The optimism tax

I’ve paid this tax more than a few times in my life, the first as a youngster when I sent home via a friend and his vehicle a couple of sleeping bags, a ton of photos from flight school and some clothes. They never arrived.

Don, the flight-school friend, had been just another Canadian who went down to the U.S. to enroll in the Army in order that he might fly helicopters in Vietnam. He swallowed the recruiting station line, and ended up sitting on an airport fire truck at a domestic Army field somewhere in the southeast. Not satisfied, he jumped ship and hightailed it back to Canada where he saved his cash and ended up with some of us at the same flight school.

Of course, I didn’t learn any of this until one night when some of us piled into Sok’s Chevy and shuffled off to Buffalo, the land of cheap beer and friendly women. While we were watering down a wall framing one of the more cheaply financed sections of Buffalo (there were many at the time), a cruiser pulled up and we were confronted by a couple of Buffalo’s finest who took some exception to our need for urination.

Fortunately for all of us, a radio call ended up dispatching the officers to a more pressing matter of a break and enter, and we thankfully piled back into Sok’s car and headed north where we belonged. It was during the ride home that Don regaled us with tales of his bitter disappointment in the U.S. Army and his subsequent jump from active duty to Canadian reservist, so to speak. If anything, that should have told me all I needed to know about Don.

Ten years later, I ran into Don while we were both flying on large fires in northern Canada. He was still shifty-eyed. Needless to say, while we were in the fire camp we never spent any time reminiscing over the good old days.

Occasionally, I still pay the optimism tax when someone takes advantage of my trust in humanity, but there’s no point in worrying about it. It’s simply not worth it, although I must admit that I still miss those photos and the accompanying negatives.

I’ve never missed Don, and the sleeping bags and the clothes were all replaced.

Fear and loathing in the valley

She was hired to sell biker clothing, and she was good at it. Prior to that she was somewhere down the hill, at a discount mall on the way to L.A.

I don’t remember exactly when I started paying attention to her, but I first noticed her for her saucy walk. It wasn’t overtly sexual – nothing like that at all. It was just, well, saucy. Her long, dark, thick straight hair would swing with her every step. She had bangs that covered her forehead, cut to a perfect line. Her eyes were the darkest brown that I’ve ever seen, and believe me on that, because I’ve seen my share.

She was intelligent, and could talk knowledgeably about almost anything. She had a degree in something, but I’ve forgotten now. She spoke Spanish too. I thought that was pretty cool for a girl from Arizona who left home when she was 14, moved west, went to high school on her own and then university.

She had traveled a bit. North to Vancouver, where she got bored out of her tree and then headed back south. Imagine that — bored in Vancouver. We laughed about that.

I was afraid of her, mostly because I knew inside of me that it would be a long, hard fall and I wasn’t certain I wanted that again at that stage of my life. Then I got involved with someone else and put those thoughts away.

For a while she dated one of the sales guys, got to tweaking with him, and I mostly forgot about her. Well, let’s say that I forgot about her as much as one could while still laying my tired eyes on her every day at the shop. I remember one quiet lunchtime when she told me she had a splitting headache, and one look into her pinprick eyes told me it was from tweaking. I wanted to kick her ass, but of course I didn’t. I hoped she was smart enough to figure it out for herself. Eventually she did, and the salesman with the dyed hair left town.

I still wonder what I would have done had she not stopped on her own.

Much later, just prior to my leaving, we went down together to see the Bettie Page movie. We made plans to attend the film noir festival, but it wasn’t to be. A few days later, she was gone, and then I was gone, and I never saw her again.

I trust you are well, Delissa, and happy.

And one more thing: Thank you.

Experience makes a great teacher

When first learning to fly, I had a number of flight instructors. Most were inexperienced in the rigors of bush flying, having been kept on by the flight school to build their flight times up to some magic number or other imposed by the industry and the companies they wanted to work for. They were good for instilling the basics, though.

Basics are everything.

