Sunday, May 3, 2009
photo: courtesy of Rob Bach © 2009
This Boeing 40 story is called "5339" and was written by Rob Bach to recognize the first flight since 1928 of Addison Pemberton's 40.
There was a scar on the back of his hand.
The thin white ridge of tissue stood in relief against the mass of wrinkles wrapped around his knuckles like a parchment map of the Old World. Grant sat quietly in the wicker rocker on his porch and stared at it.
“Now HOW did I get that?” he whispered to himself.
Raising his eyes to look out over the Willamette Valley, he tried to remember the life of that scar. Despite the crystal clear of this unusually warm October morning, he could only see about halfway across the sod farms to the green mountains at the other side.
“Eyes aren’t what they used to be, eh Grant?”
The speaker, a youngish man in a leather jacket, leaned against the rail of the porch oblivious to damage his boots were doing to the small Rhodies planted there. He, too, looked across the perfect flat of the sod fields to the mountains beyond.
“Make a nice runway, wouldn’t they?” he said.
“Hmm? Oh, the sods…yes, I suppose they would. You a flyer?” Grant asked.
The pilot laughed, “Only when they need me, friend…and I guess they need me, so yeah, guess I am.”
When he spoke his eyes twinkled a pure blue and he smiled an easy smile, comfortable on his face. Grant thought that perhaps the term “perfect stranger” had been coined in this man’s presence.
The quiet between them was not uncomfortable. This perfect pause in the conversation seemed to feel just about right and his eyes once again fell on the scar and his mind once again fell to wondering.
“You a flyer, too, aren’t you?” the pilot said.
“Me? Oh no….used to be. Long time ago though. Long, long time ago.”
“Miss it?” he asked.
“Haven’t really thought about it much. Day like today though, good visibility, wind right down the valley, be a nice day to fly.” Grant replied.
“Huh. Well, I best get going. You think they’d mind if I hopped the fence there, out to the sods?”
Grant looked over the fence to the slate-flat grass and figured if the pilot didn’t tromp too hard on his Rhodies, the sod wouldn’t mind.
“S’pose not. Where you off to anyway?” Grant asked
He laughed. “Oh, wild blue yonder and all that.”
And with a little bow he walked toward the fence, one-handed the post and jumped on over smooth as a silk scarf around your neck. Grants old eyes followed after the man best he could. With each step, he got a little blurrier until he was just a man-shaped fog drifting out over the grass.
Around about the middle of the field, he turned and waved.
Grant raised his scarred hand to wave and noticed…just then…that an old biplane sat out there on the close cropped grass and he could see, despite the distance, that the pilot was grinning.
“Well, I’ll be…never heard it land.”
Grant half raised out of his chair, got a dizzy spell and eased back down. Closing his eyes, he realized he knew what that old airplane was.
Good sized, long wings, pilot out in the open, passengers in cabins inside. Big round engine, BIG prop, BIG wheels. Square tail and more struts than an airplane really ought to have.
Behind closed eyes a memory stirred. Once a frozen moment of time stored carefully in comfortable folds of his brain, this particular memory thawed and was once again a fluid thing, alive and bright like a mercury-silver fish swimming up to the surface from the dark ocean deep.
The scar. Left there by a shard of white hot metal many years before, Grant began to remember.
It was another October morning, much colder than it was today. The sky was the same dull grey as the wings of his 1928 Boeing 40C Mailplane. But not here, he thought, farther south…Medford maybe?
His mission that day was what the pilots flying the US Airmail route CAM 8 called the Half-n-Half Run: Half mountains, half flats, 200 or so miles up-valley to Portland.
Head northwest out of the Medford bowl up the Rogue River about 15 minutes to Grants Pass, Josephine, up Wolf Creek, train tracks to Salt Creek and Lookingglass Hill. Wind through some low hills to Roseburg and Cottage Grove then a straight shot due north to Portland.
