a broadcaster, pilot, writer, and our Guest Columnist!
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When I was a little boy, Dad would hear me coming out of the bathroom. “Did you flush?” He would call out. I went back in the bathroom to flush the stool. When I walked out to the living room, he would ask, “Did you wash your hands?” I assured him I did. Then he would follow up, “Did you use soap?” Dad was always prepared for inspection. “Come here. Let me smell your hands.” I presented my hands.
If my hands smelled of soap, he would smile and give me kudos for a job well done. If not, I was sent back to the bathroom and told, “Go wash your hands again, and this time – use soap!” I think about those days frequently and quite fondly.
With the Memorial Day weekend now behind us, the summer travel season has officially begun. Those words of Dad’s still stand out for me; “Use soap.” Especially when I pull into a gas station.
Summertime brings with it bugs – lots of them. When I drive, bugs get all over the windshield. Using my windshield washers is not going to clean them off. The wipers just smear the bugs all over the glass in a sweeping arch pattern, making it impossible to see well. Sometimes, even when I don’t need gas, I’ll pull into a station to top off the tank, just so I can clean my windshield.
I walk to the squeegee bucket, always expecting the worst. Yep, plain stinky water that permeates a putrid smell of bugs. It’s a very distinctive, nasty smell. I wish someone would tell the gas station people that bugs won’t wash off with just water and that blue windshield washer fluid they often pour into the bucket doesn’t remove them either. In the words of my beloved father, “Use soap!” Just a squirt of any kitchen dish soap will do, although I prefer Dawn. It cuts the grease.
It’s a pleasant ordeal when you pull up to the pumps and find suds in the buckets.
One day last summer, my windshield was particularly bad. Most of the bugs were a foggy or translucent-white color. There were also several big yellow splotches, a few green and a couple red ones, too. It was getting hard to see as I headed west into the setting sun. I exited off Interstate 94 at Valley City, North Dakota and pulled into the Tesoro gas station.
I swiped my card and answered the twenty questions asked by the card reader. Next, I lifted the nozzle, selected my grade of fuel, then placed the nozzle into the tank filler spout. I pulled the trigger and set the holding tab. While the tank was filling, I prepared myself for disappointment as I walked toward the windshield washer bucket.
I grabbed the shiny black squeegee handle, looking into the bucket as I pulled it out of the water. WOW! Suds! And fresh ones at that. I moved the head of the cleaning device up and down in the water bucket several times, like one moves the paddle of an old-fashioned butter churn. I was agitating the water, working up a good head of suds. I swung the squeegee over to my windshield, carrying a liberal amount of soapy water.
As I worked the tool back and forth over the glass, bugs were practically falling off; splats of dried bug guts were dissolving like Jell-O powder in hot water. Bugs were disappearing like magic.
When I was ready to wipe the glass, I noticed the cleaning side of the tool. The mesh covered sponge looked brand new and so did the rubber edge. I pulled the squeegee across the windshield. Water ran from the top to the bottom with no streaks at all. I took a second pass, then a third. Still, no streaking. “This is awesome!” I called to June, who was sitting in the car.
I felt like a kid in a bubble bath with a brand-new back washer. I was so thrilled I went ahead and cleaned the back window - and all the side glass too. I even thought about cleaning the windows on the car on the other side of the pump island, but the driver looked kind of grouchy. I didn’t want to risk him bursting my gleeful spirit. With a big smile on my face, I returned the squeegee to the bucket, stirring up the suds one more time, just for fun. I hung the nozzle back on the gas pump and went inside the store.
After picking up a couple of snacks, I headed for the checkout counter. A young man named Jerrod was behind the register. “Jerrod, I have to tell you, I get so tired of gas stations with nasty bug water in their washer buckets and worn out squeegees. But your water was clean and your squeegees were in great shape. This place is amazing!”
Jerrod shared my enthusiasm. “Oh yeah! My boss is a real stickler about those wash buckets and squeegees. He says, ‘When the mesh starts showing wear, throw it out and get a new one. You can’t scrub bugs off a with a worn-out sponge.’ We just replaced all the squeegees about an hour ago.”
“I like that you add soap to the water.” I complimented.
