By William Van Poyck
“That one? There?” you ask, drawing your index finger along the shiny, purplish gash creasing your leg.
The woman nods with a sleepy, feline grace, then tosses her head, arcing her long, raven-black hair behind her like a lacquered Chinese fan. You consider her, caught in the low angled sunlight streaming in from the east. You watch the play of shadows dappling the rising swell of her turned hip, youthfully jaunty, yet round with the fertile promise of a mature woman’s fullness. You again sense that, even at her age, she is preternaturally wise, astutely conscious of her looks, posture and mannerisms and their necessary effect upon men. She rolls over in the bed, naked but for a languid smile. You watch the cool linen sheet slide across her alabaster skin, revealing a softly rounded belly like a mound of ripe wheat. You smile absently, still tasting her. She leans forward and you feel her soft breasts push against you as she teasingly nudges you with her nipples. You feel her warm breath and moist lips against your shoulder, then her evenly spaced teeth playfully biting your sun-browned skin.
“Yeah,” she whispers, reaching up to play with your tousled red hair. “That one. I’ll bet there’s a good story behind it.”
You continue to trace the contours of the ragged scar, not answering. It dips, as though someone had gouged the flesh with an ice cream scooper. You stare out through the sliding glass doors of your third-floor bedroom. Beyond your balcony cirrus wisps slip by like cotton candy feathers painted on a vast blue backdrop. The glittering Atlantic stretches out like a hand-blown cobalt candy dish, drenched in that radiant early morning sun peculiar to summer in the Florida Keys.
“Yes. Yes there is,” you finally reply, so softly that it sounds like a lament.
The woman grins, her eyes suddenly sparkle and she sits up. She pulls the sheet around her, then draws her legs up, crossing them beneath her. “Good,” she says, patting the bed. “Tell me the story.” She speaks in a childlike voice, her lips parted in expectation, her eyes shining with a magpie’s fascination for anything new. Those large, almond eyes are framed by heavy black eyeliner and lavender eye shadow made endearing by its inexpert application. For the briefest moment you imagine her as an exotic Turkish belly dancer, all wide, swaying hips and ample bosom.
“But,” she adds waggishly, punching you gently on your shoulder, “it’s gotta be true this time. No more fish stories. That’s the rule.” She squirms excitedly, wiggling her bottom to settle in, and you are touched by her juvenile ingenuousness. A dazzling smile appears like a sudden promise and your heart aches for her. You turn back and scan the horizon, playing with your thoughts like a child with a toy.
“Okay,” you say simply. “It happened many years ago. In the Sierra Nevadas. In California,” you add, when she glances at you sideways. You pause, collecting yourself with surprising difficulty. A mockingbird, elegant in smoky gray, lands on your balcony rail, hopping on toothpick legs. Past the balcony, beyond your own moored sportfisherman, the fuchsia sunrise blooms as brilliant as a hibiscus blossom. You watch a lone sailboat, limned against the jewel-colored sky, urged forward by an easterly breeze, billowing its pastel Dacrons like sherbet exclamation marks.
“This is a true story,” you promise, breathing in the faint apple scent lingering in her hair. You slide your hand across her soft thigh, smooth as a piano key, as though caressing an evanescent memory. “I remember it well,” you say wistfully, your mind jumping over the fences in your life. “This is how it happened. I was there.”
* * * * *
He came suddenly from the east, piloting his twin turbo Gulfstream toward the small rural airstrip, skimming in from the bleeding edge of a High Sierra sunrise. The chirping tires on the weathered tarmac cracked the cool Alpine air and a choreographed flock of Cassin’s finches exploded out of the grass, rising and pirouetting together as though all of one mind.
The old man’s name was Barney Zell, a compact man with a blocky head topped by thick silver-gray hair cut en brosse. He strode across the runway like a man who never took the hanger out of his coat. Within minutes he was sitting at the government-surplus desk facing the young, red-haired man, in the rear of the Quonset hut flight hangar. The faint noises of mechanics at work punctured the silence. The old man possessed a grave, sardonic, broadcast-quality voice, but his face was where his power lay—lively blue eyes radiating with a certain watchfulness, textured skin as pitted as a walnut, with a lean nose, sharp chin and an even sharper mind. A pale scar creased one eyebrow and a plum-colored birthmark defiantly blemished his cheek. He was, the younger man sensed, a man on top of his brief, well traveled through life’s passages.
“Let me understand you, Mr. Zell,” the red-haired man said slowly, staring at the sheaf of papers, topographical maps and aerial photographs littering the desk. Each was dominated by the same singular mountain, covered in forest and snow, its craggy, cloud-rimmed heights exceeded only by its immense girth. “You want to hire me to guide you up Mount Elliott, up to this location,” the man continued, stabbing a finger against one of the photographs, “to find something, pick it up, and bring it back down?”
“Yes. Yes, that is it precisely.”
“And you say you have already hired a helicopter pilot—the one who took these pictures, I assume—who told you it is impossible to land there?”
“Well, Mr. McFarlane, some of those are classified satellite photographs which I got from an old Air Force friend. The helicopter pilot . . . well, it may not be technically impossible to go that high and to land there, but he refuses to do it. He’s afraid of the weather conditions up there. He only went up there that one time.”
McFarlane stared at the man seated across from him, noting the dark smudges underscoring his shrewd eyes. He struggled to take the measure of the man, sensing a primal, unflinching power. This was a man who lived life in the arena, a man used to giving orders.
“Well, the obvious question is, why? What’s up there, and why do you want it so badly?”
The man steepled his fingers, staring back over his manicured nails. He spoke slowly, enunciating each syllable carefully. “It is a P-40, Mr. McFarlane.”
“A peeforty? A peeforty what?” McFarlane saw the disappointment cloud the old man’s face.
“A Curtiss-Wright P-40 Warhawk. The fighter aircraft.”
“Are you familiar with it?”
“Yeah. A little.” McFarlane suppressed a smile. As a youth he had built model World War II airplanes. American, British, German, Italian, Russian, Japanese, he built them all. He faithfully memorized their histories, knew their pedigrees, understood their tactical and strategic roles. His all-time favorite was the P-51 Mustang, though he considered the Spitfire to be the most beautiful. One of his very first models, and a favorite, was the Curtiss-Wright P-40 Warhawk, with its long nose and grinning shark teeth painted on the chin cowling. McFarlane recalled zooming through the woods, holding his plastic 1/72 scale Warhawk in one hand, a Japanese Zero in the other, slowly twirling around on imaginary missions of great danger and daring, pretending he was one of the Flying Tigers fighting in the China skies.
“You’re saying there’s a P-40 Warhawk up there? On Mount Elliott?”
“Yes. After the war thousands of surplus army aircraft were sold off, mostly for scrap, or even given away. Back then you could buy a perfectly good P-40 for a hundred bucks.” For the first time the old man’s features softened as he allowed himself a brief smile. “Well, just after the war a company purchased a dozen P-40s, wanted to convert them to crop dusters. They were ferrying them over the mountains when one went down. They had to wait until the next year to go up and hack the pilot’s body out of the snow and wreckage.”
“And this P-40, it’s in good condition now?”
“Well, good is a relative term. The plane went into a lot of snow and for the most part is fairly well preserved.”
“And you want it? How the hell do you expect us to get a wrecked P-40 off that mountain, Mr. Zell?”
“I don’t want the entire aircraft.” Zell leaned forward, his eyes glittering in the fluorescent light. “I just want certain parts. The top and bottom longerons.”
McFarlane cocked his head, then leaned backward, his chair squeaking beneath him.
“I have been rebuilding a P-40 for the past several years,” Zell continued. “I have spent over two million dollars doing so. It is almost complete, but I have been unable to obtain the longerons. I’ve checked with every surplus aircraft parts dealer in the world. None are available.”
Two million dollars. McFarlane rolled the figure around in his mind, holding it up, weighing it, examining it from all angles. Just to rebuild an extinct airplane, to reconstruct a rich old man’s poignant memories.
“For that kind of money you can just have brand new longerons machined. Much simpler.”
“No. My aircraft has to be one hundred percent original. Nothing fake. It is important to me.”
McFarlane stared down at his graphite-colored hands, his fingerprints and palm creases highlighted by indelible traces of imbedded grease. He examined his blunt fingers, capped by thick, ground-down nails. He saw the skinned knuckles and dry, cracked skin. When he flexed his hands they felt as though he was wearing tight gloves. He tried to picture those hands weighing out two million dollars.
“As you can see, Mr. McFarlane, I have the precise GPS coordinates. It will be easy to get to the exact location.”
“No. It won’t be easy, Mr. Zell. It will be dangerous.”
