chapter32

Paraquat

    After The Great Radish Screw-Up I made up my mind to stay out of the

Crystal City area.  After high-tailing it out of Zavalla County, and Maverick

County, I had headed back to Webb County, and held up in The Speckled

Dog Inn. I figured it would be a mighty long time before I'd dare show my

face anywhere up in the Nueces River Country.  I just figured that Dealin'

Don was gonna have to find himself another pilot who could more

comfortably abide with his overly strict requirements for personal

deportment.

    But the following spring Dealin' Don was back on the telephone to me.

He had work! Lot's of work! He needed a crop-duster in the worst way!

Could I be there in the morning?

    The next morning I was standing on the Crystal City Airport.

    Dealin' Don was there as big as life. All had been forgotten! He

welcomed me like a long lost brother, took me down town to the

Stockman's Cafe and bought me a great big breakfast. There was no doubt

about it, Dealin' Don had lots of work. He had cantaloupes, watermelons,

onions, grain, cotton! He was going to keep me busy for two months! This

was good news to me. When I flew for Dealin' Don, I never had to worry at

all about the ground operation. He took care of everything. All I had to do

was fly the airplane, and he always paid me right.

    Before the end of the day, I was back to flying hot and heavy. It felt

good to be back hard at work. For the next few weeks everything went

well. We were working in the intensive farming area that runs along the

Nueces River in the Crystal City area. Most of the loads were flown off the

Crystal City Airport, but as we moved further to the north, we picked out a

couple of alternate landing strips. One was a nice flat area between two

grain fields. It was a good little strip, but pretty short. I had to keep the

load down in order to be light enough to get off of that strip, but it was so

close to our work area that the short ferry distance made up for the

smaller loads.

    We also staked out a section of a Farm & Ranch road a few miles to the

north. This was the best location of all, with very little traffic. What little

traffic there was, was supportive of our efforts. It was right in the middle

of a big grain and cotton area.

    Once the operation was under way, I seldom saw Dealin' Don. Every

day or two he would sweep down on the operation with a new list of work

and a good word for everybody, but as long as things went well, he pretty

well left the aviation operation to me. Actually, I wasn't the guy running

the show. Dealin' Don had assigned several of his best men to me, and

they did all the work, planned the schedule, and made most of the

decisions. All I had to do was fly the airplane.

    The third week of operation Dealin' Don showed up with a special job. I

always hated to hear about one of his "special jobs". Special jobs always

disrupted the operation. They always broke the routine. When things were

going smoothly, I wanted them to just go on working smoothly. Special

jobs were always an invitation for lost time, and unexpected problems.

    But Dealin' Don had a special job, and I was destined to do it.

    " No, no, no, no, no," he insisted when I was less than enthusiastic.

"This isn't something we have to do. We've got plenty of other work. You

just say the word, and I'll tell this fellow no."

    I knew exactly how this conversation was going to end up, so I

attempted to skip all the middle part and go immediately to the end. "I'll

do it first thing in the morning," I said.

    "Look, you don't have to do this job," Dealin' Don said. "I understand."

    "I'll do it first thing in the morning," I said.

    "I know how it is. You've got lots of work to do. I understand," he

insisted.

    "I'll do it first thing in the morning," I said.

    "I just wanted to help this guy out," Dealin' Don apologized. "He's

traded with me for years. It's just a simple little job. But if you don't want

to do it, you don't have to. I understand. You just say the word, and I'll

tell this fellow no."

    "I'll do it first thing in the morning," I hollered.

    "Hey! That's great", Dealin' Don enthused! He shook my hand and

clapped me on the shoulder. He grinned at everybody present and bragged

loudly as to how I was "the best crop-duster in the state of Texas".

    "We couldn't get along without you", he insisted, as he continued to

pump my hand. I was starting to feel like a famous astronaut who had

somehow showed up on a little asphalt road on the banks of the Nueces

River.

    "It's just a little field," Dealin' Don continued. "About 50, maybe 60

acres. It's eat-up with Johnson Grass. We're gonna burn it down. We'll use

Paraquat."

    "Paraquat," I asked?

    "Yeah, Paraquat! Do a job," he insisted!

    I didn't like Paraquat. Paraquat was bad stuff. It would kill anything.

Plants, bugs, folks. It was an equal opportunity killer. A few years later

Paraquat was outlawed, but back in the seventies we used it for lots of

things. I never did like it. I figured that anything with as ugly a name as

"Paraquat" was just naturally out to get me.

    This "special" job really wasn't anything special. We mixed and handled

Paraquat just like any other dangerous farm chemical. I planned to fly that

job off the same little Farm & Ranch road we had been using all week. I

planned to do it in three loads the very first thing the following morning,

and to then get on with our normal insecticide work.

    This special job was located about four miles from the little stretch of

road I was flying from. I figured we would be through with it in about an

hour or so and then be ready to get back to our regular work.

    That morning Dealin' Don showed up to oversee the operation. He kept

insisting to everybody that Paraquat was "bad stuff" and that we should be

extra careful with it. He was particularly severe in his lecture to me.

    "Do you realize what a pilot could do with a hopper load of Paraquat

flying out over all this grain, and cotton, and vegetables, and

watermelons?" he kept asking.

    "Yes, yes, I know", I insisted.

    "Do you realize what would happen if you got that stuff on the wrong

field, or on a person, or on a bunch of cows?" he wanted to know.

    "Yes, I know," I said.