Beyond basics comes a knowledge required to survive in the harsh environment of the bush pilot. Fortunately, at just the right time in my training regimen, the flight school hired Ben. He was an old-time helicopter aviator who had been a part of the beginning of the piston helicopter era in Canada. He was British, although by then he had spent many years in Canada, and whenever we crossed the line to go beer drinking, he had me coach him in correct pronunciation for the appropriate phrases in answer to the questions at the border. I never failed him.

Nor did he ever fail me. In six thousand hours of helicopter flight time, his principles, guidance and flight instruction held up. He taught me much that I needed to know to survive in the harsh environment of the bush pilot. Over the years I acquired first-hand experience in bush, mountain, arctic and desert flight environments, but Ben’s initial training was the foundation for most of what I learned on-site.

When you start out flying, you have no experience and a whole lot of luck, and you hope to end up with a whole lot of experience before you run out of that luck.

Thanks to Ben Arnold, I made my own luck.

And yes, I was lucky too.

For Julia with the bear claw on her shoulder

It was back in ’96 and I was nursing a beer on a slow, dark Wednesday night in the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar when she walked in and saddled up beside me. She told me that she had been outside on the river all day, and was exhausted from the effort. I mentioned that I had never rafted, and asked questions — probably too many. We talked easily in the dim light, trading adventures until closing time. Finally we stood up together and walked to the door, each ready to go our own way.

“Are you coming?” she asked.

* * * * *

I woke up at twilight. I watched you sleeping soundly, your shoulder uncovered in the early-morning light. I pulled the covers over your shoulder and opened the curtains so that when you woke up you would have an unobstructed view beyond the window and the sunlight streaming through.

I thought of you as I rode along the river in the early-morning mountain dawn. I’m remembering you again today.

Grave robber

Jean-Marc and I lost touch once more after our escapades in East Africa. Occasionally I would end up in the places he had been, and I would be approached by someone or another as to his whereabouts. I didn’t know, of course. By then, we were both traveling hither and yon to the far-flung outposts of the helicopter world, involved in fire fighting or exploration or construction and sent wherever the company saw fit to dispatch us.

It was during one of those assignments that I learned Jean-Marc had been killed while flying in the mountains. I didn’t get all of the details right away, of course, but eventually they trickled down to me via phone calls to the company and to various people I knew in the business. He didn’t stand a chance, and ended up smacking the ground with a substantial thud. I did learn one thing though, and that was that young Bill had been his swamper on that job.

Years later I decided that I needed something different to maintain my sanity, and so I retired from flying and got myself tied to a desk, still involved in aviation, but finished with active flying. Occasionally I’d see one or two of the old crew who came to town to do a job, or someone who was passing though and wanted to touch base and talk about old times. And then, to my complete surprise, a half-dozen of them showed up on a charter headed west. The charter flight had stopped for fuel, so they all wandered across the field to my office to kill some time.

Bill was one of them, standing in the background. Finally he walked up and we shook hands. To my complete surprise and discomfort I noticed that he was wearing Jean-Marc’s ring. Without blinking an eye, I now sized him up for the man that he was: a thief; a liar; and finally, a grave-robber.

I wondered. Did he take the ring off of a dead man’s hand? Or had he merely put it in his pocket when he collected Jean-Marc’s personal effects?

The former would be no surprise to me, and the latter is unlikely, since I later learned that Bill was the first man to get to the accident site.

Djibouti dive-in

The overseas project I was in charge of needed another aircraft and flight crew to cover the increased work load, so the company had one boxed and flown into Djibouti via an Air France 747.

When Jean-Marc stepped off the plane I was as surprised as he was, but we had no time to reminisce. I was relegated to getting the import paperwork completed. This was a nightmare until I discovered the appropriate French officials to over-rule the locals and allow the aircraft out of customs bond in order that our maintenance people could assemble the rotorcraft.

Jean-Marc had been with the company for almost as long as I had, but before we ended up on the same job in north Africa we had never spent time in the same foreign locale. He was assigned to Ethiopia, and on his R&Rs went into Addis (Addis Ababa) to scour the markets there for interesting and unusual bits and pieces of gold and silver for his many women around the globe.

