My Flock

Chapter 8

We let the boys make their 'nest', again in my sitting room, and get some bedtime snacks before asking them to sit down on their pallet bed and broke the news that we were cutting our vacation short and returning to San Antonio. At first they objected, suggesting we could hide Erbert, even suggesting possible plots to smuggle the animal between our suites and ways to sneak food into him.

"It's not quite that simple," Adam countered their proposals. "If Herbert, I mean Erbert is found, not only we, or you guys get in trouble, but would it be a death sentence for him," he paused and cast me a disbelieving look when the little rat crawled out of Bobby's lap and sat facing us, pointing his ears at the doctor, his bug-eyed face as intent as were the boys'.

"But, , ," he all but stuttered, "But also, Mister Miller and I, even Johnny could get into some legal problems." He held up his hand to silence Johnny, and a couple of others. "I know no one did anything wrong, I, we, believe you that Johnny just found Erbert on the street and wanted to help him, but if the police claim otherwise we could have some problems."

"What about Erbert?" Bobby asked.

"We can't leave him here or nothing!" Johnny cried.

"Erbert is going back to Texas with us," I announced. It was my turn to pause in almost disbelief when the rat/dog wagged his tail and pulled his jowls back and showed a few teeth. "He's going to fly with us, and when we get home he is either going to live with us or at Doctor Owens house, but he will have a good home.

God, I've been drug-free for over thirty years, and now I'm getting flashbacks? I thought as the little rat's tail went supersonic and he flashed what was very clearly a huge smile instead of a snarl, showing all his teeth. His tail was wagging so hard his hips were swinging side to side like a two month old puppy's as he jumped into Bobby's lap and all but drowned Bobby and Johnny with lick kisses.

Adam's announcement that everyone was invited to spend the rest of the week at his ranch sealed the deal, my boys even hinting we should leave that night, of course for 'Erbert's safety'.

After tucking the boys into bed Adam and I risked adjourning to the patio. I used my cell phone to call the local FBO and have our borrowed Cessna serviced for an early departure, and asked them to send someone over to the main terminal and rent a pet travel cage while he made a couple of calls on his.

"God Damn it!" he mumbled, I guess to his phone a minute later. When I asked what was wrong he shot his phone another dirty look. "I'm going to have to try for commercial airline tickets. We, well a foundation my Medical Group is associated with, has two private jets that we use for transportation, but one of them is down for repairs and the other is in Brazil."

It took several seconds for his comment to sink in. Two corporate JETS? One of them off in Brazil? Is he a Hollywood Shrink, for the stars? I wondered.

I mentally did a few math calculations before answering. Although it was bordering on false advertising, the 414 I had borrowed seating that could be reconfigured for ten passengers, two crew members and even had a fold down jump seat for a flight attendant; it had the seating capacity but not the weight capacity to support it, but somehow the FAA had approved it. 'The lucky 13, seating for thirteen, if they are malnourished midgets,' was a joking catch-phrase among 414 drivers. Thirteen unlucky midgets, or eleven skinny teenagers?" I tittered.

"Ride with us," I suggested. "We might have to FedEx some luggage, but there is room." I let him digest my offer for a couple of seconds before adding, "Who would you like as your pilot, Jerry, Jeff or Carl?"

I was still enjoying the memory Adam's befogged face a few minutes later when I slipped into my bedroom, leaned against the headboard of my bed and booted my laptop.

This is going to be fun, I wonder how Cessna bull-shitted their way into getting this approved? I thought as I prepared my flight plan. Even with the boys' kid-sized bodies the lightest fuel/cargo weight I could come up with was less than a hundred pounds less below the aircraft's maximum takeoff weight. A very 'fat' aircraft and far from a routine flight, especially considering the eleven wonderful little angels I had ever known would be onboard, their lives in my hands.

I spent the next half hour or so wrestling with different flight plans. I decided to go with lower fuel loads and one or two extra refueling stops and was searching for airports as way points when a glimmer of light under the door between my bedroom and the sitting room distracted me. God Damn-it, someone's going to get their butt tanned, I scowled as I sat my laptop down next to me and climbed out of bed.

