The voice in the earphones – short story

Wilbur Schramm

It had never happened before in the history of aviation. The chances of its happening again are one in a number that has zeros stacked across the page like eggs in cold storage. And yet the fact remains that it happened. For a long time, people who saw it will tell their children and grandchildren how Shorty Frooze, who had never flown an airplane, found himself suddenly at the controls of an airliner 8,000 feet up in the blue air over Kansas, and how, like a farm boy breaking the new colt, he calmly decided to ride the big ship in to a landing.

But to appreciate what really happened that July afternoon you have to know something about Shorty. His real name wasn’t Frooze, of course. It was Habib el Something or Other, one of those Asia Minor names that are like nothing in English. They began to call him Frooze in the years when he was a fruit peddler in a little town near Kansas City. I can still remember him driving his donkey cart through the streets, jingling a bell, and singing his wares in a high voice that penetrated every kitchen in town. “Can’ aloupe!” he would call. “Wa’ ermelon! Fresh Frooze!” And the name stuck, even when he learned to say “fruits” and retired the patient little donkey and set up a sidewalk stand in Kansas City–Shorty Frooze.

The most important thing about Shorty was his son. Had you ever guessed Bill James was his boy? Bill dropped his last name when he went to the University of Kansas. He was as different from his father as could be. He was big and handsome and popular, and a great athlete. Shorty told me once that Bill resembled his mother, who died when Bill was born. And inevitably Shorty’s boy grew away from nervous little Shorty, who couldn’t even talk plain English. Bill wasn’t exactly ashamed of his father, but when he took him to father-and-son banquets in high school, Shorty didn’t enjoy it, and other people were ill at ease, too, and thereafter Shorty faded into the background. He stayed away from Bill’s fraternity house in Lawrence. Whenever Bill played ball I would see Shorty there, with a happy mist in his eyes, but always in some inconspicuous corner, and I could never find him when the game was over.

One big area of Bill’s world was closed to Shorty. That was aviation. Bill was a natural flier. He soloed at 17. By the time he was 18, they said, he could fly a barn door if anyone would put an electric fan on it. He went to the airlines before he finished Kansas. When the shooting started in Europe he wanted to go right into the RAF, but Shorty said no. He said Bill was all he had left. Wait at least long enough to finish out the year with the airlines, he pleaded. Because Bill wasn’t quite 21, Shorty had to give consent. They said some pretty bitter words before Bill stomped out of the house, back to his job. And then came the accident, barely a week later, with Shorty watching.

Shorty grieved unnaturally over Bill’s death. He kept blaming himself, torturing himself. I always passed his little stand on my way to work, and for days at a time it would be closed, while Shorty sat at home grieving. Then he took to hanging around the airport, talking to the mechanics and the pilots and watching the ships slide in from every point on the compass. They knew why he did it; he felt closer to Bill there. But after a while he became a nuisance, and they had to ask him to stay away.

Then he went back to work again, frantically. I could find him at the stand any hour of the day or evening. To save money he went often without food, as he had when he was helping put Bill through Lawrence. And whenever he had a few dollars saved up he took an airplane trip. He would come to the airport hours before flight time. People stared at him and smirked behind their hands. The first time I saw him there, I stared, too. I didn’t know him. He had got out his Sunday suit, and it must have been the suit he was married in. It had tight trousers and a long coat and made him look like something out of a musical comedy. But when the plane was announced Shorty was always first in line, and he would scurry out to be sure of the front seat. That was as near as possible to the place where Bill had sat when he was pilot; there Shorty could see as nearly as possible what Bill must have seen from the pilot’s cockpit. It would have seemed pitiful, his trying so hard to get closer to the boy in death than he could in life, if it hadn’t been laughable. And that was how Shorty happened to be on the front seat of an airliner bound from Denver to Kansas City on the July day when it happened.

The other passengers confirm Shorty’s story of what happened. They were well out of Denver toward Kansas City when the stewardess opened the door of the pilots’ compartment and stepped into the passengers’ part of the ship. She was as white as her blouse, they said. She sat down unsteadily beside Shorty in the front seat. Apparently only Shorty heard what she said. She pointed to the front compartment.

“My God, see what’s in there!” she gasped, and fainted dead away.

