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 whatever 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 to 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 boundary, 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 tête-à-tête 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 there. 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 down 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 its 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 foot 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. Its jaws were fully opened and were 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 fiery 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.