“Recon Mission”

On his way home from school Ben pedaled around the old hangar, something he did most every day. It was the only hangar at the small city airport that hadn’t been fenced off from the public. There was a time when that hangar was the hub of a thriving aviation business.

Peeling paint, windows painted over black from the inside and weeds growing up through the cracked concrete told the story. Ben could only imagine the adventures that had once taken place there. Above the hangar doors, large faded letters read, Jimmy’s Flying Service. Just below that, smaller letters identifying it as Hangar 1.

As Ben circled around to the front of the hangar, he got a surprise. There sat an old faded blue pickup with a missing tailgate parked in front of the doors. The heavy rusted lock that kept the curious wondering what secrets might be concealed behind those doors; the very one that Ben had tried to jimmy many times, was hanging unlocked from its latch. The giant doors had been rolled open just far enough for a person to enter. This called for immediate action, reconnaissance and exploration.

Ben is in 6th grade at Avery Parsons Elementary School in the small mountain town of Buena Vista, Colorado, population 2,734. His parents call him Benjamin but to his friends, he’s just Ben. A duck or a pheasant never takes flight in his sight without him stopping to straddle his bike while assuming the position of a hunter. Left arm outstretched, hand holding the pump grip, stock pressed close to his cheek with the butt firmly against his shoulder. His right index finger on the trigger and his left eye closed. He uses his shooting eye to line up the sights a foot or two ahead of the bird. “They’re fast, ya got a lead em,” he would say to himself. A mock pull of the trigger, with the customary sound effect, “pow,” and the bird was down, at least in his imagination. He had only owned his Remington 20-gauge shotgun since Christmas but already considered himself the best shot in the school, if not all of Buena vista.

Ben leaned his dirt bike with its huge knobby tires against the side of the hangar.  Like a stealthy ninja, he crept along the monster doors. When he reached the opening between the doors, he turned his hat backwards to peer around the edge without giving his position away. Just then, a single dirty florescent light hanging from the ceiling flickered. He dropped to his belly. A moment later the light managed to stay on, barely illuminating the gloomy hangar. Another quick peek revealed an old twin engine airplane off to one side. It looked huge to Ben. This was too compelling of an opportunity to pass up, but who was inside?

He decided to be brave. He stood up, brushed himself off and then walked in like he owned the place, eyes not yet fully adjusted to the dark. Another light had been turned on. It was a single bulb hanging from a long cord, swaying back and forth above a work bench. He could see a tall thin person with his back to him facing the workbench.

“Anybody here?” he asked in the deepest, most adult voice he could muster.The man turned,

“Who’s there?” replied the man with a gravelly voice.

“I’m Ben, I saw the door open so thought I would come in and take a look.“

“You did, did ya?”

“Yeah, is that okay?”

“Sure, come on in.”

As he got closer Ben could see an old man with a white beard. He was sitting on a tall stool next to a workbench where steam was rising from a cup of hot coffee. Looked like he was wearing overalls at first, but when he got closer, he could see it was a well-worn flight suit with lots of pockets, zippers and different patches. He walked right up to the old guy and reached out to shake hands. “I’m Ben,” he said, “I’m in 6th grade at Avery Parsons and I live a few blocks on the other side of the creek in a white house.”

The old timer reached out and grabbed Ben’s hand. It felt like a vice grip clamping down. Ben squeezed back with all his might, refusing to show the slightest discomfort.

“I’m Jimmy, but most call me Grandpa Jimmy, guess that’s cuz I’m old.” After what seemed like forever, the old guy let go. “When ya shake hands ya gotta let ‘em know what kind of man you are. Right Ben?”

“Uh, right… is this your hangar?” Ben asked, refusing to acknowledge the pain.

“Yep.”

“Is that your plane?”

“Yep.”

Grandpa Jimmy had owned this hangar for as long as anyone still living could remember. Some remembered seeing him fly an old biplane crop duster in his twenties. Others said he gave flying lessons in a Cessna 140 and used a twin-engine Beech 18 for charters. A few even recall times when he took off in that Beech and would disappear for months. But that was years ago. He had long since retired from the cockpit and the freedom of soaring high above the clouds. To most, these days, he was a bit of a mystery. The only evidence of his past were dozens of dusty black and white pictures that hung on the wall behind the workbench.  But for those with imagination, history seemed to come alive as they studied the images while he told the story.

“Cool, what kind of plane is that?”

“That’s a Beech 18, it’s nearly as old as me.”

“Can I get a look at it?”

“Sure, I’ll go with ya. This plane was built in 1949. It had two big radial engines, 450 horsepower each. Quite a plane in its day. I was the last one to fly it 20 years ago and she’s been sittin here ever since.”

“Will it still fly?”

“Nope, to many things need fixin’.”

“Then why do you keep it around?”

“Oh, I guess cause of all the memories and besides, it’s kind of magical.”

Grandpa Jimmy opened the door on the side of the fuselage. The bottom of that door was at least three feet off the ground.  He reached in and pulled out a rickety old apple crate. He placed it on the concrete floor just below the door. “That’s how we did it in the old days,” he said. “You can get in if ya want.”

Ben stepped on the crate and ducked his head as he climbed inside. One look, and he headed up the steep aisle right for the cockpit. This was a tail dragger. When parked, the front of the plane was higher than the rear. You had to walk uphill. When he reached the cabin, he slid into the left seat, having read somewhere that’s where captains sit. No computers or touch screens in this old bird. Just old dusty levers, gauges and switches everywhere. It was the first time he had sat in the cockpit of any plane. It took Grandpa Jimmy a little longer to squeeze through the narrow aisle and step over the console into the right seat.

Then, like a machine gun with a stuck trigger, it was rapid fire questions. Ben seldom gave Grandpa Jimmy the time to finish one answer before interrupting with the next question. They both enjoyed it, until Ben looked at his watch.

“Oh shoot, I’m in trouble.” He shouted. “I was supposed to be home hours ago. My dad’s going to kill me. Gotta go.”

Ben sprinted to the back of the plane, jumped over the steps to the ground and ran for his bike. Then he stopped and turned back toward the plane. Grandpa Jimmy stuck his head out the door to wave goodbye. “Is it okay if I come back?”

“Okay by me,” said Jimmy.

”Thanks,” he hollered, then sprinted the rest of the way to his bike, hopped on and raced for home. What awaited him there was more than an angry father.

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