The Mission: Elijah (part 6)

Deborah Hendrick on Thursday, August 17th, 2006

Ginny adjusted her headset and radioed the tower at nearby Ellington Field. After a brief exchange of information and instructions, she pushed the throttle in and they began rolling down the runway. Eli felt the tail wheel lift as the Dragonfly picked up speed, and then Ginny lifted them gently into the morning sky. She climbed out and turned south, heading for the coast. She swept her gauges again, throttled back and leaned out her fuel mix. Then she flashed that unexpected smile at Eli, that clutched at his innards.

“What do you think? she asked.

“I must be dreaming; I feel weightless!” laughed Eli. “How often do you fly?”

“I try to fly every week, usually in the evening. I like landing in the twilight, just as all the neighborhood lights are coming on. And anyway, I’m at the beach house on the weekends.

“By yourself? Flying I mean,” Eli wanted to know.

“Usually; it depends. I rarely tell people that I’m a pilot, much less that I own an airplane. I used to, but it can make forming friendships awkward. Men go all bigdog on you, and some women decide you’re a form of competition that they can do without. They’re not people I want to be friends with anyway, but it saves time in the long run to keep that information private. No one at work knows I fly except your father, and he won’t tell. And I’m used to having only a few good friends anyway, because we moved so much. Remember the fellow with the L-2? I like to take him with me.”

“How about you?” asked Ginny, “do you ever go rent an airplane and fly for pleasure?”

“No,” said Eli. He started to say more, but didn’t.

“I figure we’re doing about Mach zero-point-one now!”

“That fast huh! Should I get out and push?” laughed Eli.

They flew down and crossed over the tip of the island, then Ginny turned southwest and they flew down the coast toward Matagorda Bay. “Let’s go in at Victoria, and you can buy me coffee and a hamburger.”

Over their food, Ginny asked Eli about being a fighter pilot. It was a bit unfair in a way, since Ginny knew all the right questions to ask. But she was quick and funny, and understood his answers. Eli responded in spirit without giving away too much of himself, which Ginny knew as being right and proper too. “So what happens for you next?” asked Ginny.

“Alaska.” he replied. “My squadron’s going to Alaska.”

Of all the answers he might have given, that was the one Ginny least expected, and all she could ask was, “Your piano? Can you take your piano?”

“I’ve never been to an Air Force base that didn’t have a piano somewhere. It’ll be ok,” he said, feeling the need to comfort her.

They stopped in the office so Ginny could pay her refueling bill, where the man behind the counter remembered Ginny and she called him by name. Eli thought about Ginny’s solitary flights, and how every airport manager on the gulf coast must remember Ginny. It made him happy and sad, and jealous.

“I was supposed to invite you to my parents’ house tonight for dinner. I forgot to mention it earlier. I hope you don’t have something planned for the evening.”

“No, I was going to Galveston, but it can wait until tomorrow.”

“You go to the beach every weekend? How much R & R can you take?” he asked grinning.

“Don’t be daft. I don’t go down there to loaf, I go down there to work.”

“Work? What kind of work?”

“I paint. It’s how I pay for my lavish lifestyle and fuel bill. I do book illustrations, and a gallery in Houston shows my stuff. One painting a month keeps the Dragonfly in the air. Two paintings a month and my savings account grows. Right now I’m doing detailed drawings for a book. If the author approves, then I’ll do them in watercolor.”

This time it was Eli who didn’t have a response. He looked at her. “What’s the book about?”

“It’s about a little girl who raises a lamb for the 4-H livestock show. As the lamb grows, it turns out to have a crooked leg. Everyone tells her to get a new lamb, but she won’t; she’s bonded to the lamb.”

“Does it have a happy ending?” he wanted to know.

“Oh yes,” said Ginny, “it has a lovely ending.”

*****

While Ginny took a quick shower, Eli stood at the edge of the hangar and watched the little airfield hum and buzz. “OK,” Ginny called out. “I’ll take my pickup so you won’t need to bring me back.” He turned and there she stood, cool and fresh in white trousers and a green silk shirt, with her long red hair in a thick braid, falling over one shoulder. He wanted to argue, but he didn’t.

Mrs. Madden hugged Ginny, and Ginny hugged her back. “Can I help you in the kitchen?” she asked.

“All we need to do is set the food on the table. Max is bringing in the steaks now. If you like yours well-done, go shout at him.”

“No, that’s ok. I’m happy with rare. To tell you the truth, I’m happy anytime someone invites me to dinner. Thank you. I get awfully tired of my own cooking, but I don’t like to eat out either. If I ever get burned out on cottage cheese and fruit, I’m done for!” said Ginny.

“Ginny! Welcome! Did you and Eli have a good flight today?” shouted Max.

“You’ll have to ask Eli, but he seemed a bit jittery without that big helmet. He kept touching his head.”

