Swamp Pirates

As we walked under another streetlight, I shoved my hands deep into the front pockets of my jeans, and squeezed my shoulders up high, while trying to pull my head in like a turtle, and looked over at Chauncey.  Grinning, he copied me, and we both stifled laughter and made goofy faces, sailing through the cool night air, thick, soft silence enveloping us, the sleeping neighborhood unaware of the fun being had by two bad boys out on a lark.  We approached my house with eyebrows raised, silently agreeing to see if we could get my mom’s beetle to start without a key, and quietly enough not to wake anyone. I popped the hood, exposing the luggage compartment above the gas tank, and Chauncey pulled out his flashlight. I deftly removed the cardboard that separated luggage from the back of the instrument panel, and saw the ignition switch, with bright red and black wires attached by spade connectors. What could be easier?

A few seconds and I had determined which wires needed to be connected to which, so we rolled the car out onto the street. We pushed it half a block away, so the noise of the engine starting would not be right at my house. Without letting it lose momentum, I ran alongside the nose, and made the connection, not to the starter, but just to the main electrical. A few panel lights lit.  Chauncey moved around to the rear to really give it a serious push, and I jumped into the driver’s seat. I put it in second gear, and eased the clutch out, and the little sewing machine turned over sweetly and began to purr. I slipped it back to neutral, and Chauncey ran up to jump into the passenger seat. Then with heads ducked and barely able to contain the laughter exploding inside our chests, we gently accelerated out of our neighborhood.

The hot-wired little beetle was lively and light, and soon we were flying through the night on larger and larger streets, past businesses shuttered or about to be, toward the expressway. Atlantic Boulevard was one of two main roads out to the beach, and we headed east toward the ocean, cool dark air rushing through open windows, and through our souls. For no particular reason, I turned south onto St. John’s Bluff Road, toward Beach Blvd, and the pavement soon gave way to washboard oyster shells. We made goofy faces at each other, pretending that our brains were being rattled out of our heads. On either side of us, berms of oyster shells divided the road from the Florida swamp, and the headlights created a warm yellow bubble, with a great black unknown of trees and creatures and foreboding to either side.  No houses along this stretch, but we knew Beach Blvd. couldn’t be too very far away… and what the hell was that on the right?  A trailer hitch pointed down and stuck into the roadway, from between two automobile tires… and a red primer frame that disappeared into the dark swamp on the other side of the berm. I braked hard, creating a cloud of oyster shell dust, and stopped only a dozen feet past the thing.

“Whoa! Hold up a minute!” We both jumped out and left the bug idling, to survey our find. It was a sand rail!  A dune buggy, left in the middle of nowhere, WITH THE KEYS IN THE IGNITION!?! I scrambled down to the driver’s seat, turned the key, and it started right up!  I told Chauncey to turn the bug around, so we could head home with our prize. He went to do so, using up a lot of road to do it, since he wasn’t used to four on the floor.  He would jerk forward, trying to find reverse, then jerk forward again. I chuckled at his antics and our luck. From my seat in the sand rail, whose nose pointed at the sky, I spun the tires a little to get it over the berm, but of course, the trailer hitch had it anchored. I jumped out, slogged through a few feet of green slime and up the berm, to dig out the hitch.  Chauncey was fifty yards down the road, finally headed back this way, and I knew that when he got there, together we could get the buggy unstuck and out of the swamp. I began looking around for a tree branch or something else to use as a shovel, and directly across the road – I mean perfectly straight before me – a porch light came on.  The buggy was aimed at the driveway of a trailer house about a hundred feet away, which we had totally failed to see. One thing I could see, as if in broad daylight, was the rifle in the hand of the bath-robed guy standing on that porch. My face fell off.  I launched myself toward the approaching beetle, waving my arms and shouting something stupid. Chauncey barely slowed enough for me to clamber in, and started off again, headed right past the trailer!  I screamed at him to stop, to turn around, but it was too late.  As we passed the trailer, the crack of the rifle hit us like a sheet of ice.  Each of us looked to see if the other was dead.  Both of us will swear to this day that we heard the whizz of a hunting round inches from our noses, zipping through the open windows of the bug. Chauncey just kept jamming gears until we were moving as fast as that little 1300cc bug could go on the washboard, rattling our teeth and dusting the whole swamp.  As we hit the pavement nearer Atlantic, we saw a police car heading our way. Too late to do anything but drive as normally as shaking hands, ragged breath, and exploding heads allowed. No red lights… no siren.  No deputies drawing a bead on us. They passed us, heading toward the scene of our disgrace.

