Stories From My Father: The Airstrip (II)

Continued from The Airstrip.

The plane’s engine ticked quietly as everyone stood around, studying the plane and the chewed-up airstrip while they tried to decide on the best course of action. A vigorous discussion broke out as everyone had to add their two cents to the conversation and the pilot stared woefully at the plane, mentally tallying the cost of the repairs and wondering if there was any chance of squeezing the money out of his fellow conspirators.

One of the great things about operating in a collective, for those who have not had the pleasure, is that it is functionally impossible to make any kind of meaningful decision without substantial debate. Even then, there’s usually at least one person who is bitterly unhappy about the supposed consensus, especially when it involves effort. It’s easy to get a group to agree on holding a party. Not so easy to get a group to agree on anything involving actual work.

This was far more work than anyone had anticipated when coming up with the idea and high spirits were starting to flag as their fun adventure turned into a laborious task. Eventually the onlookers decided that they should tow the plane as far to the side as possible and start repairs on the airstrip while the pilot worked on the plane, possibly with the assistance of the most level-headed among them, and then they all had to stand around some more while they argued over who should be on the work crew.

A curious thing happens when it rains in the redwoods. The soil slowly saturates and swells until it can take no more water, and then it soaks into the fallen leaves on the ground to create a slick, treacherous layer of material that, on first glance, might just look moist, but actually covers a quivering of mud that is waiting for just the right level of agitation to betray whoever happens to be standing or driving on it. With all the running around and gesticulation on the airstrip, the packed soil had clearly reached its breaking point, and thus when a crew trudged out to hook up the plane for a tow, the inevitable occurred, and the ground sheared off inside, sending the plane pitching to the side.

This perhaps wouldn’t have been a problem, aside from making more of a mess, except that the airstrip butted against a ravine and it happened to be on the side that the plane was tipping towards. The plane and mass of soil collected momentum and a mudslide down the ravine started, picking up speed with each passing moment. A torrent of mud, boulders, rock, bits of trees, and other assorted material began cascading off the side of the airstrip with the plane proudly surfing on top, leaning jauntily to the left side like it was trying to take advantage of just the right current before it, too, reached its tipping point and flipped entirely, sliding down the ravine on its back with accompany shredding and tearing noises.

The noise must have been thunderous, between the trees being wrenched out of the ground and the heavy load of soil and rock. And, of course, the drums of chemicals tumbling out of the plane as all the doors flew open. The plane finally came to rest in a small torrent of water that flowed seasonally, and fortunately none of the drums ruptured, although they were certainly looking the worse for wear. Everyone stood horrified on the airstrip, peering down at the small landslide they’d been able to create, and the debris strewn across the ravine. Pieces of plane, the pilot’s ruptured backpack spewing out a sleeping bag and an assortment of clothing, and the cargo.

Eventually the most enterprising members of the group attached some rope to a few sturdy trees and slowly lowered themselves down to inspect the damage up close. The plane was clearly a writeoff, joining the assortment of other martyred equipment that had fallen into the ravine at various points in history; a tractor, a few small cars that had clearly been driven at unwise speeds along the highway on the other side. The pilot could salvage some of the equipment, perhaps, but the frame was hopelessly bent and twisted, the aluminum sheeting that made up the skin shredded and scattered across the landscape.

The rescuers quickly discovered that any kind of operation to get things out of the ravine would be ill-advised. Shifting their relatively light weights across the face of the slide resulted in even more tumbling material, and an increase in the cracks and crumbling in the airstrip above. The idea of bringing up heavy drums of anything was unthinkable and the pilot couldn’t even grab his sleeping bag, because the balance on the mud was so precarious. Their spotters hauled them up before they could be buried in the steady trickle of materials sliding down, and they pledged to come back in the summer, when things would be nice and dry again and they could, presumably, retrieve everything and have another go.

My father never did tell me what happened to the chemicals. Discretion may be the better part of valour in this case, but I’ve always wondered if they ever did come back for them, or if what they left instead was buried under a slow subsidence of mud and rock, along with other items that made their way into the ravine as a result of carelessness or deliberate dumping; there’s a long tradition of tossing garbage over the nearest convenient cliff when driving to the dump is an ordeal. I wonder if, perhaps, those items will be found at some point in the future, contents long evaporated and leached out.