chapter 9

Brush Run

    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

crop-duster airplane.




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