My Day With Big Moma
© Copyright 2022 by Thomas Turman
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
Mandy, the Seabee dispatcher sitting closest to the squawking radio slowly carefully wipes his big black hand over his face, slides his feet off the desk and turns his squeaking, Navy issue chair to face the blinking lights of the radio. The old radio is always patched into the tower for quick response.
"Why do they always have to talk like some John Wayne movie?" Mandy says more to the radio than to me and Joe Bob, the two other enlisted men with him on duty in the little shack. We sit in the motor pool surrounded by Navy-gray cars, trucks and construction equipment on the Naval Air base, Fallon Nevada.
Mandy reaches out his massive arm in the torn Seabee-green, short sleeve shirt on which the 1st class Equipment Operator stripes are carelessly ironed on and grips the outdated radio microphone, pushes the "send" button with his thumb and growls, "Yeah, what is it, Billy? You about to lose another of your weekend warriors?"
We can all hear the click of the mike in the tower meaning an incoming message. All three of us feel the slight rebuke of the short silence that follows before Billy's voice slices into the room again, "This is a military line and you will maintain military bearing during communication."
More radio silence, during which Mandy gives the finger to the radio, as the speaker blurts , "VAC-10 Blue No. 2 reports smoke over the East range and hasn't reported in since. This is an emergency. I repeat, this is an emergency. We need recovery vehicle capability. Is that affirmative? Do you read me?"
Mandy turns away from the radio, pointed to me and then at the two keys on the right side of the board on the wall under the hand-lettered name CHERRY PICKER. The scrawled lettering on the piece of tape attached to the keys, however, says BIG MAMA. Mandy throws the keys for the low-boy to Joe Bob. He then gives the military signal for double time and swivels back to the radio.
I wish I could stay for the fun that is probably going to happen over the radio but I have work to do. Mandy is nobody to mess with. He looks un-military but he's been in for 20 years and he knows heavy equipment. He even had a hand in designing our BIG MAMA.
The screen door slams punctuating the crunching noise of our running feet. Joe Bob and I try to hold down the dread of going out to retrieve one of these planes and probably the dead pilot. Our insides are churning because of what we will see out at Frenchmanís Flat, but also because of the awful coffee Mandy boils in the motor pool shack.
Inside the shack, Mandy's thumb clicked the button on the mike again, "Cut the phony radio crap, Billy, you're not on some aircraft carrier, youíre in Nevada. Tell me something useful."
There is silence, then a click from the tower and, "Mandy you have..." another pause and then the reason for Billy's exaggerated military radio performance spluttered loudly into the mike, "THIS IS ENSIGN T.L. GRANGER , VAC-10 C.O., SAILOR. WE HAVE A PLANE IN TROUBLE. YOU FOLLOW ORDERS AND GET THAT EQUIPMENT OUT THERE OR I'LL HAVE YOUR STRIPES. IS THAT CLEAR?" Click.
During the tirade, Mandy hears me start the diesel of BIG MAMA and knows that the response time will be as short as possible, but he was damned if he was going to let this asshole Ensign know that.
Click, "This is 1st class E.O. Johnson, sir, and to avoid wasting any more time I suggest you try and figure out where the plane is. Remember, the East range at Frenchmanís Flat is 500 square miles. And, might I remind you, sir, we don't pick them out of the sky when they have trouble. We have to wait until one of your guys leaves it on the ground." Click.
"Mandy, I don't have any more information. All I got was the Mayday. We don't..." In the background Mandy could hear the young Ensign ranting and yelling.
Before the Seabee can answer, a young Marine bursts into the dispatch shack, "Gunny just got a call from Miss Jane out at Frenchman's Flat. They say they saw a big fire ball about two miles east of them."
"Thanks kid." Grabbing the mike again, and hoping the click heard in the tower would show his anger, he said calmly but firmly, "Billy, tell that VAC-10 Ensign that a couple of whores out at Frenchman's Flat did both your jobs for you. We're on our way." He gets up and pushes out through the screen door, heading for the biggest piece of equipment in the yard.
It is simple but huge and looks like an enormous child's toy. The name BIG MAMA came about when Mandy first saw the thing. ďThatís one big mother fucker.Ē He wrote that on the tag for the key, but our commander made him change it to BIG MAMA.
The big Navy-gray box of a body housing the now warm, thumping diesel and hydraulic pumps was supported by four of the largest tires ever made. The tires were as tall as Mandy's 6'-4" frame and 3 feet wide, all knobby and deep black. Outriggers fore and aft were massive. On top of the body was a 3 foot-wide, 15-foot-long housing for the hydraulic, focusing crane that could extend out 35 feet, swivel to all sides, and pick up something as big as a 16,000 lb. jet airplane. On top of all this and just under the now retracted crane was the dimly lit cab in which I sat waiting patiently for warmed-up indicator light to flash. I must look like a tiny insect under glass atop the monster machine. The machine, also affectionately known as "The Seabee Sand Ship", was usually used to extract the jet fighter planes after they'd sunk up to their bellies in the soft sand after going off the runaway. This pick-up call was grimly different, and we all knew it.