Stop for a coffee, a little gas, get the weather from Ryan (sharp young man) at the station there. Fly north, pick up the Williamette River, sight Mount Hood (keep it at about one o’clock until you can see St. Helens), bear left to the Confluence, and roll onto final at Swan Island. If Swan weather was low, land on the south shore of the Columbia River and the people at Pickwick bring the bus down to carry off your load or scoot up to Pearson Field and let the Army boys in the barracks lend a hand.
Plenty of options.
Piece of cake.
He walked into the shack on the south side of the hangars the dispatcher there referred to as the Pilot Pit to check on the weather.
“Hullo, Donaldson…you look like Heck.” JC replied from the rim of his cocoa mug.
“Out with the boys last night?”
“Now, JC you know I never touch the stuff. Just like to keep an eye on the boys, you know? Keep ‘em out of trouble”. Grant replied in defense of his red-rimmed eyes.
“Donaldson, there are two things that will never stop a pilot from completing his mission: Prohibition and a farmer with a shotgun. I’ve been around pilots long enough to know your, ah, ‘itineraries’. Just because I fly for fun and not for hire doesn’t mean I don’t know the rules and how hard you guys bend ‘em.”
JC, despite his youth had been working the lineshacks from Texas to Tulsa and Cheyenne to San Diego since he was a boy. Someday he’d be a line pilot like his charges, but today he was boss of the mail on this piece of the route all the way to Seattle.
Grant laughed, “I liked you better when you still thought of us mail jockeys as Knights of the Air or something.”
“Ha! You just wait…I’ll fly you all into the ground someday” JC rose in defense.
“Flying into the ground is the LAST thing we all want to do, son. Now what’s the weather up north?” Grant stepped around the Franklin stove to bend over the boy’s chart table.
All business now, JC pulled the latest report off his pad next to the telegraph set.
“Here’s the 0700, I’ll get a new one for you from Rye at Roseburg before you launch.”
At that, the sound of hangar doors rolling open vibrated through the thin walls of the shack letting them both know that the mechanics were ready to get their long night over with.
Grant zipped his leathers up to his chin and pushed through the blanket hung between the dispatch office and the hangar.
“Whadda you say Speed? She gonna be good to me today?”
“Better than you deserve, Grant.” Replied Speed.
Old Speed Miller had been around so long nobody knew his real name and he was not the type inclined to let out any information that was not absolutely essential to the task at hand. But he was a fine mechanic, sheet metal magician, and completely devoted to his aircraft. Pilots he could give or take. Treat one of his planes rough and you might find yourself with a plugged relief tube.
Treat her good and he might say something nice about you like, “Donaldson? Fair pilot most times.”
“What’s with ‘Boy’ today? He’s got a mood on him like a beaver with a bad tooth.” Grant asked.
“That ‘Boy’ has got your paycheck by the balls, Donaldson. If he don’t like the weather…well, you might as well start learning up another job on the side for your downtime.”
“It doesn’t read that bad to me,” said Grant looking over the weather for Roseburg.
“Kid’s got a good head on his shoulders…you listen to him real good and don’t give him no guff…or you’ll be answering to me.” Speed wiped a nonexistent drop of oil off the cowling, trying not to smile so Grant would see.
“All right, all right, fair enough. He does his job, I do mine, and you do yours. Speaking of which…”
Speed pulled a clipboard from inside the cockpit and handed it to Grant. By signing off Speed’s work, Grant was accepting responsibility for the airplane for the rest of the day.
The sheet was clean: meaning all gripes, squawks, and glitches had been repaired from the last flight. Not that there was much to do on this one: #5339 of the Boeing Line was practically brand new…still had nubbies on the tires from the Goodyear molds and the leather seat still smelled like leather and not like an old horse had died on it sometime during the summer of 1919.
In that newness was beauty: three tons of steel tube and fresh wood, hard rubber and soft leather, a steel propeller that could slice through a cedar just as easy as the morning air, and acres and acres of wing.
All this crafted by a team of men and women schooled in the arcane arts of welding and fabrication, varnishing and rib-stitching, and rib-stitching and rib-stitching.
