What’s the nicest thing anyone has ever done for you?

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Mudassir Ali
Feb 19, 2020 05:15 AM 0 Answers
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Mudassir Ali
- Feb 19, 2020 05:16 AM

The plane was running low on fuel and I couldn’t find the airport.

Smoke from wildfires had cut visibility in half. The yellowish fog hung in the sky, casting an ominous glow over the the East Texas forested landscape below.

I looked down at my flight map, creased over my leg like a flimsy paper roof.

The airport should be right here!

It wasn’t.

Where the hell was I?

This should have been an easy flight.

A quick flight with my instructor on a $100 hamburger run to grab a cheeseburger and milkshake at an airport diner a hundred miles away.

Planning for these flights was easy. Take a flight map, pick out a few small towns and lakes and you’ve got your route.

Not today.

They say that two things kill pilots: Fuel and weather.

I was quickly qualifying for both.

My stopwatch indicated about 30 minutes of fuel left. In the airplane world, that’s when driving in an ’82 Buick begins to sound appealing.

I banked the Cessna and began a 360 degree turn. Certainly I would find something.

I did.

But it wasn’t an airport.

It was a road. A very long straight road.

Not knowing what else to do, I navigated along the road.

If worse came to worse, I’d land right there. Besides, roads always go somewhere and many times that somewhere also happens to have an airport.

At this point, you might be asking yourself, “Why didn’t you just ask your flight instructor?”

Well, thanks for asking. My flight instructor was one of those old pilots who’s seen everything. And at 11,000 hours, my flight instructor liked teaching me through raw experience. His only job was to make sure I didn’t kill him. Everything else was up to me…including finding an airport while low on fuel.

20 minutes left.

This sucks.

I looked back towards my map, then outside again, then back at the map again. There had to be a landmark somewhere!

Nothing.

Dammit.

Here’s the thing…

Everything in Texas looks the same from the sky. Small towns dot the landscape with their unmarked water towers, railroad tracks and fingered-lakes dammed on the south side.

In other words, it’s easy to get lost when visibility gets bad.

I follow the highway and now I’m leaning over my overly-calm instructor to look out his window too.

Then I see it.

A runway!

15 minutes of fuel left.

Forget this. I’m landing.

This wasn’t your average runway. It looked like someone had accidentally dropped the world’s shortest country road into a forest full of 80-foot Loblolly pines.

I turn to final approach, line up the nose and land.

As we’re taxiing, a slow realization creeps over me.

This is a really small airport.

The “airport” consisted of a rickety old hangar and trailer house peeking out from the tree line.

Oh, and look, they don’t carry fuel.

An airport without fuel. My favorite…

I climb out of the cramped Cessna and walk towards the hangar. A small door on the side sat half open, like it was curious but also reluctant about letting me inside.

But then a gust of wind rustled down through the treetops and slammed the door shut.

Bang!

Then, in a “there-will-be-blood” kind of way, the door slowly opens up with a long, eerie creak then stops, half agape. The wind catches the haunted door again, slamming it shut with another loud bang, then creaks back open again.

No thanks. I’ll try the house.

The trailer house wasn’t much friendlier looking but at least someone appeared to live there. A patio table decorated with a cigarette tray piled high with cigarette butts suggested a kind-hearted but possibly cranky grandma lived there.

I say “grandma” because there was a small crooked sign hung by the door labeled “Grandma’s Kitchen.”

The flimsy front door gave a weak metallic twang as I knocked. I hoped Grandma was home.

She wasn’t.

With no options left, we grab our gear and start walking down the lone dark road through the pine forest.

We reached a two-lane highway. Without much thought, we turned left and started walking, hoping to find any sign of civilization.

There wasn’t a car in sight…at first.

Then logging trucks began to blow past us at 80 mph. The turbulence whipped us towards the steep embankment as they roared past. I struggled to hold onto my unnecessary and ridiculously large flight bag while not falling into the ditch.

What a rookie mistake. Who really needs a flight bag with 2 flashlights, a dozen books, granola bars, Swiss-army knife and silly charts covering the entire country?

