Sometimes it took me months, or even years, to see the humor in one
of the world-class screw-ups that I managed to get involved in. But in the
case of the Great Radish Screw-Up, I was able to see the humor of it all a
mere 24 hours after I had fled safely out of the county. Actually, there
were two counties involved, and I got out of both of them. Zavalla County,
and Maverick County, Texas.
It all began innocently enough. It was just one more long tiresome day
at the Crystal City airport. We had been hard at it for over a week fighting
a local army worm invasion that had moved into all the grain in the area.
Every crop-duster pilot between Del Rio and Cotulla was living in the
All of my work was being arranged by Dealin' Don, who had forgiven me
the matter of the herbicide incident of the previous year, not to mention
the dead cow. Not only was Dealin' Don a forgiving sort of fellow, he was
also in desperate need of a crop-duster. Countless tons of milo were being
chomped down by those army worms with every passing hour.
Dealin' Don just wasn't the sort of fellow who could say no to anybody,
and anytime some farmer told him his tale of woe, and how the army
worms were eating him into bankruptcy, Dealin' Don just couldn't bear to
tell the poor fellow that his fields wouldn't be sprayed for several more
days. He would send him out to the airport and let me deliver the bad
These farmers would then hang around my operation and try to bully
me into doing their work next. Every time I landed back for a fresh load,
several of these fellows would be waiting there with worried looks on their
faces. They would then all beg and threaten me to do their fields next.
I had always schooled my help in the art of playing dumb, and when
these fellows would show up at the airport and demand that their fields be
sprayed immediately, my hands would refer all questions to me. I, in turn,
would handle the unpleasant situation by getting in my airplane and flying
off across the countryside. That was my idea of good public relations.
Although we were days behind in our work, and everybody was tired
and short-tempered, things were really going pretty well. For my part, I
always worked my best under pressure, and with a good airplane and a
good ground crew I could get across many an acre of land in a day's time.
We had fallen into a hard-driving routine, and by stretching our days from
darkness to darkness, we were on the verge of gaining the upper hand on
the great armies of worms that were marching across the countryside.
I wasn't surprised when I saw Dealin' Don drive up on the airport one
afternoon. But I wasn't particularly glad to see him. I knew that he would
have another list of fields that needed to be sprayed immediately, and that
wouldn't get sprayed for days.
Dealin' Don did have a new list of fields that needed to be sprayed. But
he also had a "special job" for me. He wanted me to do this "special job"
the very next day. It was a pain-in-the-neck job. It was the last thing in
the world I wanted to do while we had hundreds of un-sprayed acres
stacking up on my schedule.
Dealin' Don wanted me to plant some seeds.
"You want me to plant some seeds", I howled, outraged at the very
idea! "Here we are, over two thousand acres behind and more fields
coming in every day, and you up and want me to plant some seeds? Why
in the name of hell do you want to plant seed now? We're up to our
eyeballs in army worms, and you want to plant a bunch of darn seeds?"
Yep, he wanted me to plant some seeds. But Dealin' Don was never the
sort of guy to force his desires on anybody.
"No, no, no!" he insisted. "If you can't get to it, you just can't get to it! I
understand! We got army worms crawling out our ears. I know what you
mean! But I was only thinking that maybe we could just work in one little
seeding job. Just one load. Just one field. Wouldn't take no time at all. But
I understand! If you can't do it, you just can't do it. I understand!"
"I just don't know how I can do it," I kept insisting. "I got half of Zavalla
County to spray, and you keep bringing me more acres every day."
But of course I knew that there was no way for me to get out of doing
the job. Dealin' Don had become one of my best friends. He had also given
me more work than any other farm chemical dealer anywhere. He had forgiven
me of numerous blunders and near-castrophies, and had bought me
dozens of hamburgers and cold beers.
I agreed to do the work. I knew it was going to be a pain in the neck,
but I agreed to do it. I would have to rig the airplane for solid material. I
would have to drop the pump off the belly of my airplane, and mount a
spreader in its place. After one load, I would have to drop the spreader
and re-rig for liquid material all over again. And I would have to fool
around with all this re-rigging nonsense right in the middle of an army
But Dealin' Don was a guy I just couldn't say no to.
