Chapter 24: Down In Hondo
“We are steadily asked about the age at which to teach young people to shoot. The answer to this obviously depends upon the particular individual; not only his physical maturity but his desire. Apart from these considerations, however, I think it important to understand that it is the duty of the father to teach the son to shoot. Before the young man leaves home, there are certain things he should know and certain skills he should acquire, apart from any state-sponsored activity. Certainly the youngster should be taught to swim, strongly and safely, at distance. And young people of either sex should be taught to drive a motor vehicle, and if at all possible, how to fly a light airplane. I believe a youngster should be taught the rudiments of hand-to-hand combat, unarmed, together with basic survival skills. The list is long, but it is a parent’s duty to make sure that the child does not go forth into the world helpless in the face of its perils. Shooting, of course, is our business, and shooting should not be left up to the state.” – The Late Col. Jeff Cooper
The leader of the Hondo expedition was Major Alan Brennan, a quiet man who was the son of a retired Air Force Colonel. Brennan’s leadership was competent but very laid back: He made it clear that he expected his squadron members to be punctual for all meetings, and completely sober before each scheduled mission. He summed up his guidance by stating simply: “We’ve got excellent maintenance NCOs, and the civilian techs know the gear inside and out. Stand back and let them do their jobs. Just be at the briefings and be on flight line on time. ‘Kick the tire, light the fire’, and come home safe.”
Brennan, who had recently been married, was fascinated by pre-Columbian history, and spent a lot of his time off in a rented jeep, wandering around ancient ruins, taking pictures. Other than on his mission days, Doyle rarely saw him.
The Air Force terminated its tactical reconnaissance program for F-16s in 1993, with plans to shift most of those missions to UAVs. But there was an interim program using US Navy-developed Tactical Aerial Reconnaissance Pod System (TARPS) mounted on F-16s. Doyle’s squadron was one of the two fighter squadrons that got tapped for this “strap-on recon” test program, which only lasted 18 months. While technically a success, from an operational and logistics standpoint, the results were mixed. And since UAV technology was meanwhile maturing rapidly, the decision was made to mothball the TARPs pods and support gear. It was during the TARPS test program that Ian Doyle was part of the Hondo Expedition.
By the time that the USAF got involved, the TARPs pods were a “well-matured technology”. Most of the technical support was supplied by civilian contractors from Grumman, the company that had originally developed the system. The 17-foot, 1,850-pound pods were essentially a “strap on” system, adaptable to many types of aircraft. They could be mounted on standard hard points. First developed for Navy F-14s and Marine Corps F/A-18s, the TARPS pods were, as one of the Grumman camera technicians put it: “fool proof and pilot proof, but then, I repeat myself.”
The expedition included four F-16s–two for missions, and two as spares—four mission pilots, and a C-130 to shuttle the support crew and umpteen spare parts—both for the planes and for the TARPS pods. The TDY rotation was five months, making it just short of the six month threshold for a PCS. This made the personnel paperwork easier, and reduced the overall cost of the program.
All of the pilots were housed at the “White House” (La Casa Blanca), the guest quarters in Tegucigalpa which was run by the American embassy, in Colonia Loma Linda Norte district, on La Avenida FAO. The White House was a gathering place of myth and legend. It served as the catch-all for visiting company-grade military officers, CIA types on temporary assignment, and assorted contractors on government business. The atmosphere was jovial and there were even some fraternity-style bashes on weekends. The CIA officers called it a “safe house”, but its presence was hardly clandestine. Even the local newspaper mentioned it from time to time—often by its nicknames “Rick’s Café Américain” or “Rick’s Place”, in honor of the Humphrey Bogart movie Casablanca.
Junior officers at La Casa Blanca were expected to share rooms. Ian Doyle’s roommate was Bryson Pitcher, an Air Force Intelligence First Lieutenant, who was permanent party with the Intel Cell at the American embassy.
Shortly after meeting Pitcher, Ian Doyle summed up The Expedition to him: “It’s an intense assignment, but a good one. I’ll fly three, maybe four missions a week, all in daylight hours, and they are just six hours each. Other than some intel briefing dog and pony shows once every 10 or 12 days either here or down at Soto Cano, I get all the rest of my days off, to hike, swim, and see the sights. My only regret is that it’s only a five month TDY. I wish it were a couple of years, to really soak up the local culture.”
