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-by John Urie-
A Spontoon Island Story
By John Urie
On Your Marks...
The ship steamed placidly beneath a pastel sky decorated with long white, brush-stroke clouds, moving across a rich, blue sea, as flat as a glass-topped pond. She was an older vessel; keel laid in Glasgow 1922, and launched the following year -- the tramp steamer, S.S. Opaline, 22,000 tons, bound for Seattle from Batavia with a cargo of cloves, pepper, and cinnamon; those venerable commodities that had first lured European mariners into the Pacific. She was in remarkably good condition for her age; no streaks of rust on her hull, no flakes of paint peeling from her bulkheads, and if you couldn’t exactly eat off her decks, you didn’t have to watch where you were stepping either.
That was because her skipper, a grey seal with a mottled face name Walter Hallick wouldn’t have it any other way. And now, lowering the sextant he had been holding, he went back into the wheelhouse to check it against the chronometer. A few quick calculations, a glance at the nautical chart, and the seal had his answer. Yes, they were in position.
“Are we on course, sir?” asked the helmsfur, a collie name Geoff Stanton.
“Aye, laddie.” said the seal is his soft, Scottish brogue, “Steady as she goes. I’ll be in my cabin if ye need me.”
When he left the wheelhouse, Walter Hallick did not go to his cabin, not directly anyway. Instead he headed for the radio shack, where he found the fur on duty, a wallaby named Wilf Martin locked in a battle of wits with a crossword puzzle. “Oh...hullo captain.” said the marsupial, laying his pencil aside and looking up as the seal entered.
“Hullo, laddie.” said Hallick, nodding at the radio, “Any word as o’ yet, about my son?”
“Uh, no captain.” said Wilf, looking slightly shamefaced. Just before they had set sail, Captain Hallick’s youngest son, Peter had taken ill with pneumonia. “No news is good news,” the wallaby offered halfheartedly.
“Aye, laddie.” said the seal, “But just the same...we should be in radio range of Spontoon Island just about now.” he nodded towards the door, “If ye dinna mind...in case there is some word ‘bout young Pete, I’d just as soon take it in private.”
“Oh, of course captain.” said the Wilf, vacating his chair at once. “I’ll just wait in the charthouse until you’re finished.” He could not know that Peter Hallick was actually in fine health and had scored the winning point in a water-polo match in Brisbane, just before the Opaline had sailed.
Captain Hallick waited until Wilf Martin was well out of earshot before finally taking the chair and and adjusting the dial on the radios...not to Spontoon Island’s ship-to-shore frequency, but to a bandwidth normally reserved for ANOTHER kind of vessel.
Twenty-two years earlier, Walter Hallick had been an able seafur, serving on board the battle-cruiser H.M.S Warrior as a signaler. During the terrible Battle of Jutland, when the Warrior was pummeled to within an inch of her life by a succession of German volleys, he had found himself and his mates trapped by fire in the aft signal room. They had all been praying hard, certain they were all about to meet their maker, when suddenly the back bulkhead had cracked apart with a sound like the world’s largest snare drum, leaving a gap just large enough for a single fur to squeeze through...but in this case that was more than large enough. The last one out was Walter, and when he got to the other side, he saw that the bulkhead had not spilt apart on it’s own. It had been kicked open by the H.M.S. Warrior’s second officer, a powerfully built English Hunter horse
That equine’s name had been Lt. Commander Ian MacArran, the 12th Duke of Strathdern...and he had broken his leg in three places and given himself a permanent limp in order to free the trapped signals crew, an act for which he was later awarded the George Cross. It was an act which Walter had never forgotten...and it was why he had agreed to send the signal he was now tapping out on the Opaline’s wireless telegraph key, no questions asked:
“Airship Republic to Spontoon Tower...Airship Republic calling Spontoon Tower...”
300 miles to the Southeast, Katie MacArran, the only surviving get of the 12th Duke of Strathdern was standing before an audience of reporters, having just wrapped up opening her statement to the press.
“And now, Ladies and Gentlefurs, I’ll be happy to take some of your questions.”
A wall of shouts and raised fingers greeted this statement. Katie gave it a few seconds and then scanned the gaggle of reporters, looking for a friendly face. While the pinto mare had no qualms about fielding questions from contentious members of the fourth estate, it was a cardinal rule of hers never to call on a hostile reporter FIRST.
In the fourth row, center, she spotted what she was looking for.
“Yes, go ahead.” she said pointing.
The reporter, a marmot in a slightly wilted suit, stood up.
