Dance of the Herbicide Indians
This is the story of the first time I ever met a man by the name of
Dealin' Don. Well, I didn't actually meet the guy. I only saw him. So this is
really the story about the first time I ever saw a man by the name of
Dealin' Don was destined to be a major player in my career as a
crop-duster pilot, so it was unfortunate that our first encounter was so
It all started when Bob decided that he and I were going to get rich by
going big-time into the herbicide business.
"The thing that makes this flying racket so miserable," he reasoned, "is
that the only chance we have to make any money is when things get bad
for our customers. Sure, we get lots of work when the bole weevils get in
the cotton, and the aphids get in the vegetables, and the army worms are
eating everything in sight. But when those sort of things are happening,
that's the very time the farmers are faced with ruin and can't afford to pay
people like you and me. And anytime a good year comes along, and the
farmers make a good harvest, likely as not the price will fall to nothing flat
and the farmers still won't have any money to pay us what they still owed
us from last year."
"Yeah, well, supposin' you're right," I said. "It's those same farmers who
are gonna have to find some money somewhere when we're killing their
weeds. If they can't pay us for insecticide work, what makes you think
they can pay us for herbicide work?"
"But that's just it," Bob explained. "We've been spending too much time
working for farmers. We gotta spend more time working for ranchers!
What do you see when you fly over this country, anyway? You see brush,
that's what you see. There's more brush in this county than there is water
in the Gulf of Mexico. Sure, we spray a little dab of it ever year, but what
we need to do is go into spraying brush big time. Instead of spraying a few
thousand acres every year, we need to spray a few hundred thousand
acres every year."
"Yeah, sure." I said. "But where we going to get that kind of work?
Every year we bust our britches trying to convince these tight-wad
ranchers to spray brush. Every year it's like pulling teeth, trying to pry a
few thousand dollars out of one of these guys."
"Well, that's just exactly what we're doing wrong," Bob went on. "You
and me, we're pilots. We're not salesmen. We got no business out trying to
sell to these ranchers. We need a salesman! Hell, I don't know nothing
about selling, and neither do you. Neither one of us could sell peanuts to
"Well, maybe," I said.
"What we need is a salesman," Bob mused. "What we need is some
slick-talking SOB that can cruse around down here in this country and
make sweet-talk to all these hide-bound ranchers. We need some guy in a
striped suit to convince these cowmen that they need to turn loose of
some of their dough and turn this old brush country into nice green
pastures. What we need is a salesman!"
"Yeah, sure," I said. "But where we gonna find some slick-talking
salesman who is willing to come down here to this end-of-the-world
country, drive around in the boon-docks all day, and sell the idea of
spraying brush to ranchers who are still wearing the same hat their daddy
bought them when they got married. Besides, even if we could find a
salesman who knew how to sell stuff, there's not one chance in a million
he'd know anything about brush, or ranching, or crop-dusting."
"I know just the guy we need to get," Bob assured me. "Yes sir, I know
just the guy."
And as it turned out, Bob did know just the guy. He was a chemical
salesman from up in the Winter Garden area. He owned a farm and ranch
store in Uvalde and was known far and wide as "Dealin' Don", although
that wasn't the name he gave when he introduced himself to strangers.
When meeting people he always gave the name written on his driver's
But everybody called him "Dealin' Don", just the same. He was called
that because he was the biggest wheeler-dealer anywhere in that part of
the world. He didn't object to that name. All he wanted was to get your
business. Usually he did. Dealin' Don was a P.T. Barnum sort of guy. He
spent his days racing about the countryside at high speed, checking on
crops, talking to farmers, selling farm chemicals, making deals, giving
orders, and buying beer and hamburgers for everybody in sight.
Dealin' Don was a big man, with a big smile, a big heart, and plenty of
good advice for anybody who would stand still for 30 seconds and hear
what he had to say as he came rip-roaring by. He had about a dozen men
working for him. They rushed about the countryside after him in pick-ups,
farm tractors, and flat bed trucks. Dealin' Don had a deal with everybody,
an unpaid bill owed to him by everybody, and good advice at no charge at
Dealin' Don went through life making things happen. And he made
them happen right now! When he got a bright idea, it was put into action
immediately. He would buy a freight car load of fertilizer one morning, and
sell it before the sun went down. He would make half-a-dozen chemical
sales before noon, and buy 30 head of feeder calves before supper. He
would contract a field of cucumbers one day, and sell it to a broker in
Kansas City the next day.
