June 12, 2013, 1310 Hours
'Bakersfield, what the hell am I doing in Bakersfield?’ thought Jack.
The air conditioning in Jack Hart’s 2013 Toyota rental had taken a dump and his ‘Deny Everything’ tee shirt clung to his torso feeling like a foam rubber wet-suit. An image of the abandoned weathered-checked vintage Giant Orange Stand he passed in Chowchilla was etched in his brain. He fantasized pulling into the parking lot and ordering a frosted mug of fresh squeezed OJ. His cell phone buzzed, a rattlesnake on the passenger seat, he was pretty sure he was about to get bit. After scanning for law enforcement he plucked it from its lair.
“I need Blue Tooth.” He punched ‘TALK’ then put it on speaker. “Hola.”
“You’re driving. Where are you?”
It was his editor, The Boss.
“What are you doing in Bakersfield? I think Buck Owens is dead and Merle Haggard lives up north now. I hear the Crystal Palace is still cooking.”
“It’s not about the music, Rod.”
“Hey man, you work for Rolling Stone. It’s always about the music.”
“I got distracted.”
“Okay, I’ll bite.”
“I was camping outside Porterville.”
“I should cancel your expense report. Where’s Porterville?”
“Don’t ask. Suffices to say you need a passport if you’re from New York.”
“I get the picture.”
“I was heading out of the mountains towards town and there was a fire. They stopped all the traffic. I was watching the fire climbing a ridge when this airplane flew over. It scared the shit out of me, it was flying so low. I mean it was big like an airliner. It made a turn up against the ridge and spewed a cloud of red on the fire and snuffed it. It was awesome!”
“So you decided to go to Bakersfield?”
“There was a guy taking pictures. Milo Peltzer. He’s like a groupie. An airtanker groupie. That’s what the airplane was, an airtanker. We got to talking and I explained I was a Journalist. He said he had been a pilot and had retired to the family farm where he had a man-cave full of aviation memorabilia with lots of airtanker paraphernalia; a private museum. Turns out he serves beer. How could I pass that up?”
“A bar museum. I can see the appeal. That still doesn’t get me to Bakersfield.”
“He said if I was interested in airtankers I should go see a guy named Don O’Connell, in Bakersfield. I think there’s a story. I don’t want to get into it right now but I’m going to talk to the guy.”
“Where, at the airport?”
Jack could hear frustration in Rod’s voice and knew he would not be pleased with the answer.
“No. Pleasant Valley Home Care.”
Pleasant Valley Home Care
“I’d like to speak to Don O’Connell.”
Jack stood in the lobby of Pleasant Valley Home Care speaking through a gap in the Plexiglas fortification shielding ‘Admissions and Reception’. Jack reflected on the idea that there was no suggestion people might exit having been admitted. The Eagles tune, “Hotel California” came to mind.
“Are you a relative?” asked a woman that looked suspiciously like his mother.
“No. I’m a journalist. Jack O. Hart.”
“Why do you want to see Mr. O’Connell?”
“A friend of mine recommended I speak to Don as a source for research I’m doing on the Airtanker Industry.”
“I’ll need to speak to Mr. Belcher, our administrator. Please take a seat.”
Jack retreated to a stuffed Nag hide sofa, one of two. They faced each other separated by a large rectangular aquarium on a wooden pedestal. He entertained himself with a muscle pose reflected off the aquarium. Not bad he thought. One hundred sevent-five, okay, 180 pounds packed into six feet of muscle and love! A ball cap hid the pre-mature bald spot on the top of his head: a sprig of hair captured with a beaded hair tie dangled down his neck.
Two large mottled carp-like creatures swam into his image sculling the bottom of what could well have been the Dead Sea. The soft strains of a John Tech medley floated wave-like through the room. Taking a seat, he sank into what felt like fat tissue and time stood still. Waxing morbid he was thinking Johnny Cash Folsom Prison Blues, or something from the Grateful Dead might be more appropriate.
“Mr. Belcher, I presume,” said Jack as he stood to face an elderly gray haired man in a blue suit. The suite seemed appropriate. It lacked flair. Mr. Belcher clasped his hands slightly above his navel. A little higher it could have been in prayer, his presentation more mortician than administrator.
“I understand you want to speak to Donald O’Connell.”
“Yes. I’m doing research on the Airtanker Industry and I’ve been told he’s quite the authority.”
“I don’t know about that. Donald has been living here for over a year. Family members visit occasionally. They haven’t suggested there is some sort of problem I hope?”
“No, nothing like that. I’ve never met any of his family.” Mr. Belcher’s gaze settled on Jack. He didn’t speak. Time passed. Jack squirmed. “So what are the chances I might speak with Mr. O’Connell?” Mr. Belcher’s eyes continued to rest on Jack. He appeared impervious to the power of speech.
“I suppose I could ask Donald if he would like to speak to you,” he said eventually.
A sense of relief swept Jack. Mr. Belcher appeared to be operating in a different time zone. Jack had contemplated slapping Mr. Belcher in a sort of mental Heinlich Maneuver. “That would be great,” said Jack.
Mr. Belcher had begun to make up lost time having turned and taken a step before Jack finished the sentence. Jack retreated to the Naga and continued studying the sculling prowess of the carp while doubts pulled into skeptical harbor.
What the hell am I doing in Bakersfield?
To be continued...