Dealin' Don was all excited about this seeding job. He had just leased
this particular piece of land, and that same morning he had put two big
tractors in it, breaking it up with 14 foot tandem discs.
All he wanted to do with this piece of land the first year of his lease was
to put it in a cover crop. The coming year he wanted to put it in
watermelons. This all seemed like a fine idea to me, but I couldn't for the
life of me understand why this kind of thing couldn't wait a few weeks
until we got over the hump with the army worms.
But there was an excellent reason that it couldn't wait. The reason was
that Dealin' Don was an impatient man. And when he leased a piece of
land one day, you could bet your boots he would have tractors in it the
next day, and an airplane shaking seed over it on the third day. That's just
the way it was.
So how could I say no to a guy like that?
I decided that I would re-rig the airplane that evening after it got too
dark to fly. I would load the airplane in the morning before daylight and
do that little seeding job the first flight of the day. That way I could get it
over with, and get on with the army worm war.
After I agreed to do the job, Dealin' Don started insisting that I couldn't
possibly do it. "No, no, no, no, no," he insisted. "If you can't do it, you just
can't do it! I understand!"
"I can get it first thing in the morning," I insisted.
"I understand! We're covered up with army worms", Dealin' Don agreed
wholeheartedly! "If you can't get it, you just can't get it. I understand!"
"No, no, I can get it", I said. "I'll get it first thing in the morning, then
get back on the army worms. It won't be a problem."
"O.K., that's great", Dealin' Don consented! "We'll just get it first thing
in the morning, then get back on those army worms! Now, this little field
is only about 75 acres. You can get it with one load. We'll mix the seed in
with about a thousand pounds of fertilizer. We'll get it first thing. It's over
in the Quemado Valley."
"The Quemado Valley!" I exploded.
"That's right," Dealin' Don assured me. "In the Quemado Valley. My
daddy farmed that place years ago. Had it in cotton. It's easy to find."
"The Quemado Valley's up north of Eagle Pass," I howled, "It's clear up
the river! It must be 50 miles west of here! You want me to fly a load of
seeds half way to El Paso right here in the middle of the biggest army
worm invasion we've had in years?"
"No, no, no, no, no, no, no," Dealin' Don pleaded, throwing up his arms
in mock sympathy. "I know we're covered up with work. I know you're
working 14 hours a day. I understand! If you can't get it, you just can't
get it! I understand!"
"I'll get it, dammit," I hollered! "I'll put out the damn seed! I'll get it
first thing in the morning! Just explain to me exactly where it is! Show me
on this map! What kind of seed are we going to plant, anyway?"
I dug out a San Antonio sectional chart and followed the river about 20
miles north of Eagle Pass to the Quemado Valley. I had sprayed in the
area a time or two before, but I really wasn't very familiar with it.
I knew that The Quemado Valley really wasn't a "valley" at all. At least
it wasn't the kind of valley that was found in West Virginia, or Colorado, or
the Swiss Alps. It was just a broad river plain on either side of the Rio
Grande. But it was great farming country, and as pretty as a man could
hope for. The Quemado Valley was a little lost valley of agriculture,
entirely isolated from the turmoil of the outside world.
It was a pretty place, all right. But I sure wasn't interested in making a
trip up there first thing in the morning. I laid out my map on the wing and
Dealin' Don gave it a good looking over. He had spent the better part of
his life walking the fields in that part of the country, and he really wasn't
interested in looking at a map. At least he wasn't interested in my map.
He squatted down in the dirt and began to trace out a map of his own.
I got down with him, and several of the hands gathered around to listen
to Dealin' Don's instructions. It was a long instruction. Evidently this little
field was about five miles north of Quemado. One reason I wanted to be
sure I knew exactly where it was located was that Reese AFB, a pilot
training base, was just up the river a few miles at Del Rio. I didn't want to
get tangled up with some T-38 jet trainer on final approach.
Dealin' Don explained that this field contained "about 75 acres." All I
had to do, he insisted, was follow a certain Farm & Ranch road north and
take the first gravel road to the left. This would be back to the west,
"toward the river." After about two miles that gravel road made a hard
bend to the right, followed by a hard bend to the left. The field was
"between those two bends on the south side of the road," he explained. He
traced this out carefully with his finger in the dirt.
