Summer of Eighty-three

Four of us had gone to dinner.  There was me and Tommy and Brian and George. We’d spent the day over at the Athol, Idaho airport working on an MX Sprint ultralight. It belonged to George, who didn’t know jack about hardware but was a pretty good hang glider pilot. All of us were actually not all that bad at it. I was the only certified pilot in the group, having an FAA license and hundreds of hours in small aircraft from Aeronca Champs to Piper Commanches and lot’s between. I was also the only one who knew anything about building and rigging airplanes. The MX was halfway between a hang glider and an airplane, actually having wings and tail feathers rather than Rogallo, or delta shaped wing. Earlier that day it had come out of boxes as pieces of aluminum tubing, steel cable flying wires and bags and bags of nuts, bolts and washers. In the course of the day we’d turned all of those loose parts into an airplane with a Rotax motor driving a pusher propeller. It wasn’t ready to fly. While all of the pieces were in more or less the right places, we had tons of measuring, adjusting and tuning left to do before it could fly.

We were using a small hangar at the dirt strip airfield to assemble the plane in, and we’d do the test flying there too. We were building it out in Athol because it gave us proper space and a good place to test fly the completed project. It was a lazy airport with a few people living along it’s western side in homes and trailers patrolled by peacocks. Peacocks, I learned there, were very good at patrol. They recognized people, and those they didn’t recognize were greeted with their piercing call as well as some very disconcerting territorial behavior. They were intimidating as all get out, and had no problem running strangers down to try and peck and claw their victims mercilessly. The birds had been properly introduced to us and so they’d leave us be, but in the week or so we hung out at the airport we saw more than one curious person go where they shouldn’t have, only to be run off by these birds with attitude. No, these things didn’t stroll around stupidly looking like the NBC television logo, they looked more like over-sized road runners most of the time. Three and a half foot tall road runners.

There was a jump school on the airfield that did some lazy business. The school was also home to a skydiving team called the Flaming Athols. But mostly the Athol airport was just a quiet little field surrounded by a sea of evergreen with a few people who made their home there. And it had us, at least temporarily. Tired from a day of laboring to decipher the assembly manual and create an aircraft, we had called it a day and had headed back towards our homes in Spokane for the night. We stopped at a little bar along the way to pick up dinner and to kick back a few beers by way of relaxing. We’d spotted this place and recognized it as a quality establishment by virtue of the fact that only a couple of the neon beer signs in the windows were broken. Also, the cluster of bent, dusty and faded pickup trucks nestled up to the building all had empty gun racks. Brian’s Ford Fairlane station wagon fit right in, although the bumper stickers on our vehicle were of a different breed than those decorating the trucks. Ours said “Live Music is Best” and “Pilots are just plane people.”  The rigs had banners for Harley Davidson and the NRA.

We all shuffled through the sawdust covered floor to a table and took seats, looking around. There were a number of typical north Idaho types seated at the bar, and a few more playing at the pair of pool tables. A juke box wailed Hank Williams Junior. A skinny blonde with tight jeans an a tee shirt she borrowed from a three year old came to take our order. Her belly button, revealed along with a band of skin between the bottom of the tee and her waist was decorated with a gemstone that caught and reflected the low light quit handily. We all ordered Coors on tap, she nodded and then left. I mean, she actually left. She listened to our order, nodded and then walked right out the door we just came in. All of us kind of looked at each other and then back to the door, and back to each other and we shrugged. We never saw her again, but a few minutes later a heavy set guy in greasy jeans and a dungaree jacket with the sleeves cut off brought us the beers we ordered. Strange as the ordering system was, it apparently worked.  We asked if they had food and he said yeah, and listed off a few items. I got a burger and everyone else had chicken strips. We all asked for fries.

For the next hour we drank beer and waited for our food, occasionally one of us stepping over to the bar to pick up refills for our beer mugs. The jukebox kept playing country music and games of pool kept getting played on after another. We began to wonder about our food. The skinny blond was behind the bar, having apparently teleported back inside. We never saw her come back in. The big guy who took our food order wasn’t in evidence though. Tommy asked her if she knew how long it’d be before we got our food and she just shrugged. So we passed another half hour and drank a fourth round of beers. Brian got up and went to the bar and asked Skinny what was up with the food. She tossed her head toward a doorway and said for him to go ahead and ask. So he stepped over to the door and disappeared through it.  He came out quick stepping and wide eyed. He looked at us all and said “Gotta go. We gotta go,” and pulled money from his pocket and threw it on the table. We all looked at him, curious, but did the same thing. We paid our tab and left a decent tip besides and moved quickly out to the wagon and climbed inside.

“What’s the hell’s this about?” asked Brian and Tommy said for him to shut the hell up and drive. So off we went down the two lane blacktop, headed homeward. Well on our way, Brian asked Tommy what the hell again.

“The guy was dead, man. He was fucking dead.”

“Do what?” I asked. “Dead?”

“Yeah, he was layin’ on the floor, not moving.”

“How do you know he was dead?” asked George.

“Because of the knife in his chest and all the damn blood.” wheezed Tommy.

“Wow,” we all said.

We thought about it silently as Brian drove us on towards home. “Shouldn’t we tell someone?” he finally said. We all considered it, but no one volunteered to do it or even answer the question. It was just too creepy. It was too creepy and unexpected. We all rode in silence for a while, until we were on Trent Avenue and nearing Brian’s house where all of us had our cars. Then we began to debate whether we should go back to the airfield the next day or if we should take a break. We decided that it might look funny if we didn’t show up, and maybe we would all get involved by trying to stay uninvolved. None of us were guilty of anything, but still, someone getting wasted was something indeed and we were virtual strangers to the area and certain that we’d stood out to the scattered northern Idaho population.

Of course, we hadn’t, and when we somewhat reluctantly pulled up to the hangar late the next morning, we learned from one of the airport live-ins that there’d been a stabbing not too far away. It turned out that the skinny blond had done the deed in retaliation for being cheated on. She and the hefty guy were an item, at least, in her eyes. I guess not so much in his. Our worries about being swept up into trouble were quickly dismissed and we went back to working on the plane, chattering away about how weird it all was. In the end we concluded that the tardiness of, and failure to produce our food order was excusable under the circumstances.

I was the first to fly the Quicksilver MX Sprint. We’d done a good job at putting it all together. Each of us took our turns, flying the little single seater for a half hour or so before turning it over to the next guy for a turn. We knocked off at six o’clock, with three and a half hours of daylight left. About enough for George to pilot it over to Spokane and land it on his little field out by Barker Road. There he’d fold the wings back and store it in his garage.

Tommy, Brian and I passed the little bar on our way home, surprised to find it open with a similar collection of trucks parked there. We didn’t stop.