It took me a while to learn how to fly a crop-duster. Looking back on
my first season, I find it amazing that I managed to stay alive long enough
to actually figure out how to manage the darn thing.
But I was lucky, I entered the trade on a South Texas brush run under
the critical eye of a man who knew the business inside and out. Flying
brush was relatively easy. It was in wide-open country with few tall trees
or high-line wires. The aircraft was flown just above the brush, usually at
an altitude of about 15 feet above the ground, and the pilot did not have
to deal with the close tolerances that would later be encountered on farm
crops planted in small fields with obstacles everywhere.
I liked the work and I liked the country. In my first couple of months we
sprayed several thousand acres in the vicinity of Miranda City, Oilton,
Bruni, and Freer. I came to see a hidden beauty in that sea of brush. I
liked the air, crystal clear and cool in the morning, fire hot by noon. I liked
the ranchers, some Anglo, some Mexican. They were a silent, stern, and
regal lot. I liked the Mexican men we worked with. They were aloof in
their own way, and with always a kind of sadness that was the common
background of their character. Even when they were laughing, and wild,
and drinking beer like crazy, there was always that sadness against which
all other characteristics were displayed.
And I liked the wildness of the country. I liked the vast expanse of
prickly pear and mesquite, and a dozen other woody, brushy trees that I
was yet to learn the names of. I liked the big white-tail deer that would
glance up at me, and flash away into the brush as I roared across their
land. I liked the javaleno hogs, and jackrabbits, and coyotes- all wild and
primitive animals in a wild and primitive land.
I was fascinated by the monster rattlesnakes that the flagmen drug in
almost daily. These men had spent their lives in the brush country, and
the war with rattlesnakes had been a part of their lives from youth. They
would drag them in, dead and bloodied trophies of their morning's work.
They would cut off the rattlers and tuck them under a hat brim, or pass
them on as tokens of friendship. I acquired several large rattles in this
manner. I never killed a rattlesnake myself.
And I was scared to death of the rattlesnakes that I saw still living.
From time to time I would see one on the edges of a dusty airstrip, or
sliding off into the rocks and brush.
I have heard rattlesnakes crying out their death song. Their tail a blur
before the eye, their rattle a terrifying buzzing touching man's deepest
sense of fear, their triangular head a thing of evil striking again and again
at a rag tied to a long pole waved by some laughing wild-eyed Mexican.
The men I worked with in the brush country loved to torment these
creatures before stoning them to death.
It was a great time for me. Eating tons of tacos and enchiladas and jars
full of jalapeņo peppers, and napping under the wing of an airplane parked
on some make-shift dirt airstrip on what was clearly the very farthest, the
loneliest, the most lost corner of a world that I was happy to escape from.
And then there was the flying. It was really learning to fly all over
again in a way that I had never dreamed possible. Unlike most of the
aircraft that I had flown, these flying machines were not flown through the
sky with much concern for compass headings and altitudes. These
machines were flown against the nape of the earth, with little thought of
time, or distance, or routes, or destination. It was more like riding a
high-performance motorcycle that had the ability to defy the laws of
But the laws of gravity were still present, and like all aviators, the
crop-duster pilot had to learn the special ways in which his craft could be
flown within the dictates of those laws. In that first season, that brush
run, I had no other responsibility except to fly that airplane. My only job
was to learn to master that aircraft in such a way that it could be made to
do the job it had to do. I never had a single care about fuel, or tools, or
maintenance, or trucks, or chemicals, or pumps, or maps. I never worried
for a moment about application rates, or collecting bills, or arguing with
ranchers, or getting some member of the crew out of jail, or flat tires, or a
million other problems that in time I would have to deal with on my own.
That first season, all I had to do was learn how to sit in the seat of a