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Poison

An ill-wind remembered

by Gary Wockner

Published in the May/June 2006 issue of Orion magazine



Photograph courtesy of Gary Wockner, used with permission

MY DAD WAS A CROP DUSTER. I was his flagman.

The plane flew a wide arc through the pale sky above the horizon. It took about a half mile to turn around. He straightened out the wings as he headed back toward the field, the plane wobbling slightly while he found the next rows of corn. Sometimes he put the plane in a slip, which was more like falling sideways than actually flying, until he got it lined up. Then the wings leveled out and he headed straight for me—engine howling, prop whistling, tank filled with 150 gallons of broad-spectrum insecticidal poison, coming my direction at one hundred miles an hour.

My arms were waving over my head, my right hand holding the wooden shaft of a white flag. He hit the button and the spray flew out, fogging the horizon behind him. The mist would undulate and settle on the cornfield like leaves falling on a calm fall day.

As soon as I was sure he had the right rows of corn, I would quickly turn and march off the next fifteen, three-foot-wide rows to be sprayed. Time slowed. Then the roar would pick up again as the plane rose and turned, and a few seconds later, I was once more the target, as if a giant insecticidal bull’s-eye were marked on my fourteen-year-old chest—a scarlet “I.”

Come and get me, Dad. Come and get me.

Back at the airport before we left, he reminded me, “Now, when you see me lined up, get the hell out of the way. Don’t let the spray get on you. It’s poison!” No matter how many times he said it, he always said it loud—Poison! He’d have a cigarette dangling out of his mouth, its crimson point bobbing and dipping as he spoke. Sometimes the words came out garbled until he grabbed the cigarette between two thick fingers and pulled it out. Poison!

Again and again the red-and-white plane would roar toward me, the whistle and the howl and the hissing of the spray combining in a mad furor. At the ends of each wing, the mist whipped into a vortex, dancing and curling before falling onto the green corn leaves. One second before the plane passed the end of the field, Dad would click the spray off, and the hissing immediately stopped. I would hear the insecticide sprinkling down like the lightest of spring showers. Sometimes I would close my eyes and turn my back as the mist settled. Depending on the wind, I could taste it.

MY DAD HAD A LITTLE BLACK BOOK, and at the end of the day we would sit in the pickup and he would jot down the day’s take. He’d keep the cigarette in his mouth as he scribbled, the smoke rising to the top of the cab and working its way out the window. Each entry would start with the farmer’s name and move to the right, something like, “Jim Eagleton, 8/1/1975 . . . 240 acres . . . Malathion . . . $4.50/acre.” Dad would pull out a little calculator and punch it with his stubby fingers before he wrote the last item: “$1,080.00.” It had taken about an hour to spray that farm.

On a good day in a hot, bug-infested summer, we’d work sunup to sunset. In a good season, this might go on for fifteen days straight. One good month and the year’s work was over. Simple, back-of-the-envelope math.

“It’s an ill wind that don’t blow somebody some good,” the farmers would say. They knew that if they didn’t hire my dad, their crop was ruined.

We lived in a new house with a swimming pool. All through school I had new shoes, new clothes. My parents always had new cars. Later, Mom and Dad paid for all three of us kids to go to college, the first generation in our family to do so.

Money bought speed, too. The garage at home often held race cars, stock cars, Harley motorcycles, and racing boats. Dad would say, “If it’s loud and goes fast, I want it.” Even the “family car” went fast. I remember one of them, a red Ford Torino GT with a 428 engine and a black Cobra Jet scoop sticking out of the hood. Dad would pop the car up to a hundred miles an hour on a jaunt out for dinner, and I’d listen to the Cobra Jet whistle as it sucked in air, the unending corn and bean fields of central Illinois blurring past the backseat windows. He said it would go 145, though he never did it with us kids in the car.

Dad had his own airport with three small hangars filled with planes and a couple more staked out on the grass. In addition to the crop-duster, he always had a few other airplanes, sometimes a helicopter or gyrocopter, and often a powered hang glider or two. My granddad also kept a plane at the airport.

I remember one particular plane, a bright red Midget Mustang that Dad called the Red Rocket. It had only one seat, short, stubby wings, and a huge engine. He would take off on the half-mile grass strip, and the very instant the plane took flight, he would point it into a near-vertical ascent. After leveling out, he would circle high for a few moments and then make a long, swooping dive for the airport. The engine would whine in a shrill aerodynamic pitch just like in the war movies. Dad would level out about thirty feet above ground and buzz the airport, Granddad and I staring as he raced by. He flashed us an A-OK sign with his right hand, his thick thumb and middle finger curling into a perfect O, the other fingers straight up, taut and proud.

