Sunday, December 30, 2007
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Here it is, Air Cadets, the new Antique Airplane Association/Air Power Museum website: http://www.antiqueairfield.com/
See the pumpkins drop, hear the laughter, question the sanity, but whatever your take, take a trip to Antique Airfield (IA27), Iowa, third grass field from Ottumwa and straight on 'til the dawn of your imagination.
TSA not permitted. This is real aviation.
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
TWA is long gone as are many of the carriers from those glory days: Pan Am, Braniff, Eastern, Republic…the ghost line stretches into the desert where the great ships were chopped into beer cans. This particular Connie started life in 1958 as a cargo hauler for Slick Airways and managed to live into old age as a Canadian crop duster destined for the junk heap when rescued by dreamers determined to keep a sliver of the airline golden age alive even as the crews who flew these great airplanes pass away.
They weren’t like you and me, the pilots from the I Love Lucy age. For a few brief decades airline pilots were royalty, and passengers dressed appropriately for court. Peasants didn’t traipse into Louis XIV’s Versailles anymore than a 1956 passenger would clod onto a Connie in blue jeans, Harley-Davidson T-shirt and slinging a backpack. They dressed like first-nighters at Noel Coward’s latest on Broadway. In exchange, the airlines allowed passengers’ blood to circulate freely through their legs with seats—all first class—designed for bottom comfort and not for bottom line satisfaction. And, yes, there was food—real food served on real china with silverware.
In this time after World War II, and before airline travel became mass transit, the flight was the thing and the destination almost an afterthought. Americans smoked Chesterfields because Perry Como did, drank martinis with Mamie Eisenhower and hailed Caesar, Sid Caesar, on Sunday nights at 9.
Airplanes had round engines so packed with horsepower that the jet had to be introduced just to give all that ambitious might a place to expand. But when thrust broke free from the banks of supercharged pistons and cylinders, the kerosene power that replaced it may have proved efficient but, frankly, smelled funny. Jets never matched the essence of what it meant to fly instead of merely travel. Now, airlines are subway tubes and terminals are cattle barns with passengers herded down chutes like so many head to be processed rather than guests to be pampered.
No. Traces of this once global empire of aerial class now reside in the Airline History Museum (AHM). You can access it 21st Century-style at http://www.airlinehistorymuseum.com/. Or the next time you’re stuck in seat 37G aboard a Crampac Airways SkyBus, waiting for a delayed flight to un-delay itself, run screaming off the airplane. Hop into your Cessna 170 and fly back in time to Kansas City Downtown Airport. As the name implies, it’s where airports should be--within a shout of downtown. Beg a ride or take a walk around the perimeter road until you see the old Quonset-style hangar that once housed TWA’s Connie maintenance shop. That’s the Airline History Museum. Open seven days a week—check online for exact times.
Besides the Super Constellation, the Airline History Museum has a 1952 Martin 404 and a 1941 Douglas DC-3. Martin once competed with Convair for the short-haul routes. This 404 was part of Eastern Airlines fleet of 60 Martin 404s. The DC-3…well, there ain’t nuthin’ the DC-series legends haven’t done since they first appeared in the 1930s. The museum’s DC-3 is undergoing an extensive--and expensive--rebuild, so it’s anyone’s guess when it’ll fly again. But as it sits, who cares? “Hangar Queen,” in this case, is a term of respect for a royal dame who’s earned her crown.
Until two years ago, the Connie regularly flew to air shows and appeared in movies, including Martin Scorcese’s The Aviator and Jim Carey’s Ace Ventura. Walk-on roles, however, don’t pay the bills. Avgas alone can suck a bank account dry when burning 400 gallons-per-hour while making circles in the sky training crews. And then, there’s oil. The Connie goes through lots of it in flight, and judging from the oil stained ramps in old photographs, lots of it while sitting on the ground.
Starting up an airline may be folly. Starting up a flying museum dedicated to preserving old airliners may seem like folly, but, thankfully, it’s run on passion. TWA had Howard Hughes to bankroll its operations. The Airline History Museum has volunteers who buck rivets, weld, stitch and swap out engines to get the Connie flying once again. These same volunteers hold fund raisers, and on October 6, 2007 will clear the hangar floor for the world’s most prestigious hangar dance featuring guest, John Travolta, an airport kid from New Jersey who shares that passion for keeping the sound of four radial engines a living part of the American skyscape. You’re invited. Check online for details.
So who flies this thing?
On a warm Sunday afternoon in mid-September I met with Charles “Skip” Gatschet, a retired TWA captain who’d begun his career teaching in a TWA simulator, moved into the Martin 404 right seat where he flew the Ohio Valley until he transferred to Connies and flew the world. In 1986, he made his last flight as captain in a Boeing 767. After that, they did away with the airline.
Gatschet showed me around the museum, stopping to explain the inner workings of a cutaway Wright R-3350- EA3, 18-cylinder, turbo-compound radial engine.* Wrapped around the working data of museum pieces were priceless stories about airline life in another era. I didn’t want to leave. Guys like Skip Gatschet (shown at right) fly the Connie, and if you’re lucky he may be on duty the day you visit. If not, someone else who remembers or simply has respect for this rapidly fading past will invite you to see what aviation can be when beauty lures us into the air. Consider this your invitation…
Save A Connie, Inc., is a 501(c)3 entity that does business as The Airline History Museum. AHM being a subsidiary of SAC.
Involvement by interested people is easy and anyone can do as little or much as his interest and availability allow. Membership dues are $110 per year, and anyone can join by simply sending name, address, phone number and check along with a request for membership to:
The Airline History Museum
201 N.W. Lou Holland Drive
Kansas City, MO 64116-4223
Or call the museum at 1-800-513-9484 or 816-421-3401. Membership privileges allow unlimited access to the museum, the right to ride on the airplanes to air shows and so forth. There is a monthly newsletter. Donation of one's time and talent to the common effort is greatly appreciated.
* Museum’s Connie engines: Wright R-3350 - EA-3 18 cylinder turbo-compound, originally rated at 3,440 BHP at takeoff. In current operation the museum is restricted by the use of 100LL fuel to 2,880 BHP at takeoff. (restricted to 51" MAP at 2,900 RPM).
© 2007, Paul Berge, all rights reserved.
Thursday, September 6, 2007
© 2007, Paul Berge
Somewhere west, perhaps east, of Ailerona is a patch of aviation sanity in a hyphenated world fascinated with high-tech same-think. It’s Blakesburg’s Antique Airfield (IA27 to those with GPS) located a few miles from an Iowa town that hasn’t changed much since Dewey defeated Truman for the middleweight championship in 1948. A tavern, grocery store with a pair of Sinclair gas pumps outside and a few brick buildings mark the business district where the stop sign is more advisory than law. A WWI artillery piece in a small park dedicated to forgotten heroes aims menacingly toward an empty pizza parlor.
Watch for stray dogs as you turn east through a few of blocks of clapboard houses and double-wides beneath immense shade trees, and then cross a bridge above the Burlington Northern rail line. Leaving town the two-lane blacktop curves through a canyon of green-almost-gold corn. So far, you could be anywhere along the Hawkeye state’s side roads, but you’ve passed into the southeast corner where Confederate raiders once roamed and time hasn’t so much stopped but, instead, ages like a dusty bottle of Châteaux l'Empenage ’47 or a ‘39 Packard in your grandmother’s wooden garage. Time exhibits a muted elegance here. Blakesburg is on the map, but its influence takes your mind into new dimensions, especially when you arrive, as we did, by air.
“Take a deep look,” I called to Mike Vogt, my guest for the day, riding in the 1946 Aeronca Champ’s front seat. At six-foot-something his knees rubbed the instrument panel, making him look more cramped than an airline passenger trapped in seat 27F at O’Hare. He didn’t mind, because the fifty-mile flight from Des Moines to Blakesburg in a 60-year-old airplane transports more than your body. It moves the soul; if not, you don’t have one.
“What's that?” he called over the 65-horse engine and summer wind through the open side window.
“1929,” I answered as we passed behind and slightly below a pair of Travel Air biplanes with round engines and floppy-eared ailerons climbing past our nose. “It returns here every Labor Day, stays for about a week and then flies back into History where the FAA can’t touch it.” And I could see from his smile that he began to see what I meant, began to feel the time shift.
Antique Airfield is the home of the Antique Airplane Association and Air Power Museum, collectively known as AAA/APM. The brainchild of Robert Taylor, AAA founder, in 1953, back before many of today’s antiques were built. A pilot and aircraft mechanic who’d served in the 6th Air Force during WWII, Bob had the vision that one day aviation’s past would need protection. With the help of family and countless volunteers over the decades AAA/APM has quietly preserved 1929, 1939, ‘49, ‘59 and all the winged years before and in between as they “Keep The Antiques Flying!”
And that’s the rub—Flying! The word “museum” brings images of air-conditioned vaults full of polished exhibits behind velvet ropes with sleepy docents explaining the worth of dormant history. AAA’s mission is to keep lift beneath the antiquers’ wings, to live history, to preserve the hardware and the skills to fly, maintain and promote these aviation treasures. Oil, grass and exhaust stains, bug guts and the occasional popped tail wheel spring all go into this clacking—flying—corner of the aviation universe. It’s an exclusive community open to anyone willing to dream of what’s been and what’s still possible when fabric-covered wings attach to the imagination.
This year the flying gods smiled on the AAA reunion as high pressure dominated weather charts, allowing pilots to fly in from both coasts. A nearly full moon and misty sunsets made Antique Airfield seem like a digital movie set where a Luscombe chased a C3 Aeronca around the patch until darkness closed the sky for the night, leaving behind the deepest black speckled with stars you can’t see from the 21st Century.
Inside the Pilot’s Pub, beer and cigars accented flying stories told, retold and embellished with great sweeps of aviator hands. Old voices conjured up ghosts from radial engines days, while younger minds sucked it all in and will carry this time-warped bit of aeronautical purity into their futures. And by Sunday night, after most of the pilots had decamped to retrace their journeys back to Colorado, Arizona and Pennsylvania in Cessna Bobcats, Stearmans and Fairchilds, those who remained suffered through an awards ceremony in which a tiny speck of the world’s immense population saluted those who Keep The Antiques Flying until the next reunion when the gods will smile again, and 1929 will return to Blakesburg, Iowa where the future is always worth flying.
View the AAA/APM 2007 Fly-In: http://aaa-apm.org/images/BTBPhotoStory.wmv
© 2007, Paul Berge, all rights reserved (Above right: Pilots Pub with convenient parking)
Tuesday, August 7, 2007
A dead airport often takes a long time to decay. The lucky ones, when murdered by city councils, are quickly rendered. Their hangars are torn down, the debris trucked to dump sites. The airplanes scattered like flies from a shaken tablecloth. Then the bulldozers, the morticians at the controls, rip apart any trace of runway, ramps or foundations. When done correctly, five decades of aviation memory can be obliterated inside of a month. It's the only merciful way.