After the meal, Ginny offered to help clean up, but Eli’s parents shooed them out. “Eli dear, why don’t you play us something?” asked his mother. So he and Ginny went into the the beautiful living room, dominated by a gleaming grand piano.

“Do you play?” asked Eli, running his fingers over the keyboard.

“I can find middle C,” she said, showing him. “Oh I took lessons for a few years as a child, but after one of our moves, my mother didn’t bring it up again and neither did I. I think she was relieved.”

Eli began a slow romantic piece, that Ginny vaguely recognized. “I don’t do it as well as that other fella, but maybe you’ll like it.” And he began to play and sing softly, “Dove va a morire il sole, dove il vento si ripose, ci son tutte le parole de chi e stato innamorato e non ha dimenticato tutto quello che c’e stato … “

Ginny gave him a long look when he finished. “Le Tue Parole … your words are better than mine, so maybe you’d better play something more jazzy.”

“Ah. How about this,” said Eli, and moved into Sweet and Lovely. Followed by The Duke, Body and Soul, and At Last.

“Don’t you know something up-tempo. There’s a mourning dove out there in the palm tree with a broken heart.”

“You want happy?” He played Blue Skies, then played and sang Love Walked In. He pushed hard and bright, and closed with Nice ‘N’ Easy.

Ginny stood and dropped a kiss on his forehead. “I need to say goodnight to your parents.”

Eli met her at the front door and walked her out to her pickup. “Can I come down to the beach house tomorrow?” he asked. Ginny took so long to answer that Eli’s heart fell, and he knew her answer was no, but she said yes, “if you’ll fish and run on the beach and nap and be restful, because I have to finish what I’m working on.” He nodded his head in agreement.

“Bring donuts,” she said, “There’s a big H.E.B. at FM 646.

By the time Ginny reached the freeway, she’d changed her mind about going home to the airfield, so she drove on down to the island. It was almost midnight as she stood in front of the dairy case in the 24-hour grocery store, trying to decide whether to buy a quart of milk or a half-gallon. And the look on her face was so tragic that a passing stocker touched her on the arm, to ask if she was ok.

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The Mission: The Dragonfly (part 5)

Deborah Hendrick on Wednesday, August 2nd, 2006

“This is amazing. I can’t believe you live at an airfield!” said Elijah.

“You of all people should understand what it costs to keep an airplane.” said Ginny. “I couldn’t let the Dragonfly sit in a communal hangar. Some big brute King Air might bump her, not to mention all those guys wanting to touch her.”

Eli carefully put his hands in his pockets. “I see your point. I expect a lot of people would want to touch her,” said Eli, watching Ginny inspect her airplane. “So tell me all about her.”

Ginny turned and rewarded him with a blinding smile, that reminded him of taking off in an F-22: zero to Oh God in a heartbeat. “The Dragonfly is a 1947 Cessna 140, a tail-dragger, as you can well see. I’m the third owner. Less than a dozen people have flown her, and that includes my father and three brothers. I knew the owner–knew that he had to sell her. I have all the logs, every scrap of paper ever generated on her. Even the original sales documents. My parents may have bought the plane, but I was bequeathed a legend. She is exactly as I got her, except I named her and painted the small dragonfly on each side of the cowling.”

“And the Airstream?” he asked.

“The USS Little Sister. It was my parents’. They bought it when they thought the family was complete. It wasn’t, as it turned out. I spent my last two years of college living in it, and when I graduated, I asked to buy it and bought a new pickup to pull it.”

“So you can back a trailer too?” Eli asked, grinning.

“It’s not pretty, but yeah, I can back a trailer.” Ginny was tempted to punch him in the arm. “It just made sense financially, to put us all under one roof,” said Ginny. “And I like living here. There’s a great sense of community, although in my case it’s like having two dozen fathers watching over me. Once I open that hangar door, it won’t be thirty minutes before three people stop by to check on me.”

“Let’s crank that baby up then … and meet the neighbors.”

“You open the door, and I’ll get us something cold to drink,” said Ginny.

Soon Ginny was back with an ice bucket, a pitcher of tea, and two tall glasses on a tray. She directed Eli to the lawn chairs and a little table and they made themselves comfortable in the afternoon shade with just enough breeze to make the heat bearable.

But Ginny was wrong. They had five visitors in thirty minutes. Two came by in a golf cart–just out driving and stopped to say hello, and the FBO stopped by to tell her that fuel was going up two cents. The neighbor from across the drive was making barbecue sauce, and came over to borrow some whiskey, which Ginny had (a good brand Eli noted, as she handed her neighbor the bottle). And the old fellow from two rows away peddled over on his bicycle to give her a snapshot of his restored L-2, with its invasion stripes at last, finally, painted on. Eli stood from instinct, and Ginny hopped up to hug the man’s neck.