“Always in the summer.” Jerrod confirmed, explaining, “Plain water isn’t going to clean bugs off a windshield. I put a shot of Dawn dish soap in every bucket. It’s just the right amount of soap to break down the bugs without being too much.” He really knew his stuff. “The last C-store I worked for,” he said with disdain, “they put blue washer fluid in the pails, but that stuff won’t remove bugs and it’s a lot more expensive than a gallon of tap water and a shot of Dawn.” Jerrod was clearly speaking my language.
I thanked Jerrod for his good service, especially the windshield washers - it was the best ever.
I headed west down the highway, thinking that running into that particular Tesoro station and their window washing set-up may have been better than winning the lottery.
A couple hundred miles later, my windshield was really getting bad again. I pulled off the interstate into another gas station. When I walked up to the washer bucket, I could already smell the stinky water. “Great,” I said. I used the worn our sponge to wet the glass with the nasty water. I tried to scrub the bugs away, but they weren’t coming off. I heard a voice in my head saying, “Use soap.” I reached behind the driver’s seat and grabbed the bottle of Windex I always keep in the car for just an occasion such as this.
I sprayed the ammonia based product across the window. Even with the worn-out sponge, the bugs came off easily with a little cleaner. I pulled the worn rubber squeegee across the window, then used a paper towel to wipe off the streaks that were left. I wish all C-Stores would take a lesson from Jerrod’s boss - keeping good squeegees at the pumps - and everyone should use soap.
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The other morning, I stopped just outside Bozeman, Montana, at McDonald’s. I was only going to have coffee but Egg McMuffins were specially priced 2/$5. Although I am trying to cut down on eating out, I bought two, then found a table and sat down to write for a while.
A man, who appeared to be homeless, was at the table across from me was shuffling his things. He went through them again and again, meticulously rearranging them, occasionally stopping to take a sip of his coffee. I asked if he’d had breakfast and offered him one of my sandwiches. “Are you sure?” He asked, “I don’t want to take your breakfast.”
“Yes, I’m sure. I want you to have this.” I told him, extending the wrapped sandwich his way. He thanked me, took the sandwich, sat down and ate it with his coffee.
When he was done eating he came to my table, offering me three individually wrapped, antibacterial hand wipes. Explaining the benefits, he said, “They’re great when you need to clean your hands and there’s no water around.” He went on to say, “I take one and tear it in half; I fold the extra half, put it back in the package folding the top over and carry it in my pocket. I take it out to use it later. I thanked him, but declined his offer, thinking he surely needs those more than I do. I told him I keep a whole container of hand wipes in my car.
Wanting to show his appreciation for the sandwich, he returned to my table with two small bottles of hand sanitizer. “This is really good to have when you need to disinfect your hands. Do you want one?” I smiled and thanked him, but again declined. I noticed he was clean and well kept.
I would guess, everything he owned was in that backpack. I didn’t feel like I should be taking anything from him. I thought more about the meaning behind his offer. This man has almost nothing, yet was offering to share what little he has with a stranger. I was humbled by his generosity.
I asked, “Hey, I changed my mind. Could I have one of those hand wipes to take with me?”
The man smiled very big and began digging through his backpack. “You sure can! Would you like two?”
I took one packet from him and said, “No, one will be enough. I’ll carry it in my pocket when I’m out hiking or walking.”
The man introduced himself. “I’m Delbert.” he said, offering his hand, then asked, “What do you do?”
Shaking his hand, I answered, “I’m Tom and I drive around the country with those little trailers.” I said, pointing out the window to my Scamp in the parking lot.
He asked some questions about the Scamp and about June, my dog, who was sitting in the driver’s seat looking our way. He noticed my wedding ring. Nodding toward the band, he asked, “Does your wife travel with you?”
“She did last year,” I answered, “but she has a full-time job now and can’t go with me.”
“Do you have faith?” Delbert asked, “Do you believe.” I assured him I did. “Well as long as you have faith, and wear that ring, she’s never very far from your heart.” He made me smile. Then he showed me his ring, pointed upward and said, “My wife left me a long time ago. I know we’ll be together again someday.” Delbert got a little choked up when he said, “As long as I keep wearing this ring, and have my faith, it will be like we were never separated.” He smiled as if reminiscing. Feeling his love for her, I was getting a little teary-eyed myself.
I was watching the way he packed his bag. “I have to keep everything in order, so I know where it is. If anybody needs something – I always know where my stuff is so I can help them out.”
