The Sun Thief

The Sun Thief

sunthiefcover

by Cara St.Louis

excerpt…


George and the Dragon


Most people don’t realize it, and that includes most New Yorkers, but just outside the United Nations building is a statue. Right outside the visitor’s entrance. It’s a metal statue of St. George on horseback. In his right hand is a lance or a sword or something and he’s got his arm cocked way back, ready to hurl the thing down. Under the horse is a metal representation of a dragon. You know what that dragon’s made of, Unger?”


Two men stood in a doorway shielding themselves from snow. One man, mostly bald with a little closely shaved white hair remaining, thick-set, stuck his hands in his overcoat pockets. The younger man huddled over a cigarette, protecting his lighter flame from the wind.


“What’s that, old man?”


“Missiles. Old dismantled missiles. Russian and American both. How do you like that? Old SCUDS.” He chuckled lightly.


Unger smiled, pulled deeply on the freshly lit cigarette and inhaled smoke laced with cold air and snow, “Yeah. How ‘bout that. See you tomorrow. Vice Admiral.” He darted out of the doorway and headed down the street.


Alex Getz, retired Vice Admiral Alex Getz, sixty-eight years old, current advisor to Sceptre Corporation on all their defense department contracts, lingered in a doorway in lower Manhattan hiding from the snow. He was still in front of the Sceptre offices although the meetings were over. Not everyone had left the building, which made him wonder. He waited for as long as it seemed realistic to wait just to see who else might come out but no one else did. He needed a cab back to his hotel. He still had Christmas shopping to do.


Every year it was this way. There was always a lot of business to be done before the end of the calendar year and he never remembered that he was going to hate shopping on December twenty-eighth. So he ended up doing it every year. He was deeply disturbed at the moment but decided to shop anyway to keep anyone he didn’t want to suspect he was deeply disturbed from noticing. Go about your business, that was the first rule. It was his first rule anyway. Getz was at the end of his association with Sceptre. That was finished as of tonight. They were involved in chemical warfare which they had, apparently, been testing on larger and larger samples of the world population for decades and now Sceptre had a plan, ready to roll out, to test some of the most serious biological and chemical weapons on earth on living populations. They maintained that test populations would be relatively small, completely contained animal populations but it seemed to Getz that a group capable of crossing this line wouldn’t think much about using ‘chems’ or ‘bios’ on anyone for any reason.


In Vietnam, he had seen the results of chemical warfare. He had made himself one of the foremost experts on chemical and biological weapons strictly for that reason. There wasn’t even the excuse of an ‘enemy’ in this plan. There was no Bad Guy here, just unadulterated power-mongering. Sceptre was the bad guy. It was enough that they had been dumping chemicals from the sky already in barely excusable amounts, really shaky stuff, barely tolerable, supported by the thinnest scientific data. Most of the data they claimed to collect from these long term experiments was cooked, biased and downright fraudulent. Alex had liaised with the Department of Defense, going on record that he thought this was unethical at the very least. This new plan was way over the line. It was due to roll out in the first few days of January, so he had very little time. He had years’ worth of documentation in a box in his office at the Fitzpatrick Hotel on Lexington beneath the floorboards under the carpet.


The Pentagon didn’t know that yet. Very few people could have accumulated such documentation, just the half dozen or so primary players. He was that well-connected, that trusted, and, frankly, he was running the show in key ways. He had been an advisor to three Presidents and was well connected at the Pentagon. They must have known this might be the straw that broke the camel’s back. One word from Alex could snarl this project up forever with the military. They would almost certainly have difficulties with air space and the FAA without him. He would have to be very careful now. They would be waiting for the merest suggestion that he might sound the alarm. He was a White Hat at heart and now they knew it. Everybody knew it.


He returned to his hotel on foot after stopping at Bloomingdales for a few things for his wife. There was a fireplace, albeit a gas-powered one. He turned it on, slipped out of snow-filled shoes, and retrieved a shopping bag from the hallway inside the front door. He poured himself a scotch and sat down at the table. From the bag he took out gifts for his wife, wrapping paper, tape and ribbons. Carefully, because he was a man who took care, he cut two square pieces of silver flocked wrapping paper, measured to fit these gifts. He carefully placed each box precisely in the center of the wrapping paper and folded the paper up along the edges, creasing and pressing. Cellophane tape secured each seam. Just as methodically, he measured and cut ribbon, tied each package up with it and made a nice knot with the ends. He pushed the boxes to the side of the table and he was done. His wife was due back on the thirty-first.


Another scotch, this time by the window. He was on the eleventh floor. He pushed the curtain aside gently with his free hand, not too far, and gazed out into the whiteness. It was a habit to step back and away from the window at the slightest unexpected movement. The avenue was beautiful in snow, absolutely irresistible. Still some traffic on Lexington, despite the hour and the weather. Far below a taxi pulled to the curb. He let the curtain swing just about shut, a slit left open through which he watched the sidewalk below. A man carrying a yellow umbrella opened the door and as he got in he closed his umbrella, opened it then closed it again. He shut the door and the taxi pulled away.


The next day at twelve-thirty precisely, Rear Admiral Alex Getz entered La Caprice Restaurant on Fifth Avenue just opposite the Central Park Zoo. He sat alone at a table where he had a clear view of the sidewalk. He ordered fish and chips. As he ate, he saw the same man, the man from the cab the evening before, stop in front of the restaurant. He wore a Michigan State University sweatshirt, a Yankees cap, and a down coat and had a very big, very expensive camera slung around his neck. The city was full of tourists just like this. He stopped in front of the window of La Caprice for a moment, then crossed the street and disappeared into the zoo. The day was clear and cold and there was about a foot of snow on the ground in the park.


The two men met in front of the snow monkey enclosure. There were many people, parents and children, gathered here because the snow monkeys were receiving their Christmas gifts. Animal handlers positioned themselves inside the enclosure in order to narrate events. A pine tree had been placed in the enclosure and it was covered with fruit. The snow monkeys climbed the tree to get the fruit, sped off with it, kept it away from each other, devoured it whole, then swung back onto the tree for another treat.


Alex strolled up beside his contact.


No matter what they’re doing, they look unhappy don’t they?” He laughed.


“They do. Downright gloomy.” He raised his camera and began snapping photographs.


