In which my pilot Tony calls my Jimmy Breslin story and raises me a Cary Grant

Tony shows up for work.

Tony shows up for work.

One of the many problems with operating a biplane ride business is that almost no one is qualified to fly the old crates, making it hard to find pilots. The type we flew at Black & White Biplane was a WACO YMF-5. Ninety percent of them have crashed because of pilots losing control. The crashes are almost always on landing. The one we flew—99 Yankee—had three accidents before I bought it and rebuilt it. First it was flipped onto its back on a screecher of a landing. Then it was taxiied at high speed into a pickup truck. After that it went swimming in the Atlantic when someone lost control of it while looking at dolphins and hit the water upside down. The plane had a nice, quiet career at Black & White Biplane, where it flew hundreds of passengers over Los Angeles by day and had me wrench on it by night. It didn't suffer another crash until I sold it to its next owner, who totaled it. It now exists only on the old web site for Black & White, the old web site for which I leave online for sentimental reasons.

So it was hard to find pilots who can not only fly them, but fly them to a high commercial standard. Safety of course came first, sort of (after all, it was a 60-year-old engine bolted onto a wood-and-fabric 1935 design), but a pilot had to be much better than just not liable to turn the thing into a pile of matchsticks. A professional had to operate smoothly while assessing how much of a thrill the passengers could tolerate and then maneuver as little, or as much, as they might enjoy. No loss of control, not so much as a bump, was tolerable: the requirement, the ethic, called for a greased-on landing every time. The ethic was key: passengers were trusting us with their lives, often on important occasions, two of them sitting together in the front cockpit on dates, anniversaries, birthdays or even marriage proposals.

When I needed another pilot, it was a lucky thing that my pal Tony, could fly the old bus just fine and had a commercial license. Tony wrote the article linked below, which my post about meeting the iconic reporter Jimmy Breslin when I was a kid reminded me of. But, before you read that, let me share something that happened at least half a dozen times in the hangar at Black & White.

Tony would return from a flight and taxi back up to the hangar. The eight-foot wide wooden propeller would flutter to a stop, shaking the plane from side to side a couple of times, and the passengers were always, without exception, exhilarated. They had just had a thrilling and unique experience. They would be happy. Tony would help them unstrap their buckles and help them out of the cockpit and down from the wing, and they would come into the hangar and gush about what a great ride they had. Some passengers would pass you a tip—usually 20 bucks, sometimes $50, though the first one I ever flew gave me an extra C-note and said it was the best money he ever spent. 

The first time anyone tipped Tony, he politely turned it down. I had to put an end to that. A tip wasn't about the pilot, it was about the passenger. Turning it down was a personal rebuff. From then on, Tony accepted the tips. He created a kitty in a coffee can. I believe I was the only beneficiary of those.

So, one day, a guy and his date got out of the plane. Like all passengers, they were flushed from the excitement of their 45 minutes squeezed together in the front cockpit (the pilot sat alone in a separate rear cockpit) right behind an engine radiating heat on a thrill ride around skyscrapers, then buzzing the Hollywood Sign close enough to see the carpentry of the scaffolding, through a mountain ravine and then a power-off descent straight down to the deck for a run ten feet over the Pacific at Malibu before a steep climbing turn to Venice Beach and back for the landing at Santa Monica. It was a hell of a ride for them, fun for us to fly, and the fact that it made our customers so happy was rewarding.

After I ran the guy's credit card at my desk at the back of the hangar, he went over to slip Tony a folded bill in the traditional handshake maneuver. Then he went to put an arm around his girlfriend, who was admiring a huge movie poster on the wall. It was for the World War One epic Flyboys. In the poster, tjhe star of the movie, James Franco, was wearing a leather flying helmet and goggles.

The woman said, "Oh, Flyboys! I LOVED that movie! And now we've flown in an airplane just like those." That made the memory of this day even better, and they snuggled a little.

"No kidding," I said. "Dja hear that, Tony? Loved Flyboys." And then to them: "The guy you just flew with? He directed it."

Naturally, that sounded a little odd. The looks on people's faces when that happened was always like, "Hunh?" I'd point at the credits on the poster and say, "Here. Tony Bill. That's your pilot."

And, in a sign of how much they had enjoyed their ride, no one ever looked like they wanted their tip back. 

Only in Hollywood.

Click here to read Tony's story. It's a good one.

This was a commercial for the company. I know it doesn't quite look like all the of $100 spent making it was put to good use.

