chapter 35

Atascosa Air Strip

    I have lived my life with an Atlas within easy reach. I find that

daydreaming across the pages of an atlas brings composure into my life.

    And when looking through an atlas at all the maps of all the lands of all

the earth, I find that I am drawn relentlessly, and inevitably, to those

lands where I have used up the days of my life. I cannot help but wonder

that I should find these maps so much more compelling than others.

    Those maps are of the lands that belong to me. My country, my

homeland. And although I can travel on any map upon this globe, I always

find myself drawn back to a particular map, and yet another, each bringing

me progressively closer to that particular place where I belong.

    These are the maps of my land. These are the maps of my seacoast, my

mountains, my rivers, my trees. This is the land where I have lived my

life. My land. My dirt.

    And in looking at one map, and yet another, I see that one chapter of

my life focuses closer and yet closer on a narrow strip of dirt on a barren

little hill, in a place called Atascosa County, Texas. For an important part

of my life was played out there.

    I called it The Atascosa Air Strip. Or, The Atascosa Strip. Or simply, The

Atascosa.

    I did not own The Atascosa Air Strip. I did not have a deed to the land.

It was owned by a farmer. It was a worthless little end of a field, a long

narrow band against a brush-grown fence line.

    But for several years, The Atascosa was mine. I never used it more

than six months a year. Some years only four. But during that season of

the year, when I came to fly the fields in that area, it was mine. It was the

dirt on which I stood.

    The Atascosa was located in a fringe area of agriculture flying.

Compared to many other areas of the state, there was very little need for

a crop-duster. That's why I was there. I was an independent.

    I did not work for a large ag. flying company. I did not fly for a chemical

corporation. I was not employed by a large farming business or a farm

co-op. Anywhere there were areas requiring extensive year-round flying,

larger, older, better financed flying services had clearly marked out their

well defended territories. Several of these larger operations would have

been willing to hire me as a pilot, a couple of them even asked. But I

wasn't interested.

    I had no desire to be an employee. Even if it meant flying a nice new

airplane, a base wage, a normal life. I just wasn't interested.

    As an independent, my only chance for work was to peck around the

edges of the more lucrative market areas. During some periods of the

year, when the requirement for ag. pilots was high, I could penetrate deep

into those good areas and make some good, quick money. But this

happened rarely, and for the most part, I flew on the fringes.

    I did my work out where the farms were smaller and more scattered.

Out on the edges of the brush country where the big operators could not

dependably serve the market.

    I have since come to learn that this is known as a "market niche". I

didn't know anything about "market niches" back when I had one, but I

kept on flying just the same.

    I liked being on my own. I wasn't interested in having a boss, or a

schedule, or a regular paycheck. I was happy to be a gypsy pilot going to

where the work was, and striking at targets of opportunity when I got the

chance.

    But the Atascosa was the one place where I established a regular

market. I would move there in mid-summer and go to work on the

peanuts. There was also corn, grain, melons, and cotton that came and

went depending on the rainfall, the bugs, the blights, the market, etc. But

the peanuts were dependable, and always a good source of revenue.

    The winters would find me in the Crystal City area, or down around

Laredo, or Dilley, flying whatever winter vegetables work I could get. I

often moved around between these areas as the need required. Spring

and early summer would usually find me and Bob out somewhere in South

Texas flying brush.

    Although an independent, I ended up flying just about as many acres as

any other ag. pilot in that part of the country. I just had to work a lot

harder to get them. And as far as money went, I never made as much

money as I might have made had I hired on with one of the established

operators. But I really didn't care. I made enough money to operate, and I

always had a little bit left over to do the things I wanted to do. It really

didn't bother me if some other pilot made more.

    But The Atascosa was the one location where I had the crop-dusting

market to myself. Had it been a larger farming area, with a greater need

for ag. flying, some big operator would have already been there. For years

prior to my arrival, crop-dusters had been called in from surrounding

areas where the bigger operators were based. They had always done a

hit-and-miss job.

    But after I got there, the other operators slipped in only when there

was more flying than I could handle, and that was a rare occasion.

    The first year I came to The Atascosa I had been tramping around

looking for work. I wandered into Atascosa County following rumors of

work, and accidentally ran across the right farmer, standing in the right

field, on the right day.

    I told him I owned a spray plane and that I was looking for work. He

told me that he had over three hundred acres of peanuts that needed

spraying immediately, and that he hadn't been able to find a crop-duster

to agree to come and do the work.

