Fire And Aviation-A Love Story. Love to Lobby

Lancaster, California

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 the 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.”



Senator Seymour Clanton lll

Washington D.C.

 May 27, 1988, 1120 Hours

       “Senator Clanton!”

       Startled, Seymour shuffled a half step and kept moving. Normally his strolls from the Senate Chambers to his office in the Dirksen Senate Office Building were calm interludes dedicated to introspection, assisted by his efforts to blend with the mix of humanity in flux about the capitol.


       The voice was insistent, female, and now struck a familiar cord. Seymour stopped and turned, attempting to locate the source. A clutch of Japanese tourists following a matronly tour guide formed a dark-haired eddy in the current of humanity moving past him. Possessing a slight height advantage in the Asian tide Seymour was pleased to see his former aid and co-conspirator, Emily, maneuvering toward him.

       She stands out in a crowd, he mused as she approached. Not beautiful, but with a chemically enhanced flowing red mane and body that caused men to grow hair. Seymour was pleased she wished his attention. When she reached him, she laced her arm through his with an air of intimacy and they began to move together, edging to the slower traffic, at the border of the cement walk and the vegetation.

       “Have you ever seen the Summer House?” queried Emily.

       “I’ve passed it on numerous occasions but I’ve never taken the time.”

       “If you have a few moments I could give you the tour.”

       “For you, Emily, I’ll make the time. How long has it been?”

       “Too long, Seymour. We were a good team.”

       “I assume you’re not here to spirit me away and satisfy some sexual fantasy.”

       “Not at the moment; the Summer House wasn’t built with privacy in mind, but who knows.”

       “Now you’re just toying with me. And I do so enjoy it.”

       The open brick hexagon Summer House appeared as they rounded a bed of daises. The structure offered a cool respite for the foot traffic with fountains and various views framed by arches. Emily led the way to an unoccupied stone bench.

       “You’re looking splendid, Emily. You must be enjoying your work.”

       “As it turns out I have a talent for influencing people. The time I spent working undercover for you and your Intelligence Committee was my first taste of what I could do.”

       “My little mole; I enjoyed all our undercover work,” sighed Seymour with a leering smile. “You were in the right place at the right time. That was what, five or six years ago? And now here we are in D.C.”

       “I owe you Seymour; thanks to our time together I know a lot of the right people. I will be eternally grateful to you for that.”

       “I have a feeling we’re approaching the core of the matter. What’s the pitch?”

       “The Forest Industries Association is putting together a fund raiser for some of the senators on the Senate Committee for Agriculture.”

       “Is someone looking for a tax loophole for their lease land? I’ve heard rumblings.”

       “No. Actually it has to do with one of their agencies: The Forest Service. It’s about airplanes.”

       “Airplanes! You know what happened the last time we played with airplanes. It was almost my undoing. And how in God’s name do I have a stake in what’s going on with the Forest Service?”

       “Well, as it turns out, “Smokey” has an Air Force. Not like the real Air Force but they dip into the pool of surplus military aircraft to support their fire-fighting missions. Some of the hardware passes through General Services Administration directly to the Forest Service but a lot of the heavy iron has been sold at auction to private corporations. The businesses modify the planes and bid for contracts. Fire suppression contracts.”

       “How long is this going to take, Emily?”

       “Stick with me, Seymour. You know I wouldn’t waste your time.”

       “Rest your hand on my thigh and I’ll try to concentrate on what your lips are saying.”

       “I knew you’d find our discussion about hardware stimulating.” She reached down and cupped a handful of soft flesh. “Now concentrate on my lips.” She grazed his cheek with a kiss.

       “Okay, you still have my attention,” sighed Seymour.

       “One of the players in Mike Minder. He’s dabbled with the intelligence agencies in the past, mostly logistics in Central and South America. You remember Berry Sales and the C-123 problem in Nicaragua with Hasenfus a few of years ago?”

       “I do.”

       “ Mike was involved with that aircraft as well as some UH-1F helicopters that went to El Salvador. The helicopters didn’t make a big splash like the Hasenfus fiasco.”

       “I have an inkling: my position on the Senate Intelligence Committee? You think the planes could be an asset for some black ops? I really don’t like the sound of this.”

       “Why don’t you come to our fund raiser? I’m sure your campaign finance fund could use a boost. Just meet Frank and Mike and have a great meal and some drinks. I’ll be there. See if any of the other Intelligence Committee members might join us in supporting the bill.”

       “This sounds like a yard sale, nickel and dime deals. Why couldn’t I have had a position on the Defense? That’s where the money is.”

       “Seymour, just do me the favor. You should listen to this guy, Mike. You’re right about the yard sale. The tanker contractors started out buying old planes at scrap prices but they’ve made a lot of money from those yard sales. Mike is convinced they’ve just scratched the surface on the money-making possibilities. The public is very supportive of firefighting efforts and more and more of the covert work the military has done in the past is being turned over to contractors. You’re going to be making decisions in the intelligence committee and there will be more money passing through. Mike sees the value of cultivating friends like you for the future as well.”

       “So, what’s on the menu?”


Washington D.C.

 April 1, 1988, 1710, Hours


            Senator Seymour Clanton III had a seat at the Old Bar, one of four full service bars in the Old Ebbitt Grill. The event sponsored by Forest Industries Association backed up to the Oyster Bar but Seymour wanted to fortify himself before engaging in the commerce of politics. The polished mahogany and artifacts whispered to Seymour as he savored a shot of Glenlivet Scotch. The establishment spoke of power, influence, deals, and money. The location had changed but the name and reputation had endured from 1856 when Washington was considered a sleepy southern outpost.