And despite the Boeing logo on the side, he thought of it as his very own angel of freedom. Light this pretty new girl off and I’m out of the bread line, away from war and worries most folks had to deal with every day.
“It’s you and me, girl, might as well go to the dance” Grant whispered aloud to the silver plane.
“Here’s the latest, Donaldson.” JC skipped through the hangar with a sheet of yellow paper in one hand and a dispatch envelope in the other.
“Rye says Roseburg looks good, but it’s scuddy to the south. Figures you got smooth sailing after you pass him by, but there’s no word of weather between the Pass and him. Lines might be down. I’d hold you here but you got a passenger that’s pressing me hard to get goin’”
“Passenger?” Grant asked, “this was s’posed to be a straight mail run.”
“Well, we gotta take a buck when it shows up, right?’ JC replied “Besides, he’s not the kind of fella I want hanging around here all day. Business man, paid cash, but real serious like.”
“Well, “ Grant sighed, “he’s just walkin’ freight to me…load him up and we’ll go see how the weather is first hand.”
The passenger, a Mr. Donovan, walked briskly and stiffly out to the plane while Grant was running his pre-flight scan from the high cockpit.
JC helped him board into the front compartment while Speed loaded a little mail into the rear bin.
“And keep your feet off the seats!” Speed called to Donovan before heading to the front of the ship.
“You ready yet?” he yelled to Grant.
“Hold your water, Speed, gimme a sec.”
There were enough knobs, levers, dials, switches and other hoohahs in this cockpit to keep a former Speedmail pilot busy. The 40C was equipped with all the latest toys Boeing could squeeze onto the instrument panel. The nice thing about his old Speedmail was there was hardly any instrumentation to fail in the first place so he rarely missed a day of flying due to mechanical problems…there simply wasn’t that much there to break.
While Grant sorted himself out (or ‘built his nest’ as Speed liked to say), Speed opened the compartment just behind the big 400 horsepower engine to unclip the starter handle from its holster. With this crank, he would spin a heavy flywheel that Grant would then couple to the crankshaft to spin the prop and bring ‘#39’ to life.
“Well, Sir, whenever you’re ready” Grant shouted.
“ ‘Sir’ would be Mr. William Boeing. You call me that again and I’ll clonk you with this crank” Speed shouted back.
“Right”, Grant laughed, “Fuel is up, brakes set, you may crank when ready, Gridley.”
Speed put all his weight on the crank handle until the flywheel eased out of its resting state. Swearing at Newton all the while, he slowly gained inertia over the flywheel and when it was making a fairly deafening whine, pulled the crank out sharply, took three steps back and gave Grant the thumbs up.
“Clear!” he shouted
Nodding, Grant pulled the start lever a full four inches aft with his right hand. His left rested on the throttle poised to reach forward to engage the magnetos after a few turns of the huge propeller proved to him it would spin freely after sitting all night in the cold.
Mags hot, wait for the first puff of smoke, the first cough of life, mixture rich, throttle back, cross your fingers ‘cause Jeez does Speed get torqued if I don’t catch it the first try and one puff followed by another, a cough and another, a pop and a roar and boy that sounds sweet and oh that smell God I just love this job.
Do you feel that, Donovan? Is that somethin’? Or are you like most…just freight that’s gotta pee when you’re the farthest from any airfield? Jesus, give me 800 pounds of paper in a sack any day of the week over people who think this flying thing is just like riding a trolley car.
The engine slowly settled into a rhythmic lope and Grant settled himself into his seat. With a sign of his hands ‘chocks away’, Speed pulled the rope holding the blocks in front of the wheels and they were free to roll on the dewy grass of a former Medford meadow.
Easing the throttle forward, three tons of steel and wood and paint inched ahead toward the end of the simple runway.
With a few minutes left to warm up the oil, Grant picked up his intercom microphone and hoped Mr. Donovan had read the passenger briefing card JC had given him.
Sighing, Grant keyed the mic:
“Ahem, Mr. Donovan, can you hear me?”
