Just before they stepped out of the Mercedes, Ian straightened his borrowed silk tie. Blanca whispered: “Bring your video camera. My papa will want to see pic-tu-ers.” After the maid ushered them in, they met Blanca’s father on the screened patio. Haltingly, Ian made a formal introduction in Spanish. He did this fairly well, since he had practiced it with Consuela, but he was obviously nervous.
After shaking hands, Aurturo Araneta asked: “So, Lieutenant Doyle, My daughter tells me you are a pilot of F-16 fighting planes.”
“That’s right, sir. Pointing to the rucksack on his shoulder, he said: “I brought my camcorder, with some movies of myself and some of my squadron-mates, flying F-16 Falcons, if you are interested.”
“Of, course, of course. Let’s go to the library.”
Arturo Araneta asked as they walked: “You have this movie in your video camera?”
“Then let’s watch it on my big screen. It is the latest from Japan.”
The dimly-lit library was quite a contrast to the brightness of the patio. It took a while for Doyle’s eyes to adjust to the lighting.
As they were getting the camera’s cable hooked up the television input jack, Aurturo Araneta quizzed Doyle about his education. Ian answered: “I did a double major, in Aeronautical Engineering and Industrial Engineering. I also got minor degrees in English Literature and Military History. I did all that course work in just five years, cum laude.”
“Not suma? Ah, well, to do all that in just five years, you must have been studying around the clock. So graduating just cum laude is understandable.” After taking an audible breath, he added: “Engineering, engineering. Excellent! I am surprised that so many other young people waste their time in other trifling fields.”
With a wave of Arturo’s hand, the maid brought iced tea and they sipped it as they watched Ian’s video tape. Doyle introduced it by just saying: “ These clips you’ll see were all shot by me from the back seat of a D-model F-16—that’s the version with two seats.”
The first clip showed some tight formation flying. The second showed take-offs, landings and touch-n-go’s.
Just before the third segment, Ian voiced the caveat: “Now, this part coming up, it wasn’t me at the controls and I had no warning that my friend was going to do this. I was just along for the ride and to preserve the events, for posterity.” The video then showed the plane doing slow rolls, high over San Francisco, passing through patchy clouds and then diving to line up west of the city. It then flew under the Golden Gate Bridge and then under the San Francisco Bay Bridge, with pilot twice exclaiming “Yeee-haaaaaaw!”
Both of the Aranetas gasped and laughed. Ian then commented: “I found out later that Fred had the crew chief disable the plane’s transponder, so there’d be no comebacks.”
Aurturo chuckled and said, “Very clever. And I’m glad this was not you flying, so illegally.”
The last segment of the video was several minutes of aerobatics, shot over the pilot’s shoulder. In one corner of the screen, the plane’s altimeter could be seen winding down from 30,000 feet, at an alarming rate. The significance of some of the maneuvers were lost on her father, but Blanca was clearly impressed. She kept saying “Wow” and “Double wow!”
As Ian disconnected his camcorder, Aurturo exclaimed: “That was fantastic. Simply fantastic.”
Next, the subject of tennis came up—as Blanca had warned it always did with her father. He started by saying, “You know, seeing San Francisco in that video tape reminds me…” He spent the next half hour in an animated description of how he had toured the United States playing tennis tournaments in the 1980s and how he had learned to disco dance. He ended by mentioning: “You know, when I was there, I became so fascinated with your basketball. Other than tennis, that is now the sport I watch the most, on the satellite television.”
“Really?”, Ian asked. “What is your favorite American team?”
The Honduran replied: “Oh, the Detroit Pistons. Most definitely.”
Ian laughed. “Did Blanca mention that I was raised near Detroit?”
Arturo Araneta put on a huge grin.
Ian put in hesitantly, “Although I’ve gotta say, I’m just as much a Lakers fan as am a fan of the Pistons.”
“The Lakers, they are a fine team too, but sometimes, with all their physicality, they lack the ah, finesse and control of the Pistons.”
Just when Doyle thought that he could not have hit it off more perfectly, Arturo asked: “So, what does a fighter joe-key like you do, for hobbies?”
“I like to run, swim and I do a lot of target shooting.”
Araneta chortled. “You are a shoo-ter? Come with me, my boy and I will show you my little gun collection!”
As the three of them walked together toward the other wing of the house, Blanca laughed and muttered, “The lost-long son returns!”
As they walked, Ian glanced over his shoulder and noticed the maid following five paces back, dutifully carrying a tray with their drinks. He realized that this sort of life would take some getting used to.
