A Story of the Southern California 'Eighties
By George Constantin
Kind of screwy to think like that. I was ruminating: Repeatedly wondering if death was better than rejection. Death seemed pretty good, a little cool, and certainly a relief. Dying was a completion, perhaps even a summation of life. Rejection was entirely devoted to failure, and successful mortality would triumph over that flunky thing so that it - failure - would be unnoticeable. Death!, I say.
And how to die! Exploding with a winged device as we zipped exaltedly into the belly of a rocky mountain abundant with fossilized trilobites and lazy, mangy-ranging bobcats: Legs shimmering sinewy with carnivorous intent; toothpicked whiskers pointing to vociferous high-altitude muhreows. Yee-haw boys in oily baseball caps - coveralls or probably overalls jeans with no t-shirts underneath but still tan demarcation lines stopping on arms five-inches below shoulders - coming in an old flatbed with a cherry-picker to grab wrecked aluminum to take to the recycler, unwary/not realizing the worth of the instrument panel littered with pricey avionics.
I would have to takeoff from this airstrip. Getting in was hard. Leaving was very likely impossible.
This takeoff would be successful only if I flew like the greatest pilot in recorded and ephemeral aviation chronicles and possible all remembered history. As a neophyte flyer with only about twenty-eight hours total flight time in my logbook, six hours total solo time, it would be a bit of a task. The day was late, it was getting late, so late. Long day. Hard one, too. Earlier, this same long, hard day, I had done the stupidest thing of my life; five hours later, I was about to do the most dangerous thing (the second-most dangerous was just an hour or so before).
Taking-off from this high-altitude airport, with mountains arising thousands of feet above the strip, required several things: We had to wait for the day to just get "later" - cooling off the air and thereby reducing the effects of density-altitude (a real killer, let me tell you - I seen plenty of aviation training films - density altitude, man, that and wake turbulence at low altitude, real killers, whoo-whee), which would make our takeoff a little-bit easier. It required a full-power, short-field takeoff followed by the most rapid ascent imaginable to clear the pines and sudden brunt of angled granite. It also seemed to necessitate a better and more experienced pilot than myself, but then, such a pilot would probably not attempt the takeoff (and most assuredly wouldn't have landed in the first place).
I heard of fresh pilots who landed in impossible places that required the wings to be dismantled from the plane and the whole thing flatbed trailered back to the home airport. I couldn't let that happen. I had gotten myself, my friend Ivan, and this Cessna 150 Commuter into this mess, into this valley surrounded by the Dulce Sierra, and down onto the short, unimproved dirt strip at the bottom.
What a day.
What a day, indeed. The day had already started so goddamn weird: A missed class at our junior college in the morning, tired and low on cash as an ever-present experience and existence, and I made a pass at Sylbyja in the photography class darkroom, a bad pass from the beginning, a bad approach, a go-around, a messed-up lining-up for final. Rushed in way too fast. Inexperience: Made me do things not capable of handling, or at least, made me think I was better adept at handling situations.
That day, Ivan had a lot of cash, Ivan had a wad of cash, Ivan always had a wad of cash, Ivan always seemed never to not have a lot of cash - Ivan: Always replete with cash. Ivan had a lot of money in his pocket that day, and he felt like doing something fun. Hell, I always wanted to do something fun, too, but that day, I especially wanted to be getting out of places. Impossible places. Flying got me out of places many a time, and it seemed like the perfect formula to mess with on that day. What a day.
I started flying three years earlier, when I was sixteen. But I didn't have my license yet. The private pilot certificate required a minimum of forty hours flight time, with a minimum of twenty hours dual instruction time and a minimum of twenty hours solo time. The solo time required at least three cross-country flights . . . so what is being said by the Feds here is that no one gets their license in exactly forty hours. Hell, most people require more than twenty hours of dual before they solo, and solo flight is only about a forth of a way into the training.
But I was a great goddamn pilot. I had read all these pulp books about fighter aces while growing up - little Dell mass-market paperbacks like "wing Leader" and Arco trade paperbacks like "Ace Of The Iron Cross." World War Two pilots were interesting. Sir Douglas Bader looped a Spitfire into the ground and lost both legs. He flew with wooden legs in the Battle for Britain's skies. When he was later shot down, he left his legs in the cockpit and the German prison camp allowed an English bomber to drop him new ones.
