Saturday, September 10, 2005

Runway to Oblivion


It was long past midnight, and the shrieks, grunts, croaks, and howls coming from the mangrove swamp made me shudder. We stood on a narrow and I wondered how, between the mosquitoes, snakes, and alligators, I could help Stanton do the work he was here to do. The full moon illuminated the gravel road we had driven on, but the airstrip itself looked like an infinitely deep pond, or a portal to another dimension. "They want me to watch a landing and to see how it's affecting the airstrip," said Stanton. "My guess that each landing, or even touch-and-go, makes it crumble. They didn't drain the swamp. They didn't bother to build up the roadbed, either. Now, it's like a thin skin of asphalt on top of a sponge."

"Can't you do this during the day?" I asked.

"They don't fly during the day." Stanton walked over to an electrical box, opened it, and flipped a switch. A long array of foot-high blue lights suddenly extended out in front of us, dreamlike and surreal.

"Have you ever seen fireworks displays from above?" I asked. Stanton was leaning over what appeared to be loose wires. I continued, even though he did not seem to be paying attention. "It's the most amazing thing. They almost look like neon splashes made by neon pebbles being dropped into an electric lake. I saw it in Chicago one Fourth of July and in towns along the edge of Lake Michigan. We took off right when the displays were beginning. It was unforgettable."

4th of July 2005 - photo by Susan Smith Nash

In the blue glow, Stanton's eyes glittered as he turned sharply and looked at me.

"That's what I thought the first time I saw a firefight at night," said Stanton. "Especially the mortars, but also the tracers. It wasn't easy to appreciate it when you were in it, but from a distance, all I could think of was how it looked like a Fourth of July fireworks show."

In the dim illumination of the airstrip, I could see that the surface of the asphalt was, in fact, crumbling. In other places, it had what appeared to be mud cracks.

"How large are the planes? Are they heavy?" I asked.

"Lots of Piper Commanches, but I like the Piper Meridian. Beautiful plane. Good range, comes in at around at 2,200 pounds, but of course, the force on the runway depends on the velocity and angle of impact," said Stanton.

"No jets?" I asked.

Stanton looked at me and laughed. "Come on. You are joking aren't you?"

"Yeah, I guess so." I hoped what I thought was a tree limb on the edge of the runway was not a huge snake. Alligators were a real danger, too.

"Why small planes? Why not helicopters? Even old gunships?"

"Gunships? Have you ever seen one? They're big and heavy. No one wants to waste the weight on crazy old cannons," said Stanton. "The Bells are okay - the 200 series - but they're slow, noisy and expensive. No payload, either."

"What kind of payload are you talking about?" I asked. "The obvious thing would be drugs, right? Narcotraficantes?"

"Not usually. Not here. Other cargo, other people. They carry documents and information, not drugs. That's why the airstrip does not have to be long. But, sometimes they are bringing in things. But, I'm only here to recommend how, when, and where to resurface. I try to know as little as possible about what my clients do."

Stanton looked at me and down at the runway.

"Are you going to just stand there and step on that snake?" he asked.

"Ack! It was a snake. I thought maybe a tree limb," I said. I scampered quickly toward Stanton. I tripped on a chunk of asphalt runway. Stanton caught as I fell forward. His arms were strong, and the linen of his loose-fitting white shirt felt soft and warm. He pulled me to him and I felt his lips press against mine. My pulse raced.

Slowly he released me. "Too bad there's work to do out here." He stroked my arm gently, then pulled up my arm for a closer look. "You are being devoured by mosquitoes."

"Yes, I know. The sooner we finish, the better. It won't be long. I'll just make observations, then we'll go." For the first time, I heard the engine of a small plane.

"Why do you do this?" I asked.

"Why did you go to South America?" responded Stanton.

"I needed to prove something to myself," I said. "Plus, I didn't really care whether or not I made it back. I couldn't see any future for myself."

"Looks like we're two of a kind," said Stanton, a bit too lightly. He took out night vision goggles and looked up. "These are useless for this. No depth perception. But, I can get a sense of how they're doing on their approach."

I looked down at the airstrip. It was rough, and I imagined that any landing would kick up a spray of gravel-sized chunks of asphalt.

"Not good. They're too low and fast. It's going to grind."

"They're going to miss the approach?" I asked.

"No. The landing will be okay. It's just going to be unbelievably hard on the surface. It's going to stick and then grind."

Stanton was right. It was a hard landing, fast and low. Instead of bouncing, though, they stuck the landing because the left wheel dug in and ground down the runway. Stanton took a number of shots with his camera. Then, pulled me to him.

"Let's get out of here. We don't need to be here when they deplane. Not necessarily safe to know."

Stanton's Tonga Green Range Rover was still cool inside, the engine still warm. Stanton started it up and we left quickly. At the other end of the runway, I could see shadowy figures and vehicles moving about.

"Time to move," he said, as he drove the vehicle quickly but without turning on the headlamps. Once out of the mangrove swamp and on a local road, Stanton turned on the lights.

"You're going with me, aren't you?" he asked.

"Anywhere," I said.

He leaned toward me, put his arm around my shoulders and pulled me toward him. I knew then that our futures were intertwined. I could have resisted, but I did not. Instead, I felt the core of my being catapult itself into a yet-unknown trajectory, taking off from the airstrip we had just left behind us, a runway to oblivion.