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-by John Urie-
A Spontoon Island Story
By John Urie
On Your Marks...
It all depends on how you present things.
When Jack Finlayson returned to Washington, he wisely chose first to inform the President that the British had been aware of Harry Hopkins’s mission before he’d even arrived. Next, he glowingly praised Air Chief Marshall Ballory for helping to arrange his attendance at the Berlin air-meet, and for allowing him access to the Spitfire. Only after these two facts were revealed, did he admit how much he had told Reginald Mitchell about his own mission...and even then, it was almost as a throwaway comment. As anyone could have predicted, FDR was furious at the raccoon for his indiscretion....but finally gave it a grudging acceptance in light of the dividend it had paid.
Even so, President Roosevelt tersely informed the Major, “You are reveal this information to no one outside of this office, Major. Is that clear? If word gets out that we even considered bringing in the British on this, our new American pursuit plane will be DBA...dead BEFORE arrival.”
The fisher knew what he was talking about, Finlayson had to admit. Three years later, with the Battle of Britain raging, America would be firmly in the UK’s corner. But this was not 1940, it was 1937...a time when most Americans’ attitudes towards the British was only slightly more affable than during George the Third’s reign, especially among the isolationists. Whenever they raised the specter of America at war, it was inevitably the British whom they made their bogey-cat: Just as he had in 1917, that perfidious humbug, John Bull was planning to drag Uncle Sam into a European war, and for no other reason, except to insure that Britain would remain in the dominant power on the continent. (Never mind the fact that Whitehall had all but sat on it’s paws when Hitler re-occupied the Rhineland.)
It didn’t help the situation that the British had never paid off their World War I debts to the U.S. -- a point so sore with many Americans that, incredibly, FDR would be urged to bring it up with the King George VI when he made his famous state visit two years later. Like it or not, FDR was right to draw the line. Under no circumstances could Britain’s involvement in the Diva Project become known to more than a trusted pawful, and this point was not negotiable.
After giving his reluctant assent, Major Finlayson delivered his report.
The raccoon’s recommendations for the new American Pursuit Plane were largely a distillation of what he had learned in the course of his consultations -- along with one or two opinions of his own. For example:
8. Due to the rapid evolution of anti-aircraft weaponry over the past decade, it may be expected that air-to-air combat will soon be taking place at much greater altitudes than at the present time. (See appendix 5, sec. C, “German Zeppelin raids against Britain, 1915-1917")
It is therefore the recommendation of this committee that the new American pursuit aircraft be capable of full performance at an altitude of not less than of 20,000 feet.
The main thrust of the raccoon’s argument, repeated again and again was that the new American pursuit plane should be built with performance rather than specifications in mind.
“That’s been our single biggest mistake, Mr. President,” he said, “We build our pursuit planes with this or that type of engine or cowling in mind...when instead we should be designing them for maximum speed and maneuverability, never mind how we get there. That’s the approach both Reginald Mitchell and Professor Messerschmitt took when building their planes, and you can see the results for yourself.”
For a few seconds, FDR looked puzzled...then that famous grin suffused his face and he rapped lightly on the table with his paw.
“I think I understand, Major. You’re saying that we should tell whichever aircraft builder to whom we give this project what it is that we want our new plane to do...but not tell them HOW to get there.”
“Exactly.” said Finlayson, pleased that Roosevelt had gotten it. “Except in the most basic sense of course.”
“The basic sense?” a third voice interjected, “What do you mean by that?” It was Harry Hopkins.
“By that I mean, no radical designs.” the raccoon told him, “The new aircraft should be of standard pursuit plane configuration; a single place, single engine monoplane...with the engine in front of the cockpit, same as the Spitfire and then ME-109. But other than the matter of the machine guns being mounted in the wings, we keep our paws out of it. We tell them what the relative strengths and weakness of the Spit and 109 are, but let them figure out how to work with it themselves.”
“Ahh,” said the antelope, “Yes, I agree Major.” He took a sip of water, then glanced at his copy of the report again, “But what’s this about building the prototype as a race-plane?”
“If you’ll look at page seven, Mr. Hopkins,” said Finalyson answered, opening his own copy to that particular page, “you’ll see where Reginald Mitchell insists that without the experience gained from building the S6 Schneider-Cup racer, the Spitfire would still be on the drawing board.”
