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Upload 12 August 2012

Extracts from a diary:

by Simon Barber

Amelia, Lady Allworthy (neé Amelia Bourne-Phipps) & her friends
(educated adventuresses all, and warrior priestesses, some)
encounter the world after Songmark Academy -- beginning July 1937.

Storm Birds
by Simon Barber
(Illustration by Kjartan)

Monday July 26th, 1937

A decidedly peaceful night’s sleep left us all feeling much better; the lake was calm and even Helen had no problems as we cooked up some of last night’s trout on the spirit stove. A quick check of the Storm Bird and we were off. Having a compressed-air starter is a great innovation; standing on an airfield it is hard enough to swing a prop by hand, but in the middle of a lake it is something else entirely. I recall last year in the central lagoon of Spontoon, watching a tourist aviator spend half an hour and most of his strength and patience starting his seaplane engine while trying to balance standing in a small inflatable dinghy being bobbed around by the swell. A better subject for a slapstick comedy than an exploration film – especially if we are the ones on camera.

    Weather is still good with two-tenths cloud; at seven-fifteen we were “on the step” then waving Lapowata farewell. The Short Cockle and its Mounties had not returned, and we wished them well of the mystery. I have not heard that they make any use of Shamans, which is a pity but it is hardly our place to suggest it. My passport does not list “Warrior Priestess” as my occupation; that would have been a certain way to attract attention of every Customs official on the planet.

    In half an hour we were up to five thousand feet, a good cruise height being under the clouds to give us visibility to navigate but still giving us plenty of altitude for emergencies. On the map we keep a running list of alternate lakes we could put down on; though there are plenty of them in Canada we could still end up having to set down in a hurry. It is hard to imagine what could go radically wrong (the three engines feed from separate fuel tanks and have independent electrical systems, but we did not graduate from Songmark by assuming anything is unbreakable).
    Three hours steady flight almost due Eastwards had us out of the So-so Lakes area and with the first of the Fair Lakes in sight. One thing we had not tried in Spontoon while getting used to the Storm Bird was seeing just how well (or more probably how badly) it glided with the engines out. A quick consensus was reached that with plenty of water in sight, today might be a good time to find out. As we approached the thirty mile Lake Wollotobee, we did our best to make it a calibrated test and got our stop-watches and notepads ready.
    Just as we passed the edge of the lake at five thousand feet and a hundred and fifty knots, I pulled all three throttles back to “flight idle” so the props were just flicking over. Switching them off entirely might not be such a good idea; re-starting in mid air is tricky unless one has reversible pitch props. It suddenly got a lot quieter, and I could clearly hear Miss Cabot in the back calling off the distance we had traveled. I put the nose down slightly to maintain a hundred knots, and kept a close eye on the altimeter. At one thousand feet I decided enough was enough, and opened the throttles again.

    A busy minute with paper and slide-rule had all our sums agreeing; the Storm Bird only holds airspeed on a one in eight glide! Rather worse than I thought, but the radial engines do have an awful lot of drag. Even Maria agrees that a better engine cowling would help, but it is not the kind of fix we are going to make with sheet metal lying around en route or at some lakeside refuelling stop. For one thing, it would change the cooling of the engines radically, and if there was any obvious improvement Cant have been building aircraft long enough to have used it. So our five thousand feet of altitude only gives us eight miles of gliding – and that is straight ahead, any banking to change course would cut into that.
    By general agreement, we are in future going to cruise at eight thousand feet. Even if we took a route that zig-zagged all over the map from lake to lake there will be thirty and forty mile stretches with nowhere we can land. Not a route to take in a single-engined seaplane; though Italian designs have more tri-motors than most nations prefer, right now we are not complaining. I mentioned it is ironic that Italy has no vast waterless areas needing huge “feet dry” performance – at which Maria immediately reminded me of Libya and Italian East Africa. Helen muttered “Ethiopia” but according to Maria there is no longer any such country.