“You mean expensive?” The old man’s tone was as sly as a wink.
“I mean dangerous.” McFarlane considered the barbed possibilities, aware of a vague uneasiness, an asperity of feeling piercing the skin of his mind yet fleeing his understanding even before he could grasp it. “This could be bad juju.”
“Money is no object, Mr. McFarlane.”
“Money is not the object, Mr. Zell.” McFarlane studied the toes of his boots, breathing in the cool morning air, freighted with the familiar odors of aviation fuel, rubber, grease and hydraulic fluid—smells pregnant with meaningful memories. He heard the nasal whir and metallic clatter of an air-driven impact wrench, the persistent tapping of a hammer on metal. Men at work. These sounds and smells, these routines, framed his life and accorded him whatever comfort he possessed. He reveled in their pedestrian simplicity. It had not always been that way.
“Make no mistake about it,” McFarlane said, pushing the photographs across the desk, “at that altitude on Mount Elliott nature is in charge. Men have died on that mountain. Good men. Better men than me. Or you.” McFarlane paused, staring out through a hangar window at the jagged ridge of Alpine crags marching across the distant horizon, shrouded in capes of brilliant diamond-blue snow. “Do you know why it is named Mount Elliott?”
“Actually, I do. It was named after Caleb Elliott, a famous pioneer mountain man. He explored this area back in the early 1800s.” Zell waved his hand vaguely, taking in the surrounding mountains.
“Yeah, that’s right. Caleb Elliott was the best mountain man in the territory. He trapped, fished, hunted and explored all of this before any white man laid eyes on this land. He was a legend. The local tribes called him Iron Feet in tribute to his toughness. He was as close to nature as a man can get. But an early autumn blizzard caught him high up on the slopes. They didn’t find his body until the following year, frozen stiff in a makeshift pine bark lean-to. The weather up there is very strange, very unpredictable. It can change in a heartbeat, and almost always for the worst.” McFarlane felt no need to mention that Caleb Elliott was a distant relative.
“I didn’t select you by accident, Mr. McFarlane. I checked around. You are not only a skilled pilot, you grew up around Mount Elliott. You’ve been a camping guide in the area. More than one person reported that you know the mountain as well as any man around.”
“Listen, Mr. Zell, with all due respect, this won’t be a walk in the park—”
“—I’m healthy as a horse,” the old man said, waving away any concerns. “I work out every day. Got the best doctors looking after me. I can do this.” He spoke with a fervency of spirit, his whole frame thrown into each word.
“Do you know what altitude sickness is?”
“Of course. You think I’m stupid? I know the risks. Hell, I fought Germans in the Italian Alps, Mr. McFarlane.”
McFarlane considered the money the old man had offered him when he first sat down. Enough to pay off the mortgage on the hangar, retire the banknote on the Cessna. Maybe have a few bucks left over.
“But, why do you want to go? Guys like you hire guys like me to do your work. So, why take this kind of risk yourself?”
“When you get to be my age you can define your own visions. This is what I want to do.” Zell paused, searching McFarlane’s face. “It’s personal. Some things you have to do yourself. I need to go, Mr. McFarlane. Now, will you do it?”
The red-haired man looked down at the lines creasing his palms, resembling the brown variegated contours of the plowed fields he often flew across, the Tuscany-like valleys of northern California’s wine country. How long had it been since he had really felt alive, he suddenly wondered. He knew the answer before he even completed the thought.
“Yeah,” he finally replied, wondering why he suddenly felt so relieved. “I’ll do it.” He looked out the window again. “But we’ll have to move fast. Winter isn’t that far off and the snows come early up there.”
It took ten days for McFarlane to arrange things. On that last morning the old man again flew in, carefully inspecting the supplies before getting into the sturdy truck hitched to a well worn horse trailer. Together they drove straight for the distant mountain like men attacking an implacable enemy. They traveled past sun-dappled pastoral fields, flashing by browsing black-and-white cows treading carpets of wild flowers where autumn scarlets and ochres flared hotly amidst plump blueberries, elderberries and cranberries.
By mid-morning the mountain rose up, as precisely as the steps of an escapement in a fine Swiss watch, filling the windshield from post to post. What had been broad, muted brush strokes from Nature’s palette took on sharp details, allowing the eye to discern its complexities. Smooth grays became sharp, craggy granite folds. Gentle shades of undifferentiated green and brown individualized into towering, densely packed trees whose size and scope threatened small minds. And, dominating it all, high above, was the bright snowy cap, piercing a ceiling of thick clouds, reaching up to the vanishing point in a haze of light. The grade inexorably increased and McFarlane shifted gears violently as the asphalt gave way to rutted Forest Service roads. Spruce and pine scent filled the squeaking cab as they jostled past boulder-lined brooks where glacial meltwater flung itself down the slope as if desperate to quit the mountain. Shadows abounded in the filtered light as they wound through deep folds, and towering crags crowded out the sun. Then, even the dirt road disappeared and the truck’s knobby tires made their own path, switchbacking up the hulking escarpment.
As the elevation increased Zell’s mood warmed and he proved to be good company, a man of generous intellect and good humor. His speech became more colloquial, animated with lucid digressions. Bouncing around in the creaking cab he regaled McFarlane with a lifetime of colorful anecdotes. He relished betting in all its forms and often lapsed into racetrack bookie vernacular, spitting out odds on likely winners of everything from an upcoming weekend golf game to sack races at his company picnic. He was, McFarlane appreciated, a consummate businessman, totally self-made, an old school hustler who built his business through sheer force of will. If chance favors the prepared mind, the old man was in a constant state of readiness.
“What is that thing?” McFarlane asked, nodding at the shiny object in Zell’s hand.
“This?” Zell opened his hand, revealing a heavy coin, worn smooth by years of hope. “This is my lucky charm. I won this silver dollar in a poker game, oh, about forty years ago. I never go anywhere without it. Never.”
“You believe in that stuff? Lucky charms?”
“Why not? Chance. Providence. Serendipity. Fate. Good luck. Bad luck.” Zell reached up and rapped the coin against the metal dashboard. “The way I see it luck explains the vagaries of life as well as anything else.” He flipped the coin expertly, snatching it out of the air. “I’m superstitious as hell. I won this,” he said, holding the coin up, “under very unusual circumstances. I’ve carried it ever since. I can’t remember ever leaving home without it. If I ever forgot it, I’d go back and get it.”
“I figure the harder you work the luckier you get.”
“To a point. But, life is full of hardworking folk with little or nothing to show for it.”
“It’s just a coin, a random coin,” McFarlane objected, shaking his head.
“All I know is that it works. It’s brought me good luck ever since. If I quit carrying it now and I got bad luck, well, that would be really stupid.”
With a final lurch McFarlane pulled into a stand of ancient ponderosa pines and cut the engine. “This is as far as we can go by truck,” he announced, pulling on a pair of leather work gloves. “From here on out it’s mule country.”
The men stepped out onto a dense carpet of springy pine needles littered with fat, bristly pine cones, into a muffled world of complete silence. Working together they dropped the tailgate and backed the five mules out of the trailer. The animals stood patiently, their tails whisking across their broad rumps, while the packs were loaded on their backs. McFarlane’s senses tuned into the surroundings—overhead, a pair of Western Tanagers bickered, flashing their orange, yellow and black feathers through the branches like semaphores; a chipmunk scurried along the forest floor; an acorn fell from a great oak, smacking the leaves on its way down; a black beetle burrowed through the pine needles and leaves; the staccato tap, tap, tap of a woodpecker attacking a tree split the silence—all the little sounds of life in the woods. As McFarlane locked the truck Zell approached a huge tree, reaching out to touch the thick, gnarled bark. Tilting his head back he looked up the towering mast into the thick canopy. Two hundred feet overhead the treetops swayed gently against a clear blue sky, their silvery-green tips bathed in brilliant sunlight. Zell dropped his gaze back down to the forest floor where the shadowy air was eerily still.
“Reminds me of those medieval cathedrals I saw in Europe. Dark and gloomy.” He shivered suddenly, then stomped his booted feet.
“Better put on a good jacket, Mr. Zell. You won’t be warm again until we get off this mountain.”
The two men knelt on the damp forest floor, consulting the photographs and comparing their GPS coordinates to those on the maps. “Let’s get started,” McFarlane said. He stood up, then brushed the dirt and pine needles from his knees. “We still have several hours of light.” The men leaned forward into the grade, urging the mules along. The animals snorted occasionally, their broad backs undulating rhythmically under the weight of heavy packs shifting in cadence with the uneven terrain. As they trooped through the cool, dark woods the old man talked and McFarlane listened.