It took me several seconds to snap when I quietly opened the door and peered into the sitting room, but grabbed my camcorder and began shooting. Thank God for low light lenses, otherwise no one would believe this shit! I thought a second later. Johnny, Mark and Carl were laying on their stomachs at one end of the nest, peering with a flashlight at the little photo album I had to endure viewing the day before. Erbert was perched between them, intently studying the book.

"That's Hera, Mark's horse," Johnny whispered. "And that's Athena, and Raven and Zoe," he added as he turned the page.

"There's Zoe again, she's Ronnie's horse," Mark said. I had to fight to keep from jerking the camera as the little dog darted his eyes to where Mark was pointing.

I almost fell over when Carl pulled out a picture, and in a soft voice touted, "That's Binki and Bandit, and Gramps, your gonna like them a bunch!" "Oh, and you know the old man!" he giggled, getting a tail wag from his student.

Erbert continued to amaze me the next morning. I was sure the little dog had to relieve himself, and was trying to think of a way to smuggle him somewhere where he could do his business when Johnny produced a fanny pack. The rat listened intently as Johnny explained what he had in mind, and offered no resistance as Johnny buckled the pack around his thin waist, stuffed the dog inside and closed the zipper.

While the kids took their morning swim Adam and I enjoyed a cup of coffee. At first I don't think he completely believed me as I told him of Carl's propensity for innocently causing police officers to have mishaps, actually I was having a little trouble too; the youngster had added two notches in one day. Adam made a comment that brought back to the surface something I had been worrying about, that the officer from last night might be forced to pay for the wrecked patrol car.

When we told the boys to get out of the pool and get ready for breakfast a few minutes later, Ronnie, taking pictures of everyone in the pool gave me an idea. After we ate I received several lost looks when, despite Adam and my ban on anyone wearing their Mouseketeer ears until we left Orlando, I told Carl to put his on along with his headgear.

After choosing a plain white wall in our hotel room as a backdrop, I had Ronnie shoot a couple of pictures of the back of Carl's head, then email them to me. After cropping them to be sure they contained nothing that would give away Carl's identity, I opened Wordpad (a generic word processor program), wrote a brief explanation of what happened, and copied the note and pictures onto a new floppy disk, which I dropped into an envelope, addressed to the Orlando Police Department, with no return address. Well, I'm not hiding anything, so what if we don't find a mailbox until we get to the airport! I thought as I sealed the envelope.

I chuckled at the bits of conversation between the boys when we arrived at the airport and carried our baggage out to the Cessna. "You can't fly that thing, you too small!" Johnny informed Carl. Mark and a couple of other of Adam's boys added their heckling.

"Grande's got a bigger plane than that!" Pieter proudly proclaimed.

"I'm sure he does," I said toward them. "But, his pilot is probably bigger too. Who's my right?"

Jerry and Jeff flashed their eyes at each other then toward Carl as Timmy backpedaled and tried to hide behind Mike. Carl glanced around and slipped behind Timmy. The twins seemed to beam messages back and forth for a split second before Jerry gave me a wide grin that almost blinded me in the bright Florida sunlight, and stepped forward.

"I'm going to go pay the FBO, and get a final weather brief," I began as I handed Jerry my flight case. "Jeff, get everyone to help, and load the luggage. Jerry, power up the electronics, then do a fuel quality check. Carl and I will do the pre-flight, get the checklist out of the aircraft," I told my youngest as I handed him the key to the airplane.

This is going to be good, only my Turkeys, I snickered a couple of minutes later when I started out of the building toward the plane. Carl and Johnny waiting by the left engine, standing next to the step-stool usually stored in one of the cargo bays for performing pre-flight. Carl was studying a clipboard while Johnny stood almost at attention, holding a flashlight out like a soldier would hold his rifle if he was on an honor guard.

A mass of kids, and even Adam, were scurrying around the aircraft's several wing and belly cargo bays as Jeff pointed and barked orders like only the best of the Marine Corps' soprano voiced Drill Instructor could. I wonder if Adam treats hallucinations? I asked myself as I noticed a long tailed rat sitting on the tarmac, a few feet behind the others, his little head jerking side to side like a bug-eyed military General overseeing his troops.

I picked out ten or so items that I usually inspected on my final walk-around from the pre-flight checklist and assigned them for Carl to check while I slipped into the cabin and reconfigured the seating for our flight, and secured the rented pet carrier for General Erbert. I chuckled when I checked on Jerry as I watched him run tests on the aircraft's avionics that normally were done every thousand hours or so, but after reminding him our craft had water cooled engines that took longer to warm to operating temperature and asking him to start them as soon as everyone was on board, went back outside.

