The Eighty-eighth Key, Ch. 49

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Part VI

Chapter 49

Callahan was sitting in the front office of a new Beechcraft 1900c turboprop, listening to another salesman’s pitch – after Pattison advised that this might be the perfect choice to start a new fixed-wing airline service with.

“We’ve gone over your load factor analysis,” the salesman added as he would up his pitch, “and feel that, frankly, you might have underestimated demand once you guys are up and running. We’d recommend you consider starting off with two units the first month of operations, with one in service and the second as a back up. Still, our biggest concern is the mail service you guys have committed to.”

“Oh? Why’s that?”

“Well, it’s just a simple question of customer demand versus available payload. If a sack of mail weights a hundred pounds and you end up with two or three, well, you can handle that with the 1800c. But what happens if you get 15, or even 20 sacks? You’ll have to drop payload somewhere, but if you’re under contract to the Post Office you’ll be obligated to haul the mail. So you drop passengers, but as a result you piss off customers.”

“So, what you’re saying is we need bigger aircraft…”

“Well, yes, but wait before you jump on that bandwagon. You guys will be operating under SFAR 41C, so not the same standards as, say, United or American. Once you move up to bigger aircraft you’ll move up the FAR ladder to big-boy standards, and pretty soon you’ll look at capitalization requirements that’ll make your head spin. A logical aircraft would be the Avroliner, but to start off with even two or three you’d be looking at an initial outlay of at least a hundred million…and yeah, the Fed Regs will overwhelm you.”

“What about a lease arrangement?”

“Possible, but almost as costly – and if you need to get rid of a jet and the market’s soft, well, the penalties can really add up fast. For a new start-up, the 1900 is hard to beat, and we have a new model coming out next year with standing headroom. Could be a real game changer for you, too. And the thing is, if you decide you want to convert future deliveries from the -C model to the newer -D, well, no penalty so no big deal.”

“Well,” Callahan said, “I’ve been over the numbers with my CFO and I talked to Pattison last night. Both seem to think the 1900 is the way to go for now.”

“So, you’re thinking two to start off with?”

“No, more like six, and the -D model is definitely on our radar. We want to start off with the coastal route, a central valley route, and alternating flights to Santa Barbara in the fall and spring, and South Lake Tahoe and Mammoth Lakes in the winter.”

“Good plan. Keep everything in-state. I’ve got two spots on the line reserved for you so you’ll get those aircraft next month; the next four will take another six weeks after that. How are you set for pilots?”

“We’ve got some Navy C-2 drivers getting their tickets in order.”

“That’s right…I heard you guys are hiring ex-military only. Good for you, man. I mean it, way to go!”

“Too many vets lost in the stateside shuffle. Those C-2 drivers can rarely get on with a major until they build a bunch of hours, so that’s our plan. Get ‘em up and running, then help them get a type rating on the 732 at Southwest. That’s the plan, anyway.”

“You’ll help them get a type rating…so they can move on? Why?”

“We can hire more pilots that way; getting new hire pilots into higher paying jobs at the majors is a core part of our mission statement.”

“Holy shit, Callahan, that’s just un-fucking-believable. Well, you need anything you let us know. Uh, I hear you’re flying line, too. How do you find the time?”

Harry shrugged. “Being single helps.”

The salesman laughed at that, but only because he wasn’t looking at Callahan. “You heading to Redding later today?” the salesman asked.

“Yeah. Big fires up in the alps.”

“I’d be happy to fly you up?”

“Thanks, but I’ve got to shuttle one of our Hueys up there. Maybe next time, though,” Callahan said, holding out his right hand.

He walked back to his office in the Cathouse and found Frank sitting in is office.

“Hey, what’s up with you?” he asked Bullitt. “Haven’t seen you around here in a while?”

“Oh, you know, got a couple of cases at the department, that kinda thing.”

“Hear anything from Cathy lately?”

“No, not a peep. What about Fujiko? Heard anything?”

Callahan shook his head. “No, not since she moved into her apartment.”

