Wayne Warga is Alive and Well at 6000 Feet

An Appreciation
by Robert Crais

Wayne Warga died on Wednesday morning, 27 April 1994, after a lengthy battle with cancer. He was a good man, a man of enormous personal courage, and he was my friend. I will miss him, but I will visit him often, for though he has left this earth, I know where he is and how to find him.
     When you think of Wayne Warga, you will almost certainly remember him for his terrific Jeffrey Dean novels, Singapore Transfer, Fatal Impressions, and the Shamus Award-winning Hardcover. Perhaps you will also remember him in his guise as a globe-trotting correspondent for Life, covering hotspots from Cuba to East Berlin (remember those days?), or as the best-selling author of the blockbuster biographies Natalie: A Memoir by Her Sister (with Lana Wood) and Return to Earth (with Colonel Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr.) He would be pleased, I think, for you to remember him these ways, for he took great pride in being a writer, but that is not the way I will remember him. Whenever I remember my friend Wayne Warga -- and it will be often -- I will see him in the cockpit of a Supermarine Spitfire, canopy open, white scarf streaming back in the slipstream, big grin plastered on his mug like some kind of poster boy for the Army Air Corps. Wayne’s up there right now. I firmly believe that. Let me tell you about it.
     I love the sky, and I love the machines that allow us its freedom. I saw the United States Air Force Thunderbirds perform at Ryan Field in Baton Rouge when I was six years old, and from that moment on I knew and have known that flying was all I wanted. But, like so many before me, the eyes went bad and the dream of flight soured and it would be a very long time and all the usual excuses before I would finally earn my wings. Perhaps this obsession with flight is some sort of genetic predisposition. Whatever the case, Wayne Warga was so disposed.
     I discovered this a few years ago when I was dining with a group of writerly friends at a bistro here in the San Fernando Valley, and I mentioned that, at long last, I was taking flying lessons and that this had been a lifelong dream. Every person at the table save one thought that this was simply the height of madness, as irresponsible an act as brushing one’s teeth with Drano or turning my back on Damien “Football” Williams after arming him with a brick. Everyone, that is, except for Wayne Warga, who lit up like a kid at Christmas, and yelled, “I wanna go!”
     Wayne Warga shared the madness. Like me, he had harbored the lifelong dream of becoming an aviator. He read Richard Bach and Ernie Gann, and he haunted little airports and aircraft museums, and he thought, every so often, that maybe now was the time to learn, but, as with so many of us, real life intruded. The family, the job, time and money. There’s always something; that’s just the way it is.
     As I learned, Wayne often called to ask about that week’s lesson, and I’d fill him in, describing this adventure or that, encouraging him to come out and take a few lessons himself, prodding him to get off his butt and realize the dream. It didn’t take much prodding. He wanted it bad. But things weren’t going the best for Wayne at that time, and becoming a birdman would have to wait.
     Then came the big moment when I soloed, which is a red-letter day in any pilot’s life, and we met for dinner at Mistral’s here in Sherman Oaks, where, in front of Jerry Petievich and Betsy James and Dick Lochte and Pat Hilton and the entire restaurant, Wayne pulled out my shirt tail and cut it off, which is an old and honorable tradition among aviators. None of the others knew what it meant, but Wayne and I did, and I took the good-natured kidding in the warm glow with which it was given. Everyone present signed the shirt tail, and I still have it. I wouldn’t sell it for a million bucks.
     A few months later I passed my tests and got my pilot’s license, and I called Wayne to brag and the first thing out of his mouth was, “You gotta take me flying!” So I did. We went flying in a Cessna 172 named 9408L. We flew north to Magic Mountain, and then west along the wash to the orange groves. I explained about the rudder pedals and the steering yoke and the throttle, and I let Wayne fly. He loved it! We dived and climbed and twisted and got the world’s best view of the people in the roller coasters and we waggled our wings at the cars creeping along the ground below. The clouds closed in and we finally went back to the field, making plans to do it again. I think that we were each of us thrilled with the fact that we finally had somebody with whom we could share our enthusiasm. Let me tell you, people of the sky are like schoolyard pushers: We love to share our addiction with others.
     Wayne made a trip to England, and, like any good airplane fanatic, he visited the Imperial War Museum in Duxford to walk among the Spitfires and Hurricanes and other great machines of the British war effort. He did not forget me. For three-pounds-seventy-five, he bought a small model of the Spitfire as a gift for me because he knew that the Spitfire was a favorite of mine, as it was of his, and when we later met for lunch upon his return, he gave it to me and I nagged him mercilessly about going after his own license.
