An excerpt from River of January for your Sunday evening.
At first he told himself that Howard Hughes’ good wages kept him in West Palm Beach. But Chum also knew his curiosity played a big part in remaining at the field. The famous tycoon was already a legend in aviation, as well as in motion pictures, and the young pilot had long admired self-made men. And though he looked forward to his new job, he was just as eager to watch the millionaire up close.
Over the next few weeks, Chum noticed that Hughes followed the same pattern each day. His driver motored up to the hangar in a Cadillac LaSalle, closely shadowed by another large Oldsmobile. The famed pilot stepped from the backseat, unfolding all six foot four inches of him. At same time, an entourage of followers poured out of the second car, casually circling the celebrity.
Chum also noticed that the aviator only spoke to his head mechanic, nodding frequently while he smoked a cigarette. Then Hughes and company inspected the rest of the facility—the tall tycoon facing the ground, continuing to acknowledge his lead man’s comments.
If he looked up, Hughes sometimes nodded to Chum or to the other men in the hangar. Then with this morning ritual finished, Mr. Hughes and his retinue returned to their waiting cars and drove off to other unknown destinations.
On one especially stifling afternoon, Hughes unexpectedly turned up at the steamy buggy hangar, departing from his usual routine. Caught off guard, the crew quickly picked up their tools and bustled around, appearing busy. Hughes seemed not to notice.
Instead the famed pilot looked at his head mechanic and loudly announced, “These gentlemen and I,” pointing to his cohorts, “are leaving for Los Angeles. Since that plane,” Hughes stuck his thumb toward the Waco still on the tarmac, “was used, we will travel by rail.” A few of the boys glanced Chum’s way.
“Yes, sir, don’t worry about a thing here, sir,” the foreman answered. Hughes nodded again, and he and his associates left the field in a caravan of black autos.
“Wonder which beautiful actress Hughes is meeting.” A young grease monkey sighed as he twirled a ratchet around his finger.
“Jean Harlow, you think?” said a kid still staring out the hangar doors.
“My money is on Paulette Goddard,” added another, plunking coins into a soda machine.
“Back to work, boys.” The head mechanic laughed. “We’re not going anywhere.”
Chum smiled. Just the phrase, “back to work,” began to amuse him. As far as he could see the commotion was all “make work” instead of real industry. He was becoming restless from boredom.
After Hughes’ dramatic exit, the crew mostly loitered around the hangar, sweating in the muggy heat—listening to the radio, smoking, sipping cokes, and playing cribbage. After a week of this meaningless inactivity, the young pilot, staring blankly into an immaculate engine, abruptly resolved, “As soon as I’m paid, I’m gone.”
Three monotonous days later, Hughes and his party surprisingly reappeared at the field. The aviator had apparently changed his plans at the rail switching station in Jacksonville and never turned west. Still, Hughes’ return made no noticeable impact, and the days continued to drag on: Cokes, cigarettes, cribbage, and heat.
While he was perched on a ladder examining another pristine Lycoming engine, Chum heard his name from across the facility.
“Over here,” Chum called back, “Up on the ladder.”
“Telephone call, buddy,” a mechanic hollered. “In the hangar office.”
“Thanks, JJ,” he yelled, climbing down.
The voice on the line hollered, “Chum? That you, sport?”
Chum paused, trying to place the echoing but familiar voice. “It’s me, boy, Hugh Perry.”
Recognition lit Chum’s eyes,
“Hey Mr. Perry, good to hear your voice. How are things up north?” Perry worked as the executive of sales for Waco Aircraft in Troy, Ohio, the company that manufactured his airplane.
“Well, now, I’m real good Chum, and business is pretty good. In fact, that’s what I’m calling about.”
Chum felt his pulse quicken. “What can I do for you sir?”
“You know, you did so damn good in that race and, well, would you be interested in working for us, Chum?”
Feeling his spirits begin to soar, Chum had to ask, “What would the job entail, Mr. Perry? Would you want me in Troy?”
“No, no, wouldn’t do that to you, Chum, Troy is no place for a dapper gent like you,” Perry chuckled. “We have this new model and there is some interest for it in South America. Smiling, Chum sensed the skies were opening and the archangels were tuning up a hallelujah chorus.
“That sounds real attractive, Mr. Perry. I think I would be interested in a job like that,” even his voice smiled.
“And here I thought you would be all star-struck, slumming it with Howard Hughes,” Perry laughed. “But when this position came up, your name was the first to come to mind. I thought I would give you first refusal.”
“I’m glad you did Mr. Perry, and your timing is pretty good, I was thinking about a change anyway. Guess I miss my Waco,” Chum laughed. But before hanging up, the young pilot suddenly wondered, “Mr. Perry, what equipment are the South Americans interested in?”
“Keeping up with our new aircraft are you, kid?” Perry sounded pleased.
“I guess I have, sir.”
“Well, the Brazilians are very eager about a new fighter plane we’ve developed.”
“A fighter?” Chum repeated, baffled.
“I know, I know—don’t understand what they would need it for either.”
Chum quieted in thought, wondering who could possibly threaten Brazil. “You still there, kid?”
“Yeah, Mr. Perry, I’m here. Just strange to imagine any South American trouble that would require machine gun strafing.”
Shaking off that concern, Chum again became enthused. “You shipping the demo model to Roosevelt Field?”
“At the moment the plane’s with the Navy. They want to test it, too,” Perry explained. “Our agreement was three months for those flyboys to check it out. We’ll ship it down to Rio de Janeiro after the military is done with it.”
Chum hung up the office telephone, and stood motionless, absorbing this implausible change of fortune. Chum slowly walked out of the office, stopping to appraise the entire, immense working space.
Mechanics continued to poke around the equipment, the lead man in the far corner looked over a clipboard, a cigarette, ash dangerously angled, wedged between his right hand fingers. Silently, the young pilot made his decision and headed out the open hangar door, leaving behind Ailor’s Waco Cabin, still parked to the side of the facility, and away from Howard Hughes and his West Palm interests. With a sense of elation, he cheerfully hiked the three miles to his hotel, collected his belongings, and caught a taxi to the train depot.
Restored, and back in control for the first time since the air race, Chum looked forward to returning to New York.