THE ELEVATOR, which Mel Bakersfeld had taken after leaving Tanya, deposited him in the terminal basement. His official airport car---mustard yellow, and radio-equipped---was in a privileged parking stall close by.
Mel drove out, meeting the storm where the building exit joined an aircraft parking ramp outside. As he left the shelter of the terminal, wind and whirling snow slammed savagely against the car's windshield. The wiper blades slapped swiftly back and forth, though barely maintaining sufficient clear space for forward vision. Through a fractionally opened window, a blast of icy air and snow rushed in. Mel closed the window hastily. The transition from the terminal's warm snugness to the harshness of the night outside was startling.
Immediately ahead were airplanes parked at gate positions on the ramp. Through breaks in the snow, as the wind whipped and eddied around concourse buildings, Mel could see into the lighted interiors of several aircraft, which had passengers already seated. Obviously, several flights were ready to leave. These would be awaiting word from the tower to start engines, their continued delay a result of the blockage of runway three zero. Farther out on the airfield and runways, he could make out blurred shapes and navigation lights of other airplanes---recent arrivals, with engines running. These were in a holding area, which pilots called the penalty box, and would move in as gate positions became vacant. Undoubtedly, the same thing was happening in the other seven aircraft concourses grouped around the terminal.
The two-way radio in Mel's car, tuned to ground control frequency, crackled alive.
"Tower to Eastern seventeen," a controller intoned, "you are cleared to runway two five. Change frequency now for your airways clearance."
A burst of static. "Eastern seventeen. Roger."
A stronger voice rasped irritably. "Ground control from Pan Am fifty-four on outer taxiway to two five. There's a private Cessna in front---a twin-engine tortoise. I'm standing on my brakes to keep behind."
"Pan Am fifty-four, stand by." The briefest pause, then the controller's voice aqain: "Cessna seven three metro from ground control. Enter the next right intersection, hold, and let Pan American pass you."
Unexpectedly, a pleasant woman's voice responded. "Ground control from Cessna seven three metro. I'm turning now. Go ahead, Pan Am, you great big bully."
A chuckle, then, "Thanks, honey. You can fix your lipstick while you wait."
The controller's voice rebuked. "Tower to all aircraft. Confine your messages to official business."
The controller was edgy, Mel could tell, despite the routine, studied calmness. But who wouldn't be tonight, with conditions and traffic the way they were? He thought uneasily again about his brother, Keith, involved with the unrelenting pressure of west arrival control.
The talk between tower and aircraft was continuous, with no gaps between transmissions. When one exchange ended, Mel snapped his own mike button down. "Ground control from mobile one. I'm at gate sixty-five, proceeding to runway three zero, site of the stuck 707."
He listened while the controller gave taxiing instructions to two other flights which had just landed. Then: "Tower to mobile one. Roger, follow the Air Canada DC-9 pulling out of the gate ahead of you. Hold short of runway two one."
Mel acknowledged. He could see the Air Canada flight, at this moment easing out from a terminal gate, its high graceful tail an angular silhouette.
While still in the ramp area, he drove out toward the airfield carefully, watching for ramp lice---as airport men called the proliferation of vehicles which surrounded airplanes on the ground. As well as the usual ones, tonight there were several cherry pickers---trucks with high, maneuverable platforms at the end of steel, articulated arms. On the platforms, service crews were reaching out to clear snow from aircraft wings, and spraying glycol to retard ice formation. The men themselves were snow-covered in their exposed position.
Mel braked hastily, avoiding a speeding honey wagon, on its way from the ramp area to disgorge its malodorous four-hundred gallon load of contents pumped out from aircraft toilets. The load would eject into a shredding machine in a special building which other airport employees avoided, and then be pumped to city sewers. Most times the procedure worked efficiently, except when passengers reported losses of items---dentures, purses, wallets, even shoes---dropped accidentally in aircraft toilets. It happened once or twice a day. Then loads had to be sifted, while everyone hoped the missing item could be located quickly.
Even without incidents, Mel realized, this would be a busy night for sanitary crews. Airport managements knew from experience that demands on toilet facilities, on the ground and in the air, increased as weather worsened. Mel wondered how many people were aware that airport sanitary supervisors received hourly weather forecasts and made their plans---for extra cleaning and increased supplies---accordingly.