Saturday, July 21, 2007
Every Good Kid Deserves A Biplane
She slipped the web harness over her shoulders, while I cautiously told her how to attach them to the lap belt. The trick, of course, was to convey the instructions without sounding like an instructor dad who still viewed his teenage daughter as a toddler in dress-up princess clothes--which, of course, being a dad, I do.
This was Emily’s first ride in an open-cockpit biplane. Shortly after her birth I’d taken her flying in our Cherokee; strapped in a baby bucket we’d climb and swoop, and she’d gurgle and burp. By the time she was three, she flew our Aeronca from the front seat, although, mostly that consisted of yanking the joystick back and forth while squealing: “Eeee-yaaah…” By age nine, she no longer believed in princesses, and airplanes were something that Dad kept at the “boring” airport where old guys retold the same dull stories inside smelly hangars.
Then, on an unusually warm afternoon when the countryside had changed to gold beneath a sky so blue as to make a Crayola engineer squint, I was headed to the airport and asked—as I always do: “Emily, wanna fly the biplane?” With my hand on the door I expected her usual: “Ah, no thanks…” But, instead, she replied, “Sure.”
One syllable broke through that long pause over the past half-decade. “Sure,” and she grinned slightly, because teenagers aren’t supposed to show excessive emotion to parents. She pulled a UC Santa Cruz Banana Slug sweatshirt over her head and said, “Let’s go.” I would’ve taken her hand—the one belonging to the three-year-old who used to fly with me—but I knew better.
Despite the time gap, she hadn’t forgotten how to behave at the airfield. She stayed clear of propellers and helped remove the cockpit canopies and mousetraps from beneath the seats. Luckily, the trap lines were empty, the mice having learned it was safer to nest in the neighbor’s Cessna 172 than inside the biplane.
“Pull on the strut,” I said, and then tugging on the opposite wing, we rolled the Marquart Charger from its hangar. Sunlight—the unreal kind in late afternoon across dormant farmland—lit her face as no canned makeup ever could. “Now, hold your side while we swing the tail,” and she understood how to turn the biplane until it pointed toward the grass runway.
It was a short but glorious flight across the few years that had separated us from her childhood to now, and as we landed—bounced—landed again, and taxied to the hangar, I anxiously awaited her approval as she would’ve awaited mine long ago.
She undid the harness, slipped the leather helmet from her head so the pony tail swung out, and then with a smile I’d waited to see for so long, she turned and replied to my, “So?” with, “I liked it…” And she pulled herself up by the top wing and just had to add: “Not much of a landing, though.”
And that’s my Emily, flying again at fourteen.
© 2005, Paul Berge; all rights reserved; first appeared in the Pacific Flyer, Wayman Dunlap, publisher
Sunday, June 24, 2007
A romance story about a boy and his love of a Cessna 195
Her name was Betty, a Cessna 195, and I fell in love with her on the ramp one cold Saturday in late November. I’d ridden my bicycle out to watch airplanes take off and land. My friends thought me just shy of nuts for wasting a weekend staring at flight, but they hadn’t yet felt love. They didn’t know its velvet grasp. At 14 I was captive.
It had begun innocently enough. I'd slipped through the chain link fence at New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport to walk the rows of parked aircraft--back in a time when an airport kid could wander beneath the wings as private pilots swaggered past. I’d just ducked beneath a Twin Beech 18 when I saw her parked at the end of the row. She hadn’t been there yesterday and judging from the long-dried bugs on her wing’s leading edge, she flew a lot and would be gone tomorrow—just the sort of love you don’t need but can’t resist.
Her fuselage was slender, her cowling round and full of the promise of horsepower. A thin trickle of oil dripped from her cowl and into a crust of snow below. It fell the way a drop of red wine might run down a woman’s chin if she laughed at something you’d said over dinner.
Uninvited, I wiped at the oil with my fingers and then paused to stare up at her narrow windshield, beneath which was her name in flowing cursive--Betty Bounce. I said it aloud to feel it on my lips—"Betty Bounce…"
Her strutless wings invited me to look inside. Slowly I put my hand to the glass in the door and peered at her dark instrument panel where strange dials and knobs told me she had class. The black radios and an artificial horizon cocked to one side bespoke of a spirit born to travel. Betty could never stay in one place—she’d invite you along, but if you hesitated, she’d laugh and depart.
Overwhelmed with passion, I did what no respectable airport kid dared do—I opened her door and eased my face deep inside. The intoxicating smell of avgas, oil, and cracked leather rushed through my sinuses and drilled deep into that part of my brain where love flares for a moment and never quite dies.
Quickly, I shut the door.
I’d gone too far.
I ran off—knees weak, heart pounding with lust for this goddess of flight. Reaching the fence, I turned and she laughed ever so gently. We both knew I was too young, and we parted.
Tuesday, May 29, 2007
from Aeromancy ©, 2005, Paul Berge
Best FBO? Hard to say. I’m no fan of metropolitan airports with their Berlin Wall security and prefer, instead, the outback fields where crop dusters fly 200-foot traffic patterns and tick-pimpled dogs sleep beside a broken pop machine with a sign that reads: “Leave money in coffee can. Signed, Betty.”
Million Air at Van Nuys (VNY), California surprised me when I’d expected big-city snubs only to be treated like a fat-dollar celebrity. (Some say I’m easily mistaken for Robin Williams before liposuction, so maybe that was it.) Ramp fees were waived after I purchased a paltry ten gallons and swiped the last brownie off the counter.
Guymon (GUY, photo above right) located in the accusing finger of Oklahoma’s panhandle is an unsung bargain close to a great Mexican diner, and if you behave yourself at Frasca Field (C16) in Urbana, Illinois, you can tour Frasca’s simulator factory. Show a respectful blend of awe and gratitude, and you may get the VIP trip through Rudy Frasca’s private museum of war birds, old birds, and odd birds. Don’t touch anything. And don't talk--listen.
Flower Aviation in Salina, Kansas (SLN) makes any tramp pilot’s Top Ten list. And it’s not just because of the pretty girls in tight shorts who direct transients into tie-down spots and then cause middle-aged men to drop jaw-first from their airplanes watching them bend over to chock the tires.
Okay, that might be one of the reasons.
Kansas, parked midway between everything hip on the West Coast and urbane on the East, needs to do something to get noticed. Cookies alone won’t do it, so the state offers a bigger show as I relearned when wandering through on no particular route in something unsophisticated that taxis with its tail in the dirt and no lid over the cockpits. Four wings completed my barnstorming ensemble, so wherever I’d arrive someone usually remarked, “Nice biplane; think you’ll ever learn to land it?” At least in Salina they smile when they say that—giggle, actually.
For those unfamiliar with the Midwest, here’s a quick lesson: It’s not all flat. Iowa even has ski resorts, although, they are a bit silly; my favorite is located near the Boone (BNW) airport, where there’s a homebuilders’ workshop/co-op open to anyone having trouble riveting together a quick-build RV-8.
Kansas, however, is a flat billiard table stretching to all horizons covered in endless pastures and whatever it is growing below in waving green felt. In the cool morning sky a few hundred feet above all that waving, I could see as far as the earth’s curvature allowed. Beyond that I didn’t care, because the openness sucked my mind dry, removing all remnants of 1970s Rocky Mountain highs and filled the void with a 2-D vision that staggers most viewers but made me want to fly above it forever. Or at least until the afternoon sky warmed and all that green below sweated into the air currents rising to colder heights. Plus, I was hungry and almost out of gas, so taking a tip from a freight dog who knew where to find free cookies, I headed to Salina.
The tower controller wasn’t particularly friendly, and to punctuate my disdain for his indifference, I demonstrated a triple-bounce wheel landing on the 12,000-foot runway.
“If able, turn left at the end,” he said, “And taxi to the ramp.”
I was able and did, following a shorts-clad ramp rat waving parking batons like a KU cheerleader. I think his name was Daryl, and it was apparent that he handled the lesser customers while the biz jet behind me received the full Flower reception.
Still, like Odysseus on the Isle of Babes I lingered until the weather soured. Flight Service painted an optimistic picture of the route: “If you hurry and get real lucky, you may survive the line of Level Six thunderstorms forming between Salina and Topeka.” Once in Topeka (TOP) the forecast called for clear skies and blessed siren songs all the way to my final resting place, er, destination in Iowa. So, I departed and, like Odysseus, I must’ve irritated the weather gods, and because I didn’t understand that Kansas could morph into a mountain state I found myself weaving through canyons of vertical development the likes of which gives any sensible barnstormer pause. Unfortunately, every airport where I’d hoped to pause went down the weather toilet.
Smart pilots avoid anything made of water vapor the color of marshmallows growing to 70,000 feet. It was late afternoon, and Kansas having broiled all day in the sun now released its steamed energy skyward. The air was deceptively smooth at the feet of these towering thugs, but as I tuned nearby AWOS frequencies, reports deteriorated from rain, to wind, to blowing frogs.
I monitored Flight Watch (122.0) with the thought of climbing on top, but heard an anxious Bonanza driver several thousand feet above me trying to make the same mistakes only to report that the clouds grew around him so fast that he turned tail for Texas. I decided to do likewise back to Salina only to find my back door closed. Cut off, my plans shifted from reaching Topeka to considering a survivable side road landing.
The gods toy with the wayfarer who ignores evidence of his own stupidity. So as clouds boiled around me in unbelievable glory and terror, thumping their vaporous chests, I pressed eastward through a twisting alleyway of narrowing sanity above Kansas' greenery, and running just a little faster than the squall line, floated into Topeka. No cookies, no bargain-priced avgas, or Playmate staff, just a guy in a blue work shirt leaning into the wind to help me tie the biplane down shortly before the sky unloaded.
Best FBO? Tough to say, but as lightning chiseled the sky, I was damn glad this one was there.
Thursday, May 17, 2007
We are hosting the Minnesota public premier showing of “Red Tail Reborn” at the Minnesota Historical Society on June 6th. This documentary will air nationwide on PBS, but this is your chance to see it first. There will be a cocktail hour, charity silent auction, Keynote address, (Tubby Smith is tentatively confirmed) and the documentary showing.
The details are on the website. http://www.redtail.org/ You can see the documentary trailer on that website. http://www.redtailreborn.com/ We are seeking individual attendees and table sponsors. If you have any questions please call Dani @ 715-426-9716.
Please consider attending and bring a neighbor or friend as well. If you can’t attend, but would like to help get the Red Tail Flying again, you can do that too at our website. This promises to be a special evening that will include several Original Tuskegee Airmen and a special presentation to the Hinz family. This will be an aviation evening not to miss.
Monday, May 14, 2007
The double beam from atop the control tower cut through the frozen gloom in tireless strokes--green, white; green, white....