Jeff did a perfect job of loading our luggage, and after checking the hatches he and his crew made their way into the cabin. My pre-flight inspection went faster than I expected, despite two skinny boys underfoot, even to the point that all three of us managed to fit onto the step-stool made for one.

As we finished our inspection I started to get worried, although everyone else, except my little team of 'helpers' and I had boarded the aircraft, Erbert was still sitting at his observation point on the tarmac, studying us. Afraid he might bolt, and worse be struck by another aircraft taxiing in or a ramp vehicle if we tried to capture him, I debated mentally about what to do.

"Okay, we're done," I began. "You go climb onboard and find a seat, Carl and I need to walk around the aircraft one more time, and we'll be right behind you." I told Johnny.

After enjoying watching Carl beam with pride for a second I started to bend over and whisper to Johnny, to get him try and get Erbert to go with him, when the little dog bolted across the tarmac and hopped up the aircraft's steps.

Despite Carl trying to turn our final walk-around check into the equivalent of the aircraft's annual inspection (which takes a couple of days) I finally managed to herd him up the stairs and into the cabin. After I sealed and double checked the hatch I considered pinching his head off when he went right behind me and performed his own check, even carefully inspecting the pressurization seal around the door, but he slipped away and sat down before I could wring his neck.

Well, Adam has them trained! I though as I turned to start checking everyone's safety restraints, and noticed that everyone was back in their headgear, Johnny and Mark complete with their mouse ears.

Just as I bent over to check Ronnie's belts the aircraft shuddered slightly, followed by the muffled sound of the left engine coming to life. Ronnie's eyes darted out the window then up at me.

"Who did that?" he all but gasped.

"Your pilot of course!" I answered as several of the other boys stared at me wide-eyed. Almost as if on cue the cabin shuddered again as the right engine cranked up.

Oh great, I told myself when I checked Bobby's restraints and saw the fanny pack around his waist squirm. "I'm sorry son, but Erbert has to ride in the, , , pet carrier," earned me a dirty look from a couple of the boys and a fresh squirm from the fanny pack. "Just while we takeoff and land, he can come out when I say you can take your seat belts off."

I still don't even believe this shit, I thought as the bugeyed little rat pushed his head out of the fanny pack, flashed me a quick smile, hopped off Bobby's seat and pranced into the travel cage. Without thinking I waited a couple of seconds for his paw to reach out and close the door before I bent over and closed it.

Jerry's thin body seemed as tense as his face looked as I checked his safety harness. After strapping myself in I, as I had done countless times, propped my left hand on my knee, an inch or so from the yoke (steering wheel) and dropped my right hand next to my thigh, equally close to the center console and its critical controls.

"Wake me when we get to Tallahassee," I told him as I leaned back in my seat.

He cast me an all but pleading look, but called the control tower on the radio and taxied toward the runway. I was a little thankful that traffic was light and we only had to wait for a minute or so while a landing commercial jet taxied off the runway.

"Cessna eight-twenty-one Bravo cleared for takeoff," the tower announced. Jerry glanced at me, then his foot controls, his face as tensed as much as I think I had ever seen it.

"Cessna eight-twenty-one Bravo, you are cleared for takeoff on runway 18L." the ATC (Air Traffic Controller) repeated. After several seconds of silence he added, "Eight-twenty-one I have inbound traffic behind you, open your flight plan or return to the taxiway," in a professionally restrained, but rather demanding voice only ATC workers and possibly airline pilots could.

"Answer the tower Son. Taxi into takeoff position, run up your engines and answer the tower," I instructed the white faced, frightened youngster sitting next to me.

I was a heartbeat away from taking over for him when he whimpered "Eight-twenty-one Bravo taxing to takeoff," into his headset. He shot a worried glance at me before steering us onto the runway, locking the plane's brakes and pushing the throttles open. He scanned the instruments for a second or so then whimpered, "Dad, maybe you better, , ,"

"You still have the aircraft, are we going flying?" I cut him off. I flipped the  knob on my headset so that I only he, who would be my copilot in a normal flight situation, could hear me before softly adding, "She's a little fat, but you've got enough runway to launch an over-weight 747. Just add ten knots to your rollout speed, and two fingers on your stick." (A hint to be very gentle with the aircraft's controls, to climb into the air at a gradual angle)

He flashed me a even more frightened look as his only response. "I'll call your numbers, you fly the aircraft," I offered (speeds etc).

