Wenatchee, Last July
I told Rocket that the girl at the fence reminded me of Bunny.
“Bunny. Kate. Katherine…what’shername. The stray from Louisiana. Weren’t you with that part of the tour last year?”
She was standing alone, leaning gently with one hand laced through the chain link for support, watching the flat light of a waning day play across the planes out on the tarmac.
Rocket peered at her, squinting at the silhouette, and shook his head — no joy. He seemed unable to muster the energy to ask for more details; just out of reach, the cooler lay full of promise and cold Heineken, and it appeared to be winning the tug-of-war for his attention.
He waved a magisterial hand at Bobby, who’d just returned from wiping the last of the oil off the Mitchell’s continually-bleeding left engine. It was the universal sign between men of a certain social class: get me a beer, willya?
Bobby fished one hand through the ice and passed a bottle to Rocket, then looked to me. Did I want one? Sure. I took it, thanked him and dug into my pocket for an opener while he collapsed into the empty lawn chair between where Rocket and I sat.
It had been a long day. Then again, when the weather was good like this, it was always a long day. We’d usually be pulling the chocks at dawn to get in as many flights as we could before we had to open the gates for general admission at ten. It was always a scramble to get everything back on the flight line, shut down and wiped up pretty by then. Once the gates were open, we were on our feet until they closed again at five. And by then Ryan had usually managed to sell a few more rides; on good days we’d fly until sunset and put the planes away in the dark.
Not that I could complain. We were living a life most pilots didn’t dare dream of, barnstorming our way around the country. In genuine World War Two bombers at that. We spent our days sharing living history with everyone from four-year-old kids bouncing on their moms’ shoulders to the last of the old guys who actually flew these planes in the war. It was an honor. Rocket had been with the tour for…hell, he was old enough to have served when they were new. But it was Bobby’s first year, and he was still picking up the lore where he could.
The funny thing was that her real name wasn’t even Kate. I was trying to recall how it all fit together, but I think Kate turned out to have been the name of her daughter. I remembered the look on the officer’s face when he showed me the picture and I called her Kate; made me shudder a little.
It was early March when we picked her up during a three day stop in Alexandria. Not Virginia — the one in Louisiana, about halfway upstate on the Red River. Usually we aimed for bigger towns: a bigger crowd and more rides meant more money to keep the planes flying. But the airport was an old Army Air Corp base and it seemed like the whole damned town had served active duty at some point; if nothing else, Alexandria was a matter of paying our respects.
Doesn’t matter how big or small the town was, there was always a crowd waiting at the fence when we landed and taxied in. Big old planes like that, with half an acre of olive drab and big old round engines stacked on each wing, popping and burping history with every turn. There was always a crowd.
And in the crowd there were always one or two true believers. Most folks who came out would spend an hour or two with us before work or Saturday golf or spouse and kids obliged them to excuse themselves. But the true believers would be at the fence when we landed, and you’d see them there at the gate the next morning, too. You’d swap stories with them, show them around the planes and move on. But you could see them out of the corner of your eye, circling around like a stray dog hoping for a bone. Eventually, you’d get the question.
“Anything I can do to help out?”
It wasn’t hard to be sympathetic. I remember what it was like on the outside, back before I joined up. For better or worse, we were the stuff of legends.
Still, I felt a bit like Tom Sawyer handing them a rag and asking if they could try to get at the oil around the left cowling on the Mitchell. That damned engine served as an ever-present reminder of the First Rule of Radials: if you’re not leaking oil, you’re out of it.
But for the true believers, that rag represented a holy mission. Receiving it transformed them from a mere spectator, someone come out to pay their $12 and gawk, into a member of the brotherhood. Now they too were tending the sacred artifacts. Now they too had entered the inner circle.
Bunny was at the fence that afternoon when we landed in Alexandria. It had been a good flight up from Lafayette, trundling north over farmland on a glorious spring day. At 1500 feet, the carpet of southern Americana slipped past like an endless diorama: a riverboat making its way downstream, a farmer’s tractor trailing dust, then stopping momentarily as the shadow of a B-17 slid across his half-plowed field.
