What is that smell? thought Jack, as he scanned the lounge. He flashed back on the times he had visited his grandmother in a rest home. The facilities had evolved, linguistically. Political correctness spawned euphemistic labels for what for many people here would be the last stop on the subway. But they still smelled the same: some sort of chemical reaction combining Pine Sol, institutional food, and atrophy.
There were a lot of women. When he had entered the room a ripple passed through the pond of blue hair as heads turned and a huddle of old men around a table peered up from their card game. A fair number of the inhabitants were unaware of his presence. At the far reaches next to a window the lone figure of a man sat in a walker. He was hunched over looking outside. A pretty lady with dark hair in a ponytail and a flowered print blouse hovered with a group painting pictures. When she saw Jack she waved him to approach. Seeing the lack of visitors as he maneuvered the room he made a mental note to call his grandmother.
“You must be Jack. I’m Vicky.”
“I’m guessing you don’t live here,” offered Jack.
“Very astute. But then I would expect nothing less from a journalist.”
Her words wore sarcasm. She had penetrating dark eyes supporting the look of someone who could handle herself. Jack could see a challenge in her bearing. “I’m looking for Don O’Connell.”
“So am I. He’s supposed to be here.”
“I thought that might be him in the walker,” said Jack with a nod to the window.”
“Don’s too stubborn to use a walker. You’ll know him when you see him. He’s probably lurking outside.”
“In this heat?”
“I didn’t say he was smart. Let’s check the picnic area.”
She led the way.
“Who do you write for?”
“At the moment, Rolling Stone Magazine. But that could depend on how this interview goes.”
“Good luck. His bark is worse than his bite.”
She tossed the comment without looking up and Jack pondered the meaning.
“He’s all there? I mean sometimes people his age...”
“Oh, he’s all there.”
It sounded like a threat.
The picnic area was Spartan, a lone fruitless mulberry with three picnic tables spaced symmetrically around it. An irregular medley of grasses carpeted the area. An old guy sat at one of the tables petting a cat.
“Don, this is Jack. He says he’s a journalist and he wants to talk to you,” called Vicky as they approached.
Don turned, looking over his shoulder as they neared. He had a receding sparse stubble hairline and a neatly trimmed gray mustache. Long arms hung from a broad shouldered frame above a thick torso. He continued petting a plump black cat reclined between his legs while squinting at the approaching duo. He straddled the bench seat with his free hand resting on a cane on the tabletop.
Jack made his approach. “Hi, I’m Jack Hart.”
“Have you got a cigarette?” asked Don. It didn’t sound like a request.
“Don, you know you can’t smoke,” said Vicky.
“The smoke Nazis run this place,” said Don still squinting at Jack.
“I don’t smoke,” said Jack.
“What kind of a damn reporter are you? You don’t smoke?” Contempt spread across the landscape of Don’s face. “As a rule I don’t speak to reporters. They are not to be trusted. Who do you work for?”
“Rolling Stone,” said Jack wondering how he had become the interviewee.
“What? You couldn’t get a real job with Playboy or Hustler?” probed Don.
“They wouldn’t hire me because I’m gay.”
“I knew you couldn’t be trusted. You’re not fucking gay. Are you really a reporter?”
“How do you know I’m not gay?”
“I saw the way you looked at Miss Vicky’s ass.”
“Maybe I should leave you two to sort out your manhood,” said Vicky.
Jack glanced at her. He wasn’t sure he wanted her to leave. She looked back with a smirk then left. Jack watched her depart.
“Get a grip horn dog, she’s my squeeze,” said Don. He was still squinting at Jack and petting the cat.
Jack returned his look. “The only squeeze you’ve had in the recent past is that wrinkled flesh you call a pecker.”
“I get more pussy than your sorry ass. You know how many women around here are after me. The scary part is some of them have started to look pretty good.” Don saw Jack’s eyes gravitate to the cat. “If you drag the cat into this with some inappropriate comment I’ll kick your butt.”
Jack could see they were making progress.
“Do you drink? Or is that against the journalist code?”
“Yeah, I drink.”
“Then sit down, on the other side of the table. I can’t see crap with the sun at your back.”
Jack did as he was told. Don pulled a half-full bottle of Ten High from his shirt and passed it across the table. Jack took a slug. He took some time and let the burn settle. Don held eye contract, boring holes.
“What is that?”
“Ten High. I’ve never had the pleasure.”
“You should get out more.”
“You’re a tanker pilot.”
“I was a pilot. I haven’t flown anything for years.”
“Why did you quit?”