World War One had the hot guys, though. They were the most interesting , and I later took pride in the fact that my training planes were faster at cruise speed than most of the fighters in the First World War. Still, those guys were the best fighter pilots ever seen, and they were the first. I really liked Jimmy McCudden, slick pilot of the Royal Flying Corps. Billy Bishop, a Canadian, aay?
I knew all these goddamn pilots from all these countries who fought in all these wars. I was flunking history all through high school, but I knew about all the air forces in history. My little books with their yellow-tinted pages would stink and start to mildew, but their passages were preserved in such a fixedly-obsessed manner in my head ("He tried to evade me. That was too bad.") I wanted to be a fighter pilot. Fighter pilots flew the hot planes, and I bet that they were attractive to the ladies, too. No wars were in sight that could eventually lead to me being a dogfighter, but I thought about hooking up a machine gun to a little bugsmasher like a Piper Cub and shooting the hell out of all available cactus in the not-too-far away desert beyond Dulce Sierra, into the Seguesa basin and its sandy loam.
While dreaming of these ace-making schemes, I had to learn to fly. I got Ivan to hook up a primitive flight-simulation program on his dad's home computer. Pushing keyboard buttons didn't seem a very realistic representation of screaming towards the Seguesa in a Pitts biplane at full-throttle, ready to pull up with six g's into a hammerhead stall. Sitting at a grayscale monitor with the CPU going 'tic, tic' in a feeble representation of screen movement (not to mention the 'bra,raa,raah,brahp' of the feigned engine sound - sucky!) was not the way to learn. I had to fly real machines. Practice, real experience. I couldn't learn about lovemaking from an inflatable doll (try as I might), and only a steely-pulsed tendon-flexing general aviation airplane could do the job. General Motors: Body by Fisher. Real American-made cars. Wichita, Kansas: Riveted aluminum with a Continental 0-200 four-cylinder, sweet! Honest-to-goddamn-greatness Yankee-made flying machines.
So, when I did get to fly planes, even if just simple, almost laughable Cessna 150s, I saw the opportunity of doing fun things with wings. It costs a lot of dough to get a pilot ticket, all that aircraft rental time and instructor fees. I would work and save cash and do a lesson here and there, not enough like they want you to, which is at least once a week. I couldn't afford that. So, it took a few years to get to solo, and, at the same time, it wasn't a lot of hours - twenty or so. Like I said, a great damn pilot.
When Ivan said on that ignoble (opprobrious?) day that he wanted to have fun, I knew that he meant flying. So, how did that day, a warm spring one, actually hot by afternoon, start? I met up with Ivan at school. I missed the first class, but I wanted to get to the second one, because this was the first class of the day where I had Ivan in it with me. Biology and biology lab, then we had aeronautics, then, finally, photography.
In biology class, Dr. Lubbock always called roll with a weird intonation in her voice:
I smiled with my correction, raising my hand with a casualness that alerted her eyes to my hand, indicating her disdain with my presence in her lecture.
"Fine, Gust," she said with a rise ending on "-st," a stop.
She had already read off his name, but Ivan walked in late. She read off the silent ones once again.
Lubbock looked at Ivan, and noted his proximity to me. It went on like this every time. She got to where she called us by our first and surnames, always both, but the rest of the class she called casually - "Chuck," "Susan," "Cornelius." Ivan would chew tobacco and spit into an empty thirty-two ounce soda cup, the contents of which he had consumed slurpily in class earlier, most noticeably.
I would sit later in that damn biology lab, headphones pressing on ears, trying to crush my fragile brain with lame knowledge and old Realistic (Radio Shack!) audio gear. They made us make these lame molecular models, with little conduits and plastic straws. DNA. RNA. WTF: What The Fuck, who gives? Little slide shows flashed on a murky screen, projected from inside. This scientific peep show, with amoebae resplendent in frozen form photographically, was presented with soundtrack provided by Dr. Akada, a Japanese-American who we made fun of for his gleeful greetings at the beginning of the recorded lab presentation:
"Greetings! I'm Marvin Akada, professor of biology at your lovely Pate College. Today's lab is very . . . exciting!"