I pointed out that the road between the two bends was running almost
due north and south, so he really must mean that the field was on the
west side of the road. I was sure that he meant the west side, since that
side of the road was to the south when driving down the gravel road
before reaching the first bend. No, Dealin' Don insisted, it was on the
south side of the road. "This would be on your right side coming back from
the river," he explained.
"If it's on the right side coming from the river," I argued, "that must
mean it's on the west side after making the first turn,"
"No, no, no," Dealin' Don objected. "Besides, you're not coming from
the river. You're coming back in the direction toward the river after you
turn off the paved road. Coming from that direction, it's to the south."
"What difference does it make what direction I'm coming from," I
demanded. "If it's on the south side of the road, it's on the south side of
"Well, its not on the south side of the road after you make that turn,"
Dealin' Don insisted.
"That's what I'm trying to get straight," I said! "If this field's between
those two bends, it's got to be on either the west side of the road, or on
the east side of the road!"
"Well, actually," Dealin' Don explained patiently. "There's fields on both
sides of that road. That whole country used to be planted in cotton. My
daddy used to have half-interest in a cotton gin not more than four or five
miles back over on the river." He then drew a long extended line across
the ground and rubbed-out a little spot in the dirt where his daddy had
once owned part of a cotton gin. All the hands nodded their heads
approvingly, and wandered off into conversations about various other
cotton gins that they remembered.
"Okay", I reasoned, trying with all my might to keep from screaming.
"This field's on the right-hand side of the road coming from the paved
road. Now, what I want to know is, after I make that first turn to the right,
will the field be on my right, or on my left?"
"Well, after you make the turn, it's more to the south," Dealin' Don
This was not the first such conversation I had had with Dealin' Don. It
seems that I was the only man in South Texas unable to follow such vivid
directions. But evidently I was. Over the years, Dealin' Don had dispatched
armies of farm workers all over that country, and I was the only man on
record who grew progressively confused when listening to such
instructions. Everybody else nodded their heads vigorously, and rushed off
to successfully arrive at the correct destination.
All this time Dealin' Don was drawing and re-drawing his stick map in
the dirt. Every time he explained it he would draw the map a little
differently, and draw in other little features that had nothing to do with
finding that field. He would draw in a little field on the paved road and
explain that that field was where so-and-so had had cotton "three years
Each time he added these little features to his map, the circle of hands
would nod their heads and insist that they remembered that particular
field well. Then they would debate whether that field had been planted
three years ago, or four years ago. Then Dealin' Don would draw in
another feature, and the discussion would shift to watermelons, or onions,
or a herd of steer calves.
None of this talk did me a bit of good. I wasn't at all sure I could find
that field. The one thing that I did know was that I was fed-up with that
But Dealin' Don wasn't a bit worried. He had the perfect solution. He
would send "Carlos" down in the morning with the seed and fertilizer, and
Carlos would drive to that field and be there waiting to flag me in when I
arrived with the aircraft. He assured me that Carlos knew all about this
area. Carlos, it seems, had grown up in the Quemado Valley. What's more,
Carlos had worked that very same field when Dealin' Don's daddy had
planted it in cotton 20 years before. I was assured that with Carlos on the
job, everything would go as smooth as clockwork. All I would really have
to do was fly down that gravel road until I saw Carlos waving his flag in a
freshly plowed field.
Besides, Dealin' Don assured me. There was one sure-fire way to spot
that field. It had a long line of huisache trees growing between it and that
gravel road. That line of huisache trees had "...a little hook..." on the
north end. I nodded my head when given this additional information.
I finally consented to this arrangement. For the most part I just wanted
to end all that senseless talking and get back to fighting army worms. Just
as Dealin' Don was about to drive away I remembered that he hadn't told
me what kind of seeds we were going to plant.
When I asked him about the seed, he had a moment of puzzlement. I
was pretty sure that, up until that moment, he hadn't given any thought
to just exactly what kind of cover crop he wanted to sow.
