I’m called a homicide detective, but more often than not I’m an accident detective, or a suicide detective. Lots of people wonder why suicides need investigation. With homicides everyone’s got an answer, an alibi, a motive. With suicide, your victim, suspect and witness are all dead and you don’t have anyone with any answers, just a lot of questions.
Suicide is all disappointing for everyone involved, especially me because I have a case that doesn’t need to be wrapped up but a lot of questions that I still have to answer.
The strangest suicide I ever had to deal with was the suicide of Randolph Pink, who you’d know better as Calico Pink the Sky Raider, best barnstormer to ever fly across the dust-covered farms of the American Midwest. Calico was a hero; one of many worshipped aeronautical acrobats in a chapter of American history witnessed and remembered only by eight-year-old kids in hand-me-down overalls.
I just happened to be one of those kids in hand-me-downs, growing up with nothing to do but watch a newsreel of Calico Pink’s Sky Raiders over and over in a dark theatre, the roaring air conditioning unit serving as sound effects for the screaming airplane motors.
I hadn’t just seen every newsreel on Calico, but read every book and every news article. Calico had been a fighter ace over the trenches, scoring a total of thirty-seven downed planes before shooting down, and being shot down by, the German Ace Rudolph Ganzer. According to legend, they met peacefully on the way back to their respective lines and exchanged praise and complimented each other. They agreed to allow the other peace in the sky for the rest of the war, and unite after the war ended.
In 1920 they started Randolph & Rudolph’s Flying Circus, and they immediately became one of the most hated barnstorming acts across the country. They terrorized small towns like the one I grew up in, buzzing over homes and farms, storming barns they didn’t have permission to storm, landing in a rutabaga field and destroying half the crop. To placate the furious crowds their antics attracted, they offered plane rides for two dollars, and pretty girls were only a dollar seventy-five. They’d seduce them into the air, and later that night seduce them into bed.
After a year or so Randolph and Rudolph legitimized. They added a nearly dozen other pilots to their touring show, and they changed their name to The Sky Raiders. After countless journalists mixed up the names Randolph and Rudolph, Randolph adopted the stage name Calico Pink, painted his plane the color, and their new group literally took off. Every town across the American South and Midwest begged the Sky Raiders to fly into town, to brighten their lives, to bless the parents of shyer daughters with some grandchildren.
That is more or less what brought The Sky Raiders to my hometown of Trappashax. With a brand new air field built for crop dusting, I knew they would arrive sooner than later, every color airplane buzzing over the town before landing on the brand new tarmac.
The night before their first show in Trappashax I walked four miles to the airfield to see the flock of planes parked along the landing strip. I climbed up a fence post and hugged barbed wire to watch the pilots perform maintenance on their engines. Rudolph, in his signature red jacket, escorted a group of esteemed guests—the mayor, the minister, the town’s richest businessmen and their wives—around the planes, introducing pilots, explaining the unique symbols on each biplane’s tail.
Randolph’s plane had a torch-baring knight.
The pilots twisted rivets and screws and checked their propellers for the audience I was an invisible member of. They did it for show, performing meaningless adjustments that only the well-trained eye of an airplane-obsessed kid like me would be able to detect, and from several hundred feet away, to boot.
Then out from the hanger strode Calico Pink himself with his thick trademark mustache, his legendary pink flying helmet with goggles and white scarf, leather jacket down to his jodhpur-clad knees.
Except the jodhpurs were down around his ankles and his leather jacket hung loosely over his drooping shoulders. His goggles dangled down on his face, almost denying passage of his mouth to the soon-to-be-empty bottle of gin he held with a pendulous arm. The other pilots quickly rushed to surround him, one pulling up his jodhpurs, another buttoning up his leather coat. Calico fought with them, shoving them aside. Rudolph stepped into the fray but Calico shouted and struck Rudy in the nose with the bottle. Rudolph stomped away with a bloody face and disappeared into the hanger, leaving Calico and the stunned audience to be handled by the remaining members of the Sky Raiders. Several escorted the audience away, apologizing and giving excuses they had used many times before.
