They began to assemble on Friday morning, coming in from across the world. Some had been there before, all were well paid, all believed the man in charge was completely insane.
Chefs flew in from Manhattan, Paris, Saigon, Seoul, and Rio. There were four barbecue gurus from Alabama. Two entire families and their taco trucks showed up as well to make tamales, enchiladas, sopapilla, and churos. There were three men from northern Minnesota with hundreds of fresh fish and enough oil fryers and batter to feed a couple of platoons. Two small craft breweries and one boutique distillery worked six months each year to produce the liquid refreshment.
The musicians were equally eclectic. There was a Dixie Land band, one big-band orchestra, three different rock groups ranging from bobby-sox pop to thrash-metal, and two of the best cover bands money could buy, all of them session musicians from Nashville, Los Angeles, Chicago, and other points of the compass.
A tobacconist from Key West had arrived late that afternoon with a large assortment of fine cigars and exotic cigarettes. All were kept in a specially built foodtruck/humidor that Carson had personally designed.
Riverbend Tents had been there since dawn, setting up the stages and food tents, and by noon forty mobile trailers fitted out as bunk houses and shower facilities would be on site to provide air-conditioned luxury to the employees. The three giant diesel generators at the edge of the lot were muffled beyond any others in the industry, and barely audible across the property. That’s where the four water tankers were parked under their own air-conditioned tents.
Carson McNally wandered among them all, visible with his cowboy hat and recognized by the horrendous injuries to his face and left arm. He was not only the most successful trader in agricultural products that Kansas had ever produced, but he owned the six hundred acres where the event was staged, just outside of a small town in west central Kansas.
The rules were simple: come on time, keep your mouth shut, turn out the best of whatever it is you did, and don’t ask any questions. This, of course, led to speculation about his motives the second year of the event. That year they only had one cowboy band, a keg of beer, and a side of beef that cooked all day over a wood fire. At the end of the day, everyone was handsomely paid, and they left all of the food and beer with Carson. Not a bit of it had been touched.
Each year the event grew larger, Carson grew older, and the rumors regarding his sanity spread a bit farther down the road. Three years previously his grandson, a worthless little piss ant who loved his inheritance more than he valued his grandfather’s love, had sought a court injunction over the “wasted funds and obvious signs of dementia.” Not only didn’t that prevent the event, but the subsequent disowning in the will moved his miserable backside outside the penumbra of light Carson provided to the region. No close call on the sanity hearing either, the judge dismissed that as well. He’d better have, he’d been Carson’s poker buddy since 1974.
At 0500 on Memorial Day, Carson gave the high sign to the Dixie ensemble, and they broke out in the finest rendition of The Battle Hymn of the Republic that any of the assembled had ever heard. For the next half-hour they played a variety of martial music as the cooks turned out enough breakfast to feed several dozen men. Carson ambled around the field, stopping occasionally to stare up into the morning sky. The motion of his head indicated that he was following some slow object as it descended to earth and alighted near him. None of the hired-hands saw what it was, and assumed the old man was hallucinating. But the checks were already deposited, and if that’s what he wanted, that’s what he got.
Standing in the middle of the field, Carson spoke to the man who stepped out of the balloon basket as he would to an old friend.
“Hiram, it’s a joy to see you again this year. Any others coming besides your crew?”
“No, Suh. No others to speak of. After all, President Lincoln only had a small air force as you would call it. My men were the onliest ones to die in service. God blessed my brethren and kept them safe.”
“In any event, Hiram, I’m glad to see you gentlemen. Please avail yourself of food and drink at the tents. Rest a while.”
Hiram grinned through the snaggled teeth common in his day, “I rest round the year, Mr. McNally. I believe today I’ll have some fun. Only day we get to enjoy such doings. You are a generous host and we are at your service.”
Carson watched the men move across the abandoned bomber training field and move to the tents. You could no longer see where the runways were, even from the satellites. But as he looked out over the distant tree line, he knew the boundaries.
So did the triplane that sputtered toward him and bounced down the field. Carson stepped aside as the pilot dragged the tail in a wild arc and cut the engine.
“Is this the McNally party?”
Carson walked up to the old war bird and marveled at the fabric skin and pintle-mounted machine gun on the tail. He hadn’t seen one of these before. Today was shaping up to be special.
“Yes it is. I’m Carson, your host. And you, Sir?”
“Captain Jon Dumont, American Army. I didn’t believe it when they told me about this soiree, but here it is. I’ll be whipped. Is it true that you’re the only one that can see me?”
Carson gestured toward the balloon next to the airplane. “The other pilots and crew can see you, and you them. The food and drink is real. My employees will not be able to see you, or respond to you, but it will all sustain you and taste good. Please help yourself to whatever you’d like.”
“Mr. McNally, Colonel Agnostos told me all about this, and he’ll be along shortly. Thank you for not forgetting us on Decoration Day.”
Carson gripped the man’s hand and gazed at the sky.
“Captain, it’s my honor to do this. I should be in the quarters with you at your place. But the medics kept me alive after my helicopter crashed, and the nurses in Da Nang brought me back after the doctors had written me off. I’m a blessed man.”
“What of your crew?”
“They’ll be along, I expect. They’ve been here every year but one. I can’t wait.”
Captain Dumont saluted and wheeled toward the tents. Beer, even after 99 years without one, was no doubt still a great thing to a man who had just landed again for the first time in almost a century of solo flight.
