My pal Joe, ornery to the very end
Joe was an ornery sort, in life and in death too, as you will soon find out. I met Joe when I was just a little kid. He reminded me of a tough character from one of those men’s true adventure magazines so popular in the 1950s. You know, with cover art depicting a guy in ripped khakis fighting a lion with his bare hands and a blonde cowering behind a bush. My parents were friends with his family in the small town of Firebaugh, located along California’s San Joaquin River.
A favorite childhood memory is when Joe took me and my brother flying in Piper Comanche, N7833P. I rode up front first and Joe even let me fly. We landed at Madera airport, where Joe gassed up the plane. I remember liking the smell of that green fuel. On the return flight I rode in the back, enjoying every minute. Joe was relieved when my airsick little brother held it and did not paint the inside of the plane with, well, you know what!
Joe was a World War II Army veteran who loved hunting and fishing. He insisted on doing things his way. Period. He either loved or despised people and could be either very giving or quite disdainful. But he did have many friends, wore a smile most of the time and could take a joke.
After falling off a roof in his early 40s, Joe couldn’t go back to work pounding nails. He was quite proud of sticking it to the carpenters union for more than 40 years of benefits. “Longer than anyone else,” he would boast. Ornery sort, remember? This turn of events allowed him full-time pursuit of the things he loved: good food and drink, women, travel, the outdoors, and of course, flying. The type of things a little disability just can’t be allowed to stop.
Thirty years passed. Joe continued being Joe. My brother and I grew up airplane-crazy and we both got paid to fly—he a corporate pilot, me an airline pilot. When my wife and I moved to Nevada’s beautiful Carson Valley, I learned that Joe was living nearby. I was a bit afraid to go see him. Maybe he wouldn’t remember me. Maybe he was a frail old man. Not even! He was still big and brash and even sported a lady friend.
We embarked on what was to be years of friendship. I took him to the Reno Air Races and flew him around in my ’57 Cessna 182. We made a nostalgic flight to Firebaugh, where he finagled a box of melons from an old buddy. When he stopped driving, I chauffeured him in his Lincoln. I took him to his 65th high school reunion and to see his dying sister for the last time. We went fishing, Joe-style. Catch-and-release fly fishing? No siree. We trolled using flashers and worms. Quite often we would go out for breakfast or dinner. My wife cringed at Joe’s treatment of the restaurant staff. Joe insisted on buying most of the time. Often, I would secretly leave a tip.
Joe was masterful in the telling of his many stories. We would often end up crying from laughing so hard. He got a lot of mileage out of his deer hunting stories, including the time he lit a fire under a pack donkey’s rear to get it moving! He spoke fondly of his favorite bird dog and after many years still grieved. He told of growing up poor on a ranch during the Depression (youngsters, please look that up). He would often nearly drown trying to spear salmon that he could sell, or that the family could eat. He would get slapped around if he came home from the river empty-handed. Tough times.
He spoke of the war. In the Ardennes Forest he challenged a German prisoner: “Why are you fighting?” The prisoner replied, “For God and country.” Joe was stunned; that was why he himself was fighting! Though Joe was born and raised by rosary-wielding Italian immigrants, he didn’t attend church. Shortly after the war a priest got sideways with him and that was the end of that. There’s that orneriness again, maybe to a warm, eternal degree!
Ravaged by the cruelty of age-related health issues, Joe knew that his time of fighting lions and rescuing blondes was just about done. He called me over and made the request that I aerially dispose of his ashes. He asked that they be spread in the same mountain lake where his favorite wife had been interred. Out of the many places they fished, this was their favorite. Naturally, I agreed to do it. Joe had been good to me. He died the very next day, at home, having lived an adventure-filled life. On his terms. For nearly ninety years.
A couple of weeks later a box arrived on my front porch, sent by the mortuary. Joe was a big fellow and this was indeed a heavy box. I couldn’t just toss such a box into a pristine lake (especially since my address was on said box). I took the box to the airport and carefully opened it. Inside was a strong plastic bag hard-packed with the mortal remains. One probably shouldn’t just toss a plastic bag into a nice lake either. I found a perfectly-sized paper grocery sack and did the transfer. Tell you what, Joe made a nice dust cloud in the hangar during this process. Even today, years later, I find traces of that dust. Joe’s orneriness prevails.
At the time of Joe’s passing, I did not own an acceptable ash-scattering air machine. I was able to enlist the services of my pal Bumper and his Aviat Husky A-1B. The Husky is the ideal vehicle for this type of mission, thanks to its inflight-openable door. The door’s top half consists of a large window that opens upward, and the bottom half is indeed a door that opens downward, making a huge opening. I had owned a Husky a few years prior and I sure did love that airplane. Even shed a tear or two watching it fly away after I sold it. Anyhow, I digress. Let’s get back to the hangar.
I contorted myself into the rear seat while holding onto my “bag o’ Joe.” We took off and climbed into a lovely morning. A bit less than an hour later we arrived at the drop zone. First on the agenda was to circle and check for boaters. None. The lake’s surface was a perfect mirror. Bumper descended to 500 AGL, slowed and then opened the door/window.
I readied the sack, thinking that I could “feed out” the contents in a controlled fashion. Not to be. The bag had begun tearing in places from sharp, bony thingies. It was ready to explode in the plane and, well, we couldn’t have that, could we? I had no choice but to quickly pitch out the sack. I reckoned it would come apart when the sixty knots worth of airstream smacked into it.
We watched in amazement as the bag remained intact and streamed a bright contrail. It quite literally streaked towards the lake like an air-to-sea missile and exploded on contact, sending resident mallards furiously flapping. There was, in fact, an ashy-white mushroom cloud rising from the point of impact. Concentric waves dispersed pieces of brown sack, which soon began to sink. After a couple minutes, the lake had settled down to its previous glassy magnificence. A passerby would have not a clue that organic matter had recently been added to the waters. The mallards returned.
Bumper closed the door/window, advanced the throttle, and flew us home. After shutdown I extricated myself from the plane and noticed a gray powder on my pants and shoes. I could see that the aft floorboard needed vacuuming, thanks to ash that had seeped out of the failing bag. I could easily imagine old Joe getting a good laugh out of this one. It might rate right up there with the one about the donkey!
Yep, my pal Joe was indeed ornery to the end.