Part II The Secret of Stuart’s Gap
Matthew Tipton seemed to be a lot more concerned about my greasy matted fur than I was. I was still more worried about missing my ‘treats’ at Vanzandt’s Store than I was about some minor skin irritation! As Matthew poked, probed, and sniffed me, he became more convinced that I had gotten into spilled aviation fuel. Hell, if I could just talk, I could have easily told him that!
Matthew got on his radio and somehow got “patched” into Isabel’s telephone at the Inn. “Isabel, I just picked up Homer on Old Dial Road. Was he all covered up with some kind of oil and engine fuel when he left your house this morning?” Isabel’s answer obviously indicated that she hadn’t yet missed me, and certainly had no earthly idea where I’d gotten messed up. “Yes, Isabel, he’s a mess, but he’s fine, and I believe he’s been hanging around some kind of a wreck.” Matt continued. “I think that he’s found the missing plane we’ve been hunting all morning.” Matthew then assured Isabel that I was safe and told her that he would bring me home after he went off-duty.
A few minutes after his conversation with Isabel, Matt was again on his radio attempting to assemble a search and rescue team made up of U.S. Forestry Service and the Fannin County Sheriffs’ Department personnel, along with a few volunteers on horseback. As I heard him talking, I realized that Matt’s ‘search and rescue plan’ was drawing a cold response from our local law enforcement officials. No one really believed the aircraft to be in our area, and once some of our state and local officials get convinced of something, its pretty hard to change their minds. Finally, in a show of support for Matthew, his supervisor, Lt. Bill (Willie) Trainor reluctantly agreed to meet us near the Tilley Baptist Church intersection of Old Dial Road which, coincidentally, is quite close to where I link up with Old Dial on my monthly forays to Vanzandt’s.
During Matthew’s conversations, I was able to learn that a 74 year-old retired Navy Commander, Charles Perkins, had taken off in his private plane from Peachtree-Dekalb Airport near Atlanta on Wednesday night after dinner. Reports indicated that he went off the radar somewhere north of the Lawrenceville, Ga. area later that night. There was some speculation that the plane might possibly be somewhere in the mountains, but the major focal point of the search was centering on a location around Gainesville, stretching all the way up to the South Carolina state line.
“Willie” Trainor arrived 30 minutes later in his nice, shiny, green USFS sedan, and Matthew spent another 15 minutes briefing him on his “dog-at-the-crash-site theory.” And then, minutes later, as I knew it would, the inevitable happened. Matt groped back into his nostalgic childhood memories of Lassie and Rin Tin Tin and dropped a line straight out of Hollywood . . . “C’mon, Homer, show us your way home! Go home, Homer! Go home, Homer!” I was tempted to bark knowingly and leap forward, but I didn’t want to cause an undue strain on Matthew’s heart by using such cheap theatrics. I just chuckled quietly to myself and got ready to “spring into action.” As Matthew snapped his fingers and slapped his right pant leg enthusiastically, I jumped out of the passenger seat of his SUV and loped purposefully down the road toward my usual path to Stuart’s Gap. Matthew Tipton followed along slowly in his truck, and a less-than-enthusiastic Lt. Trainor trailed along behind him. “There had better be something in this for me,” I thought at the time. I was miserable, my skin was itching and burning like mad, and I was eager to get home.
It was less than a mile to my entrance to the trail leading up to Stuart’s Gap. Matthew and Willie parked their vehicles well off the road and prepared for the hike to the Gap. Matthew was wearing boots and seemed well suited for the task, but Willie, in his polished black wingtips, still looked like a typical, desk-bound Forest Service Bureaucrat – very much out of his element. I know that Matthew is in his early 50s and I think that Lt. Willie Trainor is most likely edging toward retirement age.
By the time we crested the trail to Stuart’s Gap, these guys were panting like two St. Bernards on a summer’s day in the desert. Willie was rapidly losing his resolve, and he complained all the way to the top. I was doing pretty well for an eleven year old Lab; I guess maybe I was breathing in the fumes emanating from my own fur. Willie scored two nasty falls on the slippery path to the wreckage, but the only damage he sustained was to his pride and to the knees of his crisp, starched uniform pants.
Even though they knew what they were looking for, both men seemed appalled at the sight that greeted them when they finally reached the plane. Matthew’s first comment was “Nobody could have survived a crash like this.” And, of course, he was right. Ret. Commander Charles Perkins undoubtedly died upon impact, and probably never felt a thing. Despite the sad outcome, Willie got a whole lot happier when he realized that we had actually found the wreckage, and I could visualize images of future news interviews already forming in his mind.
Meanwhile, Matthew, who had remembered to bring his portable two-way radio with him, examined the wreckage, confirmed the death of the pilot, contacted the proper authorities, secured the site, and established a temporary command post until Federal NTSB and AAIB crash inspectors could reach the area. Soon, the sky was buzzing with news helicopters, ATVs from the law enforcement community were clogging the narrow trail, and the sounds of chainsaws were drowning out all but the loudest conversations. The place was becoming a madhouse, and I was more than ready to leave when Matthew summoned me, and we began the long walk back to his truck.
Willie Trainor was ‘holding court’ with the Atlanta news media, and I wouldn’t doubt that he was still giving interviews when the sun came up the following morning.
I napped on a wool blanket on the seat of Matthew’s truck all the way back to Faded Glory and endured a good scrubbing by Micah while immersed in a set tub in the Inn’s basement. I heard Isabel mention afterwards that it was rumored that Matthew could expect a big promotion in the near future. Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy; Matthew Tipton is one of my favorite people.
As for me, Pete Vanzandt personally drove over to the Inn to present me with some outlandishly good meat scraps, I was mentioned in the local AND Atlanta newspapers, and I scored an all-expenses-paid trip (thanks to Isabel) to “Bow Wow-Meow Dog Grooming” for a new “Do.” Does life get any better than this?