The Biggest and Best Fun House Party
Ferraris on the left, biplanes on the right, beautiful people in the pool...
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My biplane in my bedroom... the fantasy became real!
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The following story appeared in the British aviation magazine "Pilot", January 1999
(a full 21 months after the party!).
The author, Bernard Chabbert, is a well known French author.
Copyright 1999, Pilot Magazine.
Our French correspondent is invited to a hangar party at an air ranch in the Californian desert, to share the American flyer's dream.
By: Bernard Chabbert
There is a desert in California just north of the Mexican border, where even Hollywood producers never want to shoot anything; it is so hot their film would melt. The place has a name: the Anza-Borrego Desert. It is a gigantic bowl filled by very fine dust-powder mixed with exploded gravel, as if each stone, each rock, each grain of sand had been given a special, personal treatment deep in the fires of hell.
Extraordinary plants grow here. Specialists will tell you they belong to the vegetal world. I doubt it. Or, if they truly are vegetables, they come from Mars, having been transported down here by meteorites. Barely dancing in the soft and burning breeze, multicoloured, spidery, star-shaped flowers shine in gold and fire, menthol green and prune, black, greys and even white under the deep, blue-black sky. Fans of golden wires sprout between baked rocks. Fat cacti span their arms above their own jet-black shadows, proud of having sipped the last drops of water lurking deep under the crust.
In the middle of the bowl is a town called Borrego Springs-less than 2,000 souls, protected under flat roofs topping cubic houses, slammed by an everlasting deluge of photons shot by an angry sun. The houses, widely spread among blocks of grey-green dry palms, navigate the ocean dust under a fleet of white circular sails and satellite dishes. Here lives a very Californian population, mostly retired professionals, or soul-searchers believing in the purifying quality of life in the desert. They are former technicians from the film industry, a few teachers, some painters and artists, airline pilots, and more generally people fleeing the coastal way of life, people with a bit of money and a desire for some personal existence. They find it far from flashy, coastal California, in this place where rainfall averages less than three inches a year, where thermometers give up; on some very hot summer days…they find it here, because here is space.
Living in Borrego is like camping on the border of space. When night settles, just turn your eyes up and let yourself be immersed into infinity, and serenity. Up there someone has spread the Universe.
Not far from Borrego, a long time ago, when movies were shot in black and white (that's a long time in California), scientists installed the world's most powerful star-tracking machine on top of Mount Palomar, a monster of a five-metre telescope of unprecedented precision. For decades, the name of what was, at the time, the world's most famous observatory, triggered popular dreams: Palomar. Not far from here, Edwin Hubble imagined that the Universe was an expanding entity, through his observations of the flying galaxies. Not far from here, then, was born the idea that there had been a moment when the world was started, that first there was a nothing, then a big bang from which emerged fabulous amounts of energy slowly organising itself into something of which we are now a part. Wow!
Now you see why these people living inside the dust bowl just north of the Mexican border, north-east of San Diego, find some soothing moments during their incredible nights under the stars, in a place looking like the end of the planet. They feel like scouts sent to probe the mysteries ahead.
In the middle of the night, a peculiar smell drifts around Borrego. The smell of rock giving up the heat of the day, the smell of cold stars spitting energy across the Universe. Gives you the shivers.
But then, taking in the night air deeper, you trace the faint smell of burning sausages. Sausages, and more. Maybe it's ribs on a barbecue. Then, a mix of music, voices, laughs, twings and twangs. It's a party, far out, somewhere under Hubble galactic skies, a party on the dust bowl. Use the smell and the sound as a beacon, and drive towards the source.
Under a fierce moonlight augmented by starlight, the road shines black and straight, for miles, across nothing. Then, on the left, a sign perched atop a pole, as if it were announcing some cattle ranch. Stop, turn and read it. It says 'Borrego Air Ranch'. It is a ranch.
Drive inside, under the sign and along an undulating dust and gravel road. We're getting closer. Another sign, marked 'Runaway, Stop For Planes'. We stop; no plane lights in sight. Maybe a spaceship, up there, Mars-bound. But no planes aiming their night flight at this narrow runway we're crossing. We drive alongside a few flat houses adorned with skinny palm trees silhouetted against the whitish gentle slopes of the adjoining hills. This is an air park.
Here and there, the figure of sleeping aircraft shines. A polished Bonanza, its V-tail like a basket full of stars. A yellow Cub, its glassed cockpit under the wings radiating soft, silver moonlight.
