Dying in a Colorado wildfire was not what Jefferson Tracy, Air Force Academy class of 2031, had in mind to do that day. His orders, from the Air Force Academy commandant, at the Governor's request, were to deliver firefighters to the danger zone and to dump chemicals on the blaze. So here he was, flying in close formation with his roommate and fellow pilot, Timothy Casey, right through the smoke and heat. He could see Tim flying the other plane through his own cockpit window. The modern firefighting jets were slightly larger than a commuter jet, and they required expert pilots such as Jeff and Tim to handle them.
"Whew, that was close!" Tim called over the radio.
"Yeah, that flame rushed up like a geyser," Jeff replied. "I thought it would fry the plane for sure."
"Lucky for us we're the best pilots at the Academy," Tim said immodestly, though Jeff could almost see Tim wink as Jeff glanced to his left. "Evasive action is second nature."
"Well, we've delivered two dozen firefighters and dropped two loads of chemicals, so I guess it's time to get back to base," Jeff said.
"I bet we get back before the Colorado Air National Guard."
"That's easy, since they're so spread out. They wouldn't have called for Academy cadets if they weren't short-handed there."
"Still, I think we did as good a job as they do."
"We sure did!" Jeff said proudly.
They flew eastward, high out of reach of the flames. Jeff saw the wide firebreak ahead, cleared so that the flames would not reach inhabited areas. Scanning the ground near the deserted highway, Jeff radioed to Tim, "Say, Tim, I think I see three people down there."
"Don't seem to be. I'm going in for a closer look."
"Jeff, the fire's spreading this way, fast."
"It'll just take a minute."
Jeff dipped the plane. He saw a car parked on the shoulder, and three figures lying in a roadside picnic area. They were not moving. "Tim, I'm going to land the plane on the road and take a closer look."
"Jeff, the fire's too close! You'll get burned!"
"It's not that close, yet. I think I have time."
"Jeff, even if the fire doesn't get you, it may be too hot for you to take off."
"I don't have to take off," Jeff said. "All I have to do is taxi down the road."
"The fire's spreading too fast!"
Jeff, however, had already circled the plane into a landing position.
"Jeff, they may already be dead!"
"And they may not."
"You're crazy, Jeff, you know that."
"May be." The plane landed smoothly on the highway and Jeff braked to a stop near the picnic area. As quickly as he could, he got out and ran to the figures. A radio blared out music. Food scraps lay on the ground everywhere. A beer keg had been placed in the cleft of a large rock. Jeff went to the first man, who was not any older than Jeff, if that old. He shook him. The man groaned but did not open his eyes. "Come on, get up, there's a fire!" He did the same to the second man, and the third, but nothing could rouse them. They reeked with the smell of beer and hard liquor--Jeff also saw bottles of whiskey nearby.
Jeff still wore his earpiece. "Jeff, you gotta get out of there!" Tim urged.
At five foot eleven, Jeff could bench press 200 pounds, and all that muscle was put to the test as he lifted each man using a fireman's carry and dumped them into the plane. Hurriedly, he strapped himself into the pilot's seat and started the engines.
"Jeff, the fire's coming up right behind you!"
He taxied eastward, keeping an eye on the monitor on the instrument panel. The camera on the tail showed that Tim had not been exaggerating--the flames were rapidly catching up. Jeff accelerated to maximum, making fast forward progress, but otherwise all the plane did was hop up and down on the highway, the fire reaching for the plane all the way.
Suddenly, a gust of wind from the east lifted the wings. "Come on, baby, come on!" Jeff said, and climbed up from the highway...higher...higher....another surge of wind...and he was up again!
"Whew!" Tim let out a breath.
"Okay, let's go!" Jeff had not cleared the firebreak, however, when the port engine sputtered.
"Oh, no!" Tim said, noticing.
"I can get home on one engine," Jeff said.
"Provided the other one doesn't go out."
"Then I'll glide in." He looked down. "But I think I'll unload my passengers, just in case. There's an aid station near here. We can call them to pick up these guys."
Again, Jeff landed on the highway...the area had been evacuated for miles around. With the huge firebreak now between them and the blaze, Jeff felt safe taking out the men and settling them in a grassy area next to the road. He took a toolkit and looked at the sputtering engine.
"See anything?" Tim said from his vantage point, circling above Jeff and his plane.
"There's dust and ash clogging the mechanism, not surprising. I'll clear it out the best I can but it'll probably go out again before we reach base."
"As long as you can take off, you can make it."
And he did. Once in the air, Jeff radioed the aid station to pick up the men.
"Any idea who they were?" Tim said as they flew back to base.
"Guys from the university, I think, judging from their jackets and t-shirts."
"University emblem, eh?"
