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Twenty Seconds over the Crazy Woman VOR

'Spirit of Steamboat' by Craig Johnson.

The novella Spirit of Steamboat is a thank-you note to the Greatest Generation from a Wyoming rancher. It's also a hair-raising aerial adventure story wrapped within a charming mystery. Enclosed within are yarns of Wyoming history and a medical procedural. It's also A Christmas Carol for our times.

I can tell you a story about that, as author Craig Johnson would say.

CoverNew York Times best selling author Johnson is a no-kidding, real-life Wyoming cattle rancher. His self-built spread is out near Ucross, population 25. For the geographically challenged, Ucross is about halfway between Arvada, population 43, and Buffalo, home to a whopping 4,585 residents. Buffalo is the role model for the barely fictional Durant, Wyoming, where the only somewhat more fictional Absaroka County Sheriff Walt Longmire confronts the modern criminal element and digital technology with the same direct circumspect competence. Johnson in person is an effusive raconteur, the polar social opposite of the deeply introverted Longmire.

Walt Longmire has become instantly mythic intermountain west semi-anti-hero whose screen presence, in the form of Australian actor Robert Taylor, personifies the virtues of self-reliance and moral certainty not seen since Gary Cooper walked down a dirt main street alone to face the bad guys at high noon. Or, for that matter, since Sam Spade sent his girl friend over for the murder of Miles Archer. Along with an amalgamation of Wyoming law enforcement types, Longmire is a blend of the two literary icons, a cowboy-detective with a razor sharp mind prone to sudden, direct action.

In both genres, Longmire is old school, which explains the book and ensuing television series' devoted popularity among the senior demographic. The 'anti' in Johnson's hero is refreshingly devised. Walt Longmire is flawed by his inability to process, much less express his feelings, strongest among them his inconsolable loss of his wife. Like Sam Spade with a badge, he operates as he sees fit to get the job done. The cockpit panel of Walt Longmire's life contains a few broken gauges, however the one unassailably reliable instrument is his moral compass.

Like Dicken's Christmas Carol, the story commences in the office of the Durant County Sheriff on the evening of Christmas Eve. Appearing out of the gently falling snow, a mysterious young woman arrives clutching a package as if her very life depended upon it, the contents of which she will only reveal when she finds the proper recipient.

In search of the Absaroka County Sheriff, she is suspicious of the fact of Longmire in the position. Investigation reveals she is actually seeking Walt's immediate predecessor, Lucian Connally. Connally is now an irascible, eccentric, one-legged old coot holding forth in the old-folks home on the edge of town. Armed with the temperament of a caged badger, Connally has just expressed his displeasure with Fox news by shooting out the community room big screen.

That fiasco dealt with, introductions made, Longmire and Connally settle in to listen to the questions the young woman asks in an oddly raspy voice, looking to be certain she has found the right guy. Provisionally convinced, she asks the pair if they remember a particular long-ago Christmas Eve. They do, and settle in to give it remembrance over bourbon-laden water glasses.

Lucian ConnallyTherein begins the not so improbable saga of the last ride of Lucian Connally.

Two decades ago this very night, a weather induced car crash kills all aboard but one young child, who is severely burnt in the ensuing fire and will die without immediate expert medical attention. The wreck is the inciting incident which will propel those in the room - and the reader - on a flight adventure worthy of Spielberg.

As pragmatic and unpretentious a writer as he is a rancher, Johnson wastes no words on Tom Clancy detail, crow-baring the plot into workability. The same severe winter storm has closed the two-lane to Denver Children's Hospital. Never mind that, the victim would not live out the time it would take to drive there were it possible. No one at the Bighorn Airways hangar will risk a flight in this weather, including the Medivac helicopter crew who responded out of Billings into deteriorating conditions and got the patient as far as the airport, obviously modeled after Sheridan, Wyoming's municipal field down to the memories of the Yentzer brothers. Nor will the accompanying medical staff agree to go any further at this point. And, according to the plot requirements, no plane has the wherewithal to make the trip in these conditions. Turbulence and winds are picking up, temperature and ceiling are lowering and the snow is getting thicker by the minute.

The consensus of opinion among the gathered aviation professionals is that a sortie to Denver's Stapelton, itself on the verge of going down in the face of the advancing front, is tantamount to suicide.

Having exhausted all apparent options, Walt (everyone who knows him, including this reviewer, calls him Walt. Only Ruby, his venerable secretary, calls him Walter. His enemies call him Longmire.) takes a long look at a derelict former fire-bomber tucked into a corner of the hangar, leaking oil and hydraulic fluid while waiting patiently for a restoration effort that seems never to quite get started. Yes, say the pilots, it's robust enough for the mission and probably barely airworthy, but no one on hand is type-rated and the three-career aviation artifact is almost certainly out of license.

At this point the poignancy of the tale comes into focus like a ten-point buck in the scope during hunting season. Only Walt knows the one man who has both time in type and the balls to undertake the mission of mercy. The airplane is a B-25. And, although he has never talked about it to anyone outside a few close friends, and then only in minimal terms, Lucian Connally was a Doolittle Raider.