The message to Alex’s superiors was that Sceptre Corporation was absolutely determined to roll out the operation, code-named Gray Quilt, no matter what happened or who objected. The fellow continued to snap pictures for a full minute, scanning the entire circumference of the snow monkey enclosure. He appeared to be following the monkeys as they grabbed bits of fruit from the tree and scampered around each other. Finally, he lowered his camera. He and Alex leaned on the chest-high cement wall that encircled the monkey habitat.


“A couple of monkeys here seem hungrier than the rest. They’ve been eating for two full days!”


“Greedy bastards!” Getz laughed. “Which ones?”


“Ten o’clock, they have a lot of black fur on their heads.”


Getz casually looked to his left. Two men were indeed leaning on the opposite wall, just as they were, and they wore black knit caps. They were all watched, naturally, all the time but this was extra surveillance by unknown assets.


Jeez,” Getz said, “maybe a monkey ought to go out for a hot dog every once in a while if he’s that hungry.” Bring me in for protection.


Getz and his contact walked away from each other, they’d likely never see each other again. He stayed by the snow monkey enclosure for five full minutes, not wanting to appear spooked. The Sceptre people were already alarmed. He was vulnerable right now, at least for a few minutes. He had asked to come in, for protection. That was all he had to do. Being out in the cold was temporary but it was a very dangerous temporary. He knew everything. They would want him dead if they realized he was about to bring the program to a screaming halt. Dead men can’t get in the way of anything.


The two watchers wandered off in the direction of the polar bear habitat. Alex would rather they stay where he could see them until his people showed up. He waited. This was wrong. His experience, his intuition, his military training… everything was starting to scream at him, wrong! His people would have been here almost instantly. They weren’t showing up.


He decided to move out toward Fifth Avenue. He had to stay close to his original position but visible and surrounded by people. He began to move quickly. Still no sign of the watchers but everyone, anyone, could be a watcher at this point. A double line of very young school children holding hands and chattering loudly ambled past him, slowing him down. He passed the snow leopard cages, the penguin habitat, a utility shed loomed on his right. As he passed the shed, rough arms grabbed him from behind. Someone put him in a chokehold, he was cracked violently in the head and his legs went out from under him. Both men pressed their full weight down on him while one pulled off his shoe and sock in one swift motion and he felt a sharp jab in his right heel. That was the point. They were off him and running.


He sat up as quickly as he could and dug around in his pocket for his knife. He opened it, plunged the edge into his heel and, screaming, dug a hole out the size of a nickel. Whatever they put in there would be in a tiny ball bearing sealed in wax. The wax melted at body temperature releasing the poison. That way he might be miles away before he keeled over and died. He had a few seconds but he had to work quickly and be ruthless.


Where were his people? They weren’t coming, the bastards. They were giving Sceptre the green light. He was out in the cold. Genocide was a ‘go.’ He’d been cracked in the head and now his foot was maimed and bleeding. He’d probably get a little shocky soon, as well. If he’d got the thing out in time, he might get a little sick, that’s all. He was starting to spike a fever, he could tell. So even though he may have survived this attempt on his life, he was bound to be so sick for the next few hours that he’d be little more than an obvious target reeling around the city. Maybe they would hang back, think it was just the poison doing its work. Half a dozen substances came to mind but he pushed that thought aside. Either he’d been quick enough or he hadn’t. He struggled to rise and staggered toward the avenue. People moved away from him, this old lunatic staggering into the avenue, barefoot, carrying a shoe, trailing blood. He propped himself up against the wall that lined Fifth Avenue on the park side. Many vendors sat in folding chairs behind displays set up along the wall despite the cold. It was Christmas and they sold a lot of trinkets and prints. Getz tried to stand and walk again after a moment, the cold was driving him now. One, two steps and he toppled over again, the world slid out from under him. He fell into a display of black and white photographs of the city.


“Hey, goddammit!” The vendor leaped out of his chair to try to catch the falling merchandise. “Watch out!”


“Oh,” Getz slurred. What was actually coming out of his mouth? Not the words in his head. “Sorry.”


“Are you alright?” the vendor realized there was something very wrong. Getz didn’t look like a bum. He looked like an old man having a stroke.


“No,” Getz stammered, “my car didn’t come for me.”


Sit down, man,” the vendor righted his chair and took Getz by the arm, lowered him into the chair.


“Cold,” Getz whispered.


The vendor pulled Getz’s sweatshirt hood up over his head. He poured tea from a thermos and helped Getz cup it in his hands, lift it to his lips and drink.


“Is there someone I can call for you?”


Getz shook his head. No, don’t call anyone. I’ll just die faster.


Two days later, on December thirty-first, the same vendor pushed a cart laden with his photos across Fifth Avenue to his spot. There was a crowd behind the wall, a hundred yards into the park, near a lake. He wanted to see; usually things like this in the park were a big deal. He pushed his cart along the path until the crowd was so thick he couldn’t move it anymore. He wanted to see. Reluctantly, he left his cart on the path and pushed closer to the center of the crowd. A police boat bobbed about in the center of the little lake. They were pulling a stiff, bloated corpse from the water. Wet rope dangled from the corpse’s neck. News crews were arriving. With some effort the heavy body was hauled into the boat and the police made for land. As they got closer, the vendor pushed his way toward the apparent landing point. He wanted to see. Central Park was his office and all the vendors would be speculating about this for days. He got one short look at the body. Even contorted by the filthy water filling his body and the remnants of poison, he could make out the features of the old man with one shoe.


*****


June 9, 1966. Midshipman Alex Getz left Annapolis for the last time as a cadet. The previous day he had graduated with his class, which was the first to use the new stadium for the ceremony. He was to report to the aircraft carrier USS Hancock, eventually, as an ensign. First, he had been assigned rather mysteriously to temporary duty at the Pentagon in the Navy’s Center for Naval Operations. This would have to do with two things: his university major in Operations Analysis, an applied mathematics degree, and his father, a naval attaché in Saigon.


