I'm carrying less fuel than usual, because I have some favours to ask of the destination FBO and buying 200 gallons of avgas is a good way to open a conversation of that sort. I called ahead and asked the owner if he could supply the amount of fuel we'll be looking for over the next week and he answered in the affirmative, punctuating his enthusiasm for that volume of sales with the words "Praise the Lord!"
The controller gives me clearance to "taxi to runway 31 via bravo, cross runway 36" There are two things unusual about the clearance. Firstly, the other times I've departed out of here on 31, the controller has given me an intersection departure. That is, he has told me not to go all the way to the beginning of runway 31, but to enter it from an intersection with a taxiway. One day I took off from the delta intersection. Another day I held short at taxiway charlie while a couple of Cessna 172s waited at echo. That's a situation that raises a pilot's alertness just a little, because accidents happen when airplanes are lined up in different places for access to the same resource. Some airports don't allow intersection departures at all, for that reason. The Cessnas were there first, but the controller cleared me for takeoff first. Not unusual, as he knew I'd be up and out of the way faster than the single-engine guys. Or maybe the first Cessna in line was taking his time and hadn't called ready yet.
The other unusual part of the clearance was the explicit instruction to cross runway 36. That would be required in Canada, but in the US if the taxi route you are assigned crosses a runway, you are implicitly cleared across that runway. There are exceptions, airports where you do have to get an explicit clearance, in an attempt to cut down on runway incursions. Crossing without the clearance is a little nervewracking for me, like driving in a city where the rule is that you don't stop at red lights, just drive on through. Sometimes I stop anyway and irritate controllers by asking for confirmation that I am cleared across. But this guy did tell me to cross 36, and that's doubly unusual because 18/36 is NOTAMed closed today. Maybe they're fixing the lights.
I'm guessing the controller is also qualified at another airport that doesn't give intersection departures and always gives explicit runway crossing instructions. I suppose I should have asked for the intersection departure. Maybe he thinks I need the whole runway. I don't usually ask for anything I'm not offered at an unfamiliar airport. I don't know what system I'm going to interfere with.
I line up and take off. The empty airplane climbs like a bat out of hell. I level off at 1900' because there are still a few clouds around and very little civilization to disturb with my engine noise. I just zip straight and level across bayou-like country, with a few farms, or perhaps oil rigs. I'm not paying close attention to what's on the ground. Just watching for traffic. I start my engine cooling just before a big feathery-edged lake. I suspected at the time that it was man-made, because time and Mother Nature tend to smooth out the edges of natural lakes. Since then, blog comments regarding another lake indicate that pretty much all the lakes in Texas are man-made.
I'm coming into an uncontrolled airport, or "non-towered" as they're officially called here. I call traffic thirty miles back and again ten miles back, careful to use the airport name at the beginning and end of each call. Many airports share the same Unicom frequency and the same runway numbers.
I'm at circuit height, or traffic pattern altitude, as it's called here, just coming up abeam the opposite end of the runway from where I plan to land. A Cessna pilot calls to say he is taking the runway. It's the same runway I picked, good. I didn't have up to date wind information, just guessed based on what I had aloft and the last METAR I had. I call joining downwind, and the Cessna pilot immediately amends his call and says he's holding short.
"No, no, you go ahead and take off," I say. That wasn't really good airmanship on my part: a pilot can make up his own mind whether to go or not. I should have said something closer to "I will be landing in two minutes, you don't mind if you take off," instead of telling him what to do. The point is, he has plenty of time to roll before I get there, and there's no point him wasting his time waiting for me. I see him rotate before I'm through downwind. I turn base and then final. Hmm. The taxiway and the runway are both the same width and I can't see any markings on either. Which one was he on? There's a definite eenie-meanie-miney-moe moment with my hand looking for the airport publication, before I spot the APAPI on the grass in between. I can't remember ever seeing an APAPI that wasn't on the left of the runway, so the runway must be the one on the right. On short final the worn runway markings become visible there.
I land, roll out and taxi in, looking for somewhere to park. I don't know which spots are reserved and which are for transient aircraft, so I park on an unoccupied area of the ramp aways from the other aircraft. There's another pilot on the apron, getting out of an old "fastback" Cessna. I ask if this is his home field, and he answers in the affirmative. It's Sunday, so I'm not expecting any service, but when I wonder where I can plug in my equipment, the pilot tells me I should call the manager.
"You have to remember where you are," he says, as if that should explain everything. We go into the FBO so he can look up the manager's home telephone number for me. A government poster on the wall designates this region as Deep East Texas. That seems somehow appropriate. The airfield manager recognizes my voice (how many Canadian chicks call to ask him about bulk avgas purchases?) and is happy to come out to get us settled in. The local accent is amazing. The vowels go on for ever. I've never heard this even in movies. I'm glad that the rate of speech is slow, because even when the sounds are not so different I can't understand, the novelty distracts me from paying attention to the meaning of what people are saying. I know that I must sound this different, and also that my speech is unnaturally rapid. I try to remember to slow down, but there's no way I could copy those vowels.
The airfield manager/FBO owner is a lawyer. He tells me he's doing some public defence work for some juveniles and is glad he has some folks to defend. I give him a card with my cellphone number on it, and mention which hotel I'm staying at, as another point of contact. His daddy owns it. He introduces me to everyone who taxies up to the pumps and standing indoors tells me who he caught stealing fuel, whose daddy ows him a favour, and everyone's relationship to everyone. I didn't get the blow by blow of who was sleeping with whom, but he told me one story containing a distinguishable piece of self-censorship as he selected the word "butt" to replace what had presumably been "ass" in the uncut version. I guess there's still a distinction here about how you talk to a lady, even if she is wearing an oil-stained baseball cap.
I feel as if a John Grisham novel is about to break out.