Case 1: Rhythms of the Road Chapter 1: Trail Magic

Chapter 1: Trail Magic

It was with a heavy heart that Bob and Elaine Fitzsimmons packed up their RV Mobile Home and prepared to leave the Albuquerque area.  “You know, Elaine, I really thought the situation at La Vida Aureo would be exactly what we were looking for.”

“I agree, Bob. The facilities were beautiful and everyone we met was so pleasant.  But, as we both realized, all of those outstanding attributes come with a comparable cost which would have put us in a financial hole.  I forget sometimes we were very fortunate when you received this RV as a surprise gift when you retired from Boeing.  Without that, we would still be stuck in St. Louis trying to eke out a comfortable living on our modest pensions and Social Security.”

“Well, it won’t help to dwell on what might have been.  C’mon, let’s finish packing and get moving.  I’ll buy you breakfast on the way out of town. I’m pretty sure I saw a Cracker Barrel near where we get on I-40 heading west.”

 

The Fitzsimmons secured the RV and drove out of the La Vida Aureo Guest parking lot.  It was a typical Albuquerque weekday morning and most people were operating on mañana-time so there was relatively little traffic. They pulled into the Cracker Barrel parking lot less than an hour later and were able to find a convenient space in the rear lot.   They went inside and were shown to a table.  As usual, the service was prompt and friendly.  They ordered and sat back to enjoy their coffee, knowing their breakfast would soon be presented.

At the next table, a middle-aged couple was deep in conversation and staring at the laptop computer in front of them.  Elaine could not help but overhear most of their conversation.

The woman said, “I’m certain we could get a spot at one of the Arizona State parks for all of next Winter but we need to get our name in early.  I particularly enjoyed Lost Dutchman State Park near Apache Junction.  The fact that we were there last year should help us get in again.  If we act now, we should be able to get our first choice. Since we’d be returning Volunteers, we might even get our choice of assignments!  I mean, cleaning bathrooms wasn’t as bad as I feared, but there are lots of options.”

“You’re right.  I’ll make an application on-line before we leave.  We should probably include a second choice just in case.  Any suggestions?”

“Let me look in the book again.  I’ve heard good things about Catalina State Park near Tucson.  Patagonia Lake would be another choice if we want to secure a spot for the winter months.  There are some really nice parks in northern Arizona that we could try to get into for the Summer, but let’s lock in next Winter first.”

“You know, we were very fortunate to come across that book someone left on the table at the Cracker Barrel in Dallas.  I had never considered we could live a completely nomadic life until I read NomadLand by Jessica Bruder.  She chronicled several couples who live full-time in their RV and travel around working part-time jobs to support themselves.  I was particularly surprised to learn about Amazon’s program called CamperForce to hire people living in RVs and Campers to supplement their holiday and peak need times work force. Working at Amazon provided a reasonable income and helped us get back on our feet.  Without that, I’m not sure how we could have survived.”

“Yes, we were lucky.  To be honest, I was very worried when we lost everything a few years ago.  I didn’t know how we would survive and we didn’t have much put away for any emergency. Fortunately, our RV was almost paid for and we just began this adventure without any real plan.  But, we met some people who were in similar situations and many helped us develop a plan of our own.  All in all, I think we’ve done OK.  Nothing fancy, but my confidence grows each year and I’ve come to look forward to new places, people and adventures. And, we now actually have some money in the bank!”

“I have to confess that I too was apprehensive when we were first faced with the situation, not really sure how we would even survive.  But, I have always had faith in people and believed in what I call Trail Magic.  Time and time again, we’ve met someone who provided us the information we needed to take the next step.  And, as we’ve gained experience and confidence, we’ve been able to do the same for lots of other folks.”

“OK, enough philosophizing.  Get on the computer and make sure we have an Assignment at Lost Dutchman locked in.  Then, let’s get back on the road. Despite your confidence and faith in people, I have always dreaded this stretch of I-40 west of Albuquerque.”

 

Both Bob and Elaine Fitzsimmons had sat quietly during the entire exchange between the other couple. Despite trying to be polite, they could not help but overhear essentially all of the conversation.  Their breakfasts had been served a few minutes earlier but remained untouched.   They picked at their pancakes until the other couple finished and left.  Elaine was the first to speak.  “I’m sure you also heard enough of that couple’s conversation to realize our situation could be much worse.  Just yesterday we were concerned we couldn’t afford a fancy place like La Vida Aureo, but we are really quite fortunate compared to many others.”

“You’re right, Elaine.  I had never put a word on it, but we’ve also experienced our own version of Trail Magic as we’ve travelled around visiting Military Bases.  We’ve put lots of miles on our little RV Home since we left St. Louis and had our share of positive experiences.  We certainly have a lot to be thankful for.  Anyway, let’s finish our breakfast and get on the road.  I want to be well into Arizona before it gets dark. I’d like to spend as little time in New Mexico as possible.”

