Fire and Aviation-A Love Story-Top Mud

Bakersfield, California

June 12, 2013, 1420 Hours


       “Don. You’ve been out here long enough.”

       Vicky had returned.

       “We’re just getting to know each other,” said Jack. “Can’t Don stay and play a little longer?”

       “If Don doesn’t move we’ll have to put him in traction again.”

       Jack pressed on. “How do I talk to Charlie?”

       “Charlie lives in Honduras, on an island most of the time. He’ll be here for his fire contract in a week or two.”

       “You said Charlie knew Senator Clanton. What’s he got to do with this?”

       “I don’t know but Charlie has some history with the senator.”

       “That’s it, boys. Move it!” prodded Vicky.

       “Alright, alright,” conceded Jack.

       “You’re going to have to give me a hand,” said Vicky. “Your new friend is spineless. Come over here and grab an arm. Stuff your bottle in a dark place, Don, so I can pretend I don’t know.”

       Don took another drag with a defiant look then capped it and packed it. Jack had arrived at his side.

       “Grab an arm,” instructed Vicky.

       Don picked up the cane and tried to lift his leg over the bench. It didn’t respond. “I think my leg died.”

       “Hang on,” said Vicky as she straddled the bench facing Don. She reached down and grabbed his ankle. “Relax Don.” She began slowly lifting his leg. Don started to fall back but Jack caught him.

       “She’s going to kill me,” said Don.

       “Hold your water Don,” said Vicky.

       Feeling was returning to the leg and a shock radiated through Don’s body, he turned to wood. Vicky felt it and waited.

       It took ten minutes to get Don vertical and limbered up. The operation was X rated for language.

       “You’re a real pain in the ass,” offered Jack.

       “Give me my damn cane!” said Don.

       Jack handed it over while Vicky steadied Don. Jack started to step in but Don pushed him away with the cane. It was a slow trip.

       “If I can’t talk to Charlie how about Walter?”

       “He’s gone. Fell down dead in his pasture feeding the cows.”

       “I could hold a séance.”

       “You should talk to Lloyd Clift.”

       “Who’s Lloyd Clift?”

       “He was a good friend of Bob Buck, the pilot on tanker 82. He lives in Hemet. Maybe he could add something.”

       “Hemet. That’s down south of here, where the flight originated back in ‘94, right?”

       “That’s the place. They used to call themselves, ‘Top Mud’. Hemet was the busiest tanker base in the country before the Feds moved their operations to San Bernardino.”

       “What’s Mud?”

       “Retardant, you dumb SOB!”

       Jack took the abuse and turned to Vicky. “Can I come back and play sometime, Miss Vicky?” he said with a wide-eyed, hopeful look.

      “That’s Don’s call.”

      “I think he wants to play with you,” injected Don. “If he wants to see me he has to bring the refreshments.”

       “It would be my pleasure to provide the refreshments at our next get-together. When Charlie shows up for his contract will he stop here?”

       “Who the hell knows,” said Don.

       “If you haven’t met him, this is Don, the martyr,” said Vicky. “Charlie will stop here when he returns. He always does. If you’re lucky his wife, Nancy, might make an appearance.”

       “I’m going to leave my card,” said Jack to Vicky. “Please give me a call if Charlie materializes. I’m off to see ‘Top Mud’.”



Lancaster, California

June 12, 2013, 1830 Hours

       William J. Fox Airport and its tanker base was a distraction but Jack liked to have context when he was researching a story. “What the hell,” it was on the way to Hemet. He peeled off Interstate 14 at West Avenue G. A sign beside the road said it was The Musical Highway. Grasping at straws he harbored hopes he could tie the road to something rhythmic and relevant to report to HQ in New York but the rationale for the name remained obscure. 

       The four-lane divided road paralleled the runway. Red shark-like fins of two airtankers rose out of the sagebrush a quarter mile to the west. Jack decided to press on, passing the turn to the airport where four lanes petered out to two and continued another mile or so then made a left on South West 6th Street at a deserted intersection. The sight of the wake for tanker 82 was down the road on the right, Foxy’s Southwest Steakhouse. It occupied a patch of dirt surrounded by brush looking abandoned but for the two pickups parked outside. Jack parked in the lot, soaked up the ambiance and visualized what it looked like on a night twenty years earlier, brimming with cars, music blaring, the Steakhouse’s sand etched sign a beacon.  

       The GPS on his smart phone next led Jack to a Best Western Motel in Lancaster where he planned to spend the night. Before he slept, he got on-line and dug into Senator Seymour Clanton III, Democrat Louisiana. Then called his boss.

       The phone rang through to message. “Hey Rod, it’s me. You should check out Bakersfield, it’s quite the metropolis. Anyway…”

       “Jack, stop babbling.”

       “Hey, you picked up. I feel important.”

       “Don’t. Tell me you’re back on track. You know, it’s about the music.”

       “Of course, I’m on track, I found a musical highway.”

       “You’re in LA, right?”

       “I’m in LA County.”

       “It’s a big place. Be specific.”


       “Why do I get the feeling I’m not going to like this?” said Rod, sounding impatient.

       “Probably because you’re not going to like this. I’m going to make one more stop, tomorrow, before I head to the city.”

       “What’s in it for me? You know, me, your boss. The guy paying your travel expenses to go to LA and check out the music scene.”

       “I still think I’m onto something. Ever hear of Senator Seymour Clanton III?”

       “Yeah. Didn’t he cut a rhythm and blues album back in the eighties?”

       “I’m serious Rod. He was a Democrat, now retired, from Louisiana, and on both the senate intelligence and agriculture committees. He was in the senate for thirty-one years and he never sponsored a single piece of legislation. The only thing he appeared to do was get re-elected.”

       “So, let’s see. You see an airplane fighting a fire, then go to Bakersfield and visit an old fart in a rest home, and now you’re curious about a retired senator from Louisiana. What am I missing here? Is this like a country song? If I play it backwards I get my journalist back?”

      “Everything is screwy about this business. Fire is a very big deal in the west and the Forest Service says it needs twenty-five or thirty of these large airtankers yet there’s just twelve or thirteen. It’s been like that for at least ten years ever since the Forest Service canceled all the contracts in 2004. Back then it suggested the airplanes had structural problems or that rogue pilots were threatening the public or both pilots and planes were dangerous. The casualty rates read like combat statistics. The Forest Service is under the Department of Agriculture; maybe that’s the connection to Senator Clanton.”

       “Are you going to make the rounds of more care facilities?”

       “There was a crash back in ‘94 that I’ve been looking into. I’m going to interview a friend of the pilot that was flying the plane, at an actual airport. Then I promise I’ll go to LA.”

       “The next time we talk I don’t want you to start the conversation with, ‘have you ever heard of,’ unless it’s a band.”

To be continued...