Spearfish Lake Tales
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"I make it a magnetic course of 270, right on the nose," Jackie agreed. "I don’t know that I’m too crazy about it, though."
"Me either," Mark said as they studied the map spread out on Rocinante’s horizontal stabilizer. "I don’t know that the alternative is any better, though."
They had spent a sleepless night at the Pauma Valley airport. Jackie had more or less decided to continue the trip, although she wasn’t comfortable about it, and she lay awake turning the options over in her mind most of the night.
Mark had other concerns: North of them lay the Los Angeles metropolitan area, and getting through it wasn’t going to be easy. If they’d had a good radio or two on board the Cessna, and a radar transponder, it would not have been much concern. But, with the old twelve-channel Narco, penetrating the maze of Terminal Control Areas, Airport Traffic Areas, Prohibited Areas, Restricted Areas, Warning Areas, Military Operating Areas, and Air Defense Interception Zones was all but impossible.
There was one possible route, over Palmdale, where they could possibly sneak through without radio, but Mark imagined that the air traffic there would be heavy, both out of Edwards Air Force Base and from other people trying to sneak around the busy area without the hassles of having to deal with all the air traffic and the air traffic controllers. Any way you looked at it, it involved an awful lot of aluminum in a limited airspace.
Another alternative they had was to go clear back to Nevada, where there was a possible route near the state line that avoided all the closed areas, or areas where access was restricted by their limited radio.
There was a third route, and it was the shortest, but it took some deep breathing to even consider it: if they were to fly over the Oceanside airport, northwest of San Diego, and head out to Santa Catalina Island, then carefully head northwest from Catalina to the Ventura and Oxnard area, they could avoid all the restricted areas, if they kept fairly low.
The only problem was that it was almost all over the water – with only a single engine, virtually no radio or navigation equipment, and not even having life preservers.
Of course, Mark thought, the same thing could have been said of Charles Lindbergh, almost a half a century before, and he was going 3500 miles over water, not the mere forty-five to Catalina they would be facing.
If they got away with it, no one would question them; if they didn’t – well, it wouldn’t matter, even though Mark decided he would file a flight plan, one of the rare times he had done so on this trip, in spite of all the mountains and deserts they had flown over.
They gave Rocinante the most careful preflight it had received on the entire trip so far, and topped the Cessna’s tanks as full as they had been. They refigured their navigation several times, each time coming up with the same answers. It would be a dead-reckoning run all the way to and from Catalina – which, though it might not seem a lot for forty-five miles, it was of more concern because of the fact that the visibility was only about four miles in the southern California smog. Just as bad, they would strike long and skinny Catalina Island at an end, making it a lot narrower target than if they were coming straight out from Los Angeles. They would only be over the water for twenty-five or thirty minutes or so, but for a fair portion of that they would be out of sight of land in the low visibility.
It seemed like a pretty risky thing to do, but going all the way back to Nevada again seemed ridiculous, too.
Mark tried to make light of it: "You remember the old song – ‘Twenty-six miles, across the sea, Santa Catalina is the place for me . . . ’ We can’t get that close without at least checking it out."
"I guess," Jackie agreed, aware of the risk they would be taking.
How must Lindbergh have felt to see the coast of Newfoundland fall behind him on that day in 1927? Mark thought he must have had a taste of that feeling as he saw the Oceanside airport pass below them. He kept the needle centered on the "27" on the magnetic and the gyro compasses, checked his watch, and resolved that if Catalina didn’t turn up in thirty-five minutes, he was turning northeast toward land, Terminal Control Areas or no Terminal Control Areas.
In the seat next to him, Jackie watched the shoreline slide underneath them, much too close for comfort. Given a choice, she would have been up at ten thousand feet; even if the engine quit, they could glide to land, but they were going to be heading right across the climb corridor from El Toro Marine Air Station, and at ten thousand feet they stood too good a chance of tangling with some Marine jet at not far below the speed of sound and with a pilot who had his eyes only on the gauges.
