Ah, here it was, all in one package! The entire Hop Harrigan-Smilin' Jack syndrome rolled up in one man! Call him Captain Midday. In point of fact, however, Norm Dunn turned out to be a soft-spoken, neatly clipped executive of the Piper Aircraft Corp., whose cargo on this flight consisted not of guns or rum or revolution, but rather of his wife Marie and his teen-aged son Randy. A naval aviator during World War II (torpedo bombers) and later in Korea, Dunn proved a smooth, safe pilot with a kind of sixth sense when it came to turbulence: he always knew how to avoid it. "The business card's a joke, of course," he was quick to explain in his nervous, corporate manner. Then he stared down at the glittering coves and reefs of Great Abaco sliding under the port wing. "But I suppose that there's an element of fantasy in it. Romance is a dirty word nowadays, although back when I started to fly in the early 1940s there was no more romantic an occupation than being a pilot. I guess there still are a few aerial soldiers of fortune, running guns and booze and other stuff, but most private pilots are just plain folks who use their planes for business or recreation—pretty serious people. That's why this Treasure Hunt is such a kick. You can play at romance again, and not be laughed at." Marie and Randy chuckled—not unkindly—and Norm busied himself with his instruments.
South of Great Abaco, the sky began to thicken with the gray outriders of Laura's violent persuasion. The bent, green bow of Eleuthera loomed abeam to the east. Dunn took the Cherokee over New Providence Island—Nassau's downtown street traffic, from 1,000 feet up, looked as thick as Manhattan's—and after avoiding the churning, black-tinged wakes of a few jetliners, set a course for Norman's Cay, one of the northerly islands of the Exuma chain. " Norman's Cay isn't named for me, though I wish it was," Dunn explained. "We'll put down there and go for a swim. It's one of the few islands in the Bahamas where you can park your plane at the end of the runway and dive off the wing into the water." He studied the murky skies ahead. "Looks like we'd better swim now while we have the chance, Laura permitting."
Dunn brought off the cross-wind landing with a carrier pilot's aplomb. Moments later, another plane touched down—a Mooney piloted by a young hydraulics executive from Greenville, S.C. named Gary Loftus ("Fine name for a pilot," mumbled Randy Dunn, himself an aspiring aviator. "Get it: 'Aloftus'?"). Loftus' supercargo was a young woman named Kay Leigh Kreidler who enlivened the beach party by peeling to her bikini and splashing water on everyone, wet or dry. Livelier still was the proprietress of the island, a young Englishwoman who wheeled up in a station wagon to inquire if the party was lost. Reassured that the only thing the party might have lost was the opportunity to swim in the days immediately ahead, she took heed. "I'm Penny Turtle," she said, immediately unbuttoning her blouse, "and I live here with my husband Bill Turtle in a houseboat named R.U.A. Turtle. If you don't mind, I'll join you. We Turtles just love the water." Ah, that old Bahamian wit and hospitality.
After the swimming came the real flying—the long, low-level search along the Exumas en route to Stella Maris. Perhaps it was the salt caking on slightly sunburnt skins, or the threat of storm crackling through the air. Whatever it was, it caused the Bernoulli Principle to become more than a physics book explanation of flight: one could actually feel the lift generated by the wings slicing through the warm, wet fluid called air; feel the subtle turns effected by the ailerons and trim tabs. It was suddenly—wonderfully—clear that this vehicle diving down to take a closer look at some unnamed and unnameable islet was a fragile, pliable skeleton wrapped in soft aluminum, carrying fragile and pliable skeletons wrapped in flesh. With that rather sobering realization, flight ceased to be Transportation and once again became Adventure. Other hunters were in the sky, Barons and Aero Commanders, Senecas and Aztecs—the very names of the planes reflecting their builders' exalted view of history, naive though it might be—and Dunn kept a close eye on them. A cardinal rule of the Hunt holds that the best way to find clues is to find other planes finding clues.