Mandy climbs the several rungs of the ladder to reach the me in the cab and over the noise of the engine yells, "TWO MILES EAST OF MISS JANE'S. IF YOU NEED HELP FROM THEM TAKE THAT THUG BOUNCER JAKE, DO NOT TAKE ONE OF THE GIRLS OUT THERE. IS THAT CLEAR?"
I nodded and give the thumbs up signal, but both Joe Bob and I were hoping desperately that the only one who saw the wreck was one of Miss Jane's half-dressed girls.
Joe Bob waited in our flat-bed truck and trailer. He flashes his lights to say he is ready.
Mandy climbs down, and marches over to open the special gate at the rear of the cherry picker which kept it from ever being hemmed in and allowed it to exit the base without having to go through the main gate or damaging anything.
I wait in the driver's seat. The only control for the big beast is a tall toggle switch between my first and second finger of my right hand. Push forward, I go ahead; press right or left, you slowly go in that direction. Pull the toggle back and I could creep backward. I have an accelerator, but no brake. Letting off the gas brings the thing to a stop in 10 feet; "mashing down" on the accelerator, as Georgia bred Joe Bob would say, would get me going at a top speed of about 20 miles per hour.
The trip to Miss Janeís at Frenchman's Flat will not only take time, it requires an escort from the Nevada Highway Patrol because the MAMA takes up most of the two-lane Highway 50 we have to use.
An hour and a half later the caravan of flashing patrol car, MAMA, Joe Bobís flat-bed with a Marine in a pickup at the rear, led an angry line of locals trapped behind us up to Frenchman's Flat. Frenchmanís is the gas station, restaurant, bar, whorehouse and home of Miss Jane, her thug husband, Jake, and a few prostitutes.
From my high perch just below the swirling yellow warning light on top of my cab, I can see the bad news in the distance. Across the beautiful, scary landscape , a thin, vertical column of black smoke still rising straight up out of the windless desert. This probably means a fatal nose-in hit and fuel fire. Our job is to bring back as much of the aircraft as we can. I hate these "pickups", though, as the hook on the plane is just behind the cockpit but would be 3 or 4 feet below the surface of the pool of oil and aviation fuel gathered in the crater created by the impact. It meant a swim for one of us. It was worse if the pilot hadnít bailed out. My stomach is even worse now as always when approaching one of these crashed death machines.
Luckily, just as I am about to creep across the highway, I see a rather dazed pilot being led to the Navy pickup by two of Miss Janeís scantily dressed young whores. A third, wearing only high heels and black stockings followed with a bunched-up parachute covering her charms in front but exposing her lovely, round rear end to reflect off the mirror sunglasses of the highway patrolman.
Miss Jane, wearing her famous pink, fur collared bathrobe appears in the front doorway under the big downward pointing arrow. Later in the evening the big arrow would blink on and off pointing to the only commercial establishment in 20 miles. She waved to me and Joe Bob as I flattened the three-wire fence at the edge of the road across from her and ground my way toward the $12 million dollar pile of metal at the bottom of the column of smoke.
By the time I get back to Frenchman's Flat with the plane and get 2/3's of the fuselage on Joe Bobís truck. Most of both wings were still dangling from the crane boom. It is dark and cold. Since we aren't on radio yet, and Mandy wouldn't know we were finished, we were hoping to spend a little R & R time at Miss Jane's before going back to the base. She usually gives us coffee and pie. We were dirty and oily, but the memory of the black stockings and the nice round rear end just inside the doors was strong. Maybe Miss Jane would let us shower with a couple of her charges.
These hopes are dashed when the highway patrolman who has led us out there comes flashing and speeding back up to us and our equipment.
As I set the wings on the lowboy trailer, I could see the urgency of the patrolman's gestures as he talked to Joe Bob. Joe Bob then ran around his trailer, scrambles up the ladder to my cab to shout, "There's a car upside down in a ditch full of water down the road. There are people still in it. He wants us to come pick up the car. Can we do that?"
I take my hand off the controls of the crane as the wreck is already unhooked and tied down, and say, "I don't know." Then looking down at the worried, upturned face of the inpatient patrolman in the flat hat, I shout, "Sure, Can Do. We can pick up anything with BIG MAMA. Have Miss Jane call Mandy and tell 'em what we're doing and tell "Smokey" down there we'll follow him to his wreck."
We rumble down to the small crowd of people and the upside-down car in the ditch in record time for the sloth-like cherry picker. The car is connected to a cable on the winch of a pickup that had tried unsuccessfully to move the car and was now being used to keep the weight of the car off the driver. The driver's head is being kept just above the dark, murky water by another patrolman.