"Greetings," I replied back to the screen, extending my middle finger. "Today we are studying human ornithology, Dr. Akada. This, on my right hand, is The Bird!"
I looked over at Ivan, who started his lab projector a minute and a half after me. When his Akada "Greetings!" came on (still photo of Akada that was also used for the natural science department directory out in the hall flashing on the opaque plexiglass, flickering, warpy), Ivan leaned back against the swivel-backed chair and reached down into his jeans and gave a tug, winking at the smiley Akada photo and then spitting into a soda cup. Ivan then looked over at me and smiled, toothy, Copenhagen chew caulked into the ridges between teeth, all of which coated with brown spittle.
Ivan couldn't say things like I could, like what I mean is like he couldn't come up with something like "simian bird study" or "primate poultry paring," but his candor was unmatchable, and he cut to the fast of things. Blunt. Brutal. Boorish. Ivan. Wads of cash. Big fat fucking wad of tobacco omnipresent in mouth. Give that mouf' 'little drooole, Ivan Boi!" I was even fascinated with how Ivan would hang his really viscous yang from that rolley lower lip, a big globule of putrefacted salivational lugumbra, drop that spit into receptacled cup. Ivan the man, ready for an enterprise, an exploitative enterprise.
Ivan and I, - "On That Day" - we were walking from aeronautics class ("A stall can happen at any airspeed, it is not related to airspeed, but rather, to the wing's relation to the airflow current, its angle of attack. So, a stall is caused by lack of lift, not lack of airspeed . . . " Yeah, yeah, yeah, tell us something we don't already know.) to the last class - photo! Taught by Gianni Mogiagni, you would think a native of Italy with his name - yes, his lineage Italian - but in reality an immigrant from Papua New Guinea.
"I didn't become no American citizen," Mogiagni one day told the class while displaying projected slides of his Tet Offensive collection, some that were syndicated in various international editioned newspapers, "Especially 'cause I got this damn graze in the side of my head (lifting off fishing hat) where no hair grows no more. Fifty-calibre round. I had these eviction papers, and puffins and penguins aren't capable of flight, and the fire hydrants should be painted blue, see?"
He would get this vitreous, gelatin-cooling look in his eyeballs, seeming like brain-sent cataracts were soon to form when he talked like this. His upper lip would smear with sweat, and his nose shined with grease. We let him ramble, because we knew that he was a talented, even stunning photographer, but we secretly questioned whether he should have a driver's license.
That day - Mogiagni said to the class: "I'm sick of you bastards trying to shoot 'Art." You guys should convince the girls to do a spread for you. Did you hear that? Anyone seen my Hasselblad? Hey, Gust, you gotta light man? Gimme a light." Hands shaking, cigarette teetering and his lower lip like a see-saw, he dismissed us to the lab, where we could develop our negatives and print up some contact sheets.
"Hey, Goose," Ivan said as we walked towards the neighboring trailer that was converted to a darkroom, "You think we could get these negs fixed up quick, and we could split and do something cool? I'm itchin' to get outta here, man."
"Well, Iv', tell you what, let's see if we can't get one of those developing tanks from Sylbyja that can handle four reels. We put 'em all in, get them developed fast. We won't even put them up to dry in the cabinet. We'll take that hair dryer and blow the shit out of them. They'll be dry, and we can go to the Photo Shed and print them up later. It costs a little bit, but we have until next week anyways to turn them in, so what the heck."
"Sounds good, Goose-Man!"
We walked in the trailer, and there was the girl I had been obsessing over a whole semester, Sylbyja Lunroe. She liked me, she always made it a point to say hi. I wasn't a ladies' guy, but somehow Sylbyja liked me. She liked to dress in a trashy, art-school photo-chick kind of manner: Fatigue jacket, balloony pants, hair shoulder-length and teased thick and with some funky colors striped through in a limited area of bangs, heavily-streaked lined-eyes for neo-epidemic/aesthete look. She represented a wilde scourge to the knotty-kneed, tepid-tummied photo students, she was fiery and short-tempered with sloppy technique. She got pissed if people contaminated the trays of developer, stop-bath, and fixer, which prompted her to dump the contents of the trays down the drain of a stainless steel basin, or if someone's negative strips drying in the cabinet curled and dried against someone else's, making an emulsive mess.
