Fire Aviation: A Love Story

Fire Aviation: A Love Story - Jack O. Hart

Bakersfield, California

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.”
     “A woman?”
     “A fire.”
     “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. Hart.”
     “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...

Fire Aviation: A Love Story - Prologue

 August 13, 1994

    A shock wave passed through the fuselage and the yoke twisted violently clockwise with sufficient force and movement to sprain Bob’s wrist and break his grip. Adrenalin dumped into his bloodstream blunting what pain he might have felt. His brain struggled to recognize the meaning of the sickening dull pop that had accompanied the physical abuse and spastic movement of the aircraft as he took back possession of the yoke. He looked at Joe, his co-pilot, “What happened!!??” he blurted into the microphone resting on his lips, an appendage of his headset.
Their eyes met. Joe’s mouth parted but there were no words. He was on the controls as well. Strain registered in his eyes and his usual crimson hue drained from his mottled bald pate to his jaw.
Bob pressed the transmit button on his yoke as the plane torqued violently right then left. All that he could manage was “Oh shit!” on the Los Angeles approach frequency. Towering craggy granite peaks began to fill the windscreen replacing the dingy blue Southern California version of sky just before a brilliant flash enveloped the cockpit. Joe winced and turned away from it to the left. The heat would have cooked his skin were it not for its brevity. The view twisted as the whaling moan of the third soul on board, Shawn, filtered through the intercom from the engineer’s position just aft of Bob and Joe. Then the wind came and the world turned. Random pages of a manual swirled around the cockpit chased by the detritus that had accumulated in the nooks and crannies of the thirty-seven-year-old aircraft.
    The instrument panel of airtanker 82, a C-130A, told part of the tale. The vital signs of the number three and four engines were flat lined and their power levers had slammed to idle of their own volition. Bob knew it was futile but it was not in him to quit. He shoved the two power levers forward. They moved without resistance or any discernable response while he stood on the left rudder attempting to arrest the sickening rotation to the right. He pulled one and two power levers back, the left engines, and the acceleration to the right diminished but the plane continued corkscrewing violently down to a discernable point on a slope of granite. Bob could begin to pick out individual trees in the sparse vegetation swirling below. 
    “It’s gone,” spoke Joe, looking right. “The wing is gone.”