     Wayne and I met often for lunch, and I nag pretty well, and he finally agreed to come out to the airport and meet my instructor just as soon as he finished whatever writing project he was working on. I loaned him my flight manuals and some instructional videotapes, and we had a grand time yakking about nifty stuff like aerodynamics and directional gyros and the difference between indicated and true airspeed. Then one day I called him to set up the intro with my instructor, and Wayne said, “I can’t, Bob. I’m sick.” Wayne Warga had fallen victim to a contaminated batch of L-tryptophan manufactured by a Japanese company and distributed in this country. I don’t know the details save to say it screwed up his central nervous system and his immune system, and Wayne found himself, there in the prime of life, permanently disabled with an incurable condition. No way now he would get his pilot’s license because he could never pass the flight physical. And that was the least of it.
     That goddamned ordeal with the tryptophan was a nightmare, but Wayne Warga lived it out with a dignity and positive attitude that damned few of us could manage. You want guts? He wrote his last novel, Singapore Transfer, while his body was breaking down and he was completely disabled. He was in constant pain, and the best he could do was maybe an hour a day at the keyboard. The next time you’re whining about how bad you have it, imagine running a marathon barefoot over broken glass. I was there when Wayne Warga did it. That’s guts.
     The cancer came a couple of years later, and with it the chemo, and then Wayne couldn’t fly with me anymore, not even as a passenger. The treatments made him ill, and even when he wasn’t, his inner thermostat had gone screwy and he couldn’t tolerate heat. Let me tell you, it gets hot sitting in the cockpit of a little airplane on the ground. Wayne held a good thought, though, and spoke of a time when all of this business would be straightened out and he could once more take to the skies. He had found out that he could go to the Planes of Fame Museum in Chino, California, and actually buy a ride in one of the great old warbirds, the P-51 or the P-40. Wayne was excited by the old piston fighters because they had fired his imagination when he was a boy, and he told me that if he could just get himself squared away, he was going to go out there and buy a ride. Pull a loop in that baby. Pretend he was wing to wing with the Flying Tigers. I said, hell, I’d come along and we’d do it together.
     Somewhere during that period I started taking aerobatics lessons in a grand little Citabria 7KCAB stunt plane, looping and rolling and pulling gees just like the fighter jocks, and when I told Wayne I think he was even more excited about it than me. You have to wear a parachute to do this stuff, and better yet, you fly the Citabria with a stick just like the Spitfire and the P-40, not with a yoke like the Cessna. Flying aerobatics with a stick-controlled airplane is just about as close to one of those old piston fighters as you can get. Wayne made me promise that as soon as he got better I’d take him up, and I said sure. He wanted to pull a loop, he said. He wanted to fly a victory roll. I guess by that time Chino and the business with the Flying Tigers was seeming farther away to him.
     But, of course, Wayne Warga didn’t get any better. The cancer spread and the chemo got worse, and after a while Wayne could no longer meet me for lunch. He did feel well enough on one occasion to join a group of us for dinner. The chemo had made his hair fall out, so he wore a red bandana tied over his head. He’d gotten his ear pierced, and he looked like some kind of goddamned pirate. Wayne’s way of letting ol’ Mister C know it couldn’t break his spirit. I thought it was classy as hell, and I told him so.
     Then, on Wednesday, 27 April 1994, Wayne Warga died, without having returned to the airfield, without having strapped on the chute and pulled the loop and flown the victory roll. We never again had a chance to fly.
     You may think it ends there, but I know it doesn’t. I keep the little Spitfire that Wayne gave me on the shelf behind my desk, and as I sit here looking at it I know where to find him. He won’t be browsing in some sort of Twilight Zone afterlife bookstore, and he won’t be sitting at some kind of gargantuan pearly gate typewriter, pounding holy hell out of the keys to meet God’s Life magazine deadline. Forget that writer stuff. Wayne Warga had his heart in the sky, and I know for a fact that if I just look close enough at the little Spitfire’s cockpit, Wayne Warga will be inside.
     So tomorrow or the next day, I’ll go out to the airfield, buckle on my parachute, and head up north over those orange groves where Wayne Warga and I flew before. And as I loop and spin and roll, I know he’ll join up off my right wing, Wayne in the Spitfire, where he always wanted to be and where I am quite certain he now resides, because the sky spells freedom. That’s what every pilot knows.
     You don’t have to wait to get better any more, pal. And you don’t need me to fly. You can do it on your own.
     You’re free.

© 1994 by Robert Crais

Contents of this web site are copyright 2017 by Robert Crais.
Photo of Robert Crais by Greg Gorman
Website designed and maintained by Dovetail Studio