Somewhere to the West, Maybe in South Dakota

We just sat there for a few seconds, peering into the snow and ice crystals dancing straight at us into the windshield, front-lit by the landing lights, total blackness beyond, shaking and rattling in the strong west wind, while the pilot held the brakes on, as much to prevent our being blown backward into a drift as to prevent our launching into the driving snow. He slowly urged the shuddering engine up to full revolutions before releasing the brakes and snapping the little single-engine plane forward into the night and the heart of the blizzard...and as he did, he let out a deep, “Hooooooooweeeeeee” of sheer delight, or terror...but there was no time to figure out which....

I don’t remember anymore the urgency behind the transfer of the young cancer patient from Mackinac Island in the middle of that January night. I simply remember that the doctor at the Medical Center had been a medic in Detroit once, and we trusted him; our patient was stable, but in pain, and we all had a sense that the end was coming sooner rather than later. We also knew that neither the fixed-wing air ambulance from Traverse City nor the Coast Guard’s big helicopter was willing to fly that night. Maybe the weather was just too bad, but those decision-makers had no personal connection with our patient, which was, of course, understandable. So we had called the boss of the air service in St. Ignace, and he said he’d see if his new pilot wanted to do it.

Our patient was almost exactly my age, with a daughter between mine, and a husband woven just as tightly into the fabric of the little island and their marriage as she was. Even though I had brought along extra blankets, had wrapped and tucked her into as snug a cocoon as I could, careful not to dislodge the fragile IV line snaking out to the bag I hung from a protruding fitting in the cabin, I was still worried about her not being able to move much, strapped to the uncomfortable transfer cot, itself strapped into the space we created by removing four of the six seats in the little plane. I remember that we communicated mostly by touch. I crouched beside the cot, wedging my knees and legs into the almost-space between the cot rails and the skin of the fuselage, watching bands of ice form along the ribs of the plane’s structure as our breath condensed in the frigid air, before the pilot switched off the dome light and launched us into the night towards St. Ignace, in calm weather, a flight of only five or six minutes. I eased my hand through the folds of blankets, gently searching for hers, ostensibly to check her warmth, but mostly, simply to reassure her, to let her know that we would not let go of her up here in the cold.  And the world compressed into our two hands, motionless, silent in the dark beneath the din of the engine and the wind. There was nothing more I could do.

Seconds later, it seemed, we bounced, then skidded on the icy surface of the runway in St. Ignace. I slid my hand from hers and began to check again the blankets, the cot straps, retrieved the IV bag from its makeshift hook and placed it gently beneath a layer of blanket under the loosened chest strap, tucking the plastic tubing carefully beside the outline of her arm, protecting it from an inadvertent snag that would undo the difficulty of getting the catheter into her veins, already brittle from the months of chemotherapy.

As we rolled toward the little terminal, still buffeted by gusts of snow, I could dimly make out the interior lights of the pre-warmed waiting ambulance as I struggled to stretch out the numbness in my cramped legs.  And after the pilot had shut us down, then crawled gingerly around the head of the cot to unlatch the side door, the wind and terminal lights blasted together into the sudden opening, along with the face of the other medic who would take over her care for the ground transport to the hospital. We couldn’t have known then, but this medic and I would go on to work together nearly eight years, through many nights like this, watching our kids grow up together, watching his wife battle cancer from her own angle, too. But that was years in the future, then. I remember he was all gentle business, rechecking the blankets, the cot straps, the path of the IV line, and he leaned in, through the howling wind, and said something quietly into the ear of our patient that brought a small smile to her face even as she grimaced and her hand sought mine for one last squeeze. And then they were gone. Rolling quickly through the snow, into the back of the waiting ambulance, then on into the night to the hospital forty-five ground miles and a peninsula away. I never saw her again.

And as I turned from the departing truck, I saw the pilot slowly moving to push the little plane into the protective safety of the open hangar, but as I walked over to help him push, I felt a deep, selfish stab of longing for my own wife and two daughters, back across the frozen lake, safe, I hoped, snuggled into their own blanket cocoons against the storm that was clearly intensifying. And so the words were out before I even really had time to feel ashamed, “ wouldn’t want to take me back, eh?” And in his eyes, lit by the terminal arc-lights, tearing and blinking against the wind and sleet, I saw the twinned emotions of fear and delight scud quickly past before his bravado buried them with, “Awww, man...really?” But I’d seen that delight, too...

