Commercial Air


by Roger Crewse April 1961
Interceptor February 1976

COOLSTONE had ferried a 101 to the East Coast from St. Louis. It had been a terrible ordeal. The weather was lousy all the way, minor maintenance necessary at every stop. Delays, delays, delays. He had been gone from his home base, which was Oxnard, for over ten days already. He had been out of money at least three times, and it had been necessary to get pumped up at the various officers clubs he visited across the United States by floating a little paper.

He was now at the Kansas City Municipal Airport on the road home, waiting for his flight time. He had exactly $1.38 in his pocket.

He checked his ticket over once again. He was routed from Kansas City to Denver, from Denver to Los Angeles. He would hitchhike from Los Angeles to Oxnard if necessary.

Normally ferry flights weren’t too bad a deal. You got to meet some very interesting people – very, very interesting. One in St. Louis was so interesting, Coolstone wasn’t sure he could ever go back there. Oh, well, there were lots of other cities with other interesting people – a whole U.S. full of them.

An announcement came over the P.A. system. “Imperial Jet Flight 709, Diamond-crusted Mink Carpet Service, with Napoleon brandy, filet mignon, and hot and cold running stewardesses, will be delayed an hour due to weather in Chicago. All passengers for this flight may use the facilities of the Imperial Excellency Lounge upon presentation of their tickets to the attendant at the door.”

This was Coolstone’s flight, and it didn’t surprise him a bit that it was delayed. It was the story of his life the last ten days.

Well, he thought, I might as well soak up a little of that Imperial Excellency business, and besides it gives you an opportunity to meet some new interesting people. I’ll have to watch it, though, for I could hardly get across the country without landing at either Kansas City or St. Louis, one.

As he got up, he glanced into a large mirror on the wall opposite him. He saw that his uniform was very crusty – in fact, quite a mess. He decided to forego the Imperial Excellency Lounge, and to be as inconspicuous as possible in the waiting room. At least, that stale beer odor was fading. He had been rather liberally doused with Pabst in a perfectly innocent accident three days earlier at a highly technical meeting attended by the cream of Chicago’s South Side.

What happened was that a stripper kicked over his glass of beer while doing a very intricate maneuver on the bar.

About two hours later the P.A. system blared again. “Imperial Jet Flight 709, Diamond-crusted Mink Carpet Service, with Napoleon brandy, filet mignon, and hot and cold running stewardesses, will be delayed indefinitely due to the engineers’ strike. Passengers should make arrangements for overnight accommodations. Limousine service is available to downtown Kansas City at the front door of the terminal. Passengers, please leave your phone numbers at the passenger service desk. Don’t call us; we’ll call you.”

It was about 2200 hours, snowing nicely outside, 10 degrees or so above zero.

Coolstone wearily picked up his shaving kit and started for the terminal door. Engineers’ strike! What else could happen to him, he thought. Then he remembered – $1.38. Where was he going to stay with $1.38? It would probably cost at least a dollar to go to town. He’d have to have more money, no questions about it.

He went into the washroom and emptied his pockets and, sure enough, all he had was a buck thirty-eight. He straightened his tie, hitched up his pants, and tried a confident, carefree smile out on the mirror. It didn’t quite come off.

He left the washroom and headed for the airline ticket counter.

“How do you do, how do you do?” said the affable Coolstone to a clerk who was plainly busy with some paperwork.

The clerk glanced up annoyedly and grunted, “I’ll be with you in a minute.”

Coolstone softly whistled a little tune. He was very casual, very suave – he hoped.

After a minute or so, the clerk looked up and said, “Now what can I do for you?”

Coolstone said, “Er, ah, I’d like to float — er, cash a check, please.”

“For your ticket?” asked the agent.

“No,” said Coolstone. “Not exactly. I have a ticket, as you see here.” The Cold Rock held the ticket for the clerk’s examination. “But these delays are running me a little short of cash.”

“Sorry,” said the clerk, “we only take checks for the exact amount of tickets. No others are allowed.”

“But, look,” said Coolstone. “I’m hurting.”

“Sorry,” said the clerk. But he clearly wasn’t, and then he dismissed Coolstone by becoming very, very interested once more in his paperwork.

The Rock walked over and sat down. He tried to plan another course of action. I suppose, he thought, there is a chance a hotel would cash a check for me. Everything is against it, however – no baggage, only a shaving kit, and I look like the devil. It’ll cost me a dollar to go downtown. That’ll leave me thirty-eight cents, and then I can’t even get back out here if I can’t get a check cashed. Serious trouble.

He dug out a pack of cigarettes, lit one, and noted that there were only three remaining. Got to cut down anyhow, he thought.

Well, to town it is, I guess. I’ll try a check-cashing trick on a hotel.

He didn’t even have a checkbook, and he’d used the three spare checks he always carried in his billfold, during the days before. This wasn’t going to be easy, but, hell, you’re always reading about people who cash bum checks. It must be easy, and Coolstone had money in the bank.