Bryson has his curiosity piqued. He asked: “Well, what are you doing, exactly? This is the first time I’ve seen F-16s in Hondo. We haven’t heard squat about it, even in the Intel shop.”
“I could tell you, but then I’d have to shoot you.”
Ian grinned, and said: “Just kidding. What’s your clearance?”
“TS-SBI, with a bunch of funny little letters after that, for compartments that I can’t tell you about.”
“Well, what do you do here Bryson, in a nutshell?”
“I task and receive reports from a bunch of over-educated NCOs, and we analyze them for liaison with the Honduran government, and for an un-specified strategic mission.”
“Stuff from aircraft?,” Doyle asked.
“Nope. Stuff from ahh… Non-air breathing platforms.”
“Ahhh, gotcha.” Hearing the euphemism for spy satellites made in clear to Doyle that he could ask no further questions.
Okay, well, then I guess I can certainly talk about the basics, even though you’re in the strategic world, while my bailiwick is mostly tactical. A little cross-over, I suppose. You’ll probably get brief in a week or two, anyway.”
Ian looked up at the slowly-rotating ceiling fan and asked: “Are you familiar with a system called TARPS?”
“Sure—it’s the Navy’s pod-mounted photo recon system. It’s pretty idiot-proof, as long as they remember to hook up the external power and use a squirt of Windex before they takeoff.”
“That’s the one. Were going to be using F-16s with TARPS pods flying recon over Colombia, keeping track of the, ahem, ‘opposition’s’ troop movements. Meanwhile there are some Army Intelligence guys, using a system called Guardrail, flying out of Panama, to monitor the FARC’s radio transmissions. You piece all that intel together, along with what you guys up in “Echelons Above Reality” provide, and that gives a pretty complete picture for the theater command, most of which—after its properly sanitized—can get shared with the host country.”
Doyle sat up and turned to look at Pitcher, and continued; “It’s pretty straightforward stick and rudder stuff. I just follow the pre-programmed flight profiles: Fly to these coordinates, spiral down to this altitude and assume this heading and fly straight and level for x minutes until you at these coordinates, then turn to this heading, and fly x minutes, then climb out, suck some gas at a tanker, and return to base.”
Pitcher chided: “Ha! One of the new UAVs could probably handle that, from a lot closer-in than Hondo.”
“No kidding. I’ve been told that it was more political than anything else, to show support for the Colombian and Honduran governments—you know, “show the flag.” So they didn’t want just a “man in the loop”, but an actual “man on the stick.” For reasons of physical security on the ground, they couldn’t base our planes in-country in Colombia, so they decided to base us at Tegucigalpa.
“Wouldn’t it be safer for the planes to be at Soto Cano.”
“Yes, but El Presidente likes F-16s, so he insisted that since this is just a five month gig that we be here in the capitol, rather than at Soto Cano. I think he’s hoping to get a ‘dollar ride’ in a D-model.”
“Do you have any two-seaters down here?”
“No, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see that magically get added to scope of the mission.”
Bryson summarized: “So basing at Colombia was out, and the political fix was in for Tegucigalpa. Better for you, anyway. At Soto Cano, you’ d be living in some corrugated steel hooch with no running water.”
“Yeah, It would be muy malo to have some FARC dude blow up a couple of F-16s on the ramp. Falcons were $19 million per copy, back when the last ones rolled off the assembly line. Now that production has shut down, the airframes are basically irreplaceable. It would be very bad P.R. if we lost one.”
“So, you poor baby! You have three or four days a week on your hands for the next five months to chase skirts and sip Port Royal beer. Don’t worry, I’ll tell you all the best places to go, and I have friends with cars that can take you there.”
“I’m not much of skirt chaser. You see I believe in courting ladies, not dating them. But I have been known to enjoy a good beer.”
“In moderation, no doubt.”
Doyle echoed, “Yes, exactly: in moderation.”
Bryson, punched his shoulder. “I think you’re gonna have a blast here.”
