Sometimes it is the simplest things that bring a character to life. This time, it brought the antagonist character of Colonel Vicki Cortez to life and made her central to my newest Miranda Chase novel, #4, Ghostrider.
We’ll skim through the early days.
In the 1930s, 200 miles south of the US-Mexican border, El Rosario was a tiny farming community trying to scrape a living from the hard land. When a traveler did stray that far down coastal Route 1, Mama Espinoza would offer them a meal in her dining room from a red house that sprawled inside the turn as Route 1 shifted from north-south to east-west. Her food slowly became a destination for the more intrepid travelers.
A History of Flight
One cool story that didn’t make it in the book.
In November, 1961, low on fuel and flying in a dust storm, a pilot and 5 passengers from San Diego made a desperate landing near El Rosario. They were rescued and fed at Mama Espinoza’s. Locals drove them 30 miles north for a place to sleep and get medical help for one of the passengers (there were no doctors in the small town). The next day they retrieved them and refueled their plane.
But the doctor returned with them to the town and saw the villages’ desperate plight (even above and beyond the terrible drought that had killed their fields and was now decimating their livestock). With what few supplies he had, the doctor treated 22 patients before departing. He promised to return.
Six small planes returned before Christmas. They brought presents wrapped by the local Boy Scout troop, food, candy, and medical supplies. The trips by the doctors became a regular routine. In fact, it inspired the doctors and pilots to found the Flying Samaritans. Their 1,500 volunteers serve 19 clinics throughout the region with both permanent and fly-in clinics. Read the full story under About the Samaritans.
It all happened because of kindness to strangers.
Bit of a Race
1967 saw the founding of what is now one of the world’s most prestigious off-road races, the Baja 1000. And the scouts made the very first check point of the race…which it’s been for the 43 years since…and counting.
It was the making of Mama Espinoza’s not simply as a place to eat good, authentic Mexican food. But also as a destination in and of itself. Her entire house has become the restaurant.
It is totally worth spending looking at the photos on their Facebook Page.
Why? Because its interior has become filled with memorabilia and photos of one of the major off-road races in the world. Top riders would bring their cars and motorcycles there to be blessed by Mama before the race. Though she recently died at the age of 109, her legacy lives on through her family and their restaurant, just at the sharp bend in Route 1 about 10 miles after you leave the Pacific Coast and turn inland.
Colonel Vicki “Taz” Cortez, Taz is short for Taser, earned her nickname fair and square. Despite being trim and under 5′ tall, she owns the ability to run over the opposition—ANY opposition. She is the primary weapon of the chief antagonist in my upcoming Miranda Chase #4 Ghostrider, three-star General Jorge Jesus “JJ” Martinez. Though he doesn’t figure into this NerdGuy.
I’m always intrigued by what characters come up with on their own. For Taz? It turns out that she has a gourmet tongue. She can find the best food, anywhere. Even in places she’s never been before.
So when I sent her to find a hideout for the general in deepest Baja, Mexico, it was she who took me on a side trip to Mama Espinoza’s. And that’s where she came to life on the page as well. That moment trickled back through the book in many ways. Even though it occurs late in the book, it’s the scene below that brought her to life while squatting in an untraveled valley deep in central Baja. (no spoilers)
When she’d first traveled here, she’d been driving. Fifty kilometers away, the nearest town, El Rosario, was a nothing place. Seventeen hundred people perched close by the Pacific, halfway down Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.
El Rosario was known for only two things.
It was traditionally the first rest stop in the six-day off-road rally race called the Baja 1000.
And it was the home of Mama Espinoza’s restaurant. Mama E. herself had died recently at the age of 109, but the kids had kept it going.
It was classic Mexico, except for the food being even better than usual. Since the 1930s, Mama E. had served meals in her home’s dining room. It had taken off in the ’60s, when it became the first checkpoint of the Baja 1000. And Mama E. had never looked back.
The house was now entirely restaurant. Painted brilliant red outside, with a half dozen long tables covered in plastic red-and-white checked tablecloths inside, it looked homey. Every wall was covered with photos of fifty years of racing. Mementos were everywhere, making it part museum as well. Racers had brought their motorcycles there to be blessed by Mama E. herself before the big races.
Taz could have moved in, if duty hadn’t called. However, she remembered the burrito trio: crab, garlic shrimp, and local lobster. She could definitely go through another set of those right now.
As she’d done all of her life, she shrugged off what couldn’t be and felt no regret. Her mother had taught her that. Take care of the now. Mama’s answer to everything. Taz had made herself an expert in dealing with the now.
Learn more about Taz in Ghostrider. Available everywhere June 23rd (including print & audio). Already on sale at Apple in a special promo.
“Puff, the Magic Dragon was a Peter, Paul, and Mary song I grew up singing along with. It was probably the first song I knew all the words to, maybe even before I had the alphabet down (the order of “J” vs. “K” still screws me up sometimes, I have to get a running start at “H” to be sure).
“(Ghost) Riders In the Sky” (The Outlaws Version) rang through my senior year at college (with the too twangy Johnny Cash version before that). During those years, Southern Rock was sweeping the campuses, even where I went to school up in Maine. Charlie Daniels Band, Marshall Tucker, Lynyrd Skynyrd, ZZ Top, Allman Brothers, and many others. “Riders” was a hard-dancing fixture at any number of parties.