About that time a lady came over with a gift card. “I want you to have a nice day.” she said as she gave him the card. He thanked her, then she walked away.
Delbert showed it to me and said, “Some people give me gift cards.” He hesitated with his story. “Most people are pretty nice to me,” He said, “but one time a couple guys gave me a card for Home Depot. They said it was a fifty-dollar gift card and hoped I could use it, then laughed when they were walking away.”
Delbert continued, “I met some people who didn’t have anything. They were pretty down on their luck, so I went to the store with them to buy some things. When we went to check out, the lady at the cash register told me there was no money left on the card, so we had to put everything back. I guess I figured out why those guys were laughing. Ever since then, I’ve been a little skeptical about gift cards.”
His story made me sad and angry. I don’t understand why those guys would think their prank was funny – it was nothing short of cruel and mean spirited. I smiled at Delbert and said, “I’m sorry they did that to you. I’m sure the gift card that lady just gave you, is good.”
I asked Delbert where he was traveling to; maybe I could give him a ride. He declined, “I’m going to Washington, but I have to stay in town to go to court tomorrow.” He said, then explained, “I was at a different restaurant having coffee and checking my things when the manager came and told me I couldn’t hang out there. I told him I was just drinking my coffee that I bought there - but I didn’t want any trouble, so I put my stuff away and left. I went outside to finish my coffee.
“Before I headed down the road, I went in and asked if I could have a refill because I know they give free refills. The manager said, ‘Sure, you can have a refill.’ He asked my name and where I was from, and while I was answering him, two policemen came in and asked, ‘What’s the problem here.’ The manager said that he told me to leave and I came back in – so the police arrested me and now I have to go to court tomorrow.” Delbert’s story was really getting to me.
I asked if he had a place to stay for the night, thinking maybe I could get him a room. Delbert patted his backpack and said he had a sleeping bag that was really warm and a good tarp to keep him dry. “I’ve been sleeping under a bush up by that bridge.” He said pointing toward the interstate. He grinned, “It’s legal and I can’t get a room anyway without a credit card, or a lot of cash for a deposit. I don’t believe in credit cards and I like being outdoors better. Even if I had the money, I wouldn’t stay in a hotel.”
He went on to tell me how he prefers to use his money to help others in need. “There are a lot of people worse off than me. They literally don’t have anything” It warmed my heart to hear him say that.
Delbert closed his pack, fastening the buckles. He put his right arm through the strap, then swung the pack up onto his back, sliding his left arm through the other strap. He bounced upward a couple times to adjust the pack so that it was riding comfortably on his back and shoulders.
As he was getting ready to leave, I handed him a couple twenty-dollar bills. “I’m not making any judgements about you, Delbert, but I want you to take this money. If you can use it, that’s great, and if not, will you find someone to give it to who does need it?”
Delbert, took the money, thanked me and assured, “I’m doing pretty good right now,” he said, “but I know I’ll meet people who need help. I’ll put this to good use.” He folded the bills neatly tucking them into his front pocket.
I shook Delbert’s hand telling him I truly enjoyed his company. “I’m glad I met you, too, Tom. Thank you for sharing your time and your gifts with a stranger.” He raised two fingers, giving me the peace sign, then closed his fingers together. After kissing his fingertips, he pointed to heaven and said, “Keep the faith, brother.”
As I watched him walk toward the street, I thought about our visit and the things Delbert said to me. Here was a man with little more than the clothes on his back, still he chooses to count his blessings. He considered himself to be well off because he has a warm sleeping bag, a good tarp and had found a bush that provided shelter from the wind. He uses what little money he has to help others less fortunate than himself. He considered his faith to be the most important thing he owned.
I was completely humbled by this man. As I looked out the window, watching him disappear down the road, I reached in my top shirt pocket. Pulling out a small, pink package, I read the label out loud. “Antibacterial, Moist Wipes. For Hands. Kills Germs.” I smiled, placing the packet back into my pocket, “God bless you, Delbert. You may well be the richest man I have ever met.”
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I love dogs and cats, but you can do things with a horse, that you can’t do with the others. No masked man ever mounted their dog, with the animal standing strong and proud on its hind legs. It’s front legs pawing at the air; the rider tightly holding the reins, boots firmly planted in the stirrups, hollering, “High Ho Rover! Away!” Then, rode off on his dog to save the day. That just doesn’t happen.
