Do you know how you can tell a punk from a self-centered person, the caller asks.
“No,” I answer.
Uncle Don chuckles. His voice is like my nana’s; deep and rich with a touch of gravel. He’s retired crop duster. To me, he’s a legend; the last of the tough guys.
You do a favor for a punk and he sees it as a weakness, he tells me. You do a favor for a self-centered person and he doesn’t notice.
“Words to live by,” I say.
I’ll tell you about punks, he continues. Years ago, two farmers called me to spray morning glory. Being hungry and new, I took the jobs. To save those fellas some money, I ran a spotline rather than spraying post to post. Those punks turned around and gave the wheat spraying, the gravy, to my competition.
I imagine my uncle reading the chemical specs, mixing with care, applying only where needed. Before it was fashionable, he was integrated pest management. I listen as he spins his tale.
That next year, one of those punks had the gall to call me up and say I’d done such a good job with his morning glory, he’d like me to do it again.
“And did you?”
No. I told him the guy that gets the gravy also gets the shit. I still had the second farmer’s chemicals. I got into my truck, drove over to his place, and told him to come get his 2,4-D. I had that guy’s character down flat.
One day, I came out of the store and there was a big plume of smoke by Wallula Junction. It was black, meaning standing wheat. I booked it for home, filled the largest of my three planes with water, headed for the fire, and dropped my load. I could see another crop duster at a nearby airstrip; my competition.
Somehow I’d known it hadn’t mattered. A farmer’s field was burning. Men of honor, men like my uncle, set aside their differences in such times.
I landed and we both re-filled with water, he said. The other guy took off first. I’d barely gotten back in the air, when he went down. There was an explosion. Flames. As fast as I could, I dropped a third of my load over him. It was no use – the fire flared up. I made two more passes. There was no one nearby; no one to help.
“That’s awful. I sure hope the poor man died in the crash.”
For a long time, all I could see was him burning up, my uncle says.
He’s quiet; reflective. He draws a deep breath and continues.
Anyway, when I landed to get more water, who should be there but the second morning glory farmer. He stood there, watching the wreck burn. Do you know what that punk said to me?
He told me the pilot should have just let it go; should’ve let the insurance pay for it.
If I’d have stayed, I would have pounded his ass into the ground. I felt the anger rising from my toes; I got into my airplane; I blew dust and crap all over that joker. The whole thing affected me deeply.
“It’s part of what formed you.”
Well, yes – in some measure. I’ve never tried to satisfy a customer. It’s always been more important to satisfy myself; to hold myself to a higher standard. Those fellas were silver spooners; punks who inherited farms. If I meet one silver spooner or bureaucrat that’s worth a pinch of crap before I cash in, my life will be complete.
At this, I smile.
“Can I quote you at the eulogy?”
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