Monday, July 11, 2011

Flying Machine in the Flint Hills

historical fiction
by Gregory E. Larson

     Bud Wilcox turned in the saddle to see what was causing such a commotion on a gray day.  The creases in his leathery face intensified as he squinted towards the horizon.  His sun-bleached eyebrows and mustache bristled in the wind.  The horse was nervous and wouldn’t respond to his reins.  Cattle started to scatter.

     He’d been a rancher in Chase County, Kansas, for fifty years, enjoying the peace and quiet in the wide open spaces of the Flint Hills.  But life in 1926 was starting to chafe him.  Fences were going up everywhere and roads were being graded.  Kids were driving cars, spending idle time, gallivantin’ about the countryside, tearing up his ranchland.  They had no respect for property and they were immune to good hard work.

     The buzz he heard didn’t quite sound like a car.

     “What the . . . ?” Bud whispered to himself. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing.  He lifted his Stetson and wiped his brow. “Well, ah’ll be!”

     The de Havilland biplane dipped below the low clouds and circled the ridge.  The engine sputtered and idled, then the plane dropped down onto the rutted ranch road.
     Bud kicked his heels and the horse galloped over to the plane.  A tall lanky man climbed out of the cockpit and jumped to the ground.

     “Hi!” said the pilot. “Nice lookin’ steers you’ve got over there.”

     “They sure got jumpy when ya landed.”  Bud dismounted and walked over to the pilot, who seemed pretty relaxed.  “Ah’m Bud Wilcox. Are ya okay?”

     The pilot extended his long arm and shook Bud’s hand.  “I’m fine.  My friends call me Slim.  I was scouting out an airmail route to Wichita, but the cloud ceiling got too low, and I had to land before I ran out of fuel.”  He scanned the field as he talked. “You know, the government is looking for good locations for light beacons and emergency landing spots.  Your ridge here would be perfect.”

     “Hmm . . . Ah don’t know ’bout that,” replied Bud.  “They probly jus’ make a big mess out here.  So, how can ah help ya?”

     “Well, I need to get some aviation fuel from the airstrip at Olpe. I think it must be about twenty miles east."

     “Hmm . . . well you’re in luck, ‘cause ah need to make a delivery ta Emporia, and then we can go down ta Olpe.  If’n ya got time, we can stop in ta Maggie’s, jus’ north a town for some good taters ’n chicken.”

     Slim gave a wrinkled smile and said, “Sounds mighty fine to me.”

     “You’ll have to hop on the back of ol’ Jake with me and we can ride ta mah truck at the highway.”  They climbed onto the horse.  The smell of saddle leather, horse sweat and Bud’s sweat permeated the air while they slowly made their way down the road.

     “So where ya from, pardner?” asked Bud.

     “I’m a farm boy from Minnesota.  I’m working out of St. Louis, flying airmail routes.  Your Flint Hills are a little tricky and disorienting in the clouds and fog.”

     “Ah’m jus’ an ol’ timer,” said Bud. “Ah think ah’ll keep mah boots on the ground, thanks.”

     At the highway, Bud put Jake in a corral, then he and Slim climbed in the Ford truck and drove to Cottonwood Falls.  They went to the phone company where Slim paid the operator to make a few phone calls.

     Bud chatted with Myrna, the operator on duty, while Slim talked on the phone.

     “This boy landed one of them new fangled flyin’ machines right on the ranch road.  Did a purty good job of it.”

     “He’s a cute kid,” said Myrna as she turned and looked at Slim. “He’s so tall.  I’d bet he’d make a good basketball player.”

     Bud twisted the end on his mustache, leaned over the counter and spoke softly to Myrna, “I ask ya kindly ta not tell everone in town about the plane on mah property.  Ah don’t wanna big crowd out thar when we git back.”

     Myrna grinned at Bud as she spoke.  “It’s our secret, just you, me and the door handle.” 

     Then Bud and Slim left for Emporia on U.S. 50 highway, which paralleled the Santa Fe tracks.

     Slim admired the countryside.  “You’ve got some good river bottom for crops.”

     “We seem ta make a livin’ somehow,” said Bud.

     A steam plume from a train was visible for some time before it passed them, going the opposite direction.

    “Ah bet that train thar can carry a bit more mail than yer plane, and right now it’s goin’ a wee bit faster, too!” Bud chuckled.

     “You know, you’re right about that today,” Slim agreed.  “But someday there will be big planes that will take people and mail all over the country.”

     “Things are a changin’.  That’s fer sure.”

     Bud pulled up to a machine shop in Emporia.  “Ah have ta drop off one a mah tractor parts ta have ‘em fix a weld.  It’ll only be a minute.”

     He returned from the shop and they drove on down to the small airstrip at Olpe, which consisted of a small barn and office, a grass strip, two planes and an air sock.

