chapter 13

450 Stearman

One winter I was hanging around the Speckled Dog Inn without any work in sight when an operator called from the Rio Grande Valley looking for a pilot.I took the job.I went to work flying a 300 H.P. Piper Brave.It was the only Brave I ever flew.It was almost brand new.It was so new it still smelled nice.

††††††††††† By spring, I was ready to get back to Laredo and get started on the brush run.On the way back up the river, after leaving the Texas Valley and driving north on U. S. Highway 83, I got to looking around the old town of Rio Grande City.There was an airstrip there, just a little ways off the highway.It was little more than a rough grass strip with an old pole hanger on one end of it.That old hanger could have held about four or five airplanes, but there was only one airplane in it.It was an old Boeing Stearman rigged out as a crop-duster.

††††††††††† I walked over and gave that Stearman a good looking-over.It was a rough old bird.I couldn't help but wonder if it would ever fly again.

††††††††††† After I hung around a bit, an old fellow came out of a nearby house and walked over to talk to me.His name was Buster and he lived there on the airport.He was an old crop-duster pilot and he owned that Stearman.Both of them looked pretty wore-out to me.

††††††††††† But I liked old Buster right away.There was nothing stuffy about him.He smiled at me from the start, and we got to talking.He was through flying crop-dusters, he said.He had grown too old and his eyes were going bad, and besides, he said, he drank too much.He wanted to know if I wanted to buy that Stearman.

††††††††††† I needed that Stearman like I needed a hole in the head, but I got to looking at it anyway.It was pretty rough.It had been through the wars.It had nicks and scratches and peeling paint from one end to the other.I could see old scars where it had been through more than one high-line wire.When I made mention of that, Buster grinned sheepishly and said, "Hell, I'm half blind".

††††††††††† But I kept poking around that old airplane.I turned the propeller through all nine cylinders.It felt pretty stout.I asked Buster about the condition of his old Stearman.

††††††††††† "Hell," he grinned, "it's all wore out."He wasn't trying very hard to sell me an airplane.

††††††††††† "What kind of shape is this fabric in", I wanted to know?

††††††††††† "It's rotten," said Buster.

††††††††††† "When's it had an annual inspection", I asked?

††††††††††† "Hell, it ain't had an inspection in years," Buster replied.

††††††††††† "What's the engine like", I asked?

††††††††††† "The engine's okay," Buster assured me."Good and strong.Only thing about it that's worth a damn."

††††††††††† "How much money you want for it", I asked?

††††††††††† "Oh, I want about $10,000 for it," Buster grinned."But if you don't want to pay me $10,000 for it, I'll sell it for about $5,000."

††††††††††† I thought about that for a while.I had always wanted to own a Stearman.This one was set up right.The front cockpit had been replaced with a 200 gallon hopper, and the original 220 H.P. Continental radial had been replaced with a 450 H.P. Pratt & Whitney. It was swinging a big Hamilton Standard propeller.

††††††††††† I was starting to like that wore-out old Stearman.Also, I just happened to have a bit of money in the bank.I kept looking it over.

††††††††††† "What are these brakes like?" I asked.I knew that Stearmans were notorious for having bad brakes.

††††††††††† "They ain't worth a damn," grinned Buster.

††††††††††† "How about that pump, and what about those spray booms", I asked?

††††††††††† "It's all a bunch of junk," Buster assured me."Man ought to take it off and throw it away."

††††††††††† "How about that hopper," I asked?I was trying my best to find something Buster thought was worth bragging about.

††††††††††† "Well," Buster allowed."It's been patched about forty times.Might last a while longer, but I doubt it."

††††††††††† "How does she fly", I asked?

††††††††††† "Flies like a Stearman," Buster said."Only worse.You ever fly a Stearman?"

††††††††††† "Naw," I said."Never even been in one.I've been told they vibrate a lot."

††††††††††† "Yeah, well, that's just about all I ever flew," said Buster."They vibrate all right.They shake like hell."