huntinground

At Atlantic Boulevard, I told Chauncey to turn right, toward a small tract of houses just a half mile east of us. Somehow that seemed to offer the best cover, in case the cops came after us.  As we wound through the small streets, toward the back of the tract, the houses thinned out until it was all empty streets with weeds growing between them. Finally, in a cul-de-sac surrounded by tall grass and littered with rubbish, we had to turn around. Because it was so obstructed, Chauncey had to do a three-point turn, and I helped him find reverse. We cringed at the loud thump from the rear of the car, and the way the rear end lifted up and then crashed back down.  Stopping, we jumped out, to find a four-foot piece of lumber stuck to the left rear tire by A NAIL, jammed up into the fender well, holding that wheel up and preventing it from turning.  Pulling and cussing and kicking at it did nothing. I got back in the driver’s seat, and with Chauncey pushing and lifting, we eased it gingerly forward until the board was flat on the pavement again. I dug around the nose of the car for the tire iron, and bent the nail away from the tread, and there was no hissing, no deflation of the tire.  We both almost fainted.  The ride home was long, slow, and very, very quiet.

 

To Fly and Die on Kauai

The engine opened its throat to a groaning growl as I pushed in the last bit of throttle I had.  The plane was not shaking yet; I was keeping it above stall speed. My three passengers were getting some once-in-a-lifetime views of the vine-hung, red-brown cliffs beside us. I pulled the yoke harder, slowing below best-angle speed, easing toward the right, because I now knew there was no way we were going to climb over that ridge.  I was going to have to turn this thing around inside this tiny space, and fly back out, where I could climb more gradually out…. If I could keep it flying at all. I smiled at my knuckles, which had not yet turned white… then at my wife in the seat next to me, and said, “Take a picture while the left wing is high, and you can see Pu’u O Kila Lookout up there.”

The faces and cameras of a few people hung over the railing 200 feet above us, documenting a crash for the NTSB to investigate later.  As I gently transitioned from the shallow right bank toward that side of the canyon, to a left bank, to actually make the turn, the stall horn warbled a couple of plaintive notes, but the passengers followed my cue and remained relaxed, enjoying the spectacular views of the mountains up close… very, VERY close.  My hand did not shake as I hit the switch to add the last bit of flaps I had, and gingerly eased the aircraft into a 60° left bank, then a little farther, letting her settle and lose a little altitude, in exchange for a tighter turning radius.  This was going to be the most precise maneuver I had ever performed … and the blood drained from my smile to settle in my gut…

Not fair! The weather report had quoted no wind at all, but the downdraft at the ridge spoke of 30 knots or more.  That, plus the extra weight in the aircraft, meant we could not pop over the ridge the way I had done a dozen times before.  We were stuck inside Waimea Canyon, and as good as dead.

I had taken many friends from Oahu, where we lived, across the 100 miles of open sea to Kauai, the oldest and prettiest of the Hawaiian Islands, and developed a little tour that was always a lot of fun.  On Friday afternoon, we’d land at Lihue, on the south-East corner of the island, closest to Oahu, and rent a car.  We’d pile our stuff in it, and drive past the Menehune fish pond and through Hanapepe, then along the south and leeward coast, to Waimea. There, we’d have a snack and head up the mountain, alongside the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” to Kokee camp to spend the night in the clouds. Next morning, as the mist burned away, we’d go to the very end of the road, to Pu’u O Kila Lookout. From there, we could see the ocean to the North, framed by the enormous green Kalalau valley, and turning to the South, we could see into the red-brown clay valley that cut deep into the island, and I’d tell the passengers that we’d be flying through that valley soon.

We’d head back down Kokee Road, find breakfast at some place along the way back to Lihue, and pile into the airplane, leaving our baggage in the rental car. With ¾-tank of fuel and no baggage, the plane was light and agile.  We’d retrace our path of the afternoon before, swooping low over the Menehune Fish Pond, climbing to crest the Hoary Head Mountains, and pass by Poipu surfing village. Then we’d follow the beach, and just about the time we could see the tiny island of Niihau off the left wing tip, we’d be over Waimea.  There, I’d turn us mauka, toward the center of the island. Instead of following Kokee road as we had driven, I’d stay low, inside the canyon just east of it.  The brown and red soil was spotted with lush green, and tiny streams flowed at the bottom of every ravine. As we passed the center of the island, the elevation even inside the canyon was rising, and we’d climb gently toward my favorite spot. I had pored over flight charts and topographical maps for hours to find it.

At the very end of the longest arm of the canyon, there is a ridge.  Kokee Road ends at the Pu’u O Kila lookout, and Pihea Trail continues along that ridge. I had used that spot many times to thrill my passengers on these little trips.  We’d dawdle along inside the canyon until very close to the ridge, then I’d pour on some power, build up some speed, and pop up over the ridge to a view of the enormous, deep-green Kalalau valley, with the sea and sky rising from the beach in a crystalline blue bowl.  I’d swoop down through the large, lush valley of wild boar and pakalolo plantations, and turn right at the beach. We’d follow the coast back to Lihue, spotting places we would visit later that day, and where we would camp that night. We’d stop at different spots on our way back to Lihue on Sunday.  We always returned to Oahu with eyes and hearts and cameras full of wonders.