He scanned the instrument panel with wide-eyes that reminded me of Erbert's, swallowed so hard I thought his Adam's apple would bounce out of his long thin neck against the yoke. "Eight-twenty-one Bravo Orlando, please open my flight plan." he whispered into his headset as he released the plane's brakes.

The aircraft surprised me as he steered it down the runway, its big turbo-charged powerplants seemed to take the added weight as a challenge and accelerated us toward takeoff speed as quickly as if we were only lightly loaded. Jerry accepted his challenge equally well, his left hand on the engines' throttles as he steered the plane with his right, his eyes scanning the instruments and runway like something out of a major airline company's training video.

"Rotate," I called when we reached our takeoff speed.

"Rotating," Jerry acknowledged with all the professionalism of any pre-pubescent voiced commercial pilot.

At first I used my thumb to subtly slow how quickly he pulled his yoke back to free the craft into the skies, but quickly realized I was being overly cautious as the big plane leapt off the ramp and climbed into the heavens.

"Gear up, flaps to thirty percent," he commanded a second later.

"Gear up, reducing flaps to three-zero," I answered as I carried out his orders.

"Stand by to switch to Miami ATC frequency," he directed as he banked the plane into the airport's departure pattern.

Before I could respond the radio crackled to life, and the Orlando tower directed us to change our frequency setting to the Miami Regional ATC center, who would be monitoring our flight. After Jerry acknowledged their command his face momentarily lost a little of its professionalism and he shot the radio a dirty look when the departure ATC operator replied with their traditional exit message for female pilots, "Have a good flight ma'am."

I waited another minute or so, until my right seat had slowed his climb rate, before switching my headset to the cabin's intercom. "Thank you for flying Silver Turkey Airlines," I began. "We are about to level off at our flight altitude, and you are welcome to release your seat restraints and help yourself to our on-boards drinks and snacks." I quipped.

Before I could continue a chorus of young voices chimed, "Have a good flight MA'AM!"

"Don't you EVEN dare to, young man!" I quietly snapped at Jerry as he raised his left fist between our seats, and I saw the first knuckle of his middle finger start to protrude. He gave me a pointed, 'Up your's old man' look, but lowered his arm.

"Well, maybe you can't, but I can!" I chuckled as I gave the cabin an exaggerated one-fingered wave. I'm not sure if the roar of laughter from our passengers, or Jerry spasming as he looked at me made the aircraft shudder.

After everyone, especially Adam's kids, spent a couple of minutes crowded behind Jerry and my seats watching Jerry fly they drifted back into the cabin, attacking the little onboard refrigerator while Timmy and Jeff connected the Playstation to the plane's TV. I had to again shake my head in disbelief when Erbert hopped up onto the back of the center console and carefully surveyed the instrument panel for what seemed like the better part of a minute then jumped down.

We settled into our flight path and I felt more and more relaxed as I realized what a wonderful aircraft my son was flying, even being 'fat' to the very edge of still being legal, she was as responsive as my high performance Mooney was, even when I was flying her by myself. I'm not sure who was having a better time, Jerry, the kids in the cabin or I as we enjoyed the beautiful day, looking at the distant Florida coast to our right, and the Gulf of Mexico below us; the occasional dots in the ocean that were ships and yachts adding to the scenery like a well done painting from a major artist.

"Thank you Mister Miller," a soft voice came from between the cockpit seats. I was glad I was wearing my sunglasses when I turned around and the bright Gulf sunlight reflected off Pieter's Platinum hair and bright, wide eyed face. "America is so wonderful! Where I am from no one could own an airplane they fly themselves around in. Or even let their son fly it."

His expression was so priceless I had to force myself to turn my head back and scan the aircraft's instruments. I had to fight to concentrate on the panel when he added, "I think I will add this to my dreams, someday I too will fly an airplane." I found myself hoping Jerry was responsible enough to monitor the aircraft when I glanced back around and his star filled eyes captured mine.