We always had horses on our little five acre farm, when I was growing up. Patches, Pretty, Lady, Pony, and some others I’m surely forgetting right now.
Horses are great companions for kids, teens and adults. They require a lot of work, and space - much more than a dog or a cat. It’s a lot faster to scoop a littler box, than to clean a stall. However, it is easier to wash your horse than to bathe a cat - less dangerous, too.
To a horse owner, the extra work is well worth it! Time spent with one’s horse is special time specifically set aside just for them. The horse will have your undivided attention.
You can’t bring your horse in the house to casually sit on the couch and watch a movie with you, like a dog or a cat. A horse certainly cannot sleep at your feet on the end of your bed, nor on your pillow by your head, or curl up on your chest. A horse sitting on the floor next to you at the dinner table, waiting for you to drop a scrap of food? Well, that would just be awkward and make visiting guests, feel uneasy.
As a fan of the old television show, M*A*S*H, I always appreciated Colonel Potter’s passion for horses. “There’s a special relationship between a man and his steed.” This is so true...for women, too!
A friend posted a profile picture in which her horse is kissing her on the head. A non-horse person, might consider such unexpected behavior from a horse to be intrusive, gross, and slobbery.
But the feel of their tongue touching your skin, is a sign of their love and devotion. I welcome the gentle nibbles from a horses velvety lips. Their soft whiskers always tickle. Another show of affection. Well, either that, or the beast thinks you have something, or are something to eat.
To one who has a horse, and knows that special bond, a kiss from their horse is every bit as sweet as one from a puppy or a kitten. It just comes from a much bigger, stronger tongue, it’s a lot wetter, and usually leaves a big green skid mark on your skin...but oh, the love...and slobber in greater amounts than any cat or dog could offer.”
To share this story, visit our website at fairmontphotopress.com.
Tom can be reached for comment at Facebook.com/Tom.palen.98
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“I pulled up Google Maps on the computer, looking for the best route from north central Minnesota going south to Augusta, Georgia. This route would take me south on I-35 through the Minneapolis/St. Paul, then down through Mason City, cutting down diagonally through Waterloo, Iowa, then over to Cedar Rapids and the Avenue of the Saints, etc.
Because I had to stop in Superior Wisconsin, I decided to just go south on Highway 53, catching Highway 63 south at Spooner. Knowing that highway runs to Waterloo, I would follow this route and it would take me within a couple blocks of my daughter’s house. I knew she was home alone that evening so I would stop and visit.
While en route driving through some small town in Wisconsin, I came across a small playground area on a side road. To the south of it was what appeared to be a city garage of sorts. Between the two was a very large grassy, field. It looked more like a well-manicured lawn. There was a straight section of chain-link fence between the playground and the field that seemed odd and out of place.
June had been in the car for quite a while and this was a good time and place to let her run. I threw her tennis ball as far as I could. I am still amazed how fast that dog can run, at nine-years-old. I threw the ball several more times, each time she retrieved it. I called June back by the car, for a drink of water.
After she had a drink, I was getting ready to throw the ball again. A man in a city truck pulled up. With his arm leaning on the edge of his open window, he said, “I wouldn’t stop there.” “I’m just throwing the ball for my dog in the park,” I explained. The man told me, “That’s not a park. It’s part of old man Johnson’s yard. He lives in the house way back there,” he said pointing to a house that was far away on the other end of the lot. “He doesn’t like kids and he really doesn’t like dogs in his yard. He kind of thinks he owns the street, too.” “Thanks for the tip.” I said to the man, then he drove away to the city garage.
Not heeding his advice, I was going to throw the ball again, but there was now an old man marching across the lawn toward us from the direction of the house. He was waving his arms and pointing our direction. With the wind blowing, I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but he didn’t seem at all happy.
Thinking it would be best not to challenge him, I opened the car door and called June, “Come on Bugs, get in the car.” June danced in circles thinking I was going to throw the ball. The man was halfway to us. “June! In the car. Now!” I directed with a stern voice. June jumped in, I closed her door, then quickly got in and started the motor. I gave the man a friendly wave, he was pointing a rigid finger at us. By now I could hear a lot of cussing, so I drove away quickly.
