The Tattooed Man

Witherspoon's Parking
Trees everywhere…but one holds a special book.

Oh that August heat is stifling even in this cockpit high over the Atlantic.  I can feel the airs oppressiveness on the ground when I’m taking off and landing with the windows and doors closed, and I can still feel it at 3,000 feet although it’s tempered substantially making the cockpit quite comfortable.  I have all the air vents wide open and aimed directly at me—this is as cool as I’ll be until this day is over.  This day has been brutal, trip after trip after trip to the islands moving freight, mail and people.  The temperature is quite high for the Maine coast and the relief from a breeze is nowhere in sight…yet I still love this job no matter the discomforts nor the lack of downtime.  Today has been a strange day in a way, nothing big really but it has been a bit different compared to most.  Although it is relatively late in the day, I have yet to fly into North Haven.  You readers certainly have heard of that notorious airfield Witherspoons…that demanding airstrip on the island of North Haven that on days like this can be a true bear to fly out of with any sort of load in the plane.  This has been a strange day in that at this point I usually have been into Witherspoons at least a half a dozen times or more, but it’s late in the afternoon, or more like early evening, and I have yet to land in there at all today—highly unusual.  You might ask, “What difference does it really make?”  I even might ask myself, “Why would I care if I had gone into Witherspoons with the current brutal conditions and being as busy as I have been?”  Shouldn’t I just be happy I got a break from the stress of its challenges?  Well normally yes, it would be a much appreciated break.  However, as I stated earlier, this day is different.  This day I need to get into that little airstrip and I need to get there quickly.  Time is running out—I’m only going to get one more shot.  Our last flight into this strip is usually removing a half dozen construction workers that my company typically fly’s in and out Monday through Friday, and sometimes on Saturdays.

Today getting into this airstrip is important because I have a package waiting for me there.  It’s not just a package, it’s a book!  It’s not just any book either; it’s a one of a kind special book!  So what’s the big deal about some book sitting at a gravel airstrip on an island off the coast of Maine?  Why must I be so concerned about getting this particular book tonight when I could just fly in tomorrow morning and pick it up?  Surely I will be delivering the construction crews tomorrow… if not, then undoubtedly I will at least fly the mail or freight into Witherspoons tomorrow?  I can just pick up the book then right?  No, tomorrow is not an option.  Tomorrow will not cut it.  I have to get in there now and get this book, no matter what it takes.

I’m currently flying along at 3,000 feet enjoying the pleasantness of the warm summer day, heading straight for the home airport as I ponder the possible ways I could manage to fly over there and get the book.  The other pilots have been dispatched to Witherspoons already for the last run so it is appearing as though I will not make it there this evening.  As my mind wanders and the engine hums along rhythmically I get a call on the radio from our dispatcher directing me to fly into Vinalhaven, a small airstrip named after the island it sits on very near the island of North Haven—where my desired destination of Witherspoons sits.  My mission at Vinalhaven is to pick up two passengers and fly them back to our home base in Owls Head.  I bank the aircraft lazily in the direction of the rather large island and within minutes I turn southwest onto the final approach at Vinalhaven’s short dirt strip…but keep looking northwest where I can see North Haven and its airstrip of interest.  Well I tell myself, I came close but it’s looking like I just won’t be getting into Witherspoons tonight.  It’s a shame really, I have been so pumped all day long to get into that place and pick up my book that I still can’t believe I won’t be doing it today.  I honestly cannot remember the last day that I did not fly into Witherspoons—but such is my luck today.  No worries, let’s see just what kind of fun I can find on my last flight of the evening here in Vinahaven.