I was flying right seat for Marley in the ’17 that day. Taxiing us to the ramp kept his hands and feet busy, but once I’d gotten the cowl flaps open and boost pumps off after landing, my main job was sliding the window back and waving at the assembled crowd alike we were big damned heroes.
I noticed her right away — sue me, but I always notice the pretty women right away. Small frame, sandy blonde hair with a sensible “farmer’s wife” cut, in a knee-length floral skirt. She was right up against the fence in a clutch of maybe fifty others: ball-capped men in overalls, mothers trying to corral a restive brood underfoot, and the inevitable squadron of hunched and withered veterans, mounted on electric scooters and tended by their already graying offspring for one more chance to commune with relics from their long-faded past.
I chatted her up on the ramp once we’d cleared the backup at the gate. She was standing with her fingers clutched, about a wingspan back from the nose of the ’17, contemplating it as you might a sleeping tiger at the zoo.
“You have a chance to climb around yet?”
She jumped a little, and I apologized for startling her. Then repeated the question. She had no idea what I was talking about.
“In the planes. Have you had a chance to climb around inside the planes?”
“You can…go inside?”
She was older than she’d looked from a distance. Ample crow’s feet, and a sprinkling of ochre across her tanned cheeks. But still pretty in that old-time all-American way, with a small-town charm school smile grown comfortable in the fullness of age. And pert, slim — full of motion.
Her hands played a nervous game of here’s-the-church-here’s-the-steeple as we talked. The wedding ring was big, gaudy, cheap — I could tell even from here. So she wasn’t one of those girls who came out looking to score a pilot for a night or two. Propriety aside, we tried to discourage each other from sampling the local wares, if only because it made sleeping arrangements awkward.
But no, she wore that ring like a shotgun over the shoulder; she wasn’t here to sleep with anyone.
I walked her to the ladder at the forward hatch and coached her — go on, it’s okay, grab onto the seat rails and pull yourself up — to a spot below the top turret where two people could stand side-by-side. We might as well have been standing in King Tut’s tomb.
“It’s okay — you can touch it. You can touch anything here.”
By the time I’d walked her back through the radio room, along the bomb bay catwalk and around the ball turret into the rear section, she must’ve asked a million questions. What was this for? How did they do that? Were the kids who flew these planes in the war really just eighteen? She spoke like a schoolteacher, like someone who was used to asking and answering questions patiently, and she seemed obsessed with details I’d never noticed about the plane.
I handed her off to Charlie for a tour of the Liberator after we’d climbed out through the aft hatch. “Hey Charlie! Can you give…sorry, I don’t think I got your name…”
“…Kate.” I didn’t catch it then, but now that I think back, there was just a moment’s hesitation before she answered.
“Sure. Charlie — can you give Kate here a tour of the ‘24?”
Charlie’s eyebrows arched appreciatively. Her back was already to me, so I pointed symbolically at my own ring finger and gave him an exaggerated “Ahem.” I couldn’t tell whether his shrugged shoulders meant “What a shame,” or “When has that stopped me before?”
She was back the next morning when the gates opened, this time in jeans and a t-shirt. I was helping Zach replace a pushrod tube on the ’25, but every time I looked over, she had someone at her side — Marley, Jim, Barry — pointing at the turbochargers or gear down lock mechanism. Or she was crouched beside one of the old vets who’d come out, beaming up at him like a kid during storytime.
By afternoon, Marley had her on a creeper, degreasing the belly of the ‘17.
“Hey - she asked what she could do to help, and I’m an old man. I can’t do that kind of shit anymore.”
We were flying out the next morning, two hours west to College Station. I thought she had come out to see us off, but she thumbed her flight sticker at me like it was a golden ticket from Willy Wonka, and flashed a triumphant grin: “I’m coming along.”
We did take riders on transit flights, but they tended to be rare on legs like this. It was one thing to shell out a few hundred bucks for a half-hour hop around the neighborhood. But when you give someone a ride halfway across Texas, they need to find a way to get back on their own.