Yellow flashes from the hazard lights on the snowplows moved slowly along the runway.
Vernon had just slid his car off the access road in front of the cargo terminal when he pushed his sleeve up to read his watch--1:38 a.m. Except for the handful of snowplows, the airport was quiet. The last airliner would have landed at midnight, and the nightly cargo flights, a collection of just about anything with engines, wings and a vacuous hole for cargo, would arrive around 3 a.m. The pilots were all young. They hauled everything from canceled checks to lobster tails. It was aviation at its most raw. Vernon, by contrast, hadn’t flown since losing his medical certificate on his 66th birthday.
It was a short distance to the terminal--the old terminal, not used for passengers since the early 1970's. There was a newer one made of glass across the field for the airlines. Vernon worked in the old brick terminal, now used exclusively for cargo.
After trying the car door, held shut by a snowdrift, he crawled over the gearshift and brake handle and out the passenger's side. He slammed the door, catching his coat and lost his balance on the ice.
His right elbow struck the frozen pavement with a sharp jab of pain, and he wallowed in the slush, tangled in his overcoat, spitting venom.
Vernon pushed himself to his feet and walked stiffly toward the old terminal. The snow changed back to sleet. By the light of the street lamps he saw his reflection in the glass doors. A stocky old man in a baggy overcoat, he thought, then squared his shoulders and moved the cigar from one corner of his mouth to the other.
His elbow throbbed from the fall, but the rest of his body felt strong. Watching his reflection through the rain, he remembered the first day he had walked up to the terminal, decades earlier. Recently discharged from the Navy after two years in the Pacific, flying Martin PBM flying boats, he was just another pilot looking for a job. The offer of $30 per week and a room had brought him to the Midwest. Fifty years of life since then had kept him there.
He pushed the door open and shook the sleet from his hat.
"Evening, Vern," a sleepy voice from behind the dispatcher's counter called.
"Hmmm," Vernon grumbled. The room was warm, stuffy warm. The smell of coffee and cigarettes made it lonely.
"Is it snowing yet?"
"Started to," Vernon answered. "Mostly sleet. Got stuck in a snowbank." He waved vaguely at the parking lot.
"One of the plows can pull you out later."
"Umm," Vernon grunted. A radio played music somewhere in a darkened corner. Vernon stepped around a pile of cinder blocks and boards in the center of the room.
"Haven’t they started remodeling in here yet?" he asked looking around at the gutted old building.
"No, just deposited more junk."
He ignored the answer and went into the men's room. Looking at himself in the cracked mirror above the sink he decided his face was the same--the same one he had brought in 1947. There were more lines, of course, and parts sagged where once they had been tight, but it was the same face staring back. He ran his hand across his short wavy hair.
"Cab Calloway's hair," he said and laughed.
Suddenly, a toilet flushed behind him, and a stall door swung open with a long squeak. "What'd you say?" One of the mechanics emerged buttoning his insulated overalls, an amused smirk on his lips.
"Huh?" Vernon started. "Oh, my hair." He pointed, embarrassed. "My wife used to say I had Cab Calloway's hair."
The mechanic left, and Vernon glanced around at the battered tile walls, steam radiator and heavy porcelain fixtures. "Old," he sighed. "All old and worn out." He rubbed his sore elbow, then tossed the cold cigar butt into a urinal and strode out. He glanced down the long dark hallway, past the empty stalls where Frontier, Braniff, and Tri-State Airlines had all had their ticket counters. At the end of the hall was the empty operations office and the old flight school; all long gone.
"The Mitsubishi flying 321 is stuck in Omaha. I thought I could get the Cheyenne on 308 to swing over there from Kansas City and..."
Vernon cut the dispatcher's voice off with a wave. "Give me ten minutes," he said and disappeared into his office, a tiny room across from where the hangar had been. He closed the door behind him and stood in the dark, staring out the window.
He missed the hangar--missed it terribly. He missed many things. He missed his wife. He missed flying. He missed being a child and listening to the mail planes fly over his house toward the night beacon, flashing steady white every ten seconds.
He massaged his elbow. The control tower’s rotating beacon swept green and white overhead. He looked out where the hangar had been. It was almost completely gone now, only the one wall remained, and as soon as the weather cleared it, too, would go. A bulldozer sat posed, waiting. He flicked on the light. A cluttered desk, a single file cabinet, the radiator and a phone--these were his tools. On one wall were two photographs. He lit another cigar. Blue smoke rose toward the ceiling. He stepped closer to the wall and stared. One photograph showed the nose of a Martin PBM towering above a small cluster of young men in casual Navy uniforms. Everyone smiled, including the short officer with the wavy hair dressed in tee shirt and cap and cigar clamped arrogantly between his teeth. Someone had scrawled: "With Love, From, Iwo Jima--1945" across the picture.
The other photograph had been taken beside the now demolished hangar outside his office. It showed a pair of Aeronca Champs drawn nose to nose and a wedding party in tuxedos and gowns arranged in a crescent in front of the planes. All the faces were young and happy, including the young groom with the black wavy hair and his bride.
"Chief Pilot and Squaw--June 1948"
The door swung open behind him, and the aroma of coffee flowed in with the dispatcher.
"I go home now," the dispatcher said. "I sent 308 to Omaha to pick up 312's load; your first flight's due in at 3:16 a.m.; 308 will be in at 3:45; 312, when they fix it, will go back to Kansas City; the runway's been glycoled; I hear one of Night Express's went off the runway at Minneapolis--so much for the
competition; the coffee's fresh; we need sugar, and there's only three thousand gallons of Jet fuel, more should be delivered tomorrow if it doesn't snow. Good Night."
Vernon followed him out.
"What's this?" he asked picking up a dusty black book from the counter.
"That? Oh, one of the construction worker's found it this morning when they tore out a wall..." He pointed toward the old hangar. "It's someone's logbook--old, real old. I was going to toss it out." With that he left.
Vernon turned the logbook over slowly in his hands. The binding was dry and cracked. It opened with a gentle rustle. The musty smell of the years rose to his nostrils sending a sharp pang through his emotions. He read the name: Charles S. Dansig. It meant nothing. The wind blew suddenly, rattling snow against the plate windows like thousands of tiny claws. Vernon looked up and reached for the thermostat, turning it a notch higher. He took the logbook into his office. He sat at his desk and read the name in the logbook again: Charles S. Dansig. It was taking on a familiar ring. He thought a moment, staring out the window past the bulldozer now fuzzy with snow. A thought dawned. He glanced at the two photographs on the wall. In one lunge he moved from behind his desk to the wall and lifted the Navy picture from its nail. The light was pale, so he twisted the desk lamp's neck, pointing it at the wall.
"Dansig," he said to himself. "Charlie Dansig, I've heard that name, I know it…"
Turning the photograph over, he fumbled with the staples holding the cardboard back to the frame. One of the staples was brittle and snapped, making a neat incision in his right index finger. A drop of blood soaked into the cardboard.
The photograph slid easily from the frame. He moved closer to the lamp and turned the glossy print over. The same fountain pen that had scrawled across the picture's face listed the crew's name starting with the plane's commander, Vernon L. Ackerbach, Lt., USN. Vernon scanned down the list, but the only name close to Dansig was, Charles "Charlie Horse" Danbury, a gunner. He set the print down on the glass frame and stared into the snow. The green and white arms of the beacon swept through the dusty night. He turned back to the wall, looking at the wedding photo. One by one, he examined the party, naming the young figures. "Harold Reynolds, Susie Hickok, Trevor Hedges...." He paused briefly and stared at his late wife, her round face smiling and bright; the white lace cascading across her dark hair. He said her name, "Peggy."
Suddenly, he looked to the end of the line and saw a tall, older man, dressed in a tuxedo the same as the others. The figure smiled like the others, but Vernon had forgotten his name. He flipped the picture over and tore the photograph from its mount, reading the back. Again the names were listed, but nothing even close to, Charles S. Dansig. The forgotten man was, Daniel Jones, a pilot Vernon had known and forgotten long ago. Dejected, he sat behind the desk and pushed the dismantled frames away. Their presence in the old building across from the old hangar depressed him. He watched the snow, then turned back to the desk, adjusted the lamp, and reached for the logbook.
With little interest, he flipped through the yellow edged pages reading the entries. They began in 1929 and ended abruptly in late 1931. Several blank pages followed the last entry. Vernon leaned over the desk. This was apparently Dansig’s second logbook. He estimated him to have almost 2000 hours when it terminated in 1931; almost a thousand of that coming in the last two years. The entries were scribbled, some in pen, others in dull pencil. Daily entries had been abandoned at the very beginning of the book, the owner choosing to lump weekly totals together in single line entries. It as apparent Charles S. Dansig flew the mail. Almost all the logged time was in a Boeing 40 biplane, one of those huge mail carriers Vernon remembered seeing as a boy.
He recalled sneaking off at night with his brother, riding double on the bicycle, to the airport in Salt Lake City to watch the mail planes come in. Nobody had bothered them as they stood in the dark arguing over which was better, the open cockpit Boeing 40's or the great model 80's, the tri-motors. His brother leaned toward the later, while Vernon argued the merits of having one's head out in the wind where one could feel the sky. A stab of loneliness rocked him, thinking of his brother. He tried not to think of the dead, but the memories came flooding back.
Slowly, he reached for the photographs, choosing the wedding picture. He stared at the group, the two Aeroncas and the date, June, 1948. He remembered how the wedding had been delayed a year after his brother's death. He wanted to cry, but refused. He slid the photograph away from him and picked up the logbook again.
"Well, Mr. Dansig, how did you manage to lose this?"
Suddenly, he noticed the radio was silent, the music gone. A low hum of static hissed through the halls. He glanced at his watch, 2:30 a.m.
"Must have gone off the air," he mumbled and stood. Outside the office he snapped the radio off. At the far end of the hallway, where the flight school had been, a fluorescent bulb flickered, trying to die. Wind rattled something deep inside the building. Vernon shivered from the cold.
"Impossible to heat this damn place," he said.
He walked down the long empty hall toward the flickering bulb, his own footsteps sharp against the cold stone floor. Looking at his hand, he noticed he still carried the logbook.
"Mmm," he uttered and reached for the light switch outside the old flight school office, and hesitated.
The school had been gone since 1951 when he last instructed there. Since then it had been used as an operations room, a maintenance office; an insurance company had even leased it for two years. Lately, it had been used for storage. Vernon peered inside and snapped on a light--four walls, all yellow, and a mop and bucket. Nothing remained of the hundreds of young men who passed through on the G.I. Bill. There was no trace of the maps, the training aids, the posters. Vernon stepped inside. He turned to his right, to exactly where the counter had stood, where Peggy had stood. He saw her. At least he felt as though he could see her.