“My biggest gamble was when I quit my job and mortgaged my house to finance my dream,” he called out over the back of a mule. He had been an electrical engineer with a large railroad company, he explained, when he found himself in his backyard one night, pondering the stars.
“I had an epiphany that night. Call it a vision. I foresaw the triumph of the photon over the electron, the day when all telecommunications would come down to light. Beautiful, pure light, luminous and mysterious, the essence that makes life on earth possible. The subject of painting, poetry, philosophy, astronomy and quantum electrodynamics. I saw the future and I believed in what I saw.”
Zell had grasped the full implications of the then-new fiber optics, saw how it could revolutionize telecommunications. He first approached the railroad with his idea, but was rejected with barely concealed scorn. So he quit, cobbled together a consortium of investors and returned to his employer. He hammered out a deal to purchase exclusive cable-laying rights on the railroad’s extensive rights-of-way. The only problem was he did not have enough money. So, armed with the railroad’s letter of intent, he persuaded a group of new, aggressive telecommunication companies to advance him the money in return for long-term discount leases on the fiber-optic cables he intended to lay. With the advance lease payments he paid the railroad for the rights, then laid 20,000 miles of fiber-optic cable in less than three years.
“I used my customer’s money to finance everything,” he explained. “I showed them an idea. They put up the money. I executed the plan.”
Even then, he said, he understood that bandwidth was everything. He laid ten times more capacity than he could possibly lease, knowing cable in the ground would come to be better than gold. Ten percent of capacity went to the original telecos. Having arrived at the convergence of exploding demand for bandwidth and a woefully inadequate supply, it was a natural step for him to launch his own communications company, one with a huge surplus of bandwidth. And, as luck would have it, he did it just in time to surf on the newest technological wave, just emerging from the computer age. Something called the Internet. Ever since, his company minted money.
“The railroad thought I was crazy. They thought they were getting over on me. But I believed in my vision. Most importantly, I acted on it. I cast my bread on the water,” Zell said, turning to face McFarlane, “and it worked like fresh bait.”
“It gets dark early and fast up here,” McFarlane announced as they skirted a cold, fast-flowing stream. “We’ll make camp here.”
After supper they sat on lichen-covered logs facing the crackling campfire. They drank coffee, watching the sparkling embers dance upward and listening to the occasional pop of a pine knot or pine cone. The fire threw a halo of yellow orange light up against the edges of the arboreal shadows. McFarlane enjoyed the pungent smell of burning wood while listening to the churning water in the nearby stream. His eyelids became heavy.
“When do you suppose we’ll reach the site?”
“Three more days,” McFarlane guessed, eyeing Zell over the rim of his coffee cup.
“It’s been pretty easy, so far,” Zell offered, rubbing his hands together for warmth.
McFarlane sipped his coffee. Darkness pressed in against their island of light, emphasizing the sparkling puffs of condensation coming with each breath. He looked up at the canopy overhead to see the shadows leaping and swirling around like the ghosts of Indians past, spirits dancing in harmony with Nature, worshiping their Creator as they knew Him. “This territory is hard on people, Mr. Zell. It’s claimed many lives, in many ways. The elements here are just that, elemental.” McFarlane paused as a dead limb cracked in the distance and crashed through the branches. “If you get in too much of a hurry you might get slapped by the elephant’s tail.”
“Elephant’s tail? Did you say elephant?”
McFarlane nodded. “We’re close to the terminus of the old California Trail, where those pioneer wagon trains came through. Over there in the east, in Nevada,” he said, pointing with his coffee mug, “between Humboldt Sink and the Carson River, lies the Forty-Mile Desert. Even now it’s littered with human bones and broken-down, abandoned wagons. Over there,” he continued, pointing with his other hand, “you have Carson Pass, Squaw Ridge and Sonora Pass. And, over there lies Donner Pass.” McFarlane sipped his coffee. “I don’t have to tell you what happened at Donner Pass.”
McFarlane stood up, stretching. Through the tree canopy he saw stars shining bright and clear through the cold, thin air. “It’s said that twenty thousand pioneers died along the California Trail,” he continued. “An average of ten graves per mile. A lot of those graves are concentrated near here, the end of the trail. Sort of an elephant graveyard you might say, if you are inclined to poetic imagery.”
“Where do the elephants come in?”
“Well, back in the 1840s, when the first pioneers began trekking the California Trail, easterners considered elephants to be about the most exotic, rarest thing imaginable. The trek from Missouri, across those vast, unknown plains, was equally exotic. So, it came to be referred to as The Elephant. Sort of a metaphor for the great adventure. But, as those pioneers began dying, well, they found that The Elephant wasn’t so poetic. Any mishap, whether it was a busted wagon or crippled oxen, Indian attack or bad water hole, cholera or smallpox, came to be known as a brush of The Elephant’s tail. A prairie fire or killer hailstorm, whatever, it all came from The Elephant. The Elephant was always sensed, always felt, but, hopefully, never seen.”
“You seem to know a lot about the history of this area.”
“Yeah. Well, like you said, I grew up around here,” McFarlane said, tossing his coffee into the fire.
The next morning they set out early, moving slowly upward on winding traces, searching out faint game trails among the steeply inclined conifers. Overhead, hermit thrushes and Wilson’s warblers hopped among the branches, following the pack train’s progress with cocked heads. A thick fog clung to the mountain, making it impossible to see the first mule from the last. Dislodged rocks and clods of earth clattered down the steep slopes, vanishing into the mist below. The diffuse light of the distant sun shimmered through the white wall of fog, as though hidden behind a veil of cotton balls. Occasionally they used machetes to chop through dense, dew-glistened vegetation. Zell whistled jauntily, refusing to let McFarlane outwork him, urging the mules forward as though determined to shame even them. It was tough, hard going. Despite the chill both men were drenched in sweat. The pack train plodded slowly, inexorably, ever upward. Then the mules began to disappear.
One moment McFarlane was staring at the sweat-streaked haunches of the mule ahead of him and the next moment it was gone—vanishing silently into the fog as if stepping off the edge of the world. McFarlane shouted a warning, then skittered down the damp slope. The dazed mule was forty feet down, stunned but unhurt. It took hours to unload the packs, haul them up by rope, then tug, push and cajole the animal back up to the trail. The caravan pushed onward. Thirty minutes later another mule disappeared into the mist. The men scrambled and slid down the slope in pursuit. The mule was on its side, struggling futilely, steam rising from its glistening, heaving chest, its eyes wild with terror. McFarlane saw the white, jagged edge of the splintered leg bone, its bright red marrow flashing with each desperate kick. McFarlane locked eyes with Zell.
“You know what has to be done,” Zell said, peeling off his jacket. He kneeled down, covered the mule’s eyes with the jacket and gently stroked its muzzle. He spoke to the animal in a soft, comforting voice.
“I didn’t bring a gun,” McFarlane said.
“Well, do you want to do it, or you want me to ?” The old man asked, pulling a large hunting knife from a hip sheath. When McFarlane did not reply immediately Zell motioned to him. “Here, hold the head down. Hold tight, it’s going to be messy.”
McFarlane squatted down, pressing the jacket over the animal’s head while pushing its muzzle between his knees. The mule snorted in protest and its flank twitched. McFarlane smelled the rich odor of damp mule flesh as he braced himself. Zell lifted the knife in a two-handed grip, then plunged the blade down hard, driving it deep into the long neck. In one continuous motion he ripped the blade outward, severing the throat. The mule screamed, bucking violently as blood gushed out. McFarlane squeezed his knees together, holding the head down, feeling the primal struggle for life. Hot blood washed over his hands and knees. The old man threw himself across the animal’s chest, pressing down until the struggling finally ceased. McFarlane stood up, breathing hard, unexpectedly exhausted. At his feet steam rose up from the dark, blood-drenched ground. Working in silence the men unloaded the packs, then hauled them back up to the trail.
The caravan moved on, and the more they progressed the more Zell seemed to come alive. He moved surprisingly fast, seeming always to be dancing, moving, rushing time. He poured himself into the task at hand, enveloping it until the struggle disappeared into his bigness, and then he was gone, skipping ahead to the next problem, tap dancing ahead of time itself. He was, McFarlane sensed, a man who thrived on challenges, on overcoming obstacles. And, he was very eager to find that plane.
Eventually the mist parted, lifting to reveal the highest escarpments. Looming high above, the rocky crags stood poised as if caught in mid-stride, just waiting to be animated. The peak itself squatted high above the tree line, brooding in splendid isolation, hulking, ominously heavy, as though ceaselessly mourning. It was a place where even in the brightest summer billowing drifts of snow clutched at the granite ridges and filled deep cirques like pools of icy down.
