The Victory Gardens
That winter Bob's business in the Mexican export trade really picked up.
The more he flew south, the less time he had for flying a crop-duster. I
started picking up more and more of the acreage he would normally fly.
Laredo was not big farming country. There was barely enough work
there to support just one crop-duster, but during the wintertime it could
get pretty busy when the winter vegetables started coming in.
Most of the work was about 40 miles down the river in the San Ygnacio
area. But there was one farm of about 300 acres located very close to the
city of Laredo. It was just on the north edge of town. This was all irrigated
farming, and most of this particular farm was broken up in small fields of
five to thirty acres. This farm had been located there forever, but as the
city expanded to the north, it was being crowded by newly developed
Most of the fields in that farm were irregularly shaped with contoured
rows and few straight sides. Those fields that did have straight rows, never
had rows parallel to rows in adjoining fields. The borders running between
the fields were fence lines, irrigation ditches, dirt roads, and brush lines.
None of these dividing lines crossed one another at right angles.
Several farm ponds were located within this patchwork of fields, and
several high-line wires ran about and across them. This farm had about
half-a-dozen irrigation pumps scattered across it, each with power lines
looping out to it.
Along the north side of the farm ran a big double-pole power
transmission line, and many of the fields nestled right up against it. The
east side of the farm bordered on ragged brush country, and several
fingers of brush poked into the farm along gullies that separated the
fields. A new housing development was located against the west side of
It was just a nice little vegetable farm to the folks who lived in the
vicinity, but to the crop-duster pilot who had to fly it, it was a treacherous
maze just waiting for him to make a mistake.
This farm was known as "The Victory Gardens" to those of us who flew
it. I had flown The Victory Gardens many times and was well aware of the
problems and hazards they presented.
In addition to the small size and the odd shapes of The Victory Gardens,
they were usually planted in several different kinds of vegetables, which
were distributed in various plots with seemingly no rhyme or reason.
It was not uncommon to spray three or four different kinds of crops on
the same day. I would have to mix a particular load of chemicals for one
crop, spray it on two or three scattered little patches, then return to the
airfield and mix an entirely different chemical to be applied on yet another
kind of crop on several other oddly-shaped and widely scattered little
Then I would have to start a brand new batch for some other crop.
It was just exactly the kind of work that a crop-duster hated. The only
reason that I fooled with it was because it was operated by a big farming
company which had other work in the Laredo and San Ygnacio area. It was
all part of "taking the good with the bad." The Victory Gardens were about
as bad as it got.
When working The Victory Gardens, the flagman was always behind.
When finishing one little field the pilot could easily pull up into a wide turn
and dive right back into the next field on the list. The flagman would have
to jump in a pickup, rush down turn-rows, turn through gaps and gates, go
around irrigation ditches, and roar on to the next field which could be a
quarter of a mile on the other side of the farm.
When he finally caught up with the airplane, he would run to mark the
most recent pass and began stepping off the rows and waving his flag.
Often, the aircraft would be halfway across a field when he finally caught
up, and before he could really catch his breath, it would be time for him to
charge off again for the next little field.
Flagmen hated The Victory Gardens every bit as much as pilots did.
In the past, I had always done The Victory Gardens with one of the
flagmen that worked for Bob. That man had walked all over that mixed up
little farm for years. When I would tell him that I planned to "... do the
carrots before the lettuce, and the onions last of all," he knew exactly
what I was talking about. We both knew the location of "... that crooked
little field just to the west of the long field," and we knew the difference
between "... the big field on the east side of the power line... ", and "... the
big field below the old stock tank."
That winter I hired two new men, both part-time. One was a Mexican,
one was a white man. They had both agreed to work part-time with the
understanding that they would get more work as I got more work. Neither
one had ever been anywhere near a crop-dusting operation.
Their first day on the job we didn't do any flying. I just took them out to
the airport and tried to give them some idea about what the crop-dusting
business was all about. They washed my airplane and two trucks. I showed
them the mixing rig and explained how it worked. I showed them the
various chemicals we used and impressed upon them the dangers they
presented. They both seemed to get a pretty good idea of what I was
trying to tell them.
In the morning we were scheduled to move down to San Ygnacio and
start in spraying about a hundred and fifty acres. I knew that would give
them a good chance to learn a lot more about the job.
But that evening I got an unexpected phone call from the foreman of
the big farm company that owned The Victory Gardens. He had just
discovered worms in the cabbage patch. He wanted me flying The Victory
Gardens first thing in the morning! I reminded him that he had already
told me to start on 150 acres down at San Ygnacio in the morning, but he
insisted that that could wait.
