintenance, but a luxury ride, a lot like you, if memory serves.”
“Whatever,” she said.
Out on the tarmac with the lady belted into the co-pilot’s seat, it was time to start up: battery on, fuel valves open, #1 mixture full, fuel pump on, magneto switch to start. The rapid hammer of the pistons roaring to life always gives me just a little thrill. Turn on the generator. Repeat for #2. Let the engines warm up and normalize; then switch off the pumps. I keyed the mic, “Clearance, November 172 Echo Golf to Adams.” Receiving ground clearance, I taxied the Duke out to the runway. You steer the Duke with engine power and brakes. It doesn’t have steer-able landing gear. Most of the classic twin engine planes of the golden age handle this way on the ground. It’s easy and natural once you get used to it. Finally out on the runway, I opened up the supercharged piston engines, and the Duke sliced its way into the sky.
I don’t like to talk while I’m in traffic, but once we got the hand-off to Piarco Center, I said, “Ok, what do you want to know?”
“You can start with telling me why you let me think you were dead for forty years,” she said, looking straight into my eyes for the first time.
“When our plane went down, there was a forward air controller orbiting the area. He saw the fire and reported us all KIA. The fact was that the plane broke up and the flight deck rolled clear of the fire. Buzzy and I were banged up but OK. We waited at the crash site until we could hear the Patet Lao closing in and then we limped off into the jungle. It’s a long walk home from Laos. We hid out with some Hmong tribal people until a Green Beret team located us and called in a dust-off. I lost track of time, but I know we were out there for weeks. By the time we got back to Da Nang, we had already been listed as KIA. It’s weird to be officially dead, but we were. We hadn’t been back in country for more than a couple of days when some guys from the company showed up and offered us a job. There are some interesting vocational opportunities for someone who is officially dead but can fly an airplane. The only problem is that your old identity goes away.” As the Duke broke through the clouds to 7,000 feet, it hit me that I had never told another living soul what had happened.
“But what about me?” she was struggling here. A lot of old emotions had boiled up that she wasn’t expecting.
“The way I figure it, I did us both a favor. When I came out of that jungle, I just wasn’t right. I shot my own cat one night. It knocked over a trash can when I was asleep. I put two rounds into it before I even woke up. I couldn’t come home, not like that. By the time I got myself squared away, too much time had passed.”
“I would have waited.”
“That’s a sweet thing to say, but I hope you didn’t.”
“No, no really,” she said, looking away out over the ocean so I couldn’t see her face.
It was my turn to ask questions, “So what’s in Barbados?”
“I’m picking up something for my former employer.”
“Sounds like someone else’s money.” My “uh-oh” alarm activated.
“I can’t talk about that,” she said.
“So now we’re keeping secrets?” I said and laughed a bit at my own joke.
“The bastard screwed me big time. I’m just getting what’s mine. Can I smoke?”
“Sure.” She pulled a cigarette out of her purse and lit it. I noticed her hands were shaking. “You’re right. I don’t want to know any more.”
We were thirty five miles out from Barbados when I took the hand-off from Piarco Center to Adams Approach. I set the autopilot for 2200 feet at an 800 foot per minute rate of descent. This flight was ending too soon. My own thoughts were a sudden rush of images and words I thought I had forgotten a long time ago. I had to make myself focus again on the present, fly the plane, check the gauges and shake off the dreams. The Duke almost seemed to land itself, as if it were riding on rails. I drove to the general aviation parking so she wouldn’t have to go through customs. As I turned off the engines, she asked, “Will this bucket of bolts make it to Rio?”
“Blindfolded, and I really wish you’d stop talking about my airplane like that.”
“Then wait for me here,” she said, taking only a backpack and leaving the rest of her luggage on the plane.
“Find a cabby named Jamison. He wears dreadlocks and sings too much, but he won’t rob you. Tell him you’re a friend of mine.” She walked away toward the terminal and I never saw her again. I waited. The hours ticked by and I got worried. I went into town and found Jamison at the Trocadero. He was scared.
“I didn’t do nothing, Boss. There was nothing I could do.”
“Just tell me what happened.”