    By the time we were into the Fair Lakes territory the landscape was much flatter, with a level horizon of the great Canadian Shield, ancient rocks smoothed by the aeons and ground down by more recent glaciers. The terrain was half wooded, mostly down by the lakes, but the rolling high ground is visibly very exposed rock with little more than grass in the cracks. This land is never going to be lush rolling pasture crowded with plump domestic cattle and a prosperous dairy farm every mile. We are doing our best not to mention domestic cattle and dairy farms in Maria’s earshot. I would not be amazed to see her drop that cowbell out of the window at any minute. That would be a pity, as it really is a nicely hand-crafted piece of traditional village metalwork and some blacksmith spent hours carefully making it to order.

    At twelve I gave Helen the controls and went back into the fuselage for luncheon and to check our course. At a steady hundred and fifty knots due East, we should take three days to get to the Atlantic shore. When I came to Spontoon I was a week on the train crossing the continent, but though it was slower and took a less direct route that traveled twenty-four hours a day as opposed to our eight or less. We are in no tearing hurry, and it is a matter of “safety first” on this trip. That is, there will be quite enough hazards without planning them into our schedule.

    Miss Cabot was looking down with binoculars through the observer’s window at the great prairie of Prax below. She pointed down and passed them to me; I noticed two figures standing almost snout to snout in the middle of the empty landscape. Miss Cabot says they are Native furs, from the North-going Zax and the South-going Zax tribes encountering each other in the traditional manner where neither will step out of the way by going East or West (which to them is taboo.) It sounds logical enough; at any rate I will defer to her relatively local knowledge although Chicago is still an awfully long way off.

    By four we changed over the map sheet and started to look around for a suitable landing site. The map is ten miles to the inch, but even the Little Slave Lake is bigger than my paw on it let alone the Great one. Before leaving Spontoon we had looked through various aeronautical gazettes and noted any new developments on our expected route. Every year things change; just an hour ahead there is a brand new Shell Oil distributor on the shores of Lake GitcheeGumbee where two years earlier the only fuel to be found around the lakeside would have been firewood.

    By five we were over that lake, heading for the main settlement of Lower Watha. The original trading post of Higher Watha could be seen on the hilltop where the old trappers’ trail comes in from the next valley, its log church making an excellent landmark. Settlements are still decidedly few and far between out here and the map is always out of date – in two years a prospector’s strike can become a scratch-built boom town, and five years after that half abandoned as the seam runs out.

    Miss Cabot had the stick as we touched down on calm waters, alighting as gracefully as any swan – it is a great shame our Tutors refused to give her the Songmark certificate, as Miss Devinski herself could have found no fault with her touchdown. A minute later and we had our dock landing procedure down to a neat piece of ballet; as we taxied in with the nose engine switched off I climbed out with the hawser and lassoed one of the sturdy posts sticking up from the jetty for just that purpose and pulled us in to dock. It was the work of moments to make us fast to the jetty; although there are no tides and few currents on the lake there is always the risk of a summer squall blowing over.

    Lower Watha looked to be no bigger than our previous stop in terms of population, but we can tell we are nearer “civilisation” – there are gravel roads heading out of town, and a telephone line coming in. From eight thousand feet with the aerial streamed Winnipeg is well within radio range as is Calgary – we listened in on both local stations on the way. Miss Cabot says we should be able to hear Detroit and Chicago tomorrow. She knows everything Molly did, but not unnaturally does not feel she is coming “home”. That is the thing with what happened to her in Kuo Han – those awful Black Stones stored a personality from centuries ago but none of the memories – or presumably she would be speaking a Chinese dialect.

    Looking around, we were one of half a dozen aircraft moored to the jetty; the Storm Bird being much the biggest as the rest were single-engined floatplanes rather than flying boats. A brief conversation with a pair of beaver gentlemen on the jetty showed us where to ask for the fuel, and half an hour later the Storm Bird had its tanks full again. As Father often said about the duties of being an officer – one’s troops should be one’s first concern, and see they are fed first no matter how hungry you may be.
    Having the Storm Bird looked after and securely moored, we could take a walk into town (such as it is.) Although the layout was different, there was about the same setup as in Three Claws – general stores, bunkhouses, a church and a Mounties station that is probably the only one in a hundred miles. Then, trappers and lumberjacks tend to have fairly basic needs and not much spare income for anything else. How those lumberjacks in Rain Island could afford such elaborate dresses is beyond me – perhaps the much vaunted Syndic State issues its workers with subsidised axes and logging-spikes.