“You fly a tail-dragger?” he wanted to know, looking at Eli.

“Elijah Madden,” he said, offering his hand for a handshake. “No sir, but I am in the Air Force.”

“But all of Ginny’s people are Navy.”

“Yes, Sir. We’ve got the Joint Chiefs looking into it,” said Eli with a smile.

“You’ll do then,” he laughed, climbed back on his bicycle and rode off with a wave.

*****

“Are you full? I have some ice cream …” offered Ginny, worried that Eli might still be hungry after two BLT sandwiches, three-quarters of a cantaloupe, and most of a package of pretzels.

“Oh no. I’m fine. Can I help you clean up the kitchen?” Since the kitchen was five feet from the living room, Ginny could only laugh at him.

“Why don’t you pick out some music … the kitchen’s a bit small for two.”

Ginny’s CDs were stacked in a hanging rack suspended from the the ceiling. There were only two dozen or so, with room for hundreds.

“This is all your music?” he asked, somewhat bewildered, and then he started laughing and pulling them all down until they were scattered around him on the sofa.

“You listen to jazz!” he exclaimed.

“Um-hm. I’m still a beginner. I just got so tired of what passes for popular music that I couldn’t stand it anymore. I packed up everything, and stored it in the hangar. I didn’t pay enough attention growing up, but my Dad listens to jazz. I remembered a few names to get me started. I allow myself one new CD each payday. You’re so surprised–don’t you like jazz?”

“I love jazz, and you’ve got a fantastic start here.” Eli started reading off names. “John Lewis, McCoy Tyner, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Clifford Brown, Dave Brubeck. Wes Montgomery. Sonny Rollins,” he said, and dropped the Wes Montgomery into the CD player.”

“Well, like I said, it’s names I remembered from my Dad’s collections, which now spans almost fifty years and five mediums, and he won’t let any of it go,” she said. “So you really do like jazz?”

“I always knew I’d be a pilot, but the other thing I do is play the piano. Jazz in particular. I started listening to jazz when I was a teenager because my flying instructor listened to jazz. I’d been taking piano lessons since I was five. When I exhibited a genuine flicker of talent as a jazz pianist, my mother tracked down an old guy who’d been a studio musician for a record company. He was great and had played with everyone. I don’t know why he wasn’t on the road himself … maybe he wanted to sleep in his own bed every night … but he agreed to take me on as a student. I studied with him until I went off to the Air Force Academy. But I never stopped playing. I have an upright grand in my apartment, back in Virginia, Virginia.”

“I wondered how long it would take you to say that,” Ginny said, and then she did punch him in the arm. “Can I take you flying tomorrow?”

“That’s my line.”

“Do you get good results with it?”

“Not bad!”

Cessna Taildragger

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The Errand

Deborah Hendrick on Sunday, July 30th, 2006

Sonny Callen was half-way between Griven and Illa when he pulled off to the side of the road, and put his pickup in park. He’d forgotten why he was driving to Illa. “Confound It and Thunderation” he said, pounding the steering wheel, which was strong language for Sonny.

He got out of his pickup and walked around it several times, then let the tailgate down and sat on it, and stared off into the dry creek bed. Sonny always remembered, eventually, but it was starting to take longer each time. While he was sitting there, swinging his heels, Louie Maberry pulled in and parked behind him.

“You got trouble, Sonny?” Louie wanted to know.

“No. Thunderation. I forgot why I was going to Illa.”

“Shoot, I did that just last week,” Louie said. “I went to buy new wiper blades, got into the auto parts store and bought a case of oil instead. Got home and remembered that I needed the wipers. Felt like a fool, having to go back.”

While they sat there talking, DPS Trooper Charley Daly pulled in behind Louie. “That Charley’s a fine young man.” said Louie, watching the trooper unfold himself from the cruiser. I hear his mother’s a big-time judge down south, that’s why the state assigned him so far north. You know he works with the Boy Scout troop in Griven. And his little wife is a doll.

“You fellas having some trouble?” Trooper Daly asked.

“Nah,” said Louie, flinging his arm across the shoulders of his friend of more than sixty years. “Sonny here forgot why he was going to town so he just stopped until he remembers.”

“I’as on my way to Loretta’s Cafe,” volunteered Louie. “You know it’s Chicken Fried Steak Day on Wednesdays. Trooper, why were you going to Illa?”

“I got a call that there were two old coots out on the highway who looked lost,” said Charley.

“No you didn’t. We ain’t been here that long!” laughed Louie.

“Well I was going to Loretta’s too; it’s Wednesday you know. I keep a list of what the daily specials are.”

“A list!” shouted Sonny. I got it right here in my pocket. I wrote it down. Confound it! I was going to see Mrs.Teofila about her pointers. My neighbor wants to buy one for her son’s birthday in September, if she’s got any left for this bird season. You know she don’t got a telephone, and she don’t take kindly to strangers neither.”

