Possession is nine points of the law.
2 The Repo Man
A call came from the local airport operator in Clearwater, Florida. He wanted to know if I would come out to see him regarding a repossession of an airplane in Mississippi, and he gave me no further details. I was somewhat puzzled by the tone and the nature of the call, but a mission that would provide some additional income was not to be turned down. I got out to the airfield quickly and met with Hank, the local operator. Hank ran a charter service in light airplanes, did flight training, and sold used aircraft.
What did you have in mind? I asked. I didnt quite get the repossession message. Repossess what?
Well, young man, every now and then people do stupid things. Like they buy Cadillacs when they should be buying Volkswagens. I sold a guy in Junctionville,31 Mississippi, a nice used Cessna 170, and now the SOB has it on the ground and wont pay the mortgage. I want it back. And you can go get it for me.
Why me? I was not sure where the conversation was going. I looked him straight in the eye and wondered why he was even talking to me.
I already knew Hank, and he was not one of my favourite people in the grand scheme of things. When I had first gone to the Clearwater airport to see if I could get my US licence based on my Canadian licence, he had not been very friendly. His attitude was that there were a lot of US pilots out of work, and adding a foreigner to the list would not be his patriotic duty.
It was February 1963, and I had been living in Clearwater for about ten months. My mother, Loretta, and my stepfather, Jacques, had moved to Florida a few years earlier. Jacques had bought and was running a tourist trap called Shelland, a worn-out old building that ho
used knick-knacks, millions of seashells, and a lot of other cheap Florida tourist crap. A small patch of ground behind the building was euphemistically called a zoo.
The zoo housed a few flamingos, a few peacocks, some monkeys, and a dirty pond with alligators. The store itself was depressing. It had dozens of tables loaded with seashells of every description, from around the world as Jacques was wont to say, but in reality mostly from jobbers right in Florida. A lot of mugs and pillows with the words I Visited Clearwater Beach inscribed on them. Why anyone would want one of these things in their home was beyond my limited comprehension, but that didnt stop the masses who visited Shelland from buying. Buy they did and Jacques raked in the cash. And he drank most of it.
I had been laid off from my job as a pilot with Trans-Canada Air Lines a few months before. I had been based in Winnipeg, flying out of Stephenson Field, and the layoff was a blow I could ill afford. My salary had been less than $500 per month in 1962, which was not bad for the era, but I was still low on the totem pole.
My mother called me soon after the layoff and offered a job at Shelland. I really did not want to go down there but hell, I was broke, had car payments, rent, and a wife and two youngsters to feed. I suspect Mother had called because she was fed up with Shelland and Jacquess antics, and she needed someone to help out at the store. Someone who was sober.
Hank stood twitching, awaiting my reply.
Why me? I asked him again. Ever the glad-hander when he thought there was a buck to be made, he offered his brightest smirky smile and said, Well, Billy boy, because you just got your shiny new licence, and I thought you just might want to try it out, make a few dollars. The machine I want back is sitting at the two-bit airport in Miss. The prick who bought it promised the bank that does my fi
nancing he would pay every two months. Hes now six months behind, and Ive had enough of his bullshit. I need someone to go get my airplane and bring it home. I appeared to mull this over for a few seconds. How much and when?
One hundred dollars when I get the machine back, plus airfare to get you there. If you dont get the machine, you get back on your own feet. No other costs allowed. And you fly coach. He really did not have to add that last part.
One hundred was not a lot of money for a dubious flying job, but on the other hand, it was a flying job and I really wanted a flying job. This might lead to other jobs, and it didnt sound too difficult. People repossessed cars in Florida by the boatload every day. It was a cottage industry that kept a lot of banks in business. The only downside I could see was it was in someplace I had never heard of, but then I knew hardly anything about Mississippi anyway.
When? I reiterated.
As soon as I can get the bank docs ready. Youll get a writ of possession, a letter from the bank, and an insurance certificate for the airplane. Its insured, youre not.
It still didnt seem like too much of a problem. Of course, I was twenty-six years old and a man of the world, so nothing seemed like too much of a problem. Except Shelland.
Is the documentation coming soon, or in the next week or so? I had to have some idea as I had work schedules at Shelland, and my mother would be counting on me to get that done.
Give me a few days and Ill call you. In the meantime, keep your mouth shut around here about this little deal. I dont want the rest of my guys uptight about giving you this easy one. Its only a few hours away and they get a lot of the California stuff, so I dont need any backtalk about giving the Canadian a cushy run.
Hank had a few other stringers on his line who did repos from time to time, and I ha
d heard some hangar talk about them. I had not paid much attention, though, as I really wanted to do some charter flying. That was good work, usually local stuff. A week earlier, I had taken a car dealer in his own airplane down to Daytona Beach for the car races there. He planned on going to a big party thrown by the dealer group and didnt want to fly his plane back the next day. He figured he would be just a bit tired.
At least thats what he told me at the airport before we left. When we got to Daytona and I was ready to head back with his airplane, he handed me a twenty, saying, Park my plane in Tampa. If my wife calls, you tell her it had a radio problem and its in the shop. Ill pick it up after the races; my girlfriend may want to go with me. Keep this to yourself.
None of my business, Pete. I pocketed the twenty and flew back to Tampa.
They did things differently in Florida than in Winnipeg. I was learning a whole new world here. I got the bus from Tampa to Clearwater. Never did hear how his little foray turned out.
Money was tight all around for me. Money seemed to flow like champagne for the rest of the world, though. People with money just seemed to have so much of it. And they spent it so easily and so often. I could not believe how some folks livedbeyond anything I had experienced. Huge homes with huge pools, manicured lawns with groundskeepers, maids, drivers, personal trainers, big cars, gold, silver, and coin. Still, Florida was not wealthy everywhere. Clearwater was a bit of a backwater in those days, but nothing like Winnipeg.
Winnipeg was cold, expensive, and salty. In Winnipeg in the winter, salt was everywhere. It was dumped on the streets by the truckload, and then it got into everythingshoes, clothing, car, houseand just generally made a mess. Winnipeg was dreary for seven months of the year, overcast and coldbiting, bitter cold. Not as cold as the Arctic, where I&nbs
p;had flown for a year, but damn near. But in the summer for five months, it was bright and blue. The sun shone and the birds sang and my world was goldenat least till I got laid off. (More on that later.)
I loved Winnipeg because there I had been a real go-to-hell pilot. With a job, with an airline. With a uniform and wings. I was somebody. I flew DC-3s and had even been checked out on Viscounts. As a junior man in Winnipeg, I was offered a course on Viscounts with the caveat that I would be at the bottom of the list on that equipment. I would have to accept reserve bids, which meant I would be on standby for flying duty six days a week. That meant I would have to go wherever I was needed for a flight, and I would have no designated flying schedule for months at a time. Being on reserve was like hell week in high school. I was always at someones disposal. Whenever crew scheduling called, I went. Even days off were not sacrosanct. I was the last called and first to go if the flight was middle of the night or to nowheresville. So, despite the hardships, I had jumped at the chance to get another course and another aircraft endorsement on my pilots licence.
Florida, on the other hand, was hot, sticky, and had no class. Everyone was from somewhere else. People in Florida were always on some kind of itinerary, going somewhere. The whole state was one big Coney Island; nothing was permanent, and nothing seemed nailed down. The stores were always full of buyers buying stuff they didnt need and throwing stuff out to...