The unease that she felt at the over-water flight was only heightened by the unease that she felt at their heading. As much as she could rationalize the decision to head on, there was a strong desire to be heading back toward Spearfish Lake, not towards northern California, and perhaps the decision to press onward had not been the right one.
Their long discussion of the night before had only brought back all the old fears she’d had because of her mother. How would her life have been different if only her mother had been normal! As it was, it had messed up her own life royally. Jackie had long since conceded that she had fallen in love with Mark, but was that fair to him? Look at the agony her own father had gone through over the years and years that her mother had been down in Camden! Was it right to ask him to risk having to deal with that?
Lost in the problem, she stared out the window at the empty water sliding beneath them, then checked her watch; she was as aware of the time they would have to fly over water as Mark was. Only five minutes since they had left the shoreline at Oceanside! It seemed like an hour, the way the hands were dragging on her watch. She checked the clock on the panel, to make sure that her watch hadn’t stopped, but it read the same. Was Rocinante’s engine sounding rough? It had always sounded rough when they were out over some trackless desert, but she knew it was only her own imagination niggling at her. Her eyes went out the window again, staring at the ocean’s waves passing below. There was nothing much to be seen out there – no ships, no boats, only an occasional bird, down near the surface. She looked ahead; there was only a gray haze that merged seamlessly with the ocean.
After a long time, she checked her watch again. Only ten minutes! She shook her head; she had never felt the time drag so. Again, she turned her attention to watching the ocean crawl by below, but her mind was even further away.
The minutes crawled by. Up ahead of them, she could make out a boat in the water below – the first they had seen since leaving the mainland. It was almost directly ahead of them, and they were approaching it rapidly, giving her some idea of just how fast they were really moving. It was something to look at, even though something didn’t look right . . . "God, Mark! It’s upside down!"
"What?" Mark said, her cry breaking into his own thoughts.
"That boat down there! It’s upside down, and there are a couple of people hanging onto the bottom!"
"I don’t see it," Mark said, rocking Rocinante up onto one wing to try to get a better look out the far side of the airplane.
"I’ll show you," Jackie said, reaching for the throttle. She pulled on the carb heat and slowed the Cessna to let it descend. In but a few moments, they were only about three hundred feet up, circling the overturned boat. Below them, they could see two people clinging to the boat’s keel. One of them was waving at them, and for a moment, they could see the other trying to wave at them, too.
"Mark, what do we do now?" Jackie said.
"We’ve at least got enough radio to call for help," Mark said, reaching up to turn on the old Narco that suddenly seemed to occupy a more prominent part of the panel. In the next seconds, Mark did something he’d never done before: turned the channel to 121.5, the emergency channel, and keyed the microphone. "Any station on one twenty-one five, this is Cessna Zero One Zero Eight Romeo, over," he called.
The response was instantaneous. "Cessna Zero Eight Romeo, this is El Toro, go ahead."
"El Toro, we are about twenty miles east magnetic from Avalon," Mark called. "We are circling an overturned small boat, and we can see two people hanging on to it. Can you contact the Coast Guard?"
"Roger, can do, Zero Eight Romeo," El Toro replied. "We are contacting the Avalon Coast Guard Station now. We’d like a better position. Squawk seven seven zero zero and ident."
"Sorry, El Toro, Cessna Zero Eight Romeo is negative on the transponder," Mark replied, wishing for once that he’d had the money to install the radar beacon in the little plane.
"Roger that," the voice on the other end of the circuit said. "Santa Catalina VORTAC is one-eleven point four, repeat one one one dot four. Can you give us a bearing?"
"Uh, sorry," Mark replied, "We’re also negative on the VOR."
The radio was silent for a moment as they continued to circle the boat. Mark could almost imagine the cussing going on in the El Toro tower at the moment. Finally, El Toro came onto the air again. "Cessna Zero Eight Romeo, can you pick up a little altitude? We think we have you on radar, but it’s very fuzzy."
"Roger, El Toro," Mark replied, opening the throttle. "We’ll pick up a little and see if that’ll help."
"OK, Zero Eight Romeo," the Marine Air Station replied. "Can you give us a long count?"
Thank God someone down there has a direction finder, Mark thought. He keyed the mike, counted slowly to ten, then slowly back down to one.