By nightfall, with maps spread on the ground, McFarlane estimated that, with luck, they might find the plane late the following day. He constantly checked the radio for weather reports while consulting his GPS receiver for their precise coordinates. The bitter cold forced them to eat a hurried supper with their gloves on, huddling close to the blazing campfire. The tethered mules stood sentinel around the fire, draped in heavy wool blankets. As McFarlane stared into the darkness, trying to conjure up a mental image of them using their tools to cut away the plane’s heavy aluminum longerons, Zell used a stick to stir up the fire. Not for the first time McFarlane wondered how Zell could be so certain that the longerons had even survived in salvageable shape. Perhaps he was simply gambling again.
“I told you I did some checking on you.” Zell spoke suddenly, still poking the burning logs. The embers zigzagged upward like errant fireflies.
“Actually, a lot of checking. I don’t casually put my life in another person’s hands.”
“Your point?” Overhead the stars were needle points of light, clear and bright.
“Well, I like to think I’m a good judge of character—”
“Everyone believes they are. Most are wrong.”
“Well, I’ve been reasonably successful at it. Take you, for example. I know you were a combat helicopter pilot in Vietnam. You enlisted, had two tours. Got discharged. Went back to college. Got a Ph.D. in English literature. Yet, you moved back to the mountains, apparently satisfied with running that two-bit operation at that rat hole airstrip in the middle of nowhere. You live alone like an ascetic monk. So, I ask myself, why? Why does a guy like that do this?”
“It’s complicated the way people turn out.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“It was something I was able to savor only with maturity.” McFarlane breathed in the cool sweetness of the night air, so close to nature that he felt its fleeting touch.
“ ‘I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.’ Thoreau wrote that a long time ago.”
“I never cared much for Thoreau. He didn’t have any big dreams.” Zell looked up, staring at the red-haired man. “Don’t you have any big dreams?”
McFarlane did not answer for a long time. “I had big dreams once. But it’s been too many years since I was a kid. Enough long years can wear a man down to nothing, and burn your dreams down even more.”
“Well, what did that kid dream about?”
McFarlane smiled. “You’re beginning to sound like a therapist, Mr. Zell.”
“Barnabas means ‘a person who encourages’.” He returned the smile.
McFarlane leaned back, searching the stars overhead. “Well, compared to yours, my dreams were not really big. Rather pedestrian, in fact. You’ll probably laugh. I just wanted to move to the Florida Keys and spend my life deep sea fishing. You know, sailfish, marlin, yellowfin tuna, wahoo. Do some fishing on the flats for permit and bone fish. I was there, once—ran away from home and lived there one summer.” He tossed a pine cone into the dying fire. “I’d buy a waterfront place on Islamorada. I’d have a big custom sportfisherman, 55, 60 feet. I’d charter the boat occasionally, just enough to pay the bills. Do some freelance writing for the outdoor magazines. But mostly I’d just fish. Fish, drink, listen to Bob Dylan, and fish some more. Forever.” McFarlane smiled wanly.
McFarlane shrugged. “I was a kid.”
“What about friends? Good friends?”
He shrugged again. “What for? I can live without them.”
“You think so?” The question hung like an accusation. “As I’ve become older, and hopefully wiser, I’ve come to believe that our relationships are the most important things in life. Particularly friends and family. I mean real, true friends—the kind you’ll die for.” A great horned owl hooted suddenly in the darkness followed immediately by the caw of a Stellar’s jay. “It’s sad that you don’t have any true friends.” Zell made the statement as if reading from a book.
“What makes you think I don’t have any friends?” McFarlane heard his own voice, sharp, philippic—pregnant with denial.
“Tell me their names.”
McFarlane stared up at the stars, searching for those familiar patterns. “I had a friend once.” he finally said. “A real friend. Like a brother. The kind you wished you could have died for just to prove how much he meant to you.” McFarlane’s words seemed fragile and diaphanous against the cold, supernal background.
McFarlane looked down, then stared off into the darkness. He felt his own breath, thick and slow, his spirit still burdened with that indelible bitterness that had once denuded his soul. “I don’t like to talk about it.”
“About what?” Zell’s voice was soft, yet urgent, gently brushing away the years of accumulated resistence like the deft strokes of a surgeon’s probe.
“His name was Angus.”
“Tell me about him.”
“Yes. It was 1969. I was flying a Hueycobra gunship out of Chu Lai, an airbase about 150 clicks south of Da Nang.” The words rushed out and McFarlane, possessed by his own astonishment, took a deep breath, hoping that the shadows hid his trembling hand. “One night,” he continued, “we were briefed on the following day’s search and destroy mission. We had to insert several companies of Rangers into a landing zone about 30 clicks away. I was familiar with the area, it was a bad LZ, set in a valley. A strip of elephant grass about as wide as a football field and twice as long. Surrounded by jungle. The area was crawling with VC. I had a real bad feeling about it.”
“Are you psychic?” Zell asked seriously.
“Apparently not enough. The next morning we flew in low and fast. Only six choppers could land at one time. The others hung back in fire support. I was the third one in. Before my skids even touched the grass we began taking small arms fire. As the Rangers hit the ground my ship started really getting lit up. I saw Rangers falling as they tried to make the jungle edge. Bullets were zinging through my chopper. My gunner was blazing away with his M-60. Mortar rounds started coming in, then RPGs were flying by. The ground was exploding. In front of me were two other choppers getting hit hard. They were being shot away right before my eyes, and I knew my chopper looked the same way. It was hell in a small place.”
McFarlane poured himself another cup of coffee, then stood up and moved away from the fire, into the cold darkness. “Just as I took off we got hit so hard by a heavy machine gun that my chopper shuddered in mid-air. I can still see those bullet holes opening up my cockpit. I felt burning metal spraying my body and I knew I was hit. Then, the whole inside of my windshield was covered in blood and brains. For a moment I thought it was mine. But, it was my gunner. His head was blown clean off. I leaned the chopper over so far that my rotors were clipping the tree tops. Clearing the LZ I saw the chopper behind me explode. The number two chopper was still on the ground, its rotor was slowing down. I knew the pilot, a guy named Jim Finn.
“Flying back to base I heard the screams and gunfire over the radio. Everyone was pinned down. When I landed at the base I had to cut my gunner’s body out of his harness. He was hanging there without a head. I threw his body on the ground and took off with another load of Rangers.”
McFarlane set his empty coffee cup on the ground, then turned to face the old man. “I’ll never forget that sight on the way back to the LZ. It looked like a million ants boiling out of their nests. At least a brigade of NVA Regulars, all running toward the LZ. When I came in I saw that the Rangers had been pushed back to the center of the clearing—the ones still alive, anyway. The gunfire was so heavy it had cut down the elephant grass. Four disabled choppers were on the ground. Two were burning. Jim Finn’s chopper was still there, shot all to hell. Bodies were lying all around it. But, there was Jim, firing an M-16 through his shattered canopy, screaming at the VC. Even as I watched, bullets were chewing up his ship from nose to tail. For that brief moment it was as if a guardian angel protected him. I remember that so clearly.”
The old man coughed softly, as if reluctant to fracture the moment. The fire burned low and the shadows leaned in. “By then,” McFarlane continued, “my chopper was really getting hammered. The Rangers onboard were returning fire. Then the artillery support came in, 155mm rounds whistling through the trees. The jungle was exploding, the men were screaming. Fire and smoke was everywhere. It was overwhelming. I think my pain was all that kept me alive.
“Then, just as I was about to offload the Rangers, I got the order to evacuate everyone. Below me were all those faces, motioning to me, screaming at me to come in. I dropped down, figuring we could hold at least ten more men. Everyone on board was firing at the woods. The men on the ground were backing up toward us, firing their weapons, dragging their wounded. When they got to us they pushed the wounded on board first. Jim’s chopper was right in front of me, burning like hell. Jim was firing away, screaming at the VC, changing magazines. It was surreal. Then, his gunship exploded. It was so close the fireball burned my face.
“By then I was loaded to the max. I had to take off. I had to. One guy was hanging from the skid. I didn’t even see him until he fell into the jungle.” McFarlane paused, his memories skipping faster than his thoughts. “God, I didn’t want to leave those men. The one absolute rule we have is, if we put them in, we pull them out. No exceptions. I’ve never forgotten their expressions, those faces, covered in blood and grease. When I pulled up it was like my guts were being ripped out.”
“And Angus?” the old man asked softly after a long silence. “What about your best friend, Angus?”
“Angus?” McFarlane’s voice was textured with emotion. “Angus was my gunner.”
