chapter 53

Stealing Airplanes III

Before I get started telling this story, I want to make one thing

perfectly clear. It wasn't my fault. I want that understood from the start. It

wasn't my idea. It wasn't my airplane. It wasn't my problem. It was a

put-up job from the start, and I was the guy who got put-up. It was a

rotten deal and I knew it. I didn't want to have anything to do with it, but

I got suckered in anyway.

It was Bob's fault. If he had been an ordinary, law-abiding,

rational-thinking human bean, it never would have happened in the first


It all started one spring when I fell in with Bob on a brush run. He was

the boss. I was flying my own airplane and working on shares. He got the

customers. He furnished the trucks and the mixing equipment. He hired

the flagmen and the other hands. He bought the aviation gas. He bought

the beer and the tacos. He collected the money. He gave the orders to

everybody, including me. All I did was show up with an airplane and do

what I was told to do.

It looked like it was going to be a darn good brush job. Four thousand

acres of mesquite, cat claw, and black brush. We were spraying 2-4-5-T at

a high-gallon rate. It was good work. Nice long runs, no high-line wires. It

was out at the end of the world where there was no worry about drift, no

other aircraft traffic, no nosey sightseers, no FAA, no EPA, no busy-bodies

to ask questions or get in the way. Just us and a few thousand

rattlesnakes, javaleno hogs, and big buck white tails the size of caribou.

We were flying off a little short dirt landing strip that the rancher had

scraped off the end of one of his pastures. It was about three, maybe

three-and-a-half miles, from the area where we were working. I liked that

little airstrip just fine, and would have been happy to fly off it all summer.

But Bob didn't like that airstrip. He claimed that it was too short, and

too rough, and too far off the pavement for his tanker truck to haul in

water. Of course, all this didn't fool me a bit. I knew good and well what

the real reason was he didn't like it.

It was that Farm & Ranch road. It was the only paved road leading into

that remote country, and we had to fly directly over it with every load we

were hauling to the area we were spraying. Every load we hauled off that

little dirt ranch strip was flown for a good three miles over wild brush

country, and just before we finally arrived at the area we were spraying,

we flew directly over that long, straight, beautiful, strip of asphalt.

Bob wanted an excuse to fly off that highway and save the time and

money wasted on those long ferry flights. Of course, I had just exactly

the same idea, but I wasn't about to admit it.

Things started off just fine that morning. But after we had both made

two or three loads, Bob climbed out of his airplane and came over to talk

to me. "Didn't I think that little strip was too short? Didn't I think it was to

rough?", he wanted to know.

No, I insisted, I didn't think it was too anything. I thought it was just


That made Bob mad. He wanted me to agree with him. He wanted me

to insist that we move off that little strip and move out to that smooth,

beautiful highway. I wasn't about to fall for that kind of trick. He was the

boss, I figured. If he wanted to move, all he had to do was say so. But I'd

be damned if I would start the argument to fly off that highway.

I knew it didn't make any difference what I thought, anyway. I knew

Bob. I knew good and well we would be flying off that highway before the

day was over, no matter what I said. So I figured that I'd just keep my

mouth shut. He was the boss, and I was ready to do whatever he told me

to do.

We went back to flying. I knew that the year before Bob had got caught

flying off a highway over in Duval County. A local Justice of the Peace had

fined him $100. After that, Bob swore he wasn't going to fly off public

highways anymore. I knew better. I knew Bob. He had been flying off

highways all over that part of Texas for as many years as anybody could

remember. He had taught me the gentle art of flying off highways. I had

done it many times in the past, and would do it many times in the future.

But that particular day, I wasn't going to be the one to make the

decision. I knew good and well what the decision was going to be, but I

wasn't going to make it. Bob was the boss, I figured. Making decisions was

his job.

As the morning wore on Bob got madder and madder. Every time we

flew over that paved road he could see the dollar bills falling away.

