Lancaster Airport, California
June 25, 2013, 1450 Hours
She climbed out of an airplane at the near end of a line of planes. A fuel truck pulled in front of the twin-engine craft. She conferred with the driver then started toward the terminal. The truck operator stood, statue still, watching her departure. Jack maintained his position thinking if his luck held, she would enter the terminal through the double glass doors at the northwest corner and walk past, he didn’t care where to. He needed something in his hands and picked up a magazine, then looked back outside. The view kept improving and his plan appeared to be working.
Looking down at the magazine he made a correction, it was upside down. Looking up, a line from a Mel McDaniel song began to play in his head. “They turn their heads and they watch her till she’s gone; lord have mercy, baby’s got her blue jeans on.” Jack was gaining new respect for the roots of country music. Tropical flora and fauna ranged across a shirt that was a size too large. Sun streaked strawberry blond hair bobbed in a ponytail. He imagined her stripped down, stepping onto the sand for some beach volleyball. There was nothing tentative about her.
She came through the doors just as Jack had hoped.
‘How stupid is this’, he thought staring at the Sunset magazine. As she approached he looked up.
“Hi,” she said, smiling as she passed.
Shawn nodded, felt his skin burn, and watched her walk away. “Where do they build them like that?” He stood, took steps in trail, hoping for a scent. She couldn’t have gone far but she was gone. Checking the signage down a hall, he guessed the bathroom or the restaurant. The bathroom didn’t feel like an option, maybe a cup of coffee.
Inside the restaurant the plot thickened. A greenhouse structure grew off the original establishment. It was a little early for lunch and the clientele was sparse. It appeared the object of his attention had aged gracefully and was seated in the greenhouse. That was one possibility. Jack took a seat embarrassingly close to the older woman because he really wanted to look at her. The resemblance was striking; his attention did not go unnoticed.
“Nice day,” offered the woman returning Jack’s stare.
“A little breezy,” added Jack.
“What are you reading?”
Jack realized he still had the magazine. “Uh, Sunset Magazine.”
“I don’t really know. I just use it as a prop when I’m stalking women.”
A waitress appeared with a menu.
“Just coffee,” said Jack. When he looked back to the woman she was still returning his gaze. Apparently, stalkers didn’t faze her. “I’m Jack.”
“Nancy,” she offered. “Do you usually stalk at airports?”
“No. It’s a new venue.”
Jack’s coffee arrived about the same time the younger woman joined what had to be her mother.
“Cream or sugar?”
“What?” Jack hadn’t noticed the waitress. “Sure, cream,” he managed.
“Are we going to eat? I’m famished,” said the young woman to Nancy, Jack’s new friend.
“It could be a long day. Might as well,” she responded.
Jack squirmed and nodded to the waitress when she offered a tiny pitcher of cream. He poured and stirred watching the swirls of white, blend, turning black to muddy brown.
The young woman plucked a menu from the table and began to study it intensely. Both women ordered breakfast when the waitress returned.
Jack had gained some of his composure when Nancy introduced him.
“C. J., this is Jack,” said Nancy, gesturing to him. “He’s trying his hand at stalking women at the airport.”
The young woman, C. J., looked to Jack. “Slim picking around here. Not much activity.”
“Worth the wait,” responded Jack, for the first time getting a good look at the young woman’s face. He noted traces of mischief in her eyes.”
“I saw you in the lobby.”
“Yeah. The trick is anticipating the subject’s next move,” explained Jack. The women looked at each other with the hint of a smile. “Actually, I’m a writer.”
“Is that code for unemployed?” responded C. J. with a straight face.
“Always a possibility but I just turned in two pieces on the L. A. music scene.”
“Not much music around Lancaster,” said Nancy.
“There’s a musical highway.”
“An interesting novelty. I’m always tempted to drive it going the wrong way but they have all those plastic barriers,” said Nancy.
“That would require at least a twelve pack,” said Jack. “Actually, I’m here working on a story about the tanker business. My editor isn’t too enthused but I think it could be interesting.”
“You know a lot about airplanes?” asked C. J.
“Not really. But I saw a tanker drop a couple of weeks ago and met some interesting people. I’ve been doing research. I drove up from L. A. this morning to interview one of the pilots. I got here in time to watch him take off. They said he should come back so I’m killing time stalking. It’s a valuable skill for a journalist. What’s your story?”
“We flew down from Bakersfield. We’re just here for the food.”