Shorty himself didn’t know exactly why he did what he did in the next few minutes. Why he took the stewardess’s keys and went into the pilots’ compartment, instead of giving the stewardess first aid, is something that could be explained only in terms of some larger pattern of which that act was a part. The important thing is that he did go through the door forbidden to passengers. He locked the door behind him and looked along the passageway, which he had never seen but which Bill had seen so often, past the radio equipment, past the baggage compartment, to the cockpit where pilot and copilot sit surrounded by windows and instruments.

At first he comprehended only that there was something vaguely wrong with what he saw. It came to him slowly that there was no pilot and no copilot, and no hand was on the controls, and no eye was watching where the ship flew.

Still slowly, like a man lifting an unknown weight, he mastered other details: one pilot stretched out on the floor, the other slumped down behind his seat. Shorty touched them, fearing he might be touching dead men. He listened to their hearts. He propped them up, then stretched them out and poured water from a vacuum bottle on their faces. You have read the story in the newspapers, of course, and you know that pilots and stewardesses were suffering from a violent attack of food poisoning, from a lunch they had eaten before flight. But Shorty did not know that. He knew only that both pilots were unconscious, and he could not revive them, and he was alone with the controls of a transport plane high above Kansas.

The sensible thing, he admitted to himself, would be to go back and see whether a doctor or a pilot was among the passengers. He tried to weigh the possibility of there being a doctor or a pilot against the possibility of panic if there was none. And partly because of that judgment, partly because he was at last where Bill had sat on so many flights, he decided not to go back to the passengers–not for a little while.

He sat down in the pilot’s seat, trembling, but not with fright. This thing with the little steering wheel on the end must be the “stick” Bill had mentioned so often. There was one for each pilot, and two pedals like clutch and brake in front of each stick. He tried to see how many of the dials and switches on the instrument panel he could identify from hearing Bill talk about them. One he was sure of–down at the lower left center, a handle marked Automatic Pilot. He judged that was what was keeping the plane level and straight. Things would be all right until the gas gave out. Here was the radio headset. Acting on a sentimental little impulse, he put on the earphones and picked up the microphone Bill must have addressed so often.

Bill would have said something professional like “Pilot to tower,” he knew, and given the flight number and position. But the only thing Shorty could think of to say, in a high, embarrassed voice, was, “Hello there. Hello, Kansas City.”

Nothing happened for a minute, and then a voice came into his earphones. He felt like a boy caught playing with forbidden toys. But the voice was calm and matter-of-fact. “Hello, old fellow,” it said. “Been wondering where you were. Anything wrong?”

Shorty thought at the time that the voice would be engraved in his memory like chisel cuts in stone, but later he had trouble describing it for me. The radio didn’t leave much color in it, of course, and it was like any other airways voice–flat, calm, sparing of words, the kind of rhythm men develop from dealing much with elements and refusing to get excited over mere man-made things. All afternoon Shorty kept trying to identify it with some person he knew, but not quite succeeding. It was a friendly voice, for all its impersonal quality. It invited confidence. And before Shorty really thought about what he was doing, he was pouring the whole story of his situation into the microphone.

When he stopped, there was a long, low whistle from the earphones.

“My kid Bill ought to be here,” said Shorty. “He was a flier.”

“Yes, I know,” said the voice. Then it was silent so long that Shorty said anxiously, Hello?”

“Well,” said the voice thoughtfully. It took a long time to say, “Well.”

“What shall I do?” asked Shorty.

“If I were you,” said the voice, “I’d fly her into Kansas City.”

“But I don’t know how,” said Shorty.

“I’ll teach you,” said the voice.

“You’ll do what?” gasped Shorty.

“Put your hands on the stick and your feet on the pedals,” said the voice. “Don’t be afraid. They won’t bite.” Shorty swore to me that is what happened up in the plane. That is how he came to do what he did. He says he didn’t feel frightened at first; he felt foolish, like a man on a quiz program. Then he wondered how soon he would wake up. It took a long time, Shorty said, before the reality of the situation swung around in his mind and hit him like a fist.

And by that time the voice in his earphones had taken over and wasn’t giving him a chance to be frightened.

“Don’t be scared of the instrument board, either,” said the voice. “You won’t need most of the things on it. They’re luxuries. See if you can find a dial marked Altimeter and tell me what it says.”