"They picked a dangerous place to party."
"Well, the fire was a long way away last night, and there would be no one to arrest them, since the area was evacuated."
"Still, pretty stupid, if you ask me."
"No more stupid than that stink bomb you planted in the locker room of the visiting team during the big game."
Tim chuckled. "You had to remind me of that!"
Jeff's engine sputtered again. "There it goes."
"We're almost back at base."
Jeff radioed for permission to land and explained his difficulty. The tower let him land before Tim; touchdown was a bit awkward, but Jeff put the plane in the hangar without further incident. He talked to the mechanics, and walked over to Tim as Tim left his plane.
The commandant came in. After both cadets saluted, and got an "at ease," she said, "Good work, both of you. I'll be sure that both of you get a commendation, and that the Governor hears of it."
"Thank you, ma'am," they answered.
"Take the rest of the weekend off. You've earned it."
They walked back to senior quarters. As they walked into the lounge, which was empty, they saw that the television had been left on. Jeff stopped.
"What is it?" Tim asked.
"Those are the guys I rescued at the side of the road."
"Oh, really?" Tim turned to the television.
One of the students said to the television reporter, "If it wasn't for the aid workers finding us, we would have been fried!"
"How do you like that!" Tim said. "They're taking credit for your rescue!"
Jeff waved a hand. "Doesn't matter." He turned to go to their room.
Tim followed. "You ought to call the television station and tell them what really happened."
"Then they'd just think I was grandstanding," Jeff said. "We're getting a commendation, that's all the recognition I need."
"Sometimes I wonder about you, Jeff." He put a hand on Jeff's shoulder. "Maybe I could call the station."
Jeff shook his head. "It's just our word. Without their remembering me, there's really no proof."
"I guess so...but I still think it's unfair."
When they reached their room, Tim took off his hat and flight jacket and slumped into a chair. "What do you want to do now?"
"This is the last night of the concert series over at the university. I thought I'd go see it."
Tim scratched his head. "Well, you know I'm not the classical music type." He sat up straight. "Hey, I just remembered...this is the opening weekend of that new action movie." He checked his watch. "Just have time to catch the next showing." He grabbed his jacket again and hurried out.
Since he did not own a suit, Jeff changed into his uniform and drove his 10-year-old car to the university. He bought a ticket for himself, and found his seat near the front, between two couples. The curtain was closed, but he could hear the musicians tuning their instruments from behind it. He applauded with the others when it opened. The musicians bowed, and the conductor introduced a piece by Mozart. As the music played, Jeff's eyes wandered to the orchestra members, and fixed on the pianist. She was beautiful--a brown-haired, slim woman who appeared to be around his age. Soon, he could hear nothing but the piano, see nothing but the pianist as she swayed in time with the music. She smiled through the entire concert as if she was savoring every note. Jeff found himself floating away on a musical stream....
"Sir?" an usher interrupted his reverie.
"Huh? Hm?" he faced the young man, who was leaning toward him from the aisle.
"The concert is over. We're closing."
Jeff glanced around the room, suddenly realizing he was the only audience member left in the hall. "Oh. Sorry." He picked up his hat and stood. As he angled his way toward the aisle, he saw the pianist gathering her music. He walked toward the stage. "Ma'am, that's the best performance I ever heard."
She smiled at him. "Thank you. It's always nice to have an appreciative audience."
He took the smile as an invitation and strode up the stairs to the stage. "Can I buy you a cup of coffee? There's a coffee shop just across the street."
Still smiling, she looked him up and down. "I've heard about you Air Force cadets...that a girl isn't safe around you."
Unfortunately, he knew exactly what she meant. Two of his senior-year classmates had already been expelled from the Academy for bad behavior, and there were three other cadets who were paying child support for kids they hardly knew, by mothers they had long since broken up with. He straightened up at attention and said with all the sincerity he could muster, "You'll always be safe with me."
She paused a moment before answering. Her smile faded slightly, then came back. "All right...Cadet Tracy."
He realized she had read his name badge. He held out a hand. "Jeff Tracy."
She took it. "Lucy Taylor."
He extended an arm. "Shall we?"
"Let me get my sweater." She took her music and left.
He watched her leave, realized that he had let her go. Would she come back? Was that just an excuse? Should he have gone with her? No, that would make it seem as if he were a stalker. If she did not come back, it probably meant she was not interested...or had a boyfriend already. An eternity of seconds later, she reappeared, hurrying toward him, wearing the sweater and carrying her purse. He grinned and extended his arm again. She took it and smiled back.
In the coffee shop, she ordered a latte. He ordered a carafe of black coffee. They found an out-of-the-way table for two and sat.
"So, what do you do now that the series is ended?" Jeff asked.