For today though, and just for today, he was a regular guy, just a twenty-one year old college graduate. His parents had already caught a Braniff flight back to Texas. When he was finished in Washington D.C., he would drive down as well, taking a leisurely six days, six days to think about what lay behind and what lay ahead, and six days more than he had had to himself in a great long while. Four years ago he had turned down a number of other college offers when he selected the Naval Academy. He was brilliant, gregarious and an all-American tight end. His senior photograph in the yearbook – The Bag – seemed to reveal, if one could go by the photo alone, a young man who wasn’t merely serious. The corners of his bow-shaped mouth did curl up slightly, although it didn’t seem to be a smile. His eyes promised something altogether mean or even possibly brutal. His general countenance, if one looked long enough, seemed to demonstrate a shade of betrayal mixed with fury. The six days he spent cutting a diagonal across the country was a time he meant to finalize his feelings about Vietnam. Everybody talked about Vietnam all the time. It was their war. He thought he would also marry Donna either before he left or when he returned, he would leave that up to her.


Donna was his high school sweetheart waiting in Abilene. She was gorgeous, blonde, she wore white gloves and a hat to church every Sunday and was profoundly practical. She would not marry him just because he was leaving for Vietnam, she would marry him when she decided the time was right. She would not graduate from Abilene Christian College until the following spring anyway. Most of the cadets swaggered around bellowing their impatience to end up in-country. Not Getz. The whole subject left him completely cold. He was assigned to an aircraft carrier, his specialty computer-guided ship-to-shore missiles. For him it was an exciting, state-of-the-art field. Lots of technology to work with, computer systems that were brand new, and his ability to use his considerable mathematical prowess, sitting on a ship far, far off-shore. COBOL was everyone’s darling at the moment and he was truly gifted in the new science of computers. His degree and talents made him exceptionally desirable to the Navy in areas of strategy, operations, and intelligence and there really wasn’t anywhere else to practice his skills.


His final grades were poor but in no way reflected his intelligence and capabilities. It was a shame, he thought, because he had tried like hell as the years went by and the war drums beat ever louder, to make himself seem unfit for command. It had not worked. He was often in trouble, a member of the century club early on – having completed more than one hundred stints running in circles in the yard as a disciplinary measure for demerits. He liked to drink. He liked to play football. Nevertheless, his superiors considered him to have been cut from true leadership cloth. There was so much to leading men in combat that had absolutely nothing to do with grades, with college. Today the day after graduation, he couldn’t have cared less about leading men into battle.


The reality was he did not ‘believe’ in the war. It was not logical. It wasn’t patriotic. As far as Alex could make out, it had nothing to do with the United States. The cold fury in his eyes, hardened like steel over the last year, had come when a classmate revealed to him that their fathers served in the same office in Saigon and had done for several years as naval attaches. Between large tumblers full of scotch in a little dive in rural Virginia, the other cadet let slip what he should not have known to begin with; their fathers were part of a Naval group in Vietnam established specifically to assist the French with their war until the French gave up and went home, agitate between the north and the south and generally keep the war going for as long as possible. No peace was wanted, thank you very much. Sometimes another person, with a slightly different slant on the facts – facts you may have had all of your life – can utterly remake one’s understanding of something.


There was no honor in what his father did for a living. Yes, his father had spent the majority of his time in Saigon since 1959. His mother stayed in Texas for the most part since neither of them considered Saigon a place for the family. Periodically they did mount an expedition to Japan, where the elder Getz would meet them for R&R. He came home periodically as well, bearing Asian trinkets and long, wonderful yarns about his work.


Getz made his way to Washington D.C. and reported to Naval Operations as ordered. He was situated in a room with half a dozen other young military men. The room was filled with what was considered to be the very best electronic equipment, used almost exclusively for surveillance. Suddenly he wondered whether he’d been stationed on the Hancock to conduct surveillance or fire missiles. He would be rather relieved to be shunted off to surveillance. Like all the others, he believed that when it was necessary he’d be able to push a button he knew damned well would almost instantly kill hundreds of people. They were aware that many of the casualties would be civilians. If he had a choice, though, he’d rather never have to find that out about himself. Four weeks later, he was en route to Abilene to propose to his girlfriend and say goodbye to his mother.


It was while sitting at the Formica table in his mother’s kitchen eating chicken fried steak with Donna that his life changed dramatically and forever, although he had no way of knowing at that moment just how profound the changes would be. Although he was adept at the ‘good ole boy’ stuff that made him popular at Navy or in a locker room, he was not a man for overt sentiment. He was a careful, methodical man. Donna appreciated that. He refilled her glass with lemonade before she asked him to, then setting the pitcher back down on the table, he took a black, velvet ring box from his shirt pocket and pushed it toward her without a word. The only detectable change was the slight cupid curl on his lips which had, during his time at Annapolis, passed for a smile. She was expecting a ring, they both knew it. They both knew what her answer would be. She picked up the box with her left hand, placed a forkful of mashed potato in her mouth with her right hand. When she was done, she lay her fork down, opened the box and slid the diamond solitaire inside onto her finger. It was quiet, it was careful, it was done.


In return, Donna slid an envelope across the table in his direction. She had discreetly tucked it under her placemat waiting for the right time. It was from the Department of the Navy and those sorts of letters always frightened her a bit. Alex took the brass letter opener from the drawer behind him and carefully slit the letter open.


Dear Ensign Getz;

This is to inform you that a change has occurred in your immediate assignment. Please report to NAVBase San Diego on 1 August, 1966, for deployment to the Vietnamese National Military Institute in Da Lat, Vietnam. There you will take up your assigned post as post-secondary instructor to the cadets in Operations Analysis and Advanced Mathematics. Congratulations.


It was ‘signed’ by the Secretary of the Navy.


Getz set the letter down on the table. Donna picked it up and read through it.


“Teaching?” Donna asked.


“Apparently.”


“Well, how do you feel about this? It’s better, probably. Right?”


“I don’t know,” Getz was truly stunned. “I keep being re-routed. The question is why? To what end?”


They finished their dinner quietly, each busy with thoughts that had never entered their minds before this. The dishes were done and put away. They walked toward the center of town, as they did every evening when Alex was at home.


“When you’ve graduated, you could actually live with me… if the circumstances were right. I assume they’ll house me on campus or near enough with other teachers.” He looked at her expectantly. It was an almost unheard of luxury for an ensign to have his wife with him on assignment.


I think I’d like to do that,” she replied,” if the circumstances were right.”


August in Vietnam is so hot, even the locals want to rip their own skin off. Getz was used to hot but Texas hot, the hot of the southwest, with the occasional muggy night thrown in. Da Lat was unique in that it sat fifteen hundred feet higher than the rest of the country and temperatures there rarely exceeded spring heights. It was an old French town built on the Swiss model. He had indeed been quartered with the other men on the academy grounds. The Vietnam Military Academy had been a two-year institution since the 1950s. Just this year, the program was advanced to a four year college.