Eight,” said Shorty.

“That means 8,000 feet,” said the voice. “Now look for a handle marked Automatic Pilot. “

“Here it is,” said Shorty.

“Turn it to |off.'”

“Take off the Automatic Pilot?” gasped Shorty.

“Sure,” said the voice. “You’re going to learn to fly this crate, aren’t you?”

Shorty’s hand shook as he took off the Automatic Pilot. The left wing dropped slightly.

“Keep the stick center.”

The wing went up.

“How did you know?” asked Shorty incredulously .

“Everybody does it the first time,” chuckled the voice, “Now let’s try a few things. Landing’s simple, but you’ll have to know how to bank. Let’s try a left bank first. Put the stick a little left and a little forward. Push the left pedal a little. Just a little.”

Bill had talked about that, Shorty remembered. He had said that the pedals worked just the opposite of a bobsled crossbar.

The big ship came around. Shorty took one hand off the stick and wiped something wet out of his eyes. In that instant he understood more of what flying had meant to Bill than ever before.

“Level it off,” said the voice. “Press the right pedal a little. Stick back to center. Pull it back a little to put the nose up. How was it?”

“A little jerky,” said Shorty.

“You probably lost some altitude, too,” said the voice. “That’s because you didn’t keep your nose on the horizon.”

“My nose?” asked Shorty. “The plane’s nose. Now let’s try another left bank.” The voice seemed to hypnotize him into it, Shorty said. “Now another,” it said. “Better? … You know,” said the voice, “you might fool me and come in on the other side. Let’s try a right bank. Just the opposite. Right pedal, and so on. Come on, now; let’s do it.”

“That was pretty bad,” said Shorty. “I remember, Bill said a right bank

seemed harder than a left one at first.”

“That’s right. Now let’s practice another one.”

“What do you suppose the passengers think?” asked Shorty.

“What they don’t know won’t hurt them. Are you flying along the railroad tracks now?”

“Pretty close.”

“East or west? Look at your compass. Top of the instrument board.” East.”

“Good. How are you at glides?”

“I never tried one,” said Shorty.

“Better try two or three. About all there is to landing is a good long glide. Push the wheel a little forward and try one. Not too far forward. What does the altimeter say now?”

“Seven and a half. Does that mean 7,500?”

“Yes,” said the voice. “Now look around and find the switch that lowers the wheels. You’ll need that.”

Shorty said he surrendered himself to the voice like a man floating downstream. What it told him to practice, he practiced. What it told him to push and pull and press, he did. Once there was a prolonged pounding on the door behind him. “Shall I open the door?” he asked the microphone.

“I wouldn’t,” said the voice in the earphones. “Why take a chance? You can fly this job, Pappy. You don’t need help.”

That was one of the sweetest moments in Shorty’s life.

“They told me I was too old to learn to fly,” he confessed. “They even kicked me out of the Kansas City airport.”

“They won’t today,” said the voice.

Shorty said he wished he had a 50-cent cigar. That was the first moment in his life when he had felt like smoking one.

As they flew on across Kansas, Shorty said he got a kind of physical pleasure out of living he hadn’t experienced for 30 years. His senses seemed peculiarly alert to the blueness of the air above him, the sweep of the Kansas plain, the wind waves in the wheat, and prairie grass below him. He saw another plane, headed southwest along the distant horizon, and felt the warm sense of brotherhood that ships feel at sea. Bill had told him about that feeling, but he hadn’t understood it.

He even began to feel like talking–more so than he had ever felt with anyone except Bill, when Bill was a boy. With his customers, with the few neighbors he knew, he always tried to say as little as possible and to cover up his awkward English and his funny accent. This fellow talking into his earphones actually seemed to want to hear him talk. Shorty told him about himself, and about Bill, and about some of the things he could see from the plane. When he saw what looked like wheel tracks curving across the prairie, it was the most natural thing on earth to ask the voice what they were.

“That’s the old Santa Fe Trail,” Shorty’s earphones said. “That’s the road they took before there were railroads. They went to the old Spanish cities in Mexico and brought wagon-loads of goods home to sell. That’s one of the most famous roads in America.”