The Air Canada jet he was to follow had cleared the terminal and was increasing taxi speed. Mel accelerated to keep up. It was reassuring---with windshield wipers barely coping with the snow---to have the DC-9's taillight as a reference point ahead. Through the rear mirror he could make out the shape of another, larger jet now following. On radio, the ground controller cautioned, "Air France four-o-four, there is an airport ground vehicle between you and Air Canada."
It took a quarter of an hour to reach the intersection where runway three zero was blocked by the Aereo-Mexican 707. Before then, Mel had separated from the stream of taxiing aircraft which were destined for takeoff on the two other active runways.
He stopped the car and got out. In the dark and loneliness out here, the storm seemed even more wintry and violent than nearer the terminal. The wind howled across the deserted runway. If wolves appeared tonight, Mel thought, it would not be surprising.
A shadowy figure hailed him. "Is that Mr. Patroni?"
"No, it isn't." Mel found that he, too, had to shout to make himself heard above the wind. "But Joe Patroni's on the way."
The other man came closer. He was huddled into a parka, his face blue with cold. "When he gets here, we'll be glad to see him. Though I'm damned if I know what Patroni'll do. We've tried about everything to get this bastard out." He gestured to the airplane looming, shadowy, behind them. "She's stuck, but good."
Mel identified himself, then asked, "Who are you?"
"Ingram, sir. Aereo-Mexican maintenance foreman. Right now, I wish I had some other job."
As the two men talked, they moved nearer to the stalled Boeing 707, instinctively seeking shelter under the wings and fuselage, high above them. Under the big jet's belly, a red hazard light winked rhythmically, In its reflection Mel could see the mud beneath snow in which the aircraft's wheels were deeply mired. On the runway and adjoining taxiway, clustered like anxious relatives, were a profusion of trucks and service vehicles, including a fuel tanker, baggage tenders, a post office van, two crew buses, and a roaring power cart.
Mel pulled the collar of his topcoat tightly around him. "We need this runway urgently---tonight. What have you done so far?"
In the past two hours, Ingram reported, old-fashioned boarding ramps had been trundled from the terminal, manhandled to the aircraft, and passengers guided down them. It bad been a slow, tricky job because steps were icing as fast as they were cleared. An elderly woman had been carried down by two mechanics. Babies were passed from hand to hand in blankets. Now, all passengers were gone---in buses, along with the stewardesses and the second officer. The captain and first officer remained.
"Since the passengers left---have you tried to get the airplane moving?"
The foreman nodded affirmatively. "Had the engines running twice. The captain's put on all the power he dare. But she won't come free. Just seems to dig herself in deeper."
"What's happening now?"
"We're taking off more weight, hoping that'll help." Most of the fuel, Ingram added, had been sucked out by tankers---a heavy load since tanks were full for takeoff. Baggage and freight compartments in the belly had been emptied. A post office truck was retrieving mailbags.
Mel nodded. The mail, he knew, would have come off anyway. The airport post office kept a minute-to-minute watch on airline schedules. They knew exactly where their mailbags were and, if delays occurred, postal employees quickly switched mail from one airline to another. Mail from the stranded jet, in fact, would fare better than passengers. In half an hour at most, it would be on its way by another flight, if necessary on an alternate route.
Mel asked, "Have you all the help you need?"
"Yes. sir---for all we can do now. I've got most of our crew from Aereo-Mexican here---a dozen men. Right now, half of 'em are thawing out in one of the buses. Patroni may want more people, depending on what his ideas are." Ingram turned, surveying the silent aircraft gloomily. "But if you ask me, it's going to be a long job. and we'll need heavy cranes, jacks, and maybe pneumatic bags to lift the wings. For most of those, we'd have to wait until daylight. The whole thing could take most of tomorrow."
Mel said sharply, "It can't take most of tomorrow, or even tonight. This runway has to be cleared..." He stopped abruptly, shivering with a suddenness which startled him. The intensity was unexpected, almost eerie.
Mel shivered again. What was it? He assured himself: the weather---the fierce, harsh wind across the airport, driving the whirling snow. Yet, strangely, since leaving the car until this moment, his body had adjusted to the cold.
From the opposite side of the airfield, above the wind, he could hear the thunder of jet engines. They rose to a crescendo, then diminished as a flight took off. Another followed, and another. Over there, all was well.
