Working For Jake

I had worked for Jake outside of Tucson for about two years.  After I served my time in the Air Force I was pretty good at working on airplanes.  While I was still in the service I had studied hard and took all the tests to get my FAA license to work on airplanes.  I had tried to get a job closer to home up in Iowa but nobody was hiring so I decided that the sun can't be that hot in Arizona.  Boy was I wrong.


There wasn't a shade tree in sight at the little airport that Jake ran.  Tried to run would be more accurate.  The airport had been around since World War II.  It wasn't needed after the war so it was sold for peanuts.  It had changed hands many times over the years.  Usually after an operator took over and his money ran out he'd look around for another sucker.  When Jake hired me he said it had been tough for a while, but if I was willing to stay he'd make it straight with me later.  I didn't know if that would ever happen, but it was a better offer than I'd had from anyone else—nothing.


There was a real old man named Whitey that had learned to fly between World War I and World War II that hung around the place every day.  He'd flown in both WWII and in Korea before he had to eject out of a crippled airplane.  He'd really messed up his back and they'd put him out of the service with a smile and a few dollars a month.  He and I had befriended each other.  Mainly because everyone else had heard all of his stories and didn't care to be around him.  And because I enjoyed the company.  Especially since it got lonely some times staying in the little 24' trailer out behind the hangar.


After work I'd sit under the awning connected to the trailer because it was too hot to stay inside.  Until it got dark the only time I'd go in was to get another cold beer out of the icebox.  The trailer had an air conditioner that would work fine in cold weather.  In hot weather it would work for about ten minutes and quit.  I figured it had only a few more hours of cold left in it before it gave up for good, and I'd save those for late at night when it was too hot to sleep.


There wasn't more than a dozen airplanes that stayed at the airport.  There were no hangars so anybody that had a plane here kept it in the sun.  Most people with any money had moved to other airports around the area that offered covered protection from the sun.  Jake wasn't making money from renting space, he was trying to make money from inspecting and repairing airplanes.


Whitey said that business had really picked up in the last six or seven years.  This was because people would fly into the airport to have their planes fixed.  Most of the planes were real old.  Twin-engined tail-draggers like C-47 Gooney Birds and other old ghosts that had come from the military years ago.  Occasionally a newer airplane like an Aerocommander would come in for inspection or overhaul.  Jake was always complaining that no jets ever came in.  Once he'd checked into getting jet fuel at the airport but it was too much money.  That had occurred when one of the pilots had told him he'd make more money if he could service jets.  The runway was long enough from when it was a military field but there was no way anyone with a nice jet was going to land there.  If they did they'd come look at the operation and leave.


The hangar where we worked on the airplanes was a holdover from the war too.  Huge structure with doors that took two people to open.  If Jake wasn't around I'd take the pickup and hook a rope on the edge of the door and pull it open.  Jake was always worried that I was going to pull the door off the tracks so he usually tried to be there when I opened up in the morning.


When I'd first gone to work there I couldn't believe the mess things were in.  There were tools and old parts scattered everywhere.  Nothing had ever been painted and dust clung to the inside of the hangar turning the walls from dull gray to dirty brown.  One of the first things I'd asked Jake was how he passed inspections from FAA.  He said that they came around very seldom and always called ahead.  He just made an effort to straighten up before they arrived.  I couldn't believe how all this could be 'straightened up' before they arrived.  I finally decided I was spoiled from working in the military where we had everything we needed and it was always clean and neat.


I had been there about six months when one evening Whitey asked me where I thought all the airplanes came from that we worked on.  I guess I was pretty naive because nothing registered.  He finally moved his lawn chair closer to mine. "Don't you know what these airplanes do?" he whispered.


"No, why?"  I asked.


"Most of these guys are runners," He whispered making a motion with his hand like he was smoking a cigarette.

All of a sudden the light came on.  These airplanes I'd been working on were being used to bring drugs across the border from Mexico.  Where I was raised in Iowa there wasn't much talk about drugs.  In the service a guy would get busted occasionally but those people I ran around with never mentioned it.  I began to wonder if I was in trouble.


Whitey continued, "Don't you know what happened to that old Gooney Bird you worked on two months ago?"


"No, what?"


"The law found it abandoned on the beach in Oregon.  The cops got a call as it was landing but by the time they got there no one was around.  They said there was a Doughboy swimming pool setup in the back and it had about two inches of gasoline sitting in the bottom.  Those bastards flew all the way from South America with an open swimming pool of gasoline in the back.  They did it so they wouldn't have to land in Mexico.  Can you imagine what it smelled like in there?"