"Why wait, why not now?" Jeff asked. He wrapped his arms around his younger friend as Pieter tried to turn back into the cabin. "Dad can teach you, its fun!"

"I can't! We are allowed to sit and watch in Grande's airplanes but I could never fly one!" Pieter whimpered as he tried to turn out of Jeff's grasp.

I felt more than saw the twins exchange glances, or messages, before Jerry said, "Yeah, you can do it, it's totally awesome! Dad, you have the aircraft."

"Hey, Dad taught Carl, if he can learn to fly ANYONE can!" Jeff exclaimed, his voice much louder than needed.

I was still trying to digest everything when Jerry barked, "Dad, do you have the aircraft?"

"I have the aircraft," I mumbled as Jerry slid his seat back and climbed out of it. Damn, vacations are so much fun, no surprises, everything relaxed, I told myself as I watched the twins stuff Pieter into the copilot seat, strap him down and slide his seat forward.

I had just begun to explain the basic controls and instruments to my new copilot when I somewhat felt another presence next to me. Lord, I hope he don't think he's next, I thought as I glanced over and saw Herbert, again perched on the back of the center console, his tiny head carefully following my hand and studying each instrument bug-eyed, as I explained them to Pieter. Right after I showed 'them' the 'artificial horizon', and how to read it and use the steering yoke to keep the airplane level the twins took over, giving the youngster an avionics course that made me want to look behind and see if they had changed into Nomex Flight Suits and mortarboard caps.

Damn, this kid's sharp, I told myself as young Pieter seemed to immediately absorb everything the twins fired at him, even asking questions as he listened intently, at the same time making subtle corrections to keep the aircraft level and on course.

The lad had been controlling the aircraft without any intervention from me for ten or so minutes when our GPS (navigation system) began beeping, warning us we would soon need to make a course change to begin our approach to Tallahassee. I was about to offer to take the controls back when Jerry leaned between us and fitted his headset over Pieter's thin head.

"Practice this," Jerry ordered. "Say, eight-twenty-one Bravo Miami Control."

Pieter gave both of us a frightened look, but repeated the phrase.

"Now, practice saying, 'eight-twenty-one requests permission to change course to two-nine-zero."

The youngster had just finished repeating what Jerry had told him when the GPS flashed and to tone of its beeper changed. After Jerry showed him where the microphone button on the yoke was, my little platinum topped right seat took a deep breath, and identified himself, then asked for his course change in a sharp voice.

I took over as radio operator when we changed frequencies to Tallahassee Approach Control, but my young copilot did an excellent job, almost an unbelievable one for his first time of controlling the plane during our descent, even lining us up on the runway as we began our final. I landed, but I really don't think he really realized I had.

Jeff was my right seat for when we began the next leg of our trip. I was so proud of him I had to fight off the urge to ignore the craft's controls and pull him into a hug about twenty minutes after takeoff, when he gave me the aircraft and helped Jerry strap Ronnie into the copilot's seat. I began to wonder if they had prepared a written schedule a little longer into our flight when, as if on cue, Ronnie surrendered his seat to Mark, then later, to my utter surprise, Bobby joined me.

By the time we began our approach to our final refueling stop, a small airport just south of Houston, I started to worry about the youngster, his seemingly trademark pencil thin grin hadn't changed since he touched the yoke, but he too picked up on flying the big Cessna quickly, and did a great job of landing.

After settling my fuel bill, and climbing back aboard after my final walk around, I couldn't help doing a little mental math when I noticed all three of my budding pilots, actually all eleven kids and Adam were seated in the overcrowded cabin.

"So you're my right," I chuckled as I climbed into the pilot's station and saw the long tailed little rat standing in the copilot's seat - several soft giggles from behind told me something was up. I had to look out my window and bite my lip to keep from cracking up, but managed, "The propeller is clear, start number one engine." I fidgeted with the yoke for a second or so, mainly to keep from losing it, before snarling, "Excuse me! Did I asked you to start number one engine? And contact the tower, request taxi clearance, , , now, PLEASE!"

Got'cha! I silently snickered as Erbert looked at the controls, back toward the cabin, then at me with another of his toothy smiles/snarls. Who got who? You're trying to out-fox a four pound sewer rat dressed in a dog costume? I asked myself as the damn thing again surveyed the cockpit's controls and instrument panel. A couple of soft coughs, then snickers and giggles from behind seemed to tell the little animal the jig was up, and he flashed me a final grin before he leapt out of the seat back into the cabin.