The instructors were all American and represented the Army, the Air Force and the Navy with Marines falling, as always, under the auspices of the Naval instructors. The entire life of the academy was modelled on West Point. Every cadet, upon graduation, spent one year attached to one of the military branches within the United States. The goal seemed to be the making of a large well-trained cadre of American-trained Vietnamese military officers, expertly trained in intelligence and, one hoped, as loyal to the U.S. causes as to their own. Back from their year in the US, graduates would be seeded within the Vietnamese military.


Ten months after he arrived, and two weeks after Donna graduated in Abilene, she joined him in Da Lat. She was absolutely fearless and he was proud of that. She arrived on her own clutching a single, neatly-packed suitcase. They were married by the chaplain, an Air Force man. Ensign and Mrs. Getz were at that time the only married couple on campus. The exception was the commandant but he was Vietnamese and lived elsewhere. The military academy was an elite school; Da Lat had been built as a resort. The average temperature in August was a mild seventy-five. Da Lat was famous for roses and cabbages and mild temperatures while the rest of the country baked. Getz felt guilty every day knowing his classmates were engaged in the battle and he was teaching Vietnam’s spoiled elite how to be intelligence officers. Even after a few months he had no idea how this assignment had come to him.


Donna loved the cacophony of open air marketplace where she bought fresh vegetables, fruit, flowers and books. She bought silks and sewed them into curtains and dresses and shirts. People swam and played golf. There were gardens everywhere, mostly carefully trimmed and sculpted and loved. Alex had no idea whose Vietnam this was. Getz’ classes went well at the academy. His pupils had an affinity for advanced mathematics as they were generally screened to be such. He taught them Cobol programming language, as well.


Seven months later, on January 31, 1968, the Vietcong launched the Tet Offensive. It was the only battle to have serious effects on Da Lat. They stayed at the school during the offensive protecting their charges and guarding the school. Within a week of the end of the hostilities, the US retaliated by drenching hundreds of thousands of acres of forest and jungle in Agent Orange, ostensibly to clear out guerrillas. From that point on the produce and meat and milk were contaminated with the neurotoxin pesticide. Spraying kept up periodically for months. The reason was unclear to Getz as it made no sense after a while. They just seemed to be spraying for the sake of spraying, just to see what would happen. They ate it, they drank it, they breathed it right along with the Vietnamese. In September of 1968, Donna gave birth to their first child, Molly. Molly was born blind with severe hydrocephaly. She lived for nine months then, by God’s grace, she passed away. Donna once again packed her single suitcase, very neatly, and very much on her own, all the courage drained from her, boarded an airplane for Abilene. They never saw or spoke to each other again.


Alex remarried. He rose through the ranks until he became a Vice-Admiral. He fathered a healthy son and made his home in Virginia, where he became a high-ranking intelligence officer and finally advisor to three US Presidents. He was a major player in almost all the big civilian defense contracts. He became very much involved in the business of the Sceptre Corporation just after Vietnam, during the theater that came to be known as the ‘Cold War,’ and throughout the oil-driven altercations in the Middle East. Sceptre was one of if not the largest supplier of chemicals to the US military. Although he was their most highly placed liaison to the Pentagon, Getz never again entertained the slightest romantic notion about neither what his country’s mission was abroad nor the goals of the companies that provided the government with what they demanded. He watched and he waited, ice in his eyes and the corners of his mouth turned slightly up, resembling faintly a Cupid’s bow.


The Pilots: Firebombers


“Two good nozzles. Looking for max.”


“Three-fifty.”


“Everything’s going to be wonderful.”


“And it’s raining down through two-sixty…”. The gauge read +2.600.


“Cal, shut down that sprinkler.” “Roger that, boss.”#


‘Boss’ was Tim Verzet, Jr., age thirty-nine, captain aboard this simulation of a Boeing 747 being tested as a Very Large Aerial Tanker firefighting vehicle. His friends called him ‘Flyer,’ the nickname bestowed upon him by his father.


This particular set of tests was both boring and exhausting. For one thing, they were holding the airplane very close to the ground – firebombers called it the ‘edge.’ VLAT aircraft spend their critical time at the edge because that’s where things burn. The goal is to hit a blazing target, which is something of an art when moving at one hundred and fifty to two hundred knots. These pilots hit the target with a belly-full of flame retardant, a moment firebombers refer to as ‘pulling the trigger.’ Terrain was a big deal in these tests for two reasons. Any pilot who forgot to climb before banking, taking into account the relative size of his ship, would likely sheer a wing completely off his plane. Already at suicidally low altitude in rugged terrain, bad judgment in this arena made a crash inevitable although the 747s turned out to be a lot more maneuverable than anyone anticipated. To prove they could fight fires alongside the smaller, faster planes, these VLATs were required to maneuver far more aggressively than other passenger aircraft and that made Tim’s arms and shoulders ache, even in a simulator.


The second factor dictated by terrain but also by season was the wind. Air by itself is not dangerous, but air careening off a mountainside is, and updrafts and whirlwinds caused by the heat of a fire or wind roaring through a gorge can trap aircraft and make the crew feel like they’re inside a washing machine. Turbulence can throw anything that isn’t fastened down around the inside of the aircraft like a weapon and readily knock the most seasoned pilot unconscious by bashing him senseless against the insides of his own plane.


Tim rubbed his face wearily, got out of his seat and stretched his arms high over his head.


I’m getting coffee,” he said.


The only thing left to do today was a visual inspection of the 747 parked at Pinon Airfield. The retardant delivery system itself had to be gone over physically. The electricians were tracing every line to the ports and back to the power boxes. He’d read the spec manual last night before bed. He was required now to check the gear as installed and make sure it lined up with specifications. He was mandated to then do an in-depth review and checklist of maintenance. Tomorrow, he would fly several more simulations. The simulations were created after long interviews with pilots in the field and analyses of records of both large and small disasters. The Forest Service had thick files of accident reports in which aircraft simply broke apart in the sky, succumbing to stress. Later in the week he would green-light aircrew training and maintenance training practices. His part in this NASA-run project was just about put to bed. There had been four phases to complete.