I just shook my head in disbelief.


"One spark and it would have been all over, "Whitey continued, "I understand they made a nice haul too."


"Could I get in trouble for working on that airplane?"


"Nah, the feds came around and talked with Jake a few times, but I think he's probably keeping'em up to speed.  Plus the operators don't care cuz they're getting the work done."


"How long has Jake been doing this?"


"For a while.  Right now his problem is getting paid.  One of the guys has owed Jake for almost six months.  A lot of money too.  Over a hundred grand."


"You're telling me that some drug smuggler owes Jake over a hundred thousand?"


"Shsssss.  You never know who's listening.  No need to invite trouble," Whitey said as he looked around, "but Jake keeps hoping.  I gotta get on home," Slowly heading over toward his beat up old Chrysler.


I waved goodbye and went in to get another beer.  I figured I'd be needing more than one before the night was over.


As I settled back into the lawn chair and watched the sun fall behind the distant mountains I thought about Jake's business.  He never had seemed worried about the money.  Maybe he was one of the smugglers.  I doubted that because he's always working at the airport.  He drove a beat up old car that was almost as bad as Whitey's.  I had always gotten my paycheck on time so he must be making some money.


I had a few more beers and finally went in and flopped onto the bed.  Tomorrow was right around the corner, but I'd try to be more observant of the comings and goings.  For the next couple of weeks I kept my eyes and ears open.  Whitey and I had a few more conversations but his bad back had kept him away for almost a week.  Finally one afternoon I saw a big car pull up over at the office.  A young guy got out dressed in slacks, a sports coat over a black tee-shirt.  I kept working on the plane but decided that this guy was one of them.  I wondered whether Jake was in over his head?


The guy only stayed about half an hour.  Soon after he left Jake came out to the workshop in the hangar and said he had to make a run into Tucson.  He asked me if I needed anything and I told him I could use a case of beer for when I got off work.  He said he'd be back in a couple of hours.


It was about three hours later when Jake returned from Tucson.  He was grinning from ear to ear.  He yelled at me to go find Whitey and meet him in the office.  As I walked toward the hangar door I noticed that Jake was unloading a bunch of stuff from his car.  By the time I found Whitey and we made it to the office Jake had a mini-party set up on one of the empty desks.  There was cold beer, a bottle of good whiskey, and some snacks.


"Dig in," Jake said pulling a beer out of the ice bucket.  "We're going to have a little party and I'm going to tell you guys a little story."

"What's the occasion?" I asked.


"I'll get to that but first we need to take care of some unfinished business," Jake said as he handed me an envelope.


I opened the envelope and found it was filled with hundred dollar bills.  I thumbed through them as Jake said, "There's fifty of them there.  That's for the hard work you've been doing here.  I know you could have made more somewhere else but I appreciate you sticking with me this past year, kid."


Then Jake handed an envelope to Whitey saying with a wink, "Here's a thousand for you old man.  Don't spend it all in one spot.  Sit down boys and let me tell you what happened this afternoon."


We fixed ourselves a whiskey on the rocks and opened a beer and took a seat around the desk.


"As you know some fellows have owed me some money for some time.  I didn't know if I would ever get it.  It was just over a hundred grand and it had been over a year.  I'd been awfully carefully not to push too hard -- If you know what I mean?  Finally one of their guys dropped off a check earlier today.


"I took it to the bank in Tucson to see if it was good.  I almost shit when the teller said there was 'insufficient funds' to cover the check.  I asked her how short it was and she said she couldn't tell me.  So I went out in the pickup and watched through the window.  When she went on her break I went back in.  This time I told a different teller about the guy who wrote the check and that he’d said there might not be enough.  I asked her if the deposit of five hundred had arrived by mail yesterday.  She said it hadn't but it would take almost a thousand to make the check good anyway.


"I went down the street to my bank and took a thousand cash out of my account.  You know what I did with that money?  I took it back down to his account and deposited it.  You know anybody that wants to can put money in a checking account?  They just can't take it out without a check.  After I made that deposit I presented the check for cashing and I thought the teller was going to mess in her pants.  I got all of the money and put most of it back in my bank.  Drink up gents, we're having a party."


And we did have a party.  We sat around most of the night telling stories.  Course their stories were a lot more exciting than mine. 


I worked there almost two more years until Jake sold the place.  I guess he'd gone through most of that hundred thousand by that time.  I said he was getting too old for this kind of work.  I left a short time later.  As I drove away I waved goodbye to Whitey sitting in that lawn chair under the awning.