El Indio Trouble
There was never any air traffic control problems at El Indio
International Airport, but on occasion there was minor congestion with
traffic along the highway. It was accepted doctrine in that country that the
airplane always had the right-of-way when using that little stretch of
It was also accepted doctrine that the pilot would not take advantage of
this right. It simply acknowledged the fact that, in order to do the
important work that had to be done in such a remote farming community,
others might on occasion be inconvenienced. It was simply a long
established custom in that community. And given the fact that years could
pass without a lawman passing along that fizzled-out little stretch of
highway, no one had ever questioned that doctrine.
But one day a fellow did challenge my right to be parked right in the
middle of that highway. You might have known that it would be some
trouble-making white man. This fellow was a squinty-eyed ranch foreman
about sixty years old. He lived somewhere out beyond where that little
dusty road lost itself in the mesquite. He had that lean, leathery, cynical
look of the Southwest. The Lonesome Cowboy grown old.
As he drove north toward civilization that morning, the first little
ragged end of hard surface highway he came to had an airplane parked
right square in the middle of it.
He got out of his pickup and walked over to me. I could see right away
that he was trouble. He gave me a mean look and said, "I guess you know
that it's against the law to operate an airplane off a state highway?"
"Yeah, I know that," I said.
He didn't say anything else. I didn't say anything else. He left.
A few days later he was blocked again. I could see he was needing a
reason to get mad about something. "Too many years in the brush
country", I thought to myself.
He should have just punched me in the mouth, like he wanted to do.
That choice of attack would have been entirely successful. Instead, he
chose sarcasm as his weapon. That was a mistake. I could out-sarcasm
any man who walked on two legs.
"I guess a rich aviator like you don't have to obey the law like the rest
of us poor folks," he drawled.
"Not at all, sir," I replied with mock courtesy.
"Well, I guess you must have some kind of special laws that let you do
anything you want on this here public highway," he pressed on.
"Well, sir. As a matter of fact I do", I rambled. "I have special
permission from the Governor of the State of Texas himself to fly my
airplane off this here highway."
"Yeah, sure you do. And I guessed you got some kind of letter from the
Governor himself saying you can park your damn airplane right here in
the middle of this here state highway?"
"Why, yes sir, I sure do," I went on. "I got this here special document,
personally presented to me by the Governor himself in a big ceremony at
the Capitol up in Austin. Didn't you read about it in all newspapers?
"Yeah, sure you do, you smart-aleck son-of-a-bitch", he spit out! "Sure
you do! Yeah, you think you can just come out here and park your damn
airplane anywhere you want! Yeah, by God, you just think you can come
out here in this country and do anything you want to!"
I was starting to get a little tight around the jaw-bone. I didn't say
"Yeah, sure you do", he went on! "I'd like by-God to see this here fancy
document from the Governor himself! I'd like by-God to see that
son-of-a-bitch! I guess you carry it folded up in your hip pocket."
"No, sir", I answered tightly. I figured that I was already in this
confrontation up to my ears and I might as well see it through to the end.
"I shore don't carry an important legal document like that with me. I keep
it locked up in my lawyer's safe. Tell you what. I'll be back in Laredo next
week and I'll have my secretary mail you a copy right away."
"Bullshit," he sneered, and turned and stalked away!
Never knowing when to keep my mouth shut, I called out after him,
"Don't forget to check your mailbox." He stopped in his tracks, turned, and
came back toward me. I could tell he had decided to punch me in the
mouth after all. Lucky for me, a couple of my hands eased over into his
path. After that, he gave us all a good cussing and drove away, never to
be heard from again.
I was glad to see him go.
The strange thing about this encounter, I later realized, was that that
old ranch foreman was just exactly the kind of man I would have wanted
to know. I would have wanted to talk to him, to listen to him, to try to
understand the events of his life that had brought him along that highway
so many years before me. I know that we would have become the greatest
And never having known that man bothers me. Will I find myself in the
same spot one day? Someday, in some lonely corner of the world I have
yet to find, will I find my own life drawing out the same way? When the
trail closes in behind, and there is no place else to go, will I be just
another trouble-making white man, needing a reason to get mad about
I will always remember my work at EL Indio as one of the more
satisfying periods of my life. Perhaps one day, when I have grown too old
to fly, or work, or care, I'll go back to EL Indio and move into that old
ranch house at the end of the road.
Who knows? It might not even be too late to find that sweet little