It's important to be liked, and to know that you are liked. This cognition of fondness is important, because it strengthens any weak character you might have. I am liked. Cool.
Sylbyja was friendly to everybody, but you could tell where she was professional with most, and interest-seeking in a few, of which I was one. Was. Ah, indeed, the chosen few, choosing you: The affected.
Ivan walked in, and I followed him. This is that day. Ready to develop rolls of Kodak Plus-X Pan, the most versatile black-and-white film ever worked with. Very forgiving. Sylbyja looked at us and her fawn-eyed look indicated that she would be happy to talk with Goose and Ivan. Sylbyja was very pretty, by the way. She was close to five-and-a-half feet tall, and she had a healthy build, nicely biceped arms trailing into slender forearms and wrists, strong legs with great calves that curved radically into nice, thin ankles. Muscled, compact, like a lynx, but also very lissome in her propulsion. She walked direct, with purpose, perhaps even intent. No one ever gave her any lip, not even Mogiagni. Everyone knew their place around Sylbyja Lunroe. She was twenty-five, but her spirit seemed close to me, so that I felt a little bit older, or - closer to her.
"Well, hello gentlemen. Ivan and Gustov. Nice to see you. I see we are not going to ditch lab this week,. Good, very good."
We smiled. Ivan held up his big soda cup.
"We already got stocked up for the lab, honey. Now we get to be phoh-tahg-graffers for this lab." Ivan liked exaggerating, sometimes borderline ass-like. But he was funny. Not as funny as me though. Well, maybe.
"Hello, Gust. I can't wait to see what you shot this week."
"Don't worry about ol' Goose," Ivan cut in, "he probably shot more photos of dumpsters and trailer homes. He got that eye for destitute art, you know."
"More like degenerate," I added.
It was true, I was off shooting weird-scenes, doing double-exposure on both negatives and paper. I was trying to break new ground, ground that had already been cleaved well before I ever saw a camera.
"Gust, honey," Sylbyja continued, "How did you get those shots, the ones of all the owl silhouettes hanging around the trailer home? That was pretty cool."
She was referring to my single standout shot: An old bare-metal aluminum Airstream trailer, the ones that look like the offspring of a Boeing Stratoliner and a toaster. The trailer appeared in the middle of the print, all black. Flames were at the foreground of the photo. Eight evenly-spaced Great Horned owls appeared on the curvature of the trailer's roof, all in shadow. The sky, aside from the flames, was the only thing not dark. The strangest gray, with white contrails from high-altitude jets crossing above the trailer. And an empty rocking-chair to the right of the trailer.
"Well, Sylbyja, it just looks more complex than it really is. The trick is believe in what the end-result is, but to be merciless in the creation. I was very cynical. I knew it would be silly - shit, I felt silly. The trailer was out in the Seguesa desert. I saw it when I was driving with my cousin a couple of years ago. I took a chance that it might still be there. It was."
Sylbyja was smiling, her upper teeth pinching softly into her lower lip. That looked very good, so nice. I continued:
"I had a design in my head, I had to follow through with it. Anything else would be a failure. I couldn't allow that. Well, you saw the picture, that's what I wanted. Only it came out better than I ever expected."
"Goose knows how to shoot a pretty picture," Ivan threw in, spitting lugubriously into his cup. He didn't want me to talk all day, because we had plans to get out of there.
Sylbyja: "What about the owls, and that fire?"
"Easy. The fire first. I brought two gallons of airplane gas I sumped from some barrels that had contaminated fuel over at Woodhaven airport. There's a fuel dump the firefighters use to practice putting out plane crash fires. They get some old wrecks and use this fuel that sits around. I used some old tires, doused them with avgas, and let them rip. Whoosh! I couldn't run fast enough, I was kinda stupid to be that close. Anyways, the owls were easy. I snagged eight of those hollow, plastic owls from some hangars that they use to scare pigeons away. Those things never work, anyway. Three of them had bird shit on their heads. That's it. I just had a lot of luck in the darkroom with the shot is all."
