Authors: Wayne; Page
Copyright © 2016 by Wayne Page
Mill City Press
Avenue North, Fifth Floor
Minneapolis, MN 55401
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the written prior permission of the author.
The sliver of a new moon in the night sky over the Afghanistan mountains offered only a modest challenge to the billions of stars begging to touch the hot, desert sand. Framed against the jagged foothills marked only as ‘Zone Seven’ on intelligence maps, thundered the silhouette of a C-130J Hercules turboprop.
It was one of the most versatile airplane weapon systems deployed in aviation history. The Hercules’ one hundred thirty-three foot wingspan roared toward its designated target. While it could deploy from a two thousand foot dirt runway with a forty-four thousand pound payload, this mission began on a concrete runway in Pakistan. The four Rolls-Royce AE engines, each capable of delivering almost forty-six hundred horsepower to a six-blade GE Dowty propeller, were in nap mode with the lightweight, precious cargo of a dozen Marine paratroopers. An earlier Hercules had dropped the four Humvees and drivers critical to the mission.
While the turboprop engines might have been relaxing on this mission, the roar in the cargo bay was deafening. Air pockets rattled spines. Two rows of paratroopers faced each other. One Marine fingered a rosary. Others checked gear. Marine Squad
Leader Murphy and his crack team of eleven waited to be dropped into the Taliban-infested foothills below.
The C-130J Hercules leveled to ten thousand feet. A red light signaled zero hour. Murphy’s unit rose as one, shuffled to the door over the drop zone. No words were needed–hand signals, looks of confidence, and resolve were enough. Sgt. Murphy flashed a crooked little grin; this leader could be followed barefooted across hot coals. The dull red light was replaced by the pierce of a flashing green light. It was time.
The paratroopers plummeted through a pre-dawn sky. The C-130J Hercules banked hard back toward base operations in Pakistan. The engine roar that had conjured up memories of a Harley-Davidson rumble was replaced with the calm rush of wind as parachutes burst open. Sgt. Murphy’s chute deployed. His green, night-vision goggle view of Afghanistan faded into childhood memories of daredevil jumps from a swing lashed in the front yard oak tree of his Ohio farm home. The little boy left the wooden swing seat at its highest peak. In slow motion, he flew through the air, cape fluttering behind him. He arched his back, nailed an Olympic ten-pointer as his sneakers hit lush, green grass in the shadow of the mighty oak. He shot a silly, crooked grin to his adoring parents.
Eleven other daydreams abruptly ended as boots hit rocky, Afghanistan soil. The previously-dropped Humvees bounced over rutted terrain and scaled a steep ridge to their precise rendezvous. Sunrise over mountains created long shadows as the newly-inserted Marines swiftly loaded their Humvees. Sgt. Murphy, last to board, pounded the hoods, assuring each Marine buddy with a thumbs-up–and that crooked little grin. The expedition dusted its way over a ridge, into the Afghanistan dawn.
Sunrise signaled the start of another routine day for one insignificant teenage Taliban recruit. His perch on the cliff overlooking the valley below provided the necessary vantage point to complete his cell phone call. Dirty, crusted fingers hurriedly touched numbers on a keypad built in China. Software developed in the Silicon Valley encoded the communication to the IED handcrafted in Iran that it was time for a Navy Chaplain to pay a visit to the parents of Sgt. Murphy in Ohio.
Two years later.
A rooster crowed to announce the dawn of a new day. The Ohio cornfield was shrouded in a sunrise fog. Unless someone has actually fought his way through the narrow rows, dodging the sharp leaves, wiping the dew from a forehead, it’s nearly impossible to describe the fresh smell of a late-spring cornfield. Dead baseball players amble out of cornfields only in Hollywood. Or maybe Iowa. A rejuvenated farmer smiles his way from a cornfield every day. Almost as good.
Gertrude Murphy, empty milk bucket in hand, stood on the front porch of her old white farmhouse. In need of paint, shutters somewhat askew and random in their attachment, a paint brush hadn’t kissed these weathered boards in a number of years.