 

Case 1: Rhythms of the Road Chapter 2: Road Rage

Chapter 2: Road Rage

The Fitzsimmons carefully navigated the spaghetti-bowl like intersection of Interstates 25 and 40 near downtown Albuquerque, known locally as The Big I.  The highway climbed west toward the West Mesa and past the Petroglyph National Monument and the Double Eagle Airport before descending into open road. They had not travelled far and were approaching the Route 66 Casino when traffic came to a standstill.  “Looks like some sort of construction.  Traffic in both directions is down to one lane and just crawling along.”

“I’m glad you’re driving, Bob.  I can handle the RV under most circumstances, but I always expect some jerk to do something stupid in these situations and that throws me.“

“Well, this can be frustrating and it pays to be patient and keep your eyes peeled for that one person who doesn’t want to be bothered with common courtesy.”

“Look over there in the on-coming lanes!  Speak of the Devil.  See that pick-up driving on the shoulder and going around everyone.  And, look at his speed and the gravel he’s throwing up.”

“I see him. I’m glad he’s going in the other direction.”

“Look! It looks like a woman leaning out the passenger window and shouting at the other cars as they zoom past.  She’s waving her arms and I doubt she’s asking politely to get ahead.  Now they’ve crossed into the center lane and are forcing their way back into traffic from that side.  Jeez!  I hope nobody decides to challenge them.  It could escalate quickly.  I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those folks are armed.  C’mon Bob, let’s get away from this as quickly as possible.”

Fortunately, the west-bound lanes opened up and they were able to move forward.  Navigating a safe path between the convoys of tractor-trailers was much less stressful than even watching the chaos developing in the east-bound lanes.  The drive west remained uneventful.

After a few miles, they saw signs indicating that Acoma Pueblo was to the south.  “You know, Elaine, I read about Acoma years ago and I really wish we had time to stop today. If I remember correctly, Acoma is an ancient site and there is a terrible story about its conquest by the Spanish.  Acoma sits atop a large mesa which prevented the Spanish from an easy assault.  After trying for months, they actually built a dirt ramp up one side and brought a canon to the summit where they slaughtered most of the village. The survivors were mutilated and forced into a long period of slavery. It is a terrible example in the Spanish quest to convert the native peoples to Catholicism. Typically, the Spanish were brutal and destroyed much of the civilizations that had existed for centuries.”

As they continued west, they passed the town of Grants, site of intense uranium mining in the early days of America’s pursuit of atomic energy and nuclear weapons. Next came Thoreau a town the locals pronounce “Thru” unlike the poet Henry David Thoreau. There is no proof the poet actually ever visited here.  It is more likely the town was named after a local person who worked on the railroad.  Then it was over the Continental Divide and past Fort Wingate, an abandoned Army munitions site.  The road signs indicated Gallup was only a short distance ahead.

Bob slowed down when he passed the first Gallup City Limits sign.  Just then, he noticed a bright light reflection in his side mirror, indicating a rapidly approaching vehicle.  He assumed it was a police or emergency vehicle of some sort because of the speed and he slowed further and eased to the right of his lane.  Suddenly, the vehicle was upon him and Bob realized it was a large Dodge Ram pick-up. The Ram accelerated past the RV and headed toward a smaller pick-up a hundred feet ahead in the right-hand lane.  Bob watched in horror as the Ram slammed into the rear of the smaller truck and forced it off the Interstate onto the shoulder.  The smaller truck nose-dived down the embankment and flipped over several times before landing upside down on the feeder road. To his total amazement, Bob watched as a woman leaned out the passenger window of the Ram, shook her fist and yelled something at the overturned vehicle and sped away.

Bob noticed his knuckles were white as he gripped the steering wheel.  Elaine had a look of total astonishment on her face and was reaching for her cell phone. “I don’t know and don’t care if that driver was drunk or not, I’m calling the New Mexico DUI Hotline.”

Elaine’s call to the #DUI number was quickly answered.  “New Mexico DUI; what’s your emergency?’

“My name is Elaine Fitzsimmons and we’re driving west on I-40 in an RV motor home. A large silver or grey Dodge Ram pick-up just ran another smaller pick-up off the road.  It rolled down the embankment and is resting on the feeder road.  I can’t see whether it’s on its side or upside down and I don’t know the condition of the driver.”

“OK, can you give me your exact location on I-40?”

“I believe we’re less than ten miles east of Gallup.  I think we just passed the first City Limits sign.”

“Got it.  Thanks.”

“Do you want us to do anything?  I assume you’ll send some emergency vehicles to the scene.”

“Nah. It’s probably just a couple of Drunk Indians playing Chicken on the highway. This happens all the time out here.  There’s really not much we can do about it.” And with that the line went dead.

“I don’t believe that.  That Dispatcher didn’t seem the least bit concerned about what we just saw.  She basically said those people deserved what happened. Bob, that just isn’t right“

“Elaine, things happened so fast and I’m not sure about this, but I believe that was the very same Dodge Ram we saw earlier today acting crazy just outside of Albuquerque.  We were never in any real danger, but that kind of behavior on the highway is upsetting to say the least.”