    Still, on the main street there was an inviting scent coming from what Helen calls a “chow-house” – two dollars bought us all a very fine meal of chicken pie with potatoes. I reminisced that pies are something the Spontoonie cuisine was very short of – possibly the climate in summer makes the idea of thick suet pastry less appetising. Thinking about it, back at Saint Winifred’s nearly half our winter calories probably came from pastry!
    Maria reminded me about South Island’s Pie Shop of the Sacred Steak and Kidney (originally its name made more sense when it had the Chapel of the Sacred Heart as a neighbour), which indeed provided the only source of the essential suet food group outside Casino Island. Spontoonies famously come from all over the place, some of Jirry’s ancestors being indeed from my native Barsetshire – no doubt they heed those “race memories” Eva Schiller made so much about, when deciding what to dine on.

    Helen is already missing the attractions of Spontoon, and especially Marti. She was looking wistfully at one of our last surviving Spontoonie Shells, a brand new design ten-shell note in this year’s issue. I have never seen money so garish before; four bright colours and a tropical flower scene make it look more like a postcard than a sober and reliable piece of currency. As I recall the Daily Elele discussing the new notes this Spring, that redesign was put forward as an anti-forgery device.  Maria agrees it would be harder to copy – but points out the advantages of the new issue not looking like real money. So much of Spontoon’s income comes through tourism that a visitor thinking (however subconsciously) it is not “real money” will be more likely to spend it on souvenirs and such luxuries they would hesitate to part with “greenbacks” for. Furs who know its true value will not be deceived by looks. I have seen German 100 milliard* Mark banknotes from their disastrous 1923 inflation, and they looked quite desperately respectable despite being obsolete except for toilet-paper by the time they reached the banks.

    A quiet evening stroll through town and back to the Storm Bird for an hour of maintenance. The plugs are doing particularly well; we could probably get by with half the cleaning the manual suggests (not that we will try it.) Perhaps the petrol the Cant normally gets in Italian service is less than Grade-A. Maria concedes the possibility, but points out Italy is very badly off for fuel and has to take what it can get. Even her Navy had to delay switching from coal to oil twenty years after the technology became available, simply because Italy has some local coal and no local oil. A battleship can run as a coal-burner despite the disadvantages – an aircraft or tankette cannot.

     *  (Editor’s note: 1 Milliard = 1 thousand million = 1 American Billion, or 1/000 of a Billion. Given crippling war reparations to pay, the Weimaraner Republic decided to just print extra banknotes and hand those over with hideous results for the currency. Presumably all the economists had been drafted 5 years earlier and left their bones at Verdun.)

Tuesday July 27th, 1937

A restful night’s sleep aboard the Storm Bird (my turn in one of the hammocks) and an early start; we were “on the step” by seven and heading straight East at eight thousand feet half an hour later. With Maria at the controls and Helen navigating there was little for me to do as Manitoba slipped past below us an a hundred and fifty knots.
    Despite having a serviceable radio, I feel decidedly cut off on this trip – nearly as much as when we vanished into Kuo Han. Back in Songmark there were letters every week at least, keeping us in touch (though Molly rarely received any). Right now we are incommunicado, and any postcards we send will be trailing behind us by boat and train. In some respects it is a good thing that nobody quite knows where we are or where we are going next – the FBI are very keen to get their claws on Molly Procyk, and there was that strange event that just missed us at Three Claws. There is nothing on the radio about it, and we are outrunning newspapers even more than postcards. One hopes it does not happen again and the Mounties do not find out about whatever it was the hard way. There is a disturbing mental image of someone on the far side of the planet loading the equivalent of some arcane but less than accurate artillery piece and plotting where we should be by the time it is ready to fire again.