     Slim went up to the office for a few minutes and then came back.

     “I bought thirty gallons of fuel.  They want us to drive around to the back of the barn.  They’re going to put it in five-gallon cans to make it easier for us to fill the tank on my plane.”

     The airport operator lifted the handle at the top of a large metal drum and began to pump the fuel into the five-gallon containers.

     Once the containers were full and loaded into Bud’s truck, Slim turned to the man from the airport. “Thanks. This’ll get me back in business.”

     Bud and Slim climbed into the truck.  “Now it’s on ta Maggie’s!” Bud exclaimed.

     They pulled up to an old shack north of Olpe, where several farm trucks were parked.  Smoke and steam were rolling out the vents at the back of the shack.

     “Hi fellas!” welcomed Maggie as they walked in the front door.  The room was warm and steamy, with the smell of savory spices and gravy coming from the skillets. Bud’s mouth began to water.

     “Come on in and sit down.”  She sized up Slim and then turned to Bud and said, “We need to get some weight on this boy, and this is just the place to do it.  I’ll get ya’ll some chicken with all the fixin’s.”

Their stomachs growled with delight as Maggie brought them their chicken plates, along with green beans and mounds of mashed potatoes and gravy.

     “Save room for my peach pie,” said Maggie as she surveyed the men shoveling with their forks.

     “Maggie,” said Bud.  “Ah’m gonna need another cuppa coffee, jus ta stay awake on the drive home.”

     After the pie and coffee, Slim paid for both of them.  “It’s the least I can do for your kindness, Bud.”  They drove back to Cottonwood Falls, then south to Bud’s ranch.  It was getting late in the day and Slim wanted to get the plane back in the air and fly on to Wichita.

     A truck was approaching from the south.  Bud turned to Slim, “That’s my neighbor, Bill.”  Both trucks slowed to a stop when they were beside each other.

     Bill looked into Bud’s truck, “You got a new ranch hand, Bud?”

    “Naw, ah’m jus doin’ this fella a favor.  He ran outta gas in his flyin’ machine.”

     Bill’s eyes opened wide, “Whar is it?”

     “It’s jus’ up on the ridge from mah corral.  Ya wanna come with us and git him back in the air?”

     “Yeah,” said Bill, “I gotta see this thang.”

     They drove through the ranch gate and up onto the ridge where the plane sat silently in the middle of the road.

     Slim climbed up onto the wing, reached in the cockpit and pulled out a funnel.  The three men took turns pouring the fuel from the five-gallon drums.  When they were finished, Slim pulled on his leather helmet and goggles.

     “Bud, It was a fine thing for you to help me.  You spent most of your day to get me going again.  I can’t thank you enough.”

     “Well, jus’ be careful, and help someone else down the road when they’re in trouble.  That’s what we do ’round here,” replied Bud while slapping him on the back.  Slim climbed into the cockpit.

     “Okay, stand back fellas.  I’m going to fire up the engine and get this bird back in the air,” declared Slim.  He manipulated the knobs and levers in the cockpit.  The engine choked and sputtered, and smoke boiled out of the exhaust. All of a sudden the propeller and engine became one loud throbbing drone.

     The plane began to roll.  It accelerated down the road, causing the bluestem grass, with stalks as thick as pencils, to swirl in the wind.  Slim pulled back on the stick and the plane lifted into the air.  To Bud and Bill, it looked like magic in the heart of the Flint Hills.  The plane made one circle around the ridge.  They could see Slim wave to them before he pointed southwest towards Wichita.  Within a minute he was out of their sight.

* * *

     Life for Bud began to slow down in the winter of ’27.  His family talked him into moving to a small house in Cottonwood Falls.  It had electricity and a phone.  He bought a new Philco radio, but he still kept his old Aladdin kerosene lamp from the farm house.  The hiss from the light made him feel at home in the evenings.

     One morning in the spring, his phone rang.  It was Myrna, the operator.

     “Bud! Bud!  You’re not going to believe this.  Slim’s picture is on the front of the Emporia Gazette!  He’s the guy that landed on your ranch in his airplane.  His real name is Charles Lindbergh, and he’s going to try to fly from New York to Paris!  Can you believe it?”

     “Well, ah’ll be never . . . let’s hope the boy makes it okay, and he don’t run outta gas like he did on mah ranch.”

     Bud turned on his Philco and discovered that Lindbergh was in New York and planned to take off the next morning.

     The next day, he listened to the hourly reports of his progress. In the evening, there was no more new information.  Lindbergh was out over the Atlantic, all alone.

     It was getting late, so he turned off the radio.  He contemplated the potentially historical event while trying to stay awake. He sat there, alone in his rocking chair in the small living room.  The only sound was the hiss of the lamp.  Before he fell asleep, he took one more look at Slim’s picture in the Gazette and said, “Go, Slim. You can do it, pardner!”   



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