“Hrm, yes,” said the President, also leafing through pages. When he looked up again, his eyes had narrowed and the jaunty smile have morphed into a sardonic one. “Any thoughts as to who should pilot this race-plane prototype, Major?”
Glancing over to the right, the raccoon noted a similar expression on Harry Hopkins’ face, and smiled himself before replying...but wearily. Of course he knew what they were REALLY suggesting; they’d be fools not to. Jack Finlayson was who he was, after all.
“Well, I can tell you who I DON’T think should be the pilot,” he quickly told them, “me.” He then looked from Harry Hopkins to President Roosevelt, with a firm, square-set jaw, “When I said I was finished with the air-race game, I meant it. Mr Hopkins...Mr. President? I want to be very clear on that score.”
“Take it easy, Major.” said Harry Hopkins, raising his hooves. “If the Boss hadn’t asked you that question, I would have. Otherwise, it would have been the proverbial elephant in the living room.”
“I know that, Mr. Hopkins....I know that.” Finlayson answered, sighing, “It’s just that...if I had a nickel for every time someone’s asked me WHEN I’m going to race again, I could almost afford to build that prototype myself.”
FDR and Harry Hopkins regarded each other and chuckled.
“Yes, and speaking of that, Major,” said FDR, “In which race do you propose to enter this prototype? Myself, I would think the National Air Races would be the best choice. The Bendix...and then the Thompson.”
Jack Finlayson folded his paws under the table, and forced himself not to crack his knuckles.
“With all due respect Mr. President, that wouldn’t be possible. There’s been a change of rules enacted that forbids a single aircraft to be entered in both races. And in any event, I’ve already ruled out the Thompson. Since the day it began, there’s been exactly one Thompson Trophy winner that’s evolved into a commercial design...and that plane was only TECHNICALLY the winner.”
“And the Bendix?” asked Roosevelt, laying his paws atop the table.
“A better choice, to be sure.” said the Major, “But still not ideal. A point-to-point race like the Bendix simply doesn’t test the maneuverability of a plane the way a closed circuit course does.”
“So, you’re thinking of the Schneider, then?” asked Harry Hopkins, unsurprised. It was here that Jack Finlayson decided, if the President of the United States could speak the obvious, so could he.
“Well, that IS the race that gave birth to the Spitfire.” he answered, poker-faced.
“Ah yes,” said the President, playing the devil’s advocate, “More than six years after the fact, as I recall.”
“But only ONE year after Hitler announced his intention to re-arm.” the raccoon immediatelycountered, “Reginald Mitchell told me that he could have built the Spitfire a lot earlier if he’d wanted...but Supermarine’s directors wouldn’t give him the green light until Goering started to rebuild Germany’s air arm.”
Both the fisher and his advisor nodded sagely at this.
“Actually,” Finlayson went on, “the ideal race in which to enter our new prototype would be the Switzerland Circuit of the Alps....but if and when that contest will be held again is anybody’s guess right now...so it’s the Schneider Cup. Besides everything else, it’s the only major air race that’s an international event.”
The discussion continued for the rest of the afternoon...but it was at this point Jack Finlayson knew he had sold it. When he left the Oval Office, it was with a new assignment in his jacket. Together with Harry Hopkins, he was to find a builder for the new American pursuit plane.
The raccoon was at first a bit leery about being paired with a non-aviator for this assignment, but after thinking it over, he came to realize that the partnership made good sense. Fresh from his tour of America’s aircraft plants, Harry Hopkins was acutely aware of which US aircraft builders had the most efficient production capacities, and which ones didn’t. Furthermore, while Jack Finlayson was no slouch when it came to business acumen, it was by no means at all his forte. Not so, Harry Hopkins...and this enterprise was going to require someone with good business sense if they were going to make it work. It wasn’t going to be enough to FIND a suitable builder for the new prototype. They would also have to sell the idea.
And that was the rub, as Hopkins pointedly reminded the Major at their first meeting after receiving the commission.
