Tap here to turn on desktop notifications to get the news sent straight to you. I lifted my t-shirt away from my chest to allow air in, none came. I flapped the material trying to coax a current over my skin. I gave a slow comprehensive scan to the six flat surfaces of the cell. All the paint had come from the same bucket.
It was a hue suggestive of bean bile; a kind of visceral ecru. It was like being inside a piece of rotten fruit. On the floor at the end of my cot, and much too near my feet, lay an eerily stoic, gargantuan German Shepherd named "Busco". Given his enormity I figured Busco must be the Spanish word for dumpster. Seated rigidly behind him was his handler, also eerily stoic, a stocky, reticent sort in his early thirties whom I called "Senor Busco", an appellation he, for some reason, found offensive.
I really didn't know why since he and Busco did favor some, were built similarly, and could have easily shared wardrobe. Napping not so silently on the shaky cot next to me was Steve Foster, an M. I'd met a couple of months earlier. He'd attended a lecture I'd been giving at a college in his home town, and had invited me to join him on a little humanitarian excursion to Honduras.
He explained that as a writer I might find his story and his mission compelling enough to scribble about. And he was right. But his story and his mission were eight hundred miles away, on the Moskito Coast in Honduras. The manual clearly stated, as manuals are supposed to do, that with a proper mixture of fuel and air our little two seat Cessna trainer had 6. And those were his final words on the subject. I was in a quandary.
We'd already flown the plane almost a thousand miles, and all but two hours of that at night, AND over water from Tampa to Key West AND in instrument conditions; conditions none of us were certified for, not me, not the doctor and not the airplane.
It seemed to me that we had stretched the rubber band of fate about as taut as any fool should. At that moment the only quote about fools that came to mind was from Shakespeare "Better a foolish wit than a witty fool,"-which I'd always thought could've worked either way, but did little to help me sort out my predicament. There was nothing funny-witty about this, but there was a helluva lot foolish about it.
I'd had that much figured out during the flight down from north Georgia. The plane hadn't been flown in 7 years and had just recently been given a legitimate OKEE DOKEE by a "certified aircraft inspector", who during the times I was certifying him was either inebriated, or lying on the tarmac under the wing.
His daily ritual seem to be to tinker with the plane for a hour or two, then head for the nearest spirit center, where he'd purchase a kind of imitation gin, a mixture so cheap the only thing they charge you for when you buy it is the container it comes in. The remainder of his day was spent commingling those two acts, tinker and drink and tinker and drink.
And he was always dressed in the same greasy coveralls, no socks and a pair of hand- me-down wing tip shoes without laces. It was probably the shoes that certified him to work on airplanes. After about a week and near the end of this "annual inspection" I asked him, "so, do you think this thing will make it to Honduras? Just what I wanted to here. He didn't move for a moment, then lifted his head up and looked across the engine at me, "'at sounds pretty far", was his much too succinct reply.
Another few days passed and another few plastic bottles of gin were emptied before he'd filled out the FAA paperwork that said the plane was flyable. But as I thumbed through the regulations I could find no explanation of exactly what constituted in aviation lingo the phrases, "too far," and "pretty far".
A half dozen or so associates from the Doctors clinic had gathered to bid us farewell on that mid May day at the Dalton, Georgia airport. There was a lot of praying and blessings and reconfirmations that we were on a "Mission from God" and such, and then the Doctor asked me to read "IF" by Rudyard Kipling, a poem that to me was about the most perfect assemblage of words in the English language.
Kipling had written it for his son as a manual for life, and the power in it's message had never allowed me to complete it's reading without a tear or two. This day was no different. The poem was still reverberating in my head as we lifted off into a light rain a hour or so before sunset.
Then it got dark, Kipling was gone and his words had been replaced by the foreboding emanations of the Gin Man, "long as it ain't too far". The darker it became, the further it seem to get, and the more evident it became of just how many of our instruments were unlit. About the time I was realizing this, the doctor removed a penlight from his shirt pocket, and began scanning the panel with it. The only gauges that were lit were the airspeed indicator and the artificial horizon, which tells you whether you're going up or down, and if your wings are level, two things you really need to know when flying a plane in the dark.
The duel fuel gauges were barely visible from the greenish glow of the NEW, thank goodness, GPS mounted on the dash in front of me. Another twist in this excursion of lunacy was the doctors "condition", a condition heretofore unknown to me and commonly known as ADHD, which made it almost impossible for him to hold a true course for any sustained period, like five minutes.
So, when I wasn't flying, I was constantly giving him new headings We used this drunken snake procedure for about 6 of those hours. We landed at a small field in south Georgia just after midnight to refuel. But we finally found a guy with a pick up truck who would ferry us back and forth to the Exxon station a few miles away, to fill the two five gallon red plastic containers that I'd thrown behind the seats just before we left.
It took four trips but we finally got the tanks topped off, and then headed on into Florida. We refueled again in Tampa, and then it was out over the gulf, the shortest distance to Key West International Airport.