    The next morning I was flying at dawn, and didn't stop for three

months.

    The only man I had working for me at that time was The Corpus Christi

Kid, and I immediately put out the word that I needed to hire an extra

man. Soon after that I hired a man by the name of Santos.

    Santos had lived in that area all his life, and worked at whatever

agricultural work was available as the seasons changed. He worked cattle,

built fences, drove tractors, hauled fertilizer, and did anything else he

could to make a living. For the next five years he worked for me for

several months each year.

    Santos was a good man. Responsible, smart, honest, and hard-working.

He became the first sergeant of my operation. He learned to do everything

but fly the airplane. Almost without my being aware of it, he became the

foreman, salesman, instructor, trouble-shooter, interpreter, and diplomat

of my crop-dusting business.

    I know that Santos handled many problems before I became aware of

them. No doubt he took care of many other problems that I never became

aware of.

    Santos gave more than one man an education in the harsh and alien

occupation of working as ground crew for a crop-dusting operation. I also

know he schooled many a new man in the art of getting along with a

temperamental and moody gringo pilot.

    The Atascosa Air Strip was not at all an impressive place. It only had

one structure on it. No, it was not an aircraft hangar, or an office building.

It was an out-house. I built it myself. It was the only structure a little

remote crop-duster strip really had to have.

    My mixing rig was located on the north end of the strip. That was the

end closest to the road. I had a 1000 gallon water tank to feed the mixing

rig, and a larger 4000 gallon tank for additional water supply. There were

chemical drums, buckets, tool boxes, hoses, pumps, and other

paraphernalia piled everywhere. It was a mess. Located next to all this

was a 1000 gallon fuel tank.

    There was no electricity or running water on The Atascosa. My pumps

and an air compressor were powered by gasoline motors. Fuel was pumped

by hand.

    Water was trucked in from several miles away. For hauling water I had

a tank truck with a 1,000 gallon stainless steel tank. It had been an old

milk truck, a 1958 two-ton Chevrolet. I rigged out that tank truck as a

portable full-support vehicle. It had its own mixing rig built onto the rear

end. It carried 100 gallons of airplane fuel. It carried hoses, and tools, and

airplane parts. It could pull a 1,000 gallon tank trailer full of water.

    I could send that truck to some remote field or dirt road on which I

could land an airplane, and fly on half-a-dozen loads quicker than a cat

could blink its eye. However quick that is.

    At The Atascosa, the tank truck's biggest job was to keep the 4,000

gallon tank replenished. Most of the mixing was done in the larger

stationary mixing rig. I designed and built that mixing rig too.

    I took great pride in my ability to design and build efficient mixing rigs.

I built several over the years. Just about the only compliment Bob ever

paid me had to do with a mixing rig I built for him.

    "That's the best mixing rig I ever seed," he said. Then he went around

telling everybody that I really should have been a plumber.

    My little airstrip in Atascosa County soon became a milestone along the

way for those men making the long walk from below the Rio Grande River

to San Antonio. It became a popular stop-over point for those illegal aliens

walking out of Mexico, into the world they called Los Estados Unidos.

    I always liked wet-backs. I knew that if I had been born into their

circumstances, I would have been a wet-back myself.

    One reason they liked my airstrip was that my outhouse was always

clean, and always had plenty of toilet paper. I also had a fresh-water

hydrant at the base of my 4,000 gallon tank, and soap, and sometimes

even paper towels.

    Those wet-backs didn't mind a bit that when I built that out-house I

hadn't bothered to put a door on it. It was about one hundred yards down

the strip from the operation, and faced away out over a vast sea of

mesquite brush and prickly pear cactus. It was the most aesthetically

pleasing out-house I ever saw.

    "Why?" was the extent to which I ever bothered to debate the no-door

issue with any trouble-making white man who happened to come along.

    The biggest problem I had at my Atascosa operation was that I was

often required to spray fields a considerable distance from my base strip.

Some of these fields could be as far away as 20 miles, or even more. Not

that I had any obligation to take care of these far-flung farmers, but I did

do my best to do their work if I possibly could.

    Sometimes I would have to charge these farmers extra to take care of

my added expense of getting to them, but they usually didn't mind. If a

job was so small that it could be flown in one or two airplane loads, I

would usually just load at The Atascosa, and make the long ferry flight.

For this kind of work, I wouldn't send a flagman to the field. I would either

have the farmer flag his own field, or just do the work without the aid of a

flagman.