"Radar contact!" El Toro said, with just a little note of victory creeping into the professionalism of his voice. "El Toro has radar contact on Cessna Zero Eight Romeo twenty-eight miles from the Santa Catalina VORTAC, bearing zero nine zero! Be advised the Coast Guard has left Avalon with a thirty-one footer, and we’ll pass the location to them."
"Thank you, sir," Mark replied. "If it’ll be any use, we’ll be glad to orbit this location to help them out."
"How long can you remain on station?"
"El Toro, if you can adjust our flight plan, Zero Eight Romeo can stay here at least two hours," Mark said. "Maybe a little more if we need to."
"Roger, Zero Eight Romeo," El Toro replied. "We’ll contact the Coast Guard. Stand by."
Mark turned to Jackie. "I don’t know about you," he said. "But if I was one of those people down there and saw us fly off, I think it would just about kill me."
"Me, too," Jackie replied. "If we throttle way back, I think we can stay at least three hours."
"Hopefully, the Coast Guard can be here by then," Mark said. "I just wish there was some way we could tell those people that help is on the way."
A new voice came over the radio. "Cessna Zero Eight Romeo, this is Coast Guard 244."
"Coast Guard 244, this is Zero Eight Romeo, go ahead," Mark replied.
"Zero Eight Romeo, we understand your intention is to orbit the survivors to aid in our locating them."
"Roger, Coast Guard 244," Mark said. "We can stay on station two and a half to three hours. What’s your ETA?"
"Pretty close to an hour," the Coast Guard rescue boat replied. "We’ll be there as fast as we can."
"We’ll be here," Mark told them.
"Cessna Zero Eight Romeo, El Toro," the radio squawked. "Understand you are in contact with the Coast Guard. We can’t read them directly. We will notify Hawthorne FSS of your change in flight plan. If you need someone to relieve you on station, give us a call and we’ll launch someone out of here."
"El Toro," Mark said. "We’ll be happy to stay as long as we can."
"Affirmative, Zero Eight Romeo. Keep us advised. El Toro out."
The next forty-five minutes dragged by slowly. Mark and Jackie changed off on the duty of circling the capsized boat, a thousand feet or so above the water. It might have been dull for them, just flying in a lazy circle, but the knowledge of what was riding on their circling there made it anything but dull. After a while, Jackie dug around in the tightly packed luggage behind them with a great deal of difficulty, and managed to pull out her little binoculars. She could occasionally get a glimpse of the people hanging onto the boat. They had quit waving now – they knew they had been found – and Jackie could see with difficulty that one of the people was doing their best to hang on to the other one. "The Coast Guard better not be far off," Jackie said, explaining what she had seen. "I don’t think they can hold out much longer."
"Well, maybe we can hurry them up," Mark said, reaching for the microphone again. "Coast Guard 244, this is Cessna Zero Eight Romeo," he called.
The Coast Guard boat answered right back, and Mark replied, "Be advised that we think one of the survivors is pretty weak. It’s hard to tell, but it looks like they’re having trouble staying conscious."
"We’re running with four bells and a jingle," Coast Guard 244 replied. "I think we’re getting close, but we’re having trouble finding you. Say the color and type of your aircraft."
"Gray and white, single engine, high wing," Mark said.
"Negative contact," Coast Guard 244 replied. "Maybe when we get a little closer."
Jackie put the binoculars to her eyes, in the direction she thought west was. "I see them, I think!" she said. "I see a white boat, with some orange on it, headed toward us."
"Coast Guard 244," Mark called. "Are you white with an orange bow stripe like other Coast Guard boats?"
"That’s affirmative," came the reply.
"We’ve got you in sight, we think," Mark said. "Looks like you’re heading right for us."
"Ah, there you are," Coast Guard 244 replied. "You’re just hard to see, that’s all. We’ll be there shortly."
In a few minutes, they didn’t need binoculars to see Coast Guard 244; they could see the white boat, the blaze orange stripe on its bow, bone in it’s teeth and kicking up a big quarter wave as it raced toward the capsized boat. "Zero Eight Romeo, we have survivors in sight," the Coast Guard reported.