The third day began with men and mules struggling up fog-shrouded trails, their lungs burning in the thin air as they pulled deeply with each step. The rising sun offered a brilliant light but no relief from the bone-chilling cold, as though unable to afford both. By mid-morning both men had headaches, and Zell moved slowly, clumsily, stumbling repeatedly, resting often. McFarlane began thinking about altitude sickness, watching Zell carefully as they plodded onward. Finally, they made noon camp by a large, jutting promontory, a finger of gray stone erupting from the mountainside like a Neolithic bowsprit. After consulting the maps McFarlane stepped to the edge of the overhang and methodically glassed the upper slopes. Finally, above the timberline, he saw the unmistakable glitter of sunlight on metal.
“Come take a look,” McFarlane said after studying the scene carefully.
“That’s it, isn’t it?” Zell asked in a rasping voice. His gloved hands shook as he stared through the binoculars, and his face appeared drained, the color of an old man’s fingernails.
“Yes. It’s below the permanent snow line. As winter approaches the snowline descends. In another month your P-40 will be covered until next summer.” McFarlane braced himself as a sudden blast of icy air whistled over the outcrop. “In a few hours we’ll reach that big rise there, just below the timberline,” McFarlane said, pointing. He had to lean close to be heard over the rising wind. “We’ll camp there tonight and make the final push tomorrow.”
The old man nodded, his face buried in his fur-lined parka hood. “Tomorrow,” he agreed, his voice waning. He moved ponderously, slowly easing his way off the ledge as the first snow flurry danced across the rock pier. Zell stumbled and McFarlane grabbed him, holding him tightly, feeling Zell’s body tremble. As McFarlane led him back onto the trail he felt a visceral foreboding rise up, like a dark shadow that nothing could push back.
That night the bitter cold drove them into their tent. Inside, a golden halo of suffused lantern light embraced the men, cocooned in their sleeping bags like twin caterpillars. They listened to the trees sway and creak, dropping their pine cones like ripe fruit. The mules snorted and stomped their hooves, while the tent’s yellow nylon rippled and billowed like a reaching spinnaker in the rushing mountain air. Zell spoke eloquently of many things—life, death and destiny—and then he spoke of his own war.
“I spent most the war flying in the Mediterranean Theater, mostly in Italy. The important part, anyway.”
“That’s where your obsession with these P-40s comes from?”
“Obsession?” The old man let the word hang in the air.
“Yeah. I think this meets Mr. Webster’s definition.”
The old man said nothing. Then, slowly, he reached up and turned the lantern out, disappearing into the darkness. “I had a friend once, too, Mr. McFarlane. Like your friend, Angus.” McFarlane sensed the old man had turned on his side, facing him. “His name was Phil Hanson, from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.” Zell laughed softly. “That’s how he always introduced himself. ‘I’m Phil Hanson from Wilkes-Barre.’ Like everyone automatically knew where the hell Wilkes-Barre was.” Zell paused, and the nylon rippled. “Phil was one of the good guys, the kind that aren’t supposed to die young. The kind that gives the rest of us hope that God knew what He was doing when He created us.” The wind blew and the snow fell.
“I flew 168 combat missions in North Africa and Italy,” Zell continued, rolling over on his back, “most all of them with Phil as my wing man. Phil was as different from me as day from night. But, for some reason, we clicked. There was a chemistry there I could not explain at the time.” The old man’s voice quavered and in the dark silence McFarlane felt the weight of an uncomfortable awkwardness.
“So, tell me about those P-40s.”
“Our squadron flew P-40 Warhawks,” Zell said after a long moment. “This was 1944, before they were replaced by P-47 Thunderbolts. Now, the P-40 was a bastard plane from day one. In ’39 Curtiss-Wright just grafted that huge inline 12-cylinder Allison engine onto a P-39 airframe. Later on they put the Merlin V-12 in, but they started with Allisons.”
McFarlane smiled to himself as he felt the excitement animating the old man’s voice.
“It’s popular to dump on the Warhawk nowadays,” Zell continued. “It wasn’t real fast, like the Mustang or Thunderbolt. You couldn’t catch an Me109, and you sure as hell couldn’t outrun it. It had no real bounce, couldn’t climb fast after a low altitude pass. I admit it. Our advantage was superior firepower and being virtually bulletproof. Lots of armor plating, six machine guns. Still, they rolled quickly and turned very well, and we had very fast acceleration in a dive. It was designed as a limited pursuit, low altitude, short range fighter. This was before the war, of course, and the Army Air Corps bigwigs thought that was the right strategy. Hell, we didn’t know any better. They loaded it up with so much armor plate and guns that we were lucky to clock 300 miles an hour. Way slow. Sometimes flying that plane was like being a jackass in a hailstorm. There was nothing to do but stand there and take it.
“But,” he continued, with the confidence of a used car salesman, “that plane was a life saver. Virtually maintenance free, way overbuilt. It took a hell of a pounding. I’ve watched so many Warhawks land safely after being half shot away. I once took half a dozen German 20mm shells through my rear fuselage and still landed. My plane looked like a Swiss cheese cartoon airplane. That P-40 was a flying tank, a beast. You just had to know its limits and scheme within them. Play to its strengths. That plane was special. It had character. Just like a true friend.”
McFarlane sensed that the old man might just as easily have been describing Phil Hanson. Zell continued to speak with a private passion, describing bright Italian skies alive with P-40s in the spring of ’44. He spoke of crisp, cool mornings, with grease-stained mechanics racing around the airfield like worker ants. The thump and roar of those big Allison and Merlin engines, the smell of fuel, oil and exhaust smoke. He lauded those drab green machines with their snarling shark grin, beat-up and shot-up, pushed far beyond their limits, bouncing down short, bumpy runways loaded down with fuel and ammo, surrounded by snow-capped mountains that seemed to reach up and scrape the sky. He described that big, long nose stretching away in front of him, the feel of that crisp aileron control, how quickly the plane turned and rolled. How his plane was solid, sturdy, eager to fight, like a pug-nosed, cauliflower-eared middleweight with too much heart to stay on the canvas.
“God, I loved that plane,” he concluded, with the melancholy earnestness of a burdened spirit.
“So now you’re building a new one?”
“Yeah. You know, for professional aircraft restorers the P-40 isn’t very popular. Everyone wants Mustangs, or P-38s, or Spitfires. They’re sexier, you know? Everyone forgets about the old P-40. But, for me, the P-40 was the real star. It wasn’t the fastest or sleekest, but it held the fort down until those later planes were designed and built. To my thinking, the P-40 had the most important attribute in life.”
“And what’s that?”
“It was there when we needed it.”
“Yeah. That counts for something.”
“Parts are almost impossible to find now,” Zell explained, “and the P-40 has over 70,000 parts. I found the one I’ve got in New Zealand. After the war a farmer bought it surplus. Eventually he stripped it and sold off some parts, then buried the rest on his farm. I’ve spent several years restoring it. I got a tail section from Russia, and the pilot’s seat from China. I’ve spent years poring over old accident reports, interviewing witnesses, always searching for recoverable airframes.”
“So,” McFarlane asked softly, “what ever happened to your friend, Phil Hanson from Wilkes-Barre?”
“The P-40 did have some design flaws,” Zell said after a long silence. “The one I least understood, and which was never corrected, no matter how much we bitched about it, was that the control surfaces were fabric-covered. Unbelievable.”
McFarlane was surprised. He stared into the darkness, mentally picturing the snarling, powerful plane with the fabric Achilles heel.
“We were strafing a German supply train in a long, narrow valley. We took out the locomotive first, then began hammering the box cars and fuel tankers. The train was loaded with ammo, so it was exploding like a Roman candle. Phil flew right through a big fireball. He began having control problems and when I flew next to him I saw the fabric on his ailerons was burned up, flapping like an old scarecrow. Phil was fighting to keep it level, holding full right stick and right rudder. I was close enough to see the whites of his eyes. He was doing everything right, but it wasn’t enough. He flew into a hillside. I was next to him all the way. The explosion nearly blew me out of the sky. It happened so fast. I couldn’t believe he was dead. You could have shot me and it would have been less painful.”
A ponderous hush filled the tent. McFarlane felt the vulnerability in the old man’s voice, in the way he formed words interspersed with plaintive breaths of bafflement. Zell was, McFarlane knew, a man used to holding his private griefs close to his chest. For the first time McFarlane sensed a kinship with the old man, the common bond of men sharing the same strengths, and perhaps the same weaknesses.
“God, I loved that guy.” The words rushed out unbidden, as though eager to escape. “You couldn’t say things like that back then. But, I loved him.” The old man’s voice broke and McFarlane knew he was weeping. A painful silence hung in the air until Zell finally spoke again.