Phase One: a thorough interviewing of pilots in the field on these aircraft and, critically, interviews of aerial firefighting pilots themselves. Pilots were grilled, wish lists compiled, complaints logged about how particular aircraft handled during fires that had been. Half a dozen teams were performing the same tests on this bird, the Boeing 747. Several other teams were analyzing the McDonnell-Douglas DC-10 for the same job. Those were the lucky crews. They were in the air. These birds were not competing for one spot; they were both being brought into the United States Forest Service’s firefighting stable. Sooner or later actual flight tests would be performed on the 747s and he would be one of those pilots. It couldn’t happen soon enough for him. The elements of this test short of getting the aircraft up in the air were his definition of death-by-plodding.


Phase Two: analysis of existing performance data, more plodding. Really they were just going over the initial flight worthiness tests already performed by the makers.


Phase Three: get in the simulators and evaluate handling and performance under different conditions and in different terrains. Better certainly but not the real thing. Approaches and drops were simulated, flight under restricted visibility like a pilot would encounter in dense smoke, landing gear responsiveness, altimeter and airspeed references were varied, with gusts and turbulence, the firebomber’s primary enemy, applied brutally. Flyer, his first officer and his flight engineer flew simulated fire attacks going up-slope with any number of variations and downslope as well, with numerous randomly selected variables. Phase Four consisted of the results of actual flights of the DC-10s. Those were underway now. In the end, based on the given that expert flying was the baseline, the only real concerns specific to these enormous planes were that they would need a special staging ramp during prep to get into the air and that they would inevitably create a lot of wake turbulence for other, smaller aircraft also on the scene. There was therefore never any discussion of one of the big ships being the Bird-Dog – the lead aircraft – but rather it was assumed they would fly at the rear and bat clean-up, so to speak. Other than these considerations, both planes performed at the top end of the desired range. The dispatcher would simply have to decide in the moment whether the descent angles were too great for planes this large in a given terrain.


Tim couldn’t wait to get into the big ones. He’d trained his entire life for this, born and bred to be a pilot and a firefighter, like his father. He was tall, almost too tall to fly. He had light brown, wavy hair which he wore a little longer now that he was out of the military. His ears were a little like open car doors and his nose was a little big but somehow the package worked. He was slim for his height and tended to amble, a trait which hid well the internal combustion engine that drove him always to go higher and fly faster. It was the part of him he was always trying to tame. He was thirty-nine years old but looked ten years younger than that. Flyer left the military to do a lot more firefighting than was possible on an Air Force base, where pretty tight safety is maintained. He started out at Cal Fire, the California-based aerial fire fighter division based in Redding. California was an exceptional training and testing ground as the kinds of trees native to California – mesquite, eucalyptus, Ponderosa pine, vegetation that was little more than brush – were oily and highly combustible. Mountainous terrains, deserts, sprawling but densely populated cities, some flatlands… all were available in California. He flew T94s, T95s, Grumman S2Ts, he was rated on the P3 Orion thanks to the military and he was eventually rated on the DC-6, DC-10 and 747. He wore a bomber jacket given to him by his Dad in 1988 upon the occasion of earning his pilot’s license, which his Dad had helped him earn by teaching him to fly.


His Dad, Tim, Sr., had been a firefighter and a paramedic in British Columbia who would tell you he was a firefighter who used the plane as his tool. Tim, Sr. looked a lot like Errol Flynn and had been around long before there were rules or best practices for firebombing. He was a pioneer in creating those rules through sheer experience and a lot of luck and he had seen his share of fellow pilots die in fire attacks. Flyer, on the other hand, was an impulsive pilot in love with the endless horizon. He loved to fly and he preferred to go fast. Unlike his Dad, he was a flyer who happened to fight fires. Both of these men, though, subscribed to well-known basic rules of flight for firebombers: try to stay in the middle of the air; do not go near the edges of the air, the edges consisting of ground, buildings, ocean, trees and interstellar space. Flying around the edges is truly dangerous.


It was odd for someone of Tim’s nature to be able to perform the calculated, thoughtful flying involved in aerial firefighting. There was an inordinate amount of time spent sizing up the situation, the fire and circling the fire looking for an exit. Impulsive pilots ended up dead. He saw this necessary control as a personal challenge, a way of defeating the emergency itself by slowing down and staying calm and detached. They used to talk about making the fire ‘lay down.’ This was Tim’s way of making his internal fire lay down. His Dad would say, this is a job not an emergency. Not that he downplayed the expertise required from these pilots. The fires were dangerous and hot and the terrains often ridiculously difficult. Crews flew eight hour stretches of continuous dumps. The job was, in fact, demanding and treacherous. People who wanted to keep flying either stayed in the service or went into commercial flying for about the same wages that fast food cashiers make. Many of his friends slept in cargo planes or lived with their parents or worked two jobs just so they could jockey for a spot with major airlines who weren’t hiring anyway. Not that firebombing paid well, but it was at least gratifying as a profession.


Thankfully, the day finally arrived when the pilots got to shake out the 747s. No matter how one looked at it, this was an exciting ship. It had a range of five thousand miles and a drop length of twenty-five thousand feet in segmented drops. It had a loiter time of three hours, meaning it could hang out airborne for a while until a fire was properly evaluated and either an air attack plan was devised or it was sent home. The reality was that this supertanker, using six strategic refuelling locations across the country, could drop ninety thousand gallons on multiple targets within the space of about sixteen hours. It was going to be the major player in any air attack on any fire in all but the most rugged terrains. When he imagined what this ship would look like as part of a firefighting team, he saw it as something like a massive great white shark swimming up behind. Dedicated, muscle-bound, unstoppable merely began to describe it.


On a beautiful, hot Saturday morning in August in the northern New Mexico mountains, Alpha Crew climbed into a cold, dark 747 cockpit. Tim Verzet was commander of this ship, Cal Penderton was first officer and Lee Phillips was flight engineer. They ran through the pre-flight checklist, turned the power on and fired up the systems. Within half an hour, they were airborne. Tim repeatedly flew an elongated, lazy horseshoe approach to a football field nearby. Dotted at regular intervals on the turf were hollow white plastic collection tubes, about three feet high. At the upward end a collection cup would collect fire retardant as it plummeted down and measure the liquid. There needed to be a fairly even distribution of red-dyed liquid in each collection tube allowing for wind variations. They sank to one hundred and eighty feet each time on a short path to keep lower speeds, a maneuver that seemed like inviting catastrophe each time it was observed from the ground. No matter how many times they witnessed this maneuver, because of the sheer magnitude of the aircraft, those on the ground were sure they were watching a leviathan plunge to the ground, an impact which would be accompanied by the scream of twisting metal and ripping seams. Then, miraculously, at the last conceivable moment, the beast would heave back up into the sky.