Mark and Jackie looked at the scene below them. "It looks like they have you in sight, too," Mark replied. "They’re waving at you. They’re both waving at you!"
It only seemed like a few minutes before the Coast Guard boat pulled alongside the capsized boat. Mark remembered El Toro saying that Coast Guard 244 was a thirty-one footer; the capsized boat was a lot smaller, perhaps the size of a fishing boat or a runabout. As they watched, they saw a Coast Guardsman go into the water to help assist the survivors aboard. A few minutes later, the radio crackled once again. "Zero Eight Romeo, we have two survivors aboard. You were right, one of them is in pretty bad shape, and I think they’re both going to need to be in the hospital for a while. We’ve got a great big thank you for your assist, but not as big a thank you as they have."
"Roger, 244," Mark replied. "Glad to have been of assistance. El Toro, did you copy Coast Guard 244?"
"Cessna Zero Eight Romeo, that’s a negative," the familiar voice of El Toro replied.
"All right," Mark said. "Coast Guard 244 has two survivors on board. Would you advise Hawthorne FSS that Zero Eight Romeo will be proceeding to Catalina and closing our flight plan there?"
"Roger, we’ll be glad to," El Toro replied. "We show the Santa Catalina VORTAC twenty-eight miles from you, course 270 magnetic. Well done, Zero Eight Romeo."
As Rocinante’s nose turned west, Mark straightened out, and waggled the little Cessna’s wings goodbye to the Coast Guard boat below them.
Where once the distance over the water seemed the width of an ocean, and minutes dragged on like hours, it seemed as if they had barely straightened out on course when Catalina Island began to take shape through the haze. They flew down the coastline, past Avalon, and finally saw the cliff-top airport. Mark switched the Narco over to 122.8 for the Unicom frequency. There was a fair amount of traffic reported, and as they got closer Mark could see that the airport was fairly crowded.
It took them a few minutes to find the gas pumps. Mark and Jackie left Rocinante sitting in front of them, and were glad to get out of the Cessna’s seat to stretch. They went into the office, found a direct line to Hawthorne Flight Service Station, and closed their flight plan – and got a "Good job" from the man on the phone at Hawthorne; apparently they had been monitoring 121.5 all along.
"Hey," the girl behind the counter in the office said. "Are you two with that gray and white Cessna out there? Zero One Zero Eight Romeo?"
"Yeah," Mark said. "We’d like it topped off with eighty octane."
"We had a phone call for you," the girl said. "Chief Daugherty at the Coast Guard Station wants to talk to you. I’ll call him for you, if you like."
"Fine with me," Mark said.
The girl dialed the Coast Guard Station and got Chief Daugherty on the line. "Those people from Cessna Zero Eight Romeo are here," she said. "I’ll put them both on." The girl handed Mark a phone, and pointed Jackie to a phone on the table, which Jackie picked up.
The chief sounded a bit gruff. "Are you the guy who was flying Cessna Zero Eight Romeo?" he asked.
"Me and my fiancée," Mark said, beginning to wonder if he was in trouble.
"Well, we just wanted to say that we really appreciate your help," he said. "The thirty-one footer isn’t back yet, but they tell us that the woman wouldn’t have lasted much longer if you hadn’t showed up and stayed with them. The guy was pretty far gone, too. Their boat flipped over on them yesterday afternoon, and it’s probable neither of them would have made it through the day if you hadn’t happened along. Can I have your names, please?"
"Uh, Chief, are we in trouble or something?"
"Not at all," the man said, "In fact, I think the district will want to write a commendation for you."
"My fiancée, Jackie Archer, is the one who spotted them," he said. "Once we saw them upside down, we couldn’t leave." He gave Chief Daugherty their full names, and their Spearfish Lake addresses, and explained a little bit about their trip and why they were in that particular spot at that time.
