It was 1990 when I found myself and my twin Beechcraft airplane grounded by a spate of late Spring thunderstorms. As anyone who’s spent the steamier months in south Florida will attest, these monsters roll through here in afternoon waves. Sometimes they come in one behind the other embedded in powerful squall lines, other times they’ll form spontaneously right around you in a process called convection. Either way, they love to eat light airplanes whose pilots dare to trespass against them. So, with the late afternoon sky an ominous black and the FAA weather-guesser predicting the predictable, I’d abandoned any hope of departing for home before morning and decided to cab it into Largo town, grab an early dinner and find a dry room for the night.
A burger, fries and a beer at a friendly-looking tavern satisfied the first of those intentions. And, as I sat at the bar enjoying my humble repast, the young guy at an adjoining stool spoke to me.
“See that?” the stranger said holding his beer out in front of my face, his hand trembling like a paint mixer machine.
When I didn’t answer immediately, he persisted. “See it?”
His slurred speech indicated he’d been sitting at the bar far longer than had I, so in the interest of discretion, I indulged him. “You’re shaking,” I said, hardly a triumph of observation given that his beer was splashing over the rim of his glass and onto my dinner.
“Damn right I’m shaking,” he went on, as I gently eased both his beer and hand out of range of my now beer battered fries. “You’d be shakin’ too,” he added, “if you’d done what I just done.”
“And what would that be?” I asked, more resigned than intrigued.
Thus encouraged, he sidled over and began his story.
To my surprise, I did become intrigued, quickly and completely intrigued. But not in a good way. You see, he too was a pilot in from the weather, a smuggler I suspect (more than suspect), and the tale he spun chilled me to the bone. And, though the unspeakable recklessness to which he’d confessed clearly strained credulity, the fact that it was so damned easy for any pilot to pull off haunts me every single time I go aloft. If you fly, be it as a pilot or passenger, private, commercial, military, or airline, I wager it will haunt you too. In fact, his tale of wanton desperation is what inspired me to write my novel, THE STRAIT.