A moment later, he would land and taxi back up the runway. By the time he got to where we stood, he already had the canopy pulled back and a cigarette clenched between his teeth. Then he’d stop the engine and just sit there looking at us. On one occasion he said, “Two hundred and twenty-two miles an hour. New record.” As the cigarette smoke curled up out of the cockpit, he grinned with a “look at me, ain’t I something” expression. Which he was.

My granddad saw it differently and would say back, “It’s a flying fucking coffin, Sonny. You’re gonna kill yourself!” At which my dad would grin wider. Then he would stand up in the cockpit, pull that cigarette out of his mouth, and flick it ten yards across the thick grass, a wisp of smoke flip-flopping and trailing through the air.

All paid for by poison.

IT CAME IN JUGS, BARRELS, CANS, AND BAGS delivered by all manner of shipping companies. Sometimes the chemical company itself would send a truck by with three pallets. Other times the UPS man would drop off a barrel or thirty jugs packed in six boxes. He unloaded his cargo quickly, an anxious look on his face.

Once we drove fifty miles to a warehouse and picked up a truckload ourselves. As we walked into the plant, the smell of insecticide and herbicide was overwhelming. Near the back of the warehouse sat two hundred pallets of powdered poison. I remember watching the guys load our truck, their hands, arms, shirts, and faces covered with white dust. On the way home my dad said, “Son, don’t ever work in a place like that. Those guys won’t make it to forty. Cancer.” Then he paused, and said a mantra I must have heard at least fifty times. “Don’t do what I do. Get the hell out of here and go to college.” Then another little pause. “Me and your mom will pay for it.”

Dad had a boisterous personality. He was loud and filled with enthusiasm. He never wrung his hands, never gnashed his teeth. He’d talk a little about what he was going to do, and then he’d just goddamn do it. To hell with self-doubt. He could build anything, drive anything, fly anything. And he’d do anything for me. I had a go-kart and a minibike and then later, car after car. If I even hinted that something wasn’t running right, within an hour or two he made sure it was.

OUR DAYS USUALLY STARTED before sunup when the wind was light and the air cool. Dawn hovered on the horizon as we arrived at the airport, and Dad and I jumped out of the truck and began our routine. I’d flip on the electricity to the fuel pump, then pull the fuel hose over to the right wing of the airplane. With my right hand squeezing the nozzle, I’d drum my left-hand fingers on the wing, the taut fabric echoing and singing. Next I’d drag the hose over to the left wing and repeat the process.

While I fueled up, Dad would get out the county plat book and plan the first job. He was born and raised in this sleepy farming county and knew every farmer and every field within twenty miles. He’d run his eyes and fingers across the plat book like he was touching a score of sheet music for the symphony about to begin. Then he sorted and counted the poison needed for the job.

The plane was a Piper Pawnee D, a working airplane. It had a huge engine that carried two large tanks of fuel in each wing and one large tank of poison right behind the engine. This tank was molded around the pilot’s feet and knees to fill every square inch of the small cockpit. The plane’s one seat was bolted to the steel bars of the fuselage, and the pilot sat squeezed in among containers of poisonous and combustible liquid like a chicken in a factory-farm cage.

I’d kick the wooden blocks away from the wheels of the plane and go stand behind the right wing as Dad stood behind the left. Together, we’d push the airplane out of the hangar. The tires would crunch across the gravel for thirty feet and then hit smooth grass. We’d stop pushing and the plane came to a halt. Instinctively, we’d look to the horizon and see the sun staring hard above the cornfield to the east.

With the sun often came wind, which we watched closely all day. Too much wind and the poison would blow where it wasn’t supposed to, like onto a neighboring farmer’s field. Way too much wind and it wasn’t safe to fly. We’d look up at the windsock on the top of the pole at the edge of the landing strip. If everything was still A-OK, we’d start loading up.

When we sprayed dust or pellets, we’d carry a dozen fifty-pound bags over to the airplane, lift them onto the wing, and pour them into the tank, turning our faces as the dust billowed and filled the air. Then we’d try to roll up the empty bags without getting more dust on ourselves. When we sprayed liquid, we first filled the tank with a hundred or more gallons of water from the well nearby and then poured in the poison. It all splashed together, often up and out of the tank. This was the real stuff, concentrated broad-spectrum. “Attacks the nervous and respiratory system,” my dad said. “Instant knock down. That’s what you want. They breathe, they die.”

I used to know all the names and smells like a cabdriver knows streets—Sevin and Malathion are two that remain lodged in my memory. Some were perfumed or mixed with molasses so the bugs would take the bait. The ones meant to kill weeds also had a sweet, chemical odor. Others smelled like nothing else on Earth, just unique and murderous.