On their approach to target, Tim called for full flaps and adjusted the engine power to keep a controlled flight path. He did love flying this bird. Cal called the altitude as they descended. Several hundred feet off the ground, Tim gently pushed the nose up, leveling out at about one hundred eighty feet. He held it at a three-four degree nose up attitude and one hundred fifty knots airspeed.


“Stand by…”, Tim called.


Tim punched a ‘pickle’ button on his control yoke – pulled the trigger – and pushed all four throttles forward maintaining a slight positive angle of attack as twenty thousand gallons of retardant blast through four twelve inch ports on the ship’s underside. The liquid was driven by eight tanks of pressurized air and the entire belly-full was away within ten seconds, which is good because at one hundred eighty knots the plane is over and past the target fast. The 747 checked out.


Tim spent that evening packing his duffel bag at the base pilot’s quarters. He would return to Redding the following day to finish the last month of his contract and then, on the first of October, he was officially a firebomber for Bluesky Airways at Pinon Airfield in the middle-of-nowhere, New Mexico.


*****


Tim kept a Piper Supercub at Pinon. It was his own personal lift home, the Volkswagen Bug of the sky, but the Supercub had two distinct features that made it Tim’s commuter of choice. First, it could take off and land on anything fairly flat in a short space. Second, it was equipped with an obscenely oversized engine and so it was fast and fun to fly. That simple. He took off in the morning with reports of storms in California. That was absolutely typical of summer in California, and August in particular. Besides, New Mexico was known for its low-level treacherous turbulence. It was either fly home in the wind or take a bus. His car, a very old Volvo four door sedan, was in California.


Over Redding, he encountered a fair bit more bumping around. There was definitely a big storm out there somewhere. For now, the sky was mostly blue with a thick layer of constant white haze at the horizon level. Visibilities had been diminishing for the last decade, one assumed from a level of pollution building in the atmosphere generally. Standard visibility expectation used to be forty miles. Now the standard was ten. For a pilot who felt that all the way to the horizon was all the way to the end of the world a seventy-five percent reduction in standard visibility was something to mourn. He sailed over islands of houses, high schools, swimming pools, playgrounds, all pocketed in green areas. Cal Fire base appeared and he set the little plane down, rolling uneventfully to a slow taxi. He parked the plane out of the way. There were a few other personal aircraft parked here. Any pilot who had the choice would choose the air rather than the ground. Engorged, black clouds gathered in the distance to the southwest coming up behind Bully Choop Mountain.


Tim pushed through the door into the office and dispatch.


“Hey, Flyer!” a middle aged woman sat behind the desk wearing a headset. “You’re home!”


“Yeah, you can’t slack off all summer, can you?” Tim grinned.


He ducked into the locker room to call his Dad. Tim Verzet, Sr., age seventy, now lived in peaceful retirement on several hundred acres near Lake Helen in the Cascades. Helen had been his wife’s name; that’s why he bought the place. Everybody called the elder Verzet, “Huck”, even Tim. Snow-covered Mt. Shasta was his view with Lassen Peak a hundred miles in the distance. Lassen Peak was still an active volcanic site complete with intermittent steam and bubbling mud.


Huck grew vegetables, flew a little, worked with his friends in the area who were foresters on evaluating the viability of the plant life and water… essentially puttering in his own very specific and disciplined ways. He also kept bees. Anything that flew was of interest to Tim’s Dad. Tim’s mother had passed away when he was ten and so it had been the three of them – Tim, Tim’s Dad, and every so often, Jeff, the son of a man with whom Huck had flown for years – and airplanes for as long as anybody could remember. Unofficial son, Jeff Brandenburg, was an aircraft mechanic working for a major airline at Dallas-Fort Worth. His Dad had passed away when Jeff was two. Jeff spent many years in and out of trouble, had run away and not been seen for several years, then resurfaced one night in the winter at Huck’s door. Jeff would have been humiliated to be thought of as an orphan or a charity-case, so he came and went, touched base with Huck, loved that Huck just let it lay there. Tim straddled a bench between two rows of lockers and punched numbers on his cell phone.


“Verzet!”. The response when his Dad picked up the phone was always the same. It was hard-wired, like his telephone. His Dad needed and appreciated a hard-wired telephone. This was an old house with an old and trusted infrastructure. Up in that area, one needed all the communication options one could get in the winter. His Dad operated a short-wave as well.


“Dad!”


“Flyer? Where are you?” His dad was happy to hear from him.


“Back at Cal Fire, Dad.”


“How’d everything shake out in New Mexico?”


“Really well. Those dogs are definitely going to hunt,” Tim used one of his Dad’s favourite expressions. “I was thinking when I’m done here in about twenty-six days, not that I’m counting, I’d come up for a few days before I head down to Pinon. That okay with you?”


Sure thing, son,” his Dad was clearly excited but, as they both did every time, ‘made the fire lay down.’


“Great, I’ll call you before I come.”


Tim unloaded his flight bag into his locker and then headed back to dispatch. That’s where all the news would be current. For one thing, there would be good weather information on the mass of black that appeared to be moving toward them. Indeed, several dry lightning storms had been reported over the last twelve hours with no end expected. These storms could produce hundreds of lightning strikes with no moisture behind them. Any rain associated would evaporate long before it hit the ground because the air was just too hot. Cal Fire had an intricate and beefy system of ground firefighting resources but the air attack would be called first. They would get there faster than anybody, start a defense and relay vital information about a fire that could only be seen from the air. The firebombers never put a fire out but they often made it possible to put a fire out.


