A Rescue from Crustaceanicus

Per advice from well meaning advisors, this entry is entirely fictitious. It involves flying the sheriff out to the island, and turning right around and flying a distraught victim off the island.  It is an airplane story only on the basis of center of gravity and freedom of control movement issues.

The control and CG issues were due their only being two seats in the airplane – one for me and one for the passenger. (This was common on freight runs or in a medevac flight when the aircraft was configured into “no seats” mode with all of the seats, except the pilot and co-pilot’s, removed.)  But the meat of this story is around all the events that led to the fastest island extraction I’ve ever done.

The drama took place on an island that had a funky upslope runway.  You would “land up” from the sea (pointing south) and “take off down towards it” (to the north) typically.  It sounds heroic, but is pretty easy and casual when you get used to it.  If the wind was really blowing hard from the north, you could bravely land downhill (into the wind) since your actual ground speed could be as little as 10 or 20 mph if you had 40 or 30 mph on the nose.

We’ll call this island Crustaceanicus.  There are many such runways off the coast of Maine, but most are unknown, unpublished or no longer used.  This one, however, saw use at least three times per day, weather permitting.

Calm winds, land uphill. SOP for Crustaceanicus.

The Lobstah

Crustaceanicus was also home to the prized deep water “Canadian” styled lobster that is so ubiquitous in nearby Nova Scotia.  Bigger, darker and caught from the deep where the shell got thicker and the meat more tightly packed, they were the filet mignon of lobster.  If you ever saw footage of a “blue lobster” trumpeted by some amped up morning show star, odds are it came from Crustaceanicus or an island nearby.

The gods of economic good fortune also did something amazing for the island: Unlike the more genteel Casco Bay lobstering folk, these deep water and far from land people could fish year round.  On Crustaceanicus, one could harvest the almighty deep watah lobstah when the price was highest, the shells the hardest and the meat the thickest – in the winter.

Many of us “people from away” (as we are called) know Maine lobster as summer Casco Bay lobster – or “shedders” (pronounced locally as “sheddahs.”)  The shell, in the summer, has just been molted (shed) and the new one is growing in.  If you eat these in the summer months they are easy to devour without tools.  They are cheaper and plentiful.  The meat, however, is shrunken and less massive inside.   Not so for the deep waters off Crustaceanicus in the winter and early spring.

The island was also unofficially ruled by a group of families and one of those families was ruled by one man – who I’ll call Brian.  Brian Phillips. While a younger more insensitive version of me might have taken ample opportunity to draw “Trailer Park Boys” comparisons between the island, Brian’s family and the general extremity that exists when you live this far out to sea, on an island, I’ve done my best to show the true amazing character that is this community.

The islanders, were known to have a low tolerance for interlopers who attempted to fish the waters off Crustaceanicus. The unwritten rule of the coast is that unless you had eight generations (or more, in some impromptu adjudications) of residency on the island you couldn’t come enjoy this winter bonanza.  This was the sort of street cred, DNA, or political capital you needed to set traps in some of the best water off the coast.  People had been killed, trap lines cut, and boats sunk to defend this water.

This fierce territorial nature has no basis in any written law and confounds the State of Maine, but it was simply the feelings that governed fisherman.  And for Crustaceanicus, this was true for the other key (three) families that have essentially called the place home since the mid 1800’s.  It is easy to use creative license to amplify the pirate spirit, debauchery, mountains of cocaine or whatever images mainlanders easily conjure up in their minds of this place.

This is not that story.  This is a simple recounting of another character that I’ll call Gary Walterman, his girlfriend who I’ll call Maxine, and what happens when you violate the simple social order and amazing trust of an island with less than 60 year round residents.  The story begins when Gary couldn’t resist helping himself to $60,000 of Brian’s money when it beckoned him, from inside a safe, with its door unlocked in the Philipps family home one summer day.

On Crustaceanicus Brian did a lot.  Perhaps not always a loved, in fact feared by some, he provided an essential service that islander’s were grateful for – he sold fuel.  And when he was out hauling traps anyone on the island could come and help themselves to fuel, write down what they owed and then settle up at the end of the month.

Gary found himself in need of fuel that summer day, and upon entering the empty home (as was customary for any islander with a key to the pump) he saw that the newly acquired safe had been left open and was full of cash.  The manual was out for study, the combination written down, but why the rush – it is an island.  Everyone knows everything, tracks most movements and who in their right mind would steal from the Philipps’?  Perhaps a person either too obtuse to consider the consequences, or someone with a death wish.

It was later agreed by many islanders that it was the former.

