Maverick pilot

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Prescribing cortisone tablets, the doctor agreed it was an ugly rash. “Take these three times a day and your face should clear up in a week; if it doesn’t give me a call and we’ll try something else – and stay out of the sun.”

I wrote a check and thanked him.

By the third day the most amazing thing occurred; my lungs began to dramatically clear up! At first I didn’t make the connection; nevertheless, the longer I was on the cortisone the better I felt and the less I needed the inhaler and dilator pills. I avoided the sun by hanging out in the bars along the beach and drinking Primo, the local beer of the islands. To the regulars I explained that my startling recovery was due to the healing qualities of the beer – who’d ever heard of cortisone?

As my face cleared-up the local ladies quit looking at me like a leper and things began to get better and better. After the week was up I started putting in time at the beach, being careful to not sunburn. I truly believe in the curative powers of warm sun and salt water. Within a month I’d put on ten pounds and was feeling almost like my old self. More good news arrived from my mainland doctor; I didn’t have TB after all! Apparently a spoor, native to Vietnam, had settled in my weakened lungs creating all the problems. Within a month I passed a flight physical and went back to work flying light planes around the islands.

Renting a small apartment near Anita’s I moved Toni into her own bedroom. She still went to school with Anita’s kids, staying with them until I got off work. My life was getting back to normal. I sure wasn’t going back to Saigon and risk getting sick again; that was as close to dying as I cared to get. The only downside of the Islands was that the flying job didn’t pay much money; I continually tapped into my savings to make ends meet.

One day a C-47 pulled up in front to the Hangar where I worked. It had just ferried in from the mainland and was on its way to Hong Kong to provide support for a construction company named Delong Dock, working in Vietnam. I introduced myself to the crew and directed them to the Holiday Inn near the airport. They were friendly and seemed glad to have met someone who knew the area. Bruce was the captain and chief pilot of the operation. He invited me to the hotel for drinks after I got off work. Over scotch we traded stories and I told him about my tour in Southeast Asia and my familiarity with the area where they were going to be operating. We exchanged contacts and they left the next morning.

A couple of months later I received a phone call from Bruce telling me he’d had a captain quit and would I like to come over to Hong Kong to take his place? The job involved flying once a week to Vung Tau with a short stop at Cam Ranh Bay on the way back. It amounted to a sixteen-hour day once a week and the pay was excellent. I couldn’t believe my luck; I loved Hawaii but was rapidly going broke. Hong Kong was a World-Class city – one of the best places in the world to live. Toni could attend private schools. And it was safe; no shooting or violence in Hong Kong.

“When do you need an answer?” I asked after Bruce had finished with his offer.

“As soon as possible; the son-of-a-bitch just walked in and quit after he took a round in the rudder on take-off out of Vung Tau. Oh, did I mention we pay extra for all the time you spend in Vietnam? I need a guy out here right now.”

“I’m pretty sure I can make it – give me forty-eight hours – I’ve got to make some calls.”

“Look we’ll take care of your rent and any fees you may have in moving this fast. I need a captain out here now!”

“Okay, I still have to make some arrangements…”

“I’ll book you on Pan Am for two days from now.”

“Make it three…”



“Keep track of your expenses; money is no problem.”

Hanging up, I wondered who in the hell was this guy Bruce. Nevertheless, there was no question the money wasn’t going to be welcome after the big hole I’d dug in my savings. The next day was a whirlwind of phone calls; Toni went back to Anita’s – the landlord settled for a month’s advance rent, the utilities and phone company billed Anita. Bob said he’d sell my car. Eric, the owner of the charter operation was disappointed but understanding; “You know you’ve always got a job here if things don’t work out.”

“I know, thanks Eric. I’ll drop you a line as soon as I get settled.”

Two days later I was fluffing up a pillow and dozing in an over-the-wing window-seat on Pan Am II, bound for Tokyo, and Hong Kong. Part of me wondered if I was making the right decision while the other part confirmed it’s what I do – it’s what I was meant to do. I’m a whore; pay me and I’ll dance for you.

