(Blogger's note: Here are a couple short efforts of mine appropriate for the season.)
He reviewed it all again: Track on the outbound VOR, compute winds aloft, heading, altitude, plot it within seconds, turn 330 up the valley. How many times had he rehearsed this very situation? The payoff, he told himself, might save our lives.
He tried the landing lights once. As expected, their beams failed to penetrate the gloom and only bathed the night surrounding him and heightened his anxiety. Headlines from the local weekly rose annoyingly: "Local rancher, daughter missing," "Search mounted for rancher's plane," "Fog claims two in air crash."
"Gallows humor," he said aloud.
"What?" she asked.
"Nothing, Kay." He tried a smile on the passenger beside him. She was twisting the jewels of her queen's tiara, like a rosary, through her fingertips. A worried gesture. He'd seen it before. The girl asked if the landing lights would help other aircraft spot them.
"We're the only knotheads up here tonight, Hon." His jaws ached, torqued as they were from the tension.
"What about Springfield?" Kay asked.
"Too close to the mountains, Hon, too close." The engine purred along in a contented hum. The calm was unearthly. The silence weighed heavily between them for minutes until Kay broke it, "Doesn't Middleton have an airport?"
"Just a strip. Last I knew they weren't even current."
"How far are we from home?"
"Thirty miles," he told her and to himself, maybe thousands.
Kay was the state's Beef Cattle Princess. Her tooled leather banner rode atop the other cargo in the rear seats. The "cargo"––a mixed assortment of paper sacks, association paraphernalia, literature for the next event, some trophies, his own vet supplies, a bolt of plaid for Connie's Christmas wreath projects. Odds and ends, and for what?
What does it all matter? he demanded. Does anyone really care? What rewards for the effort you put forth, all the hours donated, the headaches and tedious phone calls and meetings? He gripped the yoke tightly, trying to transfer the tension. And, here we are, putting it on the line for trinkets and trophies, ribbons, and an organization inspired toward grudging support at best.
They were on their way home from the fall all-breeds beef cattle show, sale, and board meeting. Kay passed out ribbons and silver, welcomed the lieutenant governor, and was interviewed on Channel Four. He ramrodded a bylaw change to defeat, tried to get a bred heifer sale at the spring bull test and couldn't, and failed to win approval for an annual farm-to-market tour. He'd rather shoe a horse than take on another project or needle folks to help.
The plane coasted on, unperturbed. He dipped the wings once for him and then for Kay to look for lights below.
"Watch for the interstate," he told her.
"Can't you go any lower, Dad?"
"We could bite off a radio mast, Sweets . . . or a grain elevator. We're right on the deck as it is. Try to raise your mother on the two-way."
Kay called twice, three times. Finally a squawk came back.
"Wynn, where are you?" Connie echoed her daughter's anxiety.
"We think we're five miles out. Can't see a thing. Get all the lights y' can on the strip. Come back."
"Wynn," she came back, her tone carrying that same strain when she found him lying where his horse spilled him one icy morn. "We still can't hear the engine. We've only got the pickup. The car won't start. Can't you get any lower?"
He'd forgotten. A dead battery or voltage regulator, the result of neglect and too little time. Get the tractor, he called back. It was at the other place. Did he want Jody to "jump" the car? Negative, send him for the tractor. How was his fuel?
"Enough. . . couple hours' worth. No, we can't get any lower."
He rolled the Cessna into the steepest bank he could risk without inviting a stall. Here's where Kay gets sick, he predicted. The paper sacks broke loose and threatened to engulf the cockpit.
He cussed them––the sacks were one reason they'd left the city late, trying to round up another hundred grocery sacks for Jody's Christmas project.
Jody wanted to line both sides of the lane and "every fence post clear to the porch with 'luminaria navidad' you know, like they do in Mexico with candles in paper sacks." Jody loved events. He kept the old traditions alive or hatched new ones. Strange for a boy––every kid was different.
He'd been dipping candles since Thanksgiving and needed hundreds of sacks for his big display. Jody wanted a gala for the friends and neighbors who would drop by during the holidays.
"Try to wedge those sacks under something," he told his daughter. " I shoulda secured 'em."
"We hear you! We hear you!" Connie announced it again, then, "Near the dam," when he sought a fix. Was he drifting away or coming closer? he asked her.
"Closer . . . louder. You sound too high. Come down some."
"Not until I see some lights," he snapped. He rolled the plane into a gentle bank. Should be able to see the tractor if anything. It wore four lights in front, three behind, a custom-rigged setup for night baling. It plus the pickup should do it. Might do it. "We can circle for an hour if we can turn on a point, but we need some lights to set the wingtip on," he fairly shouted into the mike. Here's where Kay gets sicker.
"There!" Kay sobbed and pointed off toward their eleven o'clock position. He couldn't see a thing, so they circled and strained, searching for the tractor's beams swinging and bobbing across the field. Nothing. He took the risk and bled off another 30 feet. He and Connie agreed: He would circle for an hour until . . . until the fog lifted, until the evening breeze cleared the smudgy landscape beneath them, until . . . the lights of the faithful tractor and reliable pickup gave him confidence to guess where the dirt strip might stretch below. Circle, just keep circling, then bore in the best y' can . . . when you're ready. "Where is that light, you saw, Sweets?"
Then, dotted off the wing they saw a fragile line growing their way. Head for 'em! He adjusted it all: carb heat, throttle, cranked in some flap. Practice slow flight, the first lesson y' ever learned, he coached.
One by one, the lights grew longer. Then, they'd flicker from view, caught in the ebb and flow of some taunting, vaporous mirage. Was is only a trick of the scuddy night? He despaired––no vehicles were in motion. "Keep driving in circles, make 'em tight. Stop Jody and tell him!"
"Can't you see us? We see you––get lower. I'm in the tractor."
Then the strip took on some shape below, thanks to the tractor and something else. He turned back south and added power, banked, and there, not a hundred yards off the wing's tip was a frail, luminous ribbon that grew even as he and Kay watched. He swung wide, came back and lined up on the row of softly glowing yellow beacons that lured the plane back to safe harbor.
"Kill the tractor lights––we can't see the ground." The landing was as mushy as the weather. He rolled to a stop, killed the prop, and squeezed his daughter's hand.
The dirt runway around them glowed in the light of, perhaps, a hundred candles enveloped in paper sacks. He collected himself before he got out to greet a grinning Jody.
"How'd it look from up there, Dad?
"Like a Christmas tree, son . . . maybe a cross."
They didn't speak until they got to the house. Their son and daughter went on inside while they stopped at the porch. She couldn't but cling to him and finally managed. "Jody drove himself like a man possessed, getting those things in place. Honestly . . . I didn't think it would work."
"It was light enough, Babes, believe me, light enough."
Copyright, 2012 by JLC.