Stories From My Father: The Airstrip

I’m going to assume the statute of limitations is up on this one, but just to be safe, I’ll obscure some of the details to protect the guilty. I suppose I could wait until they all croak, but where’s the fun in that?

In the 1970s and 1980s, my father lived in a lot of different places, including San Francisco, and he spent a lot of time traveling hither and yon across the United States, as people do. In the hippie community he fell into in San Francisco, he encountered a wide variety of people, including a group of people with a small strip of land in the wilds of Mendocino County. They used to go up there sometimes to do whatever it is hippies did on strips of land in the middle of nowhere, fueled by an assortment of chemical substances of which beer was probably the least.

One of my father’s friends was a chemist, and he had just gotten into making synthetic drugs. He experimented with all sorts of things on their little scrap of nature, and one weekend, a great idea was born. Why not, they thought, make drugs in Mendocino and then bring them back down to San Francisco to sell? It was certainly one way to make a living, and law enforcement in Mendo seemed largely indifferent, so the risks of being caught appeared much lower.

Almost immediately, they ran into a problem: Most of their cars were far too small to bring chemicals in the needed amounts up north. This is not the sort of thing you trust to UPS. While they could have rounded up vans and things, another member of the group made a perfectly reasonable suggestion: He had a small plane, and he could use it to fly things up. Problem being, of course, that the nearest airstrip was still far away enough that they would need vehicles to transport things. No problem, he said, he could just fly straight up to the land, if they built an airstrip.

My father doesn’t remember the model of plane involved, but from what I’ve been able to gather, it was one of those rugged sorts of small planes that is virtually impossible to prang, very easy to handle, and fully capable of handling a homemade airstrip as long as people make at least a token effort to even out the surface. Everyone else seemed to think this was a bright idea and a brilliant solution to the transportation problem, so they promptly started work on the airstrip, and quickly learned that the endeavor was going to be far more work than they had originally anticipated.

The first problem was that there were a lot of trees. My father had worked as a logger up in Oregon so they at least had the expertise to fell them, if not any of the necessary equipment. Getting the trees and brush out of the way was a lot of work, but they eventually accomplished it, leaving a row of trunks in the way. This necessitated a call to Dante, whom everyone regarded as demolition expert after the chicken incident, and he showed up with an assortment of dynamite and haphazardly deployed it to get the trunks out of the way.

Leveling the ground with shovels and rakes may not have been the fastest way to do it, but it worked, and the airstrip started to take shape. As the piece de resistance, they brought in a truckload of gravel and spread it laboriously over the course of a weekend. The pilot came up to investigate and deemed it suitable for landing, and they duly obtained the chemicals they needed and loaded the plane up one afternoon for the flight to Mendocino.

The pilot’s first problem was that he hadn’t considered the weight of the chemicals and how they would change the performance of the plane. The rudder was soggy and he was barely able to maintain altitude. The weather was also rapidly worsening, which added significantly to his difficulties. He wobbled his way across Northern California until he reached the area, looking in vain for the airstrip. What no one had bothered to consider is that if it was dark or rainy when he landed, he would need someone to light the airstrip so he could see what he was doing. He buzzed futilely over miles of trees without seeing a break and eventually settled for landing at the nearest air field and trying again in the morning.

Fortunately, no one remarked on his arrival and he managed to take off again the next morning without undue incident and locate the airfield. He waggled his wings to tell everyone to get out of the way and banked around for the landing. Here, the combined flaws of the airstrip and the weather quickly became apparent. The wheels caught and dragged in the gravel, sinking deeply into a mire of mud, tree roots, and determined saplings. Rather than cruising to a sedate stop, the plane jerked and bounced until it reached a point roughly near the treeline.

The shaken pilot stepped out, inspecting the damage to his aircraft. It was probably still flyable, except for the fact that there was no way it could take off with the landing gear hopelessly chewed up by the makeshift airstrip. Muddy streaks and gouges marked the side of the plane, and a tuft of foliage decorated the nose incongruously. The plane might have been salvageable, but unfortunately, the airstrip had more in store.

To be continued…