I have to admit, I was thoroughly enjoying the situation. Bob was

always needling me about something, and whenever I got the chance to

put him in a tight spot, I wouldn't miss it for anything. Every time I flew

over that nice 20-mile-long runway, I chuckled to myself. I knew good and

well that every time he flew over that highway he was thinking about all

the many, many trips we were going to have to make over the coming


About 10:30 in the morning he called for a halt. Ordinarily, we wouldn't

even have stopped to eat. But that morning Bob wanted to take an early

lunch break so that he could give me a long lecture about how much

money it was costing him in terms of lost time, payroll, aircraft wear and

tear, and wasted aviation gas.

He kept pacing around, eating tacos, and fussing at me for not insisting

that our little dirt strip was entirely inadequate. I just kept a straight face

and went right on eating tacos.

We loaded up again and went right on back to flying. I was making

wagers with myself as to how much longer Bob could hold out. It didn't

take long.

About two trips after our lunch break, Bob parked and came storming

over to my airplane. "We ain't, by God, gonna do no more flying off this

damn stinking little dirt patch," he said! "I'm gonna drive out to that

highway and pick a good spot. You wait about 15 minutes and come on

out. I'll flag you down where I want you to land."

"That'll be fine with me," I said. As he walked away, I called out after

him, "Hey! What took you so long to make up your mind?" He just gave

me one of his sour looks and walked off. He could tell I was about to start

laughing my head off.

Twenty minutes later I touched down on that highway and rolled up to

where the crew was setting up a mixing rig on the shoulder of the road.

Bob had picked a nice long stretch of road adjacent to the country we were


The beauty of flying off a highway was that it was an endless runway.

There was never any problem trying to struggle out over the trees, or with

short field landings. We could land and roll up to the mixing rig with only

gentle taps on the brake pedals. We could pump on a maximum load,

casually ease the throttle to full power, and let her roll down that long

smooth runway until she was ready to gently lift off the ground. There

were no white knuckles on these takeoffs. It took all the excitement out of

trying to get a heavily loaded airplane into the air on a hot day. That was

the kind of excitement I was happy to do without.

Bob had figured our loads so that we could each make exactly five

passes per load across the country we were spraying. That meant we could

take off loaded, make a nice gentle climbing turn to the right, roll out

after about 180 , and be lined up perfectly with the flagman for our first

pass across the brush.

At the end of our fifth pass, we would simply make another climbing

turn to the right and roll out over the blacktop, perfectly lined up for a

straight-ahead landing. It was one of those perfect setups a guy could go

years before running into. It was a piece of cake! We were each making

four round trips per hour, and making money hand over fist. I knew that

this was one job we were all going to come out of with a fistful of dollars.

There was very little traffic to be concerned with on that remote

highway. What little traffic that did come along was usually local ranchers

or ranch employees. The pilots could easily keep an eye on the highway

for several miles in each direction, and when an automobile did come

along, we were careful to give him the right-of-way.

On that first day we didn't have more than half-a-dozen pickup trucks

come by, and every one of them pulled off to the side by our mixing rig

and visited with the ground crew. Those local ranch folks didn't find

anything at all unusual about an airplane operating off their highway.

Most of them had known Bob for years and were well aware of his "modus


Once we re-established our base on the highway, we settled in to a nice

smooth-running operation. One of the men was hauling water from Freer

in a 2500 gallon tank truck. Two men on the mixing vat fell into a natural

routine of mixing, pumping, loading. The two flagmen were experienced

hands, and they did their job so well that the pilots seldom had to search

more than a few seconds for their markers. Even the pilots fell into a nice

easy routine as they covered acres in record time.

But I was a little bit concerned. I don't know why, but I had this

nagging suspicion that things were going entirely too well. I had these

lurking thoughts that sooner or later something was going to go wrong.

When our problem finally did show up it was the last thing in the world

I had expected. Our problem showed up in the uniform of a Texas State

Trooper. It was almost dark on the second day on the job.

I had just completed my fifth pass and had climbed out to about a

hundred feet before beginning my turn in for landing. I figured there was

just enough daylight left to make one more load.