He wanted me in The Victory Gardens first thing, before we made our
move down south. He wanted to use methyl parathion on the cabbage
worms, and promised to leave the required amount by my mixing rig
I didn't like the idea of breaking in my brand new flagman on The
Victory Gardens, but I didn't have a choice. I made up my mind that I
wouldn't get in a rush in the morning. I would just take my time with
those two men, and if some farmer got mad that I was getting behind, it
would just have to be that way.
At daylight the next morning both of my new men were at the airport
waiting for me. I had decided to train the Mexican man, who was older and
had more experience around farming, as the man to take over the ground
operation at the airport, mix chemicals, haul water, fuel the aircraft, etc.
The white man, who was only about 20 years old and had spent his life in
some big city up north, would become my flagman.
I started off the day by explaining to both men the lethal characteristics
of methyl parathion. I opened up the five-gallon can that the foreman had
left us and poured out the required amount into an open plastic bucket. I
explained to both men that there was enough poison in that bucket "to kill
half the people in Laredo." They seemed to be appropriately impressed.
I decided the best way to train my mix-man was to start giving him
responsibility right away. I planned to drive out to The Victory Gardens
with the flagman and show him exactly what his duties were to be in the
While we were gone, the mix-man was to begin mixing up the first
batch. I explained how he was to pump 50 gallons of water into the vat,
carefully pour in the bucket of methyl parathion, and then reposition the
valves to agitate the mix.
The Mexican man assured me that he could do this without a problem,
and I headed out to The Victory Gardens with my new flagman.
I drove that new man all around those little fields. I showed him the
three fields we were to spray that morning, showed him the route he had
to drive between those fields, told him which end to start on, cautioned
him about getting stuck trying to take short-cuts across irrigation ditches.
I made him walk along the edge of one field counting out steps and waving
his flag at an imaginary airplane. He seemed to be taking it all in pretty
Back at the airport I had him drop me off. I told him that I would be
arriving in the first field in about half-an-hour, and that he had plenty of
time to drive carefully back across town and get into position to begin our
As I walked over to the mixing area I noticed that my new man was
standing off about 100 feet. Right away I saw the problem. He had
pumped in the 50 gallons of water just fine, but when he had attempted to
pick up the open bucket of methyl parathion, he had managed to spill it. It
was poured all over the ramp.
I knew that this little mishap was going to cost me about fifty bucks,
but I resolved to keep my temper. I coaxed the man back over to the
mixing rig and together we cleaned up the mess. I assured him that it was
just an accident, and that things would go better with the next mix.
But there was a problem. Now we didn't have enough chemical to do
the job, and I would have to drive to a storage shed about three miles
away and pick up another can of insecticide. Driving to this storage shed
would have been a very simple problem, if my pickup hadn't already
departed for the field. There was nothing else to do but unhook the hoses
from the big tank truck and drive the heavily loaded rig out to the storage
shed. When we got there, the shed was locked. It took another hour to
run down the particular tractor driver who had the key.
Back at the airport, we quickly completed the mix and loaded the
aircraft. It was mid-morning when I finally got off the ground with that
The Victory Gardens had always been a source of problems. Over
several years that 300-acre farm had been an on-going thorn-in-the-side.
Murphey's Law reigned supreme over the Victory Gardens, and believe
me, there were lots of things to go wrong.
That particular year a brand-new set of problems had been piled on top
of this jumbled-up little farm. When the old Laredo Air Force Base had
been given to the City of Laredo and became The Laredo International
Airport, the Old Laredo Airport continued as a general aviation airfield.
Nothing really changed for those of us who operated there, although the
new airport was now in full operation and operating a full-time aircraft
As a rule, the existence of this new control zone would have been of
little concern to me. An Airport control zone only extended over an area
within five miles of an active control tower, and as long as an aircraft
remained outside of that small circle, there was no requirement for radio
But as fate would have it, the Victory Gardens fell just inside that
radius of control. In order to operate within that control zone, radio
contact with the control tower was required. I had never flown a
crop-duster with a radio in it. Operating within controlled airspace was just
something crop-dusters never had to do. Now that The Victory Gardens
suddenly existed within controlled airspace, a brand new problem faced
the man who had to fly it.
I had borrowed a portable VHF radio that contained the correct
frequency crystal for the new Laredo control tower, and the previous week
I had visited with the control tower chief and worked out an agreement by
which I could fly the Victory Gardens within his new airspace.