“I took her to the bank. She said she was your friend so I watched and waited. In about a half hour she come out, but she was with these big dudes in suits. They looked like Americans, federales, you know? They got into a black SUV. There was nothing I could do.”
“You did what you could.” I put a twenty in his shirt pocket and walked out. It was early evening and the wind was whipping up from the sea. I zipped up my jacket and started walking.
I was sitting in the coffee shop at San Juan looking at my Twitter feed on the iPhone. Haiti is Charlie Foxtrot. Not good. The phone rings and it’s Esmeralda, the second shift dispatcher at King, “Captain Weedon, there is some hombre who says he is su amigo wants to talk real bad to you.”
“What’s his name?”
“Su nombre es ‘Bob’.”
Oh, great. “Cuál es el número?” I jotted the number down on a napkin. “Thanks, love,” and hung up. “Bob” and I go a long way back, to the company and Air America. He’s gotten me into more crap than a box car full of X-Lax. I dialed the number. This should be interesting.
“Caribbean Novelties, how can I help you?”
“That’s rich. Do you want to talk to me or not?”
“Is that you, Syd?”
“No, it’s Lady Gaga. I want to book a gig.”
“Do you guys still have that old unmarked 727?”
“How soon can you get it to Gitmo?”
“A couple of hours. Why?”
“We have a package we need delivered to Port-Au-Prince before the airport shuts down.”
When these guys talk about “a package,” they’re not referring to your most recent order from Amazon. It’s usually a black ops team, and it’s never easy. “Oh, damn, that reminds me. I was going to kill you in Manila.”
“Can you do it?”
“Yeah. Tell the tower I’m coming in. If any of the jarheads take a shot at me, I’m gone.”
“You got it. See you there.”
I spent the next forty five minutes getting the three-holer ready to roll. In a lot of ways, it’s easier to get the old girl ready to go than the newer planes with all of their computer gadgetry. Once airborne, I climbed her to 29K and put the hammer down. Before you could say, “How do I manage to get myself into these things” I was settling into the approach to Guantanamo Naval Air Station. The 727 was designed for these short, nasty airstrips, and she sat down on terra firma like she was born there. Before I completely came to a stop in front of the hangar, the door slowly rolled open and a column of guys in blue helmets and European cammo began filing out to the plane. I opened the doors and lowered the air stairs. A guy who appeared to be in charge jogged up the stairs and handed me a bullshit manifest.
“I kind of thought I would be picking up Marines,” I said.
My words jolted him and he suddenly straightened up and saluted, “Roger that, sir. United States Marines… in camouflage, I guess. We’re supposed to blend in.”
“Marines don’t blend in to anything.”
In addition to the hundred or so Marines in drag, about fifty guys in civvies got on the plane. None of their clothes seemed to fit very well with a lot of odd bulges in places one might expect to find Uzis concealed. Finally, one guy in aviator shades ambled across the tarmac just before I pulled up the air stairs. He took his time climbing the stairs. “Bob. It’s just wonderful to see you again. Homesick for Hell?”
He grinned, “Yeah, something like that.”
I keyed the mic, “Tower, N172EG clearance to Port-Au-Prince.”
“N172EG, cleared to Port-Au-Prince. Taxi to runway 27.”
I switched on the intercom. “Ladies, this is Captain Weedon. I’ll be your tour guide for today. Please plant your butt in a seat and buckle up or you will find your worthless hide plastered to the bulkhead when we take off.” I taxied out to the runway and lined up. The runway at Gitmo looks really short. Not to worry; the 727 takes about half that much asphalt. I pushed the throttles all the way forward and the 727 issued its legendary thunder. Even loaded like this we climbed at 3000 feet per minute. I love this old bird. Once we leveled off at 26K, Bob came forward and stood behind my seat. “Are you going on this soirée?” I asked.
“Yeah. This is my last. I’m going to retire after this one.”
“From what I hear, it’s is pretty bad.”
“It’s beyond bad. I wouldn’t even get off the plane if I were you.”
“Don’t worry. Do you want to me to wait?”
“No, just go on. I don’t know how long we’ll be there.”