Several miles down the road, I pulled into a gas station lot and parked the car. A girl in a green florescent vest walked toward me and said, “I wouldn’t stop there.” “I’m just going to take a look at my map for a few minutes,” I explained. “We have a transport truck coming, and you’re on top of the tanks,” she said, then added, “The driver gets really upset if anyone is in his way.” I told her, “I’ll only be a few minutes and, if he comes, I’ll move.” She pointed to the sign on the edge of the pavement that read, “No Parking Anytime.” Not wanting to challenge her, I smiled and said, “No problem.” I started the engine and drove down the road.
Pulling into the next gas station I came to, I stopped off to the side to look at my map. A guy fueling his car looked at me and said, “I wouldn’t stop there.” “Why not,” I asked. “Cars come flying in off the street right there. You’re bound to get hit.” Not wanting to get hit, I started my car and drove away.
The route I was following took me right through the town of Red Wing, Minnesota. The GPS was telling me to make a turn that just didn’t feel right to me. I made the turn, then pulled over to the shoulder of the road and stopped the car. I was reaching for my Atlas when a SUV pulled up along side me. The driver called over to me, “I wouldn’t stop there,” she said. “Why not? I’m clear of the road,” I said. She pointed toward a large, fenced in grassy area on the other side of my car. “That’s a correctional facility. My husband works there and they get really nervous and concerned when cars stop on the shoulder. I’d keep moving down the road bit.”
Several miles down the road, I stopped and was finally able to look at the map. It appeared my GPS, as I suspected, was taking me down the scenic route. This far into the trip I decided to stay on course and kept driving to Waterloo.
The phone rang. It was my wife calling. “How’s the drive going,” she asked. “Everyone keeps biting my head off and telling me, ‘I wouldn’t stop there, I wouldn’t stop there,’” I said mimicking the people. “I swear they did it every time I stopped the car.” I went on to tell her the whole story, then said, “I’m going right by Sydney’s house, so I’m going to stop and visit – maybe get dinner with her or something.” Melissa said, “I wouldn’t stop there.” “Why not.” I asked. There was a brief pause then she started laughing. I’ll admit, I can be a bit dense at times, but I finally caught on. “I get it. Very funny!” I said. We shared a good laugh over that and I continued driving to Waterloo.
I asked my daughter, “Where would you like to go to dinner? My treat.” We headed to Newton’s Paradise Café in downtown Waterloo. The hostess seated us and our waitress came by with two glasses of water. “Hi. My name is Kaitlyn and I’ll be your waitress tonight.” I smiled, “Hi Kaitlyn, my name is Tom and this is my daughter Sydney. We’ll be your customers tonight.” We shared a good laugh over that. My humor seemed to set the stage for a pleasant dining experience.
After we placed our orders and were waiting for our food, Sydney told me, “This place has the best coffee! I should have ordered a cup.” When Kaitlyn went by, I stopped her, “My daughter tells me you have the best coffee in the world.” Kaitlyn confessed, “I don’t drink coffee but a lot of customers tell me that it is.” “Well then, I better have a cup.” I said. Sydney and I were going to share one, as I wanted to try it, but really didn’t want a whole cup of coffee.
A different waitress brought the coffee to us and I took the first sip. I wrinkled my face. “You don’t like it,” Sydney questioned. “It’s cold,” I told her. When Kaitlyn passed by, I politely told her the coffee could use a little time in the microwave oven. A little embarrassed, she blushed, “I’m sorry. I’ll go make a fresh pot.” She returned with a fresh cup of hot coffee. I took a sip and agreed with Sydney – it was very good.
I could tell she was fairly new at her job, but Kaitlyn’s service was every bit as good as the coffee. When the check came, I gave her my card and she returned with my total. I don’t know why, but they always bring three copies of the ticket. One is for the register, one is for me, I’m not sure what the third is for, but I often use it to write a note for the wait staff, especially when the service is good.
I wrote, “Thanks for making a fresh pot of coffee for us. Your awesome, friendly service, was both noticed and appreciated. You made dinner more fun for us. Tom and Sydney.”
A 20% tip would be $4, but her service was better than that. I left a twenty-dollar tip on a twenty-dollar ticket. Sydney and I chatted for a while, finished our coffee, then left. When the service is good, I frequently tip well and leave notes for our wait staff. I very seldom get to see their response.