It went like this: On the day I intended to spray The Victory Gardens, I
would notify the tower by telephone as to what my plan was. When
airborne, I would radio the tower so they could make visual contact with
me as I entered the edge of their control zone. After I was over my work
area, I would inform the tower that I was going off radio, remove the
headsets from my ears, and put on my flying helmet. I had never flown a
crop-duster without a helmet on, and didn't want to start.
After I finished with each load, I would put the headphones back on and
inform the tower that I was departing their control zone. Neither the
tower chief nor I liked this agreement, but we decided that it was the most
practical way to deal with this unexpected problem.
As I made my first flight that morning with the headphones draped over
my head, I was surprised at how much louder the cockpit was than when
wearing a helmet. I contacted the control tower and was cleared to go to
work. I took off the headphones, slipped on my helmet, and lined up for
my first pass.
I had not as yet spotted my flagman, and the closer I got, the more
certain I was that he was not in position. Aborting the pass, I pulled up
and circled the field. My new flagman was nowhere in sight. I realized
right away what had happened. He had arrived at the field expecting me
to show up within a few minutes. After more than an hour had passed
while I ran down that extra can of chemicals, he had become convinced
that something was wrong and had returned to the airport. There was
nothing for me to do but return also, subconsciously cautioning myself to
take extra care in landing the still fully loaded airplane.
Sure enough, my flagman was standing by the mixing rig with a long
look on his face. As I shut down the airplane and climbed out, I noticed
that both of my new men appeared to be decidedly dejected. No doubt the
mix-man had briefed the flagman about the chemical spill, and both men
seemed to be on the verge of pursuing their careers elsewhere.
Taking note of the gloom, I resolved to show the greatest of patience. I
even managed to almost smile.
"Look, fellows," I said, "it's nothing for us to get all upset about. Some
days things don't start off right, but we can't let a few mistakes get us
down. Besides, it'll all come easier after a few days." Assuring them that
things would go better now, I managed to get them to agree that it was
best to forget the problems of the morning, and start anew with a clean
With a few more words of encouragement, my flagman was on his way
back to the Victory Gardens.
That first load went slick as glass, and as I returned to the airfield, I felt
sure that the problems of the morning were behind us.
In-bound with the second load I was concerned that the wind seemed to
be picking up sooner than I had expected. Working that close to a housing
area, I was extra cautious about insecticide drift, and I knew that I needed
to hurry and get through before the wind came up too much. Besides, I
wanted to get down south by noon and get that 150 acres taken care of
I knew that my new flagman was going to have to drive my tank truck
that 50 miles to a stock tank where we could pump on a load of water.
And my new flagman had never driven anything bigger than a pickup
truck. I felt confident that this wouldn't be a problem, still....
Thinking about that tank truck reminded me, we didn't have any more
manzate in the storage shed down south, and I was pretty sure that was
the chemical the farmer wanted to use. I made a mental note to call the
farmer when I got back on the ground. It might be necessary for me to
pick up a couple more bags of manzate before we left Laredo.
On the other hand, I thought, maybe the foreman had taken some
down that morning, or maybe he had decided to use a different chemical.
Anyway, I thought, as I contacted the control tower, I'd better get that
worked out on the telephone before we go south on some wild-goose
chase. The way the wind was starting to blow, we didn't have any time to
"Roger, Pawnee Six Two Zulu," the tower responded to my call. "I have
you in sight. You are cleared to proceed. Monitor this frequency."
"Six Two Zulu," I responded, but that last phrase was still going
through my mind. "Monitor this frequency?" I thought. "I can't continue to
monitor the control tower unless I keep these blasted headphones on." I
had never gone into a field without a crash helmet on, but now I was
turning on my approach to my first pass into that field. If I was going to
change to my helmet, I was going to have to do it in the next 30 seconds.
"Should I ignore those last instructions and go off the radio," I thought?
"He knows that I'm not going to stay on the radio. No doubt he made that
last transmission from force of habit." I guessed it was just a simple
mistake, and that in a moment he would advise me that I could go off the
radio. "I better call him back", I thought. But just about then he started
talking to another aircraft.
I started to make a big circle and attempt to call him back when I got
the chance, but then I changed my mind.
"No," I thought, "Not this morning. I don't have that kind of time to
waste." I decided to just press on and worry about it later, besides, I was
only about a quarter of a mile out, and I was searching to pick up the first
glimpse of a yellow flag. Only five seconds out I still hadn't seen my
"Damn," I thought, "He hasn't gone to the next field like I told him to.