A surprisingly crisp response came back to him clearly over the head set:
“Of course I can here you, I’m not deaf just yet” Donovan replied.
“Very well.” Grant spoke as evenly as he could “We’ll be taking the runway for departure in just a minute. Are you strapped in?”
“I have managed to decipher the intricacies of this remarkably designed body arresting device your man called a ‘lap belt’ and feel quite certain that in the event of the sudden stoppage of our journey, caused by, say, a mountain, I will flit lightly away without a care in the world and dance the Charleston all due to the fact that this seemingly magical strip of cloth has defied all laws of physics as we know them. Yes, Mr. Donaldson, I am quite ready for flight” came the dry reply.
“Old boy might have a sense of humor after all.” Grant smiled to himself.
A last look at the windsock (dancing a little now) and a glance at the sky (not so grey as before) and he was ready for the preflight litany he learned from his teacher years before: Can I Go Fly Today Peter Rabbit?
Seemed silly when he first heard his full-of-all-kinds-of-serious a flight instructor first say it, but when “Tex” Marshall spoke, you listened.
“Son, this simple little ditty has saved my sovereign butt so many times I’m in deep debt to the Muse Poetic.” he said.
If it weren’t for the fact that Tex had spent most of his flying hours less than 200 feet above the good green earth of the Midwest without a mishap and was a former test pilot for the Thomas-Morse company, Grant might have sloughed it off as some kind of crazy.
The ‘C’ stood for Controls: free and clear. He moved the control stick (which looked like a carved down baseball bat to him) in a large circle and checked the movement of the ailerons.
‘I’: Instruments: all green or good.
‘G’: Gas. One, Two , Three Four, Five items there to check all as they should be.
‘F’: Feet…awake, alive, and ready to dance counter to what ever the airplane thought was best for IT, not for HIM.
‘T’: Trim. Set for take-off both pitch and yaw.
‘P’: Propeller. Cycled through its full range of blade angles and set full fine.
‘R’: Run-up. Done…mags, carburetor heat, winter shutters, oil shutters, all set.
Nothing to it now but the press the throttle forward to its stop and wait for the flying lumber yard that was his Boeing 40 to gather speed to overcome massive weight.
Even after 3,000 hours and more of flying all sorts of crates, Grant felt the little thrill of anticipation and a touch of Fear’s fingers as he coaxed an airplane from its comfortable seat on the ground to its improbable stance in the air.
And once again he did.
To feel power build in rising fury against inertia from his hand tight clenched on the throttle made him fell a bit like Thor lashing thunderbolts from his fist.
Slow at first the tall wheels of #39 rolled from “dead stop” to “good clip”. Once the throttle was jammed full forward, all Grant could do was keep her more or less straight down the runway.
“You let a crate get sideways”, Tex had warned him, “and best you can do is JOIN UP with it. Don’t ever let that lovely tail swap ends with the spinny thing up front…rein her in quick and sharp to show her who is master and who is mistress.”
At 40mph the airspeed gauge comes alive. Steering is still sluggish and the wings are just now taking some weight off those huge tires.
“This would be easier if I could see something”, Grant thought.
The brilliant designers at Boeing understood that all airplanes are a study in compromise. You want to carry weight? All right…you need a big old round engine and a fat fuselage to match.
Problem was, with the tail down the mass ahead of the pilot took away all of the view straight ahead. Imagine kneeling down in the back of a canoe and trying to paddle downstream with a large woman singing a none too popular opera at the top of her lungs while sitting in your lap.
This noise and blindness, the rising keen of the wind in the wing wires, the reluctance of gravity to release its right on the airplane all added up to a kind of barely controllable, self-inflicted terror-for-pleasure passion play.
And it was a tension he thoroughly enjoyed. To be here is a choreographed chaos. To see it, to know it, to conquer it and coax these unseen but acutely felt elements into war against weight and win! This is flight!
By 60 mph, the top wing is flying and chiding the lower for being slow to catch on.