It was almost midnight by the time he got into town. Coolstone now had thirty-eight cents, no cigarettes, and a big appetite. He had to make a move and make it quick.

He walked up and down the streets, trying to decide which hotel he’d honor with his check. It was cold, bitterly cold. The snow had increased, and of course Coolstone did not have a topcoat. His ears, nose, and face were becoming numb. He was thoroughly chilled.

He saw a large sign indicating a hotel. He walked up to the front of the building and saw that it was a fancy one. He made up his mind. This would be the one he’d try. He stood for a moment in front of the hotel and rehearsed a little pitch that he would give the manager in his efforts to cash the check.

With shaving kit in hand, in he walked. His steps were brisk, his demeanor all business. As he approached the desk, he tried out his old smile, but his cheeks hadn’t thawed enough to allow it.

The clerk look up.

“I wonder if I could speak to the manager, please,” said Coolstone.

“Why, certainly, sir,” said the clerk. He left the office for a moment and returned with the manager.

“Can I help you?” asked the manager, all smiles.

“Well, yes, you can. Would you cash a check for me?” the Cold Rock blurted out, blowing his entire sales pitch.

The manager looked him over carefully up and down. Under his close scrutiny, Coolstone’s color, which had been a rather dark blue, changed to a light purple. He shuffled his feet a bit.

“You mean,” the manager said slowly, “that you walk in cold off the street at midnight, and want me to cash a check? I suppose you want to do it without getting a room either.”

“No, no,” said Coolstone, quickly. “I need a room. I’m stranded because of the airline strike and just don’t have any money.” He trailed off. It didn’t sound like much of a story, even to him. “I don’t suppose you have any baggage,” said the manager.

Coolstone shook his head mutely.

“Well,” said the manager with a sigh. “I’m probably a sucker, but you take a room. It’s $10 a night, and I’ll cash a $15.00 check. It’s against my better judgment.”

“That’s fine,” said Coolstone “Fine. I thank you ever so much.”

The manager gave him the register to sign, and after Coolstone made his X, the manager stood waiting for the check.

“Er -, ah-,,” said the Rock. “Do you have a counter check?” For a moment he was afraid he had blown the whole deal.

Slowly the manager brought out a counter check, staring fixedly at Coolstone, then asked, “What bank is it on?”

“California bank,” said Coolstone weakly. “Bank of America.” He would have whistled the Star Spangled Banner at that point, if he thought it would have done any good.

“O.K.,” said the manager. “Fill out the check.”

The chore completed, Coolstone raced over to the cigarette machine, got a pack, opened it, lit one quickly, then went up to his room, dodging bellboys all the way.

He stood in a hot shower until he got rid of the chill. Then he cleaned up, went downstairs. and was back in business.

Well, now, he thought, a couple of long, tall ones and I’ll be as good as new. Thirty minutes later he had $3.13. Then he went into the dining room, ravenous, and had the $1.75 chopped sirloin special. For a man whose mouth was watering for the diamond-crusted carpeted fillet mignon – chopped sirloin did nicely.

When he finished, he went upstairs and hit the sack.

The next morning he called the terminal. “How’s the strike coming along?”

“It looks good,” he was told. “We should start operations about noon. Your flight isn’t scheduled yet. Suggest you come on out and check in. Then you’ll be sure to get on the first one going.”

Coolstone counted his money once again. Now he had $1.38. He’d been this route before.

Coolstone noted that he had to check out at noon, and had at least 24 hours or so to go before he could possibly be back to Oxnard. He wasn’t feeling too good either, sniffles and an upset stomach. That hour-long stroll in the cold the night before hadn’t done him any good. He didn’t dare try to cash another check, and 2,000 miles to go didn’t add up. Of course, they would serve food on the plane. That was one worry he didn’t have to consider. The good old airlines, with their diamond-crusted service – they take care of you. He glanced at his watch and saw it was ten o’clock. I’ve got to get moving, he thought. But wait a minute. How about that old hack watch? He’d pawn it. Now, he’d had the watch for years, but it worked very well and should be worth at least a buck or so. The Air Force wasn’t going to like it, but with the exigencies of the service as they were, who had a better right? He kind of hated to part with it, but you have to make sacrifices sometimes.

With a spring in his step which had been lacking for days, he started for a pawnshop. It was still cold out, but it didn’t bother him at all. Four blocks from the hotel he found a pawnshop. He entered and was met by the clerk.

“Can I help you?” asked the clerk.

“Yes,” said Coolstone. “I would like to hock my watch, and redeem it by mail when I get home. I’m in a bind for dough on account of that engineers’ strike.”

“Let’s see the watch,” said the clerk.

Coolstone took it off his wrist, and launched into a highly flattering description of the watch’s many merits.

“That’s fine,” said the clerk, “except for one thing. It isn’t running.”

“Sure it is,” said Coolstone. “‘it’s just that its very, very quiet.”

“It isn’t running,” said the clerk.