“Don’t I know it,” said the Trooper. “I stopped by there last month to tell her she had a heifer out on the right-of-way, and she met me at the door with a shotgun in her arms.”

“Well, you didn’t know that you’re supposed to toot SOS on your horn when you stop at the gate, so she’ll know you’re coming.”

“That’s an awful lot of horn-honking isn’t it?”

“Her ranch, Trooper. Her rules.”

“Are her dogs really supposed to be the finest in the state?”

” I’ve had two in my lifetime,” said Sonny, “and it’ll make a grown man weep, Trooper, to watch her dogs work the cover.”

“Let’s go eat,” said Louie, “before the place gets too crowded, and Loretta don’t have time to visit with us.”

“Trooper, would it be bribery for me to buy your lunch today?” asked Sonny.

“Oh! it would cause me no end of grief, but I’d appreciate it if you let me go with you to see Mrs.Teofila. I sure would like to buy one her bird dogs.”

“Trooper, it’s a deal!”

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The Mission: Ginny (part 4)

Deborah Hendrick on Wednesday, July 26th, 2006

Ginny had been cleaning for a week, it seemed like. She worked on the beach house until it sparkled, and stocked the refrigerator with her brother’s favorite foods. Back at the hangar, she slaved over her Airstream until it gleamed like new, then washed the Dragonfly, because she knew that Ace would want to fly it while he was on vacation. He still couldn’t believe their parents had given Ginny an airplane for a graduation present. And every time he mentioned it, she reminded him that he’d asked for a sports car and gotten it.

*****

“Thank you, Ace, for coming to the company party with me. This is my first chance to socialize since I’ve been working there,” said Ginny, “so I don’t want to miss it.”

“Well, you look terrific,” said Ace, understating the situation. “It’s nice to see a girl in a dress for a change, and I like your hair. If you were in sight of the men on my team, you wouldn’t be taking your brother to a party.”

For work Ginny usually dressed somewhat plainly, but for the party she wore a simple white sundress that concealed more than it revealed, but left her arms and throat bare. Weekends at the beach had left her with a golden tan and fine spattering of freckles. She left her hair down for a change, and the wealth of red curls spilling half-way down her back was staggering. For a kicker, she wore nickel-sized chunks of rough cut aquamarine earrings that were the same color of her eyes. Ace felt a premonition of chaos.

The Madden house was perfectly designed for parties, with a beautiful stepped patio and a large deck out beside the pier where Max kept his boat. The whole place was lushly landscaped in blooming tropicals to tempt all the senses. Sandy Madden was a skilled hostess who knew exactly were to place food, drinks, music to draw the guests around in a circular pattern so it was easy to eat, drift, and talk with ease. Max’s decision to give the party so soon hadn’t left her with a lot of planning time, but it worked out well with Eli being home on leave. It was good to have the house filled with young people, she thought.

Ginny’s brother stuck out his hand and introduced himself –“Andrew Creighton Gregg. Ace. I’m Ginny’s brother“–to everyone who got close to the dazzling Ginny. Sandy got the distinct impression that he was an offensive lineman. “Eli dear, won’t you go and rescue Ginny?” she said to her son.

Eli and Ace quickly took measure of the other, and discovered that they had all sorts of things in common. Eli was an Air Force captain and an F-22 pilot; Ace was a lieutenant commander in the Navy and the executive officer of a SEAL team. It wasn’t quite what Sandy had meant but the two men were having a great conversation, and Ginny was free to circulate.

Eventually Ginny found herself at Sandy’s side and they exchanged smiles. “You have a lovely home, Mrs. Madden; everything is beautiful. And the food is fabulous,” said Ginny.

“I’ve had a lot of practice,” said Sandy, “but cold boiled shrimp is always a success!”

“Mm. My mother would agree.”

“Does your family live in the area, Ginny?”

“My mother’s family is from here, but we lived everywhere. Growing up, we made a yearly summer pilgrimage to the family beach house in Galveston. It was my mother’s way of giving us a form of permanence. She came back to Texas to have every one of her children, even if Dad couldn’t be there. All four of us were born in Galveston.”

“Where are your parents now?”

“Brussels.”

Brussels? NATO? Max mentioned that you came from a Navy family. Who is your father, dear?

“I don’t talk about my family much. Those on the outside–who aren’t military–don’t understand. On the inside, I didn’t want anyone to think I was using my father to my advantage. I know you’ll understand though–he’s Vice-Admiral Creighton Lawrence Gregg.”

“Larry Gregg? Good heavens! I met your parents once, at a party in Maryland. Your mother is beautiful; redheaded too, as I recall,” said Sandy, reaching out to touch one of Ginny’s curls. “You said four children. What about the other two?”