“You may be right.  I know you were focused on driving, but I know I saw a woman leaning out the passenger side widow and yelling, just like we witnessed this morning.  That is really scary.  I just hope the Dispatcher was correct and these are local people.  I want to get as far away from here as possible.”

They were now on the western side of Gallup and Bob was eager to get out of New Mexico.  He had a lingering concern, however, that the Dodge Ram might not be local since they most likely had seen them in Albuquerque.  He just hoped their antics did not extend out of state.

Things remained quiet for the next several hours along I-40 into Arizona.  “I know we haven’t come too far today, but I’d like to stop for the night.  I am still a bit unsettled and would like to get a fresh start in the morning.   I noticed a State Park this side of Winslow and we might be able to get a spot there for one night. What do you say?”

“I agree, Bob.  I saw Homolovi State Park on the map when I was looking a while ago.  Let’s stop there and have a quiet evening.”

Homolovi State Park is an archeological site containing seven ancient ruins, two of which are open to the public.  There is a pathway through these ruins with interpretive signs along the way. Although it is not a large State Park, they were able to find an open spot and parked the RV for the evening.  Despite being windy, the walk through the ruins was a welcome respite for the Fitzsimmons after the harrowing experience on the highway.

Just before sunset, Bob left the RV for a leisurely walk around the campground. Homolovi is relatively small in comparison to other Arizona State Parks, but Bob knew the night sky would be a rewarding experience.  He had only walked a short distance when he abruptly stopped.  A few spaces ahead Bob recognized the Dodge Ram parked without a camper trailer.  He moved quietly behind the large trash container to avoid being seen and watched.  He saw a man and woman standing in the truck bed and they were rummaging through several large duffle bags.  The man stood up and was holding what appeared to be a large hunting rifle.  The woman reached into one of the duffle bags and was holding a hand gun of some sort.  They were each waving their respective weapons around and laughing. They aimed the weapons off toward the distance and pretended to fire off multiple rounds.  After a few minutes, they put the weapons down and unrolled two sleeping bags and settled down into the truck’s bed.

Bob quietly withdrew from his hiding place and walked slowly back toward his RV.   He was deeply troubled to see this couple in Arizona and hoped they would head back toward New Mexico in the morning.  He decided to not mention any of this to Elaine but would encourage her to get an early start and continue west toward Flagstaff.

It was a beautiful sunrise and the Fitzsimmons were pleased to have the sun behind them as they continued west.  The next hundred miles were relatively uneventful and it gave Elaine an opportunity to take a turn at driving.  They would switch drivers when they stopped for gas in Flagstaff before turning south toward Phoenix on I-17.

After a brief stop for gas and a restroom break, Bob resumed driving.  He was approaching the Verde Valley as they drove south and had begun to relax and enjoy the scenery. He hoped that the Dangerous Dodge Duo had headed west, back to New Mexico. Suddenly, Bob noticed the Dodge Ram rapidly approaching off to his left. Bob instinctively slowed and moved as far to the right in his lane as possible.  Elaine noticed the change and was about to ask if anything was wrong.  She looked up to see the Ram speed past and continue in the inside lane. About fifty yards ahead, Elaine saw the woman lean out the passenger side window and point a hand gun at the driver in the adjacent lane.  The woman fired several shots directly at the driver and several more at the front tire. The sedan veered out of control toward the embankment, rolled over and burst into flames.  The Ram accelerated and was quickly out of sight.

“Oh my God”, exclaimed Elaine.  “Did you see that?  It’s the same truck we noticed yesterday.  That woman just shot the driver and then drove off.  I’ve got to call 911 and report this. Hopefully, the Arizona Highway Patrol is a bit more responsible than New Mexico’s”. Elaine dialed 911.

“911. What’s your emergency?”

“I want to report a shooting along Interstate 17.”

Alright, can you give me some additional information, staring with your name?”

“My name is Elaine Fitzsimmons and we are driving south on I-17, at approximately the 260 mile marker.  A Dodge Ram pick-up just passed us and the woman on the passenger side shot the driver of a sedan.  The sedan careened off the road onto the shoulder where it rolled over and burst into flames.”

“OK, Ms. Fitzsimmons, please describe your vehicle.”

“We’re in a thirty foot RV motor home, painted tan with dark green accents. We’re towing a red Kia Soul.  The license plate on the RV is a Missouri vanity plate F4-PHXR and the Soul’s plate is also Missouri FITZ.”

“Thank you. Can you provide any additional information about the pick-up?”

“It is a large Dodge Ram, a 2500 model, I think.  It has one of those extended cabs. It is metallic grey or silver with New Mexico plates.  I didn’t catch the license plate number; it was moving much too fast, but I did notice it was bright yellow in color.”

“Thank you, Ms. Fitzsimmons.  I’ll alert Arizona Highway Patrol immediately.  Are you in any danger?”

“No. We are a bit shaken, but unharmed.”

Can you think of anything else?”

