My olive-oil covered face dripped with sweat. The scorching sun beamed down on my back. Dousing my head with cold water never felt better.
My dad has been a crop-duster for over 30 years and during the hot and muggy summers in south Georgia, I'd work for him. "Paying my dues," as he so rightly called it during my teen years.
The main task was pouring chemicals into a mixing rig outside of his hangar that would be eventually be loaded into his big 502 Air Tractor. The olive oil, as sucky as it was to put on my face (and arms), protected my skin from the fumes of the pyrethroid-based insecticides used for killing worms, bow-weevils, and other critters that like to eat up farmers' crops. The chemicals are super concentrated and super potent. A gallon or two is usually sufficient to cover 100+ acre fields. The times I neglected to cover my skin, the fumes would cause a mild chemical burn that would literally last all day long. There was nothing I could do to stop the burning other than wait it out for about 24 hours. It was less of a "burn" and more of a hot/cold sensation that just nagged affected areas until passing on its own.
I did at one point fashion a Darth Vader-like head covering made from a welding helmet, duct tape, and a trash bag. "Brilliant!" I thought, at the time of creation, but the heat plus the sight-hindering qualities made for a cranium contraption that was much less awesome. This chemical mixing task allowed for a lot of "me time." Each load took roughly an hour for my Dad to go spray and fly back, so I had plenty of opportunity to get creative.
With the chemicals mixed, time would pass and I'd eventually hear the soft distant roar of his bright yellow plane with a blue stripe on the tail. Not to be confused with the other local crop-duster's bright yellow plane with the diagonal blue triangle on its tail. Once Dad would land and taxi over to the hangar, it was go time.
First I'd drag the beefy hose up to the bottom of the airplane, get it connected, and run back to turn on the pump. It would take 10 minutes or so to pump 400+ gallons from the mixing rig to the airplane, so to be as efficient as possible, I'd drag the gas hose over to the plane as well, climb up onto the wing from the front tire and begin to fill up the tank with fuel. Interesting side note: The plane uses high octane jet fuel, which is basically straight up kerosene. It's used because the freezing point is around -52º F and the auto-ignition point is around 410 °F. You don't want it freezing if it's too cold or spontaneously combusting if it gets too hot. It smells like diesel and the exhaust of the plane blows the hot fumes right where you need to stand on the wing to pump gas. If you have a chemical burn on your face, the spinning airplane propeller plus the exhaust makes for a really loud and less than desirable situation.
While the chemicals were still pumping and the gas started flowing, I'd jump up onto the hopper (the plane equivalent of standing on a truck's hood) and spray down the windshield with sweet smelling Pledge. After squirting a few high-pressured swaths with the lemony spray, the entire surface would be covered with foamy residue. Bug guts stuck to the fiberglass windshield were inevitable after an hour-long session of dusting crops a few feet from the ground. The sun would bake them into place on the glass and Pledge proved to be the best product for their removal.
Once the windshield was clean, I'd hop down quickly, remove the gas nozzle, run over to the mixing rig and wait for Dad's signal to shut off the pump. "Alright, hooooooo!" Dad would say, over the loud noise of the running airplane engine and fiercely spinning propeller. With the mixing rig turned off I'd run back under the airplane and disconnect the pump hose and pull it away. Dad would taxi back out to the runway and take off for another hour.
During the busy months (June, July, and August) the plane would run all day long from sunrise to dusk, sometimes logging over 1,000 acres sprayed in a single day. There was a GPS on Dad's airplane that showed the spray pattern of the target field that he could print off and give to the farmer. Pretty freaking cool.
It was during these summers when I would make use of my Dad's hangar, which also housed a full wood-working shop, all sorts of tools, saws, belt-sanders, etc. If I wanted to make something, this was the place to do it and Dad was the man to help. We even did body work on cars together in his "shop," as we called it.
The car we first painted together was my yellow 1979 Mazda RX7, which was a hand-me-down from him. When I first inherited the car as a young 15 year old whipper-snapper, it was not in great shape. The seats were torn, the body paint was chipped and rusty in some places, and instead of a proper cassette or CD player, it had a CB radio - the kind with a walkie talkie device and a curly-q chord attached to the unit. Apparently that was cool to have back in the early 80s. Despite all this, I still thought the car was sweet and just needed some TLC. I asked my Dad if he thought we could install a CD player, even though the front and rear speakers were pretty much non-existent. He assured me that it was possible. Even though I had no idea how he was going to do it, I trusted him. He was always good with that sort of thing.
Before I was born he taught electronics in the US Army during Vietnam. He's always been able to build and make things since I can remember. He's built cars and airplanes from kits, disassembled and reassembled engines, and performed countless other feats of creation and assembly. Because of these accomplishments, my confidence in my Dad was high and I was eager to see the process of installing a CD player and speakers unfold before my inexperienced eyes.
We both sat in the car analyzing our plan of attack. Well he was analyzing, I was just taking note. The interior of the Mazda always had that old worn out leather smell. The kind of smell that's seems different in the cold morning versus the hot afternoon. That same smell still reminds me of being at the airport with him.
"Help me pop out this dashboard," he said as my eyes widened with anxiousness. "What!?" I said in disbelief. "We can't just pop out the dashboard, can we?" He smiled and said, "Well someone put it in there, right? That means we can take it out and put it back in."
It was this one statement that has stuck with me ever since. "Someone put it in there and we can take it out." This phrase seemed to unlock something in my mind. It was empowering. It was invigorating. All of a sudden I was tapping into some world that I had not seen before. A world where I could begin to master things, create things, and break things if I wanted. The fact that one human being performed a certain task meant that I could perform that very same task if I wanted too. If some man installed that dashboard in a factory, that meant I could pop it out. I could use my hands to reverse what had been done by someone else's. If someone had done something, anything, I could do it too.
After learning all about power supply, remote switches, speaker wires, soldering, and heat-shrink tubing, I went on to install countless other CD players and speaker systems in friends' cars and trucks throughout high school. I even made a little cash by getting equipment wholesale and selling it to friends. Each new stereo installation was like this big problem just waiting to be solved. Where would I run the 8 gauge power wire from the battery to the back of the CD player? How could I run the amp wires between the seats so nothing is showing when it's finished? I loved it. I ran into plenty of problems for sure, but I always remembered that somehow it could be completed.
It's still mysterious to me why this one seemingly mundane task was such a milestone, but to this very day, fifteen years later, it still remains a pivotal shift in my thinking. It was this seed of thought that has flourished and driven me as I've matured and gotten older. My perception of what is possible has been greatly enlarged by that process. Compact disc sound quality was most certainly the goal, but the most unexpected and delightful byproduct was Confidence.
Someone else had done it and now, so could I. Thanks Dad.