Bona Fides and Mettle

It was to be a typical autumn day in Kansas. Late September, 1986. And by ‘typical,’ I mean hot and windy. Ideal conditions for losing one’s lunch at 10-thousand feet.
With the sun rising behind us, the four-seater puddle jumper took off from Philip Billard Municipal Airport in north Topeka at oh-dark-thirty battling a stiff south wind.
Five people jammed into this plane. The pilot, a newspaper photographer, the Democratic
candidate for Governor of Kansas, his hanger-on... and moi, a cub political reporter for a statewide radio news network, eager to earn my bona fides, prove my mettle. 

The candidate was Tom Docking, sitting Lieutenant Governor with a great narrative: Fulfill family tradition by following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, each of whom had served as Governor of Kansas.

At 32, they were fighting a perception that he was too young to be Governor. One of the mini-controversies that fall was whether the campaign had doctored the official campaign photo by adding crow’s feet around the man’s eyes to make him look a tad more seasoned.
The hanger-on pitched this gig as “24 hours barnstorming Kansas.” To prove that a 32-year old can stay up all night? Whatever their motivation, I bit.
Up and down in a single-prop cramped airplane with a whiny sewing machine engine. Nose-diving through the clouds, bouncing on the runways at any Kansas community where a sufficient number of politically curious warm bodies would gather. After a couple of stops, I could feel my groceries starting to yodel. 

At each stop, I’d record a chunk of the candidate’s stump speech, work up a script, find a phone and call in the journalism, earning and proving.
“...with the Tom Docking campaign, Mike Matson, Salina.”
...Hays.” ...Colby.” ...Garden City.” ...Pratt.” ...Wichita.” ...Pittsburg” ...Chanute.”

Then we’d shoehorn back in, the pilot would wrestle the aircraft into the wild blue yonder and we’d bounce our way through the Kansas Indian summer to the next stop.
By now, I’m not fooling anyone. Worried about the inevitable, hanger-on leans over. “You doing OK, Mike?” 

With all the misplaced confidence of youth. “Oh, sure.”

Hanger-on has done a quick and dirty inventory of the cabin. No barf bags. No wastebaskets. Nothing to collect an involuntary personal protein spill of a fledgling political reporter eager to earn his bona fides, prove his mettle, somewhere high over God’s Country.

In Pittsburg, hanger-on boards the plane bearing all her campaign accoutrements and one extra: a ginormous black plastic garbage bag. 

The candidate looks at her quizzically as if to say, “A little big, doncha think?” 

Hanger-on frowns back, telepathically telegraphing, “Would you rather have it in your lap?”

It happened somewhere over Butler County. By now, I’d managed to get my hands on the garbage bag and had it positioned at the ready.

What’s the proper etiquette for the care and handling of one’s liquidated assets in a 4-seater airplane while knee to knee with the man who could be the next Governor of Kansas? What’s the protocol for removing one’s head from a garbage bag after the technicolor yawn high in the clouds over El Dorado?

Next stop, Manhattan. 18 hours into the 24-hour barnstorm. I deplaned with my bag of cookies, rented a car and drove home to Topeka on terra firma.

I don’t think they were sad to see me go.