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.
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.
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.
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…”
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.”