Truth vs. Fiction

How I get another life experience proving that truth is stranger than fiction.

First, the background info.

My company, Flying M Air, is the Fuel Manager at Wickenburg Municipal Airport. This means that I’m required to provide warm bodies to pump fuel into aircraft, sell pilot supplies and refreshments, answer questions, and keep the terminal building presentable. They do other stuff, too, but that isn’t worth going into for the purpose of this tale.

I have a staff of three employees, all of whom are semi-retired with some kind of aviation experience. Gary is a pilot who has thousands of hours of experience in all kinds of airplanes. Jeff is a pilot who is now building his own airplane. Alta is one of only five women in the world qualified to sit in the engineer’s seat on a 747.

Unfortunately, when one or more of these people need time off, the others can’t always fill in. That means I have to work at the airport. Trouble is, when I’m working at the airport, I’m not writing books. When I’m not writing books, I’m not earning a living. So it’s my best interest to find additional warm bodies to keep on staff.

That’s half the background.

Now here’s where it starts getting weird.

Last January (that’s 2004), I get a phone call from the Wickenburg police at 1:30 AM. They tell my half-asleep brain that someone has just called them, reporting that he witnessed three men fueling and then loading C-4 explosives into a C170 (that’s a Cessna taildragger) at the airport. When asked, these three men told the witness that they were flying to Washington to blow up the White House.

I replied to the police that they really didn’t have much to worry about because it would take a Cessna a few days to reach Washington. (Yes, I really did say that. They probably have it on tape somewhere. Remember, I was half asleep.)

The officer started asking questions and I started waking up. The gravity of the situation started to sink in. After 9/11, reports like this at airports are taken very seriously. The police tell me what they’d been told. And I realize that the story didn’t match what I knew to be fact: Namely, that the plane couldn’t have fueled up at 6:30 when the witness claimed because I’d fueled the last plane at 5:30 PM and had locked up everything (including the pumps) at 6 PM when I left for the night. I suggest that perhaps the whole thing is a hoax.

Two more phone calls from the police that night before I’m finally able to get back to sleep.

A few days later, I’m at Macworld Expo in San Francisco, loitering outside the Peachpit Press booth. My cell phone vibrates. It’s the police in Wickenburg again. They tell me that the case has been resolved. That the witness has been charged with submitting a false terrorist report. They tell me the witness’s name, but it doesn’t ring a bell and doesn’t stick. They give me the report number in case I ever want to look at the report. All I hope is that I’m not called as a witness in some trial.

Time goes by. It’s now March. Two of my airport staff members are away at the same time and the third can’t work. I wind up working four days in a row at the airport while my editor anxiously awaits more chapters of my QuickBooks book. Enough is enough. Time to get more warm bodies.

I get a call from a guy named Bob Doe. (That isn’t his real name, but it’ll do.) He says he talked me to me several months ago about a job at the airport but I wasn’t hiring back then. Am I hiring now? Sure, I tell him. Go to the airport and fill out an application.

He comes by the airport while I’m working. He’s in his mid thirties. His resume shows all kinds of airport experience. But he’s working as a stocker in the supermarket. (Actually, he isn’t. But he does have an equally unrelated part-time job.) He’s very enthusiastic and I’m sucked in, desperate for more warm bodies so I can get back to work. I think I notice alcohol on his breath, but I could be imagining it. I tell him to come by the next day for training.

“So I got the job?” Bob says.

“Well, I want to see how you do at training,” I reply evasively, trying hard to convince myself that it isn’t alcohol at 11 AM.

Bob leaves and I think about it. I’m not sure about him. I voice my concerns to one of the medivac pilots stationed at the airport. He tells me to go with my gut feeling.

I call one of Bob’s references and learn that he worked there for two months. Human resources tells me they fired him for not showing up for work and not calling. I can’t track down the other recent reference because he didn’t include a phone number. I decide to put off training for another day when Mike, my significant other, will be around to help train him.

The next morning, I call him at 8 AM. I get his answering machine. I tell him not to come in until the next day. At 9 AM a taxi (yes, a taxi — the only one we have in town) rolls up and he gets out. I tell him about the message. He says he never got it. He says he must have been in the shower. I tell him I can’t train him that day. He gets a little nasty, pointing out that he’d taken a cab. I tell him I’ll pay the cab fare. He tries to get me to change my mind and let him stay. I tell him about the reference checks and tell him I need phone numbers for all of his references. I then pay the $14 round trip cab fare and send him on his way.

Bob calls later with phone numbers for two personal references. The other reference I’d tried to contact had gone out of business. (How convenient, I think.) He gives me the name of a supervisor at the other reference. After he hangs up, I leave a message on the supervisor’s voicemail.

The next day, Bob shows up in a cab again. He’s 10 minutes late. He sweeps in like he owns the place and immediately begins leaving the things he brought with him — backpack, coffee mug, etc. — around the terminal. I hand him over to Mike for training; I have a catering order to handle and two helicopter rides to give.

Later, when things calm down, I can see there’s a problem with this guy. He has a superior attitude that just doesn’t fit into our cosy little establishment. He doesn’t give a hoot for the little plane pilots and complains when the only jet we service that morning leaves without giving him a tip. (We don’t get tips in Wickenburg.) His possessions are scattered all over the terminal. And I can tell that even Mike — that deep well of patience — has had it with him.

When I leave to get lunch for Mike and me, I take Bob home (he was scheduled for training until 1 PM). On the way, he tells me how great it feels to be working at an airport again. He wants to know how many hours we’ll be giving him so he can quit one of his part time jobs. (I didn’t realize that he had two jobs.) I tell him I don’t know yet, that I’d have to let him know.

Back at the airport, Mike and I compare notes. We decide that Bob’s warm body just isn’t the right temperature for us. I get Mike to break the news to him on the phone. I write a check for $24 to cover the promised training pay and put it in the mail.

The next day, Mike is at the airport when Bob storms in, looking for me. He tells Mike that he spoke to me that morning and that I said I’d be at the airport at noon. (A blatant lie.) He tries to say that we’re not hiring him because of age discrimination. Mike points out that all of our employees are at least 20 years older than he is. Mike tells him we need someone more interested in the small plane pilots. He doesn’t get it. He keeps going on about how experienced he is dealing with jets. Mike tells him we get 50 small planes in for every jet that lands so that his experience isn’t worth much to us. Bob storms out, slamming the door behind him.

And yes, there was definitely alcohol on his breath.

Today, Mike and I are having lunch at a local restaurant. Bob comes up in conversation. Something triggers a switch in the back of my mind and I recall the January C-4 in a Cessna incident. Suddenly, Bob’s name seems more familiar than it should.

I stop at the police station on my way back to my office.

“Remember that case in January when the guy reported C-4 being loaded into a Cessna to blow up the White House?” I ask a woman behind a grill.

The woman nods with a strange smile on her face.

“Just tell me,” I say. “Was the person who reported it Bob Doe?”

She nods again.

What do you think?