“Hello, Your Grace. David Gabriel, New York Times. I wonder...it’s been almost three years since you last competed in an air-race. Do you feel that you still have the edge to hold your own out there?”
Katie smiled, “Well, David...while it’s true that I haven’t raced since 1935, I haven’t exactly been missing any flying hours either...and I’d hardly characterize what I’ve been up to in the interim as flying milk runs.”
There was a murmur of acknowledgment, and the marmot raised his pencil, “Follow-up question?”
“Go ahead.” Katie told him.
“In what way do you think your having flown in combat will either help or hinder your chances of winning the Schneider Cup?”
Katie frowned thoughtfully. It was not a bad question....just not an easy one.
“Well, one place that it’s helped me, a lot, is in sharpening my reaction time. In an air-race if you don’t react quickly enough, you lose the lead. React too slowly in combat and you might lose your LIFE.”
She paused again, then continued.
“Of course,” she added with a lopsided smile, “To a very large degree that also holds true for air-racing...but in an air-race at least, you don’t have someone TRYING to kill you. As far as how it may be an impedance, I really can’t say at this place and time.” She pointed to another reporter, a harvest mouse in tropical whites.
“Morning, Your Grace. Michael Mosley, London Evening Standard. Well, I guess that brings up the obvious question. Having flown in combat against the Germans, the Japanese and the Italians, how do you feel about competing against their pilots in the Schneider Cup.”
“I feel the same as if I were competing against any other pilots. Mr. Mosley.” Katie told him with a resolute expression, “I can’t allow myself to do anything less. If I let my feelings regarding Fascism, Nazism, and the Japanese Military come into play in this race...well, I might just as well pack it up right now. It’d be the absolute worst thing I could do.”
“You think it would ruin your chances of winning, then?” the rodent asked her, and Katie nodded immediately.
“Yes, unless the principal and foremost thing on my mind in that race is being the first one over that finish line, there’s no way I’m going BE first one over the finish line...and that’s not an original thought with me. Ask any of the other racers and they’ll tell you the same thing.”
Okay, she decided, when the rodent sat down again, now it was time to chance some rougher waters. She pointed at a beaver with a gaudy band of green and yellow encircling his straw slouch-hat, Joseph Williams, the reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
“Yes, Your Grace.” he said, offering a smile dipped in light oil, “Does your decision to compete in the Schneider Cup mean that you feel that you have finally put the Thompson Trophy controversy behind you?”
Katie forced her ears to remain forward. It was a question not unlike, ‘Have you stopped stealing from the poor-box yet?’
“Mr. Williams,” she told the beaver evenly, “There is no way I will ever put the Thompson Trophy incident completely behind me....but I can deal with it, I can move on with my life and try to figure out what I learned from that experience. And I like to think that what I learned will be of great value to me in the Schneider.”
She immediately pointed to another reporter. She might have to take questions from this paddle-tailed vulture, but she didn’t have to take his follow-ups. And to make it up to herself for having taken the beaver’s question in the first place, she next called on Lady Hay-Drummond-Hay.
“Hullo, Your Grace.” said the white-furred cat, smiling, “It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?”
“Too long,” said Katie, smiling back at her, “What’s your question?”
“Well. it’s being said that you launched your plane on her flight to Spontoon from aboard the airship Republic. Can you confirm this? And if so, what was your purpose in choosing to arrive here in such a manner?”
Katie smiled again.
“First of all, Your Ladyship...yes, it’s true, I did arrive here by way of an airborne launch from aboard the Republic. As to why I did so...well, first of all, I wanted to make an impression upon my arrival...and judging by the number of reporters here, I would hazard a guess that this effort was at least partially successful.”
There was a short round of laughter, and then Katie grew serious.
“The other reason is a bit more pragmatic. Before the qualifying runs begin, we needed to see how the Little Engine will handle a sustained, high-speed flight under tropical conditions. And I’m happy to report so far, so good.”
“Ah, yes.” said her ladyship, jotting this down, “And how long was this sustained flight?”
Katie sighed inwardly. Of all the reporters to ask her the ONE question she could not answer truthfully...
“Four hundred nautical miles,” she said, instantly wanting to make her tongue go stand in the corner. It occurred to her then that the Opaline should be sending her message right about now.
To punish herself even further, she next called on B.T. Derrick, the Chicago Tribune reporter.
“Yes, Your Grace.” he said, rising to his feet with the expression of a boxer at the opening bell, “I was just wondering if there’s any truth to the rumor that your airplane is really nothing more that a modified version of the Hughes H-1 Racer?”