I’d met his boss fifteen years or so before, who in his turn had introduced himself to me by saying, “Hey…why don’t you sit up here next to me?” just before flipping his own little plane nearly onto its wingtip just after take-off simply to scare me with a joke he’d foreshadowed with a raised eyebrow to my wife, whom he had known for thirty years. After a baptism like that, I had grown used to the challenges of flying to and from the island in all kinds of weather. But my first flight with this new pilot before me earlier that year hadn’t gone especially well. Coming back after a night shift at the hospital in Sault Ste. Marie, I’d wedged myself into a seat beside plumbers and masons hoping to get an early season start to the summer projects. After flying with the boss for years, this new pilot’s scrupulous attention to the pre-flight safety checks struck the plumbers and me as a little too prissy. I confess that I hadn’t really known some of the things about the plane I’d flown in dozens of times before until he pointed them out that morning. To make matters worse, as we spiraled up and up after take-off, only to look down far below us to see the boss’s own plane skimming along just above the waves and remaining chunks of ice, the new guy said firmly, “Nothing more useless than air above you when something goes wrong.” And we all sort of bristled at the quiet insubordination, even as we uneasily knew he was right. And that unease flickered for a moment into outright panic just after touchdown on the island that morning, as the little plane skidded sideways on a patch of early morning ice...terrifying to see the runway rushing beneath me, along the same axis as the wing. But the new guy just calmly adjusted a bit, let out a quiet, “whoa,” and turned us 90 degrees back to the right, back to rolling, rather than skidding sideways down the tarmac. And we were all impressed. I heard somewhere later that he had a military background, polished by seasonal crop-dusting work somewhere in South Dakota, I think.

Maybe that confidence was what allowed me to ask him to consider taking me back, knowing that it would mean not one, but two more trips out into the storm for him. I knew the outlines of another story, too, of his boss’s walking bloodied into the bar in St. Ignace years before after ditching on the ice doing a patient transport on a night a lot like this one...but there was that delight thing, and the fact that just being able to touch the three girls waiting for me at home seemed more and more important.

And so we leapt up into the blackness, millions of icy white pinpricks streaming directly into our faces, mesmerizing us, daring us to try to follow the trajectory of just one of them, as we bore directly west, into the storm. I knew that the two turns would be critical:  first to turn back 180 degrees to the east, then to turn 180 degrees again to line up for the approach to the runway, again heading directly into the storm. The pilot glanced over at me just once before that first turn, then fought the wheel slowly around to the left as we bucked and threatened to roll as he exposed more and more of the wing’s underside to the storm. For an instant, the lights of the bridge appeared appreciably far beneath us as we finished that turn, and then I watched the airspeed jump as we began to use the storm to drive us forward towards home. The cabin grew quieter for a moment then, too, as the engine revolutions dropped a bit and some of our sound was blown into the dark ahead of us.

I don’t know and didn’t ask how the pilot gauged how far east we needed to fly before making the decision for the second turn; no landmarks were visible below us at all, and I knew that this was not the time he wanted to make an orienting pass over the airport before making a final approach: he wanted to get this one right with just one shot. And again, as he fought the wheel around to the left, wind bouncing us up against our harnesses as the little plane dropped and rose again in a crazy rhythm not her own, I glimpsed the runway lights far ahead of us and far below, amazingly exactly in line with our new course. And as he switched on the landing lights, it became increasingly difficult to tell the pinpricks of the runway lights from the driving snow streaming straight at us again. I kept my eyes focused tightly on what I thought were the lights, but gasped when those same lights appeared to leap upward nearly the whole height of the windshield during one of our drops in a gap in the wall of wind pushing us steadily back against the scream of the little engine. The second and third times, those light-jumps seemed much bigger as I worried more and more that we would simply not have enough air left beneath us to absorb the drop. I thought for an instant of the pilot from down below on a muggy, hazy day the summer before who had misjudged exactly this approach, gone around in the haze for a second pass, and arrowed the plane directly in to the towering white pines that separated the eastern edge of the runway from the bluff and the lake below. He and his wife and daughter had been lucky, managing to crawl from the crippled plane just before its tank exploded, sending them home with relatively minor burns to their airways and hands, but I remembered clearly the way they smelled, and the charred white pines ringing the wreckage were probably close beneath us now, buried in white.

Finally, after one more harness-straining drop, I glimpsed the runway lights beside us, and the snow streaming steadily between us and the ground as we lurched and bumped down the last few feet, then skidded past the first taxiway turn toward the tiny terminal, and eventually to a stop. I think we both breathed out slowly, but neither of us said a word. The pilot taxied quickly back toward the terminal, but stopped only long enough to reach over, unlatch my door, and bundle me out into the storm. Flushed with guilt now, I muttered my thanks as he smiled, shook his head, closed and latched the door from the inside, and taxied back to the east before turning around, holding the brakes on for a second again, revving the engine, and hurling just himself back up into the blackness streaked with white in the landing lights as he fought his way back to the west. I stood in the snow in the dark listening until I couldn’t hear the engine any longer, then turned and began to walk the two miles back to my waiting family.

He made it back to St. Ignace that night, and I think he picked up the bottle of whiskey I left for him at the airport later that week, but we never shared more than a few words about that night again, though he always had a smile for me and I saw that delight in his eyes once or twice more that year, though in far less trying conditions. When I asked his boss at the beginning of the following winter, I learned he’d been killed over the summer; the boss wasn’t sure, but he thought he’d snagged some power lines during a crop-dusting run, somewhere to the west, maybe in South Dakota, he thought.


Pete Olson is Associate Dean of Health, Business, and Technology and a licensed paramedic instructor at North Central Michigan College, and he relishes the chance to return to the narratological roots that were nourished by years of outstanding literature students at the University of Michigan and Hillsdale College.

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