 

 

 

 

 

PHOTOS: Chicken Creek, Utah, last spring

This alarming-looking but harmless snake was particularly well-mannered, as every creature, human or otherwise, I ever met in Utah was. I nonetheless still recommend not inviting one into your sleeping bag unless you have exhausted every alternative to get rid of mouses.

This alarming-looking but harmless snake was particularly well-mannered, as every creature, human or otherwise, I ever met in Utah was. I nonetheless still recommend not inviting one into your sleeping bag unless you have exhausted every alternative to get rid of mouses.

One of the most secluded and prettiest camps we ever found was in the Manti La Sal National Forest. If any of you ever need recommendations for really off-the-beaten path places to camp, let me know. In the American West, if you're willing to brave some roads like the one below, there are tons of places like this to camp. The harder the road, the better the camp. We never saw another person at Chicken Creek for four days.

 

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Tracks like this usually have signs at the beginning warning drivers not to attempt them with trailers. I never saw one I didn't ignore, though I would have if an idiot of my caliber happened to be traveling in the opposite direction.

Tracks like this usually have signs at the beginning warning drivers not to attempt them with trailers. I never saw one I didn't ignore, though I would have if an idiot of my caliber happened to be traveling in the opposite direction.

Roo demonstrating her savant's capacity to pre-locate and mentally catalogue every mouse within 1000 meters, making for more efficient disposal later.

Roo demonstrating her savant's capacity to pre-locate and mentally catalogue every mouse within 1000 meters, making for more efficient disposal later.

If you can ID this for me, please do. 

If you can ID this for me, please do. 

This is the way any retriever worth her salt navigates treacherous waterways. As you can clearly see, Roo was flailing wildly in the torrent as she came under a brutal pirhaña attack. 

This is the way any retriever worth her salt navigates treacherous waterways. As you can clearly see, Roo was flailing wildly in the torrent as she came under a brutal pirhaña attack. 

Just outside the frame is a small-sized dinosaur, no more than 7-800 pounds. She was camera shy, so you'll have to take my word for it. It took almost no time at all to train her to peck bread crumbs off the ground like a pigeon. And, yes, dinosaurs turn out to have lovely, multicolored feathers.

Just outside the frame is a small-sized dinosaur, no more than 7-800 pounds. She was camera shy, so you'll have to take my word for it. It took almost no time at all to train her to peck bread crumbs off the ground like a pigeon. And, yes, dinosaurs turn out to have lovely, multicolored feathers.

The curse of remote areas is that there isn't much to do, so people tend to develop odd hobbies. Bulldozer and grader whittling is a popular pastime taught to small children because of the whimsical results you can expect from them.

The curse of remote areas is that there isn't much to do, so people tend to develop odd hobbies. Bulldozer and grader whittling is a popular pastime taught to small children because of the whimsical results you can expect from them.

As soon as you get out of Utah, manners fall apart and revert to their usual American standards. This example is somewhere north of Chicken Creek and serves as a reminder to screen bears carefully before inviting them to camp with you. 

As soon as you get out of Utah, manners fall apart and revert to their usual American standards. This example is somewhere north of Chicken Creek and serves as a reminder to screen bears carefully before inviting them to camp with you. 

If you made it this far and you're not a Patreon supporter, here's a free ticket to the story of the itsy-bitsy horse whose life was dramatically saved by Roo K. Beker. And in case you've been losing sleep over not subscribing to the Patreon (for as little as a buck a month), have no fear. A limited number of élite subscriptions are still available. Better hurry, though—at last count there were only about 8000 left.

The night I got the nod from Jimmy Breslin

Jimmy Breslin, a legendary New work reporter, died this week. I met him once. 

It was the night of August 10th, 1977. It was summer vacation and I was working for a weekly Manhattan fish wrapper called Our Town. Back then, there weren’t many teenagers who wanted to spend their summer vacations running around the city writing anything, let alone stories about another ConEd rate hike or rent strikes or an apartment building with broken plumbing a landlord wouldn’t fix or a taxi that knocked a hydrant over on 83rd and Lex.

There were all sorts of newspaper traditions in those days, one of which was copy boys in the newsrooms. Their main action consisted of waiting next to a reporter’s or rewrite desk at deadline so that as soon as the copy was stripped out of a typewriter the copyboys could run it over to the editor’s desk. The ones in positions of trust might operate under special arrangements authorizing them to pick booze and cigarettes up at a local liquor store so that they could run that back to the newsroom, too. They were as much mascots as anything else. They’d get to hang around—as long as they didn’t get too close or say anything—and if they were lucky maybe be awarded a nickname or be the butt of a few jokes. Mainly, what they got was a chance to watch some pros make it while others failed.