    Luncheon at eight thousand feet is definitely dining with a view. Hardly a gourmet meal (crackers, tinned sardines and an apple apiece) but sufficient – we are not running around at top speed as we did at Songmark several hours a day, and will have to eat accordingly. It would be all too easy to keep to the same generous portions and pile on the pounds! In my case I am taking Mrs Hoele’toemi’s advice (not Helen, Jirry’s mother) and avoiding the Euro tradition of “eating for two”. A square meal is certainly needed, in fact one bulging at the corners – but with vitamins and minerals rather than calories. Helen is doing the same, though it is still too early to say if she needs to. She hopes to have a piece of happy news to write back to Marti by the time we reach England.

    An uneventful afternoon at cruise speed with a ten knot tailwind certainly ate up the miles below us and we switched to the Ontario map. Definitely we are in the Great Lakes area now, in fact the well-named Lake Superior itself was glinting on the horizon by the time the sun and our fuel began to get low. The town of Port Arthur is on the shores of Thunder Bay – which fortunately did not live up to its name as to weather; it was a clear but breezy evening as we touched down on the water half a mile away from the jetty. On these lakes in Summer one wants a good breeze to discomfort the blackfly and mosquitos, which outnumber the locals many millions to one.

    Just our bad luck – when we got to the fuel pumps the moose in charge was apologetically putting up a “No aviation spirit” sign! It seems that right now Port Arthur is getting all its avgas from across the lake, and indeed from over the American border in Duluth where the only tanker is in dock with engine trouble. There is ordinary sixty-octane petrol in town for cars and lorries of course, but our engines would not like that at all – it would be like trying to burn sawdust in an ordinary fireplace designed for logs. From what we hear, it might be awhile before the tanker is back in action. That is the trouble with lakes rather than being on the open seas; there are only so many vessels on each lake any additions to the fleet are reassembled there having been laboriously brought overland. Just sailing a replacement over from another lake is generally not an option!
There is a railway link indeed to the rest of Canada – indeed, the town has the first station we have seen in a while as our route took us far North to link the maximum number of lakes, but this week the railway company is hit by strikes and nothing is moving. Just our bad timing! Not being a Railway Town as such, many local furs are quite unsympathetic, and I heard some muttering about the strikers probably being inspired by Rain Island “Wobblies” even this far away. So getting bulk supplies in by land is a tricky business. Some furs have been bringing a hundred gallons or so in on the backs of lorries along the gravel roads, but local pilots as well as Government mail planes have been getting all that trickle that comes through. Carrying fuel any distance by air is an exercise in fine-tuning loads and profitability; beyond a certain point one burns half the cargo just to deliver it.

    Port Arthur at least has the luxury of hotels, being the biggest settlement in this part of the province. If we have to wait, at least we can do so in some comfort; the pessimistic view is we could be stuck here a week. Having secured the Storm Bird and bought the last ten gallons of avgas in the place on general principle, we headed into town. Actual brick and stone buildings rather than log cabins and tar-paper roofs; the first we have seen since Sealth City. Hopefully we will miss out on the kind of “adventures” that delayed us there. For one thing, shamans are decidedly not in charge around in the Dominion of Canada.

    (Later) Well, it seems we are not the only travellers stuck in town. We checked into the Maple Flag Hotel two streets away from the seaplane jetty, to spot three furs in instantly recognisable flying kit – a tall, slender thoroughbred mare and two mule gentlemen all wearing much the same outfits. Helen whispered that it a looked like a scene from one of the postcards furs buy in Spontoon that would not get through the postal system in Peoria unchallenged.

    Still, there is a definite camaraderie of flyers the world over – I introduced myself, and much to my surprise discovered another English aviatrix, the Right Honourable Honoria Jenks (of the Barsetshire Jenks). We had never met but her family is a familiar name in the county society papers; one hears of them presiding at prize-givings, country fetes and such, and there was a jolly exciting murder at their country seat that the whole class was enviously talking about when I was in the fourth-form at St. Winifred’s.
    Miss Jenks introduced the two mule gentlemen as her half-brothers Jack and Jake, which came as rather a surprise to everyone as she is certainly a thoroughbred mare and of excellent pedigree. The two things do not always go together; there are millions who have pedigree by blood but no documentation for it. Helen for example.

    It seems they have been on a round-the-world trip across the whole Empire, passing through India, Humapore, Hong Kong, the Gilbert and Sullivan Islands then an extended tour up the Californian coast before ending up here on the way home. They have been stuck here two days already and are exceedingly keen to get back on schedule. After all, one does not go to the expense of running an aircraft to cross continents at train speed.