This weekend did not happen exactly that way.  On Friday night, we camped at Polihale beach, at the end of the leeward road, instead of at Kokee in the middle of the mountains.  That was nice, but it meant missing Pu’u O Kila lookout, because clouds would likely have obscured the view by the time we got there.  Then, at the airport in Lihue, I learned that the weather would not let us do the Waimea canyon trip.  Winds and cloud cover were simply not in our favor.  No big deal – we had a great time swimming at the Kilauea slippery slide, and saw some beautiful caves and waterfalls, and bought some food to cook up at Hanakapiai beach where we camped that night.  Next day, we headed back to Lihue and piled into the aircraft, and the Sunday weather report was exactly what I had hoped for Saturday.  I had talked a lot about the trip through the canyon, and didn’t want to disappoint my passengers, especially my wife. Maybe this was our chance.  With a full tank of fuel for the trip back to Oahu, we took off. The tower let me use runway 17, because we didn’t even have the usual trade winds out of the NorthWest. That headed us South across Nawiliwili Harbor, and it just seemed inevitable that we visit the misty green Hoary Heads. After that it was smooth flying along the south coast of the island and up into Waimea Canyon.

As we turned from the beach toward the center of the island, we waved to Barking Sands, on the Leeward coast, where Navy aircraft would fuel up to run practice missions out around Niihau. That was also where the Coast Guard waited to hear an emergency beacon and go rescue, or recover body parts.  The day was severe clear, liquid bright, and the canyon was more brilliantly colored than I had ever seen it.  We wound our way through mile after mile of lush green trees and bushes dotting deep red volcanic soil. By the time we got to the ridge, I saw clearly the exact spot where I would cross it. I headed toward it, and began to ease the power in to gain airspeed.  We had to clear the ridge by at least 500 feet to be legal, so I began my climb at a point that would allow that margin of safety plus an extra hundred feet.  Nosing up, I traded airspeed for altitude, and kept adding power.  We were not climbing as quickly as I expected.  I peered ahead at the Keawe on the ridge, and damn it, they were whipping around in a strong wind coming across the ridge!  That meant that the air was bouncing high over the windward slope and then falling hard as it crossed the ridge, right in our faces.  That downdraft was not going to let me climb as I had so many times before.  We were stuck below the ridge line, and a Cessna 172 has no reverse gear.

This was NOT going to end well, unless I came up with a new plan, quickly. A pilot must always plan for unexpected adverse conditions, but cannot allow for every possible fault mode.  This was a problem for which I had only partially prepared. The weight of the full fuel, baggage, and some very solid souvenirs was holding us down, and the downdraft over that ridge was clinching the deal. I knew that a left-hand turn was more efficient in an aircraft with a clockwise-spinning prop, so it would be a left turn to get out of there, but I also needed the full diameter of the dent in the ridge where we were stuck, to get the bird headed South. I began the maneuver I had practiced as a commercial pilot, but never bet my life and the lives of others on.

Once I’d eased over toward the right side of the canyon and banked left, I followed the procedure I knew would allow the tightest possible radius turn, losing just a little altitude, hoping that it did not run us into the ridge. The aircraft began to vibrate just the tiniest extra bit, which told a pilot that we were nearing the stall buffet. The engine groaned on, and it got very, very hot in that cabin. Through clenched teeth, I spoke calmly over the cheerfully chirping stall horn. “We’re going to follow a different track than usual, and retrace some of Kokee Road, so we can fly over Kokee Camp.”

That sounded like a hell of a lot of fun, compared to piling into the ridge 100 feet below Pihea Trail.  The turn took about two years.  Finally, I saw the canyon walls begin to back away from the left landing gear, and a little while later I began transitioning to normal flight, closing the flaps, easing back the power to cruise climb, leveling off and heading south. The sweat on my forehead felt cool.  The aircraft was performing flawlessly. We cruised the 6 miles down to where a low spot made it easy to get over to Kokee Road, and very gradually kept climbing over the gently rising terrain. Passing the Pu’u O Kila lookout, we had 1,000 feet to spare, and eased through the clear, rushing air above Kalalau Valley up to the Na Pali coast.

From there, the trip went as planned, along the windward shore, past Princeville, Kilauea, Anahola, and Wailua, then the 100-mile channel back to Oahu and Barber’s Point Naval air station, our home base.  Landing and post flight were routine, except I had to check carefully that there was no red clay in the tire treads.  That’s a dead giveaway that a pilot has been naughty.

Existential Moment

Black Hole

Black Hole

2014 WayneSL

That existential moment
when finite and infinite
eternity and now
can, will, might
and probably not
swirl and swell
and do not come to rest
yet we persist…

SKIT OUT (definition)

/skit out/– to create a short dramatic presentation intended to obfuscate the underlying truth that one abhors the present company and wishes to escape, creating an excuse to leave without hurting the feelings of the boring clods being avoided.
much like /skip out/ but with more flair.