Doyle’s plans for the next five months changed radically the next day, when he heard what he later called “the voice of angel”, as he came in for a landing approach after a 40 minute operational test flight, with the newly-fitted TARPS pod. The voice on the radio from the control tower sounded enchanting, obviously that of a young woman. Soon after hitting the tarmac, he asked the liaison crew chief who the voice belonged to. The E-7 replied: “Oh, that’s Blanca Araneta. But I’ve gotta warn you: She’s single, maybe 21 or 22, and she’s a absolute doll. But she’s made of pure unobtanium. Many before you have tried and failed, young Jedi.”
Doyle immediately took that as a challenge. He got his first glimpse of the young woman as he loitered outside the control tower during the evening shift change. He spotted Blanca Araneta just as she stepped into her car—a battered old Mercedes station wagon. Ian was surprised to see that, having heard she was from a wealthy family. She drove away before he had the chance to approach her and introduce himself. She was indeed a beautiful woman, with expressive large eyes, a beautifully symmetrical face, and full lips. Her shoulder-length black hair was pulled back in a ponytail. Seeing her, Ian Doyle was smitten.
Ian immediately starting gathering intelligence, and planning a strategy. He first learned that Blanca was from a wealthy family that lived about an hour’s drive north of the air base, and that her father was a prominent mining engineer and investor. After much prying with other members of the control tower staff, Doyle found out that Blanca Araneta was a recent graduate of Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras and was a licensed private pilot. To Ian this meant bonus points: finding a woman with whom he could talk aviation and not have her eyes glaze over. She still lived in an apartment near the University.
Further inquiries garnered the married name of her college roommate: Consuela Dalgon, a linguistics major who now taught public school, living not too far from the airport. Blanca still had a close friendship with Dalgon. After buying a few more beers, he was given Dalgon’s phone number. That same evening, Ian phoned her, explaining that he was TDY and was looking for a Spanish tutor. Dalgon immediately answered affirmatively, explaining that she had married another recent graduate who was just getting started as a management trainee, so she could use the extra money.
Ian’s lessons began the next Saturday, at the Dalgons’ apartment. Not only did he get a thorough immersion course in Spanish, but he also began to pick up tidbits about the mysterious Señorita Blanca Araneta.
He learned that Blanca was from a wealthy family in Talanga. Her father, Arturo Araneta y Vasquez, was a semi-retired mining engineer, and a former member of the Honduran Olympic tennis team.
Consuela confided to Ian that Blanca had told her that she hated tennis. This was because she had been forced to take tennis lessons from an early age. Doyle was also told that Blanca loved swimming, and aerobatic flying. He was also told that Blanca read and wrote English much better than she spoke it.
At his next Spanish tutoring session, he found out that Blanca loved Almond Roca candy. She also liked modern flamenco music–what she called “that folky jazz sound”. She especially liked the Gipsy Kings, Armik, Paco de Lucia, and Ottmar Liebert. Curious, Doyle bought several CDs at the local record store, and was instantly hooked. As he listened to this music he often daydreamed about Blanca, picturing her dancing in a traditional flamenco dress.
Ian met Blanca for the first time at the Plaza San Martin Hotel in Tegucigalpa. Consuela and Blanca often went to the hotel to swim. They had started going while they were in college. Though the pool was normally reserved for hotel guests, the hotel manager quietly let it be known that pretty college girls of good moral character were welcome to come swim at the pool as often as they’d like, just to provide some eye candy for the visiting businessmen. To the girls, it was a perfect arrangement. The hotel provided a safe place to park, and a safe place to swim. The only downside was that they often got to practice how to politely brush off the occasional lovelorn or just plain lusty business travelers. Only the Japanese ones took pictures.
During his third evening lesson with Consuela, she and her husband Pablo invited Ian to come with them for a swim, following the next Saturday lesson. Not wishing to be obvious, Ian didn’t ask if Blanca might be meeting them there, but he thought the chances were good.
At the Tegucigalpa. Multiplaza, Ian picked out a new swim suit—opting for the long “surfer suit” look–a dark beach towel, a lightweight windbreaker, and a pair of the best-quality leather huarache sandals that they sold.
o o o
A half hour after their swim session began, Ian emerged from the pool after a set of laps. He was thrilled to see Blanca Araneta had arrived, and was sitting on a lounge chair, chatting with Consuela.