The sky grew continually darker, both from cloud cover and the waning of the day. Dunn nearly missed a turnoff from Great Exuma Island, where he intended to turn east for Stella Maris. But eagle-eyed Randy spotted another plane's landing lights putting down at the George Town airstrip on Great Exuma, and Dunn made his turn on time. A stiff crosswind was rippling the nearly invisible windsock at Stella Maris when Dunn put down. "Two landings for the price of one," he laughed as the Cherokee bounced once on touchdown. "Sorry about that."
That was as close as Laura came to disrupting the Hunt. During the night, while the Fearless Fliers who had risked the flight down to Stella Maris—there were less than half a dozen planes on the resort's strip—rewarded themselves with rum and tall tales in the bar, and while salt-soaked driftwood blazed orange and blue on the fire, and while the wind howled in from the open Atlantic piling miniature sand dunes on the floor, Laura turned in her track and chugged off toward the Gulf of Mexico. One of the Hunters, a husky female physicist from Fairborn, Ohio named E. Anne Buvinger, cheered Laura on her way. "Great," she gruffed, "tomorrow we can go scuba diving. I love it underwater almost as much as I do up in the air." The image came to mind of an aircraft equipped with tanks and a regulator, a translucent plane like Wonder Woman's in the old comic books, half airplane and half submarine....
The following morning, hiking down to the beach at daybreak, Norm Dunn spotted something strange under a clump of frangipani trees in front of the hotel: a six-foot-tall letter "A" laid out in brilliant red cloth. "Hey," he asked at breakfast, "how often does the letter 'A' occur in the word ' Bahamas'?" Sure enough, he had found Groenhoff's non-photographic clue: "A brilliant red design which represents something that is frequently seen in the Bahamas." It was like cracking a code. Who could take the competitive aspects of the Treasure Hunt seriously after discovering Hans Groenhoff's intent so playfully exposed under the frangipani trees? In Saint-Exup�ry's phrase: "Already this profane world was beginning to fade out."
It faded into a round of early morning flights in search of clues, followed by days of sailing and skin diving, easy conversation about the places to which only a light plane could take a man (or a woman and children for that matter). Medicine Hat and the River of No Return; an ice-water lake in Labrador where the brook trout run up to 10 pounds; a field in the Yucatan where the Mayan carvings lie nearly as thick and close as the iguanas. There was the usual shoptalk endemic among people who are hooked on machines, but far less than one encounters among the car or motorcycle set, whose main concern in life seems to be frammises and gear ratios. "It's the act of flying that's important," said Anne Buvinger. "That, and what you do once the airplane has gotten you to where you want to be."
As the week drew to a close, the Hunters rendezvoused in Nassau to turn in their clue sheets, each identification marked with latitude and longitude. Despite the early threat from Laura, there had been only one close call. An aging Piper Geronimo piloted by a dry-goods merchant named Lee Spickard, 47, of Knoxville, Tenn., had crashed in Nassau. The wreckage was visible to all the other Hunters as they landed—a bent and burnt-out case at the end of the runway. Spickard and his three passengers were there in the hangar, slightly battered but unbowed, sipping champagne while they told the tale of near disaster over and over again.
"We were taking off for George Town when we began losing oil from the port engine," said Spickard's accountant, James Hickman. "I could see the oil spilling over the cowling. Lee, who's been flying for 23 years, immediately swung back to land, but we had to make two approaches and we were losing altitude all the time. I had my camera loaded and got some really nifty shots of the feathered prop and of the emergency trucks racing out to pick up the pieces. It was strange and in a way reassuring: you often wonder if you'll panic when a plane you're riding in starts to crash, but I found myself perfectly calm, a disinterested spectator at what might have been my own cremation. Then it was just bump, smash and fire. I burnt my hand on the fuselage when I jumped out of the wreck, but it didn't even hurt until later. Lee wants to buy an Aztec for next year's Treasure Hunt." For a 60-year-old certified public accountant, Hickman was pretty cool.