chapter 38

The Man I Named Johnny

    So the days went by. Hot, exhausting, always behind. Stumpy

continued to be the perfect flagman. He was still on the payroll. It was

clear to everybody that I had been totally defeated.

    I tried to accept this defeat like a man, and stoically went on about my

work.

    A few days later I was taking a short break when I became aware of a

conversation between Santos and Mike. They were talking about Stumpy,

mostly in Spanish. I could tell they were highly amused and suddenly Mike

turned to me and asked, "Have you seen Stumpy's new airplane?"

    "What", I asked?

    "He's been flying it everywhere," Mike said.

    "He's been doing what", I asked?

    "Stumpy's new airplane," Mike explained. "He's been flying it for the

last couple of days."

    "I don't know what you're talking about," I said.

    "Stumpy's got his own airplane now," explained Santos.

    "What are you talking about", I demanded?

    "You'll see," Santos laughed.

    Rather than attempt to carry on this conversation I sought refuse in my

own airplane. I had developed the habit of hiding out in my airplane when

I became totally confused.

    The next day I saw Stumpy's new airplane.

    It was mid-day and we were all sitting around on overturned five-gallon

buckets and eating tacos. Suddenly, Stumpy jumped up as though fired by

a spring, and departed our circle doing a funny little dance.

    The rest of the crew started grinning and poking each other on the

shoulder as Stumpy started making grinding noises, and sputtering and

chugging, and popping his head first to the left and then to the right. This

was followed by the coughing and popping little sounds that could be

nothing other than an aircraft engine being fired up in the cool morning

dawn.

    "Fire 'er up, Baby, fire 'er up!" cried out Mike in a mindless fit of glee,

and everyone, including Stumpy, broke into a happy grin. Except me.

    "What?" I said. But that's all I said, for now the grin on Stumpy's face

was replaced by a grim look of severe concentration. He swayed, and

trembled, and he revved up his motor to max. rpm. His arms were

extended and quivering with the appropriate vibration. The noises

emitting from his throat were deep and resonant. His legs were a-quiver,

his tangled hair swaying to the beat of the raw power. His eyes were

half-closed with concentration, and his audience was rapt with

anticipation.

    And then he was rolling! Yard after yard he quickly accelerated across

the barren dirt. His stoic face squarely into the wind, his wings jerking

awkwardly along the rough and pot-holed ground, he rumbled down the

runway. Suddenly, after a 30 foot charge, his whole body leapt into the

air, and he was off!

    It was the goofiest thing I had ever seen. All the spectators broke into

cheers and wild applause. Except me. I was agog.

    But Stumpy was not aware of any of us. He was busy flying his

airplane. He continued his turn and was dancing back toward all the

spectators perched like fools on our five gallon buckets, our mouths full of

uneaten tacos.

    As the aircraft roared directly at us we all instinctively leaned back and

raised our arms in wild-eyed defense against the onrushing disaster. But

at the last possible moment we were saved. Stumpy dipped his arms

decisively and banked away in a perfectly coordinated right climbing turn.

    And as he turned away from his admiring fans, he glanced coolly back

over his shoulder and thrilled us all with nothing other than a Charles

Lindbergh smile.

    For what must have been five minutes, but could have been five hours,

I was totally transfixed as Stumpy skillfully flew his airplane back and

forth from one weedy edge of The Atascosa Air Strip to the other.

    After several passes this way and that he came to a sudden halt,

reverted instantly to being a funny little man, grinned, and by spreading

his arms palm down in an all encompassing gesture, plainly indicated to all

of us that he had arrived at his imaginary cotton field.

    Instantly, he was an airplane again! Without further ado he swooped up

into his first turn and dived into the field. After going a short distance

across the field he suddenly snapped back to being a man, turned and

grinned wildly at all of us, thrust his two fists high into the air and

screamed, "Bueno Avion!"

    I almost jumped out of my skin, but everyone else rose to their feet

and thundered, "Bueno Avion! Bueno Avion!" And "Hot damn! Hot damn!"

And "Olé! Olé!" And other such nonsense.

    In another instant, Stumpy was an airplane again. As he worked back

and forth across his cotton field he would glide in dainty little cripple steps

across the dust, his arms and shoulders and upper body extending and

flowing and banking and swooping in grand and graceful motion. And from

his lips emerged a steady swishing noise so we all would know precisely

when he turned on his spray valve, and when he turned it off.

