chapter 39

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


later story.

    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

phosphate poison.

    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

his belly.

    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

nervously waiting.

    "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

several days.

    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.



previous chapter                                   chapter index                                        next chapter