“You’re a pilot?”
“Occasionally,” said C. J.
A muffled roar rattled the windows. The yellow tailed tanker, 48, was rolling out after landing.
“I better get going. That’s my quarry,” said Jack. “It’s been a pleasure.”
“Good luck. Are you on foot?”
“Yeah,” said Jack as he put a five on the table and stood.
“At least it’s down-wind,” said C. J.
Jack made inquiries back at the tanker base and picked up on some of the lingo. Charlie was on a load-and-return. The crew stayed with the plane while it was loaded then returned to the fire. Jack resigned himself to spending the afternoon in hopes of cornering Charlie when the fire was done or the day over. He knew enough about the business to understand they wouldn’t work after dark. He pilfered some water bottles from a cooler and retired to his car. With the windows down and the wind, the heat was almost tolerable. He unfolded his seat and took a nap.
It was after five when the dust settled. Jack had bonded with the ramp people and watched from a covered area next to the tower with a view of the ramp. He figured out who Charlie was and laid in wait. The crews walked around inspecting the planes and talking amongst themselves. One of Charlie’s people stood on a wing pulling a fuel hose up with a rope. The hose unwound from a reel on the side of the fuel truck. Charlie appeared to say something to the guy on the wing, turned, and started walking away from the plane.
Jack began working on an intercept. Charlie was probably headed to the pilot Ready Room to take a pee. Jack needed to make contact, initiate conversation, and still not interfere with any pressing biological needs. If his timing worked out, he would have about two hundred feet to walk and talk. He launched.
Charlie wore a grey flight suit, sunglasses, and a ball cap with shaggy gray hair escaping its confines. He was taller than average and, to Jack, looked like he belonged in a cockpit.
“Charlie, I’m Jack. I was hoping to have a word.”
He kept moving as Jack approached but engaged. “You’re the reporter.”
“I like to think of myself as a journalist.”
“Vicky said ‘reporter’ would bug you.”
“I guess taunting me is another one of her super powers.”
“She’s pretty cool.”
“I know you’re busy at the moment but I’m really hoping to have more than a word. I’d like to spend some time with you and dig into the tanker business.”
Jack got it out with ten feet to spare.
“I’m going to visit the boy’s room. If you wait here, I’ll be back and maybe we can work something out.”
Jack had scouted the building and knew there was another door and potential escape route. He took up a position to watch both doors and waited. Five minutes later Charlie emerged from the original door, stepped to an ice chest, and pulled out three bottles of water. Jack made his move when the best looking blue jeans he had seen in a long time reappeared from the Ready Room and joined Charlie.
Jack had taken a few steps towards Charlie when he saw C. J. and executed a to-the-rear maneuver before coming to a halt to contemplate. He decided on an about-face, turning to face the music. His new friend, Nancy, was now in play as well and Jack had the picture. C. J. looked his way and offered what Jack categorized as a shit-eating grin. He decided to move forward joining the group.
“Hello again,” said C. J., still grinning.
“I’ll never play poker with you.”
Charlie noted the exchange. “You know each other?”
“We met at the restaurant while you were out playing,” said Nancy.
“Anything I should know?” asked Charlie.
“He likes Sunset Magazine,” said C. J.
“A lot of good information on gardening,” offered Jack.
“I’m not even going to hazard a guess about what’s going on here. I am going to take some water out to the crew. Then I should be done for the day,” said Charlie. “Do we have transportation?”
“There’s nothing here at the airport. Budget, in town, might have a car in the morning,” said Nancy.
“I’ll talk to the base. We can probably hitch a ride with somebody. I’ll be right back,” said Charlie.
“I’ll go with you,” said Nancy as she reached out and put her arm around Charlie.
Jack watched them walk away then turned to C. J. “So, he’s your father.”
“Yeah, I confess.”
“I’ve been very honest with you, letting you know I was stalking and all. You have to play fair now.”
“I’ll do my best.”
“Okay. What’s with C. J.?”
“What’s that all about?”
“My name is actually Catherin Lynn, C. L. Dad’s a pilot. My initials, C L, became ‘Charlie Lima’. Of course, people shortened it to Charlie. That didn’t work; his name is Charlie, so I got Charlie Junior, C. J.”
“You said you came from Bakersfield.”
“We were visiting Don O’Connell, at the home. Then we flew down here so Dad could go to work.”
“Don’s quite the character.”