Tokyo was a short stop to offload passengers and refuel. I would have preferred traveling on BOAC as they overnight all their passengers putting them up in four-star hotels before continuing. However Bruce insisted I get there ASAP. After Tokyo the 707 was less than half full so it was easy to find three seats where I could stretch out and sleep. We arrived at Kai Tak airport in the morning after shooting the Checkerboard approach, dropping down between the apartment structures to land on runway 1-3. The approach into Hong Kong is one of the most exciting in the World for commercial airliners; just before landing, you are actually looking up at the residents in the buildings on both sides of the plane. (In 1998 Kai Tak was closed and the new Hong Kong International airport opened with safer approaches and runways, thus closing an exciting chapter to flying in the Far East.)

It took less than thirty minutes to pick up my suitcase and clear customs. I called Bruce from the airport to let him know I’d arrived. He said I was booked into the Ambassador Hotel on Nathan Road, across from his apartment at the Peninsula Hotel. The company sure provided fancy digs I thought. The Peninsula was the grand dame of all the hotels in Hong Kong and the Ambassador was first class too. He sounded happy to hear from me suggesting I get some rest before meeting for dinner at his place.

Grabbing a cab for the short drive to the hotel; it felt good to be back in the Orient. I had no idea how the Brits pulled it off, keeping China at bay while making Hong Kong one of the great trading cities of the World. Everybody hustles in Hong Kong and their energy is contagious. It takes a lot of work to feed, clothe and house the multitude of people that have migrated into this outpost of freedom from the great communist bear growling at the border. Everybody struggles to provide. As the taxi fought its way through morning traffic I noticed the women in their high-neck, split skirt, cheongsams busily scurrying to their employment. They were all beautiful; not an ugly one in the bunch. The colony produced some of the most beautiful women in the world. They must drown the ugly ones at birth I reflected. Damn, I was going to like this assignment.

I was given a corner suite with a harbor view and fresh flowers on the table. This was sure different than Continental Air Service. I phoned Dumas Dunn, an old friend, who was delighted to hear I was back in town and assured me we’d be getting together for lunch as soon as I got settled in.

I’d slept so long in the plane during the fifteen-hour flight I wanted to get some exercise to work out the kinks, so I went window shopping up and down Nathan Road, the main thorough-fare of Kowloon; the city across the channel from the island of Hong Kong. All the shops had the latest cameras and recorders – it was a cornucopia of bargains, half what I’d pay in Honolulu. Tailors offered shirts and suits at prices less than stateside department stores charged for ready-mades. This was going to be a fun job. I began thinking about an apartment over on Repulse Bay that could be rented for seven hundred a month. Toni would love it here; I’d spoil her rotten with all the clothes and toys I could buy for next to nothing. I stopped at a little place off the main avenue for some delicious borsch soup before enjoying a nap and getting ready for my dinner with Bruce. I was definitely a Happy Camper.

I’d learned Bruce had a wife and young boy so I bought a small bouquet of flowers and some chocolates before going over to their apartment. Knocking on the door at the appointed time I thought I’d made an error, arriving too early. Bruce was dressed in wrinkled pajamas, his belly hid the top of the pants; a bottom button was missing from the shirt. However his hair was combed and his clipped salt-and-pepper moustache that made him resemble Clark Gable was brushed and he looked bright eyed.

“Hi, come in; you’re right on the dot – I like that. What’s this?”

“I thought your wife might like the flowers.”

“Well that’s real nice but my wife has allergies. Honey,” Bruce shouted into what I assumed to be a bedroom, “Come in here and meet our new captain and bring Jeffery.” In came a mousy middle-aged looking woman, perhaps a little younger than Bruce and dressed in a plain housedress of the type worn by many older women in the Midwest. She was leading a boy of ten or eleven years dressed in short pants and a long sleeved shirt. She looked at me and her eyes darted back to Bruce. She appeared either scared on maybe on some kind of medication. The boy was also shy and elusive, avoiding any eye contact.