The few left with Calico attempted to wrestle away the bottle, but Calico, like he was in the air, twisted out deftly and regained composure; an instant recovery. He now walked upright and straight, past each of the parked biplanes.
I am perhaps the only one who saw what happened next, as the rest of the audience, the known audience, was being placed into their cars by the other pilots when this happened, but I still clung to my barbed wire post, a backwoods opera box. Calico poured a little gin out onto the landing strip before each plane, and gave a salute. He reached his plane, the last one, and smashed the bottle against the nose in a divine and classless christening. He saluted, lied down in the shadow of the wing and took a nap.
The next day the entire town stood in that spot against the barbed wire, waiting for the show to begin. The pilots taxied out their planes and the crowd cheered, the Technicolor wings lined up and the pilots rose from their bucket seats to wave for the audience.
When Calico taxied his plane out onto the runway he stood in his seat, climbed onto the top wing as the plane rolled down the runway, waving to the audience, blowing kisses and bowing as he balanced on the wing while passing the other planes. Then he hopped down into his cockpit to lead the pilots into a perfect ascent.
This was the first time I had ever seen an airplane take off that wasn’t in a newsreel. And the planes stayed up in that sky for hours, tying knots with smoke, buzzing the crowd, cartwheeling, barrel rolling, touching down before bouncing back up.
Each pilot took to a corner of the sky and, with tight twists and curls, each drew their emblems against the blue. An Ace, a fleur-de-lis, a Gaelic knot, a crossed heart, etcetera.
Last, Calico’s pink biplane soared away to a portion of blank canvas sky and began to write. With a biplane like that, so majestic, handled like a tamed beast, I forgot about the whole night before, the site of a drunken Calico fighting off his own men. Calico spelled the first letter against the deep blue sky:
And he twirled out before beginning the next letter, writing in flawless cursive:
This was the real Calico, a hero, not a drunk. The man I saw drunk was Randolph, that man clutching the controls to that biplane thousands of feet in the air was Calico Pink, who spelled the next letter:
Nothing as minor, as silly, as common as a drunken spectacle could take away from Calico’s greatness. A mistake does not change a man, does not make him someone else, nor expose who he truly is.
The audience’s hush of anticipation defiantly switched modes to a hush of apprehension, confusion.
And Calico spun out of the H to cross and dot the T and I before climbing upward, toward the sun, leaving behind him in the bright blue sky, written in puffy white calligraphy, “Bitch.”
Calico flew higher until you could not see his plane for the blinding sunlight, only hear the straining engines buzzing faint, sounding more like the air conditioning at the Emerald Theatre, a buzzing at the edge of our atmosphere.
And the plane stalled and the motor stopped and Calico turned into a nosedive and the noise of cartoon descent, like a slide-whistle, was the only sign of what was going on before the spectacle at last became visible out of the sun: Calico’s pink bi-plane hurtling toward Earth. All watching held their breath waiting for what would surely be Calico’s greatest trick of all his life, to cheat Death so bad the Reaper himself would throw his scythe to the ground in a tantrum and jump on it up and down from the shear frustration caused him by Calico Pink and his Sky Raiders.
But Calico’s plane slammed into the ground, crushing in on itself like wet cardboard. It didn’t even explode, and from the distance made the sound of a dropped carton of eggs.
That was the end of Calico Pink and the Sky Raiders, the end of Rudolph and all the other barnstormers. The novelty went away, and with it the audiences, and with them the planes.
Now I solve homicides, or mostly accidents and suicides, for a living. But for every case I’m assigned, I’m really just looking for clues, for unconnected dots, that can solve the suicide of Calico Pink.
Nathaniel Hendricks attended film school, then moved with his dog Ripley to work independently in Austin, TX. This is his first publication.