After an uneventful landing on the hilly, dirt airstrip, I taxi the plane over to the parking area, which is just more dirt and grass off one end of the runway near a payphone.  I pull the mixture knob fully out, shutting down the engine.  As the propeller comes to its  expected stop, I make sure the magnetos and the master switch are turned off then slide out my door while glancing at the rotating beacon high on the tail of the plane.  I made it a habit early on in my flying career to leave the beacon light switch on at all times so if…ok…when, I leave the master switch on inadvertently, sending electrical power throughout the airplane, I will know because the beacon will still be illuminated as I exit the plane.  This serves to keep us boneheaded pilots from in leaving the master switch on and draining the battery—an embarrassing situation we all have been in at one point or another.  Well this day I am on a roll and the beacon is dark indicating my superior piloting skills have once again kept me from making a fool of myself.  I was told my passengers were going to be here to meet me but there is no one around.  This is not uncommon and I’m fully prepared to wait until they arrive.  It is usually only five minutes or so but I have waited over an hour.  Sometimes messages get fouled up but we just bite the blame bullet most days and ensure the customer is taken care of as they should be.  Well after fifteen minutes or so I walk over to the one connection I have to the mainland—an old pay phone bolted to a wooden wall or sorts.  I call dispatch and check to see if maybe there are any updates as to my passenger’s status but find that they are no longer the priority.  I’m tasked to fly over to Witherspoons and pick up a few pieces of freight that couldn’t fit on the last flight out.  Can you believe the luck?  I have just been given the go ahead to fly some last minute pieces of freight out of Witherspoons…I will make it into there after all!

No, I did not ask the dispatcher for this.  No, I did not beg the owner of the company for this.  In all honesty this is like a gift from who knows where…it’s like someone up above was looking out for me knowing I’d be brooding over this all night long, whining to whoever would listen back at the pilot crash pad where us pilots all sleep…affectionately known as “The Boy’s Club.”  Regardless of the reason, the missions is clear—fly your plane straight to Witherspoons and pick up these packages, where I’m told Lena, our ground delivery woman, is waiting to pass them on to me.  I feel like a bomber pilot in World War II being given an assignment of the highest order, an assignment that will save humanity—yet this particular assignment may be much more mundane but it I am still totally pumped at the turn of events!  No matter how busy I am, no matter how much I’d love a break at this point, I am all over this flight like there’s no tomorrow.

I am light on gas and the plan is to come out of Witherspoons with no passengers, this means the plane will perform marvelously in the hazardous airstrip, so the stress levels are quite low.  I quickly takeoff out of Vinalhaven’s airstrip and fly over the beautiful blue water of Penobscot Bay where I can see the light of the slowly setting sun reflecting off the water and the many lobster boats and buoys scattered across the bay.  The setting sun gives these hard, solid objects the appearance of fuzziness.  The boats and buoys appear slightly blurred and softened by the ever changing light, it’s surreal really.  An artist’s dream view.  This evening is going to be spectacular regardless of my mission, the job I’m undertaking is only going to be the capstone to an already gorgeous evening.  I don’t have much time; I am descending and powering back the Cessna as I fly low over the town of North Haven and its sprawling summer homes.  The plane is fairly quiet now, it’s not like it usually is coming in a bit higher and with the propeller in fine pitch.  This time I’m lower and the propeller is still set for cruise flight ensuring I come in fast, low and as quiet as possible.  This is quite fitting since I’m on a very important task.  A very secret mission…well secret for me anyway…Lena knows I’m coming because she is waiting with the packages.  It is a relatively easy approach given the lightly loaded plane and calm winds.  The air may be thin due to the density altitude, and the lack of wind certainly makes flying it easier, it also makes for a very stabilized approach down close to the tree tops to ensure I land on the very beginning of the runway.  This strip doesn’t suffer fools, we pilots have to pay attention and fly with the utmost skill to get the plane safely into and out of this particular airfield.  Slightly less than one thousand feet and with obstructions on each end and a road crossing the southwest portion of the runway, this place demands precision and my utmost attention.

This day Witherspoons poses no problem to me as I touch down on the gravel right at the beginning of the strip as I had planned, and with minimal braking the plane slows on the runway to the point where I’m able to cautiously taxi it off the gravel onto the grass parking area near the grange hall.  I barely get the engine shut down and the prop stopped as I see Lena walking towards the plane.  She smiles as I open the door and slide down from the cockpit saying hello.  Usually at this point I’ve seen Lena at least one or more times during the day but this is my first greeting to her even though it’s nearly seven in the evening.  We converse with small talk concerning her upcoming flying lessons while I open the cargo door and quickly load my three packages.  Lena is concerned about getting the time away from work needed to commence with her flight training and we discuss the possible ways she may be able to make this happen—but my mind is distracted today.  My mind is drawn to the trees in my immediate view as I think about exactly where my book is.

