chapter 47

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

antenna.

    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

thirty-ought-six."

    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

the wind.

    "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!

 

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