The Navajo Nation and the White Person Buizzard
A short Story
Disclaimer: This story is a work of fiction set in the Navajo Nation. Any actual persons or places mentioned are used in a fictional manner only. Any resemblance to actual events is entirely accidental.
Some Navajo words used in the story:
Diné bikéyah - Navajo country
"Yá'át'ééh" Navajo greeting
AFOSI: Air Force Office of Special Investigations
GSR: Gunshot residue
KTNN - AM 660Khz Navajo Nation radio station
vineyard does not need a prayer, but a pickaxe."
On his way back to Kaibeto, about a mile from the hogan, he pulled his Chevy Suburban to the side of the road to take a leak. "Too much coffee," he complained to himself as he stepped to the shoulder of the road. Some distance behind him he heard the loud dropping-pitch scream of a zone-tailed hawk. The same one as before, he assumed. The screeching grew louder and closer. "What's the matter brother hawk," he asked as he zipped up.
Suddenly there was a windy, whistling, flapping-sheet sound behind him. He turned just in time to see the hawk's talons rake the rudder of an aircraft flying just meters off the ground. "OH SH..!" he began to swear as he threw himself backward. He watched in seeming slow motion as the yawing aircraft slammed into the hood and roof of his police vehicle, and ricocheted over the shallow arroyo in which he lay. In a tempest of mid-summer dust and dry shrubs the damaged aircraft came to an abrupt halt not twenty yards away.
He rolled on his stomach to look as dust from the crash settled on to his tan uniform. "Dang, that was close", he exhaled in disbelief. The hawk circled the grounded aircraft several times then flew away. Expecting to see flames at any moment, Officer Yazzie ran through the tangled underbrush to the crash site. As he moved towards the cockpit he realised that it was a sailplane, not a powered aircraft. "You hurt?" he asked as he threw open the canopy. As an answer he was confronted by the stillness of death.
After 2nd Cav service in Bosnia, and attending car crashes in the Navajo Nation, dead bodies were nothing new to him. But this! This was a posser! The desiccated corpse in the glider was obviously long dead. The scent of the cockpit was of musty, mouldering death, not recent putrefaction. The mummified corpse was dressed in a faded uniform. Yazzie's experienced eye saw that the leather flying-helmet was stained black from dried blood. The pilot's seat was empty, "so this may have been a student," he thought out loud.
Officer Yazzie stepped back from the side of the aircraft to take stock, and then walked back to his battered panel. The hood was dented in and the windshield fractured; the lightbar was smashed and hanging down the right side of the vehicle. The passenger-side A-pilar was buckled. He shook his head in wonderment. It finally hit him, and he began to shake in delayed stress. He sat in the driver's seat, resting his head on the wheel for a bit. Then he tried the ignition. The engine ground but wouldn't catch. He thumbed the mike. "Yazzie to Tuba City Police dispatch. Yazzie to Tuba dispatch. Come in Ed. Over"
"Blackhorse here, Gad. Over."
"I'm one mile east of Manuelito Ahiga's hogan, eleven clicks south of Kaibeto, off route 20. There has been an airplane crash. Dead pilot. No passengers. This one is hinky. Best send the Lieutenant, and a tow truck. Over."
"A tow truck?"
"For my panel. The plane hit it. Over"
"You been drinking Gad?"
"You know better, Ed. Best notify the Coconino Sheriff and Medical Examiner too. Over"
"I thought you just said it was an accident? Over"
"The crash was, the murder wasn't."
* * *
It took half an hour for Navajo Police Lieutenant Jacob 'LT' Willow to drive up to the crash site from the Tuba City district station. The glider was plain to see. He pulled in beside Yazzie's panel. "Yá'át'ééh Gad", he greeted as he walked around the patrol vehicle, whistling at the damage. "Yá'át'ééh, Lieutenant," the officer replied.
"No wonder Ed was worried you'd been drinking….. OK, tell me."
"Maybe drunk would have been better than sober for this one, LT," he joked awkwardly.
They returned to the senior officer's Suburban, and air-conditioning. Officer Yazzie related the events. Then the two of them got out and walked over to the crash. Willow stood looking it over for some minutes. He saw a damaged two-seat glider that had once been painted silver with yellow wings; now very faded. An equally faded serial number, and a blue/white/red USAAF insignia were painted on the fuselage. Finally he approached the cockpit, and stared down at the very dead pilot.