Dispatch reported that the day’s fire hazard was extreme. Lines of storms were passing over dense forest to the south. Lightning strikes and small fires had been reported over the last few hours. It was possible, even likely, that a hundred fires would pop up and, in a worst-case scenario, converge into one super inferno, turning quickly unmanageable. The aircraft would be in the air long before then spraying retardant to ring smaller fires, laying down retardant near populated areas in the anticipated path of the fire, making critical observations for command to be relayed to ground crews and, if necessary, intervening in situations in which a fire threatened a crew on the ground. The Santa Ana winds blowing through California every year were devil winds and could turn on a ground crew in the blink of an eye, surrounding the hapless team and creating for them an island in the fire they hoped would not be the last place they’d ever see. All the firefighters underwent extensive training and had experience under those conditions. Luckily, the Santa Anas swept through far to the south. Northern California saw white-hot grass fires and lightning free-for-alls.


At three-thirty that afternoon, dispatch sent Tim and three other pilots into the air. They were all in S2Ts. Tim knew this would likely be the last fire he fought in this small plane. It was a good plane, a reliable, tough little fire horse.


“Roger, Bird Dog.”


Tim was not the lead plane on this mission. The Bird Dog instructed them to ring a wild patch creeping up on the primary fire line. Logistics was already out there setting up a very large base as they anticipated a very large fire. Hundreds of ground crew, bulldozers, a kitchen and tents and hydration supplies… they were all there. Cal Fire had a can-do attitude and nothing else would suffice. He lifted off with a full belly, just over nine thousand gallons in this case, aimed himself at the fire and flew over it, gauging landmarks – two was the rule – so that he would know exactly when to pull the trigger. He marked his escape route, off to the southeast. He came around in a wide circle then aimed himself right back at his points of reference. Firebombers do not chase smoke or look for the flames. They identify and look for landmarks that they have already identified. He came level with his landmarks and pulled the trigger.


“Bulls-eye,” the radio crackled. It was the lead plane.


They continued to offer air support for four hours. There was something about this fire. They all knew it almost right away although no one was talking about it yet. Despite being driven by the merciless Santa Ana, despite the constant incidences of lightning and almost no rain, there was a ferocity about this fire, an ungodly aggression, which Tim had never witnessed before. It was as if someone were pouring invisible gasoline on the flames. They would not lie down; they roared and screamed and writhed. He was very glad not to be on the ground and very concerned about the people who were. This fire was being driven by something beyond their experience and no one wanted to entertain the idea that somehow there was a new breed of inferno.


As he was picking up his sixth load, the Bird-Dog ‘s voice crackled across his radio.


“72. We’ve got a crew getting ready to deploy. You’re the closest air support.”


“Ready to deploy?”


The firefighters would be throwing out the orange tents, reminiscent of mummy-style sleeping bags. They’d enclose themselves in these on the ground and wait for help. If they did not run out of oxygen, the bags would hold against the fire up to five hundred degrees. Then the glue in the bags itself would start to melt.


“Roger that, 72. It’s a burnover. The space is getting pretty small up there.”


He was aloft as quickly as he could be and heading single-mindedly for the coordinates given. It was in times like these – all too many of them – when his Dad’s voice echoed in his head.


“This is not an emergency. It’s a job.” That kind of attitude and level-headed thinking had saved him more than once. Hurtling pell-mell into a fire to rescue a crew was likely to get the pilot killed, as well.


He found the crew trapped on an island. The fire was a demon taunting them. He could see the crew had just about made it all the way into their bags. There was very little time but he made one circle around the island, giving them all a minute more to secure themselves. He laid down a strip of retardant along the flank of the island. He knew others were behind him. They would each make a drop ringing the firefighters, even directly on top of them if it seemed like the reasonable thing to do.


“Bulls-eye, 72.“


Belly empty, he turned and headed back to base. He was there, just after dusk, when a truck brought the terrified, exhausted and grateful crew back home. They looked as if they’d been beaten nearly to death but they were alive, charred and singed and black, but breathing. They were bloody but that wasn’t from the burn over. All crews got scraped up and cut pretty badly in a wildfire. When he put his head on his pillow that night, knowing that the fire was still completely out of control and growing, he relived what he had seen from the air that day and bent his mind toward marking indelibly this type of fire, this level of inferno, he’d never witnessed before. He wanted to know what was going on. There was always a way to make a fire lay down. Sometimes it took a month but he had never seen anything like this.


This fire became catastrophic, intense and uncontrollable. By the next morning, five thousand acres were ablaze. An unnatural wind continued to blow in from the east with sustained winds of thirty miles per hour and gusts up to one hundred and ten. It acted like the Santa Ana, the Devil Wind, confined to the south. Embers flew half a mile from the flames onto calm forests and ignited, sometimes explosively. The tops of pine trees, the crowns, ignited and then the fire passed from tree top to tree top before the rest of the tree caught. These crown fires were too hot and hazardous for any firefighter. Tim and the other firebombers flew over huge sections of the inferno that were completely unapproachable from the ground and laid retardant strips along the flanks of the fire where they found them. Massive winds chased themselves in counter-clockwise gusts. By the end of the week, thirty four thousand acres were ablaze. They fought the fires for three solid weeks, stopping only to sleep and eat. Tim thought often what a difference the DC-10s or 747s would make. None had appeared from Pinon. He was sure the call had gone out. There must be more paperwork, more red tape, before these Super Tankers could fly to the rescue.


Finally, they wrestled the beast to the ground with what they had. On the very last day of flying, Tim watched a pilot die. He and another pilot were sent to a hot spot twenty miles to the southeast. There was a fire still burning in a ravine. It was a pretty typical situation, one they had all flown in many, many times. They picked their landmarks and their escape route, an easy shot into a wide open valley. Mike Appleby was flying the other S2V. He was lead and there were only two of them. Mike radioed that he would enter the bowl from the valley side of the ravine and make a steep turn once inside to line up and drop his load. The target would be obvious for the entire duration of the turn and the approach was short so gaining too much speed to drop his load was not an issue. Tim watched Mike fly in, make the steep turn, and level out for his drop. It was all perfectly routine. Mike pulled the trigger and red retardant began to fall away from the belly of the plane. Then a tinderbox below exploded like two freight trains colliding head on and the updraft sent retardant spiraling up into the air, coating the plane and whirling off into the sky. Within seconds, Mike had gone belly up and augured into the side of the ravine. The fireball was instant. Every pilot has heard of this kind of scenario. Every pilot prays they never see it. It was as if there had been a bomb in the ravine waiting for them. He pulled up, radio’d dispatch and made an arc back to the base. An accident team would be hurtling down on Mike and what was left of his plane soon enough.