Mrs. Murphy had taken a short detour from her morning stroll to the barn to pause for a moment in her front yard. Revered as Gerty to everyone in Highland County, this spunky wisp of a seventy-year-old farm widow was trying to hold it together to prevent losing her farm to a pending foreclosure. The dew in the overgrown grass under the mighty oak tree in the front yard beaded on the top of her well-worn work boots. She gently pushed back the brim of her floppy straw hat and looked at a sturdy branch twenty feet above her head. A single tattered rope dangled, attached to one side of a splintered wooden swing seat. The seat swayed as her fingers touched the solitary rope. As she closed her eyes, she could almost see her young son jumping from the swing, cape fluttering as he landed at her feet. As the youngster flashed a crooked little grin, she bowed her head.
☁ ☁ ☁
The morning fog had lifted under the warm June sun. A Holstein cow chewed her cud. Responding to a distant noise, her neck chain number rattled as she raised her head. Cow number forty-seven looked skyward toward the large red bird. The bird exploded from the puffy white clouds through the blue sky. As the bird dive-bombed directly at Mrs. Forty-seven, the peace and quiet of the early morning was shattered.
This was no bird. The startled cow bolted to find safe retreat under a nearby dying ash tree. In a deep dive, the crop-dusting plane swooped close to the ground. The Air Tractor AT-501 sported a Pratt & Whitney prop package that delivered almost six hundred horsepower, far more horsepower than needed for such a small plane.
The plane leveled off barely over knee-high corn. White clouds of powder caressed the corn. As the end of the field rapidly approached, the logic of its excess horsepower was revealed. The plane climbed vertically, defying gravity. A hard bank and another pass lightened the load.
The pilot buzzed treetops and hot-rodded home for another ton of insecticide. Stubby in length, the extended wingspan and pounding horsepower made the trip home, empty of any cargo other than the pilot’s ego, a blood rush for even the most experienced pilot.
As the ex-Air Force pilot zipped to home base, a few barrel rolls proved that he still had it. On the country road below he spotted his green pickup truck making its final turn toward the small county airstrip he called home. He swooped low and gave his employee driver a full exhaust blast.
As the airstrip handyman, Trip Morgan was used to this kind of treatment. Nice guy, late twenties, but not blessed with anything outstanding. His birth certificate name was Steven Craig Morgan. His overwhelming propensity of falling and tripping earned him the nickname ‘Trip’ before he entered kindergarten. It stuck. It stuck better than the cowlick sprig of hair that never seemed to lay flat on the top of Trip’s head. Most mothers use a kid’s full given name when angry or frustrated. But Mrs. Morgan grew tired of constantly yelling,
“Steven Craig Morgan, get out of that mud puddle.”
Mrs. Morgan found it easier to just yell,
and be done with it.
Every finger displayed a Band-Aid connoting above average clumsiness. Gangly beyond measure. Trip swerved a bit, but maintained control of the truck. Screeching to a halt in the middle of the not-so-well traveled country road, some of the groceries and supplies behind his cab slid around in the truck bed. He opened his door and stood in the middle of the road. He shifted his ‘Buzz’s Crop Service’ logo ball cap back on his head and shaded his eyes as he admired one last barrel roll as Buzz disappeared over the treetops. “Someday,” he murmured. “Someday, I’ll be that pilot.” Getting struck by lightning or throwing a perfect game in the World Series had lower odds.
Trip re-entered the truck, slammed his fingers as he closed the door. He shook his hand in pain, fingers in his mouth, and mumbled, “Stupid klutz.”
☁ ☁ ☁
The orange wind sock shifted in the breeze over the small hangar. Buzz circled the airfield once and approached the runway in a professional, businesslike manner. Most flying is actually rather boring; especially when trying to run a profitable business.
fly-bys of towers with spilling coffee don’t happen with real pilots. Show-offs are fun at air shows, but when you want to skydive–and live to tell about it–most rational customers prefer a pilot with his head screwed on right. Buzz was one such pilot.