Our oldest brother, Lanny, is married and has two little girls. He’s in San Diego. The next brother, Sammy, is also married, and has one boy. He’s in the Mediterranean right now. And Ace has just returned from the middle east. While he’s on leave he’ll go on to San Diego and see Lanny.

Eventually Ginny circled back around to Ace and Eli. “Ginny,” said Ace, “I’ve invited Eli down to the house on Wednesday. We thought we’d do some surf fishing.”

*****

Ginny hit the traffic at just the right time and made it from the office to the Galveston beach house in forty minutes. She tried sorting out the smells as she came up the steps: garlic, lemon, baking fish. Hush puppies frying. “Good thing I remembered to buy buttermilk and onions,” she said. Of course Ace would want hush puppies. She thought she’d never seen such happy men when she found them in the kitchen, cooking and drinking Corona. They’d showered, and changed into clean clothes, but their skin glowed from the day’s sun and a salty tang hung in the air.

Eli pulled the cork on a bottle of wine and poured her a glass. He eyed her bland working clothes, and her hair was all wrong, too. Smoothed and wrapped and pinned up in an workman-like bun. “We eat in ten minutes,” said Eli. “you’ve got just enough time to change.” And put on something cool and pretty,” he said to himself.

In Ginny’s world, ten minutes was a life-time. She took a quick shower, then threw on a frothy caftan in tangerine that sparkled with golden beads and embroidery. She bent over to brush out her waterfall of hair, pulling it off her face with an ornate barrette. Ace gave her a slow wink when she padded out barefooted, and Ginny was gratified by Eli’s look of appreciation.

They ate sand trout until stuffed, and Ginny listened while the men told stories and talked shop. Ace insisted that he would clean up the mess and shooed Eli and Ginny onto the deck with the rest of a bottle of wine. “That sounds like a deal,” said Ginny, who suggested that Eli take the hammock, and she chose the white wicker chaise. They talked a bit and then fell quiet. Too quiet. Eli looked over at Ginny and she was sound asleep. Which was providential since it gave him an opportunity to study her thoroughly and commit her face to memory. She looked like something out of a glossy magazine with the deepening blue of the twilight ocean providing the backdrop. He couldn’t remember the last time he felt so relaxed, and he fell asleep too.

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The Mission: Mad Max (part 3)

Deborah Hendrick on Wednesday, July 19th, 2006

Maxwell Madden was surprised and pleased beyond belief. “Oh that girl,” he said out loud. He’d already examined her resume and employment application; it was concise, precise, and impeccable. Ginny was one of Coastal’s new cartographers, hired last month for a large project they were starting. She also had a minor degree in Art. That made sense, as he studied again the gift she had left on his secretary’s desk while the office was empty at lunch.

Exquisite in execution, exacting in detail, and childlike in composition, Ginny had painted an F-15 Strike Eagle flying upside-down. It was bathed in brilliant light, but the sleeping countryside below was still dark, and dotted with tiny lights. She’d placed a eyelash-thin crescent moon settling down in one corner, and a rising sun in the other. And on the side of the airplane, underneath the canopy in neat letters: MAD MAX. Delighted at seeing his call sign, he rotated the painting 180 degrees to read it again, and got another surprise. Spelled out in faint twinkling lights on the ground below, he read HELLO.

Max had seen a lot of aviation art in his day, but he’d never seen anything as charming as Ginny’s F-15, and charming wasn’t a word common to Max’s vocabulary. It looked like an illustration for a children’s book. It was certainly gallery quality; he knew that for certain. He’d kept Air Force memorabilia to a minimum in his office at Coastal Mapping and Survey, but this would be an exception. He took down the very expensive seascape his wife had bought for the office, and hung Ginny’s F-15 in its place.

He stared for a long time out his top floor window … the ninth floor. From his office he could see most of NASA’s Johnson Space Center spread out before him. He liked that he was close enough to Ellington Field to hear the F-16 Falcons going out on patrol. He especially liked that he was close enough to go flying for lunch, now that he’d been reminded of it. He’d start doing that, once a week if at all possible.

That night as he and his wife, Sandy, were propped up in bed, each with lots of pillows and their reading lights on, he thought about how well she’d made her life fit around his. They’d worked out the give-and-take strategic details of their marriage a long time ago, but he knew she was long on the giving and much too short on the taking. She cried over little things, never allowing herself to cry over the big things.

Except for the day when their son, Elijah, found a rattlesnake in the pantry. That was in New Mexico. Sandy killed it herself, with his 20-gauge shotgun. Three times. She cried and raged for days. But by the time he and the squadron returned the mess was cleaned up and repaired. The men gave her a call sign after that: Dirty Harry.

“Sandy? What’s your schedule like tomorrow–Can I take you to lunch?”

“Sure. Where do you want to go?”

“How about Smitty’s?”

“Smit–You want to drive to Smitty’s in Lockhart for lunch?”