“The first problem as I see it,” the antelope told him pouring a dollop of cream into his coffee, “Is that most of our potential candidates already have pursuit planes in the works; either in the construction phase, or on the drawing board. And that’s going to create a helluva stumbling block for us. We can hardly waltz into the offices of say, Curtiss aircraft and tell them, ‘Sorry, the P-40 isn’t good enough, build this instead.’”
At this, Jack Finlayson only grunted. Of course, they wouldn’t put it quite like that, but it was how the furs at Curtiss would HEAR it, no matter how they presented their case. If there was one thing he understood about aircraft designers, it was that most had egos the size of Zeppelins, and skins like tissue paper.
“Okay,” he said, taking a pencil and jotting notes on a yellow legal pad, “so that pretty much eliminates Curtiss, Bell Aircraft, Grumman, Brewster, Lockheed, Vought and Seversky...at least for the moment.” He looked up, adding. “Mind, we can already write off Brewster. As for Lockheed and Seversky, I wouldn’t interfere with what they’re working on anyway.”
“You could almost say the same for Vought.” Hopkins told him. “That new pursuit plane they’re working on looks like an excellent design.”
“Except for...?” said Finlayson, looking up. He had caught the inflection on ‘almost’.
“Except they’re envisioning it around an engine that doesn’t even EXIST yet.”
The Major laughed and returned to his note pad.
“Okay, so who does that leave us?”
“Let’s see,” said Hopkins, closing his eyes and tapping his forehead, “That leaves Boeing, Martin, Consolidated, Northrop, Vultee, North American, and Douglas.”
“Isn’t Vultee already working on...?” Finlayson started to say.
“Yes, but it’s being designed strictly as an export aircraft.” said Hopkins, and the raccoon frowned. ‘Export aircraft.’, There was something familiar about those words, but he couldn’t quite get a grip on it.
The first and obvious builder to approach was Boeing. Though it had been many years since the Seattle aircraft company had built a pursuit plane, the firm was still highly regarded as one of the pioneers in the field. For example, the Boeing P-26 “Peashooter” had been the first pursuit plane to be fitted with all-metal low-cantilever wings.
However when Jack Finlayson and Harry Hopkins broached their proposal to Boeing’s board of directors, the reaction was lukewarm, at best. Thoroughly engrossed in building the B-17 Flying Fortress, Boeing had little interest in designing a new pursuit plane, and zero interest in building a Schneider-Cup racer. That was the official reason given, but Jack Finlayson suspected it had more to do with the fact that Boeing didn’t believe the project would ever come off. They would build their Schneider Cup plane only to have the contract canceled, before it was even halfway completed.
In this regard, the Major had to admit, their fears were at least partially justified. If he had a nickel for every airplane concept that had been shelved right when it was about to bear fruit...well, he’d been down that road already..
The need for discretion, as mandated by President Roosevelt, wasn’t helping the situation either. It had forced Jack Finlayson and Harry Hopkins to make their proposal in such a roundabout manner, that they couldn’t help but arouse a few suspicions.
Even where misgivings weren’t provoked, the builders they approached inevitably voiced other concerns. John K. Northrop said that such an aircraft such as the two were envisioning might be technically feasible in two or three years, “but not at the present time.” Donald Douglas flat out refused to have anything to do with building a race plane, North American’s owner was somewhere in China, and Glenn L. Martin was of the same view as the Army brass, namely that building pursuit planes was a waste of time in the face of the new generation of bombers.
“No surprise there,” Jack Finlayson postulated, on the train back to Washington from Baltimore, “Martin aircraft wouldn’t EXIST if it hadn’t been for that philosophy.” The Martin B-10 ‘Flying Pillbox’ had been the first of the so-called ‘fast’ bombers.
The rest of their journey proved similarly frustrating. About the only aircraft builder willing to serious consider the project was Gerard, ‘Jerry’ Vultee....and then only if Uncle Sam was willing to underwrite the entire cost of the new prototype – up front!
Jack Finlayson and Harry Hopkins somehow managed straight faces as they promised to look into it.
And so, the weeks dragged on, with no resolution to the problem. No one wanted to take on the new race-plane prototype...at least not as a private venture, and there was no other way it could be done. No matter how enthusiastic President Roosevelt might be for the project, it was still the Legislative