Johnny in the Cockpit
Johnny liked his new name. I think he secretly wished that he had been
"Johnny" for the last half century. It wasn't long before the farmers were
calling him by that name, and even as far away as Fowlerton he become
known as "Johnny."
I wish that I could report that having a new and respectful name turned
the man's life around, but it didn't. He was still crazy, and he still got
drunk every Saturday night, and the man who kept the jail still called him
But Johnny was the best flagman who ever worked for me. I was even a
little proud when a waitress in Jourdanton shyly confided to me that I was
the only white man that Johnny had ever worked for for more than one
hour in his life.
But Johnny's presence on my airstrip presented a nagging problem. In
spite of my seemingly haphazard way of running an operation, I really was
safety conscious. And on a crop-duster strip, there are many hazards.
We daily worked around two big hazards to life and limb. The first
potential killer was the chemicals we used. The second was the propeller
of my airplane.
I dealt with both problems the same way. I never stopped preaching
safety to the men who worked with me. I also preached to myself. Of
course, my self-directed sermons dealt mostly with in-flight hazards, but I
realized that when overworked, distracted, or careless, I too was liable to
forget to wash a chemical spill from my hand, or suddenly turn and walk
into a moving propeller.
I never had a serious injury occur to one of my men. We did experience
the normal amount of sprains and cuts that all men encounter when
working hard in a rough environment, but by and large, I ran a safe
operation. Of course, in time I was to meet my own Waterloo, but that's a
Every man in my operation was safety conscious. Except Johnny. Every
man on our team took turns preaching, screaming, begging, lecturing, and
threatening Johnny to mend his ways. It was like trying to teach the
multiplication tables to a billy goat.
You could never tell when Johnny would suddenly march his one man
parade around the aircraft, make an abrupt turn and lurch straight at the
rotating propeller, and, with every man on the strip gasping in horror,
make another abrupt turn and march away in a new direction.
It never bothered him when he would allow the chemicals at a bad hose
connection to dribble out on his pants leg.
He would light up a cigarette when pumping aviation fuel from one
barrel to another.
He would suddenly sit down on a five-gallon can smeared with organic
He would lurch up to a mixing vat with a half-eaten taco in one hand,
and a sloshing bucket of paraquat in the other. Just having the guy on the
airstrip during operations left every man there with a knot of tension in
The last straw came one afternoon when we unexpectedly came to a
halt because we were waiting for The Corpus Christi Kid to show up with a
bag of Seven dust to go in our next mix. I announced that this was the
perfect time for every man there to find a little scrap of shade somewhere
and take a cat-nap. Everybody thought that was a great idea. Except
Johnny had a very special request. He eased up to me and shyly asked
if he could sit in the cockpit of the airplane. This request took me by
surprise. No one had ever asked me that before. But I let him. Of course,
the engine was dead and all the switches were shut off. What could be the
Johnny slowly climbed over the cockpit rail and settled himself in the
seat. His face was dead serious, and he cautiously sat there a few minutes,
eyes black and serious. Then he put both of his hands on the control stick.
He gripped it like it was a baseball bat. He raised up as high in the seat as
he could and peered over the instrument panel and out along the long
cowl. He sat there a few more minutes, not moving a muscle, then slowly
turned to me and cracked open in a broad grin. He just sat there choking
that stick and grinning like a jack-o-lantern. He was happy, and I was
pleased that I had let him sit in my cockpit.
But as it turned out, there was no time to take a nap. Just about the
time we started getting settled down, The Kid arrived with our Seven dust
and I started yelling at everybody to get back to work. I told Johnny to get
out of the airplane and turned my attention to something else. A few
minutes later I noticed that Johnny was still sitting in the cockpit, and I
hollered at him again to get out.
But Johnny didn't want to get out. As a matter of fact, he had no
intention of getting out. He just sat there and paid no attention to me at
At first, this was not all that surprising, as I had long since grown
accustomed to Johnny ignoring my orders. I just got annoyed, and mad,
and did a lot more hollering at him.