As I started my turn toward that highway, I noticed an automobile

approaching about a mile away. It was traveling the same direction I

intended to land, so I turned away from the road to give it plenty of time

to pass by. As I reversed my course, I took a good look at that

approaching car just to see if it was anybody I knew. It wasn't. It was a

highway patrol cruiser. I climbed up to about 200 feet and made a wide

turn away from the operation. I wasn't about to land.

The cruiser pulled in behind Bob's aircraft and turned on his red and

blue flashers. I had seen enough. I decided to abandon ship and fly

directly back to Laredo. Then I noticed that my fuel gauge was bouncing

around on empty. That ended my plan to make a break for Laredo, and I

knew I wasn't about to land and come taxiing in behind that patrol car

with the flashing lights. There was nothing else for me to do but to land

back at the little ranch strip we had started flying off the day before.

I made a two-mile-wide circle away from those flashing lights and

landed back at that little strip. There I sat and waited. I couldn't help but

wonder what sort of action was taking place out on that highway a couple

of miles away, but there was nothing I could do about it one way or


After nearly two hours passed, I had about decided that nobody knew

that I was on that little strip. I figured I might have to spend the night

sleeping under the wing of my aircraft. Sleeping in the open on a summer

South Texas night can be a pleasant experience, if a guy has a blanket. I

didn't have a blanket. It was an hour later and pitch dark when headlights

finally came bouncing up to my airplane. It was Bob. He was mad as hell.

On the drive back to Laredo he told me all about it. It seems that the

Texas Highway Patrolman just didn't understand "How things got done out

in this country."

For some reason, that patrolman had taken offense that we were flying

crop-dusters off a public highway. It seems he got even more upset when

he noticed that somebody had pulled up several of the little marker posts

with the reflectors on them. Those little steel posts were bad about tearing

open wing tips when you taxied by them, and any sensible man could

understand that they had to be removed to assure a safe operation.

The guy just didn't cooperate a bit. Not only did he give Bob "a whole

stack of tickets," he reported the operation back to his dispatcher in

Laredo. When the radio channels picked up the report of "an airplane

landing on the highway," somebody had alerted the Federal Aviation

Administration office in Corpus Christi who, as luck would have it, just

happened to have an inspector making routine pilot checks in the Laredo

area that day.

The FAA inspector was soon on his way to "the scene," followed closely

by a car full of Drug Enforcement Agency officers, who were chronically

sensitive to reports of little airplanes landing in remote areas of South


And that close to the Rio Grande, the Border Patrol took an interest in

everybody and everything, and a couple of their officers decided to mosey

on out and see what was going on. About that time the local Deputy

Sheriff dropped by. He passed on the news that the EPA office in San

Antonio had learned that the authorities had apprehended an aircraft

engaged in "illegal chemical dispersing operations." An EPA inspector was

immediately alerted, and the report was that he would be on the scene

first thing in the morning.

As Bob explained it to me, "Every SOB in South Texas who owned a

uniform showed up to give me a hard time."

When the FAA inspector arrived on the scene it was pitch dark, but as

anybody who has ever been around crop-dusters knows, there is never

any problem finding something wrong with one of those disreputable

machines. The FAA inspector shined his headlights on that old airplane,

and immediately noted that it did not have a pitot-static tube extending

from the wing.

A pitot-static tube was a little short pipe that extended forward from

the wing and measured the speed of the airplane through the airstream.

This ram air pressure was registered by the airspeed indicator and gave

the pilot a continual air speed indication. It was just like the speedometer

on an automobile. All airplanes had a pitot-static tube. Except Bob's. His

airspeed indicator hadn't worked in years.

Not having an air speed indication was not something that bothered an

old crop-duster pilot. There were countless ways to register the speed of

your aircraft while keeping your eyes outside the cockpit where they

belonged. Staring at a vibrating airspeed needle on a dirty instrument

panel was just the sort of thing that could get a pilot in trouble.

The FAA inspector never even looked inside the cockpit. He just filled

out a report that the aircraft was missing "essential safety of flight

instrumentation", and grounded it on the spot. Before leaving he assured

the trooper that he would return in the morning and give the aircraft a

"thorough" air worthiness inspection.

