It is an early spring morning. Low clouds and a thin fog unusual for this part of Texas diffuse the dim light of a hidden sun. The heavy dew on the short grass of the Corpus Christi airfield makes for slippery going.
A lineboy is sleepily stumbling through his morning chores. Uncovering the gas pump, he slips and mutters a curse under his breath. A truck pulls up beside him. “U.S. Mail” lettered on the side.
It is 1931. Pangborn and Herndon prepare for their trans Pacific flight while Wiley Post takes on the world. Hoover is in the White House and The Good Earth is Buck’s latest book. Pluto is newly discovered and the country is rising out of the Depression as slowly as this Texas sun.
The lineboy takes two sacks of mail from the truck and waves it on, turning towards the sound from the North. Not an OX-5 or a Liberty, this sound is round. He sits down on a damp wooden bench, leaning back against the pumps to wait.
The engine rumbles louder now, circling over the field. He catches a glimpse or two as the new mail plane flashes in and out of the fog. Rolling onto final in a hard slideslip, a huge biplane blue and orange fades into view. The boy stands slowly, slackjawed at the sight of the beast.
With a quiet crash, the plane rolls onto the strip, painting twin strips out of the dew as it goes. Engine quiet now, the prop ticks to a stop and the monster mailplane slides to a halt in front of him. The sound of the wind dying in the wires is music he would never forget.
The pilot flips the latch of the seatbelt and climbs over the side, two steps and a hop to the ground. He, too slips on the dew, grabbing at the high cockpit rim for support.
“Morning” he says to the boy.
“Nice plane,” the boy, now well awake, answers.
“She’s a spanker, all right! First day on the run.”
The pilot takes the mail pouches from the bench and enters the line shack. Looking for coffee and finding it old and cold, he sighs and rubs tired ears. Outside he finds the boy still staring at the plane.
“Uh, need a prop?” the boy asks, eyeing the nine foot blade and the wet grass.
“Nope, already got one,” the pilot replies, patting the cowl. He keys the padlock and opens the large front bin, pitching the bags in after the morning light.
Bin locked again, the pilot vaults from the front tire to wingwalk and, with an unpracticed step, clambers into his seat.
Master “On”‘ starter to “Energize” and the still warm Pratt & Whitney turns the prop with powerful assurance. Magnetos “Both” and the whuff whuff whuff of the exhaust burst into an easy lop.
As the plane turns away, the lineboy is buffeted by a warm wind. Closing his eyes, he breaths deeply, inhaling the life left behind for him. The smell of clean oil and new gas wash over fresh dope, leaving him alert and alive.
The Speedmail turns onto the runway and the pilot pushes throttle and airplane forward. Tail up and he’s away in a steep climb, water trailing from the wings. Turning to the North, he disappears in the fog, the sound lingering on for a minute or two.
Eyes closed again, the lineboy sees himself in the cockpit of the winged beauty passing over western ranchlands and the oil fields at Beaumont. With the breath of the beast still fresh in his hair, he opens his eyes and sees the first crescent of the sun to the East.
Turning again to his tasks of the day ahead, a sudden realization takes hold … she’ll be back tomorrow and the next day and the next and the day after that.
He had met his first love, just then, that morning; and her name was Speedmail.
About the Author
After more than 30 years and 15,000 hours in all sorts of flying machines from fiberglass gliders to glass-cockpit jets, Rob Bach has collected a few stories along the way he likes to share when he slows down long enough to write. He lives in southern Wisconsin with the love of his life, Stephanie, a Pietenpol or two, and a Hatz biplane.