Longmire strong-arms Connally, who is several drinks into a poker game at the time, with the rock-solid moral imperative that got U.S. fighting forces through WWII and is endemic to the Wyoming cattle rancher. When the going gets tough, the tough do the right thing. The odds here are basically one in three. If nobody does anything, the girl dies. If they try and fail, the girl dies. If they can succeed, the girl may yet live. The moral imperative is as obvious as the oil stains on the hangar floor under the cowlings.

At the heart of that judgement, which exemplifies what the audience loves about Longmire and Connally, there is this exchange between Longmire and a local pilot told, as is the entire novella, from Walt's first-person perspective:


I swung around and faced him. "Are you certified in a multi-engine?"

He looked up at me his eyes flashing the defiance of the fearful. "No, I'm not," He was still sweating from the exertion of the flight [that delivered the patient to the Durant airport]. "And even if I was, I wouldn't be going up in these conditions." He ran a hand through his thick hair. "I'm telling you, people are going to die if you try it."

I glanced at the small, intrubated body on the ventilated gurney as they wheeled it underneath the bomber. "Well, I know for sure that one of us will if we don't."

In that exchange, one can detect a faint transmission of the voice of Ernest Gann in Fate is the Hunter. A little further in the tale, Walt spells out the ethics of the odds and the stakes to the young Medivac pilot:

"It's not a question of numbers. It's a question of what you have to do, what you have to live with if you don't." I thought about the book in my pocket, the advice the Ghost of Christmas Present gives Scrooge on decreasing the surplus population, and mumbled to myself: "Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be that in the sight of Heaven, you are the more worthless ... [than] ... this poor ... child."

And thus the holiday reading table is set for a feast of airborne crisis adventure. Joining the party is the local doctor, made of sterner stuff than the Medivac medical crew, the young asian's aging grandmother determined to watch over all now left of her offspring, and a spirited young female A&P as copilot, who has a single engine rating, a pilots manual and less time in the right seat of a B-25 than it takes to roll the dice in a crap game.

Johnson proceeds to reprise the heroic aspects of the Doolittle raid in a life-saving context. The runway is blocked, so ol' Lucian taxies the far end of the ramp, locks the brakes, winds up the worn Wright Cyclones as tight as they will go, lowers the flaps and commences an impossible short field takeoff into the raging winds -- headed directly for the ops building which houses a frantic unicom operator. Barely aloft, they avoid collision by the simple expedient of raising the gear and immediately banking toward the south. November 4030, call sign 'LIFEGUARD Raider Lima Charlie' disappears into the blowing snow, headed for the first checkpoint at the Crazy Woman VOR.

There is no turning back now, as there is no instrument approach to Durant field.

With the leaking gas tanks incapable of holding full fuel, the Mitchell's destination is at the far limits of its range. The reader is now along on desperate mission conducted by daring volunteers against very long odds, pressed into launch by circumstance, requiring expert airmanship merely to get airborne. The irony is so thick you'd need a chain saw to cut it: this time the mission is to save the life of a dying Japanese girl, not to bomb Tokyo.

Once airborne, there is nowhere to go but forward. Never say 'woah' in a tight spot. When the doctor asks if there is any more speed to be had, Walt offers the perspective of perseverance that settled the area: "No. We're stuck, and whatever happens, we just have to ride it out." Cowboy resilience in a nutshell: riding it out gets you through the storm, up the hill, back to the ranch. Once you launch, your only option is to hold on, lean into it and hope for the best.  Many a rodeo rider looking for eight seconds realized that fact the moment the bombers eponym burst out of the chute, hell-bent on throwing off the payload.

Johnson's skill as a story-teller is matched by his respect for the origins of his fiction. He is as justifiably proud of his accurate portrayal of the Crow and Cheyenne culture that co-habits the Wyoming/Montana border as are they to have him portray it. He tells the story at book signings of a conference call to a group of Vietnam veterans, one of whom asked what outfit he had served with in Vietnam. Earlier books in the Longmire mystery series draw on Walt's experience in that war. When Johnson confessed he wa seven years old at the time of Tonkin Gulf, the vet on the other end exclaimed "Damn. A number of us thought they had served with you and we had a bet going as to who was right."

Johnson makes little of the fact that he's preserving old school intermountain west ethos, but the legacy of the white men of region is just as accurate in spirit as the native American culture intertwined with it. In this work, he applies the same care to dramatizing the character of a generation of pilots growing thinner by the day. In one recent week alone, three veteran Tuskegee Airmen and a Battle of Britain veteran finally flew west.

One of the author's literary gifts is the transmigration of old, familiar themes and lore into modern situations. This is no mere retelling of A Christmas Carol, substituting modern characters for those of the original. It's a shiny new tale that delivers a similar message in a much subtler manner.

