Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A runway runs through it

I was giving a ranch tour to some city folk a few years back. As we drove along county roads and trail roads I pointed out crops and cattle and talked about what we do on the ranch and why. The four city folk – husband and wife, son and daughter – seemed interested and asked quite a few of the usual questions. Until the daughter, a mildly sullen 12 year-old, asked, “ How can you stand to live here? I mean, there’s nothing here!”

It was a question I should have been, but wasn’t, prepared for. These days I “head ‘em off at the pass” by emphasizing, at the beginning of the tour, the differences between the High Plains shortgrass prairie and the region they hail from.

But my response to the 12 year-old wasn’t very convincing. Wherever she looked, all she saw was a dreary landscape of grass and some cows. New Jersey, in her mind, was much, much better. People and trees and cool places to go and fun things to do. Nebraska was nothing but miles and miles of miles and miles. Yuck!

As we neared the end of the tour I drove down the county road toward the home place, passing Kimball’s tiny airport on the south. Sitting on the left side of the vehicle, the girl hadn’t noticed it as we motored past at the beginning of the tour. “Hey! Are those airplanes?”

So we stopped and took a quick tour of Robert E. Arraj Field, Kimball’s Municipal Airport. I walked the family through the flight center office, pointing out the phones and computers for checking weather, then out onto the flight line. There were four light airplanes tied down on the ramp: a pair of Beech Bonanzas, a Piper Cherokee, and a Cessna 172. “We can walk right up and look,” I said, “But don’t touch the airplanes.”

As we walked around and looked, I was able to use my aviation background to answer questions about the airport and airplanes. The family seemed to enjoy the tour and were fascinated that we could just stop by and walk on in. “This is soooo cool!” said the formerly pouting 12 year-old, over and over. Chalk that tour up as a success.

I hadn’t thought about the local airport as a potential part of a ranch tour, but I’ve added it to the itinerary. And why not? In my life it’s always been there, just across the county road from the home place. In fact, the airport is pretty much surrounded by the EJE. And in addition to operating and housing airplanes, the airport is also a working agricultural enterprise, where a couple of local farmers raise wheat and hay.

And though it’s a small airport, home to less than a dozen aircraft, there is always a good deal of activity. With a wide, modern runway and both jet fuel and aviation gasoline available, Kimball is a popular stop for aircraft passing through. Whenever I drive by I always look at the flight line and I’m often rewarded with a glimpse of an interesting aircraft. Sometimes I stop and visit with the crews.

Monday was a good example. As I drove by the airport I saw a pair of Japanese “Zero” fighters parked in the fuel pits. Zeroes? Sure! Having seen these airplanes before at air shows, I knew what they were, and in the middle of air show season, with Kimball a good gas stop, I wasn’t surprised to see them. So I stopped, visited with the crews, and took a few pictures.
AI-114, Tora Tora Tora Flight of the Commemorative Air Force, on the ramp at Kimball Municipal Airport Monday afternoon. This aircraft was manufactured as a North American Harvard during WWII, then rebuilt by the film industry in the early 1970's to resemble a Mitsubishi A6M2 "Zero" for the movie "Tora Tora Tora."
The airplanes were part of Tora Tora Tora flight of the Commemorative Air Force (CAF). The flight formed in the 1970's to commemorate World War II aircraft and the crews who flew them in defense of the U.S. and her allies. The aircraft, North American Harvard (T-6/SNJ) trainers built during the war and later converted by Hollywood for movie work, do a Pearl Harbor reenactment at airshows all over North America. They also continue to appear in movies and on television, most recently in the movie “Pearl Harbor.”
Pilot Ron Wright taxies AI-112 out of the fuel pits at Kimball Municipal Airport Monday afternoon. Wright and his wife Linda, along with Pilot Dan Reedy (flying AI-114), landed their two "Zeroes" at Kimball for food and fuel while returning to their home base in Texas. The two "Zeroes" and six other aircraft of Tora Tora Tora Flight of the Commemorative Air Force were featured at an airshow in Lethbridge, Alberta over the weekend.
The pilots Monday were Dan Reedy and Ron Wright of Houston. Ron's wife Linda was along and riding in the tiny back seat of his “Zero”. They were very nice folks, and even though they were in a hurry to get home, they took the time to tell me about their aircraft and the air show in Lethbridge, Alberta, they’d participated in over the weekend. It happened to be the air show where a Canadian CF-18 crashed, providing spectacular video for television news around the world.
Dan Reedy, "Zero" pilot with Tora Tora Tora Flight of the Commemorative Air Force, visits with a local reporter at the Kimball Municipal Airport (IBM) Flight Center Monday. At left is fellow "Zero" pilot Ron Wright.
Though the paint scheme and some cosmetic changes to the nose, canopy and tail make this aircraft look quite similar to the Mitsubishi A6M2 "Zero," it remains a North American Harvard at heart. The engine is the famous Pratt & Whitney R-1340 Wasp.
Zeroes on the Kimball flight line!
Veteran of the movies "Tora Tora Tora" and "Final Countdown" as well as the movie/television series "Baa Baa Black Sheep," this WWII-era North American Harvard trainer has been altered to resemble a Mitsubishi A6M2 "Zero" fighter.
Even though the Wrights and Reedy were anxious to get home, they took the time to give us a formation flyover – including a shot of air show smoke – as they departed. A very nice gesture.