Now, Katie’s ears DID go back. There was, of course, no such rumor...but there would be now, thanks to this little blabbermouth. And she was more than a little sure that it had first been put in the rodent’s ear not by his editor, but by a certain, wealthy, Texas coyote and aviator who had no qualms about paying off reporters...and whose entreaties Katie had once spurned.
“All right, Howard...you ASKED for it.” she thought, and favored the water-shrew with a smile that was much too sweet for it’s own good.
“I think I can categorically state that there is no more truth to that rumor than there is to the one that the H-1 is only a slightly modified version of The Pony Express...and by the way, now that my pilot’s license had been restored, I would like to reiterate my challenge to Mr. Hughes: I will race The Pony Express head-to-head against the Hughes H-1 Racer at any time and place he chooses.” Of course that first part of her statement was also a brand new rumor. As for the second, it was a barb that never seemed to lose it’s sting, no matter how many times Katie planted it. Over to the side, she could see Drake Hackett, struggling to keep from laughing.
The next question she took was from Takeo Shinmyo...who seemed startled that Katie would call on him. When the Japanese Macaque rose to his feet, she noted an equally surprised look on the face of Lady Hay-Drummond-Hay, who apparently hadn’t been aware of his presence until just that moment. And she was not the only one. Almost everyone in the warehouse appeared thoroughly nonplused that Katie would take questions from a Japanese reporter after what she had experienced in China.
What none of them could know was that this particular Japanese was the one whose frank revelations about his country’s economy had given Katie ample warning of the impending Crash of the New York Stock Exchange...and allowed her to move her assets into safe harbor just in the nick of time. Whatever Takeo’s nationality, she’d owed him one.
“Thank you for taking my question, Duchess MacArran,” said the monkey, offering her a small bow, “I would like to know if you could tell us please, the advantages and disadvantages of being a horse, as regards racing in the Schneider Cup.”
“Well, I could go on about that all day and into the evening, Takeo-san.” she answered, wearily. Clearly, the macaque had not done his homework...or perhaps that was being too unkind. He might simply been given this assignment at the last minute; it happened in the news business. Whatever the reason, he had just posed a question that Katie had already fielded dozens of times, in 1934 and ‘35.
“But let’s look at just two areas, shall we? ” she said, slowly wagging a finger below her eyes, “First of all, there’s my eyesight. The horizontal pupil of a horse’s eyes gives us exceptional peripheral vision...but on the other hoof, we tend to startle at the sudden appearance of an object at the edge of our visual field. It takes a LOT of self discipline to overcome that, I can tell you. Then there’s the fact that horses are a herd species...which gives us the ability to navigate through large groups of other furs at high speed. The downside is that as a rule, the dominant horse in a herd is not the lead horse, unlike say, a wolfpack, where the alpha wolf always takes the point.”
“Speaking of wolves,” said Hal Lefsen, the next reporter she called on; a least weasel from Radio NBC, “Is there anything you can tell us about Ilsa Klentch’s German Mystery Plane?” (The German race-pilot was herself a lupine.) Katie immediately shook her head, “Sorry, I don’t know anything more about that aircraft than you do.”
“Then can you tell us something about YOUR plane?” he followed, “You call her The Little Engine, and she certainly is a smaller aircraft than most of the other Schneider-Cup planes I’ve seen. I wonder what your reasons were for designing such a fairly diminutive Schneider-Cup racer.”
“Well, Hal.” she said, “You know I’ve never held to the notion that the best way to build a race plane is to cram the biggest engine you can find into the most aerodynamic airframe that can hold it. And don’t take my word for it. Look at the Folkerts’ Jupiter, the plane that won the 1937 Thompson Trophy. Even without her seaplane floats, the Little Engine is almost twice her size...but the Jupiter still took the checkered pylon in Cleveland last year.”
“No,” she added, poker faced, “bigger is not necessarily better...at least as far as race-planes are concerned “
This Mae West double entendre got what was coming to it...a chorus of ragged guffaws, sprinkled with groans.
The next reporter she called on was Walter Winchell.
“Yes, Duchess MacArran.” said the ferret, speaking in that signature style of his, clipped, staccato, and with emphasis on each word’s first or second syllable, “I wonder...have your previous experience with the Schneider Cup influenced your design for The Little Engine?”
