The Last Flight of the Crispy Priest

800px-Cessna172-CatalinaTakeOffThe Crispy Priest
Juan G. Escobar

I remember marveling at an old black and white photo of my father, taken in a little airport in Medellin, when he was probably in his late teens or early twenties.  That would mean, if my math is correct, that the image had been captured around 1949.  In the picture, he is shirtless, and had just been doused with old motor oil.  This was apparently a kind of local rite of passage among pilots and would-be pilots in that region. Novice pilots were baptized in old motor oil to commemorate their first solo flight.

My father had always been an aviation enthusiast.  Sometime around the mid-seventies he finally decided that he would resume flying small planes like he had when he was a much younger man in Colombia.

I have no idea how it was that he met him, perhaps through some other Colombian expat living in southern California at the time, or maybe purely by chance. What I do remember is both our parents preparing my siblings and me for when we would meet him.  “Now we don’t want you to be afraid,” they said, and “We expect you to treat him like you would any other person.”  They also made sure to tell us, “do not stare at him” and, “do not make fun of him”, of course.  The reasons for our parents admonishments were two-fold, first the man’s appearance was truly frightening, and second we were capable of being pretty frightening ourselves.  I don’t know if any amount of warnings, threats or admonishments could have prepared us for that first encounter.

The reason for “El Padre” showing up at our house was that in order to be able to own a small plane, (a Cessna 172), my father needed a partner. He could not afford the expense of an airplane on his own.  “El Padre” was also a private pilot, flight instructor and Colombian expat living in southern California.  He was my dad’s partner and friend.

When we met “El Padre”, my siblings and I were all inwardly aghast at the sight of him, yet somehow, we managed to maintain, at least while he was around.  When he wasn’t, well, that was another situation entirely.  When he wasn’t around, and when we were out of earshot of our parents, we used to call him “Fryer Tuck” and “Extra Crispy”, or sometimes, in the interest of brevity, just “Crisp”.

One incident stands out in my memory for the casual, disparaging way that we used to refer to “El Padre”.  One afternoon we had driven out to the airport to video tape my then sixteen-year-old brother, Roberto’s, first solo flight.  Student pilots were eligible to fly solo provided they had the necessary hours of flight time and classroom instruction. “El Padre” was also a flight instructor for small, single engine aircraft.  My brother had been flying and learning from him since he was around thirteen.  Before Roberto could take his first solo flight, the priest had to take the plane up to make sure that it was in good working order and that the conditions in the air were safe and calm enough for Roberto to attempt his first solo. Roberto decided that conditions were not right for him to solo that day. We did however; get a shot of the priest flying the plane.  Later that evening, as we were playing the tape back, my sister Olga’s voice can clearly be heard saying, ”There goes Crisp” as “El Padre” was taking off to do his safety check. We would all laugh hysterically precisely because it was so wrong.

The man had been badly burned in an airplane crash some years before in Colombia.  The story, as I remember it, was that he had left the priesthood and was flying crop-dusting planes. It seems that one day, as he was filling the airplane for a flight, he miscalculated the conversion of the insecticide solution from gallons to liters, or liters to gallons. He over-filled the aircraft, crashed and burned.  But it wasn’t quite as simple as all that.  Apparently, he crashed, but the impact of the crash catapulted him some ten meters clear of the wreckage–unburned.  The plane then burst into flames and the wind blew the fire right over him, causing third degree burns over sixty percent of his body.  That the man survived the wreck is remarkable enough, that he was able to not only function, but return to flying seems almost miraculous.

After the accident he returned to the priesthood and would remain with the church until his final days.  I remember hearing mumblings about “the wrath of god” as the reason for the accident.  I believe he half suspected that god had caused the accident because he was angry with him for having left the priesthood.  However you care to look at it, it is perhaps too easy to come to that conclusion: god punishes man for leaving the church; man returns to the church fearing further retribution from god.

I’m sure reconstructive surgery has progressed considerably since “El Padre’s” accident and subsequent treatment in 1968.  He looked like a boogieman; something that parents in a less enlightened age may have used to frighten their children into behaving. Not that our parents would’ve ever tried anything like that on us, besides, it would never have worked.  I have no idea what most of his body looked like; the only parts of it I ever saw were his face and hands.  That was more than enough.  His face looked like a pinkish beige raisin with lips eyes and hair.  His ears, what was left of them, looked like a couple of wads of that beige-colored chewing gum stuck to the sides of his head at odd angles.  He wore thick, black framed, Buddy Holly style glasses with thick lenses. The wads of gum that were his ears could not support them.  They were held on his head by a thick, black, elastic strap.  Like the old man in Poe’s “The Tell Tale Heart”, he had one rheumy eye, and one decent eye.  His hands looked like pincher claws. Two or three of his fingers on each hand had been fused together.  One of his hands, I can’t remember which one, had a very pronounced skin graft, that I was told had been taken from his buttocks.  That he was somehow allowed to fly is beyond me.