It was dark, when we walked outside to Sydney’s van. With the lights on inside the café, we could clearly see some type of commotion going on. It was Kaitlyn, jumping up and down and dancing. She was smiling as big as I’ve ever seen anyone smile, showing something to the other waitresses. I had already forgotten the note and the tip.
Kaitlyn ran over to the window, knocking on the glass to get our attention. When she saw we were looking, she patted her chest over her heart, then held her hands together with her thumbs touching on the bottom and her fingers rounded, coming together on the top. She was making a heart for us – a sign of love. That made me feel warm inside – really warm.
I thought to myself, I’m sure I glad stopped here.
Tom can be reached for comment at Facebook.com/Tom.palen.98
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It was a beautiful Saturday morning. I was doing a live remote, radio broadcast in Ottumwa. I had just finished doing a shot on the air when my cell phone rang. It was Melissa calling.
"Can you do me a really big favor," she asked. "Is there any way you could fly to Houston and bring my Uncle Kenny and Aunt Gail back?" I told her the weather wasn't looking good, but I would do some checking and get back to her shortly.
Melissa had recently told me her Grandpa Max had been ill - I knew it had to be serious for her to call me with this request.
Between my broadcasts I called the flight service station for a weather briefing. "Flight is not recommended for your route,” the briefer told me. He then went on to give me the full details. It seemed unfair. The weather in both Ottumwa and Houston was beautiful, but everything in between was a mess of violent thunderstorms. My route was littered with tornado boxes.
I called Melissa back, "This is the kind of weather the airlines won't fly through," I explained. The thunderstorms were towering to fifty- and sixty-thousand feet. Storms were affecting Kansas City, Minneapolis, Chicago, Denver, and Atlanta. Airline traffic was backed up all over the country. Even Houston International Airport had been shut down for weather earlier in the day as storms passed through.
I really wanted to help her but, but I couldn't. "I can't fly through it and I can't go around it. It's just too big." It broke my heart to tell her, "I can't do it." After my broadcast, I kept checking the weather. Later in the afternoon, I called Melissa. "It looks like there's going to be a small break in the weather. If I take off within thirty minutes, I should be able to make it." I explained that she would have to be sure her aunt and uncle were at the airport when I arrived. I would have to do a fast fueling and get right back in the air.
"Are you sure?" she asked. "Yeah," I told her, explaining, "I can get to Houston no problem. If the window closes and the weather comes down, I might not get back, but I think I can make it. It's worth a shot." In a worst-case scenario, I could stay in Houston with my sister, Patti.
Melissa wanted to know, "Will you have room for my cousin Bree? She wants to come too." "Sure, but they'll all have to be at the airport ready to go. This is a really narrow window of opportunity." Melissa would watch my flight on flightaware.com, and keep her family posted on my expected arrival time in Houston.
In route to the airport, I filed my flight plan, then called Ottumwa Flying Service. I was very relieved when Steve Black answered the phone, late on a Saturday afternoon. "Steve, I need a favor. Can you pull my airplane out, top the tanks, check the oil and do a preflight for me?" "Sure, what's the rush?" He asked. "I need to run to Houston and back." I told him. "Houston, Texas," he questioned. "Have you looked the weather? It's a mess all over the country!" I told him I had, and explained there was a window opening. If I timed it just right, I could get through. "Okay, I trust you." he said, "But be careful. Tom, if you need to, land the plane and wait the storm out!" I assured him I would.
Speaking of trust, I don't let anyone preflight my airplane. Steve Black is the only man I would allow to do that for me. I would trust him with my life, and when you let someone else preflight your airplane, that is exactly what you are doing.
When I arrived at the airport, I parked the car, grabbed my flight bag, and ran to the airplane. Steve was waiting by the wing with my door opened for me. He handed me a quart of oil, then said, "Take this with you in case you need it in Houston."
I took the container, thanked him and climbed onto the wing to get in. "You're going to get diverted around Kansas City,” he told me. I smiled and replied, "Yeah, that’s my window. I've been watching that cell. It's a big one. I'll shoot around it to the west." "Be safe, Tom." he told me as I closed the door.
I started the engine and taxied to runway three-one, making my radio calls along the way. Rolling down the runway on departure, I patted the top of the instrument panel, “Here we go, girl. It’s you and me. We’ll get through this together.” I was bumping around in the clouds most of the way. I stayed in touch with the flight service people, who guided me through the sky, keeping me away from the bad weather.