"Back to class. I just perform evenings and weekends."
"Do you go to the University?"
"Yes. I'm a music major, and a minor in art."
Jeff nodded. "Is your family here?"
For the first time, she frowned. "My parents died three years ago, in a car accident. I'm an only child."
"Oh. I'm sorry."
She nodded. "Neither of my parents had siblings, either, and my grandparents are gone. I got a small inheritance, but I'm mostly living on student loans and jobs."
"Do you get paid for the concerts?"
"Yes. Not a lot."
"You seem to enjoy playing the piano."
Her face brightened. "Oh, yes. Music has gotten me through the tough times. Life is never easy, but it can be what we make it." She took a sip of latte. "What about your family?"
"Mom and Dad own a farm in Kansas. I'm an only child, too."
"So, are you going to fly planes when you graduate?"
"Yes, I love flying. I'm going to get into experimental jets, and once I've got that experience under my belt, I'm going to apply to the astronaut corps."
She inhaled sharply. "How exciting! I've always wondered what it would be like to go into space."
"Well, passenger space flights shouldn't be too far away. I'm hoping to get on the ground floor for the planned lunar colony. Some day you could live on the moon, if you wanted to."
"Would you want to?"
"Only if you were there." The words came out of his mouth without his really thinking about it. He wondered if he had been too forward. But she grinned, and he relaxed.
Eventually--it seemed such a short time, and yet, such a long time--he drove her home. For her, home was the senior dorm at the university. She escorted him past security and into the women's wing. As Lucy led the way, other women passed them, turning their heads to look. One gave Lucy a "thumbs up" sign; another said, "Wow, Lucy, where have you been hiding him all this time?" Lucy did not answer her, but said to Jeff, "Just ignore them. They've never seen me bring a man to my room before."
Jeff felt special. Was he the first? At the same time, he could not imagine that other men would not flock around his gorgeous woman. "You don't go on dates?" he asked diplomatically.
Lucy put her key in the door. "Oh, dinner or a movie, occasionally. Nothing serious. I'm busy enough just trying to survive--besides going to classes, playing the piano, and painting."
Jeff was just about to reply that his studies meant he did not date much, either, when he caught her last phrase. "Painting?"
She opened the door and motioned to the walls. His first reaction was that her room was not much larger than the one he shared at the academy with Tim. Then he saw the art. The wall was full of artwork--original artwork. Some were landscapes; some were moonscapes, or Marscapes; and some were shuttles suspended in space. An easel stood against another wall, holding a covered canvas. His jaw dropped. "Did you paint all of these?"
She smiled. "Yes. Do you like them?"
She motioned to a chair. "I'm afraid I just have one chair for guests."
"Oh. That's not necessary. I mean, I'd like to stay longer, but I have to get back to the academy. My car will be ticketed if I stay much longer, and I can't really afford that."
"Oh, yes, I should have known."
"I'd like to see you again, though."
"Me, too." She went to the desk and grabbed a pen and a memo pad. She scribbled and tore off a page. "Here's my number and text messaging address."
He reached around her and took the pen and memo pad. When he was done, he handed her a page. "Here's mine." They exchanged papers. She put his on the desk; he folded hers and put it in his pocket. To Jeff's everlasting surprise and delight, she kissed him. He gently took her in his arms and kissed her back.
"Mmmm, nice," she said when she took a breath.
He pulled back a little. "We'll have to do this again, soon."
She nodded and motioned to the door. "I have to escort you out."
He held out an arm. "I'll escort you."
When they got to the lobby, past security, they saw two students, a man and a woman, across the room. The man held a book above the woman while she snatched at it.
"Ed, give me my book!" the woman insisted.
"Not 'til you say you'll go to the game with me."
"Ed, I said I have to study for my exam!"
"What's more important, Heather, the exam, or me?"
By this time, Jeff had rushed across the room. He grabbed the book from Ed's hand, gave it back to Heather, and positioned himself right in front of Ed. "What's the matter with you? Give the lady the book!"
"You Air Force guys think you can boss anyone around."
"And bullies like you think you can get away with anything." He motioned to the security officer, standing at the door, watching them. "Shall we ask security which one of us she thinks is right?"
"Awwww." He waved his hand and skulked away.
"Thank you," Heather said.
Heather left; Lucy walked up to Jeff. "You have a temper on you, Jeff, as my mother used to say."
"Don't be sorry! The world would be a better place if we all stood up to bullies like that."
With every word she said, he loved her more and more.
Thunderbirds ™ and ©1964, 1999, and 2010
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Excerpted from "Countdown to Action" by Joan Marie Verba. Copyright 2008 by Joan Marie Verba. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided by (publisher or author) solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.