She looked at me, then her face broke into a big, open-mouthed smile, her tongue bunched up against her front teeth. She stayed like that for a few seconds, eyes half-lidded, looking at me, and then started to laugh, eyes closed, palms on her lap as she sat upon her lab assistant's chair. Obviously, she liked me.
Ivan expectorated into his cup.
"Well, Goose old boy, what say we get our film developed so we can mosey out of here?"
"Okay, Ivan, I'm with you."
Sylbyja watched as Ivan signed in to check out equipment. She took the pen from him and signed her initials next to his autograph. She then wrote "Gust Torvars" in the next line and initialed next to it.
"Okay, guys, you know where the tanks are in the cabinet. You can use those bags to spool the film, or you can go in the darkroom, no one's in there."
"Hey, Sylbyja," I asked, "Can we use that four-spool deal so I can just do us up quick and get out of here? Ivan here is so clumsy he still gets touch marks on his negs. Then we'll blow dry them quick and get out of here to enjoy this nice day."
"Gust, you know Ivan's supposed to do his own work. I don't know."
"Come on, Sylbyja, he's a retard," I said, to which Ivan snorted. "I promise he'll print his own stuff. We're gonna go to Photo Shed, maybe this weekend. He'll do it there, I swear."
Sylbyja looked at me, then Ivan, and back to me. She had a smirk, kind of leery look, and more stern a face than I had ever see, obviously thinking about me, but it was still a happy look, altogether.
"This time okay, Gust. But next time uh-uhh. Got it?"
"Got it. No sweat. Understood."
"All right, now get your asses in there and then out of here."
We got the gear and went in the darkroom. I took a bottle opener and popped the end off the four rolls of Plus-X Pan, two rolls shot by each of us. Ivan sat on a stool, spooling drool onto the outer vestibule, no one was around, and the darkroom was cordoned off merely by two sets of black curtains.
"I hope no one slips in that shit, Ivan."
"Ah, fuck 'em. They should watch where they're going."
I pulled out the little plastic spools from the film canisters, tightly coiled with at least thirty-six exposures apiece on each long strip. I cut the ends, and started rolling the film onto the big chrome spools. Some people liked the plastic ones because they were easier to work with and you almost never got the grey touch marks that put a big cloudy blotch on the negative, making the image murky and ruining it. I liked the chrome ones because the steel felt smooth, and I always would wind the film on nice and tight, without touching. It was fun. Ivan was sitting. Watching me in the red-orange light as I kinked the film sprocket-ends in my hand, winding, winding away.
I slid the reels into the long, stainless steel canister, and put the rubbery black top on. Pulling the little cap off the top, which had a lid underneath to deflect any light entering the can, I went out of the darkroom into the main room where the cabinets and liquid supplies were kept.
Sylbyja was standing, back of her hands on hips, fingers curled and facing outwards, and one of her hands was holding a pen. She was looking down at a book of David Douglas Duncan war photographs, and was focused on one particular photo a G.I. with a crewcut, skin-on the sides, laughing as he talked to some other soldiers. I saw the line of her panties beneath her sage-colored leggings. I went over to the big clear plastic tub that had the developer agent. Why does this clear plastic, the uncolored version of the polymer used in big trash cans, always look beat up like this, I thought to myself. It gets rough, chippy, dull, hard. The spout to pour the developer was the same lever mechanism used on stainless Bunn coffee machines for after-church socials in the meeting hall. I pulled the little black lever down, resisted inside by some spring I'm sure, and the smelly liquid poured out. At least I would not be printing them today, which was good, because my hands would be smelling like vinegar from the stop-bath, trailing me day-long and indicating that I was in the darkroom.
I filled the canister up, and then capped it. I turned around, and Sylbyja was looking at me. She was smiling and didn't say anything, but she didn't stop looking.
"Hey," I said, walking back to the darkroom carefully with canister.
"Hey," she said back.
"Hey, man," Ivan said when I got in, "how much longer is it gonna take, Goose? I wanna get going before we lose the day."
"Don't sweat it, Ivan. We're almost done. I'll finish the processing here and we'll be ready to blow dry."
Ivan peered out of the darkroom at Sylbyja.
"She's hot man, and what an ass on her. She likes you, Goose."