    But on his next pass, prancing ever so lightly, his wings gently swaying

to and for, his lips began to quiver in a new vibration, and softly from his

throat there welled up the deep, unmistakable rumbling of a 260 horse

power Lycoming engine.

    And across the dirt he moved, his chin lifting up to clear the onrushing

tree line, and adding a smooth increase in growling power, he broke

sharply to the left in a 60° bank. Snapping hard back to the right, his craft

shimmering with G-forces, he brought the nose around to complete the

turn, and with an onrush of airspeed, dove back across his cotton field at

100 miles per hour.

    And I was awestruck by this incredible performance. For in this man's

ludicrous behavior I recognized his somehow comprehension of the

strange powers of joy and grandeur that compelled men like me to follow

such an unlikely trade. It was an understanding impossible to convey by

mere words. Yet, somehow, this crazy little man had absorbed an

appreciation of the glory of flight, and the strange fascination of the life

that I had chosen to lead.

    There was a lump in my throat as Stumpy came bumping in for a pretty

fair landing. Insanely, I felt the pressure of a tear in the corner of my eye.

    I got in my airplane and went back to work.

    Many hard-working days went by. But things were still the same.

Stumpy was still Stumpy. I was still ignored. Stumpy had become

something of a hero, flying his airplane all over the place. I was all

festered up inside, angry at Stumpy every minute I was flying, and

avoiding him when on the ground.

    It just didn't make sense that I was so out of sorts. All the men were

working harder than ever and we were covering acres in one record day

after the other. The whole crew had really come together and we were

working with a teamwork we had never known before.

    But Stumpy was still Stumpy.

    And that was all stuck up in my craw.

    I was determined to settle the matter once and for all.

    I decided to do it the next day. At noon the next day I carefully

rehearsed my lines. I worked up my composure. I vowed not to lose my

temper. I tucked in my shirt, brushed off my boots, and hitched up my

belt. I got my mind all settled and strode over to where Stumpy was

staring at a 55 gallon drum of methyl parathion. I stood squarely in front

of the little man and looked him in the eye.

    "What. . . do . . . you . . . want . . . me . . . to . . . call . . . you," I asked

respectfully? Behind me, Santos dutifully repeated the question in

Spanish, complete with the long pauses between each word.

    And the silence came back. It descended from the sky, in the still air,

on the men and on the dirt. Somehow deadly silence.

    Stumpy's eyes were rigid and locked hard on mine. I saw a thing there

that in a normal man's eyes would have been hate. I did not know what it

was in this man. I thought about that switch-blade knife that I had never

seen.

    And as I stared into that blackness, the pupils grew and opened into

holes dropping a million miles into those blood-shot eyeballs. Those holes

yawned on and on, and I was gazing into a vast abyss that stretched

forever across an endless universe.

    I was breaking out in goose-bumps and the beads of sweat between my

shoulder blades felt like chips of ice.

    I wasn't going to back down.

    I waited, knowing that I was half mad myself. Knowing a cold, calm

terror that had no place in the mind of a normal man, with a normal life,

in a normal world.

    I wasn't going to back down.

    I stared into those eyes.  And the rigid, endless silence, stretched on

and on.  I stared into those empty eyes, and I wondered if this man was

also staring into my empty eyes.

    Then there came a softening in the heat soaked air. Slowly, those eyes

began to change. Slowly, those great black holes into his tortured soul

were drawing closed. Slowly, a peaceful calmness glazed across those

eyes, and he began to speak. Slowly, calmly, briefly, his answer came. It

seems it was the very same answer.

    "He says you can call him anything you want to," said Santos. And

then, almost apologetically, he added, "He likes you. He likes the

airplane."

    "Well," I thought ironically, "what the hell. I never had a son. Maybe it's

only fair that I get to name this madman who likes my airplane and is old

enough to be my father. "Besides," I thought, "I'm a hot-shot pilot and

pilots are famous for making big decisions."

    So I thought about it a little while. I walked around in the dust. I

noticed that my heart had returned to beating normally. I felt happy. I felt

as though I had suddenly shed a terrible burden. I made myself become

very serious and very dignified, and I walked back and stood directly in

front of the little man. He was standing at attention. I came to attention

myself, and I looked him straight in the eye and said:

    "I'm going to name you Johnny."

    And that's all there was to it.

    That was all there was to it. From that day on his name was Johnny.

Years later, when I reflected on these going-ons, I regretted that I hadn't

thought about it a little longer and named him "Abraham".

    But it's probably just as well that I didn't.

 

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