Trees, what do trees have to do with a package…a book that is waiting to be picked up?  Well you see this isn’t just any book, this book has been left for me by a dear friend.  She knows I love books and she knows I am a romantic at heart so she left this book in a tree near where we park the planes.  Now I have no idea which tree it is in but I have a sneaking suspicion it is in the very large apple tree that is right next to the plane.  My dilemma comes from the fact that my friend and I are the only ones that know this book is here and now I have to go searching for it while trying to act as though nothing unusual is happening.  You know, nothing unusual about a pilot climbing through the low branches of a tree at the grange hall looking for something while the cars pass by with occupants that are wondering just what the hell is happening.  Yeah, fat chance of me pulling this one off nonchalantly.  Lena is yapping away about her flight training and I’m slowly walking towards the apple tree to look for my booty—she follows me probably wondering exactly where it is I’m going.

Did I mention this apple tree is fully grown and is enormous for an apple tree?  Well it is, and that leaves me with many branches and hiding places to search.  It becomes painfully obvious early on in my treasure hunt that I’m not going to get away with this without having to come at least partially clean.  So as Lena stares at me digging through the branches (I did notice she’d stopped talking quite awhile ago) I quickly try to explain to her that “someone” had left me a package in this tree.  She is still staring at me as if to say, “What in the hell kind of disturbed person would leave a package in a tree?  And furthermore, what kind of crazed pilot would be climbing around in a tree looking for it?”  You see, packages are Lena’s thing.  She delivers them all day long and she knows they go from the plane, to the van, to the home of the owner of the package…a tree doesn’t fit into that scenario at all.  Well thankfully Lena has the good sense to not ask questions she may not want the answer too and decides to just help me rather than watch me flail around haphazardly embarrassing myself, and more importantly, the company.  We search through the tree’s bottom branches but to no avail.  Lena asks me what this package looks like…so once again I have to come up with a bit more information on my “Top Secret” mission.  I tell her it is a book and she shrugs her shoulders and says, “Oh, a book.  Ok.”  She acts as though I’m an imbecile for not telling her sooner…like it’s every day a person looks for a book in a tree.  Unfortunately, now that I have Lena’s full cooperation and attention, we decide that maybe this isn’t the tree after all; maybe it’s one of the other hundred or so trees near the plane.  Lord help me…I’m smiling to myself in excitement but I know my face is crimson as I watch the increasing number of cars driving by and slowing down to see what all the commotion is about.

We slowly walk by some five foot tall trees running away from the apple tree; it couldn’t be in one of these could it?  It doesn’t take long to look into these little trees, one quick glance tells us all there is to know about that particular tree.  Kind of boring when compared to that monster of an apple tree.  It can’t be in one of these, I mean who would put a book in one of these shrubs…ahem…I mean baby trees when it could be in the century old, towering, majestic apple tree?  Wouldn’t that be more symbolic…more grandeur?  Note to self; don’t be too full of myself and my knowledge of books in trees.  Apparently any tree works for this sort of stuff (I am obviously a novice when it comes to books in trees) and there it is right there in the branches of that five foot tall beautiful tree!  I’m so psyched my heart skips a beat and I lunge for the book pushing Lena to the ground to get at it before she can touch it!  Ok…that may not have been how it really happened, but I do see the book and my heart does skip a beat…I’m really happy to be here and finding a book…left in a tree…for me.  I’m beyond words.  I hold the small blue book in my hands like it’s the Holy Grail.  Lena looks at me expectantly, as if to say “Now what?”  But I just slide it under my arm and thank her for her help as I pick up the pace towards the plane.