Near Kansas City, a big line of storms was moving from the west, eastward, leaving me the window I anticipated. The air traffic controller suggested a diversion to the west to get behind the storm system. From there I would have storm-free path all the way to Houston. Around central Texas the clouds broke and I flew in clear skies and smooth air the rest of the way.
About twenty minutes before landing at Hooks Field in Houston, I called the flying service on the local unicom. I gave them my aircraft information and request. "I need to top off both tanks. Can I get a quick turn on fuel? I'll be picking up some people, and need get right back in the air to beat weather." The lady on the other end of the radio answered, "No problem. We'll be ready for you and your passengers are here waiting."
After landing, the fuel truck pulled right up to my airplane. The line guy greeted me, "We're topping both tanks, correct? Do you want me to check your oil." "Yes please, I like it at seven quarts." I answered, then went inside.
I had never met Melissa's aunt and uncle, but from seeing photos, I recognized Kenny, right away. His perfectly groomed hair, soft eyes and big smile under his mustache, made him easy to pick out. He walked toward me, "Tom?" He asked. We shook hands, then he introduced me to Gail. I had met Bree once before.
"If you need the restroom, now's the time," I said, "This will be a non-stop flight to Ottumwa." I used the men's room, checked the weather radar, paid for my fuel, and returned to the plane.
The line guy told me the oil was fine, but I checked it anyway. I checked the fuel caps to assure they were tight, and did a quick preflight. After loading the few bags they brought, I had Bree board first in the back seat behind the pilot, and Gail sat next to her. I climbed in, slid over to the pilot side, then had Kenny get in the front seat next to me.
Because I had already filed my return flight plan, we were able to depart Houston quickly. The takeoff was good, the air cool and smooth - the airplane was flying great. All was good, but I knew it would deteriorate. "The weather is good here, but we may run into some stuff as we get closer to Iowa," I told them. "We'll see how it goes. If we have to, we'll go around the weather."
Several flashes of lightning to the west lit the sky, but I wasn't worried. From the air, you can see lightning that is hundreds of miles away - it is no threat. Then a bolt flashed in the nearer distance ahead of us. The air traffic controller called me, "Bonanza, one x-ray delta, there a strong isolated cell at your twelve-o-clock, sixty miles out. It has level three thunderstorms embedded with heavy precipitation, hail and lightning. It's moving fast to the east at 50 miles an hour, but you'll get there before it clears. I would suggest a deviation to the west, and you can go around the back side of it."
I replied, "One x-ray delta, I appreciate that. Request the deviation to the West." ”One x-ray delta, deviation approved. Turn twenty degrees west, return on course when able."
I banked the airplane to the West, and flew that direction for about twenty-five miles. We turned back, to the North for another twenty miles, to clear the storm, then pointed the nose of the airplane to Ottumwa. We were moving toward the overcast.
I checked weather with flight service again; the cloud bases were low, down to about one thousand feet above the ground. We weren't going to be able to fly under them. It wasn't long and we were flying in and out of the clouds at seven thousand feet, in the dark night sky. As we passed the Kansas City metro, the lights of the city glowed in the overcast of clouds below us.
We flew about another twenty minutes, before the clouds got thicker. I shined my flashlight down the leading edge of the wing frequently, checking for ice.
I got on the radio, "Kansas City center, One x-ray delta, is picking up light to moderate rime ice. Request to go higher, for nine thousand feet." He replied, "One x-ray delta, climb and maintain niner-thousand. What are your conditions?" We were in solid clouds - instrument meteorological conditions. "One x-ray delta, is IMC, temperature is 35 degrees, the air is pretty choppy, moderate turbulence." I had reached my new altitude.
Later I called again, "Kansas City, we're still picking up ice, request higher for eleven thousand feet." My voice was shaking as I spoke. I wasn't scared, but it was like trying to talk when you're driving down a wash-boarded gravel road. "Roger, one x-ray delta, climb and maintain one, one thousand feet."
Ice is never a pilot’s friend. It adds weight to the airplane and changes the aerodynamics. It can be very dangerous and requires close attention. Since I was carrying ice, I began considering all my options. With the additional altitude, I could descend into Kirksville, if necessary. Bloomfield was also on the way, then Ottumwa.