“Oh, yes.  I believe this same truck and the couple driving it that were driving recklessly and causing several accidents.  We first noticed them yesterday when we were driving west on I-40 from Albuquerque.  We never saw anything like this shooting incident, however.”

“Thank you for calling, Ms. Fitzsimmons.  We’ll handle it from here.  Drive safely and do not hesitate to call if you see that truck again.”

Elaine put her phone down and sat back in her seat.  “That was awful, Bob.  I hope the other driver is OK, but that looked like a pretty serious crash. Hopefully the Emergency Services can get to him quickly.  At least this 911 service was interested in the incident and didn’t totally dismiss me.  Are you OK to drive?  Should we take a break before we attempt to drive through the entire Phoenix area?”

“I think I’m OK, but we can pull into one of those truck stops on the north end of town and just get out and walk around for a few minutes.”

After taking a short break, the Fitzsimmons continued their journey, navigating the traffic and somewhat confusing road signs.  When they picked up the Tucson signs, they knew they were out of the Phoenix Metro Area.  “I really wanted to stop at Luke Air Force Base while we were in Phoenix, but maybe another day.”

“It’s OK, Bob.  At least we’re safe.  I’m sure there will be other opportunities to come back and visit the Base.”

“You’re right, Elaine.  Let’s just focus on driving south.  Hopefully, we’ll be able to find a suitable place around Tucson to stop and relax for a few days.”

The drive south on the Interstate was uneventful; traffic wasn’t too heavy and there were no dust storms.  As they neared the intersection with Interstate 8 near Casa Grande, however, things became chaotic.  Bob heard the sirens first, before he saw the rapidly approaching vehicles.  It appeared that the Dodge Ram was travelling at a very high rate of speed followed by several police vehicles.  Bob couldn’t tell how many, but there were at least four. Then he noticed there were several more police vehicles up ahead blocking the Interstate. The pick-up veered onto the ramp leading to Interstate-8 west with the police close behind.  Bob was forced to stop as the road block had shut down all traffic heading south.  When he stopped, he rolled down his window and it was then he heard a loud noise off to his right. It sounded like a crash.  Almost immediately, there was a large column of black smoke and Bob saw the fire engines and emergency vehicles turn onto I-8.

After about a forty minute delay, the police barricade was removed and traffic resumed south.  “I’m sure we will be able to learn more about what just happened when we stop for the night, but I have to assume that the police were able to catch up with the Dodge.  That noise and the smoke were most likely from a crash and I hope it was the Dodge and not one of the police.  The Officer who waved us through was not going to answer any questions.”

“I hope this will put an end to the vicious road rage.   Let’s just keep going and try to stay calm.  Look, I think that’s Picacho Peak in the distance”

As they approached Picacho, Bob saw a police vehicle approaching in his side mirror.  The vehicle turned on his flashing lights and pulled up next to Bob’s window.  It was an Arizona State Trooper and he motioned for Bob to pull over.  Bob was able to exit toward Picacho State Park and pulled into the Shell station on the other side of the highway.  He waited nervously as the Trooper parked and walked up to the RV.

“Could I see your license and registration, please Sir.”

“Certainly, Officer.  Is there something wrong?”

“Fitzsimmons?  I thought so.  Would you both please step out of you vehicle?”

Bob and got out and Elaine walked around to where Bob and the State Trooper were standing.  As they approached, the Officer took off his hat and extended his hand.  “I presume you are the Fitzsimmons who called 911 a few hours ago.  I thought I recognized your rig, but wanted to be certain. I’m Officer Brian Melrose of the Arizona Highway Patrol. Your call was instrumental in our tracking that crazy couple in the Dodge Ram.  We’ve apprehended them a short while ago thanks to your quick thinking and actions.  On behalf of the Arizona Highway Patrol, I want to personally thank you both.”

With those words, Elaine relaxed considerably.  “You are most welcome, Officer.  We first noticed them yesterday and things seemed to be escalating after we witnessed the shooting this morning.”

“Because of your contribution, I’ve been authorized to provide you folks with a few details of the situation, which is something we don’t normally do. I trust you’ll keep this in confidence.   We were able to capture the couple and have them in custody even though our pursuit ended in a rather large-scale crash. We recovered a number of firearms, including high-powered rifles and handguns.  But the most important thing we recovered from the glove compartment was an extensive diary or log-book detailing the couple’s exploits.  There have been a series of unsolved drive-by shootings over the past few months and I believe their diary answers a lot of questions.  Apparently, this couple has been driving a circuit through Arizona and New Mexico, along the Interstates and generally wreaking havoc.  They drove from Albuquerque to Flagstaff, south to Tucson, then east to Las Cruces and back north to Albuquerque.   They would often reverse their route, but still drive the same highways.  We are trying to put together all of the reported incidents, but are confident we can connect most of them to these guys.  Your call this morning gave us the first real-time siting of their whereabouts.  Thank you again.”

All Bob could say was, “Wow! At first we thought they were just out joy-riding and being reckless.  But we quickly realized there was something much more serious going on.”