The smell and sounds are now close. There's even pulsating artificial light, and lots of it, from xenon bulbs. The air is so pure that the man-made photons just escape up into the sky, without trace, without haze. It's here, under a bouquet of Hollywood-styled palms: the party.
Perfectly aligned in three rows, 43 Ferraris gleam red under the starlight, guarded by a gang of biplanes. Two or three immaculate Wacos, one very old and very clean Travel Air and some Bückers.
'Biplanes and Ferraris', said the invitation card.
The hangar door is wide open, revealing people, neon coloured signs, a stage and graphic art objects spread across the hangar floor, all this bathed in some violent light pulsating in rhythm with the flow of rock music from a band hunched across the stage. 'The MarDels', says the neon sign crowning the makeshift stage, above two long-legged short-skirted sexy girls singing in unison with a golden-Gibsoned, hip-shaking guitar player.
In the centre of the action, another biplane, statue-still, creamy white Super YMF with burgundy stripes. Two hundred people, or more. Half of them dance around the biplane, glass in hand. In those glasses, a creamy concoction in tune with the YMF; Kalhua-milk, I'm told, when handed one. Murder, even when stuffed with ice cubes. Now look around and observe.
This hangar is a house. A real house with no walls nor partitions, a house spread across the hangar floor, complete with king-sized bed, an office, a library, two sofas, a Schwinn racing bike, aircraft models on the shelves, paintings on the end wall, beige carpeting and a blue Dodge Viper with two white stripes running along its body. The YMF dominates the place, the hangar, the house, the people. It is the emblem, the symbol of life for the man who lives here, the man who sent our invitation cards across the world.
Michael has his airline-pilot girlfriend at his side. Michael is a genius from the software industry. He worked for the software giant, IBM, then went his way, designing futuristic software against which he invested all his possessions. The software did not make it. It was too advanced for the market. Michael went down, broke. He lost everything: money, his Ferrari 275 GTB, his home. Even his wife. Everything was sucked down the drain to failure. He spun down into depression, California style. He ended in a small, sandy place on a beach, left with only a computer-a model of a Ferrari stuck on top of its monitor-and his brains. After a while, he went back to work. He designed other software, tailored for small companies' managers, and he made it the Ferrari of that trade.
Every evening, a biplane flew along his beach, and he focused on his aircraft, turning it into a obsessional symbol of his own revival. It took him two years to polish his creation, then he went back to the software market. This time, he made it. Money followed, lots of it. Came the time for reward. He learned to fly, then went shopping, and bought a Stearman because of that inspiring biplane, so often seen above his beach shack when days were hard.
He got himself another 275 GTB, added for good measure a unique Scaglietti-bodied Corvette, a Schwinn racing bike and that dark blue, white-striped Viper. Then he bought an old, dilapidated hangar at the Borrego Air Ranch, with the idea of turning it into a fifty-year-old dreamer's toy box. He hired a team of professionals, and made the hangar his dream place, where everything is now centred around a brand new, beige YMF, Michael's biplane.
But something again marred that beautiful scenario. All too soon, the Stearman was crashed in the desert by an instructor, who forgot to pre-flight the old biplane. No way this aircraft could have burnt after the crash: not a drop of fuel was left in the lines.
But Michael's son was strapped in the front seat, and his spinal cord was severed. Money and social success do not automatically bring a sweet life. Michael had to fight again, but this time it was not on his own: his son, working hard at his own painful rehabilitation, convinced him that Destiny has no consideration for human happiness. "If flying is your thing, dad, just go out and fly." So he bought the Waco, and went to fly.
Michael imagined trips of fantasy, and turned them into reality. His first was a flight between the south-western corner and the north-eastern corner of the United States and back, barnstormers' style. His second tour of western Europe, including a lengthy exploration of Ireland, from where his ancestors came to America. A roots trip of sorts. Then he flew back to Borrego, and the hangar under the Universe.
All the objects of life are here, not just the usual things seen in every home, but those luxury objects associated with the American Dream, presented as if this were a museum designed to impress the average extraterrestrial crew bound to land here. Imagine that event tonight. Captain W O Glurgull cautiously enters the booming rockin' and rollin', flashlit hangar, followed by his deputy, Sub-lieutenant Llurllug, both space-suited and armed with gazzappers, guns designed to stun, not kill. The bouncing crowd inside seems totally indifferent, immersed in the rock's pulse and Kalhua-milk. The crew have just landed the starship Eeegle in the dust, a few hundred yards off the end of the runway, unsure if that dark ribbon is a safe place to alight three hundred tons of hardware. "Maybe that black line is some kind of slot laid there by those unpredictable Earthlings to swallow space ships and send them tumbling end over end into the fourth, sixth and umpteenth dimensions," Captain Glurgull might have muttered, just before touchdown, adding after a while: "When in doubt, land long." Anyway, here they are, staring inside Michael's home. The party goes on, somebody hands them a pair of Kalhua-milks, a beautiful woman with short blonde hair, her body draped in only a thin, supple sheet of black silk, sees them and stops dead, fascinated by their silver spacesuits and shouts, "Holy honey!" Where did you guys got those gorgeous jump suits, and where did you land your bikes?" She's a Harley Davidson agent from down near San Diego, if you believe what her tattooed left shoulder says. Is it a real tattoo, or just one of these one-night decals?
