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I walked down the corridor past the door labeled men's locker room. The second door had no designation, just two flat globs of hardened putty where the ready room sign might have been at one time. I could hear masculine voices inside.

For as many years as I'd worked in the field, it still wasn't easy for me to walk into a ready room. Some airports were better than others, but for the most part, the ramp was dominated by men and the ready room was where they congregated to do what men in packs do. I took a moment to gather myself, then pushed through the door.

There were eight guys in there, all in various stages of readiness-eating, reading the newspaper, playing cards. One was sleeping. All conversation ceased abruptly with my arrival, leaving an old color TV set to provide the soundtrack. I felt as if I was trespassing in the boys' secret clubhouse.

"Gentlemen," I said, concentrating on keeping my voice strong and steady, which wasn't easy, the way they were staring. "I haven't had a chance to meet most of you. I'm Alex Shanahan, the new general manager, and I'm looking for the assignment crew chief."

Most of them went back to what they'd been doing. A few stared with a bored expression that was probably reserved just for management. Since it was an evening shift, most of the men were on the younger side, some just out of high school. They had that pale, hardened look of kids who had grown up in the dark spaces of big cities. I had no friends in this room.

I was really wishing I'd worn a skirt with pockets because I couldn't decide what to do with my hands. That I was even aware of my hands was a bad sign. "Let me ask you again-"

"He ain't here." The voice floated up from the other side of a La-Z-Boy recliner.

I walked around and found a man with a dark, curly beard, a bald head, and a prodigious belly. He seemed right at home reclining in front of a TV.

"Do you know where he is?"

"Could be anywhere."

"I guess that means he could be in here."

"He's not in here."

He tapped his fingers on the cracked Naugahyde armrest. I searched the concrete walls. "Why isn't the assignment sheet for this shift posted?"

The response came from behind me, and it was a voice I recognized. "Because everybody on my shift knows their job." Big Pete leaned against the wall next to what appeared to be an inside entrance to the men's locker room. He must have just come in, because if he'd been back there the whole time, I would have felt his presence.

"Someone doesn't know their job," I said. "We have a Majestic Express flight that's been in for twenty minutes. No one met the trip, the bags are still onboard, and the passengers are down in claim waiting."

"There's no one in here who's on the clock," he said without even so much as a perfunctory check around the room. "One of us goes out there, you're going to pay double-time. Your shift supervisor would know that. Or Danny."

Dan was at a meeting off the field, and my shift supervisor was stuck with a customer down at the freight house-probably the forwarder with the lobsters, or without the lobsters, as the case may be-but I saw no reason to explain all that. "I think you and I can resolve this."

"We could," he said, "but as you can see, I'm not on the clock yet." He was dressed in street clothes and completely relaxed, a man in full command of his environment. We were on his turf now.

"If the contract says double-time, then I'll pay double-time. And I will also take the name of the ramper who didn't cover the flight."

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man at the far end of the room stand and pull on his jacket. "I'm on the clock." he said. "I'll work it?"

I turned to look at him. He was probably in his early forties, with the sturdy legs and all-over thickness that develop naturally from a lifetime of hard physical labor. His manner was brusque-rough even-but there was gentleness in his face that had somehow managed to survive even in this unforgiving place.

"Johnny, you're not on the clock." Pete stared at him, firing a couple of poison darts intended to shut him down. It probably worked on everyone else.

"I am on the clock." Johnny's manner toward Big Pete was polite and entirely dismissive. "You don't have to pay double-time," he said to me. "I'll work it myself."

"That's against procedures, Johnny. The union ain't responsible if you get hurt."

The big man turned and faced Big Pete, his massive arms stacked like firewood across his chest. "The union ain't responsible for my safety," he said, "and thank God for that."

Pete turned and crossed his arms also. Now the two men were face-to-face. "You pay dues like everyone else here, John."

"That don't make you my representative, Peter."

Someone had killed the volume on the TV, so the only sound came from a guy sitting at a wooden table munching potato chips. Another had stopped in the middle of tying his shoe and was still bent over his knee, watching the drama unfold. John wasn't moving a muscle, and Big Pete was no longer leaning against the wall. The way they looked at each other made it clear that whatever was between these two had not started that day, and wasn't going to end there.

Big Pete, as calculating as a cockroach, must have figured the same thing because with a slight nod of his head and a fleeting smile he defused the tension. The moment passed and everyone resumed normal activities. Without another word, John was out the door, pulling his hood over his head. I watched through the window as he lumbered across the ramp, climbed into a tug, and drove away.