Elaine added, “I have to admit we were apprehensive about having anything to do with them, but after the shooting, we knew we had to call.”

“Well, thanks again, folks.  I’ll let you be on your way.  Where are you headed?”

“We hope to get to Tucson, but haven’t located a place to stop for the night.  I’m sure we’ll be able to find something.”

“If I could make a suggestion, Catalina State Park is one of Arizona’s best and it’s not far from here. My cousin is the Ranger there and I’m sure he could find you a very nice space to park and relax for a couple of days.  You’ve had an exciting time for people who are probably on vacation!”

“That would be very thoughtful, Officer.  I was reading last night when we were at Homolovi, that Catalina is one of the most popular Parks.”

“Yes, Ma’am. A few miles ahead, take the Tangerine Road exit and drive east until it dead-ends at Oracle Road.  Turn south and the entrance to the Park is about a mile ahead on your left.  I’ll make sure the Ranger meets you at the gate. Drive safely.”

Bob ad Elaine Fitzsimmons got back in their RV and just sat there for a few minutes until the Trooper drove away.  “You didn’t mention your call to the New Mexico folks when Officer Melrose was describing the extent of the Dodge Duo’s multi-state activities.”

“No.  I didn’t think it would serve any purpose.  Hopefully, there are senior-level people in New Mexico who are more responsible than the woman I spoke to.  I suspect it will take a while to put all the pieces together, but that log-book should provide sufficient evidence of what’s been happening.”

“Fair enough.  Let’s be on our way.  Catalina sounds like exactly what we’ve been looking for.”

“I agree, Bob, but, before we drive off, you could buy me a large sundae at the Dairy Queen since we’re right next door!”

 

Case 1: Rhythms of the Road Chapter 3: Phantom Visitors at Catalina State Park

Chapter 3: Phantom Visitors at Catalina State Park

Officer Melrose’s directions were straight-forward and the Fitzsimmons soon found themselves approaching the entrance gate at Catalina State Park.  A Ranger stepped out of the Station before they had reached to Stop sign.  “You must be the Fitzsimmons. Welcome to Catalina State Park.  Cousin Brian called ahead and we have a place set aside for you.  It’s Site 67 in our “B” Campground and has full hook-ups for your rig.  I reserved the Site for five days, but if you’d like to stay longer, just let me know.”

“Thank you.  That sounds great. What is the fee for those five days?

“Well.  You folks must have done something really special for the Troopers.  The Site has been completely paid for as well as any additional days.  I’m to send a note to Phoenix with the details and the Park Service will be reimbursed.  Brian was kinda vague, but he made sure I understood to give you the VIP treatment.  Anyway, enjoy your stay and let me know if you have any questions or need anything.”

It was easy to find the designated Site on an outer loop backing up to a stand of trees.  Bob backed the RV into place and set about connecting the electric and water sources. He unhooked the Soul and parked it out of the way at the end of the Site. Before long, they were sitting under the RV’s awning in their lounge chairs enjoying a tall cool glass of lemonade.  “I think it will be an early evening, said Bob.  Even though we could probably pick up some local TV stations, I’d rather we didn’t.  I’m on news overload anyhow.”

“I agree.  There are a few things in the refrigerator we can snack on.  I’m sure you don’t feel like setting up the camp stove and cooking a large dinner.”

Bob and Elaine Fitzsimmons sat in their lounge chairs for a long while, occasionally dozing.  It was dark and the sky full of stars when Bob woke and realized it was time to go inside and sleep.

 

Bob was up early and went outside to make coffee.  It was his favorite time of the day, watching the sun come up and savoring his first cup of coffee.  He heard Elaine stirring about an hour later and prepared a fresh cup for her and a second cup for himself.

“Bob, it is delightful here, so peaceful.  I just want to sit here a while and enjoy the scenery.  We can have breakfast later.  OK?”

“No problem.”  There had been too much excitement the previous day and Bob didn’t want to upset Elaine right away.   Maybe he was just being paranoid, but he had noticed a man walking past their Site several times.  Each time, he seemed to slow down and stare at the RV then move on.  About thirty minutes later, the man returned, again staring at the RV for a few minutes before moving on.

About ten o’clock, Bob made pancakes and took them inside where Elaine had set the table with some fresh fruit.  They were enjoying a final cup of coffee when Bob noticed a man standing outside the window.  He was almost certain it was the same guy he had seen earlier.  Bob went outside.

“Can I help you?”

“I hope so. Sorry to interrupt and I didn’t mean scare you earlier by checking out your rig. I noticed your plates and the Phantom decal. I just gotta know; are you Phitz the Phixer, the famous F-4 Phantom mechanic?”

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Bob actually blushed.  From inside, Elaine called out.  “What is it, Bob?  Is everything OK?  What does that gentleman want?”

“Everything’s OK, Elaine.  I think my secret identity has been discovered.”

Elaine stepped out of the RV to see what was happening.