"Yeah, well, that's nice. I like her too. Hey, how much cash you got on you?"
"Couple hundred. Why?"
"You wanna go flying? You're always asking."
"You're not licensed, bud. You keep saying you can't take passengers until you're licensed."
"I can take any passenger that's a pilot or instructor. Shit, you wanna learn to fly, you're taking the goddamn aeronautics course with me. What if I can work it out. You wanna go?"
"Sure, I trust you. Where'd we go?"
"There's an old strip down in the Dulce Sierra. The county fire department uses it to practice landings in their helicopters. Some big tankers practice fire-bombing on it in the summer."
"You ever land on it?"
"No, man, I never been near it. I just know 'cause its on the sectional chart. My only concern is whether the strip is muddy from the tankers. Who knows. I'm guessing its a rough strip, maybe its not even paved."
"You make the call, buddy."
"You mind dropping about forty bucks? I got enough only for about forty-five minutes' flight time. I figure the total flight would be about an hour and twenty minutes."
"Sure thing. Let's go."
"After we dry the negs, we'll head to Woodhaven."
Finishing the process didn't take too long. Soon, the negatives were hanging from a line, held by clothespins. The blow dryer shrieked its electric-smelling wind on the twisting celluloid.
"Hey, Gust, do you think you can help me for a minute before you go?" Sylbyja asked.
Ivan grabbed the four negative strips and carefully cut them, using the lightboard, a metal ruler, and an X-Acto knife blade. He placed the negs into clear sheets, correctly keeping mine together and his separate from mine. Ivan then zipped up his backpack and headed out towards the door, signing out after properly dispensing of our borrowed materiel. Sylbyja initialed next to his name.
"See you next week, Syl," he called over his shoulder, then looking at me, "See you out at the car, old buddy." He winked. That toothy grin. Copenhagen.
Sylbyja bent down under a table that held a sink. Table, but it was really a series of tubings and rails. As she did this, her right hand up on top of the table, legs squatted while balanced on balls of feet, her shirt rose a bit. I saw the smooth, luscious skin of her belly. Nice color it had. Ohh . . . ohh, yeaahh.
"So, what do you need help with, Sylbyja?"
"I need you to help me collect the slide carriers in the dark room. Sometimes they fall to the ground. I can't always see them that good. I'd like an extra pair of eyes."
She went in the darkroom, and I followed, vacuous-feeling in chest. Sylbyja liked me.
As I collected the anodized negative carriers, I saw Sylbyja looking at me. So I approached her.
"Hey," I said.
"Hey," she said back.
I walked up to her real close.
"You're really cool, Sylbyja. Thanks for letting me develop Ivan's film."
"No problem. You're my favorite lab student, Gust."
My arms (seemly autonomous appendaged extremities, roguish from my body and brain) went to her sides.
"Hey! . . . " she said.
"Hey," I said, pushing my palms into and against her tummy. I slid them up. Like junior-high, all over again. Actually, what I mean is . . . this is what I always imagined doing throughout school.
"Gust! What are you doing!"
"Relax, baby," I said - I can't believe I said that! - pressing my mouth against her lips. "I'm developer boy." Huh?
At first the kiss went well, and it seemed she even edged her tongue into my mouth. Hot. But then, this sfel gut thn garbble warp vaarp - it got weird. I got dizzy, things got confusing, the room seemed more red than ever, and my legs felt incredibly glacile, frail, my thinking feeble. Hot - burning. Pain. I was staggering back from Sylbyja, kind of like a gyroscope as it starts to lose its balance. I looked at her, vision shuttering different images, an out-of-control camera auto-winder. She was standing against a negative projector. In her hand was a heavy metal frame, the device used to hold photo paper when you cast the negative image on it. Its made to be weighty, to stay in place.
It seemed like the words "Get the hell out of here" could have been uttered, by either Sylbyja or myself. But they weren't. Sylbyja dropped the frame, and adjusted her clothes while at the same time opening a button on her blouse. She had wet eyes, and then she started to smile at me - almost that open mouth laugh-smile.
"Gust, I'm sorry, I . . . - "
But as she said that I was already turning around and heading towards the door. Mogiagni was walking in.
