5339 (Part One)

The thin white ridge of tissue stood in relief against the mass of wrinkles wrapped around his knuckles like a parchment map of the Old World. Grant sat quietly in the wicker rocker on his porch and stared at it.

“Now HOW did I get that?” he whispered to himself.

Raising his eyes to look out over the Willamette Valley, he tried to remember the life of that scar. Despite the crystal clear of this unusually warm October morning, he could only see about halfway across the sod farms to the green mountains at the other side.

“Eyes aren’t what they used to be, eh Grant?”

The speaker, a youngish man in a leather jacket, leaned against the rail of the porch oblivious to damage his boots were doing to the small Rhodies planted there. He, too, looked across the perfect flat of the sod fields to the mountains beyond.

“Make a nice runway, wouldn’t they?” he said.

“Hmm? Oh, the sods…yes, I suppose they would. You a flyer?” Grant asked.

The pilot laughed, “Only when they need me, friend…and I guess they need me, so yeah, guess I am.”

When he spoke his eyes twinkled a pure blue and he smiled an easy smile, comfortable on his face. Grant thought that perhaps the term “perfect stranger” had been coined in this man’s presence.

The quiet between them was not uncomfortable. This perfect pause in the conversation seemed to feel just about right and his eyes once again fell on the scar and his mind once again fell to wondering.

“You a flyer, too, aren’t you?” the pilot said.

“Me? Oh no….used to be. Long time ago though. Long, long time ago.”

“Miss it?” he asked.

“Haven’t really thought about it much. Day like today though, good visibility, wind right down the valley, be a nice day to fly.” Grant replied.

“Huh. Well, I best get going. You think they’d mind if I hopped the fence there, out to the sods?”

Grant looked over the fence to the slate-flat grass and figured if the pilot didn’t tromp too hard on his Rhodies, the sod wouldn’t mind.

“S’pose not. Where you off to anyway?” Grant asked

He laughed.  “Oh, wild blue yonder and all that.”

And with a little bow he walked toward the fence, one-handed the post and jumped on over smooth as a silk scarf around your neck. Grant’s old eyes followed after the man best he could. With each step, he got a little blurrier until he was just a man-shaped fog drifting out over the grass.

Around about the middle of the field, he turned and waved.

Grant raised his scarred hand to wave and noticed…just then…that an old biplane sat out there on the close cropped grass and he could see, despite the distance, that the pilot was grinning.

“Well, I’ll be…never heard it land.”

Grant half raised out of his chair, got a dizzy spell and eased back down.  Closing his eyes, he realized he knew what that old airplane was.

Good sized, long wings, pilot out in the open, passengers in cabins inside. Big round engine, BIG prop, BIG wheels. Square tail and more struts than an airplane really ought to have.

Behind closed eyes a memory stirred. Once a frozen moment of time stored carefully in comfortable folds of his brain, this particular memory thawed and was once again a fluid thing, alive and bright like a mercury-silver fish swimming up to the surface from the dark ocean deep.

The scar. Left there by a shard of white hot metal many years before, Grant began to remember.

It was another October morning, much colder than it was today. The sky was the same dull grey as the wings of his 1928 Boeing 40C Mailplane.  But not here, he thought, farther south…Medford maybe?

His mission that day was what the pilots flying the US Airmail route CAM 8 called the Half-n-Half Run: Half mountains, half flats, 200 or so miles up-valley to Portland.

Head northwest out of the Medford bowl up the Rogue River about 15 minutes to Grants Pass, Josephine, up Wolf Creek, train tracks to Salt Creek and Lookingglass Hill. Wind through some low hills to Roseburg and Cottage Grove then a straight shot due north to Portland.

Stop for a coffee, a little gas, get the weather from Ryan (sharp young man) at the station there. Fly north, pick up the Williamette River, sight Mount Hood (keep it at about one o’clock until you can see St. Helens), bear left to the Confluence, and roll onto final at Swan Island. If Swan weather was low, land on the south shore of the Columbia River and the people at Pickwick bring the bus down to carry off your load or scoot up to Pearson Field and let the Army boys in the barracks lend a hand.