He would storm into one of the local restaurants at noontime and shake
hands with every man in the building. He would grin, and laugh, and
holler at the cook. He would hug half a dozen women, agree to spray a
hundred acres of grain, sell 20 tons of fertilizer, buy lunch for everybody
in the place, and tip the waitress ten dollars.
Dealin' Don was a guy who made things happen! When he showed up
on the scene, men just automatically wanted to grin, and women wanted
He was a character! He was a wheeler-dealer. And Bob had talked him
into being our salesman!
Dealin' Don showed up in Laredo immediately. He rented a motel room
and was hard at work by dawn. He talked to more people that first day
than I ever talked to any single week in my lifetime.
Within a few days we were flying. Dealin' Don had got us a few hundred
acres here, and a few hundred acres there, and we knew it was just a
matter of time before he started getting us the big jobs. We knew that any
day he'd snare the 5,000 acre range land job, or the 10,000 acre brush
Although Dealin' Don had appeared at the airport on several occasions,
I had never happened to be there when he showed up. That was okay with
me. I wasn't the sort of person who felt it was necessary to go around
meeting people, and as long as he kept us flying, I was happy.
Every evening after work Bob would call Dealin' Don at his motel room
and work out the details for the following day's work.
Things seemed to be going just about right.
The second week Bob informed me that Dealin' Don was working on a
big sales demonstration. Evidently he had convinced 15 or 20 of the area's
biggest ranch owners to witness an actual spray operation, and to see
first-hand what a tremendous job an airplane could do applying herbicide
on brush country. Dealin' Don had even convinced the county agriculture
extension agent to co-sponsor the outing. He had also contacted Texas
A&M University and lined-up some professor who was a big advocate of
applying herbicide by air. This professor had devoted his career to
studying brush control in the southwest United States, and he was anxious
for the opportunity to lecture in the heart of brush country.
Dow chemical company agreed to send one of their leading experts to
the sales meeting, and just for good measure, The Texas Cattle Growers
Association was invited to send a representative.
Bob was proud as punch about this grand event and assured me that
Dealin' Don was about to un-lock the door that would make us all rich.
That's all he talked about for the two weeks preceding the demonstration,
and everyday he gave me a stern talking-to about how important it was
that we make this demonstration go just exactly right.
He was so excited by the up-coming demonstration that he couldn't
think about anything else. He was certain it was the big break he had
been waiting for all those years. He gave me repeated long lectures on
just exactly what I was supposed to do, and what I was not supposed to
"Now, there's no reason for us to try to put on an air show," he said.
"All we got to do is fly our airplanes nice and easy. These guys are going
to be more interested in how this 2-4-5-T penetrates into the brush, than
how quick we can get an airplane turned back around. The important thing
is that we get our spacing just exactly right and that we make sure that all
our spray nozzles are working. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to really
sell our herbicide operation. If we can impress all these ranchers and all
these other big-shots with what a good job we can do, we'll have brush
work stacking up for years to come. We won't ever have to fly another
stinking load of insecticide on another damn cotton field."
I assured Bob that that would be fine with me, and promised him that I
would do everything just exactly right. Long before the actual day came, I
was sick and tired of hearing about it.
Dealin' Don planned this event with everything but a brass band. They
would all meet at daylight at one of Laredo's fanciest motels, have a big
breakfast compliments of Dealin' Don, and listen to presentations from the
county agent, the professor, and the man from Dow Chemical Company.
After breakfast they were scheduled to proceed to a ranch about 20 miles
east of town and witness an actual aerial application job in progress.
The morning of the big show Bob and I were out at a little dirt airstrip
by sun-up. While Dealin' Don was busy conducting his big breakfast and
high-powered sales pitch back in Laredo, we were checking out our
airplanes and making sure everything was in perfect order.