The man stepped back and stood ramrod straight and saluted.  “Pardon my manners. My name is Jack Erskine, Colonel Erskine, United States Air Force, retired. I am honored to meet you personally, Sir. I was on the original committee of former pilots who dreamed up this whole idea of a suitable retirement gift for you.”

Bob extended his hand.  “Bob Fitzsimmons and pleased to meet you as well, Colonel Erskine.  This is my wife Elaine.”

“Pleased to meet you as well, Ma’am.  I didn’t notice you folks here yesterday. Did you just arrive?  Are you planning to stay long?  Where are you headed?”

“Actually, we just got in late yesterday and we really don’t have any plans for the next few days.  At some point, I was hoping to drive over to Davis-Monthan and see a few folks there.”

“Well, Phitz, some of us have been tracking your travels for some time.  It looks to us like you’re on some sort of tour down Memory Lane.  We know you’ve been to Tyndall and MacDill in Florida, then over to Holloman in New Mexico.  Have we missed anything?”

“Not really”, said Bob quite embarrassedly. “I was just trying to visit as many Bases as possible to say Thank You to everyone who was part of this wonderful gift.”

“The real thanks goes to you, Phitz.  Many of us are certain we wouldn’t be alive today if it weren’t for your Fix-It skills. Anyway, look, I have to get back to the Group Site.  A bunch of us guys are gathered here for an informal reunion of sorts.  I’ll try to get back later so we can talk some more, maybe even share some war stories.”

Colonel Erskine turned and left almost as quickly as he had arrived.

Elaine was still somewhat confused by what had happened.  She was aware that her husband had been in the military during the Vietnam Era and had a long career with McDonnell Douglas and later Boeing.  She had always respected Bob’s privacy and seeming unwillingness to discuss many details about his service.  She was understandably stunned when Bob was presented the keys to a brand new RV motor home as a retirement gift.  She always knew he was well-respected, but this was overwhelming.  Hopefully, now that Bob acknowledged his secret identity had been exposed, he would be a bit more forthcoming.

Instead, Bob suggested they go for a walk around the campground to explore Catalina State Park.  They were gone for several hours and arrived back at their Site just before lunch time.  Bob still hadn’t commented on the morning’s events or Colonel Erskine’s visit.  They had a light lunch and were sitting outside and had begun reading.

Elaine decided to see if she could prompt Bob to talk a bit. “I have to admit I was a bit surprised when that gentleman showed up this morning.  He certainly was pleasant and seemed really glad to see you.” She paused for a few minutes.  “I knew you were working on those fighter planes at McDonnell Douglas when we first met, so I was aware of the Phantom decal.  And you told me your experience at work had a lot to do with your military service.  I was always thankful you weren’t drafted into the Army and had to serve in combat.  I don’t mean to pry, but I suspect there is a lot you’ve left out.  Just know I’m always willing to listen as long as you feel comfortable talking.”

“Thanks, Elaine.  I haven’t been keeping any big secrets. I was fortunate to be at McDonnell Douglas during the development of the F-4 fighter and I learned a lot about the plane as it was initially being built and tested. When thing began to heat up in Vietnam, the F-4 was deployed extensively on aircraft carriers in the area.  The Navy came to McDonnell Douglas and requested their best mechanic to be assigned to F-4 maintenance.  Apparently, in the rush to get the plane into service, a number of issues had arisen that required attention.  McDonnell Douglas was only too happy to please the Navy and it was also a great opportunity for me.  My number had just come up with the St. Louis Draft Board and I would have ended up in the Army Infantry.  Anyway, a few weeks later I was aboard the USS Enterprise in the South China Sea assigned to Aircraft Maintenance.”

“That was certainly a fortunate turn of events for you.”

“It gets more interesting.  Based on the success of the F-4, the Marines and Air Force both wanted a version developed for their specific needs and uses.  After some high-level, inter-agency negotiations, or bickering, I found myself on a series of rotating assignments to the various Services, all related to F-4 maintenance.  And, that’s how I spent my time during the Vietnam Era.”

“Well, I am most thankful that you were considered valuable enough to keep you out of harm’s way.  There were too many of our young friends in St. Louis who weren’t so lucky and did not return.”

“Absolutely!  When I got back home, there was still a high demand for my services.  For a long time, the F-4 saw extensive service in a variety of ways.  The Air Force’s Thunderbirds and Navy’s Blue Angels flew it for many years.  It was even used in what was called the Wild Weasel Program during the first Gulf War.  I guess that about brings you up-to-date with my career with the F-4 Falcon.”

“There must be a story behind the RV.  I don’t mean to diminish your abilities or contribution, but it seems a bit over-the-top for a retirement gift.”

“I’m sure there is, but I was just as flabbergasted as you when I was presented the keys.  If Colonel Erskine wanders by again, maybe I can ask him.”

 

They spent the remainder of the afternoon in their lounge chairs reading and just relaxing.  Actually, Elaine was reading, Bob was napping.

Late in the afternoon, Elaine nudged Bob.  “I think you better wake up.  We have visitors.  It’s Colonel Erskine and three other men.  I assume they are all military by the way they’re walking.”