"Hello," he said shyly. The cold walls stared back. "New skirt? I like plaid...Doing anything after work? No? I just got paid, care to...You would? Great! I have a student, now," he said aloud. "I'll see you when..." He heard his excited voice echo in the empty room and froze. He turned abruptly, leaving the room after smacking the light switch off. The fluorescent bulb still flickered as he strode back along the empty hallway toward his office.
"Stupid," he mumbled. "Forget them…Gone…They're all gone!"
He rounded the corner into his office and gathered the photographs in one hand trying to take the frames as well. He still carried the logbook. Smash! The two glass frames hit the floor and shattered, the shards dispersing under the desk and chair. "Ahhh…" He bent to pick up the broken frames, then stood.
"You can stay there!" he shouted. "You belong there!"
He turned toward the snow and felt his eyes swell. "You left me here," he said quietly.
A light poked through the snow. It moved toward him, sweeping its white beam from left to right, as though feeling its way in the darkness. Vernon stared. He looked at his watch, 2:40 a.m. The first arrival was not due for at least a half-hour. The beam continued to search, moving closer. The outline of an aircraft appeared, a large plane, a taildragger. The green and white beacon from the tower flashed overhead, and the deep rumble of radial engines vibrated the windows. All the company planes were turbines. Nobody used radial engines around there. Other companies still used DC-3's, but none came there. He watched the light, thick in the blowing snow. The airplane took shape, a twin engine with two rudders--an old twin Beech. The radial engines sent a deep throb into Vernon's insides. He remembered the same twins hauling passengers out of that very terminal forty years earlier.
The twin swiveled around, blowing snow in a great cloud toward the glass. Vernon left his office, ran down the hallway, and through the door. Once in the snow he moved quickly toward the airplane. Snow blew in cold eddies around him. He wore no coat, but ignored the cold. He carried the logbook.
"Peggy, remember the Twin Beech we took to Florida?" His voice was happy. He started to run and slipped, recovered and continued. The green and white lights washed above. The Twin
Beech shut one engine down, and a cargo door swung open. A vague face looked out from the darkened fuselage.
"Hello!" Vernon called. No one answered. "Have you come for me?" He stopped in front of the open door. The face leaned out.
"What?" It was a young face on a young man dressed in blue jeans and a nylon parka. He needed a shave and chewed gum nervously.
"Did you come for me?" Vernon asked again, feeling something was wrong.
"You from Federal Express?" the pilot asked and kicked at the doorframe to keep his feet warm. "I've never flown in here; normally go into Cedar Rapids, but it's closed. There's supposed
to be a truck meet me here. You it?"
Vernon shook his head slowly and stared at the plane. The one radial still running ticked evenly.
"If you're not it, I'm closing the door. It's cold out here. Where's your coat?" the pilot asked.
Vernon suddenly felt the cold. "I...What year is this?" he asked.
The pilot was already reaching for the door. "This? Ah, I think it's a '48, '47 or a '48. Hell, I don't know."
"No, I mean what year is it now?"
The pilot tilted his head. "Look, I think you'd better get inside, or get home. You can't be standing around in the cold like that. Why don't you go on. The van's pulling up now."
Vernon turned. A large van pulled through the gate and past his car still perched on the snow bank. He walked back to the terminal, his elbow beginning to ache again. Before he reached the door he turned. "Is your name, Dansig?" he called. "Charles S. Dansig?"
The pilot shook his head and waved the delivery van back toward the airplane.
Vernon walked along the hallway and back into his office. He sat. Emotion drained from him, leaving only an emptiness. The Twin Beech fired its other engine and Vernon listened to it taxi away, then, silence. He sat, unmoving. He felt foolish. He glanced at the photographs.
"Ghosts," he said. "I wanted ghosts." Planting his elbows on the desk, he rubbed his face with both hands. A white light flashed through the window moving his shadow momentarily across the wall where the photographs had been. He glanced over his shoulder. The control tower's beam pulsated once, white, and then seconds later, white again, no green. He barely noted it. Another plane taxied toward the terminal, its light searching through the snow. A large piston engine shook the windows again. Vernon chuckled. "Not one of mine," he said.
He kept his back to the window. The plane's landing light poked through the glass again, keeping Vernon's shadow on the wall. He held his head in his hands. The engine ticked at idle behind him, and a strong wind shook the building. He glanced up. The flicker of the fluorescent bulb was the only movement in the hallway, but he felt something.
"Baloney," he said, still leaning on the desk. But something was moving, moving toward him. He listened, and heard nothing other that the snow against the glass and the airplane's motor outside. His shadow barely moved beside the doorframe. The hallway light flickered. Suddenly, someone appeared in the doorway, filling the frame.
"You have something of mine," a deep voice said. He stood in shadow, the light from outside not reaching him. Vernon sat frozen, his shadow unmoving. The figure raised an arm into the light. It was coated in thick leather, its hand in heavy gauntlet. A finger pointed toward him.
"There, on the desk."
Vernon barely moved his eyes, looking where the figure indicated. The logbook.
"No need to be surprised," the voice said, now almost friendly. "You've been looking for me. I felt it, so I came."
Vernon spoke, his voice a thin creak. "Dansig? Charles S. Dansig?"
"Charlie. I need the logbook. I never filled in my last flight, you know." His hand opened slowly.
Vernon picked the book from the desk and started to hand it to him. "I...I suspected there might be...things...like you." The hand still reached out waiting for the book. "Are there others?"
Vernon glanced at the wedding photo, the Navy photo. "All the others?"
"Do you know them?"
"Can you...can I...?"
"I cannot, but you can."
"You found me didn't you?"
"Find them." With that, the figure stretched its hand even further. "Please, I must go."
Vernon looked outside at the airplane, a biplane, a Boeing Model 40, mail plane. A steady white beacon light flashed--no green. He remembered the old airway beacons flashing solid white
when he was a child. He looked back at the figure, still in shadow. He stood and moved closer. The nearer he got, the more vague the figure became. He could almost see through it to the hallway.
"Please," the voice said.
Vernon placed the logbook in the outstretched hand. The fingers closed, and the figure vanished almost instantly along the hallway toward the flickering light. Vernon ran to the window. The solid white beacon flashed and the Boeing 40, under a blast of power swiveled its tail and disappeared in a cloud of twisting snow. The beacon from the tower flashed white..., then green. Vernon sat lightly at the desk and picked up the wedding photograph. A lightness overcame him, and he ran his fingers over Peggy's face.
"Just find them," he said. "Find them."
the Logbook ©, 1987, 2007 by Paul Berge. All rights reserved by the author. Contact Ahquabi House Publishing, LLC for reprint permission or queries.
Monday, April 23, 2007
© 2004, Paul Berge
Dreamers by definition live on the edge of reality and learn that to deviate from the sublime can lead to unintended enlightenment. In the summer of 1967, my aviation fantasies reformed when I took my first airplane ride.
A Civil Air Patrol recruiter promised flight that I, a 13-year old dreamer, expanded into visions of being at the controls of a T-38 jet trainer, taxiing to the runway with the canopy up and an oxygen mask dangling from my helmet. I envisioned smooth climbs past marshmallow clouds where I’d impress the instructor with loops and rolls and perhaps a maneuver that the Air Force hadn’t yet imagined. So, it was with profound anticipation that I stood in formation at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey with several thousand other sweating C.A.P. cadets, our acned faces scarlet from the heat. A colonel resembling Ernest Borgnine wiped his forehead and gave the vital preflight mission briefing: “The first flight commences after lunch, so don’t eat too much.” That was it; not a lot of info for a first-time flyer, but being a teenager, I ignored what I didn’t understand and packed away macaroni salad, tater tots, and lime Jell-O, washed down with a half-gallon of chocolate milk.
Later, outside the mess hall we loaded onto blue school buses and rode to the flight line where instead of rows of sleek T-38s we found a lone—rather worn--C-130 Hercules, four-engine transport shimmering in the dull heat, its back end open like a panting eel awaiting prey. A crewman, barely older than us, stood on the ramp smirking with amused distain. Being a teenager I was used to that look from adults but didn’t expect it on my first flight.
“Find a seat and buckle in,” he called as we herded into the Herc’s belly. Intense heat sucked the air from my lungs and I dropped onto a canvas seat along the bulkhead beneath a window that was too high above me to use. “Let’s git a move on, gentlemen,” our host grumbled. Then, as the ramp door shut he gave his welcome-aboard speech: “Don’t touch nuthin’, don’t get out a’ yer seats ‘til I says so, and don’t puke on my airplane.” I vaguely wondered what he meant by that because I felt fine. “If’n you do feel dis-com-fort,” he continued, “then use the bags located above your seats.” Then he disappeared before I could ask him to repeat since I didn’t see any bags. Still, I wasn’t ill, so I handled the information the way I did all adult advice and ignored it.
As yet my first flight didn’t match my soaring imagination. Where I’d expected fighter-style cockpits, I now sat strapped on a bench inside a solar oven with no view of the sky. An engine whined to life and managed to route its kerosene exhaust into the airplane. Eventually, all four turbines churned against the heat, and we taxied for what seemed like miles, although without a window I could only mark progress as the wheels clicked across the expansion joints in the pavement. The heat intensified and soon burnt jet fuel was all we breathed, but being from New Jersey my lungs could handle it.
Finally, this aluminum warehouse with its wilted cargo rumbled down the runway until with an upward pitch of the deck followed moments later by the groan of gear retracting, I knew we were flying. Since entering the airplane however, I hadn’t seen a speck of sky but despite this, I knew I’d crossed over from being a dreamer of flight to flyer.
“You can stand up and look outside now,” the airman called. As one we unbuckled our seatbelts, stood, and lunged to peer through the few available windows. But as I stood and turned I felt all the squishy parts inside my head continue to spin even though my skull had stopped. Instantly, as though I’d been injected with a fast-acting emetic, my skin chilled, knees unhooked, and I slid like wet laundry onto the seat and stared at the floor, where there appeared two well-shined black shoes beneath an airman’s voice: “You ain’t gonna puke now are you?”
I tried to answer, but instead of words macaroni salad and tater tots in a slurry of warm chocolate milk and lime Jell-O shot from my mouth and onto those shiny shoes.
There was much yelling after that, but I didn’t care because I was dying. In all my earthbound fantasies of flight, I’d never once dreamt of airsickness, didn’t know it existed, and I’d guess that any of the dozen or so other cadets on that flight who soon followed my lead to coat an Air Force transport’s floor with barely-chewed mess hall chow, were equally surprised at this phenomenon.
After 20 minutes of shaking C.A.P. cadets into jellied wretches above the New Jersey pinelands in the summer heat, the C-130 returned to base. The landing gear moaned down and locked before its tires smacked the runway with the grace of a cement truck dropped from a Zeppelin. And as we taxied back I expected to see a row of ambulances waiting to haul us to emergency Red Cross tents. But, instead, the Hercules stopped, dropped its back ramp, and with military efficiency we were herded off—green-faced and broken—while the next batch of cadets marched up the other side of the ramp no-doubt wondering what fate awaited them aloft. I can still see their faces as the cargo door sealed them inside the fetid C-130’s belly before it taxied away.