“I banked right and returned to the train.” The voice was strong again, cold as a razor blade. “People were pouring out of the cars, hundreds of them. Some were soldiers. But many were in civilian clothes. I didn’t care. I started at the front and strafed them all. I mowed them down, over and over and over, until I finally ran out of ammo. God help me, I killed them all.”
Outside the slicing wind whistled across the tent, buffeting the fabric. When Zell finally spoke again it was so lightly, and with such tenderness that McFarlane wondered if he imagined it.
“In Flanders fields the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row.”
“Oh,” Zell said softly, “it’s just an old poem I once knew.” He paused, then added, “Didn’t your father fight in Italy? Wasn’t he a paratrooper?”
“Yes, sir. He was 82nd Airborne. He was killed in Italy. I never knew him.”
“There’s an American military cemetery in Italy about 80 miles north of Naples,” Zell said after a while. “I went there after the war. It’s a sad place, with all those white stone crosses marching across the green field. But, it’s also very beautiful. The grounds are immaculate, not a blade of grass out of place. Flowers everywhere. The people who tend it, care. They remember. The word noble came to my mind when I first saw it. Anyway, in one section there is a small, neat stone monument, with a bronze plaque. It’s dedicated to some American paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne. For some reason I memorized the words on the plaque.” Zell paused, clearing his voice.
Just here, men of the 504 PIR, 82nd Airborne,
Went down shoulder to shoulder
On 9 April, 1944. They held
This ground and hold it still.”
“Those are good words,” McFarlane said slowly, uncertain of what else to say.
“Sometimes that’s all we are left with. A handful of words.”
McFarlane stared long into the blackness, until the old man’s rhythmic snores gently pushed his thoughts into sleep’s dark refuge.
They awoke with pounding headaches. Zell’s labored breathing emphasized his drawn face as he struggled to sit up. Stepping outside, McFarlane felt the fresh snow crunching and squeaking beneath his boots, while the cold, thin air opened up his lungs like a menthol scalpel. The haunting caws of forest ravens echoed against shaggy spruces while a rising sun broke through clouds hanging low like pewter anvils, throwing oblique shafts of light between the aspens, firs and poplars. Higher up the slope the low, wind-stunted shrubberies wore mantles of glistening snow, while below a cascade of white-boled birches and gangly larches billowed down the mountainside lacy as an emerald mist. McFarlane’s every sound, even his very thoughts, seemed muffled by the shroud of whiteness pressing down on everything. It was the importunate bickering of the ravens that finally drew McFarlane’s attention, and his stomach churned when he saw the dead mule. He yelled hoarsely, waving his arms until the feasting birds scattered to the branches overhead. Zell trudged to McFarlane’s side as he kneeled down.
“What killed it?” Zell’s tired voice rasped like sandpaper on flesh.
“I don’t know,” McFarlane replied, running a bare hand along the mule’s flank. The body was cold and stiff and he felt the coarse hair bristle against his palm. The eyes were pecked out, the protruding tongue frozen hard. The other mules stared morosely, as though seeking an explanation.
“This is serious, Mr. Zell.” McFarlane stood up and suddenly felt dizzy. “We‘re down to three mules now. Not enough to carry your airplane parts and our gear back down this mountain.” McFarlane looked around, undecided. He found it difficult to think and his head felt like it was wrapped in a thick blanket. For the first time he noticed the constant buzzing sound in his ears.
“What do you mean?” Zell turned abruptly, facing him squarely. “We’re too close to give up now. I won’t even consider it. I won’t permit it. The plane is right up there,” Zell insisted, pointing. “We can march there in an hour.”
McFarlane studied Zell’s gaunt, ashen-skinned face, his quivering lips turned blue-gray, the hollowed cheeks shadowed by a four-day beard. His trembling hands were braced on his hips as he struggled to suck air.
“Listen, Mr. Zell. You don’t understand—”
“No! You listen. You don’t understand.” The old man’s face folded into a fist and his chiseled features became predatory. His right hand rested on the hilt of his knife. “I came here for a reason, McFarlane, and we are not leaving until I’ve got what I came for. Failure is not an option.” Zell exploded into a dry, hacking cough that wracked his body until he slowly sank to one knee.
“You’ve got altitude sickness, Mr. Zell. You need to get off this mountain.”
Zell waved away the words. “No,” he gasped, fighting for air. “Not without those parts.”
“All right,” McFarlane said slowly, staring down at the old man. “But at least lie down in the tent. Your lungs are probably filling with fluid.” McFarlane took his elbow, guiding him back to the tent. Inside, Zell sank to the ground. The breath in his lungs rattled and he suddenly looked very old. McFarlane made him a hot breakfast, placing a thermos of coffee by his side.
“You can rest here. I’ll go up, check it out. If I can do it alone I’ll cut off the longerons, come get the mules and load them up. If I can’t do it alone, I’ll come get you.” He patted Zell’s shoulder. “How does that sound?”
Zell nodded slowly. “Yeah,” he replied, his breath wheezing. “You do that . . . reconnoiter . . . report back.” He coughed twice, then lay back, groaning. “Here,” he whispered. “Take this.” The old man pulled his hand from his pocket and held it out toward McFarlane. “We need some good luck,” he said, dropping his silver dollar onto McFarlane’s palm like a shiny promise.
With loaded backpack McFarlane trudged upward, traversing a boulder and scree-littered landscape shaped according to the accidents of nature, ignoring his burning lungs and leaden legs. What originally appeared to be an hour’s trek turned to two hours, then three as he struggled onward, stumbling occasionally, resting even more often. The fresh snow was deeper here, the rocks more numerous underfoot. Still, he kept moving on, eyes searching for the sun-burnished glint of metal occasionally offered through the distant boulders. Finally, when the naked sun stood directly overhead, he came upon a level plain bordered by rock pillars forming a natural amphitheater, a High Sierra Stonehenge. The wreckage lay off at the far side, pushed right up against the mountainside. Standing there, catching his breath, McFarlane envisioned the scene in the winter of 1946. The smooth white expanse, opening suddenly in the midst of a savage mountain, must have appeared so inviting to that desperate pilot, coming in from the south, wheels up, praying hard. With those stone pillars beckoning him like geologic runway beacons he belly-flopped on the snow, sliding, sliding, the mountain rising up to fill his windshield, his mind racing, calculating—knowing that he had made it—until finally his prop kissed the mountain face like the Pope’s ring.
McFarlane churned through knee-deep snow, the aircraft becoming larger, its details clearer with each labored step. He appreciated how the granite outcrop above the plane had sheltered it from avalanches. Years of wind had scoured the aluminum, polishing it brighter than Zell’s silver dollar. The wings lay outstretched like broken knife blades. There, the rudder stood tall, and there, the shattered canopy still glittered.
A light snow began falling, chasing away the sun. McFarlane was an easy five-iron shot from the wreckage when the first, vaguely disconcerting thought drifted through his mind like a refrain in a minor key. Something about the scene troubled him, and he wondered if the thin air was affecting his mind. At last he came abreast of the craft where he stood, in an attitude of Swiss neutrality, the falling snow hushing the scene. McFarlane stared, mouth agape, at the snow-dusted warbird, a symphony of contradictions clawing at the margins of his mind. Then slowly, he began moving, compassing the plane, drinking in every detail, wracking his memory—this was no time for mistakes, he must be certain. When he came full circle he stood there in the knee-deep snow, studying the broken aluminum carcass for a very long time, as if reading a book written in some inscrutable language. The wings, the horizontal stabilizers, the distinctive canopy—all told the same story. But it was the huge, awkward looking engine, half covered in snow, that defined his dread—an immense, round, brute of a radial engine, the epitome of post-industrial design, as stout and rugged as a Nebraska farmer. McFarlane stood and stared as the awful truth dawned upon him, until he was absolutely certain. This was not a P-40 Warhawk at all. He was looking at a Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat. The implications resonated in his oxygen-starved mind and he felt the oppressive weight of the old man’s bitter disappointment press down upon him. How could the old man have been so wrong? He had been so careful, had read the accident reports, checked everything out. How could it be? And now, what else to call this but a shadow of a hope-jacketed dream?
A sudden flurry of whipping snow raked McFarlane’s face. He looked up to meet a parlous gray sky—low, bruised-looking, hastened by wind, with churning, inky clouds ominously pressing down like an iron bowl. McFarlane looked down the mountain, searching for the distant timberline. It was suddenly getting dark, and very cold. He hesitated, then reached out and touched the plane—it felt solid, rooted in place.