“Indeed they have, Walter.” she said, “Indeed they have. Take the Supermarine S.6, the plane that won the ‘29 Schneider; she was the first Schneider-Cup racer to be powered by a Rolls-Royce engine...and she did not get her power from an overabundance of cylinders or dangerously high compression ratio; she ran a supercharged,12 cylinder engine, tuned to provide optimum power. That was when I first realized that the largest engine in the race isn’t an automatic key to victory. And that’s why the Little Engine is also propelled by a supercharged, 12-cylinder Rolls.” Which Rolls-Royce power plant and what she had done to improve it’s performance, Katie didn’t say, and Winchell would not ask. During speed-week, it was an unspoken rule amongst members of the press that you never asked a Schneider Cup competitor to reveal a trade secret.
“Yes, but 12 is the least number of cylinders of any plane competing in the Schneider.” noted the ferret, “so would you call this a case of David versus Goliath?”
“Can’t say Walter,” said Katie with another asymmetrical smile, “For all I know the German Mystery Plane could be smaller than the Chester Jeep.” (The Jeep was another race-plane of the Folkerts Jupiter variety -- only even more tiny.) “And as I understand it, the Japanese Navy’s entry is also a pretty small aircraft.”
The next reporter she called on was something of crapshoot.
“Ja, Fraulein Herzogin.” said the German Shorthaired Pointer, “Richard Sorge, Frankfurter Zeitung.” He looked around the room with a wry expression, “And to my fellow members of the press...nein, I don’t know anything about Der Deustch Mystery Plane either.”
There was a ripple of laughter, and then the canine focused his attention upon Katie once again.
“But on that subject, Fraulein Herzogin, your own race-plane, Das Little Engine has been something of a mystery aircraft himself. The first time anyone got a glimpse of him up close was when he landed in der main lagoon just now. I was wondering why this would be zo.”
Katie frowned slightly. This was one question neither she, nor Drake Hackett had anticipated...and it was a good question, one that had been posed with the best lead-in she’d heard so far this morning
“Well, speaking strictly for myself, Herr Sorge, it’s not that I’m afraid anyone will purloin the design of my racer; it’s simply that I don’t work well, as an aircraft designer I mean, with the public looking over my shoulder. If you remember, I also kept the Pony Express under wraps, until she was ready for her first test flight....and again in ‘35 after making some improvements and installing her new engine.” She smirked slightly and added, “And let’s be honest, would there be this many members of the press here if you HAD seen my plane before today?”
“Touche, Fraulein Herzogin.” The dog chuckled. “But what about his color? Why gold?”
This was one question that didn’t surprise Katie, especially not from a member of the German press. The official hue of all German race-planes was silver; a coup the Luftwaffe had borrowed from the famous ‘silver arrow’ race cars of Daimler-Benz and Auto-Union.
And according to conventional wisdom, gold always trumps silver.
“There’s two reasons, Herr Sorge,” she said, pulling lightly at one of the buttons of her tunic, “The first is that it’s pretty much an established fact that I made, or at least revived my family’s fortune in gold. The second is...well, we just pretty much just stumbled onto that color while testing a new anodizing process...and no, it’s not REAL gold.”
There was actually another, more expedient reason that Katie’s plane was gold in color; one that she wasn’t about to reveal to ANY reporter.
When the ripples of quick laughter faded, Katie next called on Edith Guttmann, the cougar-femme from the New York Post.
“On a related subject, Your Grace, that’s quite the stunning race-tunic you’re wearing. Did you design it yourself? And is that real silk?”
“To answer your second question first,” said Katie, stroking the flight-suit’s left sleeve with her right hoof. “Yes this is real silk. And while I did come up with the basic design myself, I must confess it was a far cry from the final version you see here now.” She was not particularly happy with this question...not the query itself, but with WHO was posing it. The Post had a well deserved reputation as a hard-hitting news-journal (as did her own paper, The Observer,) Edith’s editors were not going to be happy with her for asking such a ‘soft’ question. George Stafford would hit the ceiling if one of his reporters went this easy on...what was that Soviet pilot’s name, again?
“I was wondering,” said the cougar-femme, “because it also has a little bit more of a military look to it than the flight-suit you wore for the 1935 air-race season. If, after the Schneider Cup races are over, you are given another opportunity to fly in combat, will you take it?”
Katie’s head jerked back slightly. What she WOULD take was this: She’d immediately take back her thoughts from a second ago, that Edith was going too easy on her. Instead the feline had been setting her up for a tough question. And never mind that the Post’s politics and Katie’s politics ran on almost a parallel course, either. Edith Guttman wanted to get the STORY.
The pinto wasn’t angered by the cougar-femme’s sudden shift of inquiry, just wondering what it would take to lure Edith across the pond to The Observer or The Mirror...or barring that to News Week magazine, her only American publication. THIS was what she called a good reporter.