Bob delivered the two flagmen to the designated work area and gave
them a lengthy speech about how everything had to go just right that
morning. When he got back to the airstrip, he personally supervised the
mixing of the chemicals and briefed the mix-man half to death. Then he
started in on me.
"For once in your life pay attention to what I am telling you," he
harangued. "All in hell you gotta do is just follow me. Just be sure to get
your spacing right and fall in on my first pass. That's all there is to it. No
need for hot-dogging. No need for any fancy flying. Just fall in behind me
and keep her down right tight on the tops of the brush. We only got to
make five passes each. Just be sure your calibration is right. This is gonna
be a piece of cake if you don't figure out some way to screw it up."
"Yeah, yeah," I said.
"Well, dammit, I mean it", Bob grumbled! "This is our one chance to get
a leg up in this racket. Just don't screw it up."
"Okay, okay," I promised, "I won't screw it up."
I knew it was going to be a beautiful day. It was still early in the spring
and the morning was cool and pleasant. There was no wind at all, and the
humidity was high. I knew that the spray from our airplanes would lay out
behind us in nice plump swaths, and gently settle into the brush-choked
range land. It was the perfect day to give a demonstration of the
effectiveness of aerial spraying.
In order to assure full coverage, we had planned our application rate at
15 gallons per acre, an unusually heavy rate. Additionally, Bob had
saturated the mix heavily with diesel oil and a drift control agent known
as Honey-Dew. In the still morning air, this mixture was guaranteed to
create a dense, heavy fog that would float down and stickily saturate
everything it came into contact with. This was the perfect mix, the perfect
conditions, and the perfect day to prove the effectiveness of controlling
brush with aerial application. And Dealin' Don had lined up the perfect
By 10:00 o'clock that morning everything was ready to go. Dealin' Don
and his entourage had gathered on the gravel road at one end of the
brush-choked ranch that was our target for the day. All those gathered
below were attired in their finest western dress. Every man present,
including the professor, was wearing his Sunday Stetson. They were
arrayed in their creased jeans, snake-skinned boots, pearl-buttoned
long-tailed Wrangler shirts, and string ties. There were even two or three
ladies present sporting their favorite Neiman-Marcus blouses.
Precisely on schedule the two aircraft arrived on the scene. Rather than
immediately began the application, the lead aircraft circled the waiting
group, made a gentle bank, and executed a low pass before the attentive
spectators. The second aircraft dutifully followed in-trail, and each of the
pilots smiled and waved as they passed before the crowd. Climbing back to
about 100 feet altitude, the aircraft made a big circle to the far end of the
pasture and the lead aircraft lined-up for his first pass over the brush.
In the gravel road below, Dealin' Don was in his top form. The stylish
and relaxed appearance of the aircraft had provided him with the perfect
visual aid to compliment his verbal presentation. His guests were rapt with
attention, hanging on his every polished word, and as the lead aircraft
descended gracefully to execute his first pass directly at the audience, the
anticipation level soared to a new high.
The lead aircraft leveled off above the brush approximately a half-mile
away and a great billowing cloud began flowing from beneath its wings. As
the aircraft rapidly approached the crowd, Dealin' Don's dialogue smoothly
changed from the vast economic advantages that could be derived from
the control of brush, to the spectacular way in which the aircraft spray
pattern was totally inundating everything in its wake.
The lead aircraft rapidly grew to be as big as life, and just 50 yards
short of the audience, chopped-off its spray and gracefully soared over the
high-line wires running along the gravel road directly above the
spectators. As the aircraft roared overhead, a great "awe" arose from the
It was an awe-inspiring scene and everyone present, especially Dealin'
Don, broke into an enormous grin. A scattering of applause was heard.
At this moment Dealin' Don directed the attention of the on-lookers
back across the pasture. The second aircraft was roaring across the brush
and laying a second perfect pass parallel with the first. The direction of
flight of this aircraft, displaced exactly fifty feet from the first, was
carrying it even more directly across the heads of the spectators.
The watchers were deeply thrilled by the sight of this on-coming
aircraft, so quick on the tracks of the first. They exclaimed at the
spectacular way the spray pattern was boiling across the brush, and the
way it floated to the earth and enveloped everything beneath it. Every
heart beat faster, and every grin grew broader, as they savored the
child-like fear that was derived from watching this on-coming machine.