    After we settled into our hotel rooms Miss Jenks and her brothers volunteered to show us around the town, which was jolly nice of them. Not that there was a great deal to see – this may be the first town with electric lighting we have seen since Sealth City, but it is no metropolis. Still, it has some quite decent restaurants and a fine evening was had by all. A glass of white wine is decidedly a luxury; one rather misses Nootnops Blue though.

    Miss Jenks proved to be very agreeable company, if rather more correct than I have been accustomed to recently. I can see that I will have to brush up my manners after the easy-going rough-and-tumble of Spontoon. I have been more accustomed to a hula skirt than a fashionable dress, and the only “Society” out there are exiles such as the Countess Rachorska who has her own reasons for staying away from the social whirl. She could never return to her rightful status in Vostok with her daughter Nuala – who is not only mixed species but a Pirate’s daughter. One wonders about the… family circumstances of Jack and Jake Jenks. It is rather unfair that mules are the only species mix specifically mentioned in the Bible, although it is rather sniffy about any mixes. As I recall from my Sunday School, there is a piece in Leviticus that even forbids mixed fibre clothing, let alone being a mixed fur.

 I told Miss Jenks something of Songmark, but in a rather edited version – I doubt she would believe some of the classmates I have had. Recalling furs such as Liberty Morgenstern turning up her nose at anything but the plainest food on the menu on dialectic grounds, one somewhat forgets what values the rest of the world runs on. Liberty’s sole exception was she would happily eat King Prawns, on anti-monarchist principles.

Wednesday, July 28th 1937

Dear Diary – I have handled floatplanes and flying boats a few times in the past year, but never fully appreciated the “boat” part of it. We (Helen and I) are currently out of sight of land making a steady sixteen knots South-West across the lake heading for the American border. Not a Schneider Trophy performance, but we hardly need speed – and we decidedly need fuel economy.

    Maria had the idea late last night – it was a common enough thing in the Great War for Italian seaplanes with engine trouble to taxi home across the Adriatic Sea, which is generally fairly calm. We do not have enough fuel to fly across, but with what we had in the tanks plus what Miss Jenks let us siphon out of her aircraft, just running the nose engine at flight cruise should get us there. The fuselage is full of all the empty fuel cans we could beg or borrow – hopefully enough for us and Miss Jenks’ floatplane to get across to the next refuelling stop. Maria and Miss Cabot are staying behind; we will need all the weight of fuel we can carry back, and there is always the risk of “G-men” recognising a “Wanted” poster of Molly Procyk. True, we are heading towards that problem in Boston, but that is an unavoidable risk and taking her to Duluth is not.

    (Later) One certainly appreciates at boat speeds what a boon air travel is, and just how big these lakes are! We have been going four hours and the far shore is just coming into sight. Helen Hoele’toemi is of course a passport-carrying Spontoonie Citizen now by marriage – but she has kept her old American passport, which should save explanations. I carry three passports myself, if one includes my Siamese form Kim-Anh Soosay. Helen is already regretting taking this trip though – the water is calm enough but it seems her usual seasickness also applies to lake waters. I pointed out that she is hoping to start “morning sickness” soon enough and some practice never hurts, but she did not seem to appreciate it somehow. I seem to be remarkably free of the problem myself.

    Another thing I did appreciate was being on a freshwater lake rather than a lagoon; naturally the nose propeller throws up a great deal of spray and trying such a trip in Spontoonie summer sunshine the cockpit glass would have been fairly crusted over with salt by now. The Storm Bird is very light with no cargo and minimal fuel, and even at this low speed rides very high in the water. It does not quite have a speedboat hull, but seems to “plane” well enough on the floats. Our aeronautical map is rather vague on things such as water depths and submerged rocks, but we asked at the dock on Port Arthur and were assured that if we turn ten degrees port after passing the big island then head straight over it should be deep water all the way (not that the Storm Bird draws more than two feet even fully laden.)

