This is a guest article by D. Alan Johnson, the author of the new novel Asgaard. I think the best way to describe David, is that he is different! He has been a Private Military Contractor since 1988. He has seen the world. Mostly places that we mere mortals just read about and make a mental note of crossing these countries off our list of great vacation spots. David prefers not to discuss his current whereabouts, but I am pretty certain it is not Kansas – Simon

Sometime around four-thirty, I drove up the long caliche road to the ranch entrance. The directions had been perfect, and I wheeled onto the huge lawn in my father’s new Mercedes 500D sedan and parked alongside the row of dirty Ford F150’s. Being a poor, twenty-four year old pilot wanna-be, I borrowed his car knowing that my ancient van wouldn’t make the eighty mile journey without overheating. I could see the Spanish style ranch house/headquarters sitting back in the gloom, and couldn’t decide if it was hidden in morning fog or dust.

Seven sodium lamps mounted on telephone poles gave the area a yellow glow. The left side of the lawn had twenty horses lined up, each with a rider standing by its head. They were being briefed in Spanish by a tall Gringo. His bearing and their deference marked him as the Foreman. He stood on a long goose-necked trailer leaning against the Schweitzer 300 helicopter that I was to fly for this round-up. Squatting on the trailer, its plexi-glass bubble and stick-like tail boom made me think of a large dragonfly. With my poor Spanish, I recognized the phrases “same as always”, “don’t run the cattle”, and “be careful of that bull!”

I had just graduated from a helicopter flight school and felt important with a new commercial rotorcraft pilot’s license in my back pocket. Today would be my first job interview. It had been two days since I called the Foreman on the phone, looking for work.

“Sir, my name is Dave Johnson, and I’m a helicopter pilot looking for a job. I hear that your pilot just got on with Petroleum Helicopters.”

“Son, how did you get this number?”

“Jim Kemp suggested that I call you.”

“You know Slim Jim, do you?”

“Yes sir. He was my instructor. He mentioned that he knew you in the Army.”

“Yep. Jim and I go way back. You must be the youngster that he talked to me about last week. Come on out Wednesday morning around four-thirty, and we’ll give you a try.”

So now I waited behind the riders. They laughed at the Foreman’s joke, mounted up, and turned left, riding single file through a large gate. Just like a scene from an old Cavalry movie, except with the smells and dust.

The Foreman looked down from the trailer at me, my head no higher than his knees.

“Okay, son, show me what you know about my machine here.”

As I went around the helicopter, preflighting the machine, he asked me lots of questions about the helicopter, my training, and ranching. The helicopter, a 300C, was exactly like the machine I trained in except for a Ruger Single Six .22 pistol in a holster bolted to the right side of the instrument tower. Both doors were removed, just like I liked it.

“You weren’t brought up on a ranch, were you?”

“No sir. Why do you ask?”

“Well, we don’t see too many Mercedes out here. And you ain’t dressed for work.”

I looked down at my clothes and realized how out of place I looked. My red Izod pullover and grey wool slacks seemed like a good “casual interview” outfit at 0230 this morning. But now I wished that I had worn jeans and my elephant skin cowboy boots instead of penny loafers

“Yes sir.”

I learned in the 82nd Airborne that there was never a good time to offer an excuse.

We got into the helicopter. I took the left seat without asking, thinking that it would look better for me to assume the pilot-in-command posture to show the Foreman that I was capable. His tiny smile told me that I was right. He walked around the front and folded his long limbs into the right seat.

I started the engine and let it warm up while I went through the checklist, making sure that I had the map folded correctly and strapped to my left thigh. It takes two hands and two feet to fly a helo during a roundup, and there would be no opportunity to adjust the map again until we landed.
I felt confident since Jim Kemp had given me several pointers about how to herd cattle. Many mornings we practiced in the infield at McAllen airport on the hundreds of rabbits that lived there.  Magneto checks done, the rotor and engine RPM needles matched and the oil temp in the green, I pulled pitch and we lifted off of the trailer just as the sky turned the color of dirty dishwater. It was just now 0540.

The Foreman pointed left, and I zoomed up to two hundred feet to be sure to clear the unseen power lines that I knew stretched across to the big house. But soon the South Texas sun bleached the sky white and threatened to pop up and pound us. We had to get all the cattle moved to another pasture before ten o’clock, or take the chance of losing some to the heat.

The drought had hit hard, and the farmers and ranchers of South Texas and Northern Mexico scrambled to survive, just as their forefathers had done for the last four hundred and fifty years. Since this pasture had been grazed down, it was time to move the stock to another section.