Toweling himself dry, he walked toward them, doing his best to look nonchalant. Consuela introduced him to Blanca, in Spanish. Señora Dalgon was, after all, strict believer in true Immersion Spanish.
Ignoring Consuela’s cue, Blanca switched to English.
“A pleasure to be meeting you, E-an.”
Hearing the cute way she pronounced his name—more like “Eon” than “Ian”–made him just melt.
Avoiding the open chair next to Blanca, he sat down on the lounge that was beyond Consuela’s and Pablo’s –he thought it best to talk to Blanca at first from a longer distance, rather than seem overly anxious, or intrusive of her space.
Speaking to Blanca, over the top of Consuela’s back, Ian said: “Señorita Araneta, I have heard your voice before, from the control tower. I usually fly ‘Falcon 1-2-4’, and you’ve probably heard my callsign, ‘Subgunner’.”
“Oh, yes, I know your callsign.”
Doyle replied: “Yes, that me. I always wanted to put a face to your name. I must say, you have a pretty voice, and a very pretty face to go with it.”
Blanca just smiled and laughed politely.
Again trying to seem nonchalant, Ian added: “Well, enjoy your swim”, and he reclined on an unoccupied lounge chair and put on his sunglasses. Laying there, he wondered if he had botched the introduction. His mind was racing. He felt very self-conscious, and oh-so pale skinned, among so many people with olive complexions. He dare not speak. Silently, he recited to himself Proverbs 17:28: “Even a fool is counted wise, when he holds his peace. When he shuts his lips he is considered perceptive.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Blanca stand up and whip off the ankle-length swimming skirt-wrap that she had been wearing. She tossed it on top of her flight bag. He noticed that she carried that bag everywhere. Beneath, she was wearing what by modern standards was a very conservative one-piece swimsuit with an integral skirt, but it couldn’t hide her traffic-stopping figure. Ian Doyle gulped and whispered to himself: “Ay, ay, ay”.
Blanca spent almost 15 minutes in the pool, swimming lap after lap. After she got out and returned to her chair, Ian rose, smiled, and took his own turn in the pool, swimming in a medley of strokes for about 10 minutes. He thought that at this stage, it was best to seem slightly stand-offish and more interested in swimming than in chatting her up.
After he climbed up the pool’s ladder, he could see that Consuela and Blanca had turned on their chairs, and were applying sun screen to each-other’s noses. Ian again toweled, but just slightly, and returned to his chaise, and put on his sunglasses.
Consuela asked, “Bloqueador de sol, Ian?”
He answered: “Si, muchas gracias por su amabilidad, señora”, and raised his hands as if ready to catch the bottle.”
But instead of tossing the bottle, Consuela pivoted to hand him the bottle directly. Leaning forward, she whispered, “She has been very curious about you.”
Ian slathered the waterproof sun-block on, explaining: “With my skin, I don’t tan, I just burn. I’m feeling a little too white to fit in here.”
As Ian handed the bottle back to Consuela, Blanca said matter-of-factly: “You know, here in our country, many people would be jealous of your fair skin. The more fair, the more aristocratic.”
Doyle nodded, and said simply, “Oh.” He realized that he had lot to learn about Honduras.
Blanca eyed Doyle for a minute, and speaking over Consuela’s back, asked, “Has Consuela been talking about me, to you?”
“A little.” Disarmingly, he added, “I also told her about my college roommate.”
“So what did she say?”
“Something about your father, su papa, that he was un experto de tenis’.”
“Not actually a champion. He was an bronze medaler–I mean medalist, in doubles of tennis.”
She cocked her head and asked with a hopeful lilt to her voice, “Do you like tennis?”
“I’ve played the game, but you know, I never really liked it. No le gusto el tenis. It is just a whole lot of sweating, just to hit a ball back and forth, back and forth. And it’s kind of an aggravating game. I found it a little too competitive: Even if you practice a lot and hit the ball just right, there is always someone who can hit it just a little bit better, or who is just a little bit faster, and they can ace you out. So, no offense, but it’s not for me. If I want to practice my hand-to-eye coordination, I’d rather be in a flight simulator, or better yet, up in the air, formation flying or doing aerobatics.”
