The moon in three-quarter length is out when I arrive. Two Twelve, the mercenary pilot, phone to ear, pen-light in mouth, screwdriver in hand, moonlight falling on his brim, says Come with me. I follow at a clip across the tarmac, a strip of mowed grass between us and the the main runway where one plane is landing and another waits to leave. All that lovely vibration finds its way to me. I am thrummed.
Thrum: yarn waste from weaving looms. See also ‘thrummed mittens.’ See also aerospace and rumble from the universe.
He scrambles up an airplane wing, motions for me to do what he does. Scramble, tuck and squeeze through the cockpit door. Settle into the co-pilot seat. Try to not touch anything.
Calm. Standing sentry for us is the huge slurry bomber parked between the western horizon and the nose of our plane. Tonight there are no fires burning.
Two Twelve says, Let’s taxi. Watch that gauge and tell me what you see.
We taxi. I watch. I see. I tell him. He doesn’t give me a chance to think I can’t. I have no time for my usual panic. My normal doubt. I just do. I scramble everywhere, in and out of cockpits, carrying oil filters and PVC pipe. Pretending to help inspect the plane that commands wild fire fighting.
But I do know I make my own power. It’s only in the chaos and confusion of my life away from the tarmac I doubt this.
The plane’s wing is cool and smooth. Delicate and strong. I rest my head and forearms on the starboard tip. We watch his co-pilot test the running lights. Red, green, steady, flash.
If you ever forget your port from your starboard, remember it this way, he says, Left Red Port.
I don’t have to answer. He’s known me long enough to know I’ve sometimes lost my compass, forgotten which way was up. I watch him fill out logs using the wing as a table and the dark tarmac as a photo lab to snap copies of every document. Booted and blue jeaned, explaining to me the way he explains things. Physics becoming poetry.
I ask in between checklists and three-ring binders, why the planes taxi, stop and rev. He says: You know how Derby has a battery that keeps it charged? These planes don’t have that–they are self-charging. Before a pilot takes off he revs one engine at a time and watches the gauges to make sure the magnetos are working.
And then he adds: Now, listen for the whoosh . . .
Two wing-tips away from us a plane’s revving overtakes us. I lift my head and listen for a change in wavelengths. And then I feel the whoosh, the sudden drop in power. Two Twelve looks up from his paperwork, takes the flashlight from his mouth to add: If you get the whoosh, you know you have charge of your props and it’s okay to take off.
The small prop plane waits for a 747 to land and then it slowly taxis away from us. When the quiet returns, I ask if we are more like Derby with a battery or a plane with magnetos. Once again I’ve gone and made poetry out of this—his smile across the wing’s span implies.
Man is at his best when he’s making his own electricity.
He closes his notebook and puts it back in the cockpit, pulling out the book I had noticed earlier. Volume One has a map of every runway in the Western USA. The map geek in me purrs. Pen-light in his mouth. Camera in my hand. We peer closer, squinting to see the page he’s randomly flipped open: It’s a map of where we are.