So Long, Sal


Not to paint with too maudlin a brush, but I mentally scanned the pilot’s lounge recently and noticed that almost everyone was gone. That happens when you turn your back on time, thinking you’ll get back to it and expecting things will be right where you left them. The missing pilots weren’t propped up with eyes staring blankly, lips poised mid-“There I was …” like victims in some Nicolas Cage end-of-times movie, playing at 4 a.m. on the WTF Channel in Dubuque, Iowa. Instead, they simply weren’t there. Gone. Dead, as in ain’t comin’ back. What a shame. Who gets their hangars?

I’ve been exploring little airports and, therefore, pilot lounges, since I was 12, maybe 10. Can’t recall. There’s a lot I can’t recall. Under oath I’d likely find even less to recall, so no chance I’ll make the next Supreme Court cut. That, and black robes make my legs look skinny. But I do recall the characters around the pilot’s lounge at Watsonville, California, Municipal Airport where I worked as a ramp rat in the late 1970s. It was actually called Pilo ‘s Lounge, because the “t” fell off, and no one replaced it. Mostly the regulars were the World War II crowd, dubbed “The Greatest Generation” by Tom Brokaw, and they were without doubt great. But who outside that room remembers them today? Or will tomorrow? They’re gone, and those who do recall are, ourselves, whistling toward the same exit. Hard to smile after that, until you consider who these loungers were.

Most airports maintain a similar cast. They’re the keepers of the holy-smokin’ flame of aviation mythology and rationalization that keeps GA hope aloft. Without them, airports would just be transportation hubs—dull as a Greyhound bus terminal. My earliest memory of loitering on the fringe of a pilot’s lounge was in 1967 at Teterboro, New Jersey, airport, an hour bike ride from my home. It was summer, about the most miserable time to be in Northern New Jersey, except, perhaps, January.

I was the invisible airport kid who knew nothing, said nothing and listened with sunburnt ears to these heroes—mostly men—who strolled in from the tiedown ramp, poured stale coffee into stained mugs and debriefed the assembled on their recent flight “Down the Shore (pronounced ‘Shaw’)” to Bader Field in Atlantic City. To me, these men were giants and no doubt millionaires who could afford a 1947 Navion or a 1956 Cessna 170. They’d earned their seat in the lounge.

Ten years later, when working at Watsonville Muni, I was a low-time private pilot who stood at the outer ring of the lounge on most mornings when the regulars would pass through headed to work and, again, on the way home. If we sold beer, they never would’ve left. There was Chuck, a carpenter, who owned a Mooney and had flown B-24s in the Pacific. There was Bob, a Stinson pilot who had been an infantryman in the same theater. Thad served in the Navy and later flew sideways in TWA Connies and Boeing 707s, and on his days off, faced forward in his Cessna 140; gave me my first tailwheel lesson.

Gene flew P-47s and owned a Swift; Vern, the airport manager, commanded Martin PBM flying boats at Iwo Jima among other tours. Ed, a pharmacist, was a Navy instructor in SNJs during the war. So enamored with the airplane, he bought one when they were surplused out for the price of get-it-outta-here. He still flew it. Memory’s not funny and often unfair. Oddly, I can’t recall the name of the guy who had the bunk below me through eight weeks of Army basic training, but I know I could pick up a conversation with any of these Pilo ‘s Lounge ghosts 40 years on.

Only I can’t. They don’t need me. “Lookit, kid, we taught you everything we figured was relevant, so it’s up to you to get your ass in the sky.” And, I did. Recently, I sat across the pilot’s lounge table at Knoxville, Iowa’s airport and explained to a 15-year-old girl just how impossibly wonderful it would be for her to learn to fly. Her father, seated beside her, saw dollars twisting in the flames of her newfound passion, while she saw clouds and stars and the fact that after her first lesson, there was no stopping her from one day taking my seat. I hope she aims higher.

Rarely does a driver walk into a coffee shop, thrust a thumb over a shoulder at a car outside and say, “That was one helluva parking space, let me tell ya …” Yet, as pilots, the landing into the crosswind, through wind shear from the hangars and dancing cheek-to-cheek with dust devils is the stuff of legends, if only in our own minds. We share, because we triumphed. We listen, because we’re in a ridiculously small community that thrives on each other’s accomplishments and failures. Aviation magazines wouldn’t exist without pilot’s lounge mythology.

