JOE PATRONI---as Mel Bakersfeld had learned---was on his way to the airport from his home at Glen Ellyn. The cocky, stocky Italian-American, who was airport maintenance chief for TWA, had left his suburban, ranch-style bungalow by automobile some twenty minutes earlier. The going was exceedingly slow, as Mel had guessed it would be.
At the moment, Joe Patroni's Buick Wildcat was halted in a traffic tie-up. Behind and ahead, as far as visibility extended, were other vehicles, also stopped. While waiting, his actions illuminated by the taillights of the car in front, Patroni lit a fresh cigar.
Legends had grown up around Joe Patroni; some professional, others personal.
He had begun his working life as a grease monkey in a garage. Soon after, he won the garage from his employer in a dice game, so that at the end of the game they reversed roles. As a result, young Joe became heir to various bad debts, including one which made him owner of an ancient, decrepit Waco biplane. With a mixture of resourcefulness and sheer mechanical ability, he repaired the airplane, then flew it successfully---without benefit of flying lessons, which he could not afford.
The airplane and its mechanical functioning absorbed Joe Patroni completely---so much so, that he enticed his former employer into another dice game and allowed him to win the garage back. Joe thereupon quit the garage and took a job as an airline mechanic. He studied at night school, became a lead mechanic, then a foreman with a reputation as a top-notch troubleshooter. His crew could change an engine faster than an airplane manufacturer said it could be done; and with absolute reliability. After a while, whenever there was pressure, or a difficult repair job, the word went out: get Joe Patroni.
A contributing reason for his success was that he never wasted time on diplomacy. Instead, he went directly to the point, both with people and airplanes. He also had a total disregard for rank, and was equally forthright with everyone, including the airline's senior executives.
On one occasion, still talked about when airline men reminisced, Joe Patroni walked off his job and, without word to anyone, or prior consultation, rode an airplane to New York. He carried a package with him. On arrival, he went by bus and subway to the airline's Olympian headquarters in midtown Manhattan where, without announcement or preamble, he strode into the president's office. Opening the package, he deposited an oily, disassembled carburetor on the immaculate presidential desk.
The president, who had never heard of Joe Patroni, and whom no one ever got to see without prior appointment, was apoplectic until Joe told him, "If you want to lose some airplanes in flight, throw me out of here. If you don't, sit down and listen."
The president sat down---while Joe Patroni lighted a cigar---and listened. Afterward, he called in his engineering vice-president who, later still, ordered a mechanical modification affecting carburetor icing in flight, which Patroni had been urging---unsuccessfully at lower level---for months.
Later, Patroni received official commendation, and the incident became one more to add to an already growing fund of Patroni stories. Soon after, Joe was promoted to senior supervisor, and a few years later was given the important post of maintenance chief at Lincoln International.
On a personal level, another report said that Joe Patroni made love to his wife, Marie, most nights, the way other men enjoyed a pre-dinner drink. This was true. In fact, he had been thus engaged when the telephone message came from the airport about the mired Aereo-Mexican jet which TWA had been asked to help extricate.
The same rumor continued: Patroni made love the same way he did everything else---with a long, thin cigar stuck jauntily in the side of his mouth. This was untrue, at least nowadays. Marie, having coped with several pillow fires during their early years of marriage---drawing on her training as a TWA air hostess to extinguish them---had emphatically forbidden any more cigars in bed. Joe complied with the edict because he loved his wife. He had reason to. When he married her, she was probably the most popular and beautiful hostess in the entire airline system, and twelve years and three children later she could still hold her own with most successors. There were some who wondered aloud why Marie---who had been pursued ardently by captains and first officers---had ever chosen Joe Patroni at all. But Joe, even as a young maintenance foreman, which he was when they met, had a way with him, and had kept Marie satisfied---in all important ways---ever since.
Another thing about Joe Patroni was that he never panicked in emergencies. Instead, he quickly assessed each situation, deciding what priority the emergency rated, and whether or not he should complete other tasks before coping with it. In the case of the mired 707, instinct told him it was a moderate-to-acute crisis, which meant there was time to finish what he was doing, or have dinner, but not both. Accordingly, he abandoned dinner. Soon after, Marie raced to the kitchen in her robe and threw sandwiches together for Joe to eat during his twenty-five-mile drive to the airport. He nibbled on a sandwich now.
Being recalled to the airport after performing a full day's work was not a new experience, but tonight the weather was worse than any other occasion he remembered. Accumulated effects of the three-day storm were everywhere, making driving exacting and hazardous. Huge snowpiles lined the streets and, in the darkness, more snow was falling. Both on and off freeways, traffic was moving at a crawl, or not at all. Even with mud-snow tires, which Patroni's Buick Wildcat had, traction was poor. Windshield wipers and defrosters were barely coping with gusting snow outside and steam within, while headlight beams illuminated only short distances ahead. Stalled vehicles, some abandoned by their drivers, turned roads into obstacle courses. It was obvious that only those with good reason would be out on such a night.