††††††††††† "Yeah, well, I guess that's just the way they are," I agreed, just as though I knew what I was talking about.

††††††††††† "Well, this one shakes bad," mused Buster."I don't know why she shakes so bad.I've flown lots of Stearmans.This one shakes bad."

††††††††††† "Well, I don't know Buster," I said."I don't really need another airplane.I sure as hell don't need a Stearman."

††††††††††† "Well, if you decide you want the damn old thing, let me know," Buster said."I'll fly it up to Laredo for you.Just to prove she'll still fly.By the way, you decide to buy this wore-out old airplane, you want this old hangar too?"

††††††††††† "This old pole hangar here," I asked, glancing around at the open-walled hanger we were standing in?"It's for sale too?"

††††††††††† "Naw, it ainít for sale.You can have it," Buster replied. "I'm moving.Can't take it with me.You can have it if you want it.Goes with the airplane."

††††††††††† "What would I do with a hangar in Rio Grande City," I wondered?

††††††††††† "Hell, I don't know", grinned Buster.

††††††††††† On my way back to Laredo I did a lot of thinking about that old airplane.Sometimes it was hard for me to figure out just exactly the way my mind was working.I knew that I had a long history of doing things that didn't make a lot of sense.At least, they didn't make a lot of sense to normal people.But I had never bothered a whole lot about trying to make sense to normal people.

††††††††††† But then there were those times when I didn't even make sense to myself, and the more I got to thinking about wanting to own that beat-up old Stearman, the less it made sense to me.There just wasn't any way in the world I could justify buying an old derelict like that.The problem was, not only had I always wanted to own a Stearman, I was starting to want to own that particular Stearman.It just didn't make sense, not even to me.

††††††††††† I was like the boy who wanted to own a dog, but didn't want to own the well-cared-for thoroughbred picked out by his parents.He wanted to own the half-starved mutt with the mange on one side of its head that he had found in a ditch beside the road.

††††††††††† As a matter-of-fact, I was that boy.

††††††††††† And now, grown into a man, I wanted to own that mangy old Stearman that I had found on a weed-choked airstrip in Rio Grande City, Texas.

††††††††††† I should point out that I was not a free-spending man.As a matter-of-fact, I was about as thrifty a person as you would ever want to meet.Some people claimed that I was an out-right tightwad. My friends were well aware that my annual budget seldom allocated more than about twenty bucks for wardrobe replacement.This usually provided me with a new pair of blue jeans and a couple of Sears & Roebucks work shirts.

††††††††††† I also was famous for my ability to live for extended periods of time on a twenty-pound bag of dried pinto beans and the occasional purchase of summer sausage or frozen chicken gizzards.I just wasn't the kind of guy who spent money foolishly.Of course, I really wouldn't want to boast excessively about my thriftiness, since I very seldom had any money to spend foolishly.

††††††††††† But there were those times in my life when I did have a little money, and if there was something I wanted to spend it on, I spent it.I didn't worry about justifying my expenditures to other people, and sometimes I didn't even worry about justifying them to myself.

††††††††††† As the years went by, I found that I had far fewer regrets about doing those things that I wanted to do, but that didn't make good sense, than I had about the things I didn't do just because I couldn't come up with a rational explanation for doing them.

††††††††††† And I wanted to own that old Stearman.

††††††††††† By the time I got to Laredo, my mind was made up.

††††††††††† The next Saturday afternoon that old Stearman came cruising over the Old Laredo Airport at about 2000 feet.It was a pretty sight.Few things in life are as pretty as an old Stearman sailing over an airport at about 2000 feet.We all went out to watch it make a big circle and enter a down-wind leg for landing.

††††††††††† Bob was all excited.He had owned several Stearmans over the years.He was wondering who was flying that airplane, and where it had come from.

††††††††††† "That's old Buster," I said."From down at Rio Grande City."

††††††††††† "Old Buster," exclaimed Bob!"What's that old son-of-a-bitch doing up here in my part of the country?"