“Afternoon, Mrs. Fitzsimmons, Phitz.  Let me introduce my cohorts in crime: Major Bill Douglas, Navy, Captain John “Buck” Rogers, Marines and Charley Wilson with the Department of Defense.  We four are the current Officers of the Phantom Phlyers Association, an international collection of former F-4 Phantom pilots and crew.  It just so happens we were having our annual get-together here at Catalina when you folks stopped by.  It is most fortunate indeed.  I hope you don’t mind us dropping by. We also served as the Steering Committee to arrange your retirement celebration and these guys wanted to see where their money went.”

Bob was taken aback.  “It is an honor to meet all of you and I want to express my gratitude for your support over the years.  And, I cannot tell you how much Elaine and I have enjoyed this motor home.”

“Actually Phitz, we are the ones who are indebted to you,” said Major Douglas.  “I can speak for all the Navy pilots who flew all versions of the Phantom that many of us owe our very lives to you.  We knew that if our plane had received the Phitz Phixes, we were much more likely to return from the mission.”

“Same goes for all the Leatherneck Pilots,” added Captain Rogers.

“Let me try to put this in the proper perspective,” said Charley Wilson.  “Early on, we at DOD realized there were some major issues with the Phantom.  We were receiving numerous reports of fuel leaks and some structural cracks.  Unfortunately, the Phantom had become the major work horse in Vietnam and there were hundreds of aircraft already deployed in the field.  We couldn’t just send them back to St. Louis.  It would take too long and we were afraid McDonnell would analyze the issue to death. We needed an immediate solution.  Fortunately, the Navy was experiencing fewer problems and when we dug into it, the common factor seemed to be you.  Apparently, you had listened to the pilots when they debriefed after a mission and took it upon yourself to figure out what was happening.  You simply addressed the problems without a lot of fanfare.  If you worked on a plane, you signed “Phitz” near the Spook decal and it didn’t take the pilots long to notice. Your reputation grew and eventually made its way to DOD. That’s why you received all those assignments to each Service.  So, when Boeing decided to retire you, the Phantom Phlyers Association stepped up to provide a way to express our gratitude. I’m pretty sure we heard from over half of everyone involved. Thanks again to you.”

Everyone was quiet for a few minutes.  Finally, Captain Rogers spoke up.  “This calls for a toast! I just happen to have a bottle of Del Bac Whiskey which is a local Tucson product.  It’s made from malted barley and smoked over mesquite.  I’ve switched from single malt scotch it’s so good.”

Elaine got out glasses from inside and everyone enjoyed a small taste.

Noticing the reaction on Elaine’s face, Rogers said, “Yeah, it’s an acquired taste, not for everyone.  Anyway, welcome to Tucson.”

Erskine could see that Bob was somewhat embarrassed by all the attention and motioned to the group that it was time to leave.  “Thanks again to you, Phitz and I’ll repeat Buck’s sentiment, “Welcome to Tucson.”

With that, the men all shook hands and walked toward the Group Sites where their respective vehicles were camped.

 

Bob was still standing and Elaine walked up to him and embraced him warmly. “I’ve always been proud of you, Bob, and you’ve always been my hero.  It was truly amazing to hear about the ways in which you helped so many during a very difficult time.  I love you.”

The remainder of the afternoon was quiet and Bob and Elaine resumed their reading, or napping in Bob’s case.  Later, they worked together to prepare a simple dinner with Bob grilling some chicken outside and Elaine preparing a salad and some vegetables.  After diner, they were sitting outside watching the sun set over the Catalina Mountains.

 

Case 1: Rhythms of the Road Chapter 4: The Swap

Chapter 4: The Swap

Early the next morning, Bob was outside enjoying his first cup of coffee.  He was stirred from his reverie when Jack Erskine walked up and took the other lounge chair.

“Coffee, Colonel?”

“Yes, thank you, Phitz.”

“I cannot tell you how much I appreciate you guys stopping by yesterday afternoon.  I appreciate Mr. Wilson’s comments, but I was just doing my part. It seemed the least I could do in light of all those men and women who were putting their lives on the line every day.”

“Well, everyone had to do their part and I’m certainly glad you found your niche.  It was a great help.”

“Thanks again. Elaine and I have really enjoyed the motor home.”

“Speaking of your RV,” said Erskine.  “That’s why I’m bothering you at this early hour.  I’ve been asked to serve as Chairman of the Phantom Phlyers bunch for another term and the guys were talking late into the night.  We were inspired by your Road Trip to visit some of the Bases.  We came to the conclusion that there are many stories of Phantom pilots and crew worth preserving.  We fear that all memories of Vietnam are fading from the national consciousness.  There was much animosity when many of us returned home and we believe people don’t appreciate the sacrifices that were made.  So, the group asked me to initiate a program to capture and document as many personal stories as possible while many of us are still alive.  DOD offered to establish some sort of web-site where individuals from every Service Branch can record their stories. They will also work to incorporate these stories into the larger Vietnam Memorial setting.  It will serve as a central repository, but we fear many may not use it.  I stole an idea from your Playbook and offered to travel around and visit as many Bases and VA locations as possible to personally interview veterans.”