    But I had several areas where there was a substantial acreage that had

to be flown, and was too far from The Atascosa to make the long flight

between every load. For this reason, I had several "satellite" strips located

within 10 or 12 miles of The Atascosa.

    One of these was a small-town airport. One was a farm-to-market road.

Two or three others were just wide spaces on a country dirt road. Several

were the ends of somebody's pasture that had been plowed and drug so

that they weren't quiet as rough. But they could still be pretty bad, even

after the farmer had made an effort to cut down the old corn rows, fill-in

all the gopher holes, and knock-down all the fire-ant mounds.

    Working several airstrips allowed me to cover more acres in a day, and

kept my operating expenses down. I would try to start each day on The

Atascosa. If we were going to have to make a move that day, I would send

one man with a load of water and mixing rig so that he could get set-up at

the new location. An hour or two later, he would be ready and waiting for

me when I came in for a load. Meanwhile, a flagman could be driving to

another field, and be in position when I arrived with a load. A third man

could be bringing the flatbed truck loaded with barrels of chemicals, extra

hoses, pumps, spare parts, tools, and anything else we might need at the

new location.

    Moving all this equipment about, and coordinating the movements of an

airplane and three trucks, took lots of planning and thinking ahead.

Usually, it worked out pretty well. Some days everything went wrong.

    I did over half my work off The Atascosa, but if a field was as much as

ten miles away, it usually paid to send the tank truck to a closer strip so

that the airplane could make shorter hauls. There was a trade-off

depending on how many loads I was going to have a haul. As a general

rule, if I had more than two loads to put on a field that was as much as

ten miles from base, I would try to get the mix truck into a closer location

to cut down on the aircraft ferry time.

    Aircraft time was the limiting factor on how many acres I covered each

day, and was also my greatest operating expense. It was much cheaper for

me to have men and trucks moving back and forth across the countryside,

and to limit the airplane to the shortest possible ferry flights between an

airstrip and a field.

    But that first day I came to The Atascosa I had none of that support

operation in place. I just arrived one morning with an airplane, and went

to work as best I could. The Kid had driven all night from Laredo in the

tank truck, and between us we managed to mix chemicals, haul water, flag

fields, and get on as best we could.

    After Santos had come to help us, and we managed to get my pick-up

truck from Laredo, it all got simpler.

    Being located on a primary route for the underground railroad out of

Mexico proved to be an immediate advantage. In less than a week, I had

hired a wet-back and put him on full-time. This man, like all new men

working for me, went into immediate on-the-job training.

    Since Santos was still new at the racket, and I had been working him

only on the airstrip, the job of training the new man fell to The Corpus

Christi Kid.

    The Kid didn't mind. This was the first chance he had ever had to assert

his seniority over anybody. Of course, The Kid and the wet-back couldn't

speak the same language, but they managed to figure it all out anyway.

Somehow.

    Like so many of the men who worked for me during those years, The

Kid was always being sent to do something without overly precise

instructions as to how to do it. He usually managed to get it done, one

way or the other.

    Most men proved to be like that. I just told them what needed to be

done, and then didn't get in their way. Sometimes this policy resulted in

catastrophe, but usually it worked. The men who worked for me came to

know that I didn't get overly upset when things went all wrong. One of my

few good qualities was that I was patient, and never made an issue out of

a job going sour, as long as I felt my men were doing their best.

    I had made too many blunders in my own life to fail to understand how

easily the best laid plans of mice and men often went haywire. I seldom

got mad at a man. If I thought he wasn't trying, I just fired him.

    I didn't know it at the time, but that rough little airstrip was to become

a primary landmark in my life.

    I hauled many a load off The Atascosa over the coming years. I flew

many an hour over the fields in that insignificant little area in a remote

corner of the state of Texas.

    I had many an experience on that ragged little strip of dirt south of San

Antonio. I met many a man, and fought many a battle, on that

hard-scrabble little airstrip. I lifted many a loaded airplane off that little

patch of dirt, and flew it over many, many an acre of land. And, as it

turned out, the last load I ever hauled, in the last crop-duster I ever flew,

over the last acre of ground I ever sprayed, was lifted off The Atascosa.

    Today, The Atascosa seems like little more than a distant dream of an

imaginary land. A land where strange men lived improbable lives, from a

 

time long ago. My memories of those days are like stories I once read, in a

book that has been lost forever.

    But for those short years of my life, The Atascosa, with its

outhouse-without-a-door, its mixing rig and empty buckets, its chemical

drums and worn-out old trucks, was the dirt on which I stood.

 

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