Plenty of options.

Piece of cake.

He walked into the shack on the south side of the hangars the dispatcher there referred to as the Pilot Pit to check on the weather.

“Mornin’ JC”

“Hullo, Donaldson…you look like Heck.” JC replied from the rim of his cocoa mug.

“Out with the boys last night?”

“Now, JC you know I never touch the stuff. Just like to keep an eye on the boys, you know? Keep ‘em out of trouble”. Grant replied in defense of his red-rimmed eyes.

“Donaldson, there are two things that will never stop a pilot from completing his mission: Prohibition and a farmer with a shotgun. I’ve been around pilots long enough to know your, ah, ‘itineraries’. Just because I fly for fun and not for hire doesn’t mean I don’t know the rules and how hard you guys bend ‘em.”

JC, despite his youth had been working the lineshacks from Texas to Tulsa and Cheyenne to San Diego since he was a boy. Someday he’d be a line pilot like his charges, but today he was boss of the mail on this piece of the route all the way to Seattle.

Grant laughed, “I liked you better when you still thought of us mail jockeys as Knights of the Air or something.”

“Ha!  You just wait…I’ll fly you all into the ground someday” JC rose in defense.

“Flying into the ground is the LAST thing we all want to do, son.  Now what’s the weather up north?” Grant stepped around the Franklin stove to bend over the boy’s chart table.

All business now, JC pulled the latest report off his pad next to the telegraph set.

“Here’s the 0700, I’ll get a new one for you from Rye at Roseburg before you launch.”

At that, the sound of hangar doors rolling open vibrated through the thin walls of the shack letting them both know that the mechanics were ready to get their long night over with.

Grant zipped his leathers up to his chin and pushed through the blanket hung between the dispatch office and the hangar.

“Whadda you say Speed? She gonna be good to me today?”

“Better than you deserve, Grant.” Replied Speed.

Old Speed Miller had been around so long nobody knew his real name and he was not the type inclined to let out any information that was not absolutely essential to the task at hand.  But he was a fine mechanic, sheet metal magician, and completely devoted to his aircraft. Pilots he could give or take. Treat one of his planes rough and you might find yourself with a plugged relief tube.

Treat her good and he might say something nice about you like, “Donaldson? Fair pilot most times.”

“What’s with ‘Boy’ today? He’s got a mood on him like a beaver with a bad tooth.” Grant asked.

“That ‘Boy’ has got your paycheck by the balls, Donaldson. If he don’t like the weather…well, you might as well start learning up another job on the side for your downtime.”

“It doesn’t read that bad to me,” said Grant looking over the weather for Roseburg.

“Kid’s got a good head on his shoulders…you listen to him real good and don’t give him no guff…or you’ll be answering to me.” Speed wiped a nonexistent drop of oil off the cowling, trying not to smile so Grant would see.

“All right, all right, fair enough. He does his job, I do mine, and you do yours.  Speaking of which…”

Speed pulled a clipboard from inside the cockpit and handed it to Grant. By signing off Speed’s work, Grant was accepting responsibility for the airplane for the rest of the day.

The sheet was clean: meaning all gripes, squawks, and glitches had been repaired from the last flight. Not that there was much to do on this one: #5339 of the Boeing Line was practically brand new…still had nubbies on the tires from the Goodyear molds and the leather seat still smelled like leather and not like an old horse had died on it sometime during the summer of 1919.

In that newness was beauty: three tons of steel tube and fresh wood, hard rubber and soft leather, a steel propeller that could slice through a cedar just as easy as the morning air, and acres and acres of wing.

All this crafted by a team of men and women schooled in the arcane arts of welding and fabrication, varnishing and rib-stitching, and rib-stitching and rib-stitching.