It was true, wasn't it?---for the briefest instant he had had a premonition. A hint, no more; an intuition; the smell of greater trouble brewing. He should ignore it, of course; impulse, premonitions, had no place in pragmatic manaQement. Except that once, long aqo, he had had the selfsame feeling---a conviction of events accumulating, and progressing to some disastrous, unenvisaged end. Met remembered the end, which he had been unable to avert... entirely.
He glanced at the 707 again. It was snow-covered now, its outline blurring. Commonsense told him: apart from the runway blockage and the inconvenience of takeoffs over Meadowood, the situation was harmless. There had been a mishap, with no injuries, no apparent damage. Nothing more.
"Let's go to my car," he told the Aereo-Mexican foreman. "We'll get on the radio and find out what's happening."
On the way, he reminded himself that Cindy would shortly be waiting impatiently downtown.
Mel had left the car heater turned on, and inside the car it was comfortingly warm. Ingram grunted appreciatively. He loosened his coat and bent forward to hold his hands in the stream of warm air.
Mel switched the radio to the frequency of airport maintenance.
"Mobile one to Snow Desk. Danny, I'm at the blocked intersection of three zero. Call TWA maintenance and check on Joe Patroni. Where is he? When coming? Over."
Danny Farrow's voice crisped back through the speaker on the dash. "Snow Desk to mobile one. Wilco. And, Mel, your wife called."
Mel pressed the mike button. "Did she leave a number?"
"Mobile one to Snow Desk. Please call her, Danny. Tell her I'm sorry, I'll be a little late. But check on Patroni first."
"Understood. Stand by." The radio went silent.
Mel reached inside his topcoat for a pack of Marlboros. He offered them to Ingram.
They lit up, watching the windshield wipers slap back and forth.
Ingram nodded toward the lighted cockpit of the Aereo-Mexican jet. "Up there, that son-of-a-bitch of a captain is probably crying into his sombrero. Next time, he'll watch blue taxi lights like they was altar candles."
Mel asked, "Are your ground crews Mexicans or American?"
"We're all American. Only meatheads like us would work in this lousy weather. Know where that flight was going?"
Mel shook his head.
"Acapulco. Before this happened, I'd have given up six months' screwing to be on it." The foreman chuckled. "Can you imagine, though---getting aboard, and your ass all settled, then having to get off in this. You should have heard the passengers cursing, especially the women. I learned some new words tonight."
The radio came alive again.
"Snow Desk to mobile one," Danny Farrow said. "I talked with TWA about Joe Patroni. They've heard from him, but he's held up in traffic. He'll be another hour, at least. He sent a message. You read me so far?"
"We read," Mel said. "Let's have the message."
"Patroni warns not to get the airplane deeper in the mud than it is already. Says it can happen easily. So, unless the Aereo-Mexican crowd are real sure of what they're doing, they should hold off any more tries until Joe gets there."
Mel glanced sideways at Ingram. "How does the Aereo-Mexican crowd feel about that?"
The foreman nodded. "Patroni can have all the tries he wants. We'll wait."
Danny Farrow said, "Did you get that? Is it clear?"
Mel thumbed the mike button. "It's clear."
"Okay. There's more. TWA is rounding up some extra ground crew to help. And, Mel, your wife phoned again. I gave her your message." Mel sensed Danny hesitating, aware that others whose radios were on the airport maintenance frequency were listening, too.
Mel said, "She wasn't happy?"
"I guess not." There was a second's silence. "You'd better get to a phone when you can."
It was a safe bet, Mel thought, that Cindy had been more than usually snippy with Danny, but, loyally, he wasn't saying so.
As for the Aereo-Mexican 707, obviously there was nothing more to be done until Joe Patroni arrived. Patroni's advice about not getting the aircraft more deeply mired made good sense.
Ingram was pulling on heavy mitts and refastening his coat. "Thanks for the warm-up." He went out, into the wind and snow, slamming the door quickly. A few moments later, Mel could see him plodding through deep drifts toward the assembled vehicles on the taxiway.
On radio, the Snow Desk was speaking to Maintenance Snow Center. Mel waited until the exchange finished, then held the transmit button down. "This is mobile one, Danny. I'm going to the Conga Line."
He eased the car forward, picking his way carefully in the blowing snow and darkness, with only widely spaced runway lights to guide him.
The Conga Line, both spearhead and prime mover of the airport snow-fighting system, was----at the moment---on runway one seven, left. In a few minutes, Mel thought grimly, he would find out for himself if there was truth, or merely malice, in the critical report of Captain Demerest's Airlines Snow Committee.