Carson picked up a lawn chair he’d set between the old runways and unfolded it. Sitting in the sun he watched the first wave of single-engine fighters land and parade to the taxi area. Each pilot and observer waved as they headed off toward the barbecue and beer. Some made a bee-line toward the 5 Star restaurant he’d set up to serve French Cuisine. The sun was now well into the sky, and the heat was starting.
Over the next four hours the planes came in larger numbers. Pursuit planes from The Flying Tigers, Mitchell Bombers from all over the fight against Facism, B-17’s, and all of the other birds that made up the stuff of legends.
Finally the B-29’s came in at altitude and spiraled down in a giant cone of silver and contrails. The chirp of tires as they roared down the runway was almost lost in the big band music amplified over the speakers along the taxi-way.
The Dog Tired Doorman taxied up to his chair and the crew dropped out of her belly. Her nose art was a joy to behold, and not a drop of oil leaked from her engines.
Joe Agnostos, Lieutant Colonel, USAAF, walked over and bear hugged Carson. The two men couldn’t help but grin.
“What’s keeping you down here, you old maniac? I figured sure you’d be up with us by now?”
Carson surveyed the first of the F-9 fighters as they dragged their tail hooks across the arresting wire he’d put in just for the Navy and Marines. “Well, Joe, since you first showed up that day in 1987, I’ve quit drinking. That’s added a few years on to my stack.”
Joe nodded sagely. “You were sure hammered that day, Carson. We were doing our annual fly-by of the training base and could tell you were miserable. Glad you quit the hooch and put away the thought of expediting your departure.”
Carson wiped a tear away. “Yeah. They all think I’m nuts, but since you guys showed up in the Doorman, I’ve been doing all right. Got a reason to carry on. Now I take care of other veterans. Every man and woman who works my businesses is a vet. Some of these kids have it rough. Hell, I got deep pockets. Money’s not good for nothing if you can’t take care of your brothers.”
Turning to view the party across the field, he spoke so softly that his voice carried only three feet. “Long way from that first year when you spotted me: a bottle of bourbon and a shotgun feeling bad for myself. God’s turned me around by sending you guys to watch over me.”
Joe patted Carson’s shoulder. “You’re a good man. We know it, He knows it, and I think the kids still down here with you know it. Speaking of which, isn’t it about time for your crew?”
The two men turned toward the Southwest. If one drew a line along their gaze, it would land squarely in the southern half of Vietnam. After a minute the sky darkened with B-52s, Thuds, and enough Huey’s to blank out the sun. For a long moment the earth shook with the roar of forgotten and scorned men who demanded to be recognized.
In a parade that resembled spinning maple seeds, the two were surrounded by aircraft that settled down in the dusty field, engines spooling to a quiet hush.
Joe saluted Carson and walked toward the beer tent.
Carson stood, weeping, as his crew piled out of the helicopter and raced to embrace him. The five men who’d been with him on that Medevac mission, backed away and saluted him. They all grinned as brightly as the sun.
“Lighten up, Lieutenant. It’s not like we’ve been gone all that long. Hell, we just saw you Veteran’s Day.”
Carson laughed and blew his nose. “Yeah, but you guys still stink like jet fuel and that makes my eyes water. Anyone want to grab some chow?”
“We sent Simmons to go grab something. We figured we’d wait here with you until the rest of the crews arrived.”
Carson sat back down in his chair. The arthritis was killing him. “Yeah. The rest should be along shortly. Then we’ll whoop it up. Those kids know how to party as well as we did.”
With his crew standing behind him, the group watched as the rest of the aircraft came in to the field. There were some recce birds among the mix, including a whole bunch of Navy spooks from the Cold War. The crews ambled over and thanked him, even offering tours of their top-secret EA-3B. Carson declined and wished them well. Darned nice kids those linguists.
The smallest group was arriving just as noon struck. There was a big C-5 galaxy among them, and it was quite a sight to see; his Huey would have fit inside.
The final aircraft were all helicopters and fighters. No big toys on the list the last few years. When Extortion 17 landed, the SEALS raced over to his chair. This was their first year at the party. All of them gave profuse thanks and then jogged to the bar. Some things never changed.
One last bird circled the field as though doubting the thousands of assembled aircraft that covered 153 years of military aviation were real. Pulling pitch at the last second, the pilot gently set her down right in front of Carson and his crew.
The crew of Marine Aviators looked stunned. First timers. Not quite used to the rules of their new game after going down in a training mission just a few weeks earlier.
Carson got out of his chair, walked up to the pilot and rendered a salute. “Welcome to the party. You’re home again. We all thank you for what you’ve done. Now go and have a beer. I suspect you’re thirsty.”
The Devil Dogs grunted approval, returned the salute, and headed toward the mob listening to thrash-metal at the tents.
“Okay, crew. Let’s get out of the sun. It’s time to put that flag back to full staff and I’m not letting anyone else have that honor.”
To the observers in the tent, one crazy old man had finally had enough sun. To one old man, he was in the best place on the planet – among friends who were his brothers and sisters for eternity.
* ** * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Have a blessed Memorial Day. Be safe. Remember all of those who gave it all to keep us free. It’s not about the beer (well, a little…) but about the honors.
A silent salute to the comrades who have gone on ahead to secure the battlefield. We’ll be there soon.
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