I, on the other hand, preferred the more isolated regions on my rotations out, and consequently ended up in Mog (Mogadishu), or Djibouti, or Galcaia, to name only a few. I preferred those places to getting to know the white enclaves in the larger centers such as Nairobi or Jo’burg (Johannesburg), where one could become enmeshed in the local white perceptions of the continent’s native life.

For the most part, I always figured there was no point to going to Africa only to see and experience a white world. Africa is black, obviously. It’s former name on the old maps was the Dark Continent, for the unknown and mysterious visage it presented to the European explorer of the 19th century. I didn’t want to miss out on any of that, even if it was late in the next century.

While our ground crew was busied with assembly, and until the aircraft was ready for test flying, Jean-Marc and I retired to the local watering holes, frequented by Djibouti regulars, la légion Étrangère and various and sundry other miscreants as could be found. At one point we discovered a troupe of misguided Air Lufthansa flight attendants trapped with their flight crew during a strike. We managed to rescue them from their boredom and bring them into the fold.

We spent ten days trolling the depths of Djibouti depravity with our new-found friends, but when our aircraft was readied for departure, we said our goodbyes to the stewardesses and flew off into the sunrise. The oil exploration contract progressed from there, and was subsequently fulfilled and terminated some months later.

In the beginning

Jean-Marc wore a particularly noticeable ring that he had picked up in his travels. It was extremely detailed, in gold and silver, that of a tall ship, fully rigged and under full sail, on what appeared to be black onyx. I asked him about it, and he said he had found it during one of his market forays into Addis. The person he bought it from couldn’t tell him a thing about it. I had never seen anything like it, and told him so. Jean-Marc said that he had looked for more of them, but had only seen the one. When I asked him to take it off so that I could look at it more closely, he refused. Obviously, it had some meaning to him, and I understood, to some extent why, given the intricacy of the design.

Digging the hole

When we ended up back at the head office hangar we all liked to get out on the floor and mingle with the maintenance people responsible for the well-being of the helicopters with which we entrusted our lives and the lives of our passengers. If the right crowd was around, we’d end up hitting the hotel just down the road for an evening well-spent until closing time, or the wee hours of the morning when the owner would keep the place open for us.

One of the guys that usually came along for the beer was young Bill, a lowly apprentice, who wasn’t known as the brightest bulb in the hangar, so to speak. He was a slow-moving, slow-talking man with a drawl that managed to irritate you if you spent too much time listening to him. Bill was married to a girl who didn’t take kindly to his nights out with the boys, and, after a night of debauchery, he would drag his sorry ass back into the shop on a Tuesday or a Wednesday or a Friday morning with a hang-dog look on his face and a ready story about what his wife had done to him this time upon his late and drunken arrival home.

Eventually, we all got fed up with Bill’s constant whining, and after one particularly long and winding nighttime trail of destruction spent at the various strip joints in the area, some of us pulled Bill outside and gave him a pep-talk before sending him on his way to be chastised by his bride one more time for being tardy in getting home to her waiting arms and sharp tongue.

Bill hadn’t show up at work for two days, so Larry, the owner of the company – in his own right not to be outdone as a drinking machine – called Bill’s wife to ask if he was sick. After hanging up the phone, Larry came out to tell us that Bill was in jail. A quick call to the precinct confirmed this, and after one of us went down to bail out Bill, he was back on the shop floor once again, with a story to tell about how he had ended up in the crowbar hotel.

It seems that our pep-talk a few nights previous had really cheered Bill up and put him in the proper frame of mind to hurry home and confront his bride. On arriving, he found his belongings out on the front porch and the door locked. Bill, not being the smartest fly over the cesspool, pounded on the door for a couple of minutes, and, just as his wife was unlocking it, he managed to kick the door down and both door and Bill landed on top of his bride. She didn’t take too kindly to this turn of events and consequently, when the police arrived, Bill was hauled off to jail.

Now you know how young Bill’s mind works – or doesn’t – as the case may be. Be that as it may, we all were somewhat chastened by the results of our advice-giving.