Blanca smiled. “Aerobatics?”
“Oh yeah. The F-16 is built for it—well, with a big turning radius that is. Lot’s of power, great handling. The controls are a dream. Incredibly responsive.”
“Ay, that sounds wonderful.”
Consuela jumped in: “Ian, you should show Blanca those videos you shot from the back seat, that you showed me and Pablo.”
“Si, señora, yo estoy feliz… uh…” At a loss for the right words in Spanish, he finished: “…to do so.” After a moment, he added, “That video may make you dizzy to watch, and there is not much narration, just me and the pilot grunting, you know, tightening our abdominal muscles, doing our best to pull the gees.”
“No, it won’t make me dizzy!”, Blanca said. She then just smiled, nodded dismissively, and lay back down, putting on sunglasses, and pulling her sun hat over her head. But Doyle noticed that she was looking in his direction. With her large dark sunglasses, he couldn’t be sure if she was sleeping, or staring at him. He was having trouble reading her. Was she genuinely interested, or just being polite and properly social? He decided that it was best to just give her more of the ‘silence and sunbathing treatment.’ He reached down and pulled out his Sony Discman portable CD-player and put the headphones on. He closed his eyes and got lost in the music for a few minutes. Then he noticed something had shaded his face. He opened his eyes to see Blanca standing over him.
“Oh, hola, senorita Araneta”, he said casually.
Gesturing to his CD player, she asked: “What are you playing on that theeng?”
“Oh, this? Here, take a listen.” Blanca perched on the edge of Consuela’s lounge chair, and Ian handed her the Discman. He leaned forward to put the headphones on her head. It was the first time that he had ever touched Blanca. It gave him a tingle.
Blanca put on a huge grin the instant she heard the music.
“You like Ottmar Liebert? No way! This is his first album, ‘Nouveau Flamneco’. You really like it?”
“Yeah, I sure do. I’m a recent convert to that music. I’ve really gotten hooked on flamenco guitar, since I came down here.”
She nodded. “Well, E-an, then what is current-ally your favorite band?”
“I’d have to say, the Gipsy Kings. It’s almost hypnotic. From the first time I heard them sing ‘Bamboleo’, I just couldn’t get it out of my head.”
Blanca smiled and said softly, “Wow, I really like them too.” Then she shook her head in disbelief, smiling.
o o o
The next time that Ian met Blanca was at a weeknight dinner party, just three days later, hosted by Consuela and Pablo. The evening before, in halting Spanish, Doyle asked Consuela, “How should I dress for this?”
For the first time at one of his immersion class sessions, Consuela lapsed into English: “Well, it is a dinner, you should wear a coat and a tie.”
“I’m just TDY down here, and I don’t have a suit with me. The only thing I have with a tie is my Service Dress Uniform.”
“That will be fine. Wear that.”
Ian arrived early, carrying a clear plastic grocery bag with a bottle of Chilean white wine and a can of Almond Roca. In the crook of his other arm were two large bouquets of white orchids.
Inviting him in, Pablo Dalgon said, “You can relax Ian. We’re speaking all English tonight. This is not a class night. Pure-ely social.”
Ian was taken aback to see that Blanca was already there, having arrived even earlier than Ian. Doyle handed the flowers to Consuela, and said “ I brought a bunch for each of you.” Pablo, who heretofore had hardly spoken to Ian, exclaimed, jokingly, “Oh how nice of you. Flowers for both of us.”
Consuela gave Pablo a sharp look, and elbowed him in the ribs, chiding, “He means, flowers for both of the ladies.”
Pablo laughed and said, “I know. Jus’ kidding.”
As Blanca and Consuela each took their bouquets, Blanca glanced down to see what was in the bag. She recognized the pink can. Her jaw dropped a bit, and she gave Doyle a quizzical look.
In rapid damage-control mode, Doyle explained: “I heard from Consuela that you liked Almond Roca, so I bought a can. You know, to serve with dessert.”
As Consuela began serving dinner, Blanca’s eyes locked onto the can of candy sitting on the sideboard. Then she stared at Ian.
