chapter 55

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

suburban areas.

    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

the farm.

    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

fields.

    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

before dawn.

    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

cabbage patch.

    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

well.

    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

day's work.

    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

first load.

    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

control tower.

    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

control.

    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

slate

    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

before dark.

    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

waste.

    "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

flagman.

    "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

him."

    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

thought.

    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

didn't know...

    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

wrong.

    "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

chance."

    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.

 

**********

 

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