Patroni checked his watch. Both his own car and the one immediately ahead had been stationary for several minutes. Farther ahead still, he could make out others, also stopped, and to his right was another halted lane of traffic. Moreover, for some time, no vehicles had come from the opposite direction, so obviously something had happened to obstruct all four lanes. If nothing more occurred in the next five minutes, he decided, he would get out of the car to investigate, though observing the slush, drifts, and still falling snow outside, he hoped he would not have to. There would be plenty of time to become cold and miserable---as he was undoubtedly going to be before the night was out---after arrival at the airport. Meanwhile, he turned up the volume of the car radio, which was tuned to a rock-and-roll station, and pulled at his cigar.
Five minutes went by. Ahead, Joe Patroni could see people getting out of cars and walking forward, and he prepared to join them. He had brought a fleece-lined parka and pulled it tightly around him, slipping the bood over his head. He reached for the heavy-duty electric lantern which he always carried. As he opened the car door, wind and snow rushed in. He eased out, closing the door quickly.
He plodded forward while other car doors slammed and voices called, "What happened?" Someone shouted, "There's been an accident. It's a real mess." As he progressed, flashing lights became visible ahead, and shadows moved and separated, becoming a cluster of people. A new voice said, "I'm telling you they won't clear that lot in a hurry. We'll all be stuck here for hours." A large, darker shadow loomed, partially lighted by sputtering red flares. It proved to be a massive tractor-trailer unit on its side. The cumbersome eighteen-wheeled vehicle was spread across the road, blocking all traffic movement. Part of its cargo---apparently cases of canned goods---had spewed out, and already a few opportunists were braving the snow and collecting cases, then hurrying with them to their cars.
Two state police patrol cars were at the scene. State troopers were questioning the truck driver, who appeared unhurt.
"All I did was touch the goddam brakes," the driver protested loudly. "Then she jackknifed, and rolled over like a whore in heat."
One of the policemen wrote in his notebook, and a woman murmured to a man beside her, "Do you think he's putting that last bit down?"
Another woman shouted, "Lotta good that'll do." Her voice was shrill against the wind. "Whyn't you cops get this thing moved?"
One of the state troopers walked across. Most of his uniform coat was already snow-covered. "If you'll give us a hand to lift, madam, we'd be glad to oblige."
A few people tittered, and the woman muttered, "Smart ass cops."
A tow truck, amber roof-beacon flashing, approached, moving slowly, on the opposite side of the obstruction. The driver was using the now unoccupied lanes on what would normally be the wrong side of the road. He stopped and got out, shaking his head doubtfully as he saw the size and position of the tractor-trailer.
Joe Patroni shoved forward. He puffed on his cigar, which glowed redly in the wind, and prodded the state trooper sharply on the shoulder. "Listen, son, you'll never move that rig with one tow truck. It'll be like hitching a tomtit to a brick."
The policeman turned. "Whatever it's like, mister, there's spilled gasoline around here. You'd better get that cigar out."
Patroni ignored the instruction, as he ignored almost all smoking regulations. He waved the cigar toward the overturned tractor-trailer. "What's more, son, you'd be wasting everybody's time, including mine and yours, trying to get that hunk of junk right side up tonight. You'll have to drag it clear so traffic can move, and to do that you need two more tow trucks---one on this side to push, two over there to pull." He began moving around, using his electric lantern to inspect the big articulated vehicle from various angles. As always, when considering a problem, he was totally absorbed. He waved the cigar once more. "The two trucks together'll hitch on to three points. They'll pull the cab first, and faster. That'll overcome the jackknifing. The other truck..."
"Hold it," the state trooper said. He called across to one of the other officers. "Hank, there's a guy here sounds like he knows what he's talking about."
Ten minutes later, working with the police officers, Joe Patroni had virtually taken charge. Two additional tow trucks, as he had suggested, were being summoned by radio. While awaiting their arrival, the driver of the first tow truck was attaching chains, under Patroni's direction, to the axles of the capsized tractor-trailer. The situation had already assumed a proficient, get-on-with-it pattern---a trademark of any proceeding in which the energetic TWA maintenance chief became involved.
Patroni himself had remembered several times, with concern, his reason for being out at all tonight, and the fact that by now he was long overdue at the airport. But helping to clear the blocked highway, he calculated, was the fastest means of getting there. Obviously, his own car and others could not move forward until the wrecked tractor-trailer had been dragged clear from the center of the road. To go back and try an alternate route was equally impossible because traffic behind was backed up, with continuous lines of vehicles extending---so the police assured him---for miles to the rear.
He went back to his car to use the radio telephone he had installed at his employers' suggestion, and for which they picked up the monthly bills. He called the airline's maintenance department at the airport to report on his delay, and, in return, was informed of Mel Bakersfeld's message about the urgent need for runway three zero to be cleared and usable.
Joe Patroni gave some instructions over the telephone, but was aware that the most important thing was to be on the airfield himself as speedily as possible.
When he left the Buick for the second time, snow was still falling heavily. Dodging drifts which had formed around the line of waiting cars, he returned to the road block at a jog trot and was relieved to see that the first of the two extra tow trucks had arrived.