Barry told me she spent the entire flight up in the nose with her face plastered to the bubble window at the bombardier’s station. And we’d no sooner shut down than she was bouncing at the seat rails like a bunny, bubbling out half sentences of amazement. She kissed old Marley squarely on the lips when he stood up to face her, then her eyes went wide in mortification, and she clasped her cheeks, stepped back and tripped on the base of the top turret.
“Oh, I’m so sorry — I didn’t mean to do that! It’s just… my goodness. Holy heaven above.”
Marley waved it off like Yeah, don’t worry — this happens all the time. But I’d never seen him blush like that before.
By the time I’d gotten everything secured in the cockpit, she was already up under the wing, wiping oil from the number two engine. I guess I didn’t pay her any more attention until we’d gotten everything out of the bomb bay: crowd-line ropes, traffic cones, folding tables and the dozen odd plastic storage bins of souvenirs we sold at the gate — you can fit a hell of a lot in the belly of a WWII bomber, and it takes a bit of hustle to get everything set up so you can let folks in for a look.
But she was still there, scrubbing away when five o’clock rolled around and we cleared the crowd line for the evening flights.
“When are you heading back?”
There was a different kind of puzzle on her face. Different from two days earlier, when I’d asked her if she’d been in the planes yet. Her words came slowly, and from far away.
“Don’t know if I am.”
I didn’t understand, and told her so.
“I figure I might stay a while.” She was nodding, as though she were just doing that figuring right now.
“You mean in College Station?”
She stuffed the tail of the rag in her back pocket and wiped a bead of sweat off her cheek. “How long are y’all gonna be here?”
Friday, I told her.
“Well, then. I guess I’ll figure that out on Friday.”
“Your family’s okay with that?”
She caught me staring at her hands. The ring was gone.
“Oh — that.” She shook her head again, this time more quickly. “That’s just to keep the boys away.” She patted the olive drab belly of the ’17. “But I didn’t want to scratch your baby’s paint, you know.”
Ryan was our ride coordinator back then. He had the gift of a carnival barker and could fill a plane like nobody’s business.
“You did explain to her that this was a one way ride, didn’t you?”
He looked as if I’d accused him of stealing cookies from Girl Scouts. Of course he had.
“She said, ‘Oh, that won’t be a problem.’ I remember. Those were her exact words: ‘That won’t be a problem.’”
Mary and Clara’s room had a pull-out, so she stayed with them that first night; after that, Jim just booked an extra bed for her. There really wasn’t any paperwork for volunteering with the tour, so from that point on she was just one of the gang. We all had the same deal: a shared room in the local Motel Six equivalent, a bag lunch of whatever the local coordinator dug up, and $20 per diem for dinner and incidental expenses. Someone somewhere back at HQ was undoubtedly doing the accounting, but out on the road, these things just flowed.
I think it was Charlie who started calling her Bunny, and she didn’t seem to mind. “Quick as a rabbit, that girl is,” he’d say, and she was. But he looked positively offended when Jim shot him a sideways glance — “No, not like that, you pervert” — and for once I saw no reason to question his intentions.
Still, I don’t think I ever saw her skive, not even on those days out in Stockton when the ramp must’ve been a hundred degrees. We’d all be hiding in what little shade we could find, and she’d be running fresh loads of t-shirts from the van, making change at the PX, or chasing down that wayward kid who’d snuck across the crowd line to get a closer look at the Mustang.
And damn, she was good with kids. She never did talk much about herself over dinner, or when we gathered out on the patio for our almost nightly beers-and-bullshit sessions. She wasn’t particularly evasive if you asked; you’d just find that, after a sentence or two, she’d managed to get you talking about yourself instead.
We lost her in Medford, about six months in. Jim said something at breakfast about how he’d gotten the strangest call. Someone trying to get ahold of Louise Osborne, from Alexandria.
“That’s not you, is it?”
Bunny shook her head like it was the funniest thing she’d ever heard.
Jim said he’d gotten the man’s number in any case. Said he promised to call back if he did run into her.
“Here it is, anyway. If you want.” He slid the torn sheet of Best Western stationery across the table at her. She picked it up with an if-you-say-so grimace, looked at the number, shook her head and stuffed the scrap in the same back pocket where she usually tailed an oil rag or two.