I run off kind of quickly for two reasons.  First, I don’t need her asking anymore questions…this is of course still Top Secret and she is not on the “need to know” list.  Second, I am super excited about opening the book for closer examination but cannot do that with an audience.  Not only Lena, but there are still cars driving by looking over to see what a crazy pilot does next after climbing through trees looking for books.  I quickly look over the plane as I get closer to ensure all the doors are closed, the propeller area is clear, the wings are attached, it’s right side up and I have no stowaways.  After determining that all is well I climb into the cockpit and close the door quickly before anyone can come to slow me down (and to keep the horseflies out!).  I hold the book in my hands; it is approximately eight inches long by five inches wide and maybe a bit over an inch thick.  It’s blue and pretty nondescript really.  The title, which is only written on the binding, reads; “The Tattooed Man” and below that is the name of the author, “Pease” along with “Doubleday.”  What really catches my eye is the green ribbon tied quite beautifully around the book with a bough on it for good measure.  Underneath the ribbon is a sliver of paper with some very neat hand writing which reads “Jake the pilot.”  This was done with style and a thoughtfulness that goes beyond words and is light years sharper than my usual packaging in which I take the object and shove it into a bag, presenting it like I just stole it from a homeless person.  I’m impressed and truly honored.  Anyone would be honored to receive a gift such as this, doubly so with how it is wrapped and passed on via a tree.  There are even more reasons to be honored—this book was published in 1926 and is ninety years old!  Not only that, it is from my dear friend’s private collection passed down by her recently deceased grandfather, and she feels I will be a good home for it.  I’m beyond honored, I’m touched beyond words and to me this book has just become priceless.  I handle it like it’s the Dead Sea Scrolls and set it gently down in the seat next to me.  I need time to really look over this gift and right here, right now is neither the time nor the place.  I need to fire this airplane up and point her towards the sunset!

After looking quickly around the airplane, especially the propeller, I fire up the engine and ensure the oil pressure is “in the green” and the oil temperature is reading correctly.  Then I glance down to ensure I’ve selected the fuel tank with the most fuel in it while setting the flaps to twenty degrees and visibly checking they lowered to the desired setting.  After doing this I reach down to the elevator trim wheel and give her three good doses of nose down trim and begin my taxi to the far end of the airstrip.  In between each of these steps of my checklist I glance over and see the book patiently awaiting my prying hands.

The part I really enjoy about takeoffs out of Witherspoons is the look on my passenger’s faces when you turn the plane around at the “far” end of the 960 foot strip and they see the trees on the opposite end of the runway looking like they are right in front of the airplane!  It truly is disconcerting, and I felt the same way the first time I saw it and I had been flying for nearly thirty years!  Maybe their ignorance is actually bliss—they don’t know just how tight it is getting out of this airstrip on some days.  Nonetheless, today shouldn’t be much of an issue providing the engine continues running.  Even with the negative effects of the high density altitude making the plane think it is already at 2,000 feet where the air is thinner, and the lack of headwind assisting my takeoff—I am light and the plane is an amazing performing machine so this takeoff is thrilling but not a problem at all.  The airplane accelerates down the runway and comes off the ground at about the midpoint of the runway.  I let the nose of the plane lower slightly as the machine accelerates to a safer climb speed and easily top the trees at the far end while having plenty of excess airspeed should it be needed in an emergency.

As the plane climbs out to a safe altitude to cross the bay I “dial” the prop back to a more reasonable rpm which greatly reduces the noise and affects my performance very little.  After doing this I call dispatch letting them know I’m safely airborne and should be home shortly.  Soon I reach 2,000 feet and let the plane accelerate to a good cruise speed. Seconds later I pull the throttle back to 23 inches of manifold pressure then decrease the rpm of the propeller even more to a sedate 2300 rpm.  The airplane asks for a bit more nose down trim which I wisely oblige.  She is now content and we scoot along at a leisurely 125 nautical miles per hour—more commonly known as knots.

I glance over at the book…my book.  My heart races.  How many times have I looked over at it in the short two or three minutes it has taken me to level off in cruise flight?  Easily a half dozen or more times.  I look back out the windscreen towards Owls Head and can make out the airport even with the setting sun sliding gracefully below the horizon right behind it.  The bright red is giving way to a warm yellow hue that lulls me into a sort of euphoric state.  My mind wanders to the tree.  Then the book.  Then the girl who entrusted me with it.  I feel as though I could never have another day as good as this one.  Right or not, this feels like the perfect end to the perfect day.

 

Author: Shawn R Michaud

I've flown airplanes since I was a teenager and retired from the United States Navy after over 24 years of service. Now I fly commercially in addition to flying my Super Cub for fun.

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