"Gust?" he said.
I hit the steps, it was very bright outside. The door swung open a second time, I heard it behind me. I didn't turn to look. I knew who it was.
"Gust!" Sylbyja yelled. "Gust, wait! Gust! Guuuhst!"
I ran to the parking lot. Ivan was smoking a Swisher-Sweet cigarillo by his truck.
"Hey," I yelled, "You know where Walker Collings Aviation is?"
"Yeah," said Ivan spitting a 'ppt' piece of cigar, before dropping it and heeling it out.
"Wait over there," I yelled, hopping into my Datsun. "I'll pick you up."
We were cruising at about eight-thousand feet. Ivan had waited for me at Collings. Since I had to be as surreptitious as possible, having him wait on the other end of Woodhaven field seemed the best way to pick him up and take him along, without being extremely conspicuous. Ivan did not know what happened between me and Sylbyja in the darkroom.
The Dulce Sierra loomed up, bone-like hardness, gusty winds inside its canyons. After I cut across its top, I looked down. Sure enough, an airstrip. A dirt strip, as I suspected. It looked dry. There was quite a bit of crosswind.
"I'm gonna circle slowly down, Ivan, see if I can get an idea on what our landing's gonna be like."
"Fine. Mind if I have a dip?" He procured Copenhagen tin and sports bottle with flip top.
"No," I said, thinking about the darkroom. "Go right ahead."
I spiraled down in the little Cessna. The yoke - "control wheel" - was a little slippery, my hands were sweating. My high-tops were planted firmly on the rudder pedals, toes practicing on top of the brakes. I held the yoke with my left hand and grabbed the throttle lever. Ivan sat on my right side. The prop was spinning, making a gray arc out of its circle of sky. I knew the landing would be difficult, but I had to do it. No alternative. Ivan enjoyed it all, dipping away, complete trust in me, letting whatever I did happen to him just fine.
The runway looked a bit bumpy - it probably hadn't had a fixed-wing aircraft on it years. The runway was no more than a thousand feet, but with the humid air in the valley (as impossible as that seems), making lift weird - on takeoffs making the climb lazy, on landings the plane not wanting to stop its flight - it might not be enough runway. Looking down, knowing how windy it was, I had some real discernment-thoughts-things going on upstairs.
I put the plane into a gentle bank, looked at the instrument panel, and set up for a two-minute turn, a standard training maneuver. It would give me the time to look down, and plan out this landing. I had Ivan look at his watch, then begin the turn.
"I feel like Heinrich Gerlach," I said casually, closest obvious to Ivan, but really meant for no one in particular.
"Captain Heinrich Gerlach."
"Who the hell's he?"
"He's the pilot who rescued Mussolini from Gran Sasso."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, he had to land on this little plateau and rescue Il Duce. It was amazing that he could land that little Fieseler Storch on that mountain top. When he landed, Mussolini runs out with a big flak jacket and ski boots. Too much weight. And then, Skorzeny, the big-time Fuhrer's aide, comes along too. Gerlach's like looking, and like saying to himself 'You gotta be fucking kidding me, there's no way I can take off with one passenger, let alone two.'"
"So what happened?"
"He took off, and went straight over the side of the mountain. Straight down, man. They fell for about two-thousand feet. They were all shitting square cinder blocks whole. Gerlach must have yanked that stick back like a motherfucker when he felt he had enough lift. Us getting down on that strip, and then taking off, is going to be kind of hairy. I feel like that."
"No sweat, Goose," Ivan spat, "anyone can do it, you can."
I approached the end of the turn, three-hundred and sixty degrees.
"Mark it," I said as I came over the landmark I had chosen a couple minutes earlier, a water tower.
"One minute, fifty-nine seconds," Ivan replied, clicking his watch off ('beep').
I hadn't had to monkey with the ailerons and kick the rudders too much during the turn, only minor deviations.
"Okay, crosswind seems good, I'll start our approach."