He's standing down there somewhere in the wrong place, all confused, and
not knowing what to do next."
I was ready to break off my pass, but at the last instant the yellow flag
appeared in perfect position. I heaved a sigh of relief and dove in.
"Sure," I said to myself, "He didn't hear me because this wind is really
starting to kick up, he didn't know I was there until I was right on top of
I completed my first pass and was making my turn back in when I heard
another aircraft call the tower. "Still on these blasted headphones," I
As I entered the field for the second time it occurred to me that I really
ought to call the tower and get permission to get off those headphones.
But that last instruction was still on my mind. Maybe he knew something I
didn't. Maybe he was going to call me at any moment with important
instructions. Maybe there was a new man in the tower and he wouldn't
know what I was talking about. Besides, he was busy talking to several
more aircraft now, and as any old crop-duster can tell you, it doesn't pay
to make problems with the FAA. "I'll worry about it later," I decided.
My biggest concern for the moment was how to get that farmer on the
telephone. I was pretty sure I had his headquarters phone number in my
wallet, and as I pulled off my next pass I worked it out of my pocket and
attempted to locate that particular scrap of paper. As I glanced over
assorted notes out of the corner of my eye, I slammed the aircraft through
the turn. "Did I put that telephone number in my wallet, or is that scrap of
paper still in the glove compartment of one of my trucks?", I wondered.
And what were the chances of catching that farmer by telephone in
mid-morning? He would probably be out in the middle of some field
waiting for me to show up. Maybe I could get hold of the foreman, I
thought, but would he be anywhere around a telephone before noon?
Working my wallet back into my pocket I rolled hard in on my next
pass, flashed across the field, cocked one wing up to clear a scrub oak and
skinned the tires over the top strand of a bob-wire fence. I ducked under
the wires, hauled her up and over the top, and fell back in over the wires
to slam her down flat in that miserable little field.
What really bothered me about not having a helmet on was not the lack
of crash protection - it was the noise. Those dinky little headphones didn't
filter out any of the engine howling or roar of the air blast. It was like
sitting beside a hammer mill and trying to think. As I pulled out of that
field after the last swath, I made a big easy turn to the south and looked
back to see if my flagman was going to proceed to the next field as
directed. I was happy to see him run to his pickup and tear off down the
road in the right direction.
I decided to make trim passes on the first two fields and give him a
chance to get into position. I was starting to feel pretty good about my
new flagman. So far, he hadn't missed a trick. Two quick trimming passes
and I broke to the west in a big gentle turn and rolled out perfectly lined
up for the first pass into the next field.
I knew that hateful little field well. It had rows only about 150 yards
long, and was shaped like a piece of liver. It was flown perpendicular to
the big power transmission line. I always planned my work so that I was
light when I flew that little patch. On some passes, I could easily fly
beneath those big high-line wires. On others, trees or the big double-poles
dictated that the aircraft had to be flown over the wires. On those passes,
the aircraft was in that field spraying for only a few seconds when I had to
haul back and climb those wires. I had learned long ago not to go into that
field with a heavy airplane.
I was down to well below half a load, and the airplane was flying well. I
really pulled the turn high and tight as I came out after the first pass. I
had to come in quite steep over the wires just to get the aircraft down in
the field and slam the spray valve on before I completely flew across it.
Just as I completed that second pass, my flagman arrived in a great cloud
of dust and ran to get into position.
I was thinking how time-consuming those darn little fields were. I knew
I was really going to have to hustle or we would soon be hopelessly
behind. And those Mickey Mouse headphones kept trying to slip off every
time I twisted my head around in the turns. The noise was really starting
to get on my nerves, and the radio cord had some way or other managed
to get tangled up with the adjusting buckle on one of my shoulder straps.
On the next pass I flew under the wires, made a big flat turn, and
slipped right back under them again going in the opposite direction. On
the next two passes I pulled her high over those wires, and I noticed that
my flagman was not starting his move quite quick enough. I knew I would
have to talk to him about that.
It was while hard in the next turn, the nose slicing down through the
horizon and then being lifted to an imaginary point above the wires, that I
remembered about the extra fuel. Damn! I had forgotten to fill up the big
gas tank on the tank truck the night before.