Temptation, Consumption and Flight

The loose facts were that Gary took money, closed and locked the safe door and took the combination booklet with him.  Shortly thereafter, he started making extravagant purchases uncharacteristic of the island.  We flew out expensive office equipment, electronics and much more that was unbecoming of a modest social security recipient with a small veteran and disability pay.

By the time Brian’s family had cracked open their own safe, they had also noticed Gary’s strange new found consumerism.

Gary escaped in his boat to the mainland as a subset of enraged Philipps family members (all women) stalked and attacked Gary’s girlfriend outside the only store on the island.  Maxine, fresh from a family coordinated, “thumpin'” crawled back to her home and called our dispatch for an immediate flight off the island.  Since the sheriff had to fly out and deal with newly reported crime, this was an efficient flight: Sheriff out, victim back.  That and let’s not forget delivering an island’s daily load of groceries  (which included 10 gallons of milk for the guy with 32 cats) and getting the 4pm mail, UPS and FedEx off the island.  Groceries carefully off loaded and mail, Fedex and UPS safely shoved into the cargo area under netting, I stood by the plane ready to go.  Then a pear shaped figure bounced out of the wooded path behind the Crustaceanicus International Airport shed where I had just safely stowed the groceries.

Maxine was distraught.  Tears streaming across her reddish cheeks, she hustled to the plane as quickly as her 378 pound frame could.  But her size, and the only remaining seat, posed a serious dilemma for the pilot.  Too large to place safely in the right seat of the Cessna 206?  Would she block the flight controls as a marshmallow might engulf a toothpick or thumbtack?

Me: “Maxine, can you slide that seat back a bit more?”

Maxine “She’s back all the way f-f-f-forchriszake can we just go oh oh…”

She had to sit all the way over there, on the right.

The seat was indeed back all the way and with the new waves of islanders streaming into the airport “reception area” seeking justice, the sheriff was overwhelmed.  Since the airplane now contained the object of their ire, I elected to push my personal limits and offer a terse: “Ok, you just can’t let any part of your body touch this… ok?”  Maxine sniffled and inhaled with the best “gut suck” effort she could muster and I fired it up, spun it around and took off downhill towards the ocean with enough mass and velocity to get a good rate of climb before we were over the ocean.

The top of the runway looking north.

Once we leveled off I was able to crank her backrest back so that she had a recliner of sorts, which would improve the safety of the rest of the flight and our landing that was just 13 minutes away on the mainland.

Don’t Steal (also, Certainly Don’t Steal On An Island)

Flying and personal safety limits aside, there were important lessons to learn from the charade of mob justice, shotguns, emotions and tears.

To an outsider, this was a new wrinkle, since most relations (on an island of population 60) were harmonious and we knew the families so well.  I knew all of Brian’s extended family:  The patriarch, matriarch, the dim witted, the promising, and cousins that visited, even the oversized brother and his aspirations to get his pilot’s license.   To understand how deep our connection was to this community, the pilots were privy to affairs, dental needs, UPS tempo, FedEx fetishes, grocery proclivities and most of all … partying.  When you live on an island, and face a lot of downtime and harsh weather, you observe things not possible on the mainland.

“Hey guys… what’s going on?”, I asked after shutting the aircraft down.  “Juz drinkin ‘n’ shootin’ gulls,” Offered an idle islander from his rusty, unregistered, plateless, “island use only” Chevy.

I knew his front row passengers:  An urchin diver, who dabbled in breaking and entering on other islands (“wintah shoppin'”) and a speed fueled sternman.

While no one knows how much contraband made its way through boats, subs, or lobster traps to the mainland in the mid 90’s, the DEA seemed defeated.  At a party in Bangor, Maine, many years later a tired DEA agent was curious about the flying I recounted on the islands near and around Crustaceanicus.

“We can’t even touch what is coming through there.”  He offered.  I pressed him further – Which island? What’s coming in? With who?  I had certainly been aware of a lot of drug use, but I didn’t have any direct knowledge of outright funneling of product via lobster traps into tractor trailers waiting in Rockland that went straight to New York.

In the end, the events of that day showed me one thing:  A family that had their savings in an open safe where the entire community could parade by was not likely the source of the DEA’s interest.  Trust, community and extreme interdependence were not the hallmarks of a Columbian pipeline into the US.

Gary’s Denoument

Weeks after the drama had subsided, I was ushered into the hangar by another pilot who couldn’t wait to share the headline of The Courier Gazette with me.

Gary and his lawyer can be seen in a picture next to a short article about that dramatic day.  Evidently when asked for a statement on whether he stole $60,000 from the safe, Gary, against his lawyer’s advice, was determined to get the truth out. He told the inquisitive reporter:

That’s a lie, I stole $58,000, not $60,000.


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