art by Justine McGreevy
Great White Ship
by Lou Antonelli
***There is swearing in this story. -Editor's Warning***
I was poking at my drink with a swizzle stick, killing time waiting for my connecting flight. The American Airlines Admiral's Club was nearly empty. I stared at the D/FW runways and watched the flights taking off and landing. I had lost interest in the television a long time ago.
An elderly Mexican man was cleaning the table next to me. He had stopped, and stared up to look at the television screen in the corner of the room.
"I once saw a ship just like that," he said to himself.
His tone caught my attention, and I looked over. There was a CNN Science Report on, about building airships in the future with futuristic ultralight materials. It showed a large, white prototype of a dirigible, designed to be used as a cargo hauler.
I smiled. "Hold on, old-timer, that's a only a model," I said. "And there hasn't been anything like that in the sky since the Hindenburg blew up. You're not old enough to have seen the Hindenburg."
He looked down, and a crooked smile crossed his face. "I saw it, in Tyler, in 1974," he said, as if to convince himself. Then he looked over at me. "It was from another world. The government swore us to secrecy."
I'm a good judge of character, I could tell he wasn't kidding or crazy. His eyes were bright, he seemed very rational.
I looked at my watch. "I've got at least a half hour until my flight arrives," I said. "You've got my interest." I tossed a fifty on the tabletop. "Get us two drinks, and then come back here and sit down for a few minutes. Keep the change."
I pushed the bill towards him. "You sound like you have an interesting story to tell."
He smiled as he palmed the fifty. He went over to the bar, and spoke to the bartender, pointing to me. The bartender nodded, and he came back with another Chivas and Coke for me, and a Sea Breeze for himself. He sat down, took a long sip, sighed, and then began.
"I was an Air Force supply sergeant in Vietnam. When I got back, I picked up work with American Airlines. I was offered a job in Tyler. I was from East Texas, so that sounded like a great idea. I was assigned to the ground crew at Tyler Pounds Airport. They had just started commuter service to Dallas.
"I've heard of Tyler," I said. "Never been there. How big is it?"
"Biggest city in East Texas, maybe 100,000 people now. Back then, maybe 60,000." He took another sip. "You ever been to East Texas? You ever been in an East Texas thunderstorm?"
I shook my head.
"It's like God dumps a big tin bucket of water on top of your head, then drops the bucket over your head, and then he pounds on the bucket." He chuckled. "This all happened in April 1974. I remember the date, April 3, 1974. The weather was horrendous all across the country that day, dozens of tornadoes were dropping from the sky north and east of us, in places like Indiana and Alabama. We all followed the weather reports. By mid-afternoon American cancelled the flights for the rest of the day as some nasty thunderstorms began to form in our area, too."
He rubbed his hands and then clasped them over his chin. "Everyone else had gone home, but I stayed behind to catch up on reading a repair manual. Around 6 p.m. everything turned completely black in the east. The wind picked up like the devil, and a minute later my radio began to squawk. I'll never forget it. 'American Airlines LTA Flight 5980, calling Tyler Pounds, request permission for emergency landing.'"
"LTA?" I asked.