I'd always wanted to be a reporter. I even applied once to be a copy boy at The New York Times, but they wouldn’t have me. Same for the Daily News, the New York Post and The Village Voice. You had to know somebody and I ended up instead working in a fertilizer factory.

But that was the summer before. This one, my mother was mad at me about something—I don’t remember what—but she wasn’t talking to me. She could lower the boom on a silent treatment like something out of an East European fable where some kid gets his foot stuck in a tree trunk for a hundred years or grows a repulsive wart of some kind that everyone but him can see, weeks of silence at a time, months of her crossing to the other side of the street if you happened to be coming home at the same time she was going to the Five and Dime. Nothing can wear you down or make you want to stay out of the house as much as a silent treatment, so I was doubly interested in getting a job.

They were running Our Town out of a few rooms on the ground floor of a red brick building a couple of blocks away from my mother’s apartment on 72nd Street. I showed up and asked for a job. I could take pictures, I said. So can I, the editor said. I can develop them, too, I told him, in my bathroom at home. Maybe he was just good at not showing that he was relieved. After all, who in his right mind wanted to work there? There was no prestige to it, no cachet whatsoever. They had enough trouble giving copies away, let alone getting anyone to work on them.

The editor leaned back in his swivel chair and said a tryout might not be out of the question—as long as I didn’t expect much and didn’t plan on getting underfoot too much. He sent me out to try my hand on something. One of the boring stories I would soon be specializing in or a picture of a doorman or a subway car or pizza parlor. Before long, I was useful and he seemed to get a kick out of my working there. Kids are malleable. In those days you certainly didn’t need to be too polite to them. Editors traditionally used blue pencils to carve your stuff up. Everything I handed in took him about half a minute to draw lines through, whole paragraphs crossed out, arrows showing where to move the remaining few, words circled, question marks underlined three times all over the place. I would stand at his desk waiting. It was like being in the thrall of a captor who liked to nick you with his stiletto. When he was done, he would air slide the sheets back at me over the top of his desk. “Clean it up and make it interesting,” he told me, and I never forgot it and still can’t live it down. He didn’t offer any short courses in just how one might accomplish those twin goals, but by the time I returned to school I had the idea that it had something to do with doing it until it started to happen. “Oh, and hurry it the hell up,” he’d say, with a look like I gave him gas the way bad cole slaw does. He was a sport and I looked up to him.

I learned how to do layout. Sheets of paper on long plywood tables tilted up at an angle were covered with the articles and photos, the ads, the classifieds. When something needed to be changed, you cut it out or pasted something over it. If a story had to have a black border around it, you used a special kind of tape with little black lines on it. You felt like you were actually building the thing, creating it. Deadlines enjoyed more respect than a Catholic cardinal on the take. Production time at a printing press was booked. There was no screwing around. Oh, you’re late? Sorry. Pay your bill or a couple of guys with broken noses might decide to take a morning off from the Teamsters and pay you a little visit. On the nights when the rag was put to bed, everybody had a sense of satisfaction, of camaraderie. Even including the kid, me. They wouldn’t pour me one of their shots of whiskey or let me smoke any cigarettes, but it was still good. I was a newspaperman, author of dozens of front-pagers people might glance at wile they took the elevator up to their floor, and as far as I was concerned, it was the best thing to be in the world.

And so it was that on the night of August 10th I was in bed in my room when my mother broke the silent treatment to swing the door to my room open and switch on the lights.

“Brrrian!” she said. She had a heavy German accent and the Rs came out of her throat like she was sweeping glass off the sidewalk after a bombing raid on Dresden. “Brrrian—dey caught Son of Sam!”

Holy crap! Son of Sam. The maniac who had been terrorizing New York, murdering young women by sneaking up on them and shooting them at point-blank range with a .44. Occasionally he would dispatch a cryptic message that demonstrated that he was a madman. Famously, he even sent a letter to Jimmy Breslin. After they caught him, he somehow evaded the electric chair, and, in fact, years later, officials became fond of saying what a pleasant guy he became once they got him stuffed full of meds in the pen. He even started preaching the Gospel.