But Johnny refused to get out of the cockpit. I don't mean to say that
he refused in words. No, he didn't say a thing. He just wouldn't get out of
the cockpit. I climbed up on the wing and ordered him to get out of my
airplane. He didn't move. His face was very serious again, and he had a
death grip on that stick.
I got right in Johnny's face and demanded that he get out of my
airplane. He never blinked. It was as if he didn't even know I was there.
His eyes were black and blank, and as he slowly turned his head face to
face with mine, I was chilled to see those black holes once again opening
up into those bloodshot eyeballs. I recoiled and climbed down from the
airplane. I didn't know what to do. I was suddenly scared. Santos was
gone. The rest of the crew was ready to go into action, and as I walked
away from my airplane they were all staring at me with a puzzled look. I
told the crew that we would just wait a few minutes. I told them to take a
But nobody did. Nobody took a break. Nobody sat down in the shade.
They all just stood there, looking first at Johnny, and then at me. I got
mad and ordered everybody to take a break. Everybody jumped and went
busily about taking a break. After about five minutes I climbed back on the
wing of the airplane and started talking to Johnny. I did this in a friendly
manner. I pretended to be explaining to him how various instruments
worked, and what each of the controls did.
Johnny wasn't hearing a thing I said, he just sat there. But I was
patient, and kept right on talking in a casual and friendly manner. Finally I
explained again that it was time to go back to work, and that he would
have to get out of the airplane.
But Johnny didn't obey me. He didn't seem to know I was there. He
didn't move. He didn't look at me. He didn't so much as blink his eyes. He
just sat there as rigid as stone, his hands welded to that stick.
I went over and sat in a truck. I poured some lukewarm coffee out of a
thermos and tried to get my thoughts in order. I wished Santos would
show up, but of course he didn't. At that minute he was standing on the
edge of a peanut field miles away waiting to flag me in on my first pass.
I fished around in the ashtray and discovered a month-old cigar butt. I
fired it up, then tossed it out into the dust. All the men were shuffling
around pretending that they weren't looking at me. I just didn't know what
to do. I was starting to get mad, and I was well enough acquainted with
myself to recognize that as a bad sign. I made up my mind not to get mad.
Then I got mad anyway.
I jumped out of the truck and walked over to where the crew was
"I'm going to tell that son-of-a-bitch one more time to get out of my
airplane," I said, "and if he don't, by god, I'm gonna yank him out by his
Everybody clearly understood that I expected their help if I needed it,
and everybody clearly understood that I was going to need all the help I
could get. I walked toward the airplane and the whole crew fell into step
behind me. They were like a squad of infantryman, following their
sergeant into position to make a rush on a machine gun nest. I resolutely
climbed up on the wing, ready for the worst.
"Look, Johnny," I began sternly. "Everybody's ready to go back to work.
The guys are finished loading the airplane and Santos is in the field
waiting for me. Now, Johnny, you need to get out of this airplane, cause if
you don't, I'm fixin' to pull you out."
Suddenly Johnny's hands exploded from the stick! "Bueno!" he
screamed, and I nearly fell off the wing. He was grinning like a lunatic and
his hands were gripped above his head and pumping in his famous
imitation of a victorious prizefighter.
"Bueno avion!" he screamed again. "Bueno! Bueno! Bueno!" He turned
toward the crew and led them all in a hardy round of applause. I had
enough presence of mind not to interfere. Then Johnny's left arm shot
straight up out of the cockpit and he started wildly waving to his fans. His
right hand went back on the control stick and he started banging it from
lock to lock. He was waiving for all his might, and grinning in four or five
different directions all at once.
"Bueno avion!" he shouted several more times, and banged the stick
and waved while everyone gave him another standing ovation. Then
Johnny scrambled out of the cockpit, climbed off the wing, and started
doing his drum major march all over the place.
I was so rattled by all this that I had a bad case of the nerves for
That night I tried to explain the whole event to Santos, who just rolled
his eyes and shrugged.
The last thing I said was, "I'm going to fire that son-of-a-bitch."
Santos just shrugged.