After they hung up the phone, they went back outside to watch Rocinante get topped off, then rolled the Cessna away from the gas pumps. They went back inside to pay for their gas, bought Cokes, and sat down to unwind a little before continuing the second half of their trip. Mark thought that as long as they were there, it might be fun to explore the island a little, but the schedule of tie-down charges on a bulletin board inside the office gave him second thoughts – an overnight tie down at Catalina Airport was exactly the same figure as a month’s hangarage at Spearfish Lake, and he got the impression that everything else was just as expensive. "You about ready to go?" he asked Jackie, who seemed lost in thought.
"Yeah, I guess so." she said.
"OK, I’ll file our flight plan."
They were aloft on the second half of their interrupted flight to Camarillo Airport, outside of Oxnard, before they fell to talking. "We saved their lives," Jackie said.
"Yeah," Mark said. "I guess we did."
"I’ve been thinking about it an awful lot," Jackie said. "If we’d started back for Spearfish Lake, they’d be dying or dead by now."
"The woman might be, anyway," Mark agreed.
"We could have gone back to Nevada, too," she said. "After all, where are we heading? North? We could have done it just as well there, too."
"Yeah, I guess," Mark said. "Except that we’d be going over ground we’d already been over twice."
"I keep thinking about it," Jackie said. "I keep thinking what it must have been like, hanging onto the bottom of that boat, hoping and praying that some miracle will happen, hanging on for your life, and then all of a sudden, you look up, and there we are. It must have seemed like a miracle to them."
"Yeah, I guess so," Mark agreed.
"You want to know what really seems like a miracle?" Jackie said. "If I hadn’t been feeling so rotten over my mother and all, I wouldn’t have been staring out the window, and we’d have flown right over them and never seen them. And, my God, think how that would feel to see us fly right overhead and never slow down."
"We could have been half a mile to one side or the other and have never seen them, either," Mark said. "It was just dumb luck that we were where we were and in time."
"But Mark," she said, a real question in her voice. "That’s what I keep thinking about. What if it wasn’t dumb luck?"
"But . . . " he fell silent. The Continental engine in Rocinante’s nose drummed a humming into his ears for several minutes as they flew northward. "I’m sure Brother Erasmus would call it a miracle," he said finally. "But he sees God’s hand in everything, every leaf that falls. I see a chain of circumstances, sheer dumb luck involved at every step. Heck, we might have had the chance to save someone on the Nevada route. You just don’t know."
"What’s the difference between sheer dumb luck and a miracle?" Jackie asked.
"Only how you look at it, I guess," Mark said finally. "We haven’t been in a church since Twillingate. Tomorrow’s Sunday, I think. Maybe we’re about ready to go again."
* * *
Arroyo Grande, Calif.
June 27, 1971
Dear Dad and Sarah:
Well, we’re back on the move again, except that we decided that since this is a Sunday, we’d make it a day of rest. After all, we’ve been going every day since Durango, and all of a sudden it seemed like a good time to stop, get cleaned up, go to church, and have a decent restaurant meal, and maybe get a newspaper and find out what’s happening in the rest of the world. We stopped a little early yesterday afternoon so we could find a discount store, and so I could find a skirt and Mark could find a decent shirt, so we could look a little bit more respectable for church. It was very strange to wear a skirt again; I haven’t had one on since March.
Now that I’ve had a chance to think about it and talk it over with Mark, I feel more comfortable with my feelings about Mother’s death. I don’t want to say that everything makes sense, but at least I don’t feel as troubled as I did yesterday. Mark suggested that we’d better sleep on any decision we made, and I guess I’m glad we did.
We went over to Catalina Island yesterday, but decided not to stay, as everything is ritzy and very expensive, so we looked around a little and flew on back to the mainland.
We had kind of an interesting experience yesterday, except that I don’t want to get into telling you about it right now. Mark and I aren’t sure what it means, yet, and we’re still trying to figure it out. Once we know what we think about it, I’ll tell you the whole story.
We’re heading on north from here, I guess. Mark says that he’d like to visit Yosemite Valley, but he’s worried that it’s wall to wall people in the summer, so maybe we won’t go there. Or, maybe we’ll just fly over it and call it good enough. We tried to call this morning, but we didn’t get an answer. We’ll try again this evening, and then again in a couple of days.
I love you,