Blanca started laughing. “She pointed with a scolding finger at Doyle, and said, “E-an, I theenk you are trying to manip-o-late me.”
“Yes, I am, señorita. I freely admit that. But I’m doing so in a kind of nice, gentlemanly way.”
Through the rest of the dinner the talk was mainly about aviation, and differences between American and Honduran customs. It was a very pleasant evening. Pablo was quiet, as was his nature. Ian and Blanca made plenty of eye contact. Consuela, clearly looking like a victorious matchmaker, steered the conversation. She often returned to topics where she gave Ian and Blanca opportunities to ask each other questions and talk about their accomplishments.
After dinner, Consuela served flan, with a piece of Almond Roca topping each piece of the gelatinous dessert. She was quite the diplomatic hostess.
Pablo and Consuela stepped out, to clear the dishes. In phrasing that he had practiced several times with Consuela’s coaching, Ian asked Blanca in Spanish: “Señorita Araneta, I wish to ask your permission to court you in the coming days, with completely honorable intentions, if you would be so kind as to have me in your presence.”
Her answer was immediate: “You may call me Blanca, and yes, you may court me, with your promise to be a gentleman.”
o o o
Their next meeting was a lunch the following day, at the air base canteen. But just as their conversation was starting, it was cut short: One of Blanca’s co-workers rushed to their table, and exclaimed that the tower boss had fallen ill with a flu, and that Blanca was needed back at the control tower. Then he turned and stepped away, just as quickly as he had arrived.
Blanca stood, and said, “I’m now in a hurry here, so this as you say is the ‘Reader’s Digest’ version: I like you a lot, E-an. I theenk you are fascinating. So now, it is the time I should take you up to the Estancia, so mi papa can give you the, uh, ‘Third Degree’. You are seeming just way, way too good to be true… and my father, he is an expert at digging out the flaws of character in suit-ors. We’ll see if he can scare you off.” She raised her index finger and added: “He has, all the others, you know. I’ll schedule a dinner for next Saturday.”
Before he could answer, Blanca smiled, gave a little wave, and dashed away.
Ian sat dumbfounded at what he had just heard. Then he said a long silent prayer, and ate his lunch.
o o o
To go meet Blanca’s father, Ian decided to wear a suit, instead of his Service Dress uniform. But borrowing a suit that would fit him well took some scrambling, as did finding cufflinks and dress shoes. This turned into an evening-long scavenger hunt for many of the junior officers and GS-9s that lived on his floor of “Rick’s Place”. Knocking on doors up and down the hall, Bryson Pitcher led Doyle and a “parade of suit beggars”. This turned into movable party, with plenty of alcohol served. Doyle heard repeatedly: “This deserves a toast!” The lovely Blanca Araneta was a legendarily unreachable enigma for anyone that worked in flight operations, so the reactions were a mix of envy and awe. The envy came mostly from the officers that were there on PCS assignments. They were miffed that a newly-arrived TDY O-2 could break the ice with Blanca, so quickly.
Blanca drove over from her apartment and picked Ian up at just after 3 p.m., for the hour-long drive to her family’s 90 hectare estancia, which was about three miles outside of Talanga. Blanca wore a simple black dress with a very modest neckline and hemmed below the knee. She wore very little makeup. Her hair was combed out and worn loosely. This was the first time that Ian had seen it in anything but a simple ponytail. The only adornment she wore was a single large, teardrop-shaped pearl, on a gold chain. Ian thought she looked gorgeous. She definitely had the Grace Kelly vibe going: Understated, but stunning.
The drive north from Tegucigalpa was fairly quiet and revealed the nervousness they both felt. There were just a few comments on the scenery, and a bit of travelogue from Blanca on the local history the age of certain buildings. Ian Doyle felt a new level of anxiety as she turned the car in the Estancia’s long driveway. Even from a distance, Doyle could see that the house was huge, and that it had stables off to one side.
[Author’s Note: The remainder of this sample chapter will be posted tomorrow. Copyright 2010. All Rights Reserved by James Wesley, Rawles. This material is not available for re-posting at other web sites. The novel is scheduled to be released by the Atria Division of Simon & Schuster in early 2011.]