Buzz taxied to the main hangar, stopped the engine and climbed out of his Air Tractor. In his early forties, Buzz was the hands-on owner of the Clinton County Airstrip. Two-day beard, khakis, light blue work shirt, “Buzz” sewn above the pocket. A swagger learned on the first day of Air Force flight school. Square-shouldered, compact yet muscular build, he still wore his original Air Force leather A-2 flight jacket. Nothing wrong with one shout-out to his more adventurous past. His active duty call sign, “Buzz” on his work shirt pocket and his business logo on his ball cap were about the only things separating him from his farmer clients. Truth be known, he earned the “Buzz” nickname in flight school. Given by his squadron teammates due to his buzz saw snoring.
Two ultralights flew low as Buzz headed toward his office. He inspected a few small planes parked on the tarmac outside the main hangar. The hangar was a large, open space with a maintenance bay and room for three or four small Cessnas or Piper Cubs. Around the perimeter on the tarmac side were two dozen parachute packs hanging on the wall. Neat and ready for their next gravity-challenged adventurers. A long, waist-high table was busy most weekends with skydivers packing and double-checking their parachutes.
Crammed in the darkest corner of the hangar were three old Stearman biplanes. Two PT-17’s and one particularly unloved Navy N25. Unloved meaning it was in most need of repair. Spiders had taken over this abandoned graveyard as the planes were in need of major overhaul and repair. Tarps and sheets couldn’t totally hide the fact that Buzz’s well-intentioned investment to save these historic relics had yet to pay any dividends. Tires were flat. Linen cloth wings had holes and tears. There was a pervasive smell of the non-exotic mixture of oil, gasoline, old rags, dust and well, just ‘old.’ Memories of forced visits to that long-lost aunt on Sunday afternoons flooded his mind. Opening the front door and being smothered in the musty cleavage of Great-Aunt Mildred, gasping for breath, but not really wanting to inhale. That’s the smell. This corner of the hangar just smelled ‘old.’
In the opposite corner of the hangar was Trip’s room. As the resident handyman and jack-of-all-trades, Trip didn’t make a lot of money. However, he did get a bunkroom that met the basic needs of a twenty-eight-year-old single guy who didn’t have many interests outside of his life at the airstrip.
Connected to the hangar, furthest from Trip’s room and the biplane graveyard, was a door leading to the brains and heart of Buzz’s business–the Sky Gypsy Café. The cafe had four mismatched tables, mostly acquired at garage or estate sales and a small lunch counter. The cafe had two distinctive features. One, the lunch counter. Procured from a fire sale of a defunct 1950’s diner, it had five round stools facing the flattop grill. Ablaze with shiny chrome, you could almost envision Buddy Holly chirping with his Crickets. It oozed nostalgia.
The second distinctive feature was the neon sign above the lunch counter that tried to glow ‘Sky Gypsy Café.’ It hummed and blinked most of the time. It rarely communicated the entire restaurant name. Haphazard, at best. Buzz had threatened to rip it off the wall but the cafe impresario Deb would have none of that.
Not quite an equal business partner with Buzz, Deb was the attractive owner/cook/waitress of the Sky Gypsy Café. Well put together would be an understatement. Quicker on the trigger than the more measured Buzz, Deb added the spice to their relationship. Not yet married, but certainly an ‘item,’ it was clear that Buzz and Deb were a formidable team in running this small, yet growing business. Though in her late thirties, she seemed not overly concerned about the absence of a ring on her finger. She would readily admit that she was probably second in line behind those three dilapidated biplanes wasting away in the hangar.
The cafe had three doors. One to the hangar, one to the main entrance from the parking lot, and third, the highest traffic door, led directly to the tarmac. Buzz had a business counter immediately inside that tarmac door. Signs on the walls communicated the blue plate special of the day and ‘Skydiving Lessons,’ ‘Flight Training,’ and ‘Crop Dusting.’ Buzz and Deb made good business partners.
One sign that Buzz had threatened to hang over the lunch counter would say ‘NO LOITERING.’ Three Liar Flyers– Bomber, Hooker, and Crash hung out in the Sky Gypsy Café on a regular basis. They should have moved in and paid rent. They created so much turmoil and ruckus, they were actually good for business. These old geezers weren’t getting any younger; mid-eighties was being gracious. They added character to the cafe. Young kids couldn’t wait to hear their stories. These weathered, ex-stunt pilots blathered a running, perpetual commentary about their good-ole barnstorming days. The kids loved that stuff.