But the stories go to the grave if we don’t pass them along—embellished, of course. I mean, who gives a rat if you landed your Sundowner in a 10-knot crosswind? Actually, I do. We all should. Every landing is a story, an adventure snubbing its runny nose at death. Once off the ground, the 30-hour student pilot is just as intrepid as the 3000-hour flight instructor, maybe more so. Which is why I mentally looked back at Pilo’ s Lounge, empty of all my old mentors, heroes and friends. Raw math demanded that the bulk of the World War II crowd would leave before we Boomers, Xers and Whatevers stepped inside the circle, but it T-boned me when I received notice that Salvador “Sal” Martin, 64, had passed on Sept. 7, 2018. Actually, hadn’t passed, just died. Peacefully, the obit read. Not sure what that means.

Who’s Sal? Exactly. Like me he was an airport employee, who existed on the cusp of Pilo’ s Lounge. A private pilot, and we were the same age, but that’s where the similarities ended. Sal had been born in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico and, at a young age, moved north with his family to pick lettuce, cauliflower, broccoli … anything that needed picking in Steinbeck country at the mouth of the Salinas River. He was, maybe, five-foot-six and always upbeat. “Paul, quit complaining. Life is good, man.” His words, rarely my thoughts.

I was such a whiner. He spoke English and Spanish. His English was better than mine, because he had to master it to stay in the U.S. I only recalled a few phrases from high school Spanish, chief among them, “Dnde estn las albndigas con queso?” And he’d laugh indulgently as we’d climb onto the fuel truck, knowing I was an idiot. But that remained our nonsensical greeting. Sal was a friend. To everyone. He became a U.S. citizen while working at the airport and lived an ordinary life—an ordinary giant’s life.

A few years after I left Watsonville airport for the FAA—a move I often regretted—Sal fell off an airport truck and suffered serious brain damage. I saw him about a year later, looking good and so happy to see me … until I realized he didn’t know me. I was gone. He was still there, peacefully in love with aviation, even though he no longer flew or worked in it. Just loved the airport and its people—whoever they were. He’d moved deeper into the serenity of the lounge’s circle.

Sal likely never flew anything bigger than his Cessna 150. He didn’t save the world from fascism or fight in Vietnam. Neither did I. He did tell me, long ago, that he was called up for military duty in Mexico, and—being Sal—reported as ordered. “They didn’t give us guns,” he said when I’d asked about his army days. “Mostly we painted rocks,” and he laughed. But he did share one quietly heroic story and produced a yellowed newspaper clipping to back it up.

In the mid-1970s, Sal worked at the Mexican equivalent of a Flight Service Station (FSS), taking weather observations, filing flight plans, briefing pilots and observing the questionable activities of a local airport military official, suspected of nefarious links. Yeah, shocking—shocking—I know.

At that time, no one was allowed to depart this airport without permission. I don’t claim to know what the restrictions were back then, but Sal’s job was to process the flight plans and record departures and arrivals—all of them. This official told Sal to ignore his flights. Sal protested and was laughed at initially but later threatened. His colleagues told him to look the other way, but Sal saw no other way to look. He had a sworn duty to follow the rules.

One day, the official’s airplane—fading memory recalls it to have been a Cessna 182—was fueled for departure, but Sal had no paperwork—no clearance for the flight. Knowing the official would depart with impunity, Sal walked into the maintenance shop and asked for advice on removing a propeller. It’s not difficult, and Sal borrowed the tools, removed the prop and hid it.

The shit can’t hit the fan when you remove the blades.

The official—fuming but flummoxed—stormed off, only to later be removed from office for corruption. Probably skirted any real punishment. Other local officials—who’d bravely turned away—now presented Sal with a “major award” and advised that he head north … permanently. He did. To our gain.

Sal was no big-time hero with his story headed for a book deal, including film and TV options. He was a guy in Pilo ‘s Lounge who was also a pilot and had way more cred and courage than I could ever muster. He needs to be remembered along with Chuck, Bob, Thad, Gene, Vern, Ed and all the others of the great generations of pilots. But, most importantly, I say to my old friend, Sal, one last time: Dnde estn las albndigas con queso?”

Yeah, it’s stupid, but I know he’s shaking his head, smiling and saying, “It’s all good, man.” And it truly is good when you keep the memories alive without dwelling too long in the gauzy sanctuary of pilot’s lounge.