Some firsts aren’t so hot. On that, my first flight, I didn’t even get to look out the window. There was no joyous swooping and soaring. I didn’t slip surly bonds or touch the face of anyone’s god but, instead, merely heaved on an unsung airman’s shoes. Still, whatever dream had led me to flight survived despite this gut-shot of reality, and although it took several more flights—none in a C-130—before anyone would invite me back a second time, my dream of wings never died. And today when a new student climbs into the cockpit with me I never mention the possibility of aerial dis-com-fort because I don’t want to plant a bad seed inside a dreamer’s imagination where fantasies of flight should grow. Enlightened as I now am, however, I won’t hesitate to cinch a garbage bag over their heads at the first hint of a dream reaching the edge.
First Flight Deserved Last Rites © was written by Paul Berge, all rights reserved. And the CAP and USAF reserved the right to never invite him back for a second ride.
Monday, April 16, 2007
(continued from Part 2. See Archive at left for Part 1)
...The snake reached for the upper tube and, tongue probing the air, wound slowly toward the chipmunk.
Eva turned and ran. The bristled weeds clutched at her gown and legs. She reached the hangar completely out of breath and pressed her face against the wooden door. It gave. She stepped back and glanced over her shoulder at the fuselage where the chipmunk was about to be swallowed whole by the snake. She pressed on the door and followed it inside.
And, now, Part 3, the conclusion to Last Ride Forever, by Paul Berge:
Late afternoon sunlight filtered through the many cracks in the ceiling, probing the still room with dusty yellow fingers. Eva’s feet dragged through the grit and debris on the warped linoleum floor. A mouse scurried along a baseboard and disappeared through a crack.
A row of windows faced the abandoned runway. Most of the glass had been smashed out and plywood boards covered the holes. Eva’s bare feet pressed into the glass shards without cutting.
“This was the pilot’s lounge,” she said. “That’s where the model airplanes hung.”
She swiped at the ceiling as though trying to set the imaginary models in motion.
“There was a couch across here, below the windows. Somebody was always trying to sleep there. And a table in the center of the room covered with magazines and charts and coffee cups.
“Whenever anyone soloed we would cut their shirt tail off and pin it to the walls around the room.”
She twirled in a sweeping turn, her two arms taking in the whole room. Her face wore a bright distant smile.
“The instructor would print the date of the solo on the shirt tail and sign it. I complained when they cut mine, because it was my favorite blouse, but I really didn’t mind, you know.” She pointed. “It hung there. April 16th, 1940. And Ed’s signature across the bottom.
“When he was cutting it out he made like he would accidentally snip through my bra strap. Well, of course, this made everyone laugh and applaud. My face turned the brightest red.” She stared at the empty wall, where the paint was now peeling and water stains ran to the floor.
Something stirred outside--an engine barked. Eva turned.
“Wake up, Mrs. Gwyer,” the nurse’s voice cut through the deep fog in Eva’s brain. “Wake up, I need to change your bedding.” It was a different nurse, one she had never seen. The woman was tall and strong, yet gentle. She felt herself being lifted while fresh sheets were tucked under her weak and useless body.
“Why don’t you let me alone?” she implored, her voice merely a croak.
The room was dark, except for the harsh direct light from above the bed. The nurse worked swiftly, effortlessly. Eva was jostled from side to side, allowing the nurse to make the bed one half at a time. The smell of starched white linen was strong in her nostrils.
“I was at the airport,” she said. “I remember. I was there, just now.” Eva gazed straight at the nurse who nodded and smiled while tucking in the corners, pulling the sheets drum tight.
“What airport was that, Mrs. Gwyer?”
Eva’s face grew blank, confused by the question, as though the nurse had asked something completely absurd. “What airport was what?” Eva asked.
“You said you were at an airport,” the nurse persisted. Somewhere beyond the doorway a phone rang, and a muffled voice answered it. Outside, the night sky flashed with diffused lightning. Eva turned toward the glass.
“It looks like rain tonight,” the nurse said and pulled the sheets to Eva’s chin. “Do you need anything?”
Eva stared into the friendly eyes, considering the question. Filled with sincerity, it fell woefully short of anything she could comprehend. ‘Do I need anything? Yes, I need everything. I need life, and health...and I want, no I long to look at the clouds.’
The lightning flashed again. Eva turned back to the window and saw her reflection in the black glass, a hollow shadow, alone and tired. Suddenly, the night exploded in stark white, and she saw the trees lean against the initial blast of the storm. The window rattled from the boom of distant thunder drawing near.
“I want to fly,” she said. “I want to fly again.” She turned back to the nurse. “I used to fly. Ed taught me. Did you know him?”
She turned back to the dark window. Lightning tracked spider webs across the sky.
“Ed always wore an old leather jacket and smoked Chesterfields. He drove a motorcycle; it made such a racket. He’d run it right down the runway, racing the airplanes. Drove the airport manager--can’t think of his name, ah, Bill something--drove him nuts.” She turned to the nurse, who listened patiently, her face deeply creviced by the overhead light.
“Bill Cleverdon. That was his name, and Ed’s motorcycle was an Indian. The first time he asked me out on a date I was terrified he’d show up on that bike, but somehow he borrowed Bill’s Essex, and that was almost as bad. Seats were worn through, and you could look right between the rotten floorboards at the road whizzing past.”
The nurse said nothing, only listened. She had done it many times before. It was all that was left to do.
Eva looked into the night. “Ed had thick wavy brown hair.”
The sky rumbled, and fat raindrops, like tears, splattered against the glass, smearing her reflection.
“The Army shaved it all off when he went in, of course, but by the time he went overseas in ‘44 it had grown back--pretty much.”
She was quiet. A telephone rang down the hallway again. Someone swept into the room, whispered to the nurse and left.
“Mrs. Gwyer, I have to go. You call if you need...” But Eva was staring at the rain and muttering to herself. The nurse left.
Water cascaded in sheets along the glass. Eva thought for a moment she was looking into a fast moving river.
“Ed?” she called, raising herself on an elbow. “Do you remember the Waco? Do you remember how we flew it down the beach that summer?” She dropped heavily onto the pillow. Suddenly, the room was lighted with a bright white flash, and then plunged into shadows again. “We should do that again.”
Eva tugged at her hospital gown caught on the barbed wire fence. It gave with a sharp rip, and she fell giggling to the weeds. Flat on her back, she gazed at the deep blue sky and watched chubby white clouds move slowly toward the horizon.
The air was heavy with pine; from somewhere in the distance the sweet chirp of a clarinet played Artie Shaw. She recognized the tune, or at least knew that she should remember it. She rose.
“What a beautiful day!” she exclaimed, and brushed stems and seeds from her gown. “Will you look at the way I’m dressed.” She laughed aloud. One hand ran fingers through her suddenly long hair. The sound of a small airplane motor starting made her turn.
“Where are you?” she called. She started to run, her legs strong, eager to move. The sun pressed down, spreading vague warmth that also blinded her. She had trouble seeing where she was headed, or what was around her.
She found the runway, still crumbled and full of weeds, and at the limits of her hazy vision she could see the hangar past the chain link fence.
She glanced down at her gown, at her feet. They were melting out of focus. The clarinet played on. The airplane motor ticked in time with the music. She ran.
Overhead, an airliner descended, its jet engines whining. She turned, saw the aluminum skin glint in the sun, then, instantly, it vanished.
Eva no longer felt her body move; only the sensation of motion carried her along the runway toward the hangar and the source of the music.
The chain link fence was in sharp focus, blocking her path, and she reached out to grab it.
“Mrs. Gwyer,” the voice called. She ran. “Mrs. Gwyer, do you hear me?”
“No!” Eva shouted, and the airport faded until the hospital room appeared in her vision. Two figures huddled together over her bed, and a third entered.
“How is she?” the third asked.
‘Hello, Barbara,’ Eva tried to say.
“Can she talk? Can she hear me?” her daughter asked, her questions sharp and to the point, the way she always spoke.
‘Barbara, you’re just going to have to loosen up a little, you’re too damn serious.’
Someone poked her arm with a needle. The pain eluded her.
‘Oh, don’t waste your time, for crying out loud...’
The light faded, and she was at the airport.
“Mrs. Gwyer...” the voice persisted.
‘Good-bye,’ Eva thought and reached for the chain link fence. It gave under her pressure, evaporating into air. She moved along the runway toward the hangar where the office door stood open.
“Close the door, Eva. You’ll let all the flies out.” The man’s voice came from behind a counter near the source of the music. She pushed the door shut behind her, and a swarm of tiny airplanes suspended from the ceiling danced on the wind.
“Hello, Bill,” she called. “What’s that music?”
The man barely took form, beyond the little airplanes, but his voice came back, “Begin the Beguine?”
She nodded slowly and approached the window. Outside, the world was bright, and hazy figures appeared around a grass field dotted with airplanes.
“Is he out there?” she asked.
“See for yourself,” Bill’s voice answered.
Eva moved closer to the window, looking for the man in the leather jacket and wavy hair. Someone taxied a Cub past, and someone waved.
“Have I come to stay?” she asked Bill. He shrugged, his entire form still misty near the music. Eva turned back to the window, lifting herself onto the arm of a couch. She leaned against the cool glass, and from the corner of her vision saw the rusted fuselage alone in a patch of weeds.
She flinched. The chipmunk was there, atop the highest tube. The snake had curled its way unnoticed to a position directly behind it. Eva stared. She waited, as the snake, its tongue probing the air, sized up its prey. Like the chipmunk, she was unable to move.
Before she knew what happened, it struck.
She gasped. The music stopped. The chipmunk was gone. The snake eased down the tubing and disappeared, swallowing the image of the rusted fuselage with it. The music returned. The door behind her opened, and the little suspended airplanes bounced overhead. She stepped outside.
There, beyond the Cubs, past the Rearwin, the Taylorcraft, and the Fairchild, stood the Waco. Its massive wings reached out for her, its silver propeller spun in a huge disk, reflecting the sun’s glare.
And around the tail, stepped a man, dressed in a leather jacket and running his fingers through his wavy brown hair.
The Last Ride Forever© was written by Paul Berge and was produced for radio by Rejection Slip Theater. Morgan Halgren of Iowa Public TV, played Eva. Rejection Slip Theater can be heard, free, worldwide at: http://feeds.feedburner.com/rejectionsliptheater
To order the CD audio book, the Logbook©, for $19.95 plus tax and shipping, send an e-mail request to: firstname.lastname@example.org DO NOT INCLUDE CREDIT CARD INFO!