††††††††††† "He's delivering that Stearman," I explained."He sold it."

††††††††††† "Oh, yeah?Who'd he sell it to", Bob wanted to know?

††††††††††† "He sold it to me," I said.

††††††††††† "Sold it to you", Bob demanded!"You bought that old Stearman?

Are you nuts?You need a Stearman like God needs help."†††

††††††††††† I didn't reply.I was busy admiring that beautiful old airplane as she swung around in a gentle bank and slid gracefully across the sky.

††††††††††† "What the hell you going to do with an old Stearman, anyway", Bob wanted to know?

††††††††††† "I'm going to fly it," I said.

††††††††††† "Fly it", Bob asked incredulously?"You mean you plan to put that old airplane back to work?"

††††††††††† "Yeah, that's right," I said, getting mad."That's damn sure just exactly what I'm going to do with it!†† I'm gonna hang a pump and booms under it and spray vegetables with it this winter."

††††††††††† "You must be going nuts," he said.

††††††††††† Bob and Buster were old flying buddies.They were happy to see each other.

††††††††††† "What kind of old Stearman you got there, anyway," asked Bob?

††††††††††† "It ain't worth a damn," grinned Buster."She's all wore out."

††††††††††† "I thought so," said Bob.

††††††††††† Bob walked around my new Stearman and kicked one of its bald tires.

††††††††††† "How much you get for this wreck", he asked Buster?

††††††††††† "About five grand," grinned Buster.

††††††††††† "Five grand," exploded Bob!"You got five grand for this old cripple?"

††††††††††† "Yeah," grinned Buster."I wanted ten grand, but the guy haggled me down to five."

††††††††††† Then the two of them went over to the Speckled Dog Inn and spent the rest of the day and half the night drinking beer and telling stories about Stearmans.

††††††††††† The next day Buster was still at the Speckled Dog Inn.He had spent the night in the room next to mine.He was kind of sad.He went out on the ramp and stood around his old Stearman.

††††††††††† Buster knew that he would never fly again.That had been the last flight for Old Buster.I could tell he was feeling bad about it.He had spent the better part of a lifetime flying crop-dusters. And now he was through.He was old, he was half-blind.

††††††††††† I just stood around with him for a while.I didn't know what to say.I was suddenly overcome with the significance of what I had witnessed the previous day.At the time it had seemed almost incidental to me.Just another airplane coming in for a pretty landing.I had seen a thousand pretty landings.I had made a thousand myself, and would make many thousand more.

††††††††††† But Buster had made his last landing.He would never again settle into a cockpit at dawn, draw the shoulder harness across those bony old shoulders, and lock down the lap belt across his hips.He would never again gaze out across that long cowling and know the joy of a bellowing engine breaking into life in the chill morning air.He had made his last flight.He had thrown over those flight controls for the final time.Soared into his final turn.Snaked between the trees and over the fences for the last time.Never again would he feel the G-forces building as the earth reeled across his vision.Never again would he slam into the boiling gusts of wind.It was all over for Buster.

††††††††††† I found myself tongue-tied that morning.Just the two of us standing there looking at that beat-up old airplane.I felt compelled to say something to that man who was seeing the central theme of his life closing forever.I ended up telling him that I would fix up his old airplane, get her back in good shape again. I promised to be careful with her.

††††††††††† Buster just grinned at me.It was a sad kind of grin.

††††††††††† I've thought a lot about that since.I've kind of decided that that would be a nice way for a man to make his last flight.Just come in high over an old country airport, on a nice summer day.Just come in high and swing around in a nice big overhead turn, flying an old 450 Stearman.Just come in nice and smooth, and touch her down, and let her roll out along the runway.That would be a nice way for it to come to an end.

††††††††††† But I didn't want it to come to an end.I wanted it to go on forever. †††††

††††††††††† But if it ever did come to an end, that would be a nice way. Just high over the field on a nice summer day, in an old 450 Stearman.




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