Riding the Rail
I never rode the rail. No way in hell I'd do such a crazy thing. No way
I'd ever climb on board with some lunatic crop-duster pilot, straddle the
rail along one side of the cockpit, brace one leg against the wing strut and
the other one against a steel tube inside the cockpit, and hang on for dear
life. Just get a good death-grip on those steel tubes and go bellowing out
across the countryside riding on that narrow ledge of the upper longeron.
Just hanging on like a spider caught on the end of an automobile radio
I never did such a fool thing. But the Corpus Christi Kid did it lots of
times. He would perch there on the rail, one leg rubbing against mine in
the narrow cockpit, tuck his head up under one corner of the windshield,
and off we'd go!
This sort of thing wasn't done for sport. It was done for efficiency. It
was a quick and easy way to move a man about the countryside when I
absolutely had to get him to a new location to flag a field, or pick-up a
truck, or to get back to the airstrip before the sun went down.
The Kid was the only one who ever rode the rail with me. He was the
only person I ever trusted not to panic halfway through the flight. Of
course, none of the grown men who worked for me would ever have
consented to such a means of transport, even if I had wanted them to.
But The Kid liked riding the rail. He thought it was great fun. "Better
than any of those carnival rides," he used to tell me. Well, maybe it was.
I wouldn't know. I never rode the rail myself. Of course, I never rode
any of those carnival rides, either. I had once made the mistake of getting
on a roller coaster. That little ride was just about the most terrifying
experience of my lifetime. I'm just not a carnival-ride sort of guy.
But The Kid liked riding the rail. And ride it he did! I would land on
some little dirt road and he would come a-running. He would be jumping
up on my wing even before I came to a stop, and as he was climbing into
position and clamping his hands around his favorite handholds, I would be
sliding the throttle to the firewall. Thirty seconds later we would be sailing
along at a hundred feet, well on our way to another location several miles
away. I could reposition The Kid in this way in a fraction of the time it
would take to drive across the countryside.
I used to caution The Kid about taking his head out from behind the
windshield after take-off and grinning into the blast of the wind. "One of
these days," I would tell him, "You're gonna catch a June-bug in the
eyeball and go flying off that wing like you got shot with a
He'd just laugh, and he kept right on grinning into the wind. Today,
years later, when I consider the exploits from that period of my life,
teaching The Kid to ride the rail is one of the few things I feel guilty about.
What if The Kid had caught a June-bug in the eyeball, I wonder. What if
he had relaxed his grip for half-a-second? What if we had hit a severe
wind shear, and in a fraction of a second he had shifted his position or
grabbed for a better hand-hold? What about that? How would I have
explained it if one day I had taken off with The Kid, and landed without
him? How would I have explained that?
And I don't mean how would I have explained it to the FAA, or the
Sheriff, or the judge. I mean, how would I have explained it to The Kid's
mother? How would I have explained that? And, all these years later, how
would I have explained it to myself?
But like so often happened in my life, things that could have gone
wrong, didn't. I have to believe that The Old Man was taking a bit more
interest in me than I really deserved.
So The Kid never let go, not even once. He never caught a June-bug in
the eyeball, or made a panic grab for a better handhold in a sudden blast
of turbulence. He just kept on hanging on for dear life and grinning into
"Better than a carnival ride," he used to tell me.
Well, maybe so. But I know that nobody would ever have gotten me
riding the rail on some oil-burning wreck of an airplane flown by a
half-mad pilot trying to save a half-hour's worth of time, and a dollar's
worth of overhead. No Sir, not me.
No way I'd ever do such a damn fool thing!