When he turned away the snow was coming in at a steep angle, a stinging ice, as rapacious as desert locusts. Leaning forward he marched downward, fighting against the blustering wind that flowed up the mountain, pushing him back like a pillow against his face. Step by step he hurried forward, marching in cadence, his mind focused only on moving onward. When he looked up again his stomach sank—the pressing darkness and blowing snow had erased the treeline like an absentminded artist. With increased urgency his marching became trotting, then a desperate slogging run. Onward he charged, rushing, stumbling, churning, falling, rising, falling again—until his screaming lungs and wooden legs abandoned him fully, driving him to his knees like a folding tent. There, gasping like a beached fish, cursing his betraying body, McFarlane watched helplessly as the blizzard closed in completely, covering him like a thick cotton blanket. Sky and land faded together into an unbroken, blowing, crystalline wash. No horizon. Just white. Every shade of white possible—the turquoise white of the northern winter sky. The silver white of the Arctic fox. Polar bear white. Iceberg white. As white as the beast, that great nineteenth century whale. Everywhere, brilliant blinding white. He was singularly, utterly alone in awful Alpine whiteout.
With snow scouring his face and a howling wind against his ears McFarlane stumbled to a towering rock pillar, collapsing on the lee side. Desperately taking in long breaths, willing his heart to cease racing, he struggled out of the backpack and attacked the earth. With clawed hands and fevered intensity he scooped up the snow, burrowing like a panicked animal, packing the snow down all around him, racing to build shelter— a crude igloo of rock and ice. Bit by bit, measure by measure, the walls mounted up. His broken nails and bloodied fingers froze through his mittens; his lungs burned and body spasmed from the exertion, but nothing deterred his single-minded purposefulness until, in the face of certain annihilation he had carved out his niche and secreted himself in his ice cave like a hibernating beast.
Outside, the maelstrom roared, pounding like the fist of God seeking his very soul. Inside, curled in a ball, McFarlane shivered in darkness, denied even the meager consolation of hope as his breath and body heat glazed the interior walls, sealing them tight as a Pharaoh’s tomb. There, abandoned on the sharp stones and ice shards he huddled, straining mightily, concentrating only on the next ragged breath, existing simply from heartbeat to heartbeat, moment to moment, stringing one to the next like priceless pearls until the minutes turned to hours and then to one continuous span without beginning or end. And, throughout it all, his right hand jammed in his pocket resolutely clutching Zell’s silver dollar, he held a solitary mantra deathgripped foremost in his mind: Do Not Sleep.
Possessed by your own astonishment, it is the gentle lightness that first captures your attention, that familiar soaring sense signifying flight. You are flying—as you were born to. You stretch out in the vast whiteness, scan the skies, banking left, then right, tentatively at first, in a graceful, natural rhythm as eternal as the ocean tide, an iconized ballet made sacred. You look at your wings, brilliant white in the glinting sun, your luminous feathers rippling in the slipstream. You are not surprised to realize that you are a snow goose, sheathed in feathers as shiny white as an oyster’s lip. Your world, all that you can see, is bounded by white—a washed out colorless realm, quiet and still, devoid of movement or life. You look down at a landscape locked in white—as white as a death shroud. You feel the intense cold—an absence of heat, really—in the marrow of your bones, and your wings begin to feel heavy as your cells, one by one, crystallize and freeze, bursting in patterns as unique as a snowflake. You know, with all your being, that you must depart this land, seek the world of the living.
Below lies a vast, frozen river cleaving the land and on the far side lies that world—one of life and color, vibrant hues defying description, a kaleidoscope of vibrations, numbers, movement, music and scents. You must cross that river. But, though able to soar over the ancient Himalayas you understand you are powerless to cross this border. You require passage.
On your side of the division all lies hushed, shrouded, still. You sail on, your wings weary, searching. Then, appearing small at first sight, moving about, a dark, enigmatic speck. It looms larger as you approach. You fly down, closer, and you are surprised that you are not surprised to see that it is an elephant—a huge, muddy gray beast with a massive head, great flapping ears and swooping tusks that gleam like a gnawed skull. Its thick, wrinkled skin is heavily lined with deep crevasses and you see the dust in the cracks of its hide—ancient African dust, primordial, like the residue of the earth’s wisdom blown in from somewhere east of Eden. It watches you intently, its eyes large and dark, yet bright with intelligence, full of knowledge. It lifts its trunk and trumpets— the only sound in your world—and the very heavens shake. Somehow you know that you must ride this elephant across. It is your only passage.
It is not a free ride, but must be earned. The beast is a stern taskmaster possessing the power of death and will not relinquish passage to timid souls. You soar closer, circling, looking into those challenging eyes. It lashes out with its trunk and you bank away. On your next pass it tosses its head and a tusk grazes your wing. You circle around, intent on landing upon its broad back, your sanctuary. The elephant is still, inviting, but as you come in it flicks its tail, raking your leg. You feel your flesh part and the pain shocks your body. Undeterred, you glide in, as though passing through the eye of the needle, your blood flowing crimson against the beast’s gray skin as you safely land on the saddle of its back, between its massive shoulder blades. The elephant raises its head, turning to eye you squarely, then trumpets in approval and begins plodding majestically toward the frozen river.
As the creature steps upon the ice you hear in the distance a deep, rhythmic thumping, heavy and dense, shaking the air, and your first thought is of a thundering Merlin V-12 engine powering a P-40 Warhawk through blue Italian skies. The elephant moves toward the verdant shore, the ice creaking beneath its immense feet. The engine comes closer, louder, and you change your mind—it is the roar of your Hueycobra gunship screaming across the emerald forest. At mid-stream the ice spiderwebs like a gunshot canopy and your mind changes again—it is the staccato pounding of an M-60 machine gun and you smell the burnt cordite as Angus rips the jungle open, dealing death and receiving it in equal measure.
Finally, the beast lurches up on the far shore and lowers you to the grassy earth, lit up green in the streaming sunlight. Your world comes alive with life and movement, bright colors, celestial music, fruiting trees and swaying flowers scented with gardenia, lilac and jasmine, all competing superlatives, impossible to experience all at once. You breathe deeply and smell the cool air, as clean and fresh as life itself. You feel light, ready to take flight again, but the elephant beckons you and you understand that there is no longer a need to fly. It lifts its trunk and presents its parting numinous reward— hierophant to apprentice—a bright and shiny silver dollar. And in that final brief moment of clarity, when you understand that the pounding engine is the thumping of your own heart, you are permitted this single insight: that you are precisely where you are supposed to be at that moment in your life.
McFarlane awoke in total silence and utter blackness, seemingly new to the world, as an infant. Words he had spoken to Barney Zell a lifetime ago leapt into his mind with a grand intensity. There are many ways to die on a mountain. Without hesitation he bowed his back, clawing, kicking, flailing until he broke out of his frozen cocoon and emerged into the cold, still night. There was no wind or motion, only a breathtaking world, utterly quiet, an astonishing snowscape of dim shadows. Overhead a full moon poured through scribbled clouds. All around was a vast expanse of wind-scalloped snow dappled with moonlit shadows cast by ice-covered karst. It was as if the very earth had ceased, giving up the ghost.
McFarlane felt strangely calm, possessing no fear or doubt. Rather, he knew with an unexplainable confidence that, whatever else, he would live. He lifted a leg, breaking through the high snow, sensing more than seeing his way toward the distant slumbering forest. He took another step, then another, until, as relentless as a rockslide, he was churning his way downward, trailing crimson tendrils in his wake. He paced himself, pushing away the panic, focusing only on the task at hand. It was slow going, exhausting, the waist-high snow clinging, grabbing like wet blankets. Hour after hour he pushed, tired, numb, shocked, until, finally, with sudden abruptness he smashed headfirst into a sturdy Douglas fir. McFarlane shook himself, bitterly cold, bone tired, totally drained, trying to orient himself. He pushed on, calling out hoarsely as the sparse trees became thicker, bigger, seemingly jumping out at him from the darkness. When the trees became clearer he realized the sun was rising, casting long golden rays that sliced through the forest and bathed the tree trunks in vivid saffron hues. It was luck , sheer good luck, that permitted him, some hours later, to see the flash of yellow nylon through the crowded trees. Moaning like a wounded animal he dropped before the tent, then crawled inside and collapsed in a shivering heap.
When he finally recovered McFarlane sat up to find the old man, oblivious to his surroundings, huddled in his sleeping bag. Zell’s thin face was ashen, his lips tinged blue. His eyes wandered in torpid confusion, his frame struggling mightily to capture each breath. Zell rolled his eyes toward McFarlane, as if seeing him for the first time. When he tried to speak, bubbles of spittle dribbled down his chin. McFarlane knew Zell was suffering cerebral edema from oxygen deprivation, a swelling of the brain that at its worst could literally push his brain out of his skull. The old man was dying.
