Legends of Vashon, May 2024

Legends of Vashon – One Night at the Airport

By Tioga Webb

Ever since I’ve been out on my own, most of my housing has been “informal.” There’s lots more places than you might think to bed down for the night. It isn’t always dry and comfy, but the price is right. And sometimes you see things.

I wrote about my time down near the bog. But for a while before that, my nightly accommodations were over at Vashon’s airport – the original one, the one which is still open. It had a lot to offer, with tons of buildings, water, and always an unlocked plug with power in case you needed to charge something. There are woods, undergrowth, and trails heading out in many directions, so it’s easy to avoid awkward conversations. Nobody’s going to keep following you once you duck into those deer trails.

Airplanes have white, red, and green lights to avoid collisions, there’s also lights at the airport for planes flying in after sunset. After about a week of sleeping alongside one of the less-used hangars, I was getting pretty familiar with the routine. Planes would arrive into the night, but it got pretty quiet after about 10:00 p.m.

On my last night at the airport, I went to sleep at my usual 9:00 p.m. or so. I think a couple planes came in after that, but I was used to it and hardly woke up. There’s lots of life in the forest, so I wasn’t too concerned when some sounds of cracking twigs and swishing brush woke me up. I checked my watch – 3:00 a.m., prime time for deer. Luckily, my watch was one of the old, radioactive ones with glowing paint on the hands. Its light was so faint, it didn’t even ruin my night vision.

There was some muttering of voices, and then an angry hiss made them all fall quiet again. Uh oh – not deer. The sounds continued and came close, and at first I thought they were coming after me. But who cares about one ratty old trespasser? And they wouldn’t come in through the woods. This was something new. I lay as still as I could in my sleeping bag.

The next trail over from me was a full trail, much wider and more open than my own escape trail. The sounds got closer, and I was relieved to see the first figure emerge on that trail. There was enough moonlight to see that it was a man, and he stopped just outside the boundary of the forest to carefully study the whole length of the airport. As he turned in my direction, I shrunk down as low to the ground as I could, because I could see he was carrying a long gun of some sort.

Whenever I replace my sleeping bag, I try to get one in camouflage. Being hard to see is mighty useful if you’ve settled on somebody else’s property, and it paid off that night. The guy looked back and forth several times, never spotting me, then turned back to mutter something into the forest.

A second man came out of the forest, also armed. He joined the first one, and they stood, one looking up the runway in one direction, one guarding the opposite direction. That first guard said something into the forest again, and four men came forward. They weren’t armed, but instead were carrying something that was hard to make out in the low light.

They came up to the first guard, and there was some back and forth grumbling. The guard’s voice got quiet and angry, and then two of the unarmed ones put down their bundles and walked out onto the runway. One stopped on our side, the other crossed over to the other side, running fast. Then I got it – he was afraid a plane was going to come down on his head.

That was stupid! Those planes had all sorts of lights so they wouldn’t run into each other. I looked up into the sky, and saw … something. It got closer, and there it was. An airplane. No lights, no engine sound, but a plane quietly approaching in the moonlight. It seemed like it was coming in at a pretty steep angle, probably because it had cut the engines and was gliding down.

The two guys held up their arms, and their flashlights glowed with a dim red light. I guess this was to give the pilot some guidance on his landing, because as soon as the plane touched down with a quiet bump, they lowered their arms. The plane rolled along until it reached them and stopped, and then they turned their lights off. The two men ran back past the guards to join the other two, and then they picked up their bundles. All four plus the two guards went up the plane. I could finally hear its engine, idling.

I was wondering if I could make myself scarce while they were busy, but froze when I saw a third guard had come out of the forest behind the four unarmed workers. Smart, two guarding front, one guarding their back trail, and the workers in the middle. I don’t like to think what they’d have done if they found out they had an audience.

A door on the side of the plane slid open, and there was a bunch of busy work, hard to see from where I lay. They finished, and things became clearer. Each pair of workers had poles resting on their shoulders, from the forward one to the back one. One pair on the left, one on the right, and some sort of fabric stretched between the two poles. Kind of like stretcher bearers. What were they hauling? It must have been at least a hundred pounds of weight.

The group headed back towards the forest, the pair of guards once again in front, and the single rear guard let them all pass as he continued to watch the airport.

The plane suddenly revved up, still dark, and droned down the runway until it lifted into the air. It banked and disappeared, its noise quickly fading away. I watched the plane so closely that when I looked back to check the folks on the ground, they were all gone.

Maybe. I kept thinking I saw that rear guard’s shape here and there at the wood’s edge, and although I wanted to light out of there, I kept thinking I’d wait a while longer to make sure he was gone. I heard a vehicle start up in the distance, but even then I wasn’t sure it was safe to move. Somewhere in there, I fell asleep, and the next thing I knew was the light of morning waking me up. I still waited until the first regular pilot drove up and began preflighting his plane. Then I finally got out.

That was a while ago, and I expect the airport has lots more security cameras and stuff to keep things civilized. But I’m just as sure there are still plenty of lonely county airstrips where things happen at night and you don’t want to be anywhere near them.

Which brings me to helicopters. But there are people who know more of that story than myself.

May 9, 2024

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