They spent the next half hour chit-chatting and admiring guns pulled out of a climate-controlled walk-in-vault. Araneta had a huge collection of perhaps 200 guns and 50 swords and sabers. Sitting on a large wooden stand in the center of the vault room was an exquisitely-ornamented saddle, with a saber and a pair of holstered horse pistols. The saddle was clearly the centerpiece of his collection. Aurturo explained: “This saddle belonged to a lieutenant of Simon de Bolivar. I bought it by ‘private treaty’ from a collector before it could go to auction.”
Doyle noted that Arturo’s collection was eclectic, ranging from a 16th Century Chinese hand cannon, to one of the latest Colt Anaconda revolvers. But the collection mostly emphasized muzzleloaders and horse pistols, representing 400 years of development for the latter. In deference to the humid climate in Honduras, they all wore white cotton gloves as they handled the guns.
As they were examining, his modern guns, Araneta asked: “What do you think of Blanca’s Glock 19?”
“You have a Glock?,” Ian asked Blanca, surprised.
Blanca said with scorn: “Yes, the one I carry every day, in my flight bag. It’s got night sights on it. I’m a very good shot.”
“I had no idea that you packed.”
Blanca laughed and said: “You Yanquis have no idea how many Hondurans carry guns every day of the week. We just make no big deal about it.”
“Daddy bought me the Glock and also the Mercedes. The car is intentionally old and ugly on the outside, but it has a brand new engine and transmission. Actually, the rust spots on the door panels are no really rust-they are jus’ painted on. It’s the perfecto anti-kidnapping car. Not like anything anyone would expect me to drive. Even then, it is built like a tank and could knock most other cars off of the road!
Ian stroked his chin and said, “The more I learn about you, señorita, the more there is to like about you. You’re the complete package: ‘She flies, she swims, she shoots, she dresses tastefully, she drives a stealth tank, she likes flamenco guitar…’”
“You left out that I’m great cook and an excellent dancer.”
All three of them laughed.
Finally, they sat down to a four-course dinner that was served by the cook and dutifully attended by the maid. The conversation over dinner ranged from flying, to shooting, to duck hunting and to Arturo’s recollections of what Blanca was like, as a little girl. And of course, tennis.
Ian got to try out some of his new Spanish phrases. His fractured grammar and conjugational foul-ups earned him a lot of good-spirited laughter. Arturo was gracious, saying only “You are learning quickly, my boy. And I’m glad to hear you use a good Castilian accent. So many Americans I meet, even scientists and engineers, are educated only in the gutter Spanish of Mexico. They are such, as you say, ‘hicks’,”
After a long pause, Arturo glanced over the top of his glasses and asked gravely, “Are you Catholic?”
“Yes, sir. Born and raised, Irish-Catholic. I still attend Mass faithfully.” Realizing that he was taking a huge risk of offending his host, he added: “But additionally, I have come to more of a personal faith, in Jesus Christ. Between him and me, I feel no need of a mediator. The Pope and the priests are fine for ceremony, but I truly feel that I’m saved personally, by Jesus, by faith in him alone, by his grace and with my sins paid by his sacrifice on the cross. I love Jesus with all mi corazon.”
Arturo brightened and clasped his hand on Ian’s shoulder. “I feel the same way, also. It is refreshing to hear that from a fellow member of the church.”
Everything continued to go well, until it was time for cigars and brandy. Aurturo was slightly miffed when Ian accepted a snifter, but refused a cigar, saying, “Lo siento mucho, señor, but I don’t smoke. Yo no fumo.”
As he trimmed and lit his cigar, Arturo tutt-tutted and then said resignedly: “Oh well, you pilots are such health nuts. You don’t know what you’re missing. Honduran cigars are just as good as Cubanos. But I can say, I now smoke only about one of these a month.”
Blanca joked, “You know, daddy, I gave up cigars years ago, when I decided to follow in the goose-steps of Amelia Earhart.”
o o o
As Blanca gave Ian a ride back to the base, she went on and on about how well Ian had gotten along with her father, mentioning how unprecedented that was. After a couple of minutes of driving on, in silence, she said simply: “I think he really likes you E-an.”
“Yeah, pretty scary, isn’t it?” Then he asked: “Where’d you get that pearl necklace?”
“Before they were married, my father and mother went on a trip to La Bahia--those are our Bay Islands on the east coast. They were snorkeling and daddy dove to bring up an oyster. Inside of this oyster was this pearl. Later on that same day, my father asked my mother to marry him. The pearl it was too big and fragile for a ring, so it was placed on thees necklace. Ever since then, my father nicknamed my mother conchita, which means ‘little oyster’. And now he sometimes calls me that.”