Tuesday, April 10, 2007
And, now, Part 2 of The Last Ride Forever, by Paul Berge:
Eva stared. The chipmunk remained immobile, the snake inching ever closer. The wind blew the aroma of the warm pines toward them, and she saw the snake’s tongue shoot out, probing. She wanted to shout, to warn the little animal, but her voice failed her. Gradually, the snake worked his way through the remains of the old airplane, reaching for the chipmunk.
Eva turned to the hangar. She could see where the flying school’s sign had once hung. The COCA COLA sign was still there, but it was shot full of rusty holes, so only the tip of the green bottle was still recognizable.
She looked back at the chipmunk. It never moved.
‘Run!’ she wanted to shout, but the sound never left her voice. The snake, its tongue shooting forth in quick stabs, moved closer.
“Ed was a flight instructor here,” she said, purposefully turning away from the snake. “That’s where I met him.” She pointed at the hangar, to a small door beside the riddled COCA COLA sign. “That was the office. It was full of model airplanes suspended from the ceiling by strings, so whenever anyone opened the door all the little airplanes would dance around like they were caught in a storm.”
She glanced at the chipmunk, still motionless on the fuselage, its paws still in prayer. The snake was now only inches below him.
“There was a map on the wall, too,” she said too loudly. “A map of the whole country, with a tack marking this airport, and a string off that so you could measure distances to any place else in the country.”
The snake was now within striking distance of the chipmunk, but still it refused to move, or admit to the danger.
‘Why don’t you do something?’ she screamed, but again, the voice only echoed in her head, never reaching the animal.
Slowly, the snake’s head rose.
“We’re doing something,” the young man’s voice came softly through the fog. “You just relax.”
Eva’s vision broke through a heavy cloud. She was no longer at the airport, no longer staring at the hangar and the snake.
“What?” she asked, confused, and saw the doctor leaning over her bed, one hand on her shoulder the other holding a chart in a gray metal folder.
“Can you hear me, Mrs. Gwyer?” He shouted the question, as though calling to her down a long tunnel. She heard his voice, but wanted to ignore him. She turned her head on the pillow and looked down at her feet. The blankets were pulled back, and a nurse rubbed lotion onto her frail twig legs. The hospital gown was bunched to one side.
“I’ll give you something to help you sleep,” the young doctor shouted again and wrote furiously in the metal folder before snapping it shut. She only caught his eyes once, deep set and dark--tired and impersonal eyes.
“I want...” Eva said and forgot what she wanted.
“What, Dear,” the nurse’s friendly voice asked. “What do you want?”
Eva strained to remember what she wanted. She knew she had been dreaming, but the dream was vanishing until all she could remember was the snake.
“A snake,” she announced. ‘No, that can’t be right,’ she thought and laughed inside her head.
“You want a snake?” the nurse asked with an amused lilt in her voice. “I don’t think you want that. Now, just let me turn you over and I’ll get your back.”
Eva felt herself being gently rolled over. She felt as though her body was a light bag of fragile bones ready to crack. Her face pressed into the pillow, her nose filled with the sanitized odor of hospital linen. Across the room she recognized a face, her daughter.
The woman, in her mid-40s, stood alone and sad in the shadows, staring at her dying mother being rubbed and charted by the staff. Eva smiled and saw her daughter force a smile in return. ‘Why is she so gloomy?’ she asked herself, feeling her senses sharpen. “Barbara?” she called.
“Yes, Mom,” her daughter answered and moved toward the bed.
“What am I doing here?” she asked. Her daughter started to answer and looked to the doctor, who shrugged, not an I-don’t-know shrug but more I-can’t-help. Eva tapped her almost hairless skull weakly. “I feel something going on in here, Barbara. There’s something taking me away...”
She closed her eyes.
The doctor took Barbara aside. “She’s in little pain,” he said. He spoke mechanically, having been on duty for over 23 hours already. “She’ll talk about strange things; brain tumors do that. One minute lucid; the next she could babble like an infant.”
“How much longer?”
“Anytime,” he said. “All we can do is keep her comfortable.”
“What, no more miracle cures like the chemotherapy, until the rest of her hair falls out? Or maybe teeth or eyes?”
“I’m sorry. We had to try, but we can’t always...”
She cut him off with a wave, and he left the room. The nurse finished the rubdown, rolled Eva onto her back and tucked the blankets securely around her. She then placed the oxygen tubes back into her nostrils and started to leave.
“Thank-you,” Barbara said, her voice hollow.
“Your mother has been talking about airplanes a great deal. Did she work for the airlines?”
Barbara thought for a minute. “No,” she said. And then, “But she was a pilot…”
“A long time ago, before the war, before I was born. And during the war she flew with the WASP….”
“Oh, I’ve heard of them,” the nurse said and tried to recall the acronym: “Women’s Air Something Planes?”
“Women Airforce Service Pilots…yes. She flew bombers on, ah, ferry flights, during the war.”
“Really?” The nurse seemed honestly impressed.
Barbara laughed. “I haven’t thought about that in years; she rarely ever mentioned it. She has some old photographs of herself in the pilot’s seat of these big old airplanes, her and some other women in uniform. She said they flew all kinds of warplanes across the country. She saw more military duty than many men in the service, but for years they never received any recognition from the government as veterans. I don’t know if they’d even let her into a veteran’s hospital. She’d never let me ask.”
“Did she fly after the war?” the nurse asked.
“No, she became pregnant with me in 1945, and my father was killed over Germany. He was a fighter pilot. She never flew again. Rarely spoke of him.”
“Did she remarry?”
“Yes, and he became my father. He died several years ago. I loved him, but I don’t think they really ever got along too well together.”
Suddenly, Barbara looked at the nurse. “I don’t know why I told you that...I shouldn’t have. Excuse me.”
She stared at her mother, thin and still beneath the heavy covers. Only the occasional rise and fall of her chest indicating any life. “Please call me if anything...” She left the room in a hurry.
Eva unhooked the hem of her hospital gown from the rusty barb on the wire fence. Her bare feet pressed lightly into the dried weeds. Overhead, an airliner descended toward a runway three miles away, and Eva walked toward the old hangar on the deserted airstrip.
The scent of pine was heavy in the warm air, and she breathed in deeply. Passing a dusty pit full of beer cans and a shopping cart, she remembered a day in 1940 when a friend ground looped a Taylorcraft into it.
“Oh, they got into such an argument,” she said aloud. “They eventually got married, you know,” she said to no one. “George and Doris that is. He went off and flew bombers in the Pacific--B-24’s. She was the one who told me all about the WASP, talked me into joining. Last I heard they lived in New York, upstate somewhere. He’s retired from TWA, I believe. She writes to me--a Christmas card every year...” Her voice trailed off as she stepped onto the deteriorated runway and stared at the wooden hangar.
Eva reached the chain link fence. Her legs grew heavy, her breath tight and short. She leaned against the fence.
“There was a grass strip that ran across the paved runway,” she said. “We actually preferred the grass to the pavement. Every landing was a good one on grass. The flight examiners would make us land on the pavement, and, oh, how the tires would chirp and squeal. Showed us what sloppy landings we were really making. Did I mention I soloed here? In a Waco?”
She pushed away from the fence, stepped over a broken bottle and walked toward the hangar. Her pace quickened with each step.
“We had a Fairchild.” She pointed toward a cluster of low trees. “There was another hangar there.” The concrete base of the long vanished hangar could be seen through the foliage.
“I took my instrument training in the Fairchild. Ed instructed in that, too.” She looked away. A flight of robins lifted from the pine trees, circled over the runway, and in an undulating wave, returned to the woods. Eva continued toward the hangar.
She saw the rusted fuselage beneath the bullet riddled COCA COLA sign. The chipmunk sat unmoving, unaware of the snake beginning to coil along the welded tubing toward him.
‘That’s not the place to be,’ she tried to say, but the words stuck in her throat. The snake reached for the upper tube and, tongue probing the air, wound slowly toward the chipmunk.
Eva turned and ran. The bristled weeds clutched at her gown and legs. She reached the hangar completely out of breath and pressed her face against the wooden door. It gave. She stepped back and glanced over her shoulder at the fuselage where the chipmunk was about to be swallowed whole by the snake. She pressed on the door and followed it inside. (to be continued…)
*** End Part 2 of 3 ***
Thursday, April 5, 2007
She stepped carefully over the top strand of the wire fence. A rusty barb tore at her dressing gown, refusing to let her proceed. With one hand on the old dry post, Eva clutched the gown and pulled. The cotton skirt ripped in a long ragged strip from her knee to across her hip. She wanted to cry. The wind, although light, was warm and carried forgotten smells from the pinewoods across the abandoned runway.
Everything was exactly as it had once been, but everything had changed.
Weeds obscured the ramp where once a dozen small airplanes had parked. The pole where the SHELL fuel sign had been was still visible. Even the ring where the enamel yellow sign hung still remained, only now it looked to Eva like a basketball hoop set the wrong way. A sparrow perched in the center, its head twitching in the breeze, ignoring her. She clutched the tattered gown as best she could around her thin legs and set out across the field.
Overhead, the whine of an airliner slowly crossed the sky. She watched the jet lower its wheels on final approach to the international airport only three miles away. The sun glinted off the jet’s fuselage, and it rocked briefly in the wind. When she turned her eyes back to the old airstrip, the sparrow was gone.
She wanted to stop. Her breath came hard, her heart pounding in her temples and ears, her vision suddenly cloudy. The climb over the barbed wire fence had somehow exhausted her. Eva desperately wanted to get across the runway to the parking ramp, to the old building just visible against the pine trees.
“Should have worn my shoes,” she mumbled looking at her bare feet in the dry weeds. The torn hospital gown did little to block the wind, but she could not remember why she was wearing it.
Another jet descended across the trees, its landing gear popping out at the same spot where the last one had extended its.
“Like robots,” Eva said with a smile. “Can’t think for themselves.”
The runway was almost completely overgrown with stubby vegetation. The black hardtop had decomposed into gray pebbles laced with cracks where the weeds had taken root. Slowly the old pavement was returning to earth. When the weeds had broken the pavement into small enough pieces, the pine trees would take root, and eventually there would be no trace of the airfield ever having been there. Eva took all this in without sadness. She was resigned to the strip’s fate, almost happy.
The gravel crunched under her bare feet in soft contrast to the stream of jets overhead. A flight of robins, headed north, popped from the trees and swooped low over her head. Friendly chirps blended perfectly with her footsteps.
“Doris and George ran the Taylorcraft off the runway right over there,” she said and pointed toward a dusty pit beneath a line of scrub oak. She laughed. “Doris said George was flying, and George swore he told her to make the landing…” She stopped and put a thin white hand to her chin, the delicate fingertips touching her dry lips. She tilted her head, seeing what was long gone. “I think Doris was paying more attention to George, than the airplane, and I know George had his eyes on other things than the runway.” She stared at the empty pit beside the runway, the only thing there, now, a dozen empty beer cans and a shopping cart turned on its side.