Last I saw of her was around noon, when she asked me to take over gate duty so she could “freshen up a bit.” Jim didn’t even have a cell number for her, so there was no one to call when we couldn’t find her that evening. Clara tried the Best Western — maybe she’d not felt well, and had gotten a ride back? But there was no answer in the room, and the kid at the desk couldn’t recall having seen anyone matching her description since morning.
It was in Wenatchee that Agent Harvey came out to the airport to see us. FBI, Missing Persons Bureau, he said, and showed us his badge. He’d spoken with — he flipped through a spiral-top notepad — a gentleman named James Davidson a couple of weeks earlier.
Jim nodded silently.
Mr. Harvey was seeking information on a Mrs. Louise Osborne, and was hoping we might be able to help him establish her whereabouts.
“‘Mrs.,’ you said?”
“You know her?”
We glanced at each other in the circle that had formed around him. Mr. Harvey looked less like my impression of an FBI agent than an insurance adjuster called away from his desk. He was weary, and uncomfortable in noonday sun. But there was an earnest look in his eyes.
Charlie answered for us all. “Don’t think so. Is she in some kind of trouble?”
“I hope not. But her husband is very worried about her.”
“Where’s her husband?”
“Alexandria. The one in Louisiana, not Virginia.”
We nodded knowingly, but said nothing. Mr. Harvey took this as his cue to elaborate.
“It seems Mrs. Osborne had been out to see your aircraft when you were in town a few months back. And disappeared shortly after. I was hoping one of you might be able to recognize her from photographs. Maybe tell us whether you’d seen her that day. Maybe whether you remember anything that could help us find out what might have become of her.”
He pulled an eight-by-ten collage of printed photos from a manila envelope and we bought time pretending to examine them with interest. Of course we knew who she was. The question was what we were going to tell him.
In the end it was Jim who owned up to it. Yes, we knew who she was. She’d traveled with us for a bit and seemed to have left of her own free will. He was unsure of her situation at home, he said, so he wasn’t sure he felt obliged to help the Bureau track her down more than that.
“I might need check with the Foundation’s lawyers before we discuss this any further.”
Agent Harvey shook his head as if taking off a stiff coat.
“No — no need for that. She’s of legal age and not under any criminal investigation.” His expression seemed to soften, and something came alive in him as he spoke. “As long as we have credible evidence that no foul play was involved, which I think we now do, then, well….” He looked out across the tarmac, seeming to take in the magnificence of the July afternoon for the first time.
He shrugged. “I think we’re done here.”
We gave him a tour of the planes before he left, and he bought a B-17 cap on the way out. I walked him back to the parking lot.
“You said she called herself Kate?”
“She did,” I told him.
“She had a daughter named Kate. Lost her to pneumonia, I understand. Late last year.”
“Any other kids?”
He shook his head. “Only a pain in the ass husband who says he’ll teach her a thing or two when she gets back.”
We walked the rest of the way in silence.
“You think she’ll ever go back?”
He laughed. “I hope the hell not.”
He fumbled for the keys of his rental car, unlocked the door and settled into the seat, then looked back up at me.
“Understand that you’re not obliged to tell me, but you really don’t have any way of getting in touch with her?”
I shook my head, and he nodded with the circumscribed resignation of a salaried government employee. Just doing his job, and had to ask. But his eyes darted a moment and met mine with an afterthought.
“Pity. But listen — if you do happen to run across her again?”
“Do me a favor: Tell her good luck out there.”
I promised I would. He pulled the door shut, started the engine up and clattered off slowly in loose rock and dust.
I was kind of relieved that we didn’t stop in Alexandria the next year; not sure what I would have said if she’d come out to meet us there. But I was hoping, somehow, that we’d see her somewhere along the tour. Maybe not Medford, but somewhere.
Bobby squinted toward the fence.
“You think that might be her?”
No, definitely not. Just reminded me of her in a way.
“But tell ya what, Bobby — do me a favor: Wander on over there and say howdy, will ya? See if maybe she’d like to come over and have a look at the planes.”