After a long pause, she suffixed: “My mother gave me this, when she was dying of the cancer.”
“Lo siento mucho, Blanca.”
“Ees okay. That was a long time ago.”
“May I call you conchita?”
Blanca giggled, “Yes E-an, you may, but not in public! You see, among the lower classes, conchita has a different—a very crude--meaning, so please don't you call me that around other people—or at least around any other people who speak Spanish.”
“Si, mi conchita.”
She drove on in silence, obviously deep in thought,
After passing through the formalities with the air base’s gate guards, Blanca turned and her face to Ian and said: “You know, Meester Lieutenant Doyle, you were very clever, finding out all those theengs about me, from Consuela.”
“Yes, I must admit I do over-plan things.”
“So, why did you do all that--the orchids and the Almond Roca? I theenk also the flamenco music.” Her voice grew sharp: “Why?”
Doyle coughed nervously. “Because I fell in love with your voice on the radio from the tower, even before I ever laid eyes on you. And when someone like me loves someone as much as I love you, …well. I’m the kind of guy that will nearly warp space and time, just to make everything fall into place. I am absolutely head-over-heels, crazy in love with you, Blanca.”
Just then, her car reached the driving circle in front of The White House.
She gave a coy smile. “Perhaps I will see you again, E-an.” She ushered him out with a wave and a smile. He blew her a kiss. As her eyes lingered on him for a moment, he added, half-shouting: “Encantado, Señorita!” Her chin dropped and she put on a smile as she drove away.
As he approached the front steps of the White House, Ian Doyle stopped in his tracks. He realized why Blanca had worn the pearl necklace: That pearl had been a key part of her father’s marriage proposal to her mother. Wearing the pearl had been her way of telling her father, “This man is bona fide marriage material.”
The next few weeks were a blur. The squadron’s operational tempo increased and Ian was flying a lot. Most of his contact with Blanca was by correspondence. Their love letters began cordially, but became more familiar and gained a note of passion, as time went on. Partly because two of the Hondo Expedition pilots fell ill with “traveler’s tummy”, Ian was flying as much as six days a week, a grueling pace.
Most of Ian’s missions were uneventful. The only real excitement came on a couple flights when his plane’s radar warning receiver went off, over hostile territory. These were mainly Gun Dish radars, part of Russian-built ZSU 23-4s—four barrel 20 millimeter anti-aircraft cannons. This caused a bit of angst for Ian and some lively discussion at the post-flight debriefings.
o o o
On a Sunday 40 days into his Honduras rotation, Blanca took Ian flying. Above his objection to split the cost, she treated him to a two-hour rental in her favorite plane, an Italian-built Pioneer P200. It was a very small, sleek, low wing plane that had unusual dual sticks in a side-by-side cockpit.
As they approached the plane for their pre-flight, Doyle said: “I was expecting you to rent some zippy biplane, with seats fore and aft.”
She grinned: “I think a side-by-side configuration like this is much more, ah, romantico, no? “ Quickly changing subjects, she said, “The dry weight of thees bird is only 260 kilos--light as a feather!”
“Oh, man, that is light! Did you know that an F-16 weighs about twelve thousand kilos, fully-fueled?”
Blanca was wearing a very attractive white flight suit, with zippers everywhere. As they walked around the plane, checking the fuel tanks, wiggling the wings and checking the flaps and rudder, Doyle’s eyes kept drifting back to Blanca. The flight suit certainly accentuated her trim figure.
They pulled the chocks and climbed aboard. Sitting in the tandem plane’s left seat, he admired Blanca’s finesse as she worked the radio and rolled out to the taxi strip, craning her head to do repeated 360 eyeballs of both the plane’s control surfaces and her surroundings. She didn’t miss a beat. After getting takeoff clearance, she punched in the throttle and took off after a surprisingly short roll. Climbing out at 700 feet per minute, she took the plane up to 10,000 feet and headed west, as they chatted about the plane’s characteristics.
“What’s this bird stressed for?,” Ian asked.
“Four gees pos and two gees neg-a-teev.”
Doyle nodded approvingly.
Blanca continued: “It’s been upgraded to a 110 horsepower plant. She’ll do 145 miles per hour, at altitude. Redline is 5,600 ara-pee-emms. Oh and watch your sink rate if you pull more than a 60 degrees bank. I theenk you’ll like flying it. It takes very light control forces. I love thees plane because you don’t have to muscle the stick.”