Having been educated by the performance of the first aircraft, every man
present knew exactly what to expect.
Each man stood there like a veteran, staunchly relishing the feeling of
defiance that swelled within him as he gazed at the on-rushing aircraft.
But for reasons that nobody ever understood, the second aircraft did
not perform exactly like the first. For reasons that were examined at great
length over the coming days, and coming years, and, in some circles,
might still be discussed even unto this very day, the second aircraft
followed a quiet different procedure.
The second aircraft arrived at the imaginary 50-yard terminal line and
came on without so much as nodding. The spray continued to boil forth,
and the nose of the aircraft did not rise to soar majestically over the
It all happened very quickly. It took place in a single instant. The noise
was like the loudest crack of thunder that had every been heard, and the
heavy cables that instantly fell into the gravel road and coiled and lashed
like mad serpents, emitted great arcs of fire surpassing anything any man
present had ever experienced.
As the spectators leaped in terror from the fire, looking for all the world
like children jumping rope in a school yard, a great cloud of suffocating
particles of diesel oil, Honey-Dew, and 2-4-5-T herbicide settled in to
completely immerse their faces, to fill their eyes, and to inadvertently be
inhaled deep into their lungs. As the sticky froth swathed their bodies,
slithering down their necks and up their shirtsleeves, everyone broke into
But nobody knew where they were to be running to. Dealin' Don had
ceased to hold forth with informative and fascinating information, and in
fact, could be heard off somewhere in the fog gasping and coughing
between great oaths.
Lacking proper guidance, men simply ran in the direction they were
facing. Some men ran down the road, some men ran up the road. Some
men ran off into the thickets across the road, and some men were fighting
like demons to climb over the bob-wire fence.
A great deal of drama erupted in the hours and days following this
event. A great many words were spoken, and a great many questions were
asked. Numerous people shared an overwhelming desire to speak
regarding the unusual occurrence.
In fact, the only man present at the scene of the catastrophe who
wasn't talking about it, was me. I had nothing to say. As a matter of fact, I
had so little to contribute to the controversy that I elected to remove
myself from the theater of debate and retreat to a secretive motel room
approximately two hundred miles away.
Which leads us to the honest question: "How is it that, in the life of a
normal man, such outrageous things can occur?"
My only defense is to point out that I was not the first man to struggle
to find such an answer. I challenge you to query any highway patrolman
you meet. Sooner or later in his career, all highway patrolmen find
themselves dealing with this mystery.
Their question usually goes something like this: "After you came to a
complete stop, why did you pull out in front of that eighteen-wheeler?"
And the answer is usually just as predictable and routine: "I don't know
why I pulled out in front of that eighteen-wheeler. I just did."
And then there is the common case of the man who operated the cutoff
saw at the sawmill for over fifteen years, and one afternoon, while
drawing his saw across a 2 X 6 for what must have been the millionth
time, cut off three fingers of his left hand. "I don't know why I did it," he
explained to the surgeon.
Ask the teen-age boy why he reached down, picked up a rock, and
threw it through the neighbor's window. He is guaranteed to reply, "I don't
Well, I don't know why I flew right square through the middle of those
high-line wires. I was as startled as anyone. I was just flying along across
the countryside relishing the beautiful morning and minding my own
business, when BANG!!, right out of nowhere that high-line wire showed
up. It was only when I looked down and saw all those people that I
remembered what we were doing that morning. Just about then I thought
to turn off my spray valve.
I spent the next 30 seconds watching all those people running, and
falling, and waving their arms in the heavy fog. Even with all the
confusion in my mind, and sudden fear in my belly, I couldn't help but
note that it was just about the funniest thing I ever saw.
Even Bob, who was also circling overhead and observing the unusual
activity, saw the unmistakable humor in it all. Later he would refer to the
actions of Dealin' Don and his entourage as, "The dance of the Herbicide
But Bob didn't think it was funny the day it happened, or for a long
time after that. It took him about a year to get over his compulsion to kill
me on sight, and he devoutly believed until his dying day that choosing
me as his crop-dustin' side-kick had ruined his once-in-a-lifetime chance
to make it rich.