Now, many Texas ranches are small affairs, two or three hundred acres, where a city boy keeps his jeep and shoots a couple of deer each season. But this ranch, the San Pablo, was an original Spanish land grant, and bounded across two state highways and almost down to the Rio Grande.  We flew south for ten minutes at eighty knots, passing the riders strung out along the eastern fence line.

The land below came into sharp contrast as it was almost dawn, and I could see the cattle moving.

“Move to the left son, so we don’t get any behind us.” I lowered the collective pitch lever at my left side and floated down to about six feet above the scrub brush. He pointed to a corner where an angry bull separated himself and plunged into a thicket of mesquite and pear cactus.

I eased up toward the bull.

“Careful, here, son. That’s Peter the Great. He’ll charge this helicopter sure as the world. That’s why we got this here new one. Last year, I didn’t pull up soon enough, and he got a leg tangled in the skid. I crashed, but the bull was OK.”

Mesmerized by the story, I almost missed the great mass of black and brown that rushed the chopper. I jerked up on the collective lever and the helicopter jumped twenty feet into the air.

BOOM!

I saw the Foreman with the Ruger pistol in his hand. He had fired at Peter the Great as he stormed by.

“Why’d you do that?”

“Oh, it’s just some rat shot,” he said with a wry smile. “It’ll sting his rear end, and teach him not mess with this helicopter.” The Foreman waggled the barrel of his six gun, communicating where he wanted me to go. So we followed Peter the Great. I sidled along a little sideways, so that the Foreman could keep his gun on the bull, and I saw that the other cattle had lined up at the sound of the helicopter and started north.

Peter, now holed up in another thicket, bellowed at the helicopter and raised his head in defiance. The Foreman motioned me lower, and I kept his door toward the belligerent bovine. Sure enough, he charged out from his fortress. The Foreman got off two shots this time. Stung, Peter hung his head and trotted off after the cows.

The Foreman chuckled and holstered the six gun.

“If he’s so much trouble, why do you keep him around? Just make hamburger out of him.”

The Foreman looked at me like I had suggested that he move into town and become a gay liberal anti-gun activist.

“Boy, you don’t know anything about cattle, do you?”

“No, sir,” I said, knowing that I had not only made a fool of myself, but I had probably shot down any chance at a job on this ranch.

“That bull services scores of heifers, giving them some of the finest calves in South Texas. His bloodline is famous, and he’s made this ranch more money than I can count. He’s worth more than you and I and this helicopter put together. No, son, that bull is a treasure,” he said nodding his head.

He pointed left and I spotted the calf frolicking back toward the empty pasture.  I banked hard left out of the high hover and scooted in front of him, turning him back toward his mamma. I angled back and forth, helping a cowboy here and there, but mostly just providing the noise to move the cattle through the big gate into the northern pasture. This was great, getting paid to fly a machine that is like a three dimensional motorcycle.

I was pretty pleased with myself. I had flown the helicopter well, and the Foreman, who had dual controls, had not had to take over or correct anything about my flying. I came to a high hover and drifted left as I watched the last of the cattle squeeze past the gate, where a dusty Mexican sprayed tick and flea medicine on their backs.

Pop! The Foreman slapped the control stick between his legs to the right, stopping my leftward drift. He pointed out my door. A power line hung outside, less than fifteen feet away.
“Thanks,” I said, and I drifted right to get some space.

“That’s it for today. Let’s go back to the trailer.”

Landing a helicopter on a trailer is a tricky proposition. During the last week of my training, Jim Kemp forced me to make every landing on his small trailer. Only two inches to spare, left to right, and if one makes a big bobble and drops a skid off of the side, he can damage or destroy the flying machine.

By now the South Texas wind whistled across the trailer as a quartering headwind from left to right. I approached from the downwind side and hovered sideways into a steady state above the platform. Firmly I lowered the collective, and the skids thudded into their slots made of welded angle iron. I finished the shutdown checklist, and, satisfied that all was right with his machine, the Foreman unfolded out of the right door.

“Well, son…” The Foreman looked up and to the left, searching for the right thing to say.

Here comes the bad part, I thought.

“You fly the helicopter well. But you don’t know diddly about ranching or cattle. I’m afraid that it’d be easier to teach one of my cowboys to fly than it would be to teach you to be a cattle man. You give my regards to Slim Jim, and tell him that he taught you well.”

“Thank you, sir. I’ll do that.” We shook hands and I turned to go.

“And son, one more thing. Don’t ever come on this ranch wearing red again. Don’t you know it scares off the rain?”

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