“She’s still planning on going back to school?”

“As far as I know,” Harry added. “So, what brings you ‘round today?”

“Oh, I need to go up north, up to Redding first, then over to Eureka.”

“The new terminal?”

“Yup. The new radios.”

“So, how do you like living in Potrero Hills?” Harry asked.

“Close to work, that’s for sure.”

“Yeah, I know. Just give her time, Frank. She’ll come around. That was a heavy load, ya know?”

“I don’t know, Harry. I think she became genuinely afraid of us after all that crap came out.”

“It wasn’t us, Frank.”

“Oh yeah? Well, you try telling that to her…”

“I did, remember. And you do recall how well that turned out…?”

Bullitt looked away, remembering Fujiko’s violent reaction. “Yeah, Harry. I do. I sure the fuck do.”

“So, I’ve got to go up and relieve a crew in Redding. Wanna hitch a ride with me?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“Got your bag packed?” 

“Yup, everything’s in the Mustang.”

“Well, go get it and let’s roll.”

____________________________________

There were two large fires running in the Trinity Alps region in Northern California when Callahan arrived in Redding; the Coffee Creek fire was largely contained, while the Holland Lake fire was just ramping up – so not even one fire line was fully manned and active yet. He checked in at CATs temporary line shack at Redding, got his fuel load-out and manifest from their new dispatcher and made sure Bullitt had a place to stay, then supervised fueling before talking to the pilots heading back to the Cathouse from the fires.

“It’s hot up there, Skipper,” Mickey Rooney said as he walked up. “Be careful, willya?”

“How bad is it?” Callahan answered.

“Ninety-plus degrees at 9000 M-S-L, so watch your density altitude calculations.”

Callahan shook his head. “Yikes. Where’s the fuel depot located?”

“South ramp, Trinity Center airport. You’ll pick up your firefighters there, too. There’s a PBY dipping from the lake, so keep an eye out for him on final.”

“Got it,” Callahan replied. “You headed to the barn now?”

“Yeah, I’m two hours past legal right now, and I’m working Palo Alto this weekend.”

“We’re going to need to pick up a couple of new pilots if this keeps up.”

“Yeah? Well, I got a couple in mind if you do.”

“Let DD know when you get in.”

“Will do. Say, I hear she’s got a new boyfriend. That true?”

Callahan shrugged. “If she does it’s news to me. Who’s riding shotgun with me today?”

“One of the new guys. Richard Chapman, the guy we picked up from Fort Benning.”

“The kid with the leg?”

“Yeah.”

“How’s he holding up?”

“Better than expected. Good attitude, too. Guys on the line love him, he lays it out there to get ‘em out.”

“That him?” Callahan asked, pointing to a pilot walking out of the line shack.

“Yup.” Rooney picked up his duffel. “Any word on the Beechcraft deal?”

“Yeah, we’ll start with six, two will get here in a month.”

“You mind if I start working on my fixed wing ticket?”

Callahan seemed surprised. “You? What’s the deal?”

“Change of scenery, I guess.”

“Well, go for it, Mickey. Put in the paperwork with DD, let me know the upfront costs.”

“Thanks, Harry. Appreciate it, man.” 

Callahan turned to Chapman, now listening to the last part of his conversation with Rooney. “Richard?” Callahan asked, extending his right hand.

“Yessir,” Chapman replied. “Nice to finally meet you, Skipper.”

“Thanks. Feel like handling the right seat today?” Callahan asked, handing over the dispatch papers.

“Really? Hell yes, sir!”

“Yeah, I hear you’re doing real good, so log this one as PIC.”

“Thank you, sir!”

“Mickey? Seeya in the city on Friday, and let’s talk, cue me in on what you dig up about flight school.”

“Right. Seeya, Skip.”

Callahan turned to the new guy. “I’m gonna follow your walk-around, so try to impress me.”