It appeared I stopped building ice, but I was still in the clouds. "Kansas City, one x-ray delta, we're no longer picking up ice, but we're still IMC, request higher for twelve thousand." The altitude change was approved.
Just above 11,000 feet, I broke out of the clouds and the air smoothed out considerably. It seemed like we reached a calm area, as if we were in the eye of a storm. There would probably be more weather to deal with on our descent, but for now all was well and peaceful. The tension was lifted from me.
There was another cloud layer not very high above me. Imagine a sandwich: the bread being the clouds, above and below, we were like the peanut butter in the thin area between. I climbed a little higher, but I didn't want to get back in the clouds above. Even though this is not a normal flight altitude, I called again, "Kansas City center, one x-ray delta is between layers at eleven-seven. We have 39 degrees and the ice is starting to dissipate. We'd like to stay here."
He replied, "One x-Ray delta, I'll give you a block, from ten thousand, to one-two thousand feet. Contact Chicago Center at one-one-eight-point-one-five.” I repeated his instructions, then said, "Thanks for all your help tonight, Kansas City." "No problem." He replied, “that's what we're here for. Good night."
When I called Chicago center, he asked what approach I would like for Ottumwa. Ottumwa had a high overcast, so I requested a visual approach for runway three-one. "One x-ray delta, descend at pilot’s discretion to five thousand feet,” he said.
I started down for Ottumwa. As soon as we re-entered the clouds, we started building up ice again and the air got rough. The lower I got, the more ice I collected. At about six thousand feet, I broke out of the clouds. The air temperature was forty degrees. The airport was straight ahead, about twenty miles out.
I called the Chicago center, "Chicago, one x-ray delta has the field at Ottumwa. I'll cancel my IFR now."
He answered, "One x-ray delta, I show no traffic between you and the airport. Cancellation received, change to advisory frequency approved. Squawk VFR, one-two-zero-zero. Good night."
With all the intense weather and flying, I almost forgot why I was flying. I decided to land straight in on runway four. With ice still on the wings, the sooner I was on the ground the better.
I landed the plane, then pulled off the runway, and taxied quickly toward the ramp. I turned the airplane to pull into the hangar, where Melissa was standing with her mom and dad next to their car.
My heart sank. In the beam of my taxi lights, I could tell by the look on her face, I was too late. I didn't get there in time. I stopped the airplane, shut down the engine and opened the door for Kenny to climb out first. I got out, then helped Gail and Bree, down onto the step from the wing.
Melissa came over and gave me a hug. "I didn't make it, did I?" She whispered, "He passed away." A tear rolled down my cheek. I was glad it was dark as I didn't want her to see me crying. "I’m so sorry. I really tried." I said. "I know you did. They are here now, and that's what matters.”
Melissa left to be with her family. I secured the airplane, then drove home. I felt like I had failed. If only the weather was better, I could have left hours earlier. If only I didn't have to divert around storms. If only I didn't have to deal with ice. If only the airplane could have gone faster. If only...
Then I heard a voice. "You did exactly what I wanted you to do. Let this be My way." I could only sigh.
As I drove down the road, my mood started to change. Even in this time of grieving for Melissa, and her family, there was joy to be found. You see, a few days before he passed, Melissa shared with me, that her grandpa Max, told her he had a date coming up. A date with her grandma, Lucille.
I only met Max Lyons one time. After being introduced, he shook my hand with vigor and said, "Tom, glad to know you." That's exactly what Melissa told me he would say!
Somehow, I envisioned Max standing before his Creator for judgement. I could imagine him saying something like, "I wasn't always perfect, Lord, but I did the best I could. Can we make this quick? There's a pretty lady who's been waiting an awful long time for me to get here."
I could see Max, passing through the pearly gates. Lucille, waiting on the other side, in a beautiful dress with her hair done up to perfection. Each of them blushing, Max extends his hand toward her. Lucille takes his hand. The two come close together again and dance a waltz. Arm in arm, they dance and dance, off into eternity.
This morning, I read my mother-in-law, Carol's post. It was eleven years ago today when Max passed away. It was eleven years before that, on the same date, when his wife, Lucille, passed. On that flight from Texas to Iowa, we found calm air at eleven thousand feet.
Perhaps Max and Lucille were already there, dancing on the calm clouds, watching as we flew by in the heavens above - at eleven thousand feet.