Eva walked down the abandoned runway and stared at the chain link fence that cut across it two thirds of the way down. The city had years before converted the land into a parking area for its road equipment, and erected a fence across the runway around a collection of snow plows. She looked beyond the fence.
What drew her along was the hangar, or what was left of it, at the far end of the field. It was the only structure remaining.
“I soloed here,” she announced to no one. “In April, April the 16th, 1940.” She stepped on a stone and recoiled, almost falling. Her strength was failing rapidly, her vision was fading, she longed to sleep, to lie on the broken pavement amid the tall weeds and sleep.
“I soloed here,” she repeated. “In a Waco. That’s a biplane, an awfully big biplane.” She listened to more robins flying out from the trees; there voices as sweet as the spring air itself, their energy as young and vital, as she felt old and wasted. She looked down at the white hospital gown, and a shudder of fear raced through her. She gathered the skirt tight around her and headed toward the hangar.
“Yes,” she cried, “I soloed here.” Her feet scraped on the old pavement, her steps quickening. “I made three landings--good landings. Although, maybe, I bounced the first one just a little.” Tears rose to her eyes, further clouding her vision. She hurried toward the hangar so far away. “I remember that big radial engine swinging a massive silver propeller. I was so scared of that when I first flew, but after eight or ten hours I came to love it.”
She left the runway for the taller weeds along the chain link fence. Her fingers clutched at the metal weave, and she pulled herself along, hand over hand, her breath coming in short tight spasms as she tried to reach the hangar.
“There were so many of us!” she cried aloud. “So many, and everyone so young and beautiful and so...so...” She leaned her face against the chain mail, her voice coming in sobs. “Jack took the Cub up one afternoon and did twenty loops in a row. Beth, took that as a challenge, and as soon as he landed, hopped in and did twenty-five.” She pushed away from the fence and ran her fingers through the few strands of gray hair left on her head. “Then Allison showed them all up by doing thirty loops and a five-turn spin back into the pattern.”
The pine trees moaned with the wind. Eva drew closer to the hangar. Its boards weathered gray, its windows either missing entirely or cracked. She stepped past a rusted twist of steel tubing with a small tree growing through it. It was a fuselage, but from what she could only guess. A chipmunk sat on the highest point, its front paws held as though in prayer, its eyes fixed and staring. Below him, the grass moved where a snake gradually wound its way along a tube, coiling up towards the chipmunk....(to be continued)
*** End Part 1 ***To order the CD audio book, the Logbook©, for $19.95 plus tax and shipping, send an e-mail request to: email@example.com DO NOT INCLUDE CREDIT CARD INFO!
Thursday, March 15, 2007
His eyes were heavy from lack of sleep when he punched in the door code and went inside. The front offices were dark, typewriters covered. Working without management around was the only advantage he could find for the midnight watch.
He stuffed his cigar into a metal ashtray on the wall before heading down the dark hallway toward the TRACON. He pushed open another door labeled, RESTRICTED--AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY.
“Anyone home?” he called. Inside, five radarscopes were arranged in a semi-circle along the far wall.
“Already moved it upstairs,” he said to himself. The room was empty and as dark as the hallway, but, of course, it was always dark. The five scopes gave off a weak green light, their radar sweeps turning in perfect unison like a synchronized Laundromat, any targets on a slow tumble. The evening shift had moved the operation to the single BRITE scope in the tower cab for the midnight watch. He wished for the hundredth time that one of the scopes from the TRACON could be moved to the tower cab to replace the BRITE.
“It's dangerous vectoring off that antiquated piece of junk,” he had often complained.
“Nothing wrong with the BRITE; always worked fine; do your best, besides, there's nothing we can do about it...” The responses flooded back in his memory like voices on an answering machine. He had long since quit complaining, there was no use anymore. The system was far more powerful than he; it would survive regardless. He, however…
Michael rode the elevator for six floors, and then walked the remaining three flights to the cab. Halfway there he plugged a fresh cigar into his mouth, and, by the top step, his heart thumping in his ears, he caught his breath.
“Good evening, Mike,” Helen called, glancing over her shoulder, before turning back to the BRITE scope. She stood alone in a corner, working traffic. The few lights from radio switches and the harsh glare of the reading lamp reflected off the surrounding windows.
“Hello, hello,” Michael answered through a deep yawn.
“Tired?” she asked and turned her head toward the window, where far below, amid the blue and yellow lights, a Boeing 727 pushed away from the terminal.
“No, United,” she said into the microphone. “That taxiway's still closed. Turn left on Papa, then D-2, follow the outer and hold short of runway two-three.”
She wore a headset, so the answer was lost, but Michael could almost see the confusion form in a large question mark above the airliner's cockpit.
“They still got taxiway Echo closed?” he asked and reached inside a cabinet for his coffee cup. “Wasn't that supposed to open last week?”
“Was to, but you know how those promises go.” They both smiled with looks of shared frustration tempered by years of disappointment.
“Get any sleep this afternoon?” she asked.
“I can't ever get more than a catnap, either, before a mid. Somehow, I just can't seem to convince my body to cooperate. 'Hey, body, now pay attention. We're going to get up at five a.m., work for eight hours, go home at two-thirty, get up at ten p.m. and work until eight a.m.. Now, brain, I want you to stay sharp. Those are real airplanes you'll be working.'“ She started to laugh, and then keyed her microphone while pointing out the window. “United six-oh-two, hold short of two-three; traffic landing.”
“Put it up in the speakers,” Michael said and plugged in a hand microphone.
Helen flipped the receiver switches up, and United's voice scratched through the speaker, “...Don't worry, we're holding.”
He, too, sounded tired, slightly irritable.
“Just don't scare me like that,” Helen said to the glass without keying the frequency. “You ready for this?” she asked Michael.
“Not really, but the paycheck might stop coming if I said, no.” He moved closer to the board with the flight plans. “What have you got?”
“There's flow control into Denver, still...”
“I don't know, maybe they just wanted to give the tower over there a break. Maybe everyone went on strike. Who knows?”
Helen recoiled theatrically, covering her ears. “Strike? Perish the thought.”
“Those words never left these lips,” Michael said making a locking gesture at his mouth. “Besides, they can't fire us all.”
“Anyhow,” Helen continued, “United's holding short of two-three; he wants twelve left. I guess he thinks it's closer to Chicago, who knows? TWA's on short final for two-three; Mitsubishi Five Mike Romeo is following TWA, eating his lunch and...” She scanned the darkened airport as though searching for someone. “Down there somewhere,” she pointed, “is Twin Cessna Three Delta Lima, he's called ready.”
“I got it,” Michael said as TWA touched the pavement and shot past United in a rumble of thrust reversers. “United, ah, ah, what's-your-number, cross runway two-three.”
“That's United Six-Oh-Two, Tower. We're crossing two-three.”
“Glad I'm not staying up all night,” Helen said unplugging her headset and wadding it into a knot. “I'm beat.”
“Tell me about it,” he sighed. “Mitsubishi Five Mike Romeo, runway two-three cleared to land, traffic departing twelve left, wind two two zero at eight.” The Mitsubishi pilot read back the clearance while Michael turned to Helen. “At least I got tomorrow off. I can catch up on a week's sleep.”
“Got overtime again this week?”
“Of course. Who doesn't? Twin Cessna Three Delta Lima, runway three-zero-right taxi into position and hold.” A voice acknowledged, and red and white lights moved onto a far corner of the crossing runway. “TWA Eleven Eighty-four, turn left first intersection, cross three-zero left, via Alpha two, hold short of three-zero right, traffic to depart.”
“Roger, turn left, cross the left, alpha two, short of the right, TWA Eleven Eighty-four.”
“Can't remember the last time I saw a two-day weekend,” Helen said heading for the stairs. “Well, have a nice mid. Try and stay awake.” She vanished.
“Why?” Michael called after her. He heard the door click below. “Ah, Twin Cessna, let's see, Three Delta Lima runway three-zero right, cleared for take-off, caution wake turbulence from the DC-9 landed on two-three, wind two three zero at seven.”
“Roger,” the Cessna pilot answered, and the flashing lights moved down the runway.
“Mitsubishi Five Mike Romeo, traffic a twin Cessna departing thirty right prior to your arrival.”
“Got 'em in sight.”
The Twin Cessna rolled past TWA's nose and lifted. TWA switched his taxi lights off while the airplane departed.
“TWA Eleven Eighty-four, cross thirty right, taxi via Charlie stay this frequency.”
“Eleven Eighty-four, with you to the gate, good night.”
Michael turned to the BRITE radarscope, a scuffed tan box with an ill-focused presentation. Adjusting the contrast knob, he saw the data tag for Twin Cessna Three Delta Lima acquire about a half-mile away from the actual target.
“Close enough,” he muttered. “Twin Cessna Three Delta Lima, radar contact. Turn right on course.”
The Cessna pilot acknowledged, and United called, “Tower, United Six-Oh-Two ready on twelve left.”
“United Six-Oh-Two, runway one-two left, taxi into position and hold, traffic landing two-three.”
The airliner crawled onto the runway, its landing light cutting like a broad white sword through the night. The Mitsubishi was about to squat on the intersecting runway.
“Ah, Tower, did you say United was cleared for take-off?” Michael clamped the mike button, “Negative, United, hold in position, traffic landing two-three.”
“Okay, on the hold, United Six-Oh-Two.”
“What am I doing here?” Michael asked the darkness. His own reflection looked back at him from the glass. It looked sad, the face heavy and deeply creased with dark furrows. He shrugged, watched the Mitsubishi land and throw on the reversers. He lit his cigar, blew a cloud of blue smoke at the BRITE scope and said, “United Six-Oh-Two, cleared for take off.”
Thirty minutes into the shift, the traffic tapered off to nothing. He poured water through the coffee maker and set the empty pot on the burner. A bead of water, caught under the glass pot, hissed. He switched on the radio. Jazz. One good thing about the mids, he thought, the radio stations played better music. John Coltraine’s saxophone filled the cab with a mellow sadness, and he sat in one of the tall chairs, propping his feet on the counter.
The empty radarscope turned at a pace in time with the music. He shifted his weight trying to find a comfortable position; it was a long haul until sunrise. Suddenly, the armrest gave under the slight pressure of his elbow, almost spilling him to the floor.
“Shiii….stupid piece of junk,” he grumbled kicking the chair away and reaching for another. “Can't they buy anything around here that doesn't break. Low bidder junk.”
He settled into another chair, after first testing it. He picked up a copy of an old sports magazine. Never interested in sports, the images of brawny men in short tight pants and padded shoulders grappling for each other on plastic grass only added to the boredom.
“Wonder who took the swimsuit issue?” he mused, glancing around the cab and opened the not-so-secret compartment behind the clearance delivery consul where the dirty magazines were kept--nothing. An article listing the top twenty salaries in the NFL caught his interest. He read the salaries under the photographs.