"You sure no one got out while you were in the arroyo?"
"Hundred percent certain, Lieutenant. I was watching the glider when it came to a stop, and the canopy was still latched when I got to it. No footprints in the dirt on that side of the plane either. No sir, there wasn't anyone else in that glider when it came down. No cars around either."
"Ok, then. ….Well, someone shot this fella at close range. Don't know when, don't know where; but he's on Navajo Nation land now, so he's ours, at least for a while. I'm going to notify Criminal Investigations. Stay here and maintain the scene until I can get relief for you. The tow truck will be here soon. Keep any reporters or tourists away if they show up."
As the lieutenant drove away Gad smiled as he saw Doli walking up the road. "Yá'át'ééh again, Gad. Heard a big noise, so I came to look once grandfather was asleep. What happened? Someone hurt? Can I go see?"
"No, sorry Doli; lieutenant's orders. But tell Sicheii that a big buzzard carrying a dead man landed on my panel."
She looked at him with affectionate concern, then at the Suburban, then at the wrecked glider. "You talk like a Bilagaana, Gad…." she scolded. "Need anything?"
"No thanks. I'll be relieved soon." She turned and started walking back to the hogan. She looked back, twice, Gad noticed. "A man could do worse," he thought to himself. He chewed on that thought for a while. Then he got some crime scene tape from the panel and marked off a rough circle around the glider. Until his relief arrived he examined the outside of the plane closely.
DAY 1: Afternoon
Criminal Investigations Supervisor Michael Begay sat in his Tuba City office with visiting Window Rock District investigator, Al Tsosie. They were discussing the latest methamphetamine bust when Lieutenant Willow knocked on the frosted glass door and entered.
"Hey, LT," responded Tsosie for the two men.
"What's up?" asked Begay.
Willow grabbed one of the office's straight-backed wooden chairs and sat. " I gotta' body for you."
"Dineh or tourist?"
"Neither. Military pilot; but…" …he let it hang in the air.
"OK, I'll bite…. but what?"
"This one was murdered, in his plane." He shared with the two sceptical officers what he'd been told and observed. He ended with, "this glider belongs to the Air Force."
"Sounds like Twilight Zone to me. IF its Air Force, it isn't C.I.'s jurisdiction at all, so…. I guess I'll call Cowboy, and let him phone the FBI and AFOSI …L.T.… can I suggest you get a couple of tarps, and get that crash covered up before any photographers arrive?"
"Good idea. I've got young Yazzie on site now. I'll have his relief take some tarps out." As officer Willow left the office to arrange for Yazzie's relief, Begay reached for the phone and speed-dialled police headquarters at Window Rock. The Division of Public Safety's Director, Samson Cowboy, answered on the fifth ring. Fifteen minutes later he was on the phone himself, to the FBI office at Flagstaff, and the AFOSI office at Luke Air Force Base. Then he started working on a bland news release that would keep the media at bay until this was all sorted - he hoped.
* * *
DAY 2: AM
By 0900 the next morning an inter-agency team began assembling by the roadside on Navajo Route 20. A flight-weary, bleary-eyed Special Agent Tammy Rudd, forensic consultant for the Southwest Region, had flown in to the Tuba City Airport from Texas. AFOSI Special Agent Jeremy McDonald, working out of Luke AFB, had picked her up at the Grey Hills Inn. Both were dressed in regulation slacks and the black AFOSI T-shirts. He wore a Padres baseball cap, she a wide-brimmed gardening hat straight out of Steel Magnolias. With them was retired USAF Colonel Robert Bigaloe, a respected amateur historian of all things aviation in the Southwest, and a member of the Commemorative Air Force - Arizona Wing. He'd driven up overnight from Phoenix. The three of them stood talking with Navajo Police Officer Nathan Gonnie, who'd recently come on duty to guard the glider during the 7 to 3 shift.
A black Chevy Suburban pulled up, and two FBI agents emerged; looking like Mormon missionaries with their white shirts and black ties, black pants and dress shoes. "Special Agents Chambers and McElroy," the older of the pair announced as they approached the group. Introductions were exchanged, and 'turf' silently staked out by competing egos and multiple jurisdictions. Officer Gonnie laughed internally at the five Bilagaana s playing senseless mind-games with each other.