At 70 the lower agrees that, yes, I see what you’re doing it’s only NOW I feel like working.
As 80 turns to 90 the machine is lifting well and away from the wet green earth trading wheels for wings and climbing hard towards the gray overcast, towards the airfield boundry, towards the pass.
500 feet above the fences, Grant throttled the Wasp back a bit and set the prop for an efficient climb.
“Nose, Power, Trim” Tex would yell in the cadence of a Gregorian Monk. “In that order, on the way up, on the way down!”
With the nose lowered, forward visibility improved somewhat and Grant could see a good 10 miles ahead of him. Weather was worse than he thought. The valley leading to Grants Pass was obscured in a cloak of grey, wet, and (as he now knew first hand) cold clouds.
“Always, Son, ALWAYS have an Out”. Tex’s remonstration was drilled into his head almost literally by a birch switch he used to “make a point” in flight against Grant’s thin leather helmet.
“OK, Tex”, he thought, “our out:
If the Pass is covered, we could head south to the town of Applegate and set down for a while. I know a farming family there by the same name. Nice folks, pilot friendly, good lookin’ daughters.”
Grant pulled the intercom mic from it’s clip and keyed it once. A light flashed in the cabin letting Donovan know to pick up the other end and listen.
“Not as pretty as the picture on your poster, lad” Donovan answered immediately.
“We might want to turn south or circle back to the field…give the clouds a chance to clear the pass” Grant shouted.
“Mr. Donaldson, I’m sure you are a very fine pilot and I feel immensely humbled by your concern for my comfort. Give it no second thought, however: you get us to Portland as scheduled and my forty dollars will arrive in a timely manner to your bank account.” Donavan countered.
“I suppose we could shoot up over Gold Ray Dam to Spring Brook, find Coffin’s Gulch, Grave Creek and fly north-by-northwest until we see Cow Creek through Canyon Creek Pass to Canyonville then hug the river to Roseburg.” and let Ryan deal with Donovan he added to himself.
“I have no doubt that a highly trained professional aviator such as yourself, having memorized the route with such names both ghoulish and ironic, will find a way to complete the task set before you and honor the terms of the contract set forth on the ticket stub I hold so dearly in my hand.
Now, you collect your wits about you and do what you swaggering braggarts are paid to do, namely get one citizen Donovan to his pre-paid destination with alacrity, or you turn tail and prove my theory that the only thing ‘professional’ about pilots is the sad fact that they are paid good currency for little effect…much like lawyers, revenuers, and vice-presidents!”
Donavan: consummate sarcastic or genuine, Grade A pain in the posterior?
Besides, the honorable Mr. Charles Dawes probably earned his pay very well as the perfect pallid VP to the venerable Silent Cal.
“Very well.” And with that, the conversation was over, his course decided.
“We press on.”
The run up to Grants Pass had worsened during their tete-a-tete so his best course now lay directly north: find Gold Ray Dam and fly the Gulch.
A hard right turn. Grant let the slip-skid ball slide to the bottom of its travel by using a little left rudder against the turn. As the ball goes, so goes the butt: he felt more than heard Donovan slam against the cabin wall none too gently.
Pleased with the prank, Grant S-turned a bit to pick up a view of Gold Ray. Clouds didn’t look so bad to the north: maybe the Gulch route wouldn’t be as bad as all that.
Tex had once warned Grant about the folly of following false belief:
“Son, you fly an old bird all alone across the country and you can do a lot of things in that precious privacy. You can sing to yourself, write bad poetry to yourself, but you can never, EVER, lie to yourself.”
“Aw, Heck Tex. We’ve seen a lot worse than this.”
Grant pressed his lips together in a tight grimace, hunched forward against the cold and started his run.
Flashing over the dam at 600 feet and 130 mph, Grant picked up the Gold Ray and headed north past Starvation Heights. The flat of Evans Valley gave him a little maneuvering room under overcast to avoid the thin wisps of virga flowing down like veils from the cloud deck.