The DEA inspection team was also filling out a stack of reports, and

asking Bob all kinds of questions. They were interrogating the ground crew

too, about half of which couldn't understand English, and wouldn't have

understood the questions if they had. But that inspection team was getting

lots and lots of answers, just the same.

However, when they climbed up on the wing of the airplane and peered

down into the chemical hopper, they lost much of their enthusiasm for

searching the aircraft for "contraband." Old crop-dusters smell something

like a cross between a slaughterhouse, a chemical plant, and a paper

factory. They don't smell anything like a bakery. Although the DEA folks

had rapidly lost interest in the operation, they promised to return in the

morning and "complete their report."

Meanwhile, the highway patrolman was in a quandary. Had the

offending vehicle been an automobile, he would simply have called a

wrecker and had it towed in and impounded at the nearest sheriff's office.

After talking to his supervising sergeant by radio, he decided to do the

only thing that could be done. The aircraft was pushed off the highway and

left for the night.

Besides, there were only two guys in that part of the world who would

have been willing to fly that airplane out in the middle of the night. And

Bob was "grounded," and I was hiding out in the brush.

While all this was going on, the Border Patrol officers, who had been

swapping border intelligence with Bob for years, were hanging back in the

darkness and chuckling over Bob's latest predicament. Or, as Bob

explained it to me, "Everyone of them son-of-a-bitches was grinning like

he was choking on a chicken bone."

As we drove back to Laredo and I listened to Bob's mad ravings, I

couldn't help but feel a little bit smug that I had made a clean getaway.

My airplane was safely hidden away in the brush country, and Bob hadn't

disclosed that there was more than one airplane on that job.

Evidently the highway patrolman had failed to see me, and I suspected

that nobody had any idea that there was more than one airplane involved.

Thinking about my good fortune made me feel guilty, and I tried to get

those thoughts out of my mind. I knew I was in this with Bob and was

determined to do everything I could to help him out of this jam.

It was nearly midnight when we got back to Bob's office. The light was

on inside. It was Harvey from Hondo. Harvey knew where Bob kept an

office key hidden, and he knew where Bob kept a bottle in a desk drawer.

Long before we arrived Harvey knew all about the problem. One of the

Border Patrol pilots had filled him in a couple of hours earlier. Now he was

waiting for Bob with a battle plan all thought out. He got right to the


"The way it's gotta be," explained Harvey, "is that when the sun comes

up in the morning, that airplane has got to be gone off that highway." He

had found three almost clean coffee cups somewhere and was pouring us a

round of whiskey. He and Bob mulled over this idea a long time. Bob didn't

like the idea. "They know damned good and well all about me and that

airplane," he argued, "and if I fly it out of there before they have released

it, I'll end up fined, broke, out of business, and probably in jail." Harvey

had already figured out all that.

"By gosh, you're right!" He agreed. "If you go get that airplane you'll be

in more trouble than a deacon caught in a cat house. But.... if that

airplane is still there on that highway in the morning, you'll die of old age

before you ever get through with everybody's paperwork. And you'll be

fined out of everything you own right down to your last pair of clean


Here Harvey swigged a little more whiskey, stared squinty-eyed at the

wall, and finally continued. "But what if some son-of-a-bitch stole that

airplane", he mused?

That was a rather startling question, and all three of us sat there in

silence and thought about that for a little while. We were all kinda sipping

whiskey and staring at the wall. We were all thinking, "Hmmmm..."

"Yeah," mumbled Bob. "Yeah, if somebody were to steal it... Yeah, well,

what if somebody did steal it...?"

"Yeah," said Harvey. "What if some son-of-a-bitch just stole that


"Yeah, what if ...?" Bob said thoughtfully. "What if we all showed up in

the morning and it's just gone? Yeah, it's just gone! Vanished! What if it

just ain't there? And I don't have no more idea than nobody where it went

to? What if the cops say to me, 'Hey, where the hell is your airplane?' and

I say, "Hell, how am I supposed to know? Some son-of-a-bitch done stole

it!" "Some son-of-a-bitch done stole it last night!"