My thought was interrupted by an old red Chevy Suburban. It sailed past us, weaved a bit then slowed down and veered into the opposite lane, pulling along the shoulder.

You’d think we’d be delighted.

We weren’t.

Why?

Because I’d heard of meth.

All I knew about meth was that it came from scruffy and dangerous country folk with short tempers and lots of guns.

And that’s where we were…out in the country.

Way out in the country.

This was also before I learned more about meth from binge watching Breaking Bad, but that’s irrelevant to my story.

Anyway, the white reverse lights on the Suburban light up and the truck rolls backwards to meet us.

I walked taller, pretending to belong in this forested woodland as I meandered along a rural highway carrying earth’s largest flight bag.

The truck stopped and the driver’s window rolled down.

Then out leans the biggest guy I’d ever seen.

“You boys aren’t from around here, are ya.”

Weird. What gave that away? Was it my enormous flight bag or my khaki shorts?

I replied: “Umm, not really. Our plane’s out of gas.”

He was clearly more intrigued than I was. “Your plane’s outta gas?”

“Yeah.”

“Does it take car gas?”

My unusually calm flight instructor answered, “Yeah. It’ll take 86 octane.”

Sweet. I had no idea.

Then our Chevy driver suggested, “Why don’t you boys jump in. I got a couple of five-gallon cans at the house. Let’s grab them and fill em up.”

Reluctantly we climb into the SUV and off we go. The opposite direction.

Five minutes later the truck slows down and we turn down a rough dirt road. The pine trees were thick again, casting a damp darkness over the road.

I think to myself, “We’re either going to be killed or murdered. I think I’d rather die than experience that…”

We pull into a clearing.

What in the hell?

Landscaping? A nice shop? A nice house?

The guy jumps out and retrieves two large gas cans from his well built shop.

“Let’s grab you guys some gas.” he said as he jumped back in, his massive biceps fighting his hands holding the seat belt.

We drive towards what I’m assuming is probably a small town gas station.

“You hungry?”

My instructor and I reply in a weak harmonic chorus, “Yes!”

“Alright. Well there’s a little barbecue place up the road here. Let’s grab some.”

We walked into the restaurant and he greeted everyone. It was like the whole town knew him. We order and polish off the delicious barbecue in no time.

Then our new friend asked us about us how we got into our little predicament. He also agreed that, yes, it was a dry year and there were a lot of fires.

Then I asked about him.

He replied with about as much fervor and enthusiasm as a guy who worked at an auto parts store.

“I’m Rodney Thomas. I played football. Was a running back for the Houston Oilers then played with the Atlanta Falcons for a while. Moved back home here where I grew up. It’s where I want to be.”

I didn’t know what to say.

How the hell do I respond to that?

“Hi. The name’s Matt. I’m a toy pilot who really likes Chili-Cheese Fritos?”

Rodney told us a little more about himself. I sat there, hanging on to his every word. He had a warm chuckle and was the coolest stranger I’d ever met.

We leave the restaurant, swing by the Shell station and then drive back to the airport.

I climb up on the wing to fill up the plane. Rodney lifted the heavy 5-gallon cans like they were paperweights. We “fill up” the tank and get ready to leave.

My instructor and I shake Rodney’s giant hand, spill a lot of “thank you’s” and climb back in the Cessna.

As we taxi to the runway, we look back. Rodney is leaning against his truck waiting for us to safely depart.

Climbing back into that big Texas sky, we looked down to see Rodney waving goodbye.

I don’t know if he saw me, but I waved back.

I thought about Rodney quite a bit over the years.

I still do.

A couple years ago, I felt compelled to get in touch with him. You know, to thank him again. Although I felt that a million “thank you’s” wouldn’t be enough but, what the hell, why not try?

Unfortunately it was the first and last time I got to see Rodney.

He passed away a few years ago in his home town.

So, Rodney, I know you’re up there somewhere. Thanks man for watching out for two stranded pilots and giving us a great story to share. Somehow I get the idea it wasn’t a big deal to you because it was just the kind of guy you were.

But it was a big deal to me.

Here’s to you, buddy.

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