When we were done loading I’d stand back and watch as Dad took over. He’d circle the airplane, looking at all the nuts and bolts and cables, the cigarette between his teeth bobbing and dipping as he made his inspection. He was meticulous when it came to mechanics. After his safety check, he would climb up on the wing and throw his leg over into the cockpit, simultaneously flicking the morning’s last cigarette through the air. Then he would tap on the instrument panel gauges and a second later yell, “Clear!” I’d step away from the plane and yell back, “Clear!” With the flip of a switch the world was awash in wind and noise. I’d grab my cap as the propeller whirred and the grass flattened. He’d look over and give another A-OK sign before the airplane taxied away. Thirty seconds later, I’d see him climbing into the sky at the other end of the runway.

AS THE LATE-SUMMER SUN ROSE in the sky, the temperature soared. The bugs loved the heat and humidity. Japanese beetles were our most common target. When I was younger, my granddad would drive me out to the farm that was to be sprayed. After I turned sixteen and got my license, I drove Dad’s truck. If I got to the farm before he did, I’d sometimes walk through the cornfield and survey the infestation. In the worst cases, if I hit the cornstalks with my elbows, the beetles would rise in a cloud over my head. About the size of thumbtacks, Japanese beetles are black and gold with a tinge of red on their wings. I could hear their wings clicking and snapping as thousands of them took flight, then landed on the corn leaves several feet away.

Thirty minutes after Dad sprayed an apocalypse set in. The beetles would fall straight to the ground, or do these little half-fall, half-fly whirligigs, as gravity and poison took hold. I’d watch them die, lying on their backs, their tiny legs squirming in the air. Sometimes they covered the ground. Silence. And the spray didn’t just kill Japanese beetles. If an insect was smaller than my thumb, it was dead—bees, moths, grasshoppers, caterpillars. Everything.

We’d go through the same routines hour after hour, flying and driving all over the county. It was hard work, and by late afternoon we were tired. Still, before we wrapped up the day we would stand at the water pump at the airport and wash and wash and wash. We’d wash our hands, wash our heads, and take off our shirts and wash and wring them dry. Dad would sometimes hold the hose and spray me down, head to foot. Our work done, we’d sit on the tailgate of the pickup and chat about the day’s events—bugs and poison and weather.

My dad died a few years ago at age sixty-seven. It wasn’t the poison or the speed that got him, both of which he pursued until the end. It was the cigarettes, the crimson point, bobbing and dipping. I know he accepted the trade-off—not that he discussed it, or would have. James Dean versus Willy Loman. Dean died in a blazing, speeding crash and was one of his heroes. Loman whined and suffered. A no-brainer.

I have at least fifty pictures of my dad—baby-blue eyes, always smiling, cigarette in hand or clenched in his teeth, smoke curling—and he is always, always, looking straight at the camera.

ABOUT A YEAR AND A HALF after Dad died, the county where I live in Colorado had an outbreak of West Nile virus. The virus migrated in a huge swath across the U.S. in 2003, but for some reason northern Colorado got hit harder than most places, and my town, Fort Collins, harder yet. Several people had died, dozens were in the hospital, and hundreds, perhaps thousands, were home sick.

Many residents wrote letters to the editor and went to city council meetings. “People are dying!” they exclaimed. “Something must be done!” Mosquitoes transmitted the virus, and so our city and county leaders called in a crop-duster.

We were advised to stay in our homes, to close all the doors and windows, to keep pets inside, and not to be alarmed. The spraying was scheduled to occur on two consecutive nights a week for two weeks. The plane would start at one end of the city and methodically crisscross to the other. The airplane was much bigger than my dad’s, and the crop-duster did not have a flagman. My old job had been phased out with the advent of satellite-guided global positioning systems.

By this time in my life most of my friends and colleagues were environmentalists. Many of them were concerned about the poison that would rain down from the sky. Some ranted and raved. Several left town during the spraying.

On the first night, I was sitting in front of the TV watching Seinfeld when I happened to glance out the window and saw the beacon under the plane’s wing flashing red against the dark sky. I muted the TV and stuck my head out the window. The plane was about two hundred feet from the ground and had just passed over my house. Memories flooded in—the roaring engine, the hissing mist. My heart skipped a beat as I thought about the pilot, the poison, and the spinning propeller. Then I waited for what I knew would come next—that unmistakable smell.

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Gary Wockner is a writer and ecologist in Fort Collins, Colorado. He recently coedited the anthologies Comeback Wolves and The River Says Her Name, and is working on a book about government-sponsored wildlife extermination in the western United States.

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