“No I want to fly to Lockhart, and take my best girl to eat at her favorite barbecue joint.”

“Max, you sweetie. Are you nuts?”

“Maybe, but the weather forecast for tomorrow is perfect, and I don’t have any meetings. Would you meet me at the office, because I have a painting I want to show you, and then we’ll go to the airport. And let’s take that big ice chest with us; we’ll buy some barbecue to bring home.

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A Good Day for a Ride

Deborah Hendrick on Sunday, July 16th, 2006

The bike path was wide and well engineered. Designed by experienced bikers, Eric thought. Not a racing circuit, but shady and scenic; the noise and combustion of Houston was far way. The bicycle, generously offered—graciously accepted—was a Serotta, with a fixed, single gear. Not his normal ride, but it was light, and whisper-quiet. A joy to ride.

At five mile intervals there was a turnaround, and a little graphic to show the rider his location, and best of all, a water spigot. Eric stopped at the 10 mile marker and finished off his water bottle, then filled it with fresh water and drank that too. “Oh why not,” he thought, and stuck his whole head under a rush of cool water. “What a miserable climate,” he said to the trees, and a startled squirrel. For a heartbeat or two, he missed his broad shimmering vistas and home skies of cloudless blue.

Eric was about sixteen miles into the twenty mile loop when he dropped down a hill into a sunny, wide-open water crossing, dry for now, and braked hard and fast. Then he carefully backed his bike up the hill and stopped. He thought about all the things he’d seen in his years of biking. Every kind of critter you could think of, especially the non-domesticated kind. Skunks, prairie dogs, porcupines, the shifty-eyed fleet-footed coyotes. Snakes … too many snakes. Once he saw a tawny bobcat, and they studied each other for a good long while before the cat winked one eye and trotted off. Eric especially loved the birds. Meadowlark, dove, quail … their song was his song. Scissor-tailed flycatchers, burrowing owls and the racing road-runners to provide interval training. And hawks, forever watching and guarding their territory.

And the stuff … the flotsam and jetsam he’d found on the road through the years. All kinds of tools (that 16″ pipe wrench was a dandy), and once, an expensive self-winding Hamilton watch, but he gave it away the same day to a man who needed a watch. Another time a bright spot of lacy pink stopped him: Victoria’s Secret would stay a secret. And red rags. So long as he kept riding and lived near the oilfields, he’d never run out of red shop rags, and a man could never have too many red rags.

But this was a first for Eric. The path was about six feet wide, and a good two feet of alligator hung off each side. He sized up the tableau in an instant: while crossing the low, super-heated bridge, the alligator got so hot he fell asleep.

He was four miles from his car. Eric performed an alligator data search deep in the information-processing part of his cerebral cortex, and came up with: Speed … fast. Vision … acute. Sense of smell … probably more than 30 feet. Eric considered his own pungent Neapolitan body: pink, white and browned, though somewhat tough and stringy. Definitely crunchy.

Then he calculated speed, weight, degree of slope, and decided without a doubt that he could bunny hop a sleeping alligator … on an expensive, borrowed bicycle with wheels that cost more than his first car. Four miles or sixteen miles. Maybe the alligator would wake up …

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Who is Ginny?

Deborah Hendrick on Wednesday, July 12th, 2006

I originally wrote part one of The Mission as a stand-alone story, but as it happens sometimes, there is a lot more to Ginny than I thought.

The Mission is a complete work of fiction. Only the airplanes are real.

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The Mission: Apology (part 2)

Deborah Hendrick on Wednesday, July 12th, 2006

It took five minutes for Ginny to learn that the president of Coastal Mapping and Survey was Maxwell Madden, a retired Air Force officer with a distinguished career, and a decorated fighter pilot. Ginny spent a lot of time during the next week with her head in her hands. Would she never learn, she thought. Her mother had warned her over and over again about her flippant attitude, and this time she’d been cheeky with her Boss, the President of The Company, and a Brigadier General to boot. Oh, GinnyGinnyGinny. How would she ever apologize?

After a week of thought, careful research, some detailed measurements, and a half-dozen sketches, Ginny was ready. She’d stopped by the art supply store Friday evening after work, and bought three sheets of their finest heavyweight, hot pressed watercolor paper—smooth as porcelain. Saturday morning she prepared her paints, prepared her paper, and opened a fresh jar of masking latex.

Finally Ginny was done with most of the painting; she was exhausted and soaking wet. But she stripped and changed into running clothes, and took off for the beach in front of her house. Almost two miles into the wind one way, then back again. Now she was wet and filthy.

The outdoor shower her father designed for the beach house was like a tiny Japanese garden. Private, serene, and soothing, Ginny stood in the deluge of hot water until it ran out and ran cold. Wrapping herself in a large terry robe, she slowly climbed the stairs to the deck and collapsed in the hammock. When the sun went down she went to bed. As she pulled up the covers she realized that she was hungry, but it was too late.