"I hadn't decided yet," he finally replied. "I might plant....," and here he
reeled off a long list of various seeds.
"It doesn't make a lot of difference," he went on. "I just want to get a
cover crop on that piece of land this first year." He assured me that he
would make up his mind when he got back to his warehouse, and send the
correct seed out with Carlos in the morning.
Throughout this event the warning bells were going off in the back of
my mind, but I didn't have time to listen to them. I was too busy worrying
about fighting the biggest army worm invasion we had had in years.
At dawn we had the airplane all rigged out and were awaiting the
arrival of the famous "Carlos."
He wasn't more than about an hour and a half late. I had never seen
Carlos before. I had never even heard of him. But evidently he was one of
Dealin' Don's front men, and had spent most of his time working over on
the river. He had 1000 pounds of fertilizer and a big burlap bag of seeds.
We got started loading the airplane.
The use of fertilizer when putting out seeds from the air was only to
give more bulk to the seeds. One thousand pounds of fertilizer spread
thinly over 75 acres would have very little benefit at all. But by mixing the
seeds into the fertilizer, the seed would be much easier to disperse evenly,
and calibrating the aircraft much simpler.
The fertilizer was in 50 pound bags, and as the crew began tossing
them up on the wing of the airplane and dumping each bag into the
hopper, I let the seeds pour slowly into the fertilizer in order to get an
After four or five bags of fertilizer I called for a halt. I was puzzled. I
couldn't recall ever seeing seeds that looked like those seeds. I knew they
weren't oats. I knew they weren't rye grass. I wasn't sure what vetch seed
looked like, but I didn't think they were that either. What's more, I was
having a hard time remembering exactly what kind of seeds were normally
planted at that time of the year. I was not a seed person.
I hollered to Carlos to climb up on the wing and take a look at those
"Just what are these things, anyway?" I asked.
Carlos studied the seeds for a long time. He took some of the seeds in
his fingers and sifted them into the palm of his other hand. I was doing
the same thing. I was pretty sure that I had never before seen seeds that
looked like those seeds.
Carlos, it turned out, was a philosopher. He came to conclusions only
after long and laborious study.
"Theeze seed," he finally allowed, "they are not the oat seed."
"They ain't rye grass, either," I added.
As if on signal, all the hands climbed up on the airplane and started to
pass scoops of the strange little seeds from hand to hand. Everybody
agreed. These were strange little seeds.
Although nobody knew what those seeds were, everybody did know
what some kind of seeds were. Accordingly, every man present felt it was
his duty to assure me that these strange little seeds were absolutely not
the seeds of half the plants known to man.
I had it on the highest authority that these were not the seeds of
fesque grass, or bermuda grass, or alfalfa, or coastal bermuda, or buffalo
grass, or vetch, or forty other kinds of vegetation.
After it was decided conclusively that nobody knew the identity of those
seeds, everybody present wanted to tell a seed story about whatever kind
of seeds he absolutely could identify. Those present who had shared a
seed story in the past, got busy arguing about the details. One of the
hands attempted to clarify our mystery by reminding me of a particular
incident the previous year when we had had a similar problem. "We didn't
know what kind of seed we had then, either," was the punch line of this
Throughout all this discussion, nobody ever suggested that we might
have a one hundred pound bag of radish seeds on our hands. But of
course, that's just exactly what we had. It was a year's supply of radish
seed intended to be dispersed a few ounces at a time to gardeners all over
a three county area.
Normally, there would have been a farmer or two standing around
giving me a hard time. But just when we needed a farmer, there was none
in sight. I was ready to cancel the whole thing.
But Carlos wouldn't hear of it. "Theeze seed, they are the right seed,"
he insisted. "Seņor Don, he is tell me, theeze seed, they are the right
He then went on to give a long convoluted account of how Dealin' Don
had given him very precise instructions as to where to find the bag of
seeds in the warehouse.
He directed this story to all the hands, who listened carefully and
nodded their heads in approval. I was doing my very best not to listen, but
I couldn't help but hear how the bag of seeds had been located "... on the
east wall of the second storage building on the left." That was clearly on
the other side after you had made the left turn at the second door.
Everybody agreed that this meant "... the bag on the north side when you
turned to go out the other door."