Some folks thought the ‘Liar Flyer’ nickname came naturally because it was hard to believe most of their stories. When World War II came around in late 1941, the Army Air Corps was flooded with young teenage hotshots who couldn’t wait to get their share of the hell-raisin’ glory that came with being a wartime pilot. Bomber, Hooker, and Crash all lied about their ages and made it into one of the first flight training classes destined to chase Adolph Hitler to hell.
Every squadron needed a leader. Bomber was natural-born to take charge. Captain of his high-school basketball team, the joy stick always seemed to end up in his hands. He was always in the lead formation for missions over Germany. Images of pilot reckless abandon and daredevil antics rarely applied to Bomber. A B-24 Liberator squad leader who had dropped tons of bombs to soften Normandy and Caen, the specter of death and destruction, even at twenty thousand feet, left Bomber with a measured approach to life. Seeing the wakes of thousands of landing craft delivering their cargo of young Allied boys to early deaths on blood-soaked beaches had a way of tempering Bomber into a hardened, yet respected leader.
As his nickname might imply, Crash was cast from a different mold. He barely made it out of flight school. On his first solo flight, his right wing had clipped a fuel truck as he taxied toward the runway. He should have been in the Japanese Air Force. Very early, Tojo would have selected him as a kamikaze pilot, given him fifty gallons of gas in the fighter plane in most need of repair, and sent him over the horizon in search of a U.S. Navy destroyer. Crash was the epitome of reckless abandon. As a fighter pilot in the European Theatre, he was always the first to spot a menacing Messerschmitt. Crash would engage German pilots in dog fights to protect Allied bomber formations. While he never actually crashed a plane, his life always seemed headed toward a fuel truck.
Hooker was the quiet one. The only Navy flyer of the bunch, he earned his wings at the Great Lakes Naval Air Station in a Stearman N25 “Yellow Peril.” In the Pacific Theatre, his journal about the Battle of Midway still makes a fascinating read. There’s something about heading home to an aircraft carrier after a successful mission. One last rush of adrenalin, a silent prayer in hope that your tailhook grabs the cable. Success resulted in a spine-jarring whiplash as your plane jerked to a stop. Failure meant a full-throttled, low probability takeoff that hopefully resulted in another pass.
The Liar Flyers exercised free roam of the entire airstrip. When Deb wished they were in the hangar supervising skydivers packing their chutes, they were holding court at her lunch counter commenting on how much pepper should be added to the soup of the day. When Buzz was walking a flight student through a review of basic airplane mechanics, they hovered much too close for comfort. In airport parlance, the Liar Flyers were always a runway near miss.
Their favorite hangout was at the large, plateglass window that looked out over the tarmac from the Sky Gypsy Café. Here they could comment on the comings and goings of the entire operation. Buzz had just landed his Air Tractor AT-501 crop duster after his dive-bomb of Trip in his pickup truck. Bomber noticed that Buzz was taking a short detour to inspect his jump plane before escorting a group of skydivers to the drop zone. As Buzz struggled with the rear storage door, Bomber said, “Looks like Trip will be back on the crap list.”
“Yep,” chimed Crash. “He’s only asked Trip to fix that sticky door eighty-nine times since last Thursday.”
“Not the sharpest knife in the drawer by a long shot,” as Hooker registered his valued opinion on Trip’s ranking on the bell curve. “And to think, he wants to be a pilot.”
This verbal abuse of Trip would have continued for another half-day had an ultralight not shadowed their tarmac vantage point.
Hooker snapped, “Stupid flyin’ kites. Nothin’ but duct tape and jockstraps. Ain’t real flyin’. When I wuz barnstormin’ in the air shows-”, his sentence interrupted mid-thought as he crash-sat at a table like an old man into a chair that was lower than he had expected.
Deb slid a mug of coffee down the counter as Buzz entered the cafe from the hangar. Like a well-choreographed dance routine, Buzz grabbed the mug and raised it in a salute of thanks. They made eye contact, raised eyebrows as if,
here se go again
. The three Liar Flyers all talked at once. How a tirade about ultralights segued to a discussion of hot women from a bygone era was anyone’s guess.