It was only about thirty minutes before I was easing down and lining up for a landing at Port-Au-Prince. I used the GPS to vector in on the airport. Coming in, it was easy to see the devastation. On the best of days, Port-Au-Prince looks like hell, but this was different. Buildings were flattened as far as the eye could see. Columns of smoke rose from fires burning out of control. And yes, if you looked close, you could see the bodies down on the street. To make sure everything was done decently and in order, I tuned to the tower frequency and requested a landing, but no one answered. “Do you guys have eyes on the runway?” I asked Bob.
“It’s supposed to be OK,” he said.
“I don’t like ‘supposed to be’. You better go and buckle up. Make sure the rest of the campers are in their seats. This could be rough.” I settled down to 2500 ft and lined up on the runway. Surprisingly, it looked pretty good. I turned on the intercom, “Secure for landing.” As we glided in to the city, I watched the horror show on the ground below. I’ve been in some stuff, but I’ve never seen anything like this before.
The runway wasn’t broken up and the landing was easier than I expected. We rolled up to the terminal. It was still standing but in pretty bad shape. There was already a throng of people there, both locals and foreigners and they began to swarm toward the plane. I didn’t have to tell the Marines what to do: I put down both air stairs and they double-timed it out and set up a perimeter around the plane. People were hysterical, pushing at the Marines and waving their passports. Bob had gone out with the Marines and I could see him talking to some people. I thought, This is getting complicated really fast. Pretty soon, Bob climbed the stairs and came up to the flight deck.
“We have some people I’d like you to take with you.”
“OK, I can take the first 150, Western passports only and pat them down before you let them on the plane. Then tell your guys to push the rest of the crowd away. It’s going to get very unpleasant down there when I start the push back.”
“I owe you, buddy,” he said.
“Stop the presses… get moving or I’m not going to be able to get out of here.” Soon the Marines began allowing their lucky few through the perimeter and they all seemed to sprint to the plane. There was a lot of shouting and cursing from those who were held back and the crowd was growing. Finally, Bob bounded up the stairs and into the flight deck.
“That’s all. Good luck. Where are you going?” he asked.
“Las Americas makes the most sense. I’ll wait there as long as I can.”
He grinned, “See you in Hell.” For just an instant it was like the old days, but whatever nostalgia I had for launching a plane through artillery fire faded pretty quick.
“Promises, promises. Now get off my airplane.” People were milling around in the cabin so I had to go back and get them seated. I started barking at them, “Sit down. Siente se. Buckle your seat belt. Do it now.” I could see through the windows that the Marines were having trouble with the crowd. I couldn’t wait any longer. I got back to my seat and started the push back. A couple of rocks flew toward the plane but fell short. After what seemed like an eternity, we were taxiing out to the runway.
We were almost there when a voice came over the radio on the tower frequency, “Boeing aircraft, you are not cleared to take off. Return your plane immediately to gate 4.” Uh-oh…
“That’s a negative, Tower. Proceeding with departure for Piarco.”
“Boeing aircraft, you are in violation of international civil aviation code. You are not permitted to take off.”
I’m really not liking the sound of this and I watch for vehicles driving toward the runway, “Tower, unable to comply. I guess you’ll have to call the cops.” I would find out much later that a couple of government officials were hoping to commandeer the plane to get themselves and their families out of Haiti. I turned onto the runway, went to 25 degrees of flaps and full power. Slowly at first, the big bird responded to the 42,000 pounds of thrust from the three huge engines, and I felt the reassuring force pressing me back into my seat. The IAS needle began to climb – 30… 60… 90… 120 knots. It was then that I saw the two battered old Land Rovers racing to the end of the runway. You cannot be serious. They stop on the runway and a guy in a civilian police uniform jumps out of one and begins waving frantically at us. Guys, this is a 50 ton aircraft moving at 140 knots and I’m supposed to stop it to have a chat with you? I guess you slept through physics. I rotated and the big old bird leaped into the sky. I wished I had a hand free for the one finger salute, but this was no time for stunts.