Coolstone took the watch from him, listened to it, shook it, wound it, pounded it, but it had stopped.

The clerk shook his head very slowly. “Nice try,” he said. “Nice try.”

Wordlessly, the Rock left the shop.

At the airport, now with thirty-eight cents, he checked in at the ticket counter.

“Have you got me scheduled?” he asked.

“Yes, sir,” said the agent. “We’re very pleased to say that by using some of our supervisory personnel as engineers, an aircraft will be available for your flight, which will take off at 3 a.m. It’s a DC-7, with a 45-minute stop at Denver, then direct to Los Angeles.”

“Three a.m.,” said the Rock. “Is that the best you can do?”

The agent’s face showed considerable disappointment. He had thought he was doing such a big favor for Coolstone. “But, sir,” he said, You’re one of the lucky ones. Others aren’t scheduled to leave until late tomorrow night. You can swap if you like with one of those.”

“Oh, no,” interrupted Coolstone. “No, perish the thought. I’ll take this one.”

Thirteen hours to go, thirty-eight cents, three cigarettes, and he felt lousy.

Two hours later he was reduced to cadging newspapers left behind by his more affluent passenger cohorts.

At 2000 hours Coolstone was hungry and out of cigarettes. Thirty-eight cents left! Should he eat or should he smoke? This was a major decision, a problem to which careful thought must be given. Once on the plane, he could eat, but cigarettes were another thing.

He made a snap decision. He would buy cigarettes. He now had thirteen cents remaining, was starved, and had picked up a whale of a headache.

At midnight he began to anticipate in detail the meal which he believed would be served in flight. They really went all out on some of these flights – champagne first, then some hors d’oeuvres, steak, baked potatoes with lots of butter, and probably some exotic desert. Boy, was he ready!

About 2:30 Coolstone got into position at the gate. At 3 o’clock on the dot they called the flight. The Rock was first on board, and went well to the front of the aircraft. to find a seat, for he had learned by experience that most of the time they served meals from the front to the back.

After becoming airborne, one of the two stewardesses came by his seat. Coolstone stopped her.

“Say,” he said, beaming. “If it’s all right, I’d like to have my meal now. I’m really not hungry, you understand, but if you can serve me now, then I can get a little sleep. You know how it is.”

“Meal?” said the stewardess. “We don’t serve meals on this flight. I can bring you doughnuts and coffee, cookies and milk, or crackers and juice.”

“No meal?” said the Rock, weakly.

She shook her head. “no meals.”

Bring me the doughnuts and coffee, please,” he said resignedly.

The first hour out he had three orders of doughnuts and coffee, three of cookies and milk, and three of crackers and juice. He just couldn’t hold any more liquid.

The flight to Denver was uneventful. Just before landing, the stewardess announced a 45-minute stop for breakfast. Coolstone pretended to be asleep when they landed and remained in his seat as the rest of the passengers unloaded.

He was awakened gently by the stewardess. “Time to unload for breakfast,” she said cheerfully.

“Thanks,” said the Rock disgustedly, and struggled to his feet. His head was hurting, his mouth was dry from the cigarette diet, and he was generally a mess.

They were airborne an hour later on the last leg, and Coolstone was finally able to nap a bit. At first he was very restless; then he slept soundly. As he slept, he dreamed. He dreamed that the big bird was on fire and they were going to crash-land. There was panic in the cockpit. He, with years of flying experience, knew that the safest place, if there was one, during a crash was the tail section. And now he saw the fire more clearly in his dream. They were obviously going to crash.

Wild-eyed, he jumped over his startled seat companion and raced down the aisle for the tail, the only safe place. About halfway down the aisle he became fully awake and saw the two stewardesses in the aft section of the aircraft raising out of their seats as one, with incredulous expressions. He brought himself up short. Quickly he searched for something to say – “Where is the restroom?” he finally choked out.

Wordlessly, they pointed to the other end of the plane. Then, as he stared at them, “Up front,” one of them said.

He turned around and now, to keep up the pretext, he had to run the full length of the airplane to the restrooms in the front. Once inside, Coolstone figured he would never come out. Finally he had to. Most of the passengers were asleep as he walked back to his seat, and they hadn’t even noticed. His seat companion had, and remarked drily, as Coolstone sat down again, “Pretty close one, wasn’t it?

They finally got to Los Angeles Coolstone knew for sure now he had the flu. He was running a temperature, was sick to his stomach – the works. He had only thirteen cents remaining, and with ten of it he made a collect call to a friend at Oxnard.

“This is Coolstone,” he said.

“Coolstone?” said the friend. “Where in the world have you been? You should have been back a week ago. The Old Man’s been wild.”

“Never mind,” said Coolstone. “Go over to the dispensary and get an ambulance. Then come down to Los Angeles International for me.”

“Why? What’s wrong with you? said the friend.

“Look,” said the Cold Rock. ” Lot’s of things are wrong with me, but the most pressing right now is that I have the Kansas City flu.”

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