I'd bet a case of Rainer that Craig Johnson is not a pilot. But a good friend of his was a Doolittle Raid veteran, and the impetus for the work. Like crime writers Hammett and Chandler before him, Johnson is an astute observer of human nuance. He adroitly includes bits of detail that present the pilot's character which keep the story believable. At one point Connally reaches out while telling the tale of the last time he flew this B-25 and, out of reflexive habit, absentmindedly taps the digital display of the nav radio. It's a wry bit of humor only pilots of analog needle gauges will get, a practice usually focused on glass dials of the oil pressure, fuel gauges and the altimeter, where a sticky needle will tell you a lie.

The story Lucian recounts en-route while his erstwhile co-pilot drives the Mitchell on minimal instruments through the turbulent storm is another Johnson hallmark, the incorporation of regional history into the modern narrative. Turns out this particular Mitchell, after being mustered out of service, ended up over at Greybull with Hawkins and Powers, the firebomber operation that, during the golden years of air attack, helped the Forest Service contain fires around the west. The mainstay of the Hawkins and Powers armada was a number of PB4Y's, the single tail NAVY variant of the B-24. That much detail could be expected from any decent hack writer with access to Google.

Steamboat plateThe story within the story within the story that Lucian tells Walt and his copilot, however, is of the horrendous winter snow storm of '48-9. That season was to the intermountain west what the recent lake effect snow deluge was to the Buffalo, New York area. The B-25 had by then acquired nose art dubbing it Steamboat after the immortal bucking horse that served as the template for the Wyoming state symbol that adorns the state license plate. When the massive storm immobilized the region, obsolete but capable transports and bombers like Steamboat were pressed into service during Operation Hayride to air-drop bales of hay to stranded herds of cattle caught out on the range, saving the cattle industry from ruin.

The rest of the tale of the Spirit of Steamboat, now understood to be the spirit of humanitarian risk, is a thrill-a-page roller coaster of diminishing prospects. Suffice to say, they make it, but not by very damn much and against the forbidding weather and a half a dozen FAR's.

Self directed and defiant of the odds to the end, Lucian Conally ignores the pronouncements from Stapleton tower that the airport is now officially closed, tells them to roll an ambulance to meet him and ground-loops Steamboat to a spinning halt on an ice covered runway just as the engines run out of gas.

Yes, it's bit over the top – but not by much. Such is the nature of a tall tale well told around the campfire or fireplace. Believe you me, this narrative is the perfect selection for Hollywood to kick off the inevitable movie franchise. The last television show I can remember being brought back by popular demand was Star Trek. With its limited set and cast requirements, an Indiana Jones adventure driven by a deep personal story worthy of Titanic, it is the ideal first Longmire movie.

It's a fast read, over before you want it to be, but then the attention span to prose these days is dwindling at the same rate as the living population of greatest generation.

Johnson weaves the colorful threads of his multiple tales together with the skill of a writer who by now knows his craft of story-telling by feel and his subject matter like the back of his hand. The result is a literary Navajo rug, robust, tightly woven with a colorful geometric symmetry. The result combines the 'get the right thing done' ethic that won a world war with a compelling human drama, acted out by a cast of believable characters. Johnson does not simply string together a half dozen elaborate anecdotes together in the novella, he deftly interleaves them in counterpoint.

Incidental to the narrative, but contributing to the drama, is a well researched  medical procedural of the efforts in the bomb bay to keep the child alive in the unpressurized airframe. Likewise, an all but forgotten piece of Wyoming aviation history gets recounted in lieu of the more predictable breathless cockpit accounts of instrument flight.  The tale of the great snowstorm of '48-9 is the in-flight movie to pass the time while the endless plains of southern Wyoming and northern Colorado pass beneath unseen.

The account of the flight alone is a great read, but the mysterious motives of the Christmas Eve visitor remain to be solved. The frame around this work of art makes the painting emotionally meaningful, perfectly devised as the excuse to tell the story.

As the ambulance carries the fragile young Japanese life to Denver Children's Hospital where it will be finally be saved, crusty old Lucian Connally is Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning, the ghosts of his personal history reclaimed from the horrible exigencies of waging war upon fellow human beings.

The contents of the package reverently carried by the Christmas Eve visitor -- indeed that now 30-something young woman who appeared from the falling snow as the ghost of Christmas Past -- are revealed at the end of the flashback, which is too poignant to spoil.

I will tell you this much: for a pilot in debt to the character of the leather-jacket-clad, propeller-driven warriors of the greatest generation and who grew up to Lionel Barrymore's annual radio rendition of Dicken's classic holiday tale of redemption, it brought tears to my eyes.

Like the Bullet, the venerable truck Johnson still drives Spirit of Steamboat is no more book than it needs to be to get the job done. In the getting done, it's a white-knuckle flight adventure, cowboy morality tale, and heartwarming Christmas parable told with the characters of a contemporary literary and television drama franchise, all neatly packaged.

If a pilot, cowboy or human being with a soul is on your Christmas list, this is the perfect stocking stuffer. And it likely will be for generations to come.


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