There was a swinging door where Big Pete had been standing. I made a management decision not to follow him into the men's locker room. Instead, I walked out of the boys' clubhouse and went to see Kevin, as much to see his friendly face as anything else.

"Who is this guy John or Johnny?" I asked when the Operations office had cleared out and Kevin and I were the only ones left in the room.

"Mr. John McTavish, one of your better employees." He turned his chair around and stretched his legs straight out. "He and his brother both. Between the two of them they do the work of six men."

"I don't know about his brother, but John doesn't seem to be afraid of Big Pete."

"Johnny's not afraid of much. Did they go at it, those two?"

"There was some testosterone present."

"Not surprising. There's bad blood there. They were on opposite sides of a contract vote a few years back. Johnny Mac for, and the Dwyers against. It was bitter."

"What contract vote?"

"The IBG vote. It was on the last Nor'easter contract proposal, the one just before the merger. And a seminal moment it was in the long and lively history of this grand operation. For the IBG, too, you could say. It split the Brotherhood right down the middle."

I smiled. I did enjoy Kevin's hyperbole. "A labor contract that was a seminal moment? Do tell."

"Three years ago when the IBG contract came up for negotiation, Nor'easter was in dire straits, as I'm sure you're aware. The company made a proposal to the union asking for what amounted to a laundry list of concessions and give-backs. When the proposal came up for a vote, some of the brothers took one side, the rest took the other."

"I'm guessing Big Pete Dwyer would be a hardliner."

"Right you are. No concessions to management, ever, no matter what. Johnny McTavish was on the other side. His feeling was, if they didn't help bail the company out, there would be no more company. And he was right. The contract lost by the slimmest of margins, and that's the reason Nor'easter is gone today, may she rest in peace."

"At least you guys didn't go bankrupt."

"Tell that to the four thousand people Majestic laid off. That was over two years ago, and most of us still haven't gotten over the shock."

"It doesn't appear that John and Big Pete have buried the hatchet, either."

"No. I don't think they ever will. Dwyers and McTavishes, they are cut from different cloth."

From my vantage point at the window, I could see John unloading the bags from the stranded Majestic Express. "How is it no one showed up to work this flight?"

"The kid who usually works it called in sick. That's what I was told."

"Okay, but any one of forty or fifty rampers on shift could have covered."

"Sure, they could have, the problem being, in this station most rampers won't work the Express."

"What does that mean? We have seven Expresses every day. You're saying they refuse to work them at all?"

"It's not the Express so much as they won't work prop jets. Won't go near 'em, especially the senior men. Usually the junior guy on shift gets stuck with the trip."

"Okay, I give up. Why won't they work the props?"

"It's because of the crash."

"What cra-" I stopped for a moment. "The Baltimore crash?'

He nodded. "Nor'easter Express flight 1704. Went down on approach just outside of Baltimore, which is why most people remember it that way. What they don't remember is that the flight originated in Boston."

"Which means it was loaded here."

"Precisely. Rampers are a superstitious lot. And it's not just them. You won't find many in this station that will talk about The Incident. Bad luck. That's how we refer to it, 'The Incident,' just so you'll know."

"When was that? Ninety-four? Ninety-five?"

"Twenty-two hundred hours on the evening of March 15, 1995. Easy to remember."

"The Ides of March," I said. "Not to be indelicate or disrespectful in any way because I know it must have been extremely difficult for everyone here, but that was years ago. You're not even the same airline, and furthermore, if I remember right, the cause of that crash was pilot error. It had nothing to do with the ground operation."

"Ah, but that's the nature of superstition, isn't it? It's neither rational nor reasonable."

"Is it possible this superstition can be explained by the fact that rampers simply don't like to work these little airplanes because they're a pain in the ass to load?"

His coy smile said it all.

I reached up to rub my temples because my head was throbbing, and as soon as I realized that, it occurred to me my legs were aching, and when I noticed that, I couldn't help but feel the stiffness in my neck. I'd been in this station nine days, and every day had been longer than the one before.

"Kevin, I came into this job under the impression that I was supposed to be in charge of this operation at Logan. How come I can't find anything that I'm in charge of?"

He laughed. "We do have a unique way of doing things here. It takes a little getting used to."

"Has anyone ever tried to take action with the union on this issue?" Just contemplating the idea made me want to go to the hotel, get in bed, and pull the covers over my head. But that was probably just what they wanted.

"It's so ingrained now, most of the boys would rather lose their job than work a prop. You'd have to fire them all."

Big Pete was making his way across the ramp, in uniform now and apparently on the clock.

"I don't think so," I said. "You'd just have to fire the right one."