A pilot on the ground is only half alive.
Private flying is a scarce privilege, almost uniquely American. Pick a place and fly there. On your own. Talk about freedom!
Problem is, flyers lead an episodic life. Brief adventures in the sky interspersed with long periods of...what? Merely everything else. No wonder then, we suffer memory seizures. I feel one coming on right now.
In the summer of '69, my family and I crossed the Rockies in our Cessna Skylane. We landed at a small airport for fuel. The flight was memorable enough, I suppose. In this case, though, there were other events to remember. On the ground.
"Do you have a restaurant here?" I asked.
"Nope," answered the FBO from atop his step-ladder. A man of maybe fifty wearing oil-stained coveralls, he peered down into the left wing tank and squeezed the lever on the fuel nozzle. The man's forearms were tattooed with snakes and roses. He did not look my way as the gallons began clicking.
"For rent, I mean."
The man shook his head.
My wife and children had made for the back of the Quonset hut across the tarmac as soon as the engine stopped. I stood by the plane for a moment and thought about our flight.
The route that morning was from Denver to the Four Corners area. We flew "off-airways" and close to the ground, descending steadily along the western slopes of the Rockies, over some of the roughest badlands in the West. For safety, I had given position reports every few minutes. The Denver Flight Service Station came to know us well.
"Denver Radio, Two-Four Fox again. Standing by Gunnison Omni Station. Position report, over."
"Two-Four Fox, go ahead. Where are you now?"
"Abeam Saguache at :14 past the hour. Descending through 8,500. Smooth as glass. Estimating Mineral at :29. Landing Cortez :02."
"Roger, your position report. Talk to you later."
Rocky cliffs passed below us in rank after rank. Gigantic fjords, dry and dead, angled across our path. The wonders of the West assailed us with mounting visual sensations, which at airplane speeds accumulate faster than the mind can comprehend. The effort to be nonchalant in front of my family was made more difficult, as I was privately fantacizing about what the Apollo 10 astronauts must have experienced that very week, skimming over the mountains of the Moon at 3,700 mph.
"We is down among 'em," I muttered to myself.
Our rest-stop at Montezuma County Airport brought to an end yet another perfect flight. It seemed now about to be marred by the first unfriendly airport operator we had ever met. I reached in the plane for the navigating chart. Looks like we'll back-track to Durango for lunch. Drat that!
The man dragged the step-ladder and fuel-hose away from the plane. "Other side of that hangar," he grumbled, tilting his head toward a corrugated building. "Truck stop."
Out here in the quintessential wilderness, where New Mexico meets Arizona, Colorado, and Utah, you might expect to meet people who don't like to talk much. This fellow gives "taciturn" a new meaning. I gathered up my family and led them past the hangar onto a gravel road. We stopped for a moment to let the silence fill our ears. Desolate buttes stood out against the sky.
"Where's your truck stop, Dad?" asked my son, then age 13.
The four of us looked up and down the road. Suddenly my wife raised her arm and pointed toward the horizon. "Good thing I'm wearing walking shoes," she said.
From a great distance, I could barely hear a Diesel engine, growling and downshifting. My eyes came to focus on a silver glint, the source of the sound. By extrapolating the rig's motion, I saw a low building. The truck stop could have been in Utah or Arizona.
Other side of the hangar, my foot! Taciturn, hell! That old guy at the gas pit is just plain antisocial.
"Back to the plane," I ordered. "Durango's closer."
"Our flying trips are supposed to be adventures," said my daughter, a precocious 12-year-old. "Let's pretend we're on a safari." She led the way down the road holding her mother's hand.
So much for my being 'pilot-in-command'.
"Should get there by nightfall," commented my son.
Before we finished the first chorus of "Row Your Boat," a Valiant, possibly tan in color, rumbled up from behind us. The driver was a lady wearing a faded house dress. She stopped beside us in a cloud of dust.
"Care for a ride?"
"One moment please," I said solemnly. "We have to take a vote."
The lady's hair was rolled up on pink plastic. There was a box of facial tissues on the front seat. "Where did you fly in from?" she asked as we climbed in.
My daughter recited our itinerary most cordially from the back seat. The Valiant loped over the road toward what turned out to be a small settlement along the highway. A neon sign stood above a row of eighteen wheelers. It said "EAT." I thanked the lady for the lift.
The four members of our safari strode single-file into a diner, past laboring swamp coolers. Truckers with caps that read "Caterpillar" or "Pennzoil" sipped from mugs and nodded to us.
"Maybe one of the trucks will be going our way," my daughter whispered over lunch. I looked around the room and shook my head.
A raucous conversation from across the room reached our ears. "You're shittin' me!" said a burly fellow with a cigarette pack folded into the sleeve of his tee-shirt.
"No I ain't," someone at his table replied. "Them computers cost millions." He pointed his finger and snickered, "You can't go drivin' up ta the moon like in your Peterbilt."
Grumbling continued from all around the room.
"I never lost nothin' on the moon," muttered a moustachioed man at another table, chomping on a moist stogey. "So how come they're spendin' all my tax money goin' up there?"
"Gotta beat them Ruskies with their Sputniks," someone scoffed. "It ain't science, that's for sure."
"What're they gonna find up there?" asked the moist stogey. "A bunch-a goddam rocks?"
My son put down his fork and frowned. Probably more than most teenagers, he was stoked to the core about the Apollo program and proud of his father's role in it. He might have piped up with adolescent rejoinders, but his mother shushed him.
Our waitress made change at the
register. "Hell," she grinned, "I got plenty of rocks in my backyard."
"Care for a ride?"
The pink hair rollers and the tissue box confirmed that it was the same Valiant.
"This is our lucky day," said my daughter.
The lady in the faded house dress let us out beside the hangar. I thanked her again. She wished us happy landings and drove away.
The kids paid a final visit to the back of the Quonset hut before our westward flight -- back to my work, firmly on the ground, designing computer systems for the space program while day-dreaming about the Apollo 11 mission a mere month away.
At the counter, I handed my credit card to the sullen old crank with the tattooed forearms. Without ever looking at me, he operated the imprinter and handed me a ballpoint pen.
"My wife find you all right?" he asked.