McFarlane stumbled outside. The mules huddled together pensively around the long-dead campfire. Their long ears twitched and turned as McFarlane approached. He brushed snow off their backs and adjusted their blankets, stroking their muzzles as he softly spoke to each one. He surveyed the woods, blanketed in deep snow. A sudden image flashed through his mind, of Caleb Elliott, covered in snow, frozen dead beneath his crude shelter. McFarlane’s fingertips touched the heavy silver dollar deep in his pocket. Then, refusing to break under the tyranny of life’s givens he steeled his mind and put his plan into action.
“Come on, Mr. Zell,” he said, back in the tent. “You’ve gotta get up.” He kneeled and poured a cup of coffee from the thermos, putting it to Zell’s lips as he cradled his head. “We’ve gotta get you down off this mountain. Now.”
Zell sipped feebly, and then his eyes suddenly cleared. “Wait,” he croaked, motioning with his hand. “Did you find it? Did you find my plane?”
“Yes, sir,” McFarlane gently replied. “I found it. It’s right where you said it was. It’s beautiful, Barney, just beautiful.” The old man nodded and a smile spread across his face like a shared communion.
“I’m dying, aren’t I?” It was not really a question.
McFarlane zipped up the old man’s jacket. “All I can say now is you’ll live as long as you’re supposed to live,” McFarlane said softly, unable to lie.
McFarlane loaded what supplies he could on two of the mules, then seated Zell on the third, tying him down securely. Then they began their descent. For the next four days their world was circumscribed by a surreal realm of bone-numbing cold and utter exhaustion, a savage struggle with both the elements and despair. The second day brought a rising wind and crashing tree branches. Fat raindrops fell, splattering the ground, followed by driving sheets of bitterly cold rain, a furious bombardment that howled in their ears and shook their frames. The final coda arrived at dusk, a burst of hail and sleet that came in sidewise, stripping the leaves and shattering bark. The third day found one mule dead and another gone. The old man remained the same, neither better nor worse, swaying and bobbing on the last mule’s back, mumbling only occasionally.
On the fourth day they came upon McFarlane’s truck. Zell slumped listlessly in the cab as the mule was loaded up. When his tires struck paved road McFarlane turned down the sinew of asphalt, heading south to the nearest town.
The old man was conscious when he was admitted to the tiny hospital, and conscious still, some hours later when they wheeled him to the parking lot to meet the Life Flight helicopter. McFarlane squeezed Zell’s hand as the paramedics loaded him on board and the old man smiled faintly, trying to speak through his oxygen mask. As the red and white chopper pulled up the last thing McFarlane saw was the old man’s face, etched in pathos, looking out a window while offering a weak thumbs up. McFarlane waved, staring until the clattering chopper became a distant speck against the translucent skin of autumn sky stretched tautly overhead.
The funeral was ten days later. McFarlane navigated his old pickup down Highway 101, through the gently rolling agricultural landscape of Sonoma County, an hour north of San Francisco. At the quiet gravesite, beneath an umbrella of stately, silver-trunked oaks, he listened to the eulogy, ignoring curious glances from svelte, expensively dressed women and Hugo Boss-clad men. McFarlane hung back, alone, just a visitor passing through, until the mourners, like a flock of murmuring ravens abandoning a carcass, departed in their shiny black limousines. Then, kneeling down, he uttered a short prayer, placing the silver dollar on the bronze casket just before the backhoe covered it up.
McFarlane was tearing down an engine in the rear of his hangar two weeks later when the old man’s personal attorney, DiStefano, called to invite him to his office. There, he handed McFarlane some papers. While in the hospital, DiStefano explained, the old man had transferred to McFarlane 10,000 shares of Photowave, one of his privately held companies. Its main assets were a series of patents on some type of optical switch and some software containing the attendant coding algorithms. Because the stock was not publically traded, he reiterated, it was difficult to assign a precise value. However, six dollars a share appeared a reasonable estimate.
Over the next few months another attorney, claiming to represent Photowave, called repeatedly, offering to buy out McFarlane’s shares. By the seventh call the man was offering thirteen dollars. McFarlane knew nothing about stocks, but he knew people, and he didn’t like being pressured. He declined to sell.
It was pure luck when, a few months later, flipping through a newspaper, McFarlane spotted a story in the business section. Photowave had gone public and the first day IPO had been $28 at share. By market close it had been trading at over $60. Now, a week later, it was at $280.
Within three months Photowave shares split two for one. Two months later they split again. On the day McFarlane’s shares were valued at fourteen million dollars he sold out, signing his aviation business over to his chief mechanic. McFarlane flew to Florida, bought a sprawling three-story oceanside contemporary on Islamorada, and ordered a custom-built 62-foot sportfisherman. There, standing among the swaying coconut palms framing his back yard, the red-haired man vowed never to be cold again.
* * * * *
You slide out of the bed and pad across the sculpted wool carpet, deep and soft as an early snow, to the southern wall of glass doors. You slide a door open and step out onto the balcony, feeling the hot air envelop you like a familiar coat. Squinting against the fierce noon sun you scan the bluebird sky stretching overhead as you breathe in the heavy salt air and the electric smell of distant rain. To your left a large ficus tree stands sentinel over a flood of sea grapes. You see the riot of wisteria vines purple against the greening veil of palms, hibiscus, banyans and tupelo gum trees crowding the yard. You smell the citrus scent of flowering key lime trees. At your red and yellow feeder a mob of colorful hummingbirds bob and weave, their iridescent feathers shimmering in the sunlight. A steady tropical breeze rustles the palm fronds and carries the shrill calls of squabbling seagulls. Out on the water below the warm air corrugates the surface where a flotilla of gangly brown pelicans bob rhythmically, clacking their enormous bills at each other. Moored at the cypress wood dock your boat rocks gently in the low swell, a gleaming white mass of chrome, glass and fishing rods. Like a contemplative artist poised before a blank canvas you stand at the precipice reflectively, caught in moments that won’t let you go. The scene quivers with immediacy and you struggle to absorb the moment—the extravagance of Nature in June juxtaposed against the feelings, the emotions, the people and events you were fortunate enough to escape yourself—thinking maybe some day you will remember all this and write about it. Mostly, though, you yearn for that moment of transcendence which will explain it all.
Behind you the raven-haired woman stands up, stretching. She gathers her clothes and trots into the bathroom. When she emerges she is wearing a brilliant red flower tucked behind her ear. You turn to face her, smiling.
“That was a sad story,” she says quietly. “I feel bad for the old man. The way he died and all.” Her voice trails off and you turn back to face the sea. It is getting late, she tells you through the silence, and she needs you to drive her back to the bar where her rental car is parked. Sure, you reply. No problem. But you continue to scan the horizon.
“Spring break is over in two days,” she says, sighing. “Then it’s back to Wisconsin for me.” She picks up her purse and steps out onto the balcony with you.
“Hey, wait a minute,” she says to your back. “You never did tell me how you got the scar.” She comes up behind you. “The one on your leg.” she adds. “When did that happen?”
You stand silently, watching the cavorting pelicans. Even with a mouth full of fish one pelican tries to steal another one’s fish. Then, one by one they flap their big wings, paddling the water furiously until they rise up out of the sea, taking flight like a squadron of slow, shaggy fighter planes. Like bottom heavy P-40s with ragged brown feathers for control surfaces they flap their ungainly wings and gain altitude where the wheeling seagulls engage them in combat. Awkward and clumsy on land or water, the pelicans become surprising agile in flight, rolling and diving with a certain grace, somehow out-maneuvering the faster gulls, clacking their bills until finally the screaming gulls drift off and disappear into the pressing lemon sun.
“Did that happen in Vietnam? Or up in the mountains?”
You remain silent as the pelicans flash down out of the brilliant sky, diving into the water and vanishing beneath the surface. Your heart feels heavy, as though you had attained a triumph gravid with defeat.
“Hey,” she persists, perching her chin on your shoulder. “Did that stuff really happen?” She nudges you with her chin and you feel the impatience of youth. “Was that really a true story?” She nudges you again and her dark eyes flash in the sunlight. “You bastard,” she finally announces, punching your arm halfheartedly. “I’ll bet that’s just another one of your damn fish stories. I’ll bet you made the whole thing up.” You feel her smile as she lays her face against your shoulder. “I’m glad it’s not true,” she murmurs. “It was too sad. I don’t want the old man to die like that. I’m glad you made it up.”
You smile faintly. From where you stand you can just make out the bold script emblazoned across your boat’s transom: THE ELEPHANT’S TAIL. You turn slightly and slip an arm around her soft waist. “Yeah,” you agree, “I made the whole thing up.”
|Bill and his sister Lisa|
William Van Poyck #034071
Florida State Prison
7819 NW 228th Street,
Raiford, FL 32026-1160