            “Seymour! You pulled up short. The party is in the Oyster Bar.”

            Startled, Seymour saw a fractured image in the beveled mirror.

            “Emily; now it dawns on me why Ah’m here,” said Seymour turning. “You’re looking Luscious. Can Ah offer you something before we enter the fray?”

            “Finish your drink and take my arm. We have people to meet.”

            “Ah trust you will shepherd me well.”

            “You’ll have a fine time.”

            The velvet burn of the scotch and Emily’s proximity warmed Seymour’s core as they strolled into the Oyster Bar. Lavish displays of cold cuts and fruits surrounded a centerpiece of iced oysters and clams on-the-half-shell, shrimp, and lobster. Men in suits clutching glasses grazed on the offerings. A cocktail waitress greeted them. Seymour double-downed on the Glenlivet and Emily ordered a Mojito.

            “I should introduce you to Ray Gunnison. He’s my cohort at

Forest Industries Association. That’s him by the bar; short with the goatee.”

            “He looks like a professor; who’s that with him?”

            “Milo Minder. He’s the aircraft broker,” said Emily.

            “They look like Mutt and Jeff.”

            “The other tall one, by the oysters, is Frank Ponkey; Assistant Director of Fire and Aviation.”

            “Frank and Milo could be brothers, long and lean.”

            “They’re cut from the same cloth, both experienced pilots.”

            “Shall we engage?” said Seymour.

            “Maybe later,” said Emily with a lascivious smile. “Lets’ just join the conversation for now.”

            “Ah’ll be sure to eat some oysters,” said Seymour letting his hand fall to her butt cheek as they began to move toward the bar.

            “Ray, Milo, this is Senator Clanton,” said Emily as they approached. “He’s on the Intelligence Committee so be careful what you say,” she added, tongue-in-cheek.

            “Senator, it’s a pleasure,” said Ray as he offered his hand. “I’m so glad you could make it to our little gathering.”

The Honorable Ray Gunnison, Lobbyist for Forest Products Industries, had the piercing grey eyes of a predator, a prominent nose hovering above a neatly trimmed mustache flowing around a tight mouth forming a goatee. The facial hair was black with a hint of auburn and looked to have been applied by a professional. Seymour noted an intensity in Ray’s dark eyes when they clasp hands.

            “Have you met Milo Minder,” said Ray gesturing with his free hand.

            “No, Ah haven’t had the pleasure.”

            After a short exchange of pleasantries Frank Ponkey joined the group. Palms were pressed and pumped before drinks arrived. The talk drifted from the food offerings to the Victorian décor of the Ebbitt before the conversational meat of the gathering began to be dissected.

             “I’ve been tasked by my boss, the Director of Fire and Aviation, to find replacements for our aging fleet of firefighting aircraft,” began Frank.

            “Sounds like a noble endeavor,” said Seymour. “Emily has scratched the surface on why that would be of interest to me, as a member of the Intelligence Committee. Perhaps you could elaborate?”

            “There’s some history, connections, between Agriculture and Intelligence and some of their aircraft,” explained Frank.

            “I know some hardware, used by the Department of Defense, is registered to Agriculture, for cover. Usually flown by contract pilots on operations too sticky for the military,” said Seymour.

            “Did you know some of the planes used in the Bay of Pigs invasion were registered to airtanker contractors?” asked Frank.

            “Before my time,” said Seymour.

            “Mine too,” said Frank. “The point being there has always been a lot of slop. The tanker operators needed the bombers and transports, sitting surplus, mothballed in the desert, to fight fire. The government likes some hardware to fly under the radar. The General Services Administration arranged the sale of planes, ostensibly to scrap. Airtanker contractors got cheat platforms to fight fire or use as donors to support the flyers; some disappeared.”

            “So where are we, now?” asked Seymour.

            Milo spoke up. “We’re trying to evolve. The industry needs newer technology; to go beyond big round piston engine transports and bombers. We need C-130s and P-3s with turban engines. The problem is the military. They won’t put them out for auction so Frank and I worked out a plan to exchange planes with historical value but the Air Force Generals won’t buy it. Now we’re working on a fallback where the C-130s and P-3s pass through the Air Force Museum directly to the Forest Service in exchange for planes with historical significance.”

            “And you think there will be some slop, for black ops?” said Seymour.

            “I’d like to propose a toast to slop,” said Milo.

            “And another round,” injected Ray, raising a hand, flagging the bartender.

            Seymour drained his glass then looked to Ray. “So, Ray, what’s your stake?”

            “Forest Industries Association is always interested in protecting our natural resources from the ravages of wildland fires.”

            “Can we go beyond the talking points?” said Seymour.

            “I like to think we’re playing a long game. We represent for-profit enterprises; timber, oil, gas; land leases for mining and grazing. I want to cultivate political resources who share a common vision of free markets where capitalism is allowed to thrive.”

            “Sounds like ideology,” said Seymour.

            “Guilty as charged. I’m afraid I’ve fallen prey to the concepts of Objectivism; Chicago School of Economics; Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman. Government should facilitate capitalism and not interfere.”

            “I’m all about capitalism,” said Seymour.

            “I sensed that,” said Ray. “That’s why we would like to contribute to your re-election campaign. I’d also like you to consider taking a seat on the Agriculture Committee. I know it’s not glamorous, but like I said, we’re playing a long game. Do you know Agriculture manages 192,000,000 acres of land in 44 states? There’s more at stake than most people realize.” 


To be continued...