I am spread on a soft leather sofa by the small swimming pool, staring through my glass, its insides smudged by the thick and oily film of coffee-flavoured milk, building up my extraterrestrial explorers' story inside my tired brain, half-smashed by the combination of jet lag from Europe, noise and alcohol and running on barbecued ribs that looked like engine parts just out of a very old Harley Davidson (but tasting much, much better). Here I am, floating in the deep centre of the American Dream, under stars. Fifty of them are stars from the large and elegant star-spangled banner gently dancing in the breeze around its pole outside. Millions of them are stars from all over the night skies, plus the blinking tiny navlights of a silent airliner unrolling a perfectly straight silvery contrail as if tracing a line to the moon.
Two middle-aged men, tough-looking guys both, sit next to me and talk shop. From their conversation, it would appear that Douglas products are immensely superior to anything the rest of the world, even Boeing, can throw at them, if only because Douglas is from California. These two look like airline captains. They might be flying DC-10s or MD-11s out of LAX. Yes, I think, but Boeing just bought Douglas. The band stops for a while, the stereo unit takes over. After a moment of silence, Errol Garner plays, seemingly from somewhere out there among the stars. I identify the music as the 1949 version of The Saint Louis Blues. Leaning against the hangar's outside wall, a giant of a black man who might be a former basketball star looks up and hums in unison, perfectly happy, glass in hand, his mind filled with the beauty of it all.
Under the palmettos, just a few yards from all this, a scarlet biplane sleeps, undisturbed by the party, its round engine pointing towards distant Martian ridges. I slide my hand along the lower wing's leading edge. The fabric has retained some of the day's warmth, and under my fingers it is as if the aircraft is a living being with a very low metabolism. If I were an extraterrestrial explorer, I would try to make friends with the still lukewarm biplane; a flying creature certainly able to tell endless stories about the desert skies. This aircraft has traveled thousands of miles immersed in sunlight-saturated, dry, burning air above the desert ridges, canyons and bowls, its big wings slicing through turbulence and biting at invisible bubbles of superheated molecules, its engine roaring, its exhausts spitting torrents of hot gases inside already heated air, its ailerons dancing, its tail waltzing from side to side in the arms of swirling, powerful thermals climbing across endless blue sky. In the cockpit the sweating, exhilarated face of a leather-helmeted, goggled aviator, master for a moment of the majestic beige, rocky, wild landscape unrolling under the scarlet wings. The sun slams so hard that only the desert below seems real. High energy photons bombard the aircraft and its pilot, biting into colours and shapes to the point of dislocating the picture into blurred pixels. Is this flight above the desert virtual?
I will know more about that two days from now, after I've taken that sweating, exhilarated aviator's place in the cockpit. The aircraft belongs, I've been told, to a television producer who bought it when he decided to retire from the hectic business.
The sun climbs up over the ridge, instantly melting the early morning cold, opening the heat taps, pouring rivers of energy down the desert slopes. The party is over for a while. It will start again this afternoon-Ferraris and biplanes. For the moment, it sleeps, the guests have retreated to their heavily air-conditioned rooms in the bungalows under the palm trees at the Oasis del Zorro, by the next crossroads.
At the air park, early birds open their hangars and push the aircraft out. The polished Bonanza has turned deep blue, the colour of the sky it reflects in the mirrors of its wings. The spaceship is gone, and might come back tomorrow night, with a little help from my imagination. The biplanes' wings open up like flowers with the flowing of sunlight across their colourful geometries. First to catch the light and loudly shine are the yellow Bückers, then the yellow Piper Club and last, the scarlet Waco.
Two veteran airline captains still discuss the merits of the DC-8 against the 707, under the shade of the hangar next to Michael's dream place, eating fried eggs and drinking strong, black coffee by a Navion's wing. Echoed by the hangar walls, their voices sound small but clear in the vastness of the desert at the edge of the world.
It's going to be a good day for flying.
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