Thirty minutes into the flight, the doctor tells me he's tired and needs to take a nap, and can I get us into Key West. Before I can say, yeah I think, his head popped against the plexi-glass window and he was dead asleep. I woke him to get his penlight, because in the three or four seconds I'd been Pilot in Command, I'd realized three or four very unsettling situations that I'd not previously been fully cognizant of.
A couple of the more important ones were: Pete area were now behind us and getting dimmer, and ten minutes from now, when they have faded completely I will have no, that is ZERO ground reference. Further complicating this flight necessity, that is, depth perception, high clouds had moved in and I now had ZERO sky reference.
Not being able to discern up from down is about the worst predicament a pilot can be in. Nope, it is the worst.
And all this unsettling preponderance of dark had suddenly made me aware of what apparently had been going on beneath our seats since we'd left Dalton. Seems Gin Man had forgotten to check the wiring, because behind my bare calves there was a nice little light show going on, sparks and other such emanations from wires that had either burned in two, or had not been not properly attached to one another to begin with, which I could identify with because if all my wires had been properly attached I wouldn't be here, I'd be back home in my treehouse reading the funny papers.
The hot water did not work at all when we were there and the host was nowhere to be found. I grinned at him, gave my head a half shake and replied, "well sir, you just don't". There are two spacious rooms for rent with funky off-beat decor that somehow just complemented the place instead of detracted from it.
Since our shoulders were touching in the cramped cabin, I gave the doctor a little nudge, pointed under the seat, and suggested we may have an electrical situation developing. His response was less than I had hoped for. He only came about half way out of his deep doze and yawned, "don't worry about 'em, it's been doing that for years". Jeesus, I thought, "common sense" and "Mission from God" must be mutually exclusive phrases.
Another half hour passed, the Florida coastline had receded into yesterday, the clouds had thickened and I was flying in a very, very black box. These kinds of flights are usually the ones you read about in the local papers under the headlines, "Plane Piloted by two Doofuses Disappears For the next three hours I did three things very methodically.
I shined the penlight at the airspeed indicator, 75mph, then at the artificial horizon to make sure my wings were level, and that I was not climbing or descending, then at the GPS for my course line.
And that was all. I never looked anywhere else. Any minor notice of the outside and all that blackness can so disturb your senses, that in an instant you can feel that you're either banking or climbing or falling Now, one of the reasons this was even more difficult for me was that all of my flying time had been in experimental, open cockpit type planes, and all during daylight.
And most of the planes that I'd flown didn't even have gauges, of any kind. So, what I did for the next three hours was to teach myself how to fly "on instruments" It was the only time in my life, where I was forced to limit my focus to three simple activities, for almost three continuous hours.
Trying to prevent your death can elevate your senses to their absolute zenith. But those who've never taken this test, will have difficulty identifying. When the sun came up, Key West was just a few miles out. I was completely spent.
I nudged the doctor and told him, "you've got the airplane", he woke with a jerk of his head, took the yoke and I pointed toward the field.
We ambled into the terminal to find some chow. My ideal place would: As I brought my gaze back inside the plane I glanced at the airspeed indicator.
I hadn't been to sleep in 24 hours, so when we landed I expected at least a half day of rest. But that wasn't to be. The doctor wanted to rent a couple of bicycles and sightsee around Key West. Sleep, had now joined "common sense" in the "no-need-bin" for those on a Mission from God.
I spent much of that time reassessing this adventure, and whether or not there was any wisdom in my remaining a party to it. I knew the doctor felt he was on a sanctified mission and I have never been one to question or chastise another's belief system, but what I had no way of knowing was whether or not my name was also on the Mission from God manifest.
The night before our scheduled departure I told the doctor that I'd take a shot at it, if we had at least a 15 knot tailwind. I'd calculated - math wise I'm in over my head after long division - that with that degree of natures assistance we might be able to make it to Cozumel.
I also knew that for the last two days while we had waited for the weather to clear, the wind had blown in the exact opposite direction and had never been above 12 knots. So, what I'd done is built a small buffer of sanity between me and the doctor and his mission, but one that would neither offend nor make him think less of me for exhibiting what I considered a semblance of sound judgment.
The next morning the wind was blowing 18 knots toward Cozumel. Well, deferring my judgment to others had never been a common practice of mine, but my word was sacrosanct. We topped off the fuel tanks in case any had leaked out, or evaporated in the two days "Paranjo Extreno" or "Strange Bird" the logo the doctor had painted on the engine cowling had been waiting on the tarmac. As we taxied by Ronnie-the-Stearman-pilots hangar, I waved to him and tried to signal a thumbs up, but my thumb was more connected to my brain than the rest of me and it refused to extend.
As we passed, I looked back and saw him making the sign of the cross on his chest We were probably going to need both of them, I thought. So with the ambitious optimism that accompanies all "do gooder" adventures, we climbed into the blue south Florida sky, leveled at feet, and leaned the fuel mixture for maximum range, and settled in for the crossing.
The Cuban Coast appeared quickly, or as quickly as it can in a Cessna We skirted their airspace to shorten our route, actually we did more than skirt, we flew until we saw land and then hung a right, and by that time land, Cuba, was just off our left wing.
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