Glancing at the GPS, she declared: “Okay, hombre, now we are outside of the TCA and we can plaaay. Banking sharply left and right to get a view under the plane’s wings and swiveling her head, she said: “I see empty skies”.
Doyle echoed: “Ditto, I confirm I see no traffic. Let’s play!”
Blanca snugged the straps on her X-harness and with no cue needed, Doyle did likewise. Blanca then immediately launched into a series of aerobatics that would have made most other passengers puke. Doyle was whooping and laughing. She burned through 7,000 feet in less than a minute, doing rolls, loops and spins. At one point, Blanca’s flight bag levitated to the ceiling, as they pulled negative gees. Doyle snatched it and tucked it under his arm.
After climbing back up to 10,000 feet, Blanca put on a devilish grin. She launched into another series of maneuvers, even more violent. At one point, Ian’s vision narrowed from the effect of pulling three gees. Doyle never once felt tempted to take the controls, even when she intentionally put the plane into flat spin. She deftly recovered and they both laughed. She climbed once again and put the plane through a pair of Immelman turns and then a neat four-point roll.
“Now you show me something!” and she made a show of throwing her hands up, off the stick.
Quickly drying his palms on his pant legs, he grasped the other stick. Doyle then took a couple of tentative turns, getting a feel for the aircraft. He throttled the engine up slightly and then adjusted the trim wheel, to counteract the propeller’s torque. This took a couple of tries to get just right, since he was unfamiliar with the gradation of the wheel.
“¡Vale! You just showed me a very nice four point roll. Now this is an eight-pointer! After completing the roll, he continued: “And this is a sixteen pointer.”
After completing the second roll, he said: “Sorry, that was a little sloppy. I’m not used to a plane where I’m fighting prop torque like this. Flying jets spoils a man.” After a beat, he shouted: “Hands on stick!”
He then declared: “Its your aircraft!” and dropped his hands.
She was quizzical. “What? That’s all you show me?”
As she resumed control, he explained, “Look, Blanca, I didn’t come up here to show off my fighter jock stuff. I came to see you do your thing.”
“And what you theenk?”
“I think you’re beautiful and I think that your flying is just as beautiful. Muy Linda.”
Blanca beamed a toothy smile and deftly banked to dive toward Lake Yojoa, visible in the distance. In the dive, their ground speed got above 160.
He truly was impressed by her flying ability. He recognized that she was a natural for stick and rudder, as well as situational awareness. The thing that impressed him the most was her gracefulness in both right and left hand turns. Most pilots were good at only one or the other, depending on their handedness. He commented to her on this and she explained: “Mi papa, he’s the tennis guy. Since I was a little girl, he insist that I learn everything ambidextrous—no, ambidexterous-leee, even with the holding of a fork.”
“La tenadore”, Doyle reminded himself aloud, from a recent lesson.
“El tenadore”, she corrected.
“Sorry, I always get my masculines and feminines mixed up.”
She turned to give him another smile: “I think you are very masculine, E-an.”
With the aerobatic maneuvering over, they both loosened their harnesses. Back in level flight and approaching the lago, Blanca again pushed the stick forward to swoop down low over the water. The plane scared up a huge flock of ducks. Marveling at the size of the flock of multicolored brown and black ducks, Ian asked: “What are those?”
“Here, we call them Suirirí Piquirrojo. In English they are called, I theenk the Black-Bellied Whistling Duck.”
They flew well above the flock, safe from any bird strikes. Blanca repeatedly banked the plane to get a better view and then after circling back, she pulled the throttle out, transitioning to slow flight, to orbit the enormous flock. It looked like a veritable cloud of ducks. Ian snapped pictures with his camera. She then advanced the throttle to its mid-range and flew away from the lake, back toward Tegucigalpa.
Ian felt ecstatic. “Wow! That was an incredible sight, Blanca!
Ian reached over to place his hand on Blanca’s shoulder. He realized that it was the second time he had ever touched her. He asked: “Will you marry me?”
She punched the throttle to the firewall and the acceleration threw Ian back against his seat. She looked straight ahead and then glanced down at the instruments. At first Ian thought that he had angered her. Then she turned and smiled. “Of course I will marry you, E-an. But I gotta land thees plane first.”
[Author's Note: Copyright 2010. All Rights Reserved by James Wesley, Rawles. This material is not available for re-posting at other web sites. The novel is scheduled to be released by the Atria Books Division of Simon & Schuster in early 2011. Deo volente, my next contracted sequel novel will follow, in 2012. I'd appreciate your comments and suggestions via e-mail for improvement of this draft chapter.]