A Conversation


“Fill ‘er up,” shouted Claude, from the cockpit of his red Stearman. He was already in a sour mood, having to fly to Eastern Washington to repair one of Virgil’s crop-dusting planes.

“I don’t think we sell aviation gas,” the Esso attendant shuddered after the propeller spun to a halt.

Claude squinted at the station attendant. His eyes were too close together to be very smart. And then his haircut was the second give away. He looked like his mother had turned a Mix Master bowl over his head and cut off everything it didn’t cover

“Look kid, I don’t have much time,” Claude finally growled, shucking his goggles and then stripping off his leather cap before climbing out onto a wing and dropping to the asphalt. “Gimme the hose. I’ll fill ‘er up myself.”

“I don’t think the boss is gonna like this,” said the attendant, backing away from the gas pump.

Claude watched the kid work his way toward the office where a black telephone sat next to the cash register. It was obvious he was going to call somebody, his boss, or the town Marshall. Either one would be up here in a jiffy raising hell with him. He was going to have to work fast or Virgil would have yet another problem, bailing him out of jail.

Claude had brought the airplane to a halt with the fuselage close to a pump. Even so, the hose was almost too short to reach. Cranking the numbers back to zero he began pumping Ethel. He had thirty gallons showing when he spotted the Marshall emerging from the courthouse and starting up the street on a long lope. Well, as long a lope as his protruding belly would allow.

“Hey kid!” bellowed Claude.

“Who? Me?” replied the attendant, thrusting his head from the office doorway.

“Yeah, you. Come get your money for thirty gallons of high-test. Bring change for a twenty.”

Claude saw the kid squint at the price of premium fuel advertised on the sign at the entrance, and then took some bills from the till.

The Marshall was closer and Claude felt the urgency.

“If you’ll help me push this airplane back from the pump, you can keep the change.”

The kid stuffed the bills in his pocket and then put his shoulder against the wing.

“Halt! I said halt,” wheezed the Marshall as he drew closer.

Ignoring the order, Claude started the engine and brought it up to speed. Swinging around, he lined up with the street and then released the brakes. He cleared the Marshall by a good twelve feet, then he made a turn, saluted, continuing his journey toward Eastern Washington.

Two hours later he was on the ground inspecting Virgil’s other Stearman.

“What did it do?” Claude asked the pilot, Billy, a string-bean young man in his early twenties.

Billy, fresh out of army, had flown evacuation helicopters in Southeast Asia, often under heavy ground fire. It soon became obvious to Claude that Billy he could fly a brick if somebody put wings on it for him. But he couldn’t fix anything, not even a flat tire.

“It just sputtered once, surged and then stalled. This thing will almost fly itself if I don’t fight it. So I looked for a place to set it down. You know the rest.”

Claude quickly determined that the fuel filter was plugged. He’d suspected as much and silently congratulated himself for having brought a spare filter with him. The sun was already behind the trees when the sound of a vehicle caught his attention.

“You’d better not let any of that poison leak out onto my pasture,” shouted the aging farmer as he brought his pickup to a rattling halt. His face was purple with rage.

Claude had hoped to have the engine running before anything like this occurred.

“We’ve secured it, sir. I can assure you that not a drop of chemical has leaked,” Claude assured the farmer, making a silent gesture for Billy to remain silent.

The farmer made no response. Instead, he made his way around the Stearman, checking each spray nozzle. After he had satisfied himself that what Claude had told him was true, he rejoined them.

“How soon?” he asked.

“I’m rechecking the fittings. We should be out of here in ten,” replied Claude, motioning Billy into the airplane.

Minutes later the engine was running while Claude squinted against the prop-wash, making one last inspection and buttoning up up the shroud. Satisfied, he stepped aside and motioned to Billy to head for home.

“I’m sorry this happened, sir,” Claude said to the farmer. Sometimes these thing just happen in spite of our best effort.”

The farmer had no response, but his complexion had somewhat lightened. Claude got his plane started, taxied into the wind and a few minutes he was airborne. Turning, he saw the farmer had not moved. He only hoped the matter was closed. Ahead, Billy’s Stearman was still in view. Everything was looking better, except for the incident in the town. Without a doubt, the town Marshall had called in the tail number of his aircraft and had already called the boss.

Oh well, one problem at a time, he thought to himself.