I keyed the intercom, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain. I have turned off the “no smoking” and “fasten seatbelts” signs. You are free to move about the cabin. You will find a lavatory at each end of the cabin area and there should be some sandwiches in the warmers in the galley. Help yourself. The flight attendants are off today. We will be arriving in Santo Domingo in approximately thirty five minutes, and thanks for flying Eagle Valley Air.”
In the hangar at Petersburg, I was sweeping up and Mike, the mechanic, was running diagnostics on the Kodiak. There was a software update to be uploaded to the Garmin 1000. Buddy Guy was on the stereo. It was about 15:00 hours. An old man walked into the hanger. He was thin and really ancient, dressed in a red flannel shirt, wool pants and some antique jump boots. “Who’s in charge here?” the old man asked.
“He’s down on the dock fishing, but I wouldn’t bug him if I were you. He takes his fishing really seriously. What can I do for you?”
“I want a round-trip to Bronson Creek,” he replied.
“You got it. The Kodiak will be ready in about thirty minutes.”
“I don’t want to fly in that computerized contraption. Do you have any real airplanes with pistons and steam gauges?” He had a certain resolute determination in his eyes that took me by surprise. Cruiser was inbound from Klawock in N216EG, due in about fifteen minutes.
“We’ll have a radial Beaver here in about twenty minutes,” I said. “Will that do?”
“Perfect,” the old man said. He cast a contemptuous eye at the Kodiak, “We didn’t need that kind of crap back in my day.”
“It’s really a very nice airplane,” I said. “You ought to give it a chance.”
“Nope. Got no use for ‘em. So when does the real plane get in?”
I looked at my watch, and said, “In exactly thirteen and a half minutes. You can set your watch on this guy.” He asked me more questions: how many hours I had, where I had flown, my certifications, if had been in the service – he was definitely checking me out, and not taking anything for granted. In exactly twelve minutes, I heard the throb of N216EG descending through the gap. “That’s it,” I said. “Isn’t it a beautiful sound?”
For the first time, the old guy smiled, “Like music.”
Cruiser taxied up to the hanger, shut down and climbed down from the plane. I walked out to him and said, “I need to borrow your plane. I’ll take real good care of it.”
“What’s this about? The weather is getting kind of ugly.”
“Special Ops. I’ll explain it all when I get back.”
He got that skeptical look in his eyes for which he is famous and said, “I’m going to hold you to that.”
“Thanks. I owe you one,” I answered. We refueled and preflighted the Beaver. The weather really didn’t look good. The ceiling was low and a fitful wind whipped at the windsock.
“There’s one more thing,” the old man said. “If it’s all right with you, I’d like to sit in the copilot seat.”
“Suits me fine. It’s easier to keep my eye on you that way.” He chuckled. We taxied out to the runway and I radioed my intention to take off to the east. He suddenly turned to me and extended his hand, “The name’s Buzz, Buzz Anderson.” I shook his hand and said, “It’s good to meet you, Buzz. You can call me Syd.”
Even during takeoff, the wind buffeted the Beaver and I had to really concentrate to keep it moving straight. “So, Buzz, you have no luggage, camera, rod and reel or rifle. Why are we doing this?”
He was thoughtful for a minute, and then said, “I’m a bush pilot, or I was until I got grounded. The old ticker is no good. I used to fly these hills back in the Forties and Fifties, back before you were born, I suspect. Pearl Harbor, D-Day, Hiroshima, V-J Day, the day Truman relieved MacArthur – all of these historic days when the world hung in the balance, I was up here in this god-forsaken wilderness in an airplane. It’s my soul, my life. I needed to be up here and see these hills again.”
I didn’t have anything clever to come back with to that. I was pushing the Beaver to get some altitude, and I didn’t like what I was seeing. The clouds covered the hills and hollows between them. The familiar landmarks were wrapped in gray wool. I glanced at the GPS to get my bearings. “We didn’t have those things when I was flying,” Buzz observed.
“Yeah, and a lot of you guys never got where you were going, either.”
“I always did,” he answered.
“Well, then you were either very good or very lucky.”
He laughed, “I was both.” He looked out the window, “This is perfect. This is just perfect.”