I yelled, "Joe, get out and ride the hook out over the patrol car and grab on to the high side of the car closer to the front. I'll stand it up on its rear until they get the other people out."
As soon as I raise the front of the car, the patrolman and one of our sailors carefully pull the man out of the water. As I raise and begin set the car down on the paved surface the soaked body of a woman slithers on to the asphalt as if the car just given birth. Before I can set the car down, several empty beer bottles clink out into the light of the Highway Patrolman's headlights. The clinking bottles silence all those who have come to help. The only movement is Joe Bob freeing the crane and the slow methodical stride of the patrolman as he approaches the wet man on the road removing the handcuffs from the back of his belt.
When we get back to the base, Mandy meets us at our gate, just shakes his head, holds up his big paw and says, "Don't tell me, and it didn't happen."
Our watch isn't over until noon tomorrow. When we get to our bunks in the dispatch shack at midnight, we are hoping that the excitement is over, but, as they say, it all happens on your watch.
An hour later, "Wake up you birds, we got another scramble."
Joe Bob and I straggle into the office in time to hear the tower shout, "NEGATIVE, NEGATIVE, RED NO. 3, YOU CANNOT EJECT. DO YOU READ ME? DO NOT EJECT." There was a pause and then, "Shit, he jumped."
"Jesus," Mandy swore, "you two get out there and see if you can see the damn thing. This guy was circling the base and jumped out. The plane is flying around in a circle up there with nobody in it!"
We run out into the equipment yard and quickly follow the faint, curving line of black smoke in the sky which leads to the fire on the tail of the source. The jet is in a slight bank at about 1000 feet circling the perimeter of our vast air base. About a mile away and now only a hundred feet from the ground is the billowing parachute of the pilot.
"Mandy, its coming around again and I think it's getting lower."
ďCrank up MAMA. Joe Bob, you keep an eye on that damn plane. The tower says there's only a few minutes of fuel left in that thing.
Sure enough, after making two more lazy circles around the base with emergency vehicles speeding up and down the runway and all over the base warning people, the plane flames out, leveling mysteriously and disappears quickly to the south of the base. There is no explosion. No noise. Nothing.
Then from the tower over Mandy's radio, "Its down just outside of the base. Somebody go get that asshole pilot." A slight pause, and then, "Mandy, you there? We got a run away, probably in somebody's farm. You cranked up to go get it?"
"Yeah, we're ready, Billy, but you got to tell us where to go."
"No smoke. No nothin', Mandy. I know its south, but that's all. Just a minute, I think we got the call." The line went dead for a few seconds and then, "Mandy?...Farmer just called...his place is due south of the main gate. Pissed as hell. Plane just cut a swath through his corn for a quarter of a mile. The wingman of the bozo who jumped says that if you go straight out of the gate and across the desert for about a mile you'll find it. Make it quick, Mandy, the farmer says he's going to blow it up."
Joe Bob squeezes into the small cab with me. I back MAMA out through her gate and, after destroying another fence, bounce across the saltbush as fast as she will go. Joe Bob and I are scanning the dry, still desert for any signs of the plane. As we approach a fence around a fairly mature corn field, Joe Bob suddenly yells, "There, over on the right."
I slowly direct the lumbering crane to the right to line up with a dirt swath cleanly scraped through the 6-foot high corn about 15 feet wider than MAMA.
We rumble down the planeís dirt landing path and then come to an abrupt halt. There in front of us is a man holding a double-barreled shotgun standing at the smoldering tail of the jet fighter which has rather perfectly belly landed itself about 200 yards from his barn and house.
"YOU SON-OF-A-BITCHES ARE SUPPOSED TO BE SAVING US, NOT KILLING US," the gun waving man shouts at us.
"I'm not going down there," Joe Bob says, "he's gonía kill me."
"Ride the hook again, like last night, and we'll get the hell out of here."
Joe Bob crawls out to the end of the crane wedging his foot in the hook while I try to gesture to the man that we couldn't hear what he said over the noise of the big crane's engines.
Joe Bob gets it hooked up and raised up over the farmer in no time with Joe Bob precariously riding the fuselage behind the cockpit like heís in a rodeo. I have just begun to back down the path the plane had made when the angry, frustrated man shoulders his gun and emptied both barrels into the nose of the plane. Joe Bob almost fell off but grabs MAMAíS cable and rides the swaying plane back into the saltbush and then all the way back to the base.
"Any trouble?" the always calm Mandy quizzes, after we return from depositing the hulk onto the officers putting green at the North end of the base.
"Oh, no," Joe Bob says, "but you know what? Tell Billy to send the pilot over to make reparations with the farmer. It will be good training for him."