"Yeah," said Harvey. "What if that happened? What if it just

disappeared? What if it got stole before the sun comes up in the morning,

and nobody has any idea who the son-of-a-bitch was who stole it?"

Both of those guys were just kind of talking along like that, then they

got real quiet. Then they turned and looked at me. They both turned and

looked at me at the very same time. It was as if they had been rehearsing

this scheme for years. It was as if some off-stage director had given both

of them a special que, so that they would both turn and stare at me at

exactly the same time. They just sat there and sipped their whiskey and

stared at me. It seemed to be my turn to say something, and I wasn't a bit

happy with how this whole dirty deal had suddenly got dumped right into

my lap.

"Hey," I said. "Forget it. I'm not getting mixed up in this mess."

"Yeah, yeah," said Harvey.

"Yeah, yeah," said Bob.

"Hey!" I said. "I ain't stealing no airplane! Forget it!"

"Yeah, yeah," said Harvey.

"Yeah, yeah," said Bob. "Sure, you ain't gettin' mixed up. Your airplane

is all tucked away safe in the brush, and you don't want to get mixed up.

Well, you were mixed up when we were going to make a pot of money,

right? But now you're not mixed up, right? Yeah, sure."

"Yeah, sure," said Harvey.

"Hey," I said. "It wasn't my idea to fly off that damn highway! I was

happy with that little dirt strip in the brush.

"Yeah, sure," said Bob.

"Yeah, sure," said Harvey.

I was really getting mad at those two guys. I wanted to holler, "Hey!

Listen!, you old buzzards! The wars over! This is America we're in now! We

got laws here! This is called civilization! You guys can't go around acting

like this forever!" Then a little caution light went off in the back of my

aching brain. I remembered that Bob had flown combat in the last three

wars. Been shot down in two. Crashed in the third. Spent two-and-a-half

years in a communist prison camp. Maybe, I thought, it would be just as

well if I didn't start giving him lectures on what America was all about.

So I just kept my mouth shut.

But I had made up my mind. I absolutely was not going to get mixed up

in that mess. I figured that I'd do just about anything in the world for

those two guys, but this was crazy! I knew that me ending up in jail wasn't

going to help anything.

"Look," I said. "I'm not stealing that airplane. Have you guys gone

nuts? I can't just go out there and get it. Those guys ain't dumb. They'd

know we were all mixed up in it. We'd end up in ten times more trouble.

All of us! This whole idea is just crazy. I can't just go out there and get in

that airplane and fly it off somewhere. That would be crazy! That would be

a dead cinch guarantee to get us all in a mess of trouble."

"Well," said Bob. "I'm already in a mess of trouble."

"Well," I said. "Me stealing your airplane in the middle of the night ain't

gonna help you or me or anybody else. I'm not stealing that airplane."

"Hey, nobody's asking you to steal no airplane," Bob said.

"Hell no," agreed Harvey. "Ain't nobody asking you to do nothing. We

were just kind of thinking out loud."

"Yeah," said Bob. "We were just kind of thinking out loud. Nobody's

asking you to do nothin'."

"Yeah," said Harvey. "We were just thinking what a mess it's all going

to be. That is, if that airplane's still sitting there when the sun comes up in

the morning."

"Yeah," agreed Bob, "That's gonna be a mess."

"Yeah," I said, "Well, it'll be a hell of a lot bigger mess if they catch us

trying to steal that airplane."

"Ain't nobody said anything about stealing no airplane," said Bob.

"Cripes! Don't get all augured-in. We were just thinking out loud. We were

just thinking that if somebody did steal that airplane, and we didn't have

no more idea than nothing who it was, well, that could sure get rid of a lot

of problems in a hurry."

"Yeah," said Harvey, "We were just thinking out loud. We were just

thinking that, what if somebody, ...somebody nobody of us never heard of,

just somebody... somebody nobody ever heard of... what if the airplane

just got stole...? Just like that...? What if it just disappeared...? ...well...?"