    But Dealin' Don was not assured. It was plain the guy just didn't trust

me. I think he had been having nightmares about radish fields, and arcing

wires, and dead cows. He just wouldn't shut up. "Do you realize how much

trouble we would be in then?" he insisted.

    "Yes. I know," I said.

    "Big trouble, that's what", he exploded, his arms spreading wide to

indicate just exactly the size of the trouble we would be in!

    "... yeah, well, Okay. I know that," I insisted.

    "Big by-gawd trouble, that's what!", Dealin' Don cried out. The guy

should have been a Pentecostal preacher, damming misfits like me to hell.

    "Okay, okay, I know that," I pleaded, and made a run for my airplane.

    Things went well that morning. It was nice and cool and the airplane

lifted off that little Farm & Ranch road like it was looking forward to the

day's work. That Johnson grass patch was nice and square. No high-line

wires. No oil derricks. No tall trees. Just a nice easy little field with no

obstructions. The first two loads went just right.

    But on the third load, a funny thing happened. Well, it really wasn't all

that funny, it was just unusual. One of those unexpected little problems

that show up now and then when men operate machinery. It was just a

minor glitch. It was just a simple little 1-1/2 inch hose that split under

pressure. That sort of thing can happen.

    A man just doesn't have any way of knowing when it will happen. Like a

radiator hose on a car. A man can drive cars for 30 years and never have

a radiator hose break. And then one day he will be driving along, and right

out of a clear blue sky, one of his radiator hoses will break. Life's just like

that. Those things just happen sometime.

    And that morning, I split a hose. It was the hose that led from the rear

of my wind driven pump to the cast aluminum housing of my control

valve. That hose was located directly under the belly of the airplane, and

was impossible for the pilot to see.

    That hose split on takeoff. It was on my last load of Paraquat. It split

just as I lifted off and climbed up above the high-line wires that were

running parallel to my improvised runway. I did not know that it had split.

How was I to know? It was underneath the belly of the aircraft.

    But the men on the ground knew. They could see the fine spray of

well-atomized Paraquat spreading a long trail of fog behind my airplane.

They watched me as I climbed up to about a hundred feet and headed out

across four miles of grain, cotton, vegetable, and watermelon fields.

    It really was a very nice morning. The air was still cool and the airplane

was flying remarkable well. It was the kind of morning a pilot could really

enjoy. Just cruising along at a hundred feet over all that pretty farm

country. As I got closer to that Johnson Grass field I was pleasantly

surprised that the airplane was flying so nicely. Why, it was flying like it

hardly had any load on it at all!

    As I spotted my flagman and started a gentle turn to line up for the first

pass, I subconsciously glanced down at the sight gauge on my hopper. I

was startled to see that it was practically empty! I made a second look,

and another. There was no question about it. My hopper was down to the

last few gallons!

    For half a second I was baffled. Then I slammed the airplane up into a

steep turn and looked behind me. Trailing out behind me over all those

acres was a long cloud of Paraquat spray. It was floating gently on the

morning air, and very softly settling down across the surface of the earth.

    It was a strangely pretty sight. The paraquat mist drifting down into all

those rows, and vines, and fields like a soft morning fog.

    I locked down my pump and climbed up to about a thousand feet. My

mind was slowly turning to bile. The muscles of my neck and shoulders

were growing tight and hard. I could feel the hemp rope drawing slowly

tighter around my neck. I was seriously thinking about making a run for

Mexico, but I didn't have enough fuel. I knew exactly what had happened.

    "Why did you think your airplane was flying so well, you idiot", my

brain was screaming at me? And another part of my mind was recalling

Dealin' Don's final lecture to me, "Big by-gawd trouble, that's what!"

    Flying back to that little farm & ranch road was the longest flight I ever

made in my life. All I could think was, "What am I doing here? What am I

doing here? What am I doing in this God-forsaken country following the

stupidest trade on earth? Why am I sitting in this stinking airplane? Why

am I throwing away my life at this damnable job? Why don't I go

somewhere and live a normal life, like a normal human being?"

    It had been a long time since I had asked myself that question.

    When I landed back on that road, Dealin' Don was gone. All the crew

were standing around with long faces. One of the men explained to me

that Seņor Don had left because "... he didn't want to do the time for

murder."

    Within the hour I was gone too. I knew there wasn't anything in the

world that I could do. I just grabbed my bag, put on a load of fuel, and

headed south to Laredo.

    Later, I heard rumors of a big herbicide kill up in the Crystal City area.

The rumor was that some strange crop-duster pilot had showed up one

day up in that part of the country. He was believed to have been from

California, or maybe Mexico, or Georgia. Anyway, there were a bunch of

lawyers and insurance agents arguing about where he went, and who he

was.

    Bob wasn't fooled by the rumors. He gave me a tight-eyed look and

said, "I thought you were gonna be up on the Nueces another month. How

come you're back here at Laredo so soon?"

    "Got through quicker than I thought," I explained.

    "Yeah, I bet you did," he said.

    "Well, I did," I said.

    "Well, one of these days you're gonna run out of luck and end up in

jail," he predicted.

    "Yeah, yeah," I said.

    After about a month I tried to talk to Dealin' Don on the telephone. I

wanted to tell him my side of the story, but he wasn't interested in

hearing it. He just wanted me to stay out of his part of the country.

    It was a good solid year before I dared to go tip-toeing back into

Zavalla County, Texas.

 

**********

 

previous chapter                                  chapter index                                        next chapter