Coming by panel down Route 20 from Kaibeto, Officer Yazzie pulled off the highway and joined the group. The FBI's self-serving arrogance had never impressed him; nor had their heavy-handedness with his people, but he was professionally polite with them. With the Air Force people he was more open; they had no negative track record with The People. And, with his military experience, he understood their mindset a little better than he could the FBI agents'.
Last to arrive was Ben Watson from the Coconino County Medical Examiner's office. He came in a plain white van in which he kept photo equipment, body bags, gurney, and if needed, a biohazard suit. He would transport the corpse back to Flagstaff after the photos were taken. An older man, he scanned the group to select someone to help him. His choice went to Gad, whom he knew from attending road accidents, and the AFOSI agent from Luke AFB.
"I'm here this morning to brief you on the crash," Officer Yazzie said by way of introduction, "as I was present at the time. On orders from the Navajo Police office in Tuba City the site has been guarded, and camouflage tarpaulins were used to cover the wreck until you all arrived. If you will follow my panel I'll lead you to the crash site." Dutifully they all followed.
When the caravan of five vehicles arrived at the scene, and everyone had reassembled, Officer Yazzie began his briefing: "At 1150 hours yesterday, after having attended to official police business at a nearby hogan, I stopped at this location to.…take a break…. Standing at the edge of this arroyo with my back to the road I heard a zone-tail calling a territorial challenge…."
"A what?" asked Special Agent McElroy. Officer Gonnie stifled a laugh, and Yazzie managed to keep a straight face. "A zone-tailed hawk…."
"…..A Buteo Albonotatus. Arizona's Zone-Tailed Hawk is large, and overall black with a tail stripe," interjected the retired Colonel. "Obviously its territory had been invaded by something airborne, and it was protesting. Any Navajo child would have known that," he ended with a dig at the gormless FBI agent.
Maintaining his demeanour Yazzie continued his briefing. "I turned around to see what was upsetting the bird. Coming out of the southeast at very low level I saw an aircraft approaching. The hawk was attacking it. I had just enough time to throw myself backward into this arroyo when the glider struck the hood of my panel. The left wing ripped the light bar off the roof. I later found that the windshield and A-pilar were damaged, and the engine wouldn't start."
"After the aircraft bounced off the Suburban I rolled on to my belly and watched the last few seconds of its flight. It hit the mesquite on the other side of the arroyo and came to a quick stop. I immediately ran over to the airplane, thinking that it might catch fire, and I had to rescue any one onboard. I then realised that it was a glider. I climbed through the shrubbery and released the canopy. I found a dried-out corpse inside, dressed in a rotting uniform, and wearing second lieutenant's bars. I observed dried bloodstains on the helmet and canopy. I observed no footprints leaving the scene. Closing the canopy I returned to my panel and called in to Tuba City station. Only myself, Lieutenant Willow, and relief officers Attson and Gonnea have been near the aircraft. My vehicle was towed away once my relief arrived with the tarpaulins. The road has been sealed off and there have been no tourists or news reporters at the scene."
"Thank you Officer Yazzie," Special Agent Chambers said. "Shall we go inspect the crash site?"
Officer Gonnea and Yazzie walked ahead and removed the tarpaulins.
"Hot Damn!" exclaimed the Colonel. "I haven't seen one of these since I visited the Air Force Museum in Dayton! Hot Damn an'a half!…Officer Yazzie, you got hit by a rare hawk indeed."
"Colonel?" queried Chambers, as they all gathered around the sailplane.
The elderly Colonel was in his element, with a readymade audience. He wasn't going to hurry. "In World War Two, after the Nazi's had demonstrated the effectiveness of glider-born troops against the French and British, General Hap Arnold of the US Army Air Force ordered the mass training of glider pilots. They used civilian instructors mostly, at civilian airfields, to teach the basics of gliding. Here in Arizona there was a glider Flight Academy at the old Wickenburg airfield. Because of a shortage of military trainers, they used a combination of readily available recreational soaring gliders and engineless light aircraft.