So that’s why Kimball’s tiny airport is now part of the EJE Ranch tour. There’s more than meets the eye in “flyover” country, including some of the things that fly over!
Form and Smoke! A pair of Tora Tora Tora flight aircraft, Commemorative Air Force, depart Kimball Municipal Airport Monday afternoon following a fuel stop. Many thanks to Linda and Ron Wright and Dan Reedy for your willingness to share your story with us.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Fixin' Fence

Just after 3 p.m. the temperature bumps into triple digits. First 100, then 101, then finally 102. I don’t know it at the time, and frankly, I don’t care. It’s hot, very hot, and after a wonderfully cool spring I’m not used to or prepared for very hot.

Sweat bee, Dialictus zephrum

I’m fixing fence on the EJE, one of the usual summer chores. The fence I’m working on has been rather neglected for several years, low on last summer’s priority list but high on this year’s. As I bake in the stifling heat I suddenly grin and laugh to myself as I realize (for the zillionth time?) how much I love this chore, even though I hate it from the bottom of my heart. Such contradictions are part and parcel of ranching. I turn and look at the wash I’ve just climbed out of, and pause to admire the straight, tight section of fence I’ve just completed. There was no grin on my face thirty minutes ago…

There’s only the barest hint of a breeze, and only occasionally. The air is mostly still and close and hot, and more humid than normal because the lush grass and sweetclover are transpiring, sucking in carbon dioxide and exhaling oxygen and water vapor. I feel the weight of the atmosphere bearing down from above, wrapping me in a hot, wet blanket of misery. Sweat pours from my skin and my clothes, boots and gloves become wet and sodden. Perspiration fairly pours from under the sopping ball cap on my head, running in a steady stream past the sweatband, into my ears and over my face. The sweat rivulets wash bug spray from my forehead and deposit in my now-stinging eyes. As I plod along the fenceline, stooping and grasping and nailing wire to wooden posts, I find myself on the edge of a small wash. Below me, in the bottom of the wash, mustard grows rank and wild, six feet tall and more.

The mustard-filled wash is hellish. The stiff stems and leaves claw and scratch at my arms and legs and snarl the four strands of barbed wire. Sorting the wires out is pure misery in the wash-bottom oven. The wire seems to be playing a rude game, dodging away from my sight and grasp, then suddenly snapping back and biting my arms until the sweat runs red. Cloying, choking mustard pollen fills the air and makes me cough and sneeze and wheeze and gasp. At my feet, hidden in an impossible snarl of weeds and wire, there is a sudden harsh buzzing sound. I jump and yell instinctively, fearing the sound means snake, even as in mid-jump I realize it’s only a grasshopper.

Time seems to stand still there in the wash, and my world becomes very small; only me, my fencing task, and natures efforts to defeat me. I persist, and keep working, despite a deep desire to give up and leave the wash for another time, another day. Slowly I gain the upper hand, get the wires unsnarled, staple each to the appropriate spot on the half-dozen nearly invisible posts. After what seems an eternity I scramble up the other side and emerge triumphant. Breathing heavily, with sweat pouring and eyes stinging, I look back and grin.

The misery of such labor is just that – misery. I hate it passionately – the heat and the sweat and the coughing; the close, stifling air and the stinging eyes and biting barbs. At the same time, however, the victory is sweet and delightful. I don’t think I can describe it adequately, but it includes the deep satisfaction in having struggled mightily and persevered and won out by finishing the job and doing it well.

I learned about fixin’ fence and learned the love and the hate of the thing when I was a youngster. Those memories are never far away when I’m doing the chore, and they’ve always been close and served me well whenever I’ve struggled with other hard tasks. During the harsh physical regimen of boot camp, for instance, while other tough 18 year-olds were falling out and giving up, I knew I could persevere and dig deep for untapped reserves. They’ve always been there; the well has never run dry.

The lesson’s not just about toil and perseverance, though. It’s about doing good work and contributing to an enterprise, of being part of something larger and longer-lived than oneself. There’s somehow a solid comfort in sharing the sweat and toil of my forbears on the same land and for the same reasons. One of those reasons, and perhaps the most important, is preserving the EJE’s ranching heritage for generations yet to come.

I have a nephew working with me this summer, trading the sweat of his brow for college cash. He’s always known “the farm” as the place where Googie and Grampy live, and as a place of fun and adventure. As he struggles now with fixin’ fence he’s seeing the ranch through different eyes, and he’s learning to hate the task with a passion. But he’s a good, solid young man, and though he may not realize it yet, he’s already showing signs of learning to love the task, too. He’ll probably never take up the profession of agriculture, but what he learns this summer will stand him in good stead no matter what he does in life.

I turn and move along the fenceline once again, bending and grasping and nailing, with the hint of a smile lingering on my still-sweaty face. The breeze picks up a bit and a cloud passes over, providing some much needed and wonderful shade. Delightful! Then the sweat bees show up.