“I couldn’t see shit.”
“I was talking to Milo Peltzer. He said you were disgusted with the Forest Service.”
“The Forest Service is disgusted with the Forest Service. How’s Milo? He’s almost as old as I am.”
“Still taking pictures and drinking beer.”
“He’s one crazy SOB. Is he still collecting airtanker junk?”
“So I guess you’ll get to the point eventually.”
Jack paused making eye contact then took another pull from the Ten High and handed the bottle back.
“Milo said when he started in the business back in the 60’s there were fifty or sixty airtankers. Now there are twelve or thirteen and the businesses, the commercial providers of airtankers, have struggled to build more, “next generation”, airtankers. And the Forest Service has been crying the blues for more ever since they canceled all the old contracts.”
“I’ve been on-line doing research. I’ve watched actual footage of wings coming of an airplane in 2002; and that’s happened at least five or six times before that. Either you guys were flying the wings of the planes or you’re flying junk! It’s no wonder the Forest Service grounded all the airtankers in 2004.”
Jack paused having flung the spear. Don’s expression was latent volcanic and crimson and he pitched forward. The cat evacuated. Don mouth contorted struggling to form words.
“You are a complete imbecile!! There’s not even a question in that trash you’ve gathered!!”
“At least that’s the public’s perception of the business. A bunch of rogue pilots running on testosterone, a hazard to the public, wings falling off airplanes into schoolyards. That, or stone-cold heroes putting their lives on the line waging war on FIRE!”
“Well you know it all! Go print whatever you want! There’s nothing I can add to your fairytale.” Don took a drink and glared.
Jack sat; singed by Don’s radar stare; ready to dodge if he decided to employ the cane. There was a long awkward pause.
“Just for giggles, let’s pretend I’m not an imbecile and I don’t believe the clap-trap spouted by talking heads. You still can’t dispute the numbers or the fact that wings fail. Help me understand. Point me at the people who know the truth.”
Don eyed the imbecile. “Everybody has a piece of the truth. Then they put it in their brain and fill in the blanks and it’s their no-shit story,” he explained, waxing philosophically, his complexion a paler hue.
“So what’s your no-shit story? Why do wings fail?”
“There are lots of ways for an airplane to get old and fail, not just years. The bombers I flew in World War II had aluminum bones and skin. They built them to fly a few missions before they were blown out of the sky. I parked two in the Pacific. But I was working them on fires in the sixties, seventies, and eighties. In the fifties the engineers figured out they could build airplanes like eggs, the skin, the shell, the structure, strong and light, but you crack the shell and you have an omelet.”
“So you think they were either blown out of the sky or the Forest Service was making omelets,” deadpans Jack.
“You really are an imbecile.”
“That’s a possibility.”
“The wings have failed on both types.”
“So maybe it is the pilots.”
“Maybe; but I think it’s maintenance and worn out airplanes. The military parks them for a reason. The first tankers were from World War II. A lot of them were low time, almost new. The C-130’s and P-3’s, the planes what were to replace them had a lot more hours on them, especially the C-130A’s. They were built in the fifties. I watched the spooks flying them in and out of Laos in the sixties, moving whatever was thrown on the back like Fed Ex. When they started breaking they parked them in the desert in Tucson.”
“So the new turban aircraft weren’t so new?”
“They were rode hard and put up wet. The World War II stuff was excess and being sold for scrap. The people who started the industry got them for pennies on the dollar, put tanks in them, and turned them into cash cows working fire contracts. When they started wearing out some fellas worked out a deal to trade the old planes for C-130A’s and P-3’s. They started pulling them out of the desert like patients who had been in the hospital for twenty-five years and been cured.”
“So you think the so-called new turbans had problems before the commercial tanker operators traded for them?”
“That’s my no-shit story.”
“Do you think the Forest Service knew they had problems?”
“The Air Force knew. Maybe nobody asked them,” Don suggested. “They beefed up the C-130B models; used different alloys for the structures.”
“The first C130 crash was tanker 82. Not far from here, on the Angeles National Forest. What do you think happened?”
“I’m thinking you’ve already read the reports.”
“I read the reports. There were conflicting conclusions. What’s your conclusion?”
“I think they hit the ground. But I did go to the wake.”
“Yeah, the wake. My buddy Charlie was just breaking into the business when we went to the wake.”
Jack reached out for the bottle. Don pulled it away. Jack rolled his eyes and Don cracked what passed for a smile and handed it over.
“I guess you are a reporter. You know how to push buttons and get people talking.”
“Tell me about the wake.”
To be continued...