“This is Ella, my wife. Ella, this is Captain Case.”

Holding out the flowers, I advanced towards her, “Here’s something I hope you like.”

“Oh, thank you Captain Case – they’re lovely.”

“Call me Dave, my name’s Dave.”

“Thank you David…”

Bruce interrupted her with, “I prefer we maintain a more formal relationship out here until we get to know each other better. Ella’s on medication. The climate here doesn’t agree with her – does it dear?”

“No Bruce,” I noticed she made no eye contact with that remark.

“Put the flowers on the table Dave; I’ll take care of them later. And this is my son Jeffery. We’re thinking of sending him home to a private school. I’m afraid to enroll him out here; too many foreigners. Jeffery say hello to Captain Case.” Jeffery came out from behind his mother’s shadow and with downcast eyes he extended a limp hand and in a low voice said, “How do you do sir?”

I took his hand and extended the box of chocolates. “Glad to meet you Jeffery; here’s something for after dinner.” Jeffery looked over to Bruce without reaching for the box. I felt silly holding the candy with no one seemingly interest in my gifts.

“Dave, why don’t you put those down with the flowers? Jeffery can’t eat chocolates; it gives him a reaction.”

“Gee, I’m sorry, I didn’t know…”

“That’s all right; this place doesn’t agree with my family, and I don’t like it much either. Let’s have a drink – bourbon or scotch?”

“Scotch with a touch of water, please.”

“I prefer bourbon; scotch always tastes like medicine.”

“That’s why I drink it – to kill the germs.”

Dinner was a quiet affair. Ella had fixed a bland roast served with mashed potatoes and frozen peas. Conversation was exclusively between Bruce and me. Ella and Jeffery only spoke to very-formally request the passing of a dish or condiment. Every effort I made to engage them in conversation was met with the briefest of responses usually followed by an interruption from Bruce. The boy referred to his father as, Sir and me as Captain Case. Ella called me Captain. Bruce chatted away as though this was a perfectly normal evening, he queried me about my past experience and people we mutually knew. I felt very uncomfortable; this was a family under great strain – something was terribly wrong with the way they interacted and it was obvious Bruce was a taskmaster.

“Day after tomorrow Teddy will ride with you to show you the route and introduce you to the people you’ll be working with. Joe Migone – you met Joe in Honolulu – will be your copilot. He’s a good boy but doesn’t have much experience.”

“When is showtime?”

“Zero four-thirty in front of the hotel. A car and driver will be waiting. Takeoff is zero six hundred. It’s a six hour run to Vung Tau.”

“Sounds good to me; I’ll check in with Ted when I get back to the hotel.”

Dessert was a small dish of ice cream. It was obvious the evening was over and I was expected to leave. “I’m glad we had this get-together, I like to size my pilots up before putting them on the line,” Bruce said as he escorted me to the door. “I’m afraid Ella’s already turned in – her medicine makes her drowsy.”

“Gee, that’s too bad, I hope she gets better. It was a nice time and a fine meal, please relay my thanks to Ella and say goodbye to Jeffery for me.”

“I will. I want Jeffery to get plenty of rest too; this climate can hurt a person and there’s a lot of malaria going around. Ella will get better when we leave this outpost.”

Outpost? Bruce had made it sound like this was some sort of hardship post on the edge of the jungles of Laos. What the hell was he talking about? I felt for some reason he was making this all up to either intimidate his family or maybe to impress his friends back in the States. Hong Kong was a fascinating city loaded with excellent food, great clothes, fine people, and just about everything a man could want. I made a mental note to stay as far away from Bruce as I could.

I walked the few blocks in the fresh air to Ned Kelly’s Last Chance Saloon. If I was lucky there might be a Qantas crew in town and the place would be jumping. I needed to get my balance back.

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