    Our only real worry was floating debris; there are trees around a lot of this lake shore and a collision with a major log would quite spoil our day. We bumped against some minor driftwood, and had to cut our speed considerably as we taxied under the swing bridge and into the seaplane slips at Duluth, with the reassuring sight of a refinery and big fuel tanks on the waterfront. An hour later we were making the fuel depot very happy as we proved a good customer for ninety-octane avgas. They have a pipeline into Canada but only for crude; pouring avgas into one end it would take a long time to get unmixed avgas out of the other, and I would rather risk sixty-octane motor bicycle petrol in the Storm Bird than any crude mix.

    Filling up all the Storm Bird’s own fuel tanks and the twenty five-gallon cans we had laid paws on put us in rather a dilemma – getting off the water again carrying that load. True, we might have retraced our wake as a pure boat but Helen was looking decidedly green round the gills already and we would be both slower and riding lower in the water. Not a good combination for her.

    Having now enough fuel to experiment, we decided to see just how (and if) the Storm Bird would fly like this. The wing is broad even if being a “high position” mounting it is not particularly close to the water; when lightly laden she skims considerably just before touching as if quite reluctant to get her floats wet again. For a change a biplane might have been better still for this trick, with a lower wing still nearer the lake or one of those broad “stummeln” stub wings Herr Dornier seems so keen on. Checking there was nothing ahead of us, taking the controls I pushed the throttles to the backstops – on the smooth lake it was a mile long take-off run but at last we felt the floats leave the water. Getting more than a yard or two of altitude proved to be another story.

    Actually, on smooth water that proved not to be much of a problem – with very delicate handling of the trim controls (flying little more than head height above the water at a hundred knots, it was no time to dip a wingtip in) we made the return crossing in twenty minutes and not four hours. Helen was much relieved, and not only because we were flying clear of any driftwood that may have escaped the lumberjacks of Thunder Bay.

    I recall that fascinating cut-down flying-boat the Spontoonies use as a rescue craft; that has lost its wings outboard of the engines but still skims along in ground effect clearing the shallows and sand bars of the central lagoon, much to the relief of stranded tourist yachtsmen who did not pay enough attention to the tides and charts. It would not do too well in North Atlantic storms with twenty foot waves, but Summertime in the Mediterranean might be another matter. Maria has mentioned how Italy invented hydrofoils, but skimming a metre above mud flats, minefields and torpedo nets might be a better trick yet for a naval craft. There is a lot of swamp and estuary in the world that is quite barred from navigation being too soft even for tracks and too shallow for boats; nothing a standard blue-water navy can easily handle. I have heard the Americans are setting up on some of the more effluent-polluted lakes what they are calling a grey-water Navy; some form of skimming craft might be of good service there.

    Certainly a happy homecoming; Miss Cabot was waiting on the pier with binoculars in paw, having spotted us five minutes out. She had been spending the day with Jack and Jake, and they were very pleased to see us and our fuel load. Half an hour’s work of shifting the cans and getting their contents into Miss Jenks’ Dragon Rapide floatplane followed, but by teatime we were both fully fuelled and ready to fly. Miss Jenks is a distinctly sturdy lady and hauls on a hand-pump with a great deal of energy and enthusiasm. Her brothers are if anything more athletic still; it was quite a sight to see them working hard, their black-tufted tails swinging. One hears such things of hybrid vigour. Certainly the one Spontoon Guide we know who is a mule, is never short of lady customers to show the delights of the islands.

    As it happens, we are all heading in the same direction. Miss Jenks has friends in Boston, and says she will be very pleased to introduce us and show us around before she heads back to England via Newfoundland, Iceland and the Faroes. This could be jolly handy. It is always worth helping folk out; “cast thy bread upon the water” as I recall the Reverend Bingham exhorting us in the first year at Spontoon. I also recall Molly somewhat sneering at the idea and claiming all you generally get is soggy bread which the wild ducks rapidly make off with. Perhaps being brought up amongst Chicago gangsters and the “Bon ton” of the Boston social elite is somewhat different.

    The old Molly would probably have agreed, and added the main difference is the bootleggers and gangsters are morally far superior as they may be crooks but not hypocrites. Recalling tales of various Yankee “Railway Barons” and “Logger Barons” I rarely tried to argue that case with her.


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