"Yeah," said Bob. "What if it just disappeared. Vanished! Gone! What if

we all get there in the morning, that whole gang of Feds and cops and

inspectors in suits and ties... What if we just get there in the morning and


"Yeah," said Harvey. "What if it was just gone! Stole! And everybody

turned to you and said, 'Hey! Where's your airplane?'"

"Yeah," said Bob. "They'd look at me and say, 'Where's your airplane?'

and I'd say, 'Some son-of-a-bitch done stole it!' And then they'll all ask me

who stole it, and I'll say, 'Hell, how am I supposed to know? You guys are

the cops. Y'all tell me.'"

By that time, all that talking was just one big jumbled up ache in my

brain. I was tired of talking about that airplane. I was tired of thinking

about it. And I was sure enough tired of listening to those two guys keep

saying the same thing over and over and over. I knew that I had made up

my mind. That was the only thing clear to me. I had made up my mind,

just as well as I had ever made up my mind about anything in my life.

I wasn't going to go anywhere near that airplane. I wasn't going to get

mixed up in one of their crazy schemes. I had had enough of their crazy

talk. Those two old buzzards could go to hell or go to prison or anything

else they wanted to do, but I sure as hell wasn't going to have any part of


I jumped on my feet and yelled, "I AIN'T STEALING NO DAMN


"Hey, relax," said Bob. "Ain't nobody trying to get you to steal no

airplane. We were just thinking out loud. We were just kinda thinking out

loud ..."

"I know what you're thinking," I interrupted. "Well, it ain't gonna

happen! I'm not going anywhere near that airplane!"

"Now, don't get all riled," said Harvey. "Now sit on back down. We was

just kinda thinking out loud..." Here, he poured me some more whiskey. I

didn't sit back down. I was getting a tight feeling in my throat and I

wanted to get out of there.

"Look, we was just thinking out loud," said Harvey soothingly. "I was

just thinking, what if that airplane just happened to show up on the

airport at Hondo? How about that? And what if she ended up in the back of

some big ol' hangar with a great big ol' padlock on the front door? I was

just kinda thinking out loud."

I calmed myself. I took a deep breath. I looked Bob straight in the eye.

"I ain't stealing that airplane," I said quietly.

Then I walked out and closed the door. I didn't even slam it. I just

walked out into the cool night air and headed toward my car. I had been

up since 4:00 a.m. and it was now after 1:00 o'clock the next the

morning. I'd flown a stinking, screaming, shaking, hot as a furnace-room

crop-duster for ten solid hours and I hadn't eaten since before noon. My

head was aching like somebody had hit it with a skillet, and all I wanted to

do was go home and go to sleep.

Just before I got to my car a voice called out into the night, "She's plum

full of gas."

I just got in my car. This time I slammed the door.

Three hours later we were headed east. The Corpus Christi Kid was

driving. I hadn't slept ten minutes. I never in my life felt so disgusted with

myself. "I was gonna finish that job all by myself," I kept thinking. "I could

have finished that whole 4000 acres in no more than a couple of weeks," I

was thinking. "I would have been happy to give Bob his full share. Just

like as if he'd done half of the flying himself. That'd been the sensible

thing to do. That's what I'd be doing if I had any brains! If I wasn't such a

damned fool! If those two old bastards hadn't gotten on me so thick. That

would have been the smart thing to do."

The Corpus Christi Kid didn't have any idea in the world what we were

doing headed east at 4:00 a.m. One nice thing about The Corpus Christi

Kid, he didn't ask a lot of questions. He never said much of anything. He

just paid attention. Now he was driving steadily eastbound across the

brush country at 70 M.P.H., and I was sitting in the right seat getting

madder by the minute.

"It's not too late to call this whole insane scheme off and go back home

and go to bed," I mumbled to myself.

I knew that the Kid had pretty well figured out where we were headed

long before I told him to turn down that skinny little Farm & Ranch road.

When we were about five minutes out I started giving him his orders for

the day.

"After you drop me off I want you to drive to the Kingsville Airport," I


"I've never been to the Kingsville Airport," he said.

"You won't be able to say that tomorrow," I said.

