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.”