“He’s kind of like my godfather. He and Dad go way back, even before Mom.”
“I really want to talk to your father. And I have a plan.”
“I hesitate to ask. Does it involve stalking?”
“I have a car. I’ll provide transportation to Lancaster. You have to help me get an interview.”
To be continued...
June 25, 2013, 1950 Hours
Commuters flowed from the Metrolink Station into the parking lots lining the Sierra Highway while the Metolink train dozed on the rails in Lancaster, the end of the line. A number of boarded up buildings, chain link fences topped with razor wire, and structures with barred apertures, the gingivitis of urban decay, told Jack they weren’t in the best part of town. “You’ve stayed at the Inn of Lancaster before?”
“It’s a fine tradition,” said Charlie. “The best Mexican food in town right out front.”
“Dad’s taste is suspect in this instance,” said C. J.
“Just don’t go for a walk at night unless you’re looking for a date,” added Charlie.
Jack did what he was told and pulled into a pre-interstate vintage motor lodge with drive-through Mexican on the side.
Jack parked and they all piled out of the car.
“I’ll make you a deal, Jack,” said Charlie. “I’ll pick up some Mexican to-go and you go buy the beer. We can meet at the pool. And if you’re feeling lucky I’ll get you the menudo. If you can eat it I’ll pay for the beer.”
“I’ll pass on the menudo.”
“No guts, no glory?” taunted C. J.
“I’m not trading my stomach lining for a cow’s,” said Jack.
“Wise choice,” said Nancy.
A half hour later dinner was laid out at the pool.
Jack was on his second beer munching a taco when C. J. arrived for a swim. He was sure she was purposely taunting him and it was working. She dove in and started doing laps; her pace wasn’t leisurely; it was a sprint.
Charlie and Nancy recognized Jack’s symptoms and kept to themselves, the picture of domesticity.
Jack knew he needed to break the conversational ice but he was having a hard time thinking of something to say. Charlie finally helped out.
“She’ll do that all day.”
“What, is she part dolphin?”
“Something like that.”
“Don told me once upon a time you guys went to a wake here in Lancaster,” said Jack pulling the conversation together with a question.
“He took you for a ride in the way-back machine, did he?”
“He did. I want to understand where the large airtanker business came from; why it’s where it is now.”
“The last ten, twelve years they’ve commissioned any number of panels, commissions, and studies to figure that out. You can pick your poison.”
“A senator’s name came up, Senator Clanton. Don said you had some history.”
Nancy flared. “He just about got us all killed in a previous life.”
“Like Nancy said, another life. It’s ironic that he is still a feature in this one,” said Charlie.
“He’s retired now, but he was a member of the Senate Committee for Department of the Agriculture?”
“He wasn’t on Agriculture back then. It was Intelligence, one of those contradictions, government intelligence,” said Charlie.
“What did Intelligence have to do with the tanker business?”
“Nothing, theoretically. But he threw his weight around and twisted arms to support the transfer of the C-130’s and P-3’s back in the late eighties.”
“How do you know that? I’ve done some research and I’ve never heard of that connection,” said Jack. “That Wake for tanker 82 must have been in ‘95. Was he there?”
“No. But his evil minion, ‘Emily’, made an appearance. She was chatting up anybody that would listen and I heard his name.”
“Who is she?”
“She’s a lobbyist for the Forest Services Industries. She was there with Frank Ponkey and Mike Minder.”
“They went to jail, didn’t they?” asked Jack.
“A few years later, the late ‘90’s. Frank was Assistant Director of Fire Aviation in the late ‘80’s to the mid ‘90’s, and Mike was the independent broker for all the planes that were transferred. The other heavy hitter, another lobbyist, Ray Gunnison was there as well. He and Emily both worked for the Forest Industries Association at the time.”
“George Bush appointed him Undersecretary of Natural Resources and the Environment 2000, right?”
“Hey, you have done your homework. Fire Aviation fell under his umbrella”
“So, who was at the wake. What does that have to do with Senator Clanton?” asked Jack.
“Milo and Frank were there along with Emily. Clanton had been the evil wizard in our life pulling strings like Emily long before I flew tankers and I wanted to know her connection. Three sheets to the wind she was, and with a little prime more than happy to talk. She said the exchange program wouldn’t have gone forward if she hadn’t convinced Senator Clanton to get involved.”
“How did she do that?”
“She was a pretty hot number. She suggested she as much as seduced him and told me a story.”