The next time I ran into it were the endless trailers for the 2007 movie Ghost Rider with Nicholas Cage (a fairly poor Marvel movie before Marvel figured out what they were doing) and the heavy metal theme song by Spiderbait (screwed up from my familiar Southern Rock–not my fav).
AC-47 “Puff, the Magic Dragon”
This has a much more intriguing origin and is the core of today’s NerdGuy.
It actually all began back in the Vietnam War. The Air Force did some testing with a Convair C-131 that said you could point a gun out the side of an airplane and it would be fairly easy to bank in a circle above a target and shoot consistently at the same spot.
After a few false starts and stops, in 1964 the Air Force chose one of my favorite planes (it’s almost every fliers favorite), a Douglas DC-3 (which the Air Force calls the C-47). They side-mounted a line of three mini-guns aiming out the port (left) side, placed a firing button on the pilot’s control wheel, and made a grease pencil mark on his left window. It became the AC-47 Spooky. “A” for Attack.
A Pylon Turn is something that every beginning pilot practices (including me when I used to fly). The challenge is to retain steady, consistent control throughout a banked turn. The instructor would pick a point on the ground (like a water tank). When I came up even with it (not above it but off to the side), I’d try to circle around it and always keep it aligned with the tip of my left wing. The better I got, the steadier the tip of my wing was on that tank until I could keep it centered at the top of the tanks dome, not just the tank itself.
That’s what the grease pencil mark was on the inside of the pilot’s window. He sits too far ahead of the wing, and each pilot is a different height, so needs a different mark. But once set up, a one-second burst on the miniguns could deliver six thousand rounds into an area as small as a few dozen square yards–every time!
It completely changed the nature of many battles. When in close quarter combat with an enemy troop, an AC-47 Spooky could lay down a massive suppressive fire from an untouchable height above the battle. An immediate order went out for more of these aircraft…which they couldn’t provide because there were so few miniguns in existence at that time. But those wrinkles were soon worked out.
They operated mostly at night. They’d drop a parachute flare to illuminate the enemy, bank, and spit fire at them from above. No suprise that it was nicknamed “Puff, the Magic Dragon” and often flew with the simple call sign of “Puff.”
Bigger Dragons are Spooky
So, if a small dragon was good, a big dragon might be better? Indeed it was.
The C-130 Hercules is perhaps the most successful cargo plane the world has ever known. It is used in all walks of life from US Coast Guard Search-and-Rescue to fighting wildfires to…an AC-130 gunship.
By 1970, these had completely replaced Puffs in Vietnam. Where the Puff could fire three guns worth of 7.62 mm bullets (.308″), the AC-130s first added 20 mm rounds (3/4″) fired from a rotary autocannon, with 40mm (1-1/2″) following close behind.
The big change, literally, happened in 1971, when a 105 mm (4.1″) howitzer was adapted to the big plane. Now, instead of small bullets, high-explosive rounds weighing 15 kg (36 pounds) could be heaved down from above. A single mini-gun, a 40 mm cannon, and the big howitzer could hit the same point with devastating effect…at the same time!
The plane itself went through many names, Pave, Pronto, Aegis, Spooky, Stinger, Dragon Spear, even Surprise Package. But it was the squadron’s call sign that stuck. From the AC-130A to the AC-130U (only 6 of letters were used) , these gunships were all best known as the Spectre. (Yes, it is totally appropriate to have the James Bond theme playing in your head right now.)
Hercules meets Super Hercules
After sixty-five years (yes, 65) the C-130 Hercules is still going strong in many roles. At the turn of the century, at the age of 45, it received its first comprehensive end to end update with new engines and new avionics. The C-130J Super Hercules flies farther, faster, and higher than all of its older brothers. (I’d warn my older brothers, but I don’t have any. However, I have an older sister…who I learned ages ago to never ever mess with. Older sisters are scary!)
It was only natural that this was the time to rethink the AC-130 gunship. The main thought was, “Why would you use a slow, propeller-driven, fat plane into a battle zone?” The main answer, “Until we think up something better (a new plane design can take a decade or more), we need something.”
And along came the AC-130J Super Hercules “Ghostrider.” In addition to everything else it’s older brothers did so well, the Ghostrider has added a new trick, a HEL-A laser.
I’ll geek out about this at another time. Let’s just say that the FDA regulations kick in at 5 mW (milliWatts). A 1 W laser can instantly blind you or char your skin. The High-Energy Laser – Airborne in the AC-130J is rumored to be at or above the 150 kW range. That’s 30 million times brighter than your cat’s laser pointer. (Trying to imagine 30 million times? Pull out a one-dollar bill. If you had 30M of those, it would be a stack over 2 miles high.)
Cobra and Apache helicopters, A-10 Thunderbolt jets, the Russian…oh, wait…they’re just now developing their own copy of the C-130 because they couldn’t figure out how to do it better themselves.
Yes, this plane may have venerable origins, but it will still be a factor on battlefields for years to come, just as it has in every single conflict involving the USA since the Vietnam War.
So, when Miranda Chase went looking for her fourth major air-crash investigation, the conclusion to the Preflight Quartet begun with Drone, Thunderbolt, and Condor, she found…a Ghostrider. Coming June 23rd. (Special: Available from Apple starting June 9th!!!)