Don O’Connell

Pleasant Valley Home Care, Bakersfield California

June 12, 2014, 1131 Hours

    “Don. You startled me.”
    “I think Frank crapped his pants.”
    “Don. I’d like you to go back to your room. And where’s your walker?” asked Rachel, the charge nurse. A helmet of amber blond hair framed angular
features slightly softened by age. The sterile white inflexibility of her white uniform reflected her demeanor. 
    Don hovered over the pale blue Formica topped barrier, disguised as a counter, serving to preserving the personal space of the staff of the care facility. He didn’t move.    
    “I don’t need a damn walker Nurse Rat-Shit. I can maneuver around this Cuckoo’s Nest with this nice cane.” He produced a bamboo cane with a flourish. “It also helps me to fend off all the old women from ward C. They have been making inappropriate advances in the lounge.”
    “Don. You know my name is Rachel and I would appreciate it if you would not equate Pleasant Valley Home Care with that awful movie.”
    “My buddy, Kesey, wrote the book and I know a cuckoo’s nest when I live in one.”
    “Yes, Don,” responded Nurse Rachel, her monotone voice and precisely spaced words producing sentences designed to anesthetize aggressive behavior. “And now I’m sure your friend, Kesey, would want you to go to your room.”
    “You know Nurse Rat-Shit I have some time on my schedule if you’re feeling frisky this afternoon.” Don did his best leering gaze while checking for some response. “You might consider sending someone with a fresh pair of Depends before our rendezvous. Frank has sullied the atmosphere in our room.”
    Nurse Rachel, eyes vacant and focused on a point well beyond the intruder remained impassive; the lone tell of her discomfort was a pen softly drumming her oak desk.
    “Don! What are you doing out of your cage?” 
Rachel swung her head homing on the voice. “Vicky, please do not refer to Don’s room as a cage.”
The aide, a slightly built Latino, wore a flower print blouse and white cotton pants. 
    “Sorry Rachel, I just know what a beast Don can be,” said Vicky, stepping up, teasing Don and pushing the limits with the head nurse, Rachel. “Don, why don’t we go check on Frank? And who is this guy, Kesey?”
    “You have been eves-dropping,” accused Don.
    “I couldn’t help myself. You know how jealous I am when you flirt with other women,” said Vicky, grasping Don by the elbow, gently exerting pressure. 
    Don winked at Nurse Rachel before turning to Vicky allowing her to maneuver him away from the nurse’s station. Nurse Rachel maintained her trance-like focus on a point in space. 
    “You don’t know who Ken Kesey is? I thought you were literate. I’m not sure I can have a relationship with an illiterate person.”
    “Don’t be rude Don,” scolded Vicky. “You’re ninety-five years old and I’m just a kid. You are a vast storehouse of knowledge and I am but an empty vessel.”
    “You’re as full of crap as I am Miss Vicky.”
    “A match made in PVHC.”
    Vicky and Don shuffled at a pace slightly faster than glacial down a hall toward Don’s room. Fluorescent lights illuminated the passage, their glare intensified by stark white walls adorned with a gallery of past administrators. A few straight-backed wood chairs stood like sentinels adjacent to the doors of rooms. Although Don’s frame was slightly stoop-shouldered and cocked to starboard he stood a head taller than Vicky.
    “How’s your back?” asks Vicky.
    “I could use some new vertebra.”
    “That good?”
    “I would’ve taken better care of myself if I knew I was going to get so old.”
    “If I had a quarter for every guy that said that, I’d have a couple of dollars.”
    “You could buy me drink.”
    “So, did you really know Ken Kesey?”
    “Naw. But I know Nurse Rat-Shit.”
    “You’re going to give her a stroke if you keep sneaking up on her.”
    “It’s a good way to kill time. It takes me half a day to get down there.”
    Don flinched spastically and came to a halt.
    “Are you okay?” She could feel him lean into her, tensing, and she steadied him. “Your back?”
    Don’s ruddy liver spotted complexion faded several shades to sallow peach. 
    “Damn that hurts. You should probably just shoot me and put me out of my misery.”
    “Maybe I’ll pour you a thimble of the Ten High you have stashed in your sock drawer. If Rachel finds it, your ass is grass.”
    “Maybe we should finish it off in case she decides to take me up on my invitation.”
    “I think you’re safe.” 
    Don, heaving a deep breath righted himself and took a tentative step. 
    “So, Don, ever met anyone famous like Kesey?” asked Vicky, attempting to distract. 
Squinting, he reached up and pawed at the gray stubble populating the dome of his head with his free hand, considering the question.
    “I got drunk with John Wayne once. Down in Baja.”
    “That’s pretty cool. What was the occasion?”
    “They hired a bunch of us to go down and work on a movie: “Catch 22”. Surely you have heard of “Catch 22”, being so literate.”
    “Joseph Heller, right?”
    “Somebody had told Mr. Wayne we looked alike. When I went into the bar he was seated alone. I pulled up and he looked at me like he was measuring a board. He said he had been told that I walked like him. Then I told him I would have to learn to walk different so people could distinguish us. I don’t remember much more about the evening as we drank a lot. We smoked a lot back then too. You don’t happen to have a cigarette?”
    “You know cigarettes will stunt your growth, Don.”
    “Maybe I should get a prescription for some of that whacky weed. I’m in a lot of pain you know.” Glancing at Vicky, Don looked for a reaction. “I could blow a little smoke in Nurse Rat-Shit’s face. She might relax and the doctor could remove the stick from her butt.”
    Vicky laughed. “Enough Don. You’re going to make me pee my pants.”
    Don furled his brow, mouth slightly agape, presenting a “who me” look of innocence.
    “I want you to behave while I take care of Frank. Take a seat out here and give me some privacy.”
    Looking contrite Don grunted, “Yes ma’am,” 
    It took a few steps to maneuver, then settle into the chair outside his room. Placing the cane on his lap he took some time and surveyed his kingdom. He’d arrived over a year ago after spending a day and a half on the floor of his doublewide trailer in Twain Hart California, unable to move because L3, 4, and 5 vertebras had collapsed on the nerve bundle of his spine. His daughter had found him. He’d passed on offers from family and moved to Pleasant Valley Home Care in Bakersfield. He didn’t require much but he was craving a little heat from his bottle of Ten High.

           To be continued...