My dad and “El Padre” kept the plane at Fullerton airport.  They shared expenses, like maintenance, insurance, fuel and storage costs.  Some weekends they would fly together, others they would alternate.  Their flights consisted mostly of day trips to other local airports.  I can remember flying with them to Catalina, Apple Valley, Big Bear and Camarillo.

Unlike my younger brother, flying with them was not something I did that often. First of all, I never really liked my dad that much, and while I wasn’t necessarily afraid of flying, I also found it loud and stressful. After a couple of hours of bouncing around in that little cabin with all the engine noise and the squawking of the radio I was done. Also, it always puzzled me how my father, a man with a very limited command of English, could understand and communicate on the radio, when to me, it sounded like a bunch of garbled code accompanied by a series of squawks.  “Two, two, five, echo, bravo, this is Fullerton tbrbble do you cfzzprt? over, squawk”, then the reply from my dad would sound something like, “squawk, Foolerton, dis, eez, two, two, fibe, echo brabo, copy, ober, squawk.” Huh?  Of course, there was also Crisp, with his rheumy eye and his pinchers on the controls, contributing to the stress, and adding a freakishly surreal, gothic element to the proceedings.

I remember a flight to Apple Valley. We were over the desert somewhere when we got caught in the most intense turbulence I’ve ever experienced. We were bouncing around thousands of feet up and then thousands of feet down. That time I was afraid, yet we managed to land and return safely. I think it was maybe a year or two, before I flew with them again after that.

The partnership between “El Padre” and my dad seemed to go along for years without any major mishaps or disagreements.  Two events, however, stand out in their association that are worth mentioning.  It seems that after a few years of having owned the plane, the boys were not content with their weekend jaunts to local airports.  Sometime in the mid-eighties they begin flying into Tijuana to enjoy the company and dubious charms of Mexico’s prostitutes at bargain prices—all perfectly legal of course.  My brother Alex remembers them joking about “Three in One” oil, this being a reference to the sessions in TJ when they’d have three hoes a piece; presumably, not in the same room at the same time, but there’s no way to know for sure.

From there, I imagine that it then escalated into the Crispy One bringing in these very same women—undocumented, into the U.S.  I really don’t know for certain the degree of my father’s involvement in this part of the operation, nor for how long our crinkly clergyman and my dad may have been running their sordid transnational caper.  What I do know, is that when my mother and sister got wind of this little enterprise, they ratted them out to the local authorities.  Knowing the situation between my parents, I’m almost certain that this was not done out of concern for anything the Crispy One and my dad may have been up to, but was rather an indirect, passive aggressive move done to stick it to my dad.  It was yet another, in a series, of endearing little quid pro quos, that had come to define my parent’s “marriage” in those years.

They nabbed the crispy priest.  My dad was not with him that day.  I don’t know if Crisp actually got caught bringing in these unfortunate women, or if the feds just waited for him to land on a day when he wasn’t doing anything wrong.  I remember seeing the newspaper articles about the arrest.  The only thing that happened to him was that he got his pilot’s license suspended for six months.  The local diocese of the Catholic Church did its best to keep a lid on things.  After some of the furor had died down in the press, the church simply transferred him to another parish where he continued with his priestly duties, whatever those may have been.  After the license suspension had run its course he resumed flying.

The second incident of some note occurred in the early nineties.  On an overcast day when some of the instruments in the plane were due for servicing, our charred compadre went up with two gentlemen from his local parish.  No one came back that day.  They all crashed and burned into the side of a hill in Chino.  Their remains were all so badly burned that they could only be identified by their respective dental records.  That crash effectively put and end to my dad’s flying-for-fun days.

 

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  • Ted Heistman

    I love this kind of weird quirky slice of life essay! You have a knack for it Juan. No bullshit.

    • Juan

      Thanks, Ted:)

      • farbauti

        Nasty litte story that one, now let’s hear one that is longer.

        • Juan

          Stay tuned:)

  • Cortacespedes

    “I remember a flight to Apple Valley. We were over the desert somewhere
    when we got caught in the most intense turbulence I’ve ever experienced.”

    As someone who has flown into Ontario airport more than a few times, I can attest to this. Inland Empire turbulence is stuff of legend, even in jets. I’ve seen passengers start to “flip” a little when they first experience it. All you can do is laugh and think, “c’mon people, it’s just a little “Berdoo bump” enjoy the ride.

    Very enjoyable story.