“One million-four,” he muttered. “And will ya look at this--two million bucks.” He read further. “Oh, only seven hundred thousand a year for you, poor babe.” He studied the faces, all thick neck types with teeth missing and blank stares in their eyes. He took his own checkbook from his hip pocket and thumbed to the balance. Discouraged, he shoved it back into his pocket. Catching a glimpse of his reflection again in the window, he puffed his chest and grimaced like the faces in the magazine.
“Michael Grands, Air Traffic Controller, free agent. You want me to vector, it's gonna cost ya.” The grotesque image staring back from the glass relaxed and slumped in the chair. “Not much it's gonna cost ya,” he said and closed his eyes. A stinging warmth under his lids told him he should sleep. He listened to a piano, gentle and friendly with the low wail of the saxophone.
He had no idea how long he sat like that, but when the Center called, trying to make a hand-off, his body moved with the speed of wet cement. He pressed the interphone button.
“Approach, hello,” he said, his voice like death.
“Sorry to disturb you, but, hand-off...” The voice at the other end was filled with mock cheer, another controller fighting sleep.
“Ah, radar corn flakes, Air Express One-Thirty-Eight.” He disconnected and wrote the aircraft's altitude on a blank flight plan strip. “Glory be to the marvels of automation,” he muttered.
Each night at midnight, just before the first inbound rush of late-night cargo haulers, the Center's computer would be shut down for maintenance. The result was that all flight plan data were then passed manually over the phone, adding to controller workload. It made it feel like 1960 but went with the job. Who cared?
“Approach, Express One-Thirty-Eight, descending out of eight for six, airport in sight, requesting runway five.” The young freight dog’s voice reported with a stony boredom that came from a steady routine of hauling bags of cancelled checks all across the Midwest, night after night, in a worn out Twin Cessna.
“Express One-Thirty-Eight,” Michael answered while pouring a cup of coffee, “Cleared visual approach, runway five, cleared to land, taxi to the ramp, wind two-three-zero at six, altimeter three-zero-zero-zero.”
The Express pilot slurred an answer, but Michael was busy mopping at the coffee he’d just spilled.
“Approach. Hand-off.” It was the Center, again, pawning off a Learjet screaming from the north at twice light speed.
“Radar Contact,” Michael yelled into the phone after jotting down the information.
Seconds later: “Approach, Night Jet Seven-Oh-One, leaving flight level two-one-oh for eleven, looking for lower, airport in sight, requesting runway two-three.”
“What else?” Michael mumbled. “Love opposite direction approaches.” He took a moment to relight his cigar, then, grabbing the microphone, answered in one long breath, “Night Jet Seven-Oh-One, Approach, cleared visual approach runway two-three, cleared to land, taxi to the ramp, wind two-three zero at six, altimeter three-zero-zero-zero, traffic a Twin Cessna fifteen out for runway five, landing as soon as you clear.”
“We'll hustle.” It was another young voice, confident, cool. Michael knew the Lear pilot would keep the tiny jet moving at incredible speed until short final, then hit the pavement, throw on reversers and turn off with less than half the runway used. He knew this. Fifteen years of watching it, told him it would work. Still, he watched impressed, when the Lear touched, made the turn, and almost instantly, the Twin Cessna landed in the opposite direction, and the two raced each other to the ramp.
“Approach. Hand-off. Got a couple of 'em.”
“Radar contact all of ‘em,” Michael called again over the interphone and scribbled new flight strips.
“Approach, Air Lump Six-Twelve with you descending to six, airport in sight requesting thirty right....Approach,
Interstate Four-Nine-Seven with you, airport in sight, requesting runway one-two left....Approach, Late Night Eight-Eighteen with you, airport in sight, requesting runway two-three....Approach....Approach.... Approach....”
The calls rattled from the speaker like children's voices in a day care center, loud, unignorable, all demanding to be first. Michael knew the business. He knew the pilots ran under tremendous pressure to meet schedules, to shave a minute or two off their runs wherever possible. To them, a straight-in approach to the nearest runway, regardless of wind conditions, could mean a total of ten, twenty minutes saved over the course of an evening. Plus, he knew that these guys loved this stuff—max performance, freight dog machismo.
“Cleared visual approach, cleared to land runway two-three....Cleared to land, follow the Baron, half-mile final....cleared to land runway three-zero right, hold short of two-three, traffic landing that runway....Cleared to land....Cleared to land....Cleared to land....”
The words flew between Michael and the pilots with a rapidity only those who flew could possibly understand. His mind was a tired jumble of flashing lights, call signs, and radar targets, all converging on the center of the scope--all converging on him.
He grumbled between transmissions, “....hope this works....stupid way to make a living....tired, tired, tired.”
His eyes burned from straining to read the fuzzy numbers on the scope. He wished they would all go away, and, yet, he felt the usual thrill from orchestrating millions of dollars worth of airplanes and cargo, flung at him from all points of the compass, into a neat procession across the ramp.
“Navajo Six-Two-Kilo, cleared to land runway two-three, taxi to the ramp,” he said to the last target on the scope.
“Roger, you want us to stay with you, Approach or go to tower?” the pilot asked, a touch of innocence in his voice.
“New pilot,” Michael thought. “Stay this frequency,” he said. “I am tower, and ground control, and clearance delivery....” his voice trailed off.
“You wear all the hats at night, huh?”
Michael ignored the question and looked down at the ramp below the tower where the airplanes now parked. Two a.m., and it was swarming with activity. Delivery vans from Federal Express, Purolator, and a few independents raced through the gate, weaving between aircraft as though driven by demons.
Everyone rushed. The pilots, even before the propellers seemed to come to a stop, had the doors open and were flinging plastic bags onto the pavement. Mounds of bank notes and checks, express letters and small packages grew beside each fuselage. Michael could see the puffs of night steam from their voices, calling orders, making jokes, each young pilot trying to be the fastest, the most casual, the best. One day, they, too, would need sleep, but tonight they were young and could fly ‘til dawn without closing an eye.
In daylight the ramp would be thick with polished corporate jets and smartly dressed pilots with crisp white shirts, toting baggage for well-heeled clients. But after midnight, the black sky unleashed the rawest elements of flying. The night world was full of blue jeans and sneakers, young unshaven faces chewing gum and feeling alive.
Michael watched them pack the airplanes full, first tossing the bags deep into the fuselage, then squeezing them in, pounding the bags to make room for more. Within minutes, the mounds had vanished, and the propellers started to turn. Michael took a quick swallow of coffee. He heard one of the Lears start to whine, its turbines spooling up. Its door was still open when the speaker by Michael's hip shouted, “Tower, Night Jet Seven-Oh-One, taxi out of cargo, to Chicago Midway, requesting two-three.”
Michael answered, “Night Jet Seven-Oh-One, taxi to runway two-three, cleared to Midway as filed, maintain one-zero thousand, expect two-three-oh, ten minutes later, cleared for take-off, turn left on course, wind two-three-zero at eight, altimeter three-zero-zero-one.”
The co-pilot was just closing the upper half of the Lear's door as it taxied from the ramp; a Twin Cessna, one engine running and the other starting to crank, right behind it.
“Tower, Express One-Two-Eight, taxiing out of cargo, request two-three to Kansas City, got the numbers.”
“Express,” Michael said, “follow the Lear, cleared to Kansas City, as filed, maintain six, cleared for take-off, caution wake turbulence.”
Another voice called and Michael rattled off another clearance while the Lear fired down the runway and lifted in a tight left turn, wasting no time pointing its nose toward Chicago. The Twin Cessna rolled almost directly behind it, and banked into a steep turn toward the south. A Mitsubishi was hard on his
tail, rotating past mid-field and banking tight for Minneapolis.
“Night Jet Seven-Oh-One, radar contact....Express One-Two-Eight, radar contact....Blah-Blah-Blah, radar contact....radar
contact....” Michael's clipped voice chased the airplanes away, until they were tiny flashing lights among the stars, swallowed back into night sky.
One-by-one, starting with the Lear, he shipped them over to Center frequencies and dropped heavily onto the chair. The scope beside him flashed its pale green light in a steady pulse, completely out of time with the Kenny G music on the radio. Michael closed his eyes but never slept. He hated Kenny G and wondered how it got on the jazz station; someone must’ve fallen asleep there, too.
Four a.m., Michael's brain was wrapped in fog when the next rush began. It was lead by a Convair 640, bringing the morning's Wall Street Journal. Quickly, a stream of Lears, Cheyennes, and a pair of Twin Commanders appeared on the scope. All requesting direct to the airport, all requesting to be first, and they all, somehow, managed to get their wishes.
Michael's voice was thick with fatigue, not the healthy kind from, say, playing basketball, but, instead, soul drenching fatigue, brain-cell-eating tired. He mouthed the clearances from habit, his mind barely formulating the sequences. A Centurion pilot, new to the area, announced he would need the ILS approach to find the runway. With a deep moan, Michael vectored him to the final approach course and sequenced him behind one of the Commanders. A routine task in daylight, after midnight, it only drained his already spent energy.
He glanced at his watch--4:30--24 hours since he had last slept. During that time he had worked a busy day shift in the TRACON, and was still hours away from being relieved. The scope was empty again. The Centurion taxied past the tower toward the hangars. Michael's eyes clamped shut without him knowing.
“Approach. Hey, Approach.” the voice, shrill through Michael's unconscious world, snapped him to his feet. “Ohh,” he uttered and glanced around, reaching for the microphone. He saw a data tag on the scope flashing from the southwest--America West Airlines--the first airliner of the morning.
Computer must be back up, he thought.
“Cactus Twelve-Seventy-two, Approach, Good Morning,” he said, hoping the words came out as imagined.
“Good Morning, Approach. Center said they couldn't get a hold of you, so we should try. We're level at eleven thousand and looking at the airport.”
Michael glanced around at the scope and runways, making certain there was nothing unusual there, like other airliners wandering around without guidance. He cleared America West to land and rubbed his face, pressing life into the skin.
To the east the sky lightened to a sickly pink--5:30 a.m. In a half hour the day shift would be in to open the TRACON.
Twenty-five hours since last he slept.
“Say wind,” the America West pilot said.
Michael's brain hesitated. Say wind? Say wind, what? His brain was mush. “Oh, ah, wind, three-two-zero at one-zero,” his voice answered.
Two more airliners arrived before 6 a.m., a United Boeing 737 from O'Hare and a TWA DC-9 from St. Louis. United requested runway 30R, while TWA asked for runway five. They both got their wishes. Somehow it worked, and, at 6 o'clock, the TRACON opened for business.
Michael spent the last hour of his shift seated on the couch in the break room reading the paper. Mostly, he looked at the pictures, the small print beneath a blur of nonsense.
As he walked out the front door, someone passed him on the way in. “Morning, Mike. How was the mid?”
“Ah, all right, you know. The usual.”