My mind was really racing ahead now. I knew that I would have to get
that tank filled, or put an extra 55 gallon drum in the pickup and fill it at a
gas station. I was over the wires, flat in the field, spray on, spray off,
heaving the stick from lock to lock to break away, now hard back in! I
tightened the turn till I could feel the buffet, kicked her around, and noted
that the wind was really starting to slam me around ... maybe it would be
quicker if I just had the flagman go by the airport and fill up a drum with
100 octane aviation gas ... no, that wouldn't work, the pickup would be
going to get those extra bags of manzate... unless ... if I could just get
hold of that foreman on the phone ... I was pretty sure I had the number
written down somewhere ... but I didn't know for sure if I could find that
telephone number ... I wondered if it was listed in the phone book ... I
didn't know if there was a clean fuel drum back at the hanger... I didn't
know if there was a bag of manzate in that shed... I didn't know if that
new flagman could really drive a truck... and there were other things I
There were other things I didn't know that were far more important
than telephone numbers, or clean fuel drums, or new flagmen. I didn't
know that in less than 30 seconds my airplane would be crashed and
burning in a thicket of prickly pear and mesquite just beyond the northern
boundary of The Victory Gardens. I didn't know that I was entering what
would likely be the final 30 seconds of my life...
Hard back into that field ... my flagman moving a little slow ...
slamming her flat across the bob-wire fence... headphones a little cocked
... spray valve on ... and that phone number somewhere ... and then I
knew ... I knew what was happening ages before the event took place ...
but it was too late. The nerve endings in my fingers were already
responding, but they too were late... A part of my mind was fighting to
raise the landing gear above that massive cable, but the slight roll that
cleared the gear left the right wing tip slicing to the bone.
And then there was nothing left for me to do. I just sat and watched the
world roll inverted ... felt the airframe jerk and boggle in ways I had never
known before... felt her dying in my hands ... looked straight through the
top of my cockpit at the earth not one hundred feet away ... and felt a
great sadness. A sadness I had never known before. A sadness ... unlike
any emotion I had ever known ... a great sadness...
"So this is how it's gong to end," I thought. So unexpected. So final. So
"I think I'll just sit here and watch it happen," I thought. I felt no fear
... only that great sadness. And as the earth continued its rotation, a
burning little light within my brain said simply, "God, give me one more
The aircraft crashed just as it rolled right side up. She was still in a
steep bank with about a 30-degree nose-low attitude. The impact was such
that the landing gear was driven through the fuselage and the engine was
torn from the firewall. The wings were ruptured and smashed liken broken
sticks, and the pilot's seat was driven deep into the fuselage. The hopper
opened like a crushed egg and its contents erupted into the wreckage.
As I blindly extended my left arm to absorb the impact, the force
against my outstretched palm shattered the bones in my forearm and
drove them out the rear of my elbow. I could feel my ribs cracking against
the cockpit rails. I had no control over my head as it snapped forward,
then slammed back to indent my skull around a steel tube. Glass and
metal shards raked across my face, and as I rocked back I marveled that a
great ball of flame was engulfing the forward section of the fuselage.
As my good hand tore at the buckle of my safety belt, a broad sheet of
flame slid from the narrow space between the right side of the fuselage
and the ruptured hopper. It shot up under my right leg, tucked below the
seat, and exploded in a great orange burst just behind my shoulders. A
terrifying ball of flame rose up over my head, flowed down across my face,
and engulfed the cockpit.
I do not remember how I got out of the aircraft. I vaguely recall falling
into the rubble that had been the trailing edge of the wing. I was gagging
on air too scalding to breathe. Then I was crawling, and rolling, and
clawing away through the weeds and mesquite brush. Animal noises were
tearing from my throat. I did not dare to try to stand and run because a
great blast of flame was blowing inches above my back.
The time came when I lay motionless. I lay with my face close against
the earth and sucked in the wondrous dust laden air. I lay there for an
unknown period of time, then slowly rose to my feet and stared at that
column of flame reaching into the sky. The only hint as to the source of
those flames was the bare tail of an airplane sticking out one side. Noises
like gunfire emitted from the inferno.
I stood there, stunned, and stared at those flames. Slowly I looked
down at my body, my left arm hanging from my shoulder like a rag. My
right hand touched across my face and felt the strange way the flesh no
longer lay against the contour of my jaw. My fingers slipped gently around
my skull and felt the sticky hair across a slight ridge never known before.
I was drenched in blood and methyl parathion. There was something
strange inside my chest that I slowly realized was pain. I knew that I was
badly hurt. I knew that I was not very far away from death.
I turned and focused my thoughts on the simple matter of walking out
across that brush tangled ground. As uncontrollable tremors took my body
I turned to look once more into those flames, and once more into the sky.
"Thank you, Sir," I said.