Pleasant Creek was easy to spot (and the reassuring name made him feel better anyway).
North on the compass a few more miles and he would turn northwest and enter Coffin Gulch. He knew from experience that the ‘Pleasant’ part of this creek ended abruptly in a box canyon a few miles on, so “Running the Coffin”, despite ominous overtone, was his best choice.
He hugged the treetops through the gap with little room to spare between wheels and woods and went from Coffin to Grave Creek. A few miles over some lower terrain and now the turn north-by-northeast to Waggoner Gap.
This old settler’s trail nearly always offered a way through this part of the Cascades and Grant was relieved to see a little more sky than cloud as he rounded the bend to the right.
He realized he’d been clenching both stick and throttle as fiercely as he’d been clenching his jaw.
“Relax, boy.” He told himself, “only 20 more minutes and we’re home free.”
20 minutes more.
“What’s 20 minutes?” he thought. “Why, I can boil coffee and boil an egg in 20 minutes…and not even use the same pot”
“20 minutes is a walk to town from my bunk at the hangar, I can listen to four Louis Armstrong 12 inch records in 20 minutes, in 20 minutes I can shower, shave, pomade my hair, pick a few flowers for the girls at the VFW and dance a little swing.”
“20 minutes is nothing.”
30 minutes later, Grant was still straining to see where the Gap opened up towards Azalea.
“Nice town, Azalea…nice flat beet fields their. Set her down, sit out the weather, chat about beets.”
To the north, a gap. Grant didn’t think twice, but rolled hard to the left, throttled back a bit and shot into the valley at 50 feet above the treetops.
Grey tendrils of fog sat dense as gravel at the bottom of the valley. It was as if they were rock washed downs from the talc pits and left there for later collection by the Bureau of Mines.
Fingers of cloud reached down from above his top wing to wrap themselves briefly against the sweep of the leading edge.
It was getting a tad tight in here.
“Where is Azalea?” Grant was tightly focused on the terrain to the right and what he saw paled him: Starvout Creek.
He had missed Waggoners Gap and was now flying at over 100 miles per hour up a blind canyon.
“Speed is Life, Son” Tex had told him, “fly fast lest the earth rise up and smite thee.”
But in the tight confines of Starvout Canyon, speed was bringing death closer by the half-mile.
He had only been here once before, much faster, much higher, and knew the Starvout emptied into the Quines and Azalea to the west. Canyonville was his best option now.
A twisty, nasty little creek winding up a narrow vale a good 10 miles long and at it’s northern end lay Canyonville and Bethel Airfield and rest.
“10 miles, let’s see, at 100 mph we’ll be there in 6 minutes. 6 minutes I can do”
The first crack of wood against wing came less than a minute later. So intent on the way ahead and to the left, Grant failed to see a hillock rise on his right.
Tough built as she was, #39’s wings were no match for spruce still growing firm and rooted to deep earth. She fought for a few seconds, wing tip against tree top and Grant laid hard on the throttle knowing already the winner of the contest.
Tree by tree, she was losing ground. He could hear the crack of spar against creak of tree limbs.
It was as if she was his Champion, fighting with steel saber instead of wooden strakes. Each blow given the trees, a heavy trunk would counter, breaking spars, shattering ribs.
The big prop which had been slicing air into docile bits for an hour gave in to the onslaught of Fir and Scotch pine trunks thick as a man’s leg.
He was losing her.
She was drowning in a sea of living wood and he had to cut her life line.
Throttle idle. Mixture, cut-off. Fuel off.
He knew before it hit. “This is gonna hurt”
A huge Spruce 60 feet tall grabbed the grand girl by the wheels and drug her down.
The stop was sudden, the silence painful as it is after any battle is lost.
He was alive enough to smell the first wisps of smoke. Aware enough to know that smoke means fire and fire bad. Fire very bad.
Gas vapor, nitrate dope and seasoned spruce do not play nice together when heated.
