"Hey Tonto"
by
Vincent A.Tortolano
Rat Pack "12"
"Magnet Ass"

Stories


"Hey Tonto", came the cry.  Looking up from the paper I was reading while sipping a beer in a popular outdoor cafe on a busy sidewalk in an affluent suburb of Lima Peru, Miraflores. 

There ten feet away sporting a beard, wearing logging boots, knee high socks, shorts and a red bandanna on his head was Jack, "I'll be go to hell", Ruby.  I couldn't believe my eyes!  With him were two other rouges similarly attired, whom I would later come to know as well Carson Snow and Terry Balser.  I jumped up from my seat and embraced in a huge bear hug
a young man I hadn’t seen since Vietnam when we both flew for the 187th Assault Helicopter Company based in Tay Ninh.

After introductions all around we sat down ordered beers and got down to the serious business of where have you been, what have you been doing and how did we get to Peru.   As it turned out we were all in country to fly Helicopters supporting Oil exploration and exploratory drilling,later production drilling and finally the building if an oil pipeline through the heart of the Peruvian Amazon basin.  I had already been in country for two years and was an old hand,speaking fairly good Spanish and living in a small pension several blocks away. Jack of course had already done me one better.  He and his two friends were living in a small sunny town on the outskirts of Lima in a house on a golf course!  This would be the renewal of a friendship that had started in Vietnam and would chart it's way across countries,  jobs, marriage and finally death.

The first time I met jack was in the Blackhawk "O Club", Tay Ninh,Vietnam. This short redheaded guy looking almost like a very jolly leprechaun came bouncing in to the club with a huge shit eating grin and an irrepressible character.  I knew right away I was going to like this guy.  We flew together only once prior to Jack being infused.  I had just made aircraft Commander.  The company was sent to An Lock or Lock Ninh, where the NVA were attacking in Human waves.  The company was scrambled in the wee early hours in an emergency call out only to spend the remainder of the night lying under our Hueys trying to sleep as sortie after sortie of C-130’s came in carrying reinforcements, ammo and all the supplies a fire support base under major attack needed.

The morning found us crawling out from under the helicopters greeted by an Eire silence that was uninterrupted by even birds or insects.  Gazing out at the perimeter we could see hundreds of meters into the surrounding jungle where the huge volume of out going fire had swept away every living piece of foliage from the ground up to about six feet.  On the wire stacked like cord wood was hundreds of dead enemy soldiers that would have to be bulldozed and burnt so great were the numbers.  We had little time to contemplate there fate or ours as we were soon off making one and three ship hover insertions in an attempt to put in blocking forces and mop up the remaining NVA.

It was the first time for most of us doing this kind of work as we usually worked in large LZ’s down in the Delta Region.  Jack and I soon got the hang of it and over the course of the next few days we flew together spawning a friendship out of mutual respect for each others flying ability and personality style.

It was a few short weeks later that Jack was infused.  We lost track of each other and it wasn’t until that day in Peru that our paths in life would cross once again.   Flying helicopters became the thread that ran through our lives.  After Peru it was off to Saudi Arabia where we off loaded cement ships in the port of Jedda using 12 S58T’S (the twin engine version of the army H34).   Working in three groups of 4 helicopters utilizing three four hour shifts of Pilots we worked 7 days a week 12 hours a day and over the course of 14 months unloaded 675,000 long tons of cement.  Jack had arrived on the job several months ahead of me.  I had stayed on in Peru to fly a Twin Otter on floats.  When I got there Jack made damn sure he would check me out.  The big deal was to make your circuit so fast that you would catch up the guy ahead of you the most dreaded words on the job from your fellow pilot was the phrase, "waiting on your six."  This meant had it been a race track you would have been lapped.  Jack was the king of this game. I knew I had finally gotten in the groove on the day I was able to catch my pard up and tell him, "waiting on your six."

From Saudi we went on to Sudan,Liberia,Columbia and finally the Rocky Mountains.  We were crossing paths flying the same contract but never really flew at the same time on the same job again.

We were all settling down to some degree,getting married buying homes and having kids.  Something however was going wrong on the jobs.  The men that had been virtually invincible in the Nam were starting to die off like flies in  winter.  Bob Curnaw was the first to die in Peru.  So many more would follow.  Civilian flying was proving to be more dangerous than our experience in Nam.

Jack and I had always seemed to have a touch of the rouge in us.  In the early years right after Vietnam Jack got busted for "importing a controlled substance" and did a little time as a life guard at a government facility called Lompock.  In the mid 80’s while an owner of a portable seismic company I got busted for "exporting a defense article without a license."  I remember calling up my Amigo to ask him for advice and him saying "I don’t know who is having more fun in life me or you."   At that point it was a toss up.  Jack was married to his beautiful wife Deb living by then up in Ketchum Idaho working for Paramount Helicopters logging.  I was just starting to have the wheels come off of my life.

A very close friend of Jack and I Kevin Doll died in a logging accident involving a Bell 214, several weeks later I had a 42 degree gearbox failure on a Bell 205.  The aft pylon severed off and the Helicopter spun in upside down.   One guy killed one severely injured and I escaped with amnesia and couldn't’t remember anything about the accident.

From the first year I had moved into Park City Utah I had a Thanksgiving day reunion of all the guys who I had flown with in South America.  Each year the reunion got smaller and smaller.  We were dying off at a rate greater than when we were in Vietnam.  The Competition was tremendous the pressures to produce from the client and the helicopter company and always our peers was overwhelming.  Today's record was tomorrow’s production.  Yet in the back of our minds was the common thread they didn’t kill us in Nam shooting at us they can’t kill us on the job!


Last Known Pic of Jack flying

On it went escalating from job to job.  We were good.  The best long line pilots in the
world yet the mechanical and pilot error was cutting the heart out of this elite group
of pilots.

I was at my desk when my secretary informed me I had a call from the owner of Paramount Helicopters.  I knew immediately what was coming.  Jack Ruby was dead!   The man that had taught me so much about flying and enjoying life had run into a mountain in Oregon while repossessing a helicopter.  I was stunned and shattered.   The phone slipped out of my hand and I just sat there thinking about this man who had been so much a part of my life.  We had faced so much, done so many things, had so many common friends and shared experiences it was almost to hard to grasp.

Helicopter flying was never the same for me nor was my life.  After jack died my business failed and so did my marriage.  Depression and failure made me a miserable man.  I eventually returned to Hawaii and turned my life around.  I now fly 737’s for Aloha Airlines.  My children are grown and on there own.  When I hear that sound of a 205 whoop whopping on the horizon I still think of that red headed irrepressible guy who had been so alive in life, Jack Ruby.

There is now four of us left from those halcyon days in Peru.  One is now a doctor, another sells life insurance and two of us are airline pilots.  What I do know is that when the last of us have departed this "AO" the rest will be waiting to greet the trail “chock” in that big “LZ” in the sky. 


Jack on far right


Vincent Tortolano

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