The next day she took more paint and a wispy-thin brush, and began her detail work. Lastly, Ginny chose a 0000 Leroy pen, thinned out some black ink until she approved the grayness, and filled the reservoir. She practiced a dozen sets, then printed in tiny 2-point letters, “Mad Max.” In the lower right corner, she printed “Virginia Gregg,” and the date. She propped her board up on the sofa and stared at the painting for the rest of the day. It was ok, she decided. She trimmed it, secured it in fresh paper, and put in her portfolio. On Monday at lunch, she carried it to a frame shop, and begged to pick it up on Tuesday.

It was perfect. The framer wrapped it for her in a long swathe of gold-flecked tissue and tied it with single strand of shiny raffia. She found a plain gift card on a rack at the register and wrote, “Thanks for being a good sport and not firing me. Ginny Gregg.”

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The Mission: The Elevator (part 1)

Deborah Hendrick on Wednesday, July 12th, 2006

Ginny watched the man on the other side of the elevator for ten full seconds, then said, “You’re thinking about flying, aren’t you?” The ramrod straight, gray-haired man stared through her, then he slowly raised one eyebrow in response.

“But you are, aren’t you—thinking about flying?” she insisted, flashing a blinding smile.

” I was,” he admitted. “Who are you?”

Ginny took a step and stuck out her hand. “Ginny—Virginia Gregg. So what were you doing?”

“Doing?”

“You were thinking about flying. What were you doing?” persisted Ginny.

“I’d taken off in the dark, before dawn, and climbed high enough to be in sunlight. Then I rolled over to look at the lights, and the sleeping dark below. But how could you possibly know what I was thinking?”

“The look on your face; I’ve seen it before. What did you fly? F-14, F/A-18?”

He gave a short bark of a laugh. “Not hardly. F-15.”

She mimicked his laugh. “Well sure, if you want to drag around all that weight and burn up fuel.”

He appraised her through narrowed eyes. “You’re a Navy brat aren’t you?”

Ginny laughed, and nodded in agreement. “I am. Which would make you—”

“—Ah, don’t say it. This elevator’s not big enough.”

“So why don’t you go flying for lunch. Are you current?”

“You are a scrappy little thing, huh. Why aren’t you out flying for Navy?”

“My dad thought three Navy pilots in one family was enough,” Ginny said.

The elevator dinged and the doors opened. He waited while she walked out.

“So if I take your advice and go flying for lunch, will you come with me?”

“Oh, I don’t think the suits on the ninth floor would appreciate me taking a three-hour lunch. But thanks, and have a good time, ok?” She smiled, held out her hand again, and he shook it. “Who are you, by the way?” she asked as he turned to walk away.

“One of the suits,” he laughed, pointing a finger up, “from the ninth floor.”

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F

The Road Trip

Deborah Hendrick on Wednesday, July 5th, 2006

Richard Gillette waited until his family had been eating about ten minutes, then raised his voice slightly and announced, “I’ve decided that when we drive to Grandmother Lovey’s house this weekend, we won’t listen to the radio or CDs, or iPods, Elizabeth. Instead, I want you girls to read aloud, from any book you choose.”

They all stopped eating, four pairs of eyes widened and stared, and Elizabeth dropped her fork. Please clear your selections with your Mother,” he spoke into the quiet, “who will also read to us.”

“Daddy?” asked Jeannie, “all my books have pictures in them.”

“That’s fine, darling. You can tell us what the pictures look like if you want. It will help us enjoy the story.”

“Richard. Eight hours on the road?” said his wife, Jean.

“We’ll take turns; the changes and breaks will make the trip go faster.”

“Well I hope you like Ivanhoe,” snarled Elizabeth, “because I have to read it for English class, and I’m not wasting my time reading something else.” She modified her voice. “If that’s ok with you, Mother.”

*****

The Gillette family was on the road by seven o’clock Saturday morning, and once Richard had cleared the city traffic and was cruising on the interstate, he asked, “Who wants to read first?” There was no response.

“Perhaps I’ll start us off, then,” said Jean. “Paul Gallico wrote this story, about a cat named Thomasina.”

One hour and fifteen minutes into the trip, Richard pulled into a favorite road-side rest stop, because by the time the second child had arrived in the family, he’d learned that road trips were measured neither in miles nor hours, but by potty stops.

“Can I read my book now?” asked six-year-old Jeannie. Four heads nodded yes. “Ants in My Pants,” she announced, and held the book up so everyone could see it. Then she began to read in a voice very much like Miss Bethany’s, the story lady at the library.

Jean smiled at Richard. Richard looked in the rear-view mirror and smiled at Melanie, who smiled at Jeannie and offered her a pillow to rest her book upon. Elizabeth, seated behind her father, stared out the window.