I shot out of bed and pulled my jeans on, made sure I had my notebook and pens and strapped my Nikon SLR around my neck. I flagged a taxi down on York Avenue and rode it all the way from 72nd Street to One Police Plaza where the press conference was going to be. It was far. That was as exotic a ride as taking a taxi to Philadelphia.

Outside, police headquarters was mobbed. The wires—United Press, Associated Press—the TV reporters with handkerchiefs in their hands to mop up the sweat dripping down their faces as they tried to get it right in front of suitcase-sized video cameras and hot lights, the radio guys trying to sound smooth into mics with their station logos in boxes around the shafts—WCBS, 1010 WINS, WABC. And of course the print reporters, the ones with no more tools than pen and pad. This news was as big as news got.

I of course did not have a press pass. The cops, who issued them, only allowed one to Our Town in a sign of disrespect. But on the night they finally reeled in the Son of Sam, the news was good, and so the cops didn’t have any reason to lock anyone out. In I went with all the others. You could tell who the big shots were because older cops with rank—they were for the most part Irish then and still called Micks, at least by the Polacks or Krauts—were doing favors by filling them in before the announcements were made. 

The strange thing is, I don’t even remember if I wrote it up or not. After all, what could Our Town possibly add to the story? Especially when the likes of Jimmy Breslin owned it. I was there because not being there would have been inconceivable.

A senior cop announced what had happened. A combination of a parking ticket and a lucky tip from someone Son of Sam let go instead of shooting led them to his apartment in Yonkers. “You got me,” David Berkowitz, as he was identified, told the cops. He came along peacefully.

After the formalities, most of the reporters stuck around. I wasn’t in their club, but I wasn’t exactly out of it, so I milled around with the rest of them.

That was when I spotted Breslin. Jimmy Goddamn Breslin in the flesh. Years before I had read The Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight. Oh, he could write. You should have seen the piece he wrote when Son of Sam sent him a letter. He is with relatives on one of the victims in their apartment, sitting around a table reading the grim communiqué from Son of Sam. Someone remarks that Son of Sam could write. Breslin agrees. He started the story that way. Breslin was the reporter’s reporter, the kind of guy my editor expected me to read. Breslin’s stories were like surgeries. He cut right through all the crap and told you something that even if another hundred reporters were trying to tell you the same thing, they never could. People in his stories weren’t Mrs. Alice Smith of 180 Tenth Avenue, they were a woman nicknamed Allie with the right kind of stain on her apron from making the kind of casserole someone trying to stretch the kind of money Mr. Smith brought home after getting yelled at all day to push 50 garment racks faster down Sixth Avenue would make. The kind of hurry she would be in because she had to round up the kinds of kids she had. And at the end of it, you’d know exactly what he wanted you to know: that maybe the guy who brokered the garment rack jobs was a crook. No one else could do it like Breslin. It would be a few years before he would pick up his Pulitzer, but he was already a legend.

He was standing there scribbling in a five-by-eight spiral notebook that he braced against his beer belly. He could have used a haircut. He wore a tie, the same kind a footpad or any guy on the subway would wear, loosened and off to one side. It looked like he hadn't untied it when he took it off, just pulled the knot down enough to get it over his head and back on when necessary. Clearly not a man who wasted time admiring himself in the mirror. As he wrote, the tip of his tongue was sticking out just a little. His notebook looked like he had been using it as a pillow on bus rides in its spare time.

I stood there and gawked at him for a minute before I snapped a picture. That made him stop writing and look up at me. In a second he had me figured out. Spindly kid, notebook, camera, who knew exactly who he—Breslin—was. And more than that, maybe: some kid, new to the racket, a kid who appreciated Breslin, which meant appreciating the writing of Breslin.

He didn’t mind at all. In fact, Jimmy Effin Breslin—may those saints the Micks always swore to strike me down if it ain't the truth—himself looked at me and gave me not just a smile, but best of all, a perfectly doled-out nod of professional recognition. Not the kind you’d give a copyboy. The kind you might give a colleague. Then he got back to writing.

All right, so maybe I didn’t really meet Breslin, if by meeting someone you mean exchanging a few words instead of standing six feet away from him without so much as a How you doin'?

But what there was was something much better. Better than a press card, better than running down to the corner Greeks for ten paper cups of coffee for the newsroom at the Times, better than being there the night they caught Son of Sam. I got the nod from Breslin.