“That sounds like a great idea, Colonel.  Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Now that you mention it, Phitz, I want to make you an offer you can’t or shouldn’t refuse.  I propose a swap, your RV Motor home for my garden home here in Tucson.  That way, you and Elaine could settle down and I could drive the RV around and fulfill what I see as my most important mission. I mean, it’s already painted the appropriate colors and the Spook decal is unmistakable.”

“Wow, Colonel.  I don’t know.  As it happens, Elaine and I have been talking about settling in one place and getting involved in the community.  But this is kinda sudden.  You know I’ll have to discuss this with her.  You better tell me more about this garden home of yours.”

“Sure.  It’s in one of those Active Adult Communities. You know, folks 55 and older, so no little kids running around.  I’ve met a majority of the current Residents and all seem pretty nice; some veterans, a few Snow Birds, mostly professional people, mainly retired or working part-time or doing volunteer work. There are all the standard amenities for this type of community; club house, pool, golf course, tennis courts, you name it.   My unit is two bedrooms and a separate casita, about 1,800 square feet total; just the right size.”

“You really think it would be an even swap?  My Boeing pension and our life savings couldn’t afford taking on a huge mortgage.  Are there some sort of Association or Home Owner fees?”

“Look, Phitz, I feel strongly about this new Mission and I will make it work for you financially, assuming the basic idea appeals to you and Elaine.”

“OK, I’ll talk it over with Elaine today and get back to you.  By the way, does this community have a name?”

“Sure.  It’s called Copper Legacy Estates in honor of the significant role copper mining played in Arizona’s colorful history.  And, it’s really not that far from here. I’d be happy to show you both around.  I’ll get out of your hair and give you guys time to talk this over.  Just send me a text message when you’re ready to talk and I’ll come over.  And, thanks for the coffee.”

 

Bob relit the camp stove and prepared to boil water to make some more coffee.  Elaine stepped out of the RV and stood next to him.  “Let’s do it, Bob.”

’What? Were you listening?  The bedroom window was right above where Erskine and I were talking and I presume you overheard his proposal.”

“Well, I couldn’t help it.  I was awake and heard Erskine when he first came up.”

“Really? Do you think it’s the right thing for us to do?”

“We probably would have stayed at La Vida Aureo in Albuquerque, but the financial aspects just weren’t right.  I think we should pursue this.  Let’s see what Erskine proposes as the conditions of this so-called swap and we should accept his invitation to go look at his garden home.  I don’t think I’m overreacting to the harrowing experience we had driving here, but it may be time to get off the road and settle.”

“I’ve often thought about other things I’d like to do while I’m still able, maybe a part-time job, or some meaningful volunteer work, you know.  Tucson sounds like it could be the opportunity we’ve been looking for. And, the weather is much better than St. Louis!”

“OK, call Erskine and let’s see what he has to offer.”

“Can we have breakfast first?”

 

Things moved quickly over the next three days.  Bob and Elaine were suitably impressed with Erskine’s garden home and the total environment of Copper Legacy Estates. As they walked around, they met several Residents who were friendly and spoke highly of the community.  The financial arrangement Erskine proposed was also quite generous.  There was a difference of about $50,000 between the value of the RV and the garden home and Erskine offered to accept a promissory note with reasonable terms.  When Elaine gave Erskine an extended tour of the RV, he was excited and eager to finalize the arrangements.

The three of them met at Erskine’s lawyer’s office to sign the appropriate documents and the respective Titles were recorded with Pima County the next day.

That evening, Erskine and the other three members of the Phantom Phlyers Steering Committee showed up at the Fitzsimmons’ RV Site to celebrate.  Bill Douglas spoke for the group.  “Thank you again, Phitz, for making this possible.  We’ve talked about a Mission like this for some time and we knew time was running out.  I know Erskine will keep you informed of his progress and his travels. He may even draft you into service to help him with his writing and documentation.”

“It all has happened so quickly, but I am confident we’re doing the right thing.”

“I agree with Bob and it was certainly a pleasure meeting all of you gentlemen.  I guess in the morning, we’ll drive over to Copper Empire Estates and begin our new lives.  I am excited about everything and all the adventures the future holds for Bob and me.”

 

Early the next morning, Bob Fitzsimmons gave the keys to the RV to Jack Erskine and showed him where he kept the Operating Manuals and service records.  It only took a few minutes to explain the various utility and safety systems and Erskine quickly grasped things.  “Certainly not as complicated as a Phantom, is it?”

Bob and Elaine got into their Kia Soul and drove out of Catalina State Park.  It was a short drive to Copper Legacy Estates and they were eager to start their new lives. “I don’t know exactly what lies ahead, Elaine, but I’m sure it won’t be as exciting or terrifying as dealing with the Dangerous Dodge Duo.”

“I’m sure you’re right.”