“Why, that’s what I do,” said Shorty, becoming excited. “That’s how I do it. I get the stuff down south and bring it up here to sell. I used to sell it in wagons, too. Can’ aloupes and wa’ ermelons and frooze.” Unconsciously he dropped back into the old immigrant English.

“Sure,” said the voice.

Impulsively, Shorty told about the quarrel with Bill and how sorry he was that Bill’s last words had been spoken in anger.

“I don’t think Bill held any anger at you,” said the voice.

“How well did you know Bill?” asked Shorty.

“Pretty well.” There was a little silence, and then the voice asked, “How do you feel, old fellow?”

Over to the north was the yellow River Kaw, and the Lawrence hill was rising out of the endless plain. The hill, crowned by shining university buildings, had always seemed very high and insurmountable to Shorty. From this angle it looked different.

“You’re going to take her down now, old fellow,” said the voice. “You’re going to make a good landing. Your kid Bill would be proud of you.”

Shorty said that was the last time he felt any indecision about it.

“Better start to lose altitude now. Take her down to 2,000. Slow. Plenty of time. Slow. . . slow.”

Shorty pushed the stick forward . . .slow. . .slow.

The smoke of Kansas City was on the sky, and the taller buildings were beginning to separate from the horizon. When Shorty first saw the field he wondered how a plane could hit anything so small, but when he approached it a second time with motors throttled down as far as they would go, landing flaps down, wheels reaching for the ground, he felt a great surge of strength and knew he could do it. He banked around, feeling all the firmness and power of the ship as it turned into the wind. A sea captain’s phrase went through his memory–“a taut ship”–and he knew suddenly what that meant.

In that instant, too, he understood something else about flying: You fly, the plane doesn’t. Or at least there is a time of merger when you and the plane become one and fly. He wondered how often Bill had felt this same oneness with his plane. He felt very near to Bill at that moment, perhaps closer than ever in life. It was almost as though he and Bill were one.

Then he was steering into the white stripe of the runway, pulling back the stick little by little as the voice in the earphones told him to, cutting the airspeed, trying to bring the tail down level with the nose, trying to hold the wings level, knowing that the next ten seconds would tell whether it was a good landing or a crash.

Even in those seconds he remembered a plane he had once seen overrun a field and stand awkwardly, with nose buried in a swamp and tail high in the air, until everything above the ground burned away. Bill’s plane.

Then the wheels hit the ground. The left one hit first–left wing low, he guessed–and the plane gave a great awkward bounce, turned a little off the runway, and settled down. Shorty cut the ignition and let the ship roll. He didn’t feel up to taxiing it. After it stopped rolling, he put his head down on the stick and closed his eyes.

When the field attendants rushed out in their little cars to bawl him out for not taxiing to the landing apron, his first impulse was to crouch down, so they wouldn’t see him, or try to vanish in the crowd before anybody saw who he was. Then he remembered some things that had happened during the afternoon, and he sat up straight.

The attendants saw his civilian coat in the window and stopped growling and were silent in astonishment. And then he had his little moment of triumph. Little Shorty Frooze who sold cantaloupes. Little Shorty who was kicked off the airport because he was a nuisance. He sat up as straight and tall as he could. He leaned out the window and spoke to them in what he imagined to be the authoritative voice of an airlines captain.

“We have sick men aboard,” he said. “Take care of them before you touch anything else in the plane.”

And that is all of Shorty’s story except one very important incident. When they had shaken his hand and snapped his picture, he said he wanted to go to the tower to thank the person who had helped him bring in the ship. They laughed at the joke, and then saw he was in earnest.

The airport manager took him aside a moment. “Mr.–er–Frooze,” he said, “you know, don’t you, that we’ve been trying to contact your plane all afternoon? Nobody in the tower has been talking to you.”

Well, you explain it. What happened in the blue air over Kansas I have told you just as Shorty told me. It doesn’t seem possible that he could have imagined it all. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem possible that he could have remembered enough from Bill’s old aviation chatter to bring in that plane without help. Shorty swears someone was talking to him, and he thinks he knows who it was. I don’t for a moment believe it was who he thinks it was, but strange things happen. And the important thing, after all, is what Shorty thinks, because he has stopped grieving over Bill now, and walks with his head up, and doesn’t hide from people, and looks at the sky with the squint of a flier.

COPYRIGHT 1992 Saturday Evening Post Society

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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