I cut perpendicular over the runway at twelve-hundred feet above it. The aeronautical sectional-chart indicated that the airport elevation was eight-hundred feet. My altimeter read two-thousand. I was cutting along on my downwind leg, opposite the direction which I would land. Parallel to the landing point, I retarded the throttle to idle - no power, all glide. This would be interesting. Sometimes at Woodhaven I could do this abeam the tower (a great phrase we say at that airport to the controllers - " . . . abeam the tower . . . "), cut the power and negotiate it down without having to touch the power lever. Sometimes, and inclement weather normally the factor in this, I'd have to be making all sorts of adjustments and moves on the handle - power in, power out - little nudges to get that baby down where I wanted it. So out here in the desert on a runway I've never flown - what would happen? I thought I'd manage it, and better. I'd smoke it. A real greaser of a landing. But I was sweating it, too. I turned left on base leg, a smooth bank keeping the runway in sight and from dipping up in to the wing and out of sight, then added two clicks of flaps, first ten degrees, then twenty. Banking smoothly onto final approach, I added the last increment of flaps, a full thirty degrees applied. The runway came up fast. I had to add power to control the sink rate.
Damn. Touched the throttle. Oh well.
Still a great goddamn good pilot.
"Coming in kind of hot," I said.
Ivan spat. "Cool."
I flared as we arrived at the threshold of the strip, and we bounced down - hard - and bounced a second time. My toes jammed down on the tops of the brakes, legs kicking the pedals to keep the nose straight. We were hitting a few pock-marked ruts in the runway. Arms pulled the yoke all the way back, full tail up as I slowed the 150 down, to keep the nosewheel from snapping in the rapid deceleration.
"We made it," I said, more surprised than authoritative.
"Goose, today I'd let you get your hands on anything."
As I said before, death seemed pretty good, a little cool, and certainly a relief. Death!, I say. Knowing what happened in the darkroom. Smashing into the mountain - albeit with good friend Ivan, which would be unfortunate - was not such a bad prospect. After landing, we stood at the side of the Cessna and pissed out a day's fluids, then smoked two cigarillos. A pair. Ivan produced a bottle of sports drink that we shared, but I spit out most of it, it tasted coaty, and I had an upset stomach. What a day.
Parked at the very beginning of the airstrip, full-power, carburetor heat on to prevent icing (not that ice would develop, but it meant that the engine would not freeze-up on takeoff, but the security was worth it, even with the slight not-totally negligible tradeoff in performance), pilot and passenger both minus contents in bladders to lighten aircraft load, three gallons of gas purged to remove twenty-two-and-a-half pounds extra weight - we were ready for this last takeoff, back to Woodhaven airport. I couldn't remove the freight of Sylbyja, and what a shitty move I had done on her.
I released the brakes, and the Cessna accelerated, gathering swiftness. I held it down, and when it seemed we would run out of runway and slide into a gulley, I heaved the yoke way back, and we climbed cautiously and hopefully.
As we made our final approach to Woodhaven, I told Ivan that I thought it was funny why the air-traffic controllers wanted to know which flight school the Cessna was based at. I assumed that they wanted to land me on the runway closest to Baron Aviation, which I rented from. I dropped him off at Collings, and started the long taxi back to Baron.
When the propeller stopped swinging around, I breathed in and then released. I stepped out of the Cessna, head down, and pulled my sunglasses off. It was a long, hot day. I rested my butt against the fuselage, wasting time instead of tying the plane down immediately and leaving to meet Ivan at Freddy's Burgers, a burger joint and bar frequented by the photographers and staff - students and faculty - of the school newspaper. As I finally tied the plane down, and put the control wheel lock on, I thought about Sylbyja and Ivan. I locked the pilot's door, and two cars approached from different sides of the plane: One from port and the other from starboard. The one on the left was a grey federal car, the Federal Aviation Administration, as it turned out. The other was a marked city police car. The Feds said something about an unlicensed pilot taking a passenger along for a ride. Somehow someone knew. The city police were along for enforcement. Boy was it a hot day.
It ended up that Ivan wouldn't see me at Freddy's. But he wasn't without a late-lunch partner. Sylbyja showed up with some photo pals. Ivan and Sylbyja ended up talking a long time I later found out. It was late into the afternoon and I was tired, and I was just beginning to understand that the day was just getting started. I felt the inertia of a huge acceleration that left me standing in place. Standing and flying in such an impossible place.
Spring 1997 · Fresno · California · USA