They all cheered for Jeannie as she finished her book. It was funny and since Dad had never heard it before, he was especially pleased. Some of the words were hard, but Elizabeth helped her.

The Little Red Hen was a favorite restaurant on the way to Grandma Lovey’s house, and stopping at eleven o’clock meant quick service. “Two family size orders of chicken strips, with all the trimmings,” he ordered. “And your most excellent chocolate pudding cake for dessert.

*****

Back on the road it was Melanie’s turn to read, and they all enjoyed her choice of Hank the Cowdog. That Hank and his friend Drover could get into more trouble, without even trying. But Melanie’s eyes gave out quickly, and she said her stomach felt funny, so she closed her book, closed her eyes, and said it was Elizabeth’s turn.

In a voice pitched lower than usual, but careful and clear, Elizabeth began to read from Ivanhoe.

“In that pleasant district of merry England which is watered by the river Don, there extended in ancient times a large forest, covering the greater part of the beautiful hills and valleys .”

She read for an hour, stopping only to take sips of water, and they were all drawn into the story. Gradually her voice normalized, and the miles flew by. Jeannie laid her head in Melanie’s lap, and Melanie stuffed her pillow in the corner of the seat and the door, and leaned into it.

They stopped again, at the girls’ favorite roadside emporium, which coincidentally, sold gasoline at the highest possible price the market could bear. It pained Richard to fill up there and he never did if he were by himself, but happy females (of all sizes) and pristine restrooms were a joy worth paying for. Not to mention premium peanut patties, freshly-made caramel corn, real limeades, and those raspberry jelly and coconut sponge cakes found only in quick stops, which his wife oddly craved occasionally.

Jean took a turn driving, and Melanie said it was time for Daddy to read, that he could read from Mommy’s book about the cat. With a bit of drama, he gave his best female voice to Thomasina, until Jeannie protested and said “Just read, Daddy.” So he settled down, too, and told the cat’s story.

In the twitch of Thomasina’s whisker, they were at his mother-in-law’s house. There was Lovey, fragrant from fresh-grated lemons and dusty with flour, running down the steps to welcome them all in. It was a favorite scene.

How had he, Richard Gillette, previously a man alone in the world, come to be selected, and elected without doubts, the head of this tribe of women? None of them helpless or frail, but strong-willed and determined, and himself made a better man because of them, though he felt like a lion-tamer every now and then.

******

If pulling into Lovey’s driveway was a favorite event, then sitting around her dining table was tops, because Lovey was a caterer. And on the evening when a long day rewarded her with her daughter and son-in-law, and her trio of granddaughters, Lovey set the table with the finest examples of her work.

Small steaming cups of delicious consomm√ɬ©, and appetizers both dainty and hearty. She made all their favorites, though why his daughters should have acquired a taste for caviar at such an early age was still a mystery to Richard. Creamy cucumber sandwiches, and tiny rolls of smoked salmon on her homemade rye bread, topped with sour cream dill sauce. Thin slices of proscuitto wrapped like tissue paper around surprise fillings—amazingly tied with slim strands of carrot laces. And Richard’s favorite, fragile, flaky pastry cups filled with tart lemon curd. Enough to founder on.

Lingering over the meal, even the girls reluctant to leave the table, Richard said, “Lovey? Come live with us. Or we’ll buy you a house if you want, or buy a bigger house. We can build you the kitchen of your heart’s desire. But you’re too far away, and we need you.”

They all stopped. Five pairs of eyes widened and stared, and Elizabeth dropped her fork. “Oh!” she squealed, “Lovey, please say yes. I’ll be your assistant and carry the heavy things and do the washing up. What ever you want, Lovey. Oh, say yes.

“Can I be your second assistant, Lovey?” asked Melanie, assuming it was a done deal.

“You are full of surprises Richard,” said Jean, smiling. “Please say yes, Mother. Because I have a surprise too; I’m going to have a baby.”

“A baby? Like a little brother?” asked Jeannie.

“Might be,” said Lovey, eyeing Richard’s astonished face. “Your Dad could use some reinforcements,” she said with a laugh.

Lovey rose, and fetched a dusty bottle of Springbank scotch from the back of her pantry. She poured a finger for herself, and two fingers’ worth for Richard. “Jean dear,” she said, “You’ll just have to kiss Richard for your taste this time.” She tipped her glass to Richard’s. “To Jean,” she said, “and to the baby.”

“I want my name, Mrs. Lovelle Grace, in gold leaf on a sign. Beyond that, it doesn’t matter.”

“Yes, YES!” shouted Elizabeth. She picked up Jeannie and danced her around the dining table. Jean began laughing. and then crying. Richard pulled her to her feet and danced her around the dining table too.

“Well, Lovey,” said Melanie. “I guess some of us have work to do,” and she began stacking the plates.