And despite the Boeing logo on the side, he thought of it as his very own angel of freedom. Light this pretty new girl off and I’m out of the bread line, away from war and worries most folks had to deal with every day.

“It’s you and me, girl, might as well go to the dance” Grant whispered aloud to the silver plane.

“Here’s the latest, Donaldson.” JC skipped through the hangar with a sheet of yellow paper in one hand and a dispatch envelope in the other.

“Rye says Roseburg looks good, but it’s scuddy to the south. Figures you got smooth sailing after you pass him by, but there’s no word of weather between the Pass and him. Lines might be down. I’d hold you here but you got a passenger that’s pressing me hard to get goin’”

“Passenger?” Grant asked, “this was s’posed to be a straight mail run.”

“Well, we gotta take a buck when it shows up, right?’ JC replied “Besides, he’s not the kind of fella I want hanging around here all day. Business man, paid cash, but real serious like.”

“Well, “ Grant sighed, “he’s just walkin’ freight to me…load him up and we’ll go see how the weather is first hand.”

The passenger, a Mr. Donovan, walked briskly and stiffly out to the plane while Grant was running his pre-flight scan from the high cockpit.

JC helped him board into the front compartment while Speed loaded a little mail into the rear bin.

“And keep your feet off the seats!” Speed called to Donovan before heading to the front of the ship.

“You ready yet?” he yelled to Grant.

“Hold your water, Speed, gimme a sec.”

There were enough knobs, levers, dials, switches and other hoohahs in this cockpit to keep a former Speedmail pilot busy. The 40C was equipped with all the latest toys Boeing could squeeze onto the instrument panel.  The nice thing about his old Speedmail was there was hardly any instrumentation to fail in the first place so he rarely missed a day of flying due to mechanical problems…there simply wasn’t that much there to break.

While Grant sorted himself out (or ‘built his nest’ as Speed liked to say), Speed opened the compartment just behind the big 400 horsepower engine to unclip the starter handle from its holster.  With this crank, he would spin a heavy flywheel that Grant would then couple to the crankshaft to spin the prop and bring ‘#39’ to life.

“Well, Sir, whenever you’re ready” Grant shouted.

“ ‘Sir’ would be Mr. William Boeing. You call me that again and I’ll clonk you with this crank” Speed shouted back.

“Right”, Grant laughed, “Fuel is up, brakes set, you may crank when ready, Gridley.”

Speed put all his weight on the crank handle until the flywheel eased out of its resting state. Swearing at Newton all the while, he slowly gained inertia over the flywheel and when it was making a fairly deafening whine, pulled the crank out sharply, took three steps back and gave Grant the thumbs up.

“Clear!” he shouted

Nodding, Grant pulled the start lever a full four inches aft with his right hand. His left rested on the throttle poised to reach forward to engage the magnetos after a few turns of the huge propeller proved to him it would spin freely after sitting all night in the cold.

Mags hot, wait for the first puff of smoke, the first cough of life, mixture rich, throttle back, cross your fingers ‘cause Jeez does Speed get torqued if I don’t catch it the first try and one puff followed by another, a cough and another, a pop and a roar and boy that sounds sweet and oh that smell God I just love this job.

Do you feel that, Donovan? Is that somethin’? Or are you like most…just freight that’s gotta pee when you’re the farthest from any airfield?

Jesus, give me 800 pounds of paper in a sack any day of the week over people who think this flying thing is just like riding a trolley car.

The engine slowly settled into a rhythmic lope and Grant settled himself into his seat. With a sign of his hands ‘chocks away’, Speed pulled the rope holding the blocks in front of the wheels and they were free to roll on the dewy grass of a former Medford meadow.

Easing the throttle forward, three tons of steel and wood and paint inched ahead toward the end of the simple runway.


Part Two of Rob Bach’s “5339” tomorrow on Why Fly


  1. Wow! What a fine piece of writing. The detail is awsome.

  2. Proof positive that “The apple never falls far from the tree.” {g}

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