The next day, he packed his bag again intending to head to his Dad’s place. The door to his room swung open and one of the dispatchers appeared .


“Hey, you’ve got to hear this!” He gestured for Tim to follow him to dispatch in the front office.


A dozen pilots and firefighters were gathered around the radio, listening. Two teams had radio’d in from completely inert areas of the fire, large patches that had been contained days ago, to report that the trees were bursting into flame again because, it appeared, that the roots were still burning under the ground.


What?” Tim whispered. How was that possible? There was little to no oxygen to burn with far enough into the soil.


“How far down?”


“Three feet… four feet…”, the dispatcher answered.


This time he used his old Volvo to get to his Dad’s place. He was shaken up. The tranquility of Lake Helen and the snow-capped peaks of Shasta and Lassen were absolutely necessary to him right now. When he got to Pinon, the first thing he was going to ask was where the hell had the VLATs been?


*****


It was an hour’s drive north from the base in Redding to his Dad’s place near Mt. Shasta. The smell of smoke still hung heavy in the air here. He rolled up his windows and turned on his radio. He sailed up I-5 past Big Bend on his right. As he drove, the spectacle of Mike plowing into the fire came into his mind unbidden and each time it did he chased it away, fearing the sight would hardwire itself somehow. He passed Dunsmuir Airport on the left and swung onto I-89. Lake Helen appeared on his left, such a beautiful lake against the white snow backdrop of Mt. Shasta. It was one of his favorite drives especially on a rare calm day when the lake became a mirror. Today was not that day. The sky was a bit white from horizon to horizon. He thought he must be looking at the remnants of the fire sixty miles south. Over his left shoulder he caught the glint of an aircraft. He looked up and spotted a DC-10 flying quite low, five to eight thousand feet only. Four white billowy trails spewed from wing ports, the same wing ports he had just inspected and approved, and laced out behind it. He thought it was a shame that if a DC-10 Firebomber had been in the vicinity it couldn’t have joined the fire attack. Must be conducting more tests. He was sure it had been cleared for use, though. He’d been part of that himself.


He rounded the edge of the lake and past and turned onto the road to his father’s place three miles further along. The dirt road was long and curved and dipped. Water ran during storms and changed the contours of the road, raising rock and revealing gullies. One had to pay attention not to high-center the car or blow a tire. Huck was waiting on the deck. Pheasant dawdling by the roadside scattered into the woods as he drove past. Tim, who was emotional for the first time in weeks, sprang up the steps and clung to his Dad, tears streaming down his face. His Dad patted his back and held tight.


“Well,” was all he would say every once in a while. “Well.”


Tim slept through the morning and half the afternoon. When he woke he found his father still sitting on the deck. He sat down beside him at a long redwood table. Huck pointed at the sky. Someone had laid down many long white trails of some sort of particulate since he’d been asleep. Some feathered out and were becoming sheer clouds. It was as if someone had spread a thin white blanket across the sky.


“Is this something to do with the fire, Dad?”


“No. It’s coming from the damned planes. They were here before the fire.”


“What, like the DC-10 I saw this morning? Thought he was laying down water… maybe a practice run.”


“No, son. That’s not water. It’s an aerosol of some sort. I’ve never seen it before up here or anywhere else. The color reminds me of the boron we used to use but it’s too fine a mist and it hangs out in the atmosphere a whole lot longer. Can’t think why anyone would be spraying anything up here.”


Tim was puzzled. If it wasn’t water then what that pilot had done today was illegal. The law prohibits spraying any chemical of any kind over bodies of water – there were so many lakes around here – unless the surrounding countryside is on fire.


Look at this,” Huck got up, went down the stairs and disappeared behind the house. Tim followed.


They walked about a hundred yards to where his Dad kept a dozen bee hives. His Dad pulled a drawer from the bottom of a hive and very dramatically dumped hundreds of dead bees onto the ground. He walked down the line of wooden hives and pulled a tray from beneath each one. Each tray was filled with dead bees.


The next morning the sky was blue again, or sort of. Blue was a generous description. If one tried really hard a little blue could be picked out from the white. Whatever had been laid across the heavens the day before Tim imagined would have floated to the ground overnight. Either some of it was still in the air, which demonstrated a phenomenal hang time, or they had sprayed more in the intervening hours.


He took his coffee out to the deck, heard Huck rousting chickens and ducks below. His Dad had made use of ample high space under the house by stocking the area with egg-laying creatures and a couple of goats. They were surrounded at night by a slightly electrified fence to keep black bears, skunks and raccoons away. In fact, Huck hung bacon on the fence every now and again to train the forest predators to stay away from the bacon-that-shocked-them. Tim heard the faintest drone of an engine in the sky. No one but a pilot would have heard anything. Above coming in from the south, what looked like the same unmarked plane began laying the same four trails across the sky. Within a minute the four were blending into one wide trail and fanning out across a portion of the sky. In an hour or two, this would look like a cloud – an unusual cloud – but a cloud, nonetheless. He watched until the aircraft disappeared over Mt. Shasta. Fifteen minutes later, to the background noise of his father doing dishes, another unmarked DC-10 came in from the west flying at a right angle to the plumes already there. This bird disappeared into the east, leaving a perfect ‘X’ in the sky above the trees. Each day the same planes flew the same patterns and laid down the same aerosol. One day there were crossed lines covering the sky, a grid. His father started to develop a dry cough. He wasn’t ill; no fever or sore throat or aches. Just a dry cough, like something was irritating his throat.


“It’s never been this bad,” he said.


The last day there was no plane. However, by early afternoon, they were breathing some sort of yellow haze accompanied by the slightest stench of sulfur. There appeared to be a yellowish haze around the sun. His father coughed all morning, a dry cough. He said he’d been to the doctor about it, even been to the emergency room and sat in the waiting room filled with people whose only commonality had been that they couldn’t stop coughing. No fever, no congestion, just coughing. There just didn’t seem to be any reason for it other than the spraying.


“Huck,” Tim asked, “haven’t you called the town or the county to ask about this?”


“Sure,” he replied. “They say no spraying is occurring. I’ll show you something else, too.”


He walked down to a white pine right on the road’s edge and literally wiped the bark off with his hand like it was thick paint. The idea of the tree roots bursting into flame under the ground came to Tim’s mind when he saw the devastated tree.


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