Carlos was absolutely sure that we had the right bag of seeds. It all
made good sense to everybody but me. The alarm bells were now clanging
in the back of my mind. But in another part of my mind I could hear those
army worms chomping, and the clock ticking. I gave the order to continue
with the loading.
When the airplane was loaded I explained to Carlos that I would give
him about an hour head start so that he could get to the field before me.
Carlos agreed that this was a good plan, then asked, "How is it that I
must go to theeze field to wave the flag?"
"What, you don't know the way to the field", I hollered?
"Seņor Don, he izz tell me, he izz tell you, everything," Carlos
That was the last straw. I was ready to call the whole thing off. Right
But there was a problem. Loads of liquid chemicals could be unloaded
from the airplane simply by opening the correct valves and pumping the
load from the aircraft hopper into storage barrels. Dry loads were much
harder to handle. They were loaded by hand, and all but impossible to
Once a load of fertilizer was loaded on an airplane, the only practical
thing to do was to fly it onto some field. I was more or less trapped with
this fishy load, and I decided to fly it on come hell or high water.
I started out by loudly raving about what an idiot I was to ever agree to
that stupid seeding job in the first place. I then gave a lecture about how
Dealin' Don was insane if anybody ever was, and that he really ought to
be locked up in an asylum.
I then chewed out Carlos and everybody else in sight. By this time I
was pretty well exhausted, and further frustrated that nobody present
wanted to fight me. To my despair, everyone assured me that I was
"You're supposed to know all about it!" I kept pleading to Carlos, who
shrugged his shoulders and gazed about sorrowfully. Finally I got out my
map and tried to point out the field's general location to him. This was a
futile effort. Carlos was not a map person.
But Carlos was sure about one thing. Seņor Don had told him that the
new field was in an old cotton field that Seņor Don's father had farmed
about 20 years ago.
This information shed limited light on the question, however, since
Carlos had worked for Seņor Don, The Elder, in many cotton fields all over
the Quemado Valley. This information led to a long discussion with several
of the older hands present. This discussion was in Spanish. Evidently they
all had fond memories of their youth, working the cotton fields of the
I was finally reduced to pleading with these fellows to please, please,
please, try to figure out where this new field was so that we could get on
with the day's work. After a long discussion, everybody brightened up and
agreed. They had positively identified the location of the mystery field!
Besides, we all agreed, the field had been freshly plowed and should be
easy to identify.
Carlos announced that he was ready to leave, and I settled down to
wait for an hour before departing. By that time it was almost 10:00
o'clock, and I knew that the earliest I could hope to re-rig my airplane for
spraying would be at noontime. We had lost a good half day's work.
It was well over an hour later when I finally came winging down that
little gravel road and went into a big gentle turn about 400 feet above
that double bend in the road. Carlos was no where in sight. After making a
couple of circles I finally rolled out to the west and continued my search
for the missing flagman. I was really worried now. Not only was my
flagman missing, it was evident that just about every field all along both
sides of that road had been freshly plowed.
About two or three miles down the road I met Carlos heading back
toward the double bends at about 75 m.p.h. I banked above him, and he
gave me a big wave. From that point on his actions were very decisive.
He roared through the first bend and came to a smoking halt in front of
a wire gap leading into a freshly plowed field. He leaped out, flung open
the gap, and roared into the field in a cloud of dust. He walked rapidly to
the corner of that field and began to wave his flag vigorously.
I continued to make big easy circles around the area. I was suspicious.
If Carlos was so confident of where he was suppose to be, why had he
missed the field on his first trip through those double bends? It just didn't
There was something else ominous about the field Carlos was standing
in. It looked to me like it was bigger that 75 acres. A lot bigger.
Then I remembered that little line of huisache trees that Dealin' Don
had mentioned. Sure enough, there was a thin line of brushy trees
running between that field and the gravel road. Of course, just about
every other field in the area also had a line of trees growing around it. But
this particular line of trees had a funny little end that could easily be
described as a "hook."
I stared at this staggering little line of brush until I finally convinced
myself that they were huisache trees. The truth was, I really couldn't tell
one kind of South Texas brush from another if I was sitting under it in a
lawn chair, much less flying over it at 100 m.p.h.