Grant raised his head, fumbled with the buckle of his lap belt and figured any minute Mr. Donovan would come dancing round the shattered tree trunks just as pleased as he could be that he had proved himself right: lap belts are magic and pilots are not worth the trouble to train them.
“DONAVAN!” Grant yelled.
Fire was no longer just licking away at the front cowling behind the twisted wreck of motor. It’s jaws were fully opened and was swallowing the remains of 5339 whole from head to tail.
Grant pushed his way out of the cockpit and jumped down to the lower wing.
That the lower wing was now higher than it should have been accounted for his tumble away from the wreck and the flame and the smoke and was probably the old girl’s last attempt to save his sorry soul.
Grant rolled upright and limped back to the front cabin but the intense heat pushed him back, the Beast Fire slapped his face, a firey backhand to his eyes. His goggles spared his vision and he pressed in again.
Heat melted a cabane strut and when Grant approached, 5339 could no longer hold together. The strut broke free and white hot metal struck the back of his hand.
“Heck of a thing, fire”, the pilot said.
Grant opened his eyes to see the young man standing on the tire of a pristine Boeing 40C Mailplane fiddling with the fasteners of the front cowl.
The last 50 years of his life had been spent with the airlines. Not as a pilot but as a dispatcher. He had broken the faith that day long ago. His faith. Killed a man. Destroyed his lovely beast of an airplane.
He saw himself unfit to fly but devoted his life instead to the guardianship of those who followed behind him. For 50 years he watched them move metal. Tracked them around storms, made sure they had the best weather information he could possibly get for them.
50 years, men and women come and go. Some go peacefully, some fight the good fight to the end. He watched from his dispatch office in San Francisco as his wards traveled the ever expanding globe of the airline empires.
In 50 years, pilots had gone from flying the firetraps a few hundred miles a few hundred feet off the ground to flights at speeds past that of sound, at altitudes higher than any weather could reach and in miles that spanned oceans.
Some good men gone: Tex Marshal, Stanhope Boggs, Ham Lee, Rex Levisee, Slim Lewis…even the best of them all, Jack Knight fell to hazard or bravado.
“Hmm? Me what?” smiled the pilot.
“You’re the kid…’Boy’…JC.” Grant whispered. “What has happened here?”
“Oh, a few of us thought it was about time you got your butt back in the big chair…so we got the old girl off the mountain and…spruced her up a bit so to speak” JC grinned.
“I heard you went down with all hands… at sea…back in ’41 flying a …a Hudson wasn’t it?” Grant didn’t know quite how to act.
He was finally going nutty. Here he was standing on perfect sod talking to a kid been dead since WWII. A kid standing on the tire of…#39.
As if she wasn’t there before, he noticed her all of a sudden in one glance, felt her there solid as the day she rolled her wheels across the grass at Medford.
Big and silver and beautiful smelling of fresh dope and new oil and warm stainless steel.
He didn’t question. He accepted this all with new eyes seeing the world for the first time like a child that’s unlearned something wrong and is proud of the accomplishment.
“Gimme a hand with this will you Grant”, JC tossed the starter crank down to Grant and hopped down from the tire.
“Well, climb on up there, Donaldson. They’re waiting for us in Elko…besides, Speed’ll have my hide if I don’t get you back in the big saddle and airborne on time…like a mother hen that man.”
With that, JC took the crank from Grant’s hands and fitted it carefully in the slot.
“We’re losin’ light, Mister…evening glass-off any minute now, smooth as silk and prettier than Rita Hayworth in a two-piece. Now make it hot!” JC laid a hand on the crank and it turned easy as time.
Grant settled in, buckled up, and yelled out “Can I Go Fly Today Peter Rabbit?!”
JC nearly rolled on the grass laughing, “You’re CLEAR!”
Grant pulled the starter lever and 5339 rolled through its cylinders without a cough and spooled to life like a turbine.
JC climbed up on the wing, gave Grant a theatrical kiss on the helmet, and climbed into the front bin.
Hand on the throttle, Grant noticed through crystal clear goggles, his scar was gone. ---