"What's this, I get a Turkey instead of a Rat?" I quipped a minute or so later when a very red faced Carl climbed into the cockpit next to me. "Home please, Chauffeur!" I ordered as he began taxiing us toward the runway.

I continued to wonder how well their plans had been developed as the other boys cycled through the aircraft's right seat, but soon we were parked in front of my FBO, sorting and stacking Adam's and his kids' luggage onto carts, as we stuffed ours into Dad's mini-van, while Adam caught a ride to a nearby FBO to retrieve his car.

I had planned to go home for the evening and take my boys out to Adam's land the next day, and decline Adam's offer for everyone to stay at his house tonight, or actually the rest of the week. However, it didn't take me long to realize if I chose that option, I could spawn a mutiny of such magnitude it would dwarf Mister Christian's actions on the old classic movie 'Mutiny on the Bounty'.

I was about to offer a compromise, that we visit the Owens family for a couple hours later in the afternoon, when my Mouseketeers forced themselves into a group hug with me, pressing their facebows into my stomach as I stared down at their Mickey Mouse ears.

"Please Pop, please?" Pieter whimpered as he pushed into our hug.

"Please?" Carl whimpered as he pulled his face away from me.

Erbert pushed his little head out of Johnny's fanny pack and whimpered as he gave we a bug eyed look that was probably sadder then the Mouseketeers.

Why do I feel like I've been had? I asked myself as I looked down at the four (or four and half) of them, all displaying identical 'Liver Lipped' frowns like Carl had perfected. What, these little fuckers been rehearsing or what? Yeah, well,you can't win them all, I decided when I noticed the other boys, even Bobby and Mike, staring at me with the sad puppy eyes Jerry and Jeff had spent a lifetime practicing.

Soon after we arrived home I began to wonder if I had stumbled on a revolutionary motivational technique. After ordering the boys to unload their luggage, shower and pack some clothes for tonight and tomorrow, I chatted with Dad for less than a minute, thumbed my snail mail and made my way to my bedroom to wash my face and grab a change of clothes.

When I came out of my bedroom, only about five minutes after we had parked in my driveway from the airport, I had to do a double-take. The twins had what had to be a loaf of bread spread across the kitchen counter, stacking sandwich makings onto the slices as Carl and Bobby stuffed an ice chest with drinks and ice. Timmy jerked my overnight bag out of my hand and rushed out the door behind Bobby and Mike, laden with several backpacks. Carl and Bobby bolted behind them lugging their cooler.

"Here Dad!" Jerry bubbled as he stuffed a beer into my hand. "We already put your laptop back in the van and stuff!"

"Yeah, we're all ready!" Jeff announced a he held up a huge plastic bag full of sandwiches and flashed me an almost blinding grin.

"I'll call you later, Dad," I managed to get out before my twin sons half ushered, half hustled me out the front door.

The map Adam had given we was easy to follow, and a sandwich for me, a couple of dozen for the kids later I was maneuvering a narrow, winding road he had indicated led to his property. As I followed the road for the next several minutes I began to be concerned I had taken the wrong one, and was considering calling Adam on my cell phone, or actually wondering if my cell would work in such a remote area, when a white-washed wooden rail fence came into sight, as what he had said was his 'land'.

A secure subdivision, not bad for a twenty-five year old, Doctor or not! I thought as I turned into the entrance and looked over the gate, with its remote access entry system and security camera looking down at us.

"Look! There they are!" Jeff hooted.

"Yeah! YEA!" Carl shrieked from behind. "That's, , , Raven, , , and, , , look! It's Zeus!"

I just had time to glance into the field and see several horses racing toward us before the subdivision's remote controlled gate began cranking open.

I had just started up the long driveway when Jerry snatched a piece of paper from Carl and studied it for a second before he challenged, "Not! That's Zeus, but that's Athena! Or Zoe?"

"I know who one of them is!" I exclaimed as I saw a cinnamon, almost bright copper colored horse charging toward us at full gallop, a thin, carrot red haired rider prodding it on like a Kentucky Derby jockey.

To Be Continued…