The training schools were a combination of civilian and military organization. A real 'country club' where all the staff and instructors were civilians, and the military trainees were released from the discipline of barracks life. Most students came from the Civilian Pilot Training Program as members of the Enlisted Reserve Corps. Others were transfers from the Aviation Cadet program where they'd had sixty hours of flight and ground school, similar to CPT. Some also came directly from the military ranks, and the smallest group were CAA private pilots. Once their basic glider training was completed, the pilots went to advanced glider training in Ft. Bragg, North Carolina; South Plains Army Airfield at Lubbock, Texas; Victorville, California; Dalhart, Texas; or Stuttgart, Arkansas. There they started to fly the "real thing": the WACO CG-4A."
"So, Colonel," Agen Rudd asked courteously, having seen the impatience in Agent Chamber's body langauge, "what do we have here?"
The Colonel walked up to a wingtip and stroked the damaged and faded fabric lovingly. "This is a Schweizer TG-3A Glider, manufactured by the Schweizer Aircraft Company for the Army Air Corps; which used it from 1942 to 1947. It is a dual trainer, instructor and pupil. I know that there is one awaiting restoration at the CAF hangers at Mesa. They'd love to get their hands on a second one, I'll bet!"
Special Agent Chambers was livid with consternation. "Are you seriously trying to tell us that a sixty-year-old glider has been flying around for all these years with a dead student and a missing instructor, and then lands here yesterday all by itself? Come off it Colonel!"
"You are wrong," Officer Yazzie said quietly and firmly. "Look, see; this glider has been somewhere else for many years. Here, in the ailerons, are sprigs of the Ponderosa pine. It does not grow near here. They have grown through, not been caught. There are more twigs scattered along the scar the glider made in the earth as it crashed. Smell the needles. Do you smell vanilla? That's Ponderosa Pine. If AFOSI can match the pollens it can locate the area the twigs came from."
"I don't believe it" Chambers said stubbornly.
"Then look inside the cockpit. In the dust there are squirrel droppings, and pollen from many plants. Check also to see what kind of spiders have webs there. Agent Rudd knows the science for all these things. Match them and you will know where this glider sat, and for how long. It will be west of here."
"He's absolutely right, Agent Chambers. The local mineral content and ph factors are taken up into the tree and reflected in the sap and needles. Once Jeremy and I have an opportunity to process the biological evidence we will be able to pinpoint the glider's resting place within a few miles, I'm sure."
"That still leaves the missing instructor," protested Chambers, "and how the glider got here now."
"The instructor will be easy to trace through AAF records," the Colonel assured him.
"Once we get back to Tuba City I can make a single phone call and have the information here within hours. Then its up to you to follow the information trail," Tammy said.
Somewhat molified at the prospect of direct FBI involvement, and therefore PR, Special Agent Chambers asked Rudd, "How do you plan to proceed?"
"Just like we would at any Air Force accident site, agent Chambers," the Afro-American forensic specialist replied. "Officers?" she said to Connea and Yazzie, "would you please help Agent McDonald unload and set up his tent and equipment? There is also a shade shelter fly that you'all can sit under while Jeremy, Mr. Watson and I work on the aircraft. We have already arranged for an aircraft recovery vehicle to arrive later today to transport the glider back to the Tuba City Airstrip for examination." As a sop, she said, "Agent Chambers, perhaps you should arrange for a hanger and security?"
He wisely took the olive branch. "Consider it done."
"Thank you." Then she asked the two FBI men with saccarine tones, "Agents, would you assist me in removing the mequite bushes from around the aircraft?" She was from Atlanta, and could turn on some peachy charm when needed.
Work tent, tables, folding chairs, shelter fly, and equipment were set up as the broken brush was removed from around the glider. All in a day's work for Rudd. The FBI agents were puffed from unfamiliar exertion. Ben Watson, being an old hand at this, had brought along an esky of soft drinks and a thermos of iced-coffee. By 1030 hours they were prepared to begin the serious work. Tammy and Jeremy put on gauze facemasks latex gloves. Jeremy took Officer Yazzie's fingerprints for exclusion, should Tammy find any usable prints.
Shideezhi and one of Sicheii's scrawny sheep dogs came walking up the dirt road then. Gonnea nudged Gad in the ribs and commented suggestively in Navajo, "Hey, here comes the big-breasted virgin."