“You have a weird idea of what constitutes ‘perfect’,” I said. “In my dictionary, this is ‘lousy’.”
“No, I did this flight, and it was a day just like today, wind, low clouds, crummy visibility. I was flying some Army brass out to Bronson Creek for a hunting trip, 1943. I was flying a Noorduyn Norseman – loved that old bird – but a fuel line ruptured and the engine caught fire. I was up here, just like this in a burning plane, unable to see the ground.”
“What did you do?”
“I did just what you are doing. I completely over-shot Bronson Creek because I was distracted and couldn’t see. I thought the plane would explode any minute. I dived into the clouds, hoping the wind and rain would blow out the fire, and it did, but not before I was only a couple hundred feed above the creek bed. I think every one of those generals peed in their pants. Then the fog was so heavy, I didn’t think I could find the strip, but I knew the creek and I followed it. Suddenly, like a miracle from heaven, I saw the runway through the mist. I told the generals to jump out of the plane the minute we came to a stop because it would probably catch fire again and explode.”
I glanced at the GPS. He was right: I had completely over-shot Bronson Creek. I banked left and pushed the nose into the low clouds. There had better be a creek down there, or we’re toast, I thought. I broke through the clouds only a couple hundred feet above the creek bed, just as the old man had predicted.
“More flaps,” he yelled. I went to two clicks. “Full pitch, full pitch!” he yelled again. I pushed the pitch lever as far forward as I could. “You’re too lean,” he said, not quite shouting now.
“Set it the way you want it, Buzz.” He looked at me kind of funny, but then leaned forward and pushed the mixture lever up. I silently thanked the fickle gods of the air that this wasn’t my first trip to Bronson Creek. I fly the creek sometimes just because it’s so beautiful and I love the glaciers. I threaded my way slowly down the creek, still at two clicks of flaps to keep the plane as slow as was safe. Then, like a ghost, the Bronson Creek airstrip materialized out of the fog and mist. A gentle bank to the left, ease off the throttle, and our wheels banged down on the grass.
“Nice landing,” the old man remarked. We shut down the plane and got out. “This is right where it happened. This is where the plane burned. I really hated that. It was a lovely plane.” He kicked a little at the sod, looking for some remnant of the fire, but there was only dirt. Nature had healed herself in the fifty years that had passed. “I got a commendation letter from President Roosevelt himself for ‘saving the lives’ of those officers. I had it framed. You know, after that, I always wondered if Glenn Miller’s plane had the same problem.” We walked around a little longer, looking at the creek and the hills. “It really hasn’t changed much, still beautiful,” he observed. “OK. I’ve seen. Let’s head back to Petersburg.”
We buckled up and the Beaver made its wonderful Harley Davidson sound coming to life. “November 216 Echo Golf departing Bronson Creek to the east.” The plane clawed its way into the air and I banked left into the broader river valley and followed it until I had the altitude to turn toward Petersburg. We told a few more stories, but eventually ran out of tales and just watched the landscape flow by. The landing at Petersburg was considerably easier except for those few anxious moments spent descending through the clouds and hoping we were where I thought we were.
We set down nice and easy and I taxied the plane back to the hanger. I set the parking brake and turned off the engine and electrical. It was only then that it occurred to me that I hadn’t gotten any coaching on my landing from Buzz on the way in. I looked at him and he was very still. His eyes were open and he looked straight ahead. “Buzz?” I touched his arm, but he didn’t respond. He’s really still, I thought. I felt for a pulse on the side of his neck and there was none. For a second, it flashed through my mind to drag him out onto the tarmac and try CPR, but I thought, No, that’s were he wants to be. I climbed out of the plane and shut the door. I lit a cigarette. Cruiser came walking out of the hanger.
“What’s up with your passenger,” he asked.
“No he’s not. He’s sitting right there.”
Cruiser looked again at the plane, “Oh, great. Now my plane’s going to be haunted.”
“I don’t think so. I think that was his last flight. Let’s give him a few minutes and then I’ll call the EMT’s.”
“OK, so tell me the whole story, but don’t think I’m ever going to let you borrow my plane again.”