"I don't have a driver's license to drive clear over to the Kingsville

Airport," he said.

"Hell, you don't have a driver's license to drive anywhere," I said.

"How do I get to the Kingsville Airport," he

"Drive straight down this road," I said. "When you get to the first main

highway turn right, and drive until you hit Freer. When you get to Freer

get out your road map and find the Kingsville Airport. Then drive to it. Use

your brain."

As I stepped out of the car, I said, "Just go to the Kingsville Airport.

Don't do nothin' else till you hear from me."

I closed the door, and the car slipped off into the night.

It was still so dark I could hardly see the airplane. I crawled under the

barbed-wire fence right behind it's tail and walked about 50 feet off into

the brush. It was hard to believe how cold South Texas could be just

before dawn, and how hot it could be by afternoon.

I hadn't brought a coat. "Pretty stupid", I thought, and hunkered down

in the mesquite for about half an hour and tried to get warm. I didn't.

Finally the sky in the east began to get lighter, and in a few more

minutes I could make out the outline of the aircraft. I waited another five

minutes and slipped back under the barbed-wire fence.

I didn't do any kind of pre-flight check. All I did was climb up on the

wing and check to see if the fuel tank was full. I did that just for spite.

When I took off the cap and stuck my finger into the tank, the fuel was

sloshing right up into the neck.

I crawled into the cockpit and tried to strap in. Bob's seat didn't fit me

right, and the straps were all wrong. I didn't much give a damn. I just let

the seat-belt and harness dangle.

I sat there for a few minutes deliberately breathing in the cold night

air. There was not a sound in that part of the world. Not a movement. It

was hard for me to believe that I was actually sitting in that airplane,

about to intentionally commit what I was convinced was a felony

punishable by five years in Leavenworth.

"What am I doing here?" I thought.

I turned the master switch on, and I could hear the main power

solenoid slam closed. It made me jump. I was spooky as a cat. I flipped up

the left magneto toggle, advanced the mixture, and hit the starter button.

The engine exploded into life. I'd never realized how loud that engine

could be, or how quiet that outback country could be. I guess I woke up

deer, and wild turkey, and javaleno hogs for miles around. I hoped I

hadn't woke up any lawman.

"Well, there's no stopping now," I said into the cold morning air. I gave

the throttle a little blast and lurched up on to the blacktop. I kicked the

tail around and lined up with the center of the highway. There was just

enough pre-dawn light to make out the edges of that long stretch of


I flexed my hands, shrugged my shoulders, and smoothly moved the

throttle to the fire-wall. For better or for worse, I was headed off into

whatever it was that was going to happen next.

As soon as I was ten feet off the ground, I started a turn west and

headed toward Laredo. After four or five minutes, I turned north and

headed toward Cotulla. I held that heading for about twenty minutes, and

shortly after crossing the Encinal highway, turned east toward Alice.

All this time I had stayed below about a hundred feet. I had this goofy

conviction that I was cleverly evading anybody who might be aware of my

departure. In all likelihood, anyone interested in that airplane would be

sound asleep for another hour.

As the sun came up, I climbed on out to two thousand feet, and within

the hour, I was turning final approach to the Kingsville Airport. I tied that

old crop-duster down in the very last row of airplanes. The flying service

was not open yet, and the airport was deserted. When the Corpus Christi

Kid picked me up in the parking lot, nobody had said a word to me, or

even noticed me.

About 10:00 o'clock that morning I put in a call to Bob's house. His wife

answered. She recognized my voice, and called me by name. "This ain't

me!" I hollered into the phone. "Just tell Bob to go to the Kingsville


"Who is this," she asked?

"Just tell Bob to go to the Kingsville Airport," I said, and slammed down

the phone.

I hadn't had a vacation in a whole bunch of years. I figured that just

about then would be a good time to take one. We headed straight for

Corpus Christi and I dropped off the Kid at his mom's house.

I found a cheap hotel room and held up for a solid week. I knew it was

going to take me a long time to get over all that mess, even if I didn't go

to jail.

None of it was my fault.




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