But those trees sure looked like huisache trees to me.
While all this was running through my mind, the fuel gauge on my
airplane was steadily going down, Carlos was enthusiastically waving his
flag, and the army worms were marching unopposed.
I lined up on that field and went to work. After that everything went as
smooth as glass. About a third of the way through the field I did note that
I was putting out fertilizer at much too fast a rate. I had set my calibration
for about 75 acres, and it was plain to see that I wasn't going to have
enough material if I continued at that rate.
I refused to think about it, and adjusted my calibration to stretch the
load to cover the complete field.
Long before I landed back at Crystal City, I knew perfectly well that I
had planted the wrong field. But by that time I really didn't care. I just
didn't give a damn. I was fed up with that lost field nonsense, and all I
wanted to do was re-rig my airplane and get back to doing something I
understood. I had had my fill of funny seeds, mystery fields, and huisache
Just about sundown Dealin' Don came roaring onto the airport.
"What have you done!?" he cried. "What have you done!?"
I knew, but I wasn't saying.
Dealin' Don was about to go nuts. "Do you know what you've done? Do
you know who owns that field? Do you know what kind of trouble we're in
"... uh, no," I managed to confess.
"Well, I'll tell you what kind of trouble we're in", he raved! "We're in big
trouble, that's what! Do you know what you've done? Well, I'll tell you
what you've done! You just planted the biggest gawl-darn radish patch in
the whole gawl-darn State of Texas on somebody else's land! That's what
you done!" Dealin' Don was waving his arms like a mad-man and walking
circles all over the airport.
"Why weren't you listening when I told you where that field was," he
wanted to know? "That's the very same field my daddy raised cotton in
back in the 50's! He had cotton in that field for a hundred years, by gawd!
And you plant it in radishes. Radishes, for gawd's sake! And on the wrong
side of the road!"
I was afraid Dealin' Don was going to have a heart attack right there on
the airport, but I kept my mouth shut.
"Why weren't you listening to me", he demanded? "Why in the name of
ever-livin'-lovin'-hell weren't you listening to me? Didn't you see that line
of huisache trees? Didn't you see that little hook on the end? And why the
hell were you planting radishes, anyway? Radishes, for gawd's sake!
Radishes! And what we gonna do with a hundred and twenty five acres of
radishes? Tell me that, by gawd! What we gonna do with a hundred and
twenty five acres of radishes?!"
I didn't know, but I wasn't about to admit it.
"Do you know who owns that field," he raved on? "Do you know who
owns that by-gawd field?!"
"... uh, well, uh, no ... uh, no, I don't," I managed to confess.
"Cargill," he exploded! "That's who owns that by-gawd field!"
I had never heard of Cargill.
"Now what we gonna do", Dealin Don wanted to know? "Now what we
gonna do? That S.O.B. done called the sheriff. That's how I knew! Sheriff
tipped me off! Cargill's gonna sue! That's what that S.O.B.'s gonna do!
He's gonna sue!"
Dealin' Don was just about wore out by this time. "Didn't you see that
line of huisache on the other side of the road," he pleaded? "Didn't you
see that double turn? Didn't you see that little hook?"
Then he got mad again.
"On the south side of the road," he hollered right in my face! "I told you
40 times. On the south side! That's on the west side when you're coming
back toward the double bend. Didn't you see those bends? Cargill sued my
daddy 20 years ago! Now he's gonna sue me!
I knew when I was beat. I just kind of looked at the ground and shuffled
Dealin' Don just stood there and shook his head. Finally he calmed
down and gave me a good long disgusted look.
"Well," he said, "one thing I can say for you by-gawd hell. You just
by-gawd planted the biggest by-gawd radish patch anyone in the by-gawd
world ever by-gawd heard of. A hundred and twenty five by-gawd acres! A
hundred and twenty five acres of by-gawd radishes!"
"Didn't you see that little line of huisache trees on the right side of the
One good thing did come out of this episode. I learned to tell a
mesquite tree from a dry land willow, from black brush, from salt cedar,
from cat claw, from huisache, even at 100 miles per hour.