Airborne ten minutes later, the smoke plume from the Holland Lake fire was visible for most of the flight into Trinity Center; once back on the ground at the little airport there, Chapman supervised topping off the tanks while Callahan got the fire-fighters situated in back. Minutes later they climbed to the west and headed towards the thickening plume – and the first cries for help came in over the radio net. They dropped off the relief crew and turned towards the fire-line, the air already full of sparking embers and ash falling like snow. Callahan called into the fire commander to update their position:

“Cat-3 to line-able. Clear drop at Sawyer’s Creek Campground.”

“Able to Cat-3, can you divert to the south fork of the Salmon about 500 yards down from timberline. Got a crew trapped there, they’ve cleared a pad for you and they got green smoke going. Call sign Baker 21.”

“Cat-3 heading for the green, Baker 21.”

“So, you were in ‘Nam?” Chapman asked.

“Yeah, I seem to remember a place called Vietnam. I did one tour in Germany before that.”

“Oh, where were you in Germany?”

“An FOB near Bamburg.”

“Yeah? I did time there too. Weird duty.”

“Yeah…okay, I see their smoke,” Callahan said, getting on the radio. “Cat-3 to Baker 21, you guys ready to bug out?”

“Cat-3, expedite expedite expedite!”

Chapman dropped the nose and added throttle, Callahan automatically began calling out torque and pressures. 

“Okay, I got the clearing,” Chapman said, then: “Shit…they’re surrounded!”

“Baker 21, get ready!”

“Ready!” they heard over swelling cries for help.

“I’m going back to secure the doors,” Callahan said.

“Hook up your line.”

The air was roiling this close to the main fire line, and Chapman was having trouble holding his line; the Huey bounced and yawed but Callahan managed to get both doors locked into the open position and back to his seat in less than a minute.

Ten men were huddled in the small clearing, the surrounding flames were now less than 10 yards from them as Chapman began his hover. Callahan couldn’t see anything but flames everywhere he looked, and smoke was pouring into the open cabin, then the Huey began rolling from side to side as men jumped onto the skids. He looked at Chapman then: the kid was struggling but holding it together so he turned and counted bodies as the team slid and clambered onto the floor.

“Okay,” Callahan shouted, “that’s ten – let’s beat feet!” 

Chapman eased the collective up and added more throttle, and when they were clear of the flames he nosed over and turned north, then east.

“Line able, Cat-3,” Callahan called in, “where are the nearest paramedics?”

“Cat-3, Coffee Creek is back online.”

“Cat-3, got it!” Callahan replied. “You need a heading?” he said to Chapman.

“No,” Chapman said. “Got it.”

Less than ten minutes later Cat-3 flared over the little pasture behind the volunteer fire department building and seconds later paramedics took the wounded on stretchers to waiting ambulances… just as new cries for help started pouring in over the radio net…

__________________________________

Frank was inside the new CAThouse in Redding, working with techs from Motorola and ICOM to get the new communications console ready to go, when he heard the radio net at the Holland Lake fire come alive.

“Is that the Fire-Net?” Bullitt asked.

“Should be,” one of the techs replied.

“Cat-3 to Line-Baker, we have two code-60s onboard and are almost outta gas, we are RTB, repeat, we are RTB.”

“That’s Harry…” Bullitt said, more to himself…

“Baker received, you better call in reinforcements. Looks like a bad night headed our way. Forecast is 45 knots out of the east, gusts to 60, repeat 6-0.”

“We got an active phone here yet?” Frank asked the techs.

“Yeah, the red one on your desk should be active now.”

Bullitt went to his desk in the little dispatch office and called the Cathouse at the Presidio. “This is Frank,” he said to the receptionist there. “Are any pilots still there?”

“Rooney and Pattison are still in the hanger, I think,” the girl said.

“Call ‘em and tell ‘em Callahan has run into a shit-storm, get ready to round up some air-crews.”

“Will do. Hang on, I’ll get them.” 

Bullitt waited, knowing Harry would call as soon as they got back to Trinity Center, and that Callahan would update him on the status of the fire mission.

“Pattison here. What’s going on, Frank?”