“It’s not a question of opportunity, Edith.” she said, “It’s a question of need. Don’t forget, when I first went to China to assist Colonel Chennault, I went strictly as an instructor, nothing more. I never expected to fly in combat against the Japanese.” She paused, glancing furtively at Takeo Shinmyo, but if the Japanese macaque was feeling any sting in her words, he gave no indication.
“And I wouldn’t have,” she went on, regarding the audience as a whole once again, “if Colonel Chennault hadn’t so desperately needed every pilot he could get when the Japanese Army launched it’s all-out assault on Nanking. Unless another, similar situation arises...which I honestly don’t think is likely to happen in the foreseeable future, I’ve flown my last combat sortie.”
This was another answer that touched off a furious scribbling of pencils. It wasn’t the first time Katie had been asked this question since returning from China, but it WAS the first time she had answered it so unequivocally.
And it was how she felt, too...having finally had time to fully consider the matter. Unless she found herself once more in a place with enemy at the gates, and nobody else to climb into the cockpit, Katie MacArran had finally hung up her warrior’s spurs.
Not that she’d given up on the cause of resisting Fascism...and the proof of that was sitting in a hangar not 200 yards away from where she was standing.
She pointed to another reporter, a nattily dressed chamois.
“Ja, Your Grace. Herbert Gruber, Radio Lausanne, Switzerland. I was wondering if you could tell us your impressions of some of the other race planes, besides the German Mystery aircraft.”
“I really can’t give you any, Herr Gruber.” Katie answered, with real regret, “Because I haven’t actually seen any of them yet, except in photographs. Once I get a look at the other race planes in flight, then I’ll be better equipped to answer your question, but for the moment I’m simply not able to.”
“Well, coming back to your own race-plane, then.” said the chamois, “I am curious about something. The words I hear from around the hangars are saying that many of the race crews believe the British entry, the Heston-6, is being put forward prematurely. Yet, I cannot help but notice something: This plane has been in development for more than a year, but the Little Engine was conceived of only this February past. Is she not also something of a premature entry?”
“Not at all, Herbert,” Katie answered, more happy to field the question, “In the construction of The Little Engine, we made it a deliberate point to avoid the use of any sort of radical new technology. As Sir Henry Royce of Rolls Royce once remarked to me ‘Invent nothing, inventors always go broke’. On the other hoof, I happened to get a look at the Heston-6's engine just now. It’s a spanking new Napier Sabre, barely out of the testing phase and it still has many teething problems...and may I say, if Napier seriously want to build a winning engine, they could take a few lessons from the Rolls Royce.” This was no great secret she was revealing; in fact, it was probably an understatement. In aviation circles, it was well known that in comparison with Rolls, Napier’s standards of quality control had become little short of inexcusable in recent years.
“Ah, ja. Thank you, Your Grace.” said Gruber, taking his seat again.
The next reporter was Polynesian mongoose in a brightly colored island shirt.
“Yes, Your Grace... Michael Mah’aa-ti, Spontoon Mirror...”
“No relation to my paper,” Katie quipped for the other reporters in the room...including one in particular, whose employer was not going to appreciate the remark.
“Your Grace,” he said, “Getting off the subject of your race plane for a moment, I understand that the Republic will be arriving her later this afternoon. Can you speak to the rumors that when she departs Spontoon Island after race-week is over, it will be her final voyage.”
Katie took in a short breath. This was one rumor that was actually true...or had been up until Drake had confirmed the sale of the movie rights to Gold From Hell. If she knew Anton Steinberg, he was almost certainly going to want the Republic to play herself in his film. And she’d be more than happy to oblige him.
Unfortunately, this was something she could not even THINK about discussing with the press before Steinberg actually made his request. If she did, he’d be furious with her and rightly so.
“I can’t call this her final voyage, Michael.” she said, “But I will confirm that yes, the Republic is getting close to her day of retirement. With the improvement in capacity we’ve seen in cargo planes over the past few years, there are fewer and fewer air-freight items that can only be transported by airship. That’s the big reason International Air Cargo’s other dirigible, the Inverness, was retired last year. Also, don’t forget there’s only one of the Republic’s contemporaries still capable of taking to the air...and the Graf hasn’t flown for almost a year, and most likely never will again. The rest of the Republic’s counterparts, the Akron, the Macon...the Hindenburg -- they’re all gone.”
“Do you think it will be difficult for you to let go of her when the time comes?” the mongoose asked her next. Katie forced her voice not to crack as she replied.
“Very difficult, Michael...very difficult. First, I helped to build her, and then I risked everything to save her. And from the very first time she flew under my ownership, the Republic never let me down.”