The night was shot anyway so when I got home around three or four in the morning I developed the Tri-X film in my bathroom and printed it up on glossy eight-by-ten Kodak paper. I tacked it to my wall and looked at it all the time. I’m pretty sure I still have it, in a trunk somewhere. Or maybe not. It doesn’t matter too much, because I remember Jimmy Breslin where it counts most—where I met him. In a cub reporter's heart.

That's right. I maintain I met him. Dere some kinda problem with dat?

And you can take it from me: Jimmy Breslin was not just a great reporter—Jimmy Breslin was a great and generous man.

May he rest in peace.

 

Roo's jailhouse tat

You often see people with tattoos that make you think, Wow, are you ever going to regret that one day. One that stood out was at a pricey bar in New Hampshire where I was having a burger. A woman sitting next to me said to her boyfriend, “Ugh—such a pretty girl. Doomed for life.” She was talking about the 22-year-old bartender, who was reaching up to get a bottle of single malt from a high shelf when her shirt untucked to reveal an ornate tattoo of the variety called a tramp stamp. It was done in the curliqued style of an easel card for a vaudeville barbershop quartet of screaming eagles. The customer, who had a couple of drinks under her belt, said to the victime du tatouage, “Hon, you don’t mind my asking you, do you, but I’ve just got to know what were you thinking when you got that tattoo?” and the bartender said, “I know. I was 18. It was the stupidest thing I ever did in my life. I hate it.”

Of course, it doesn’t always have to be that bad. A few years ago I resided at a motel in Marshall, Michigan, where the owner had decided when she was either 60 or 70 to indulge her lifelong yearning for a tattoo. “I’m done trying to look good to anybody but me,” she told me, and she decided to pull the trigger in Orlando on her annual Disneyland vacation. The first one was, I think, Sleeping Beauty. She loved it and ever since then got another couple of them every year . She showed me almost—just barely almost—all of them, and I have to say, they were quite lovely. Snow White, Cinderella, Bambi—about two dozen Disney characters. Everywhere. She rolled sleeves up and waistbands down to show me. They made her happy, they were as cute as she was and I was honored to have been shown them.

But that’s the bright end of the ink spectrum. There darker side has always been busier. I don’t mean the tattoos people get to try to make themselves look tough—spiderwebs on their arms or cracked skulls on their chests or headstones with their own names on them under a Western pastiche of a pair of crapped-out snake eyes and snarling rabid wolves and dripping hypodermic needles and some wafting up from the barrel of a gun in the clenched grip of some anticipated future killer.

Of all of them, though, the most troubling one is the tiniest and least showy of them all: those teardrop tattoos that came out of the mix of gang life and jail. Every teardrop drop signifies a murder and the tragedy of a life of crime and violence. Not just for the dead, but for the killer. For the way murder changes you. And I wouldn't get any ideas about casually festooning yourself with a teardrop just for how badass it looks without earning it: let your local Crips see it and they’ll peel it off you like the skin off a slab of mackerel down at their favorite sushi bar.

One of the worst things about tattoos is how permanently they make their declaration. Not many people can afford the services of my acquaintance the talented Dr. Tattoff, who provides relief to his patients in the form of high-priced laser tattoo removal in Beverly Hills. Most people can not afford to get Billy Bob Thornton’s name erased to make room for complicated sets of navigational instructions. And if you happen to have something horrific depicted in your tattoo—not Billy Bob, but murder, (though Billy Bob was certainly guilty of murder when it came to the movie he made out of one of the best American novels ever, All the Pretty Horses), for instance—you better be ready for that tattoo to become your entire identity. If you have a teardrop tattooed under your eye, the cops might not even cuff the clerk down at the 7-11 for getting a little itchy with that .38 snubnose under the register when you reach into the your pocket to see if you've got exact change for a couple of 5 Hour Energy Drinks and a blue Slushy.

Seeing Roo show up looking that way after a burst of mayhem today in northwestern Arkansas got me thinking. That expression on her—have you ever seen Roo that distant? That pensive? Something went down in those brambles today, something about whoever had to pay for that badge. Maybe something in the way they looked or something they squeaked about how their family needed them, how many little rugrats they had. Roo’s not given to remorse, but that’s the look of a dog realizing that she’s never, ever going to unsee something bad. Real bad.

That’s how you earn your teardrop. And that one of Roo’s is blood. The worst of them all.

On second thought—nah. Roo couldn't possibly be happier about it. I think she was just burping on her duck jerky when I took the picture.