“This new Holland Creek fire is growing fast; Harry’s inbound with two dead onboard and it looks like a call for reinforcements is going out. I wanted to give you a heads-up in case you need to start rounding up folks.”

“Got it. I’ll get one bird up from base right now, and I think I can get one from Yosemite that way too. So yeah, tell Harry we got two inbound, willya? That’s all we can do tonight.”

“Okay, got it. Thanks, Pat!”

“Roger, I’m headed your way now.”

Bullitt hung up and seconds later the line buzzed: “Harry? That you?”

“Yeah, how’d you know?”

“We’ve got some radios active here now, and the phone from the temporary line shack is active in the main building now.”

“So you heard?”

“Yeah. Pattison is on his way up now. Another crew from Yosemite will start your way as soon as they’re notified.”

“Damn, Frank…this is outstanding! Way to go – your system works! Alert the line shack and get the fuel truck ready for them. I want them both up here as soon as they can.”

“Is it a bad one?”

“Worst I’ve ever seen, Frank. We’ve had five -60s today, and I think that’s a record. Really rough terrain and the wind is outrageous, fire is at twenty thousand acres and building fast. I think they’re calling the Governor for a disaster declaration.”

“Five dead already? All firefighters?”

“Yup. There are a couple of little towns in danger of being overrun, too, but no word on casualties yet.”

“How’s the new kid? Chapman, is it?”

“Great instincts on the stick. We might want to keep this kid around a while.”

“Good news there at least.”

“So, Frank, does it look like we’ll have that terminal up and running within the month?”

“Yeah, looks that way. Lots of progress since my last trip up here.”

“Okay, call DD, let’s think about hiring staff for the ticket counter and ramp duty.”

“On it. And – Harry?”

“Yeah?”

“Be careful, willya? I got a bad feeling about this one?”

“Yeah, me too. Never even heard of a fire this big before. It’s just so hot for this time of year, ya know?”

“Yeah, okay – just be careful. Later…”

“Later…”

Callahan hung up the phone and walked over to the Red Cross food tent; he picked up a sandwich and some bug juice and saw Chapman talking to a nurse and grinned. ‘Some things never change,’ he sighed.

“How do you like the sandwich?” he heard a voice say, so he turned to find it.

His eyes found a woman about his age smiling at him. “You know, this is actually really good…I just wish I wasn’t so hungry. I’m not sure I bothered to taste it!”

“Could I get you another?”

“If you wouldn’t mind, that’d be great.”

She came back a moment later carrying another sandwich on a paper plate with some potato chips. “Here you go. This one just came out of the oven, so it might be better…”

Callahan took a bite and smiled. “This tastes just like New Orleans,” he said between bites.

“Yes, it’s our muffuletta. Homemade sourdough, and the olive tamponade is ours, too. Are you one of the pilots?”

Callahan’s mouth was full so he nodded.

“My husband was a pilot in Vietnam,” she said, and Callahan could see from the expression on her face that this story didn’t have a happy ending.

“He didn’t make it back?” he asked, and she shook her head. “Sorry to hear that,” he added.

“What’s your name, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Harry Callahan. And yours?”

“Jeanie Post. Say, you related to this Callahan Air Service thing?”

“Yes Ma’am.”

“So, everyone flies, is that it?”

Callahan nodded. “No favorites. Everyone shares the load.”

“Yes, that’s the word around you guys. Hiring ex-military, helping lift up more than a couple of broken souls, that kinda thing.”

“That was the plan from the beginning. You live around here?”

“Yes, I came back up after the war. My family was from here, but my dad spent most of his career in the Navy so we moved around a lot. Still, this was home, so…”

“Did you remarry?”

“No. We had a little boy just before he deployed, and he’s kept me busy ever since.”

“Oh?”

“Yes, that’s him helping out behind the counter over there,” she said, pointing.

“He doesn’t look that little to me,” Harry said, grinning.

“That’s my Tim; he’ll graduate from high school this year.”

Chapman walked up then. “Skipper, we’re gassed up and we have a new crew to drop. I hate to ask, but could you take the right seat for a while?”

“I was going to ask,” Harry said. “You’ve done enough heavy lifting for one day, and we have two birds inbound. Why don’t you go find a tent and crash for a while.”

Chapman shook his head. “I’m not that tired, Skip. Come on, let’s go.”

Callahan turned to this new Jeanie and held out his hand. “Hope our paths cross again,” he said.

“Yes. That would be nice.”

They walked out to the 412 and Chapman got the new fire-team seated while Callahan completed his walk-around, yet as they lifted off a few minutes later he looked down and saw her standing just outside of the food tent, waving at him before they disappeared into the fire, and into the fight. He waved back, not sure she could even see him…but it felt like the right thing to do.

Working the stick hard in the strong wing Callahan looked at the line of peaks dead ahead – and the fire now just beyond these jagged spires – and he thought that in this fading late evening light, the sky already bathed in bloody reds and purples, it looked like they were flying into the Gates of Hell.

© 2020 adrian leverkühn | abw | and as always, thanks for stopping by for a look around the memory warehouse…[but wait…how about a last word or two on sources: I typically don’t post all a story’s acknowledgments until I’ve finished, if only because I’m not sure how many I’ll need until work is finalized. Yet with current circumstances (i.e., Covid-19) waiting to list said sources might not be the best way to proceed, and this listing will grow over time – until the story is complete. To begin, the ‘primary source’ material in this case – so far, at least – derives from two seminal Hollywood ‘cop’ films: Dirty Harry and Bullitt. The first Harry film was penned by Harry Julian Fink, R.M. Fink, Dean Riesner, John Milius, Terrence Malick, and Jo Heims. Bullitt came primarily from the author of the screenplay for The Thomas Crown Affair, Alan R Trustman, with help from Harry Kleiner, as well Robert L Fish, whose short story Mute Witness formed the basis of Trustman’s brilliant screenplay. Steve McQueen’s grin was never trade-marked, though perhaps it should have been. John Milius (Red Dawn) penned Magnum Force, and the ‘Briggs’/vigilante storyline derives from characters and plot elements originally found in that rich screenplay, as does the Captain McKay character. The Jennifer Spencer/Threlkis crime family storyline was first introduced in Sudden Impact, screenplay by Joseph Stinson, original story by Earl Smith and Charles Pierce. The Samantha Walker television reporter is found in The Dead Pool, screenplay by Steve Sharon, story by Steve Sharon, Durk Pearson, and Sandy Shaw.  I have to credit the Jim Parish, M.D., character first seen in the Vietnam segments to John A. Parrish, M.D., author of the most fascinating account of an American physician’s tour of duty in Vietnam – and as found in his autobiographical 12, 20, and 5: A Doctor’s Year in Vietnam, a book worth noting as one of the most stirring accounts of modern warfare I’ve ever read (think Richard Hooker’s M*A*S*H, only featuring a blazing sense of irony conjoined within a searing non-fiction narrative). Denton Cooley, M.D. founded the Texas Heart Institute, as mentioned. Of course, James Clavell’s Shōgun forms a principle backdrop in later chapters. The teahouse and hotel of spires in Ch. 42 is a product of the imagination; so-sorry. The UH-1Y image used from Pt VI on taken by Jodson Graves. Many of the other figures in this story derive from characters developed within the works cited above, but keep in mind that, as always, the rest of this story is in all other respects a work of fiction woven into a pre-existing cinematic-historical fabric. Using the established characters referenced above, as well as the few new characters I’ve managed to come up with here and there, I hoped to create something new – perhaps a running commentary on the times we’ve shared with these fictional characters? And the standard disclaimer also here applies: the central characters in this tale should not be mistaken for persons living or dead. This was, in other words, just a little walk down a road more or less imagined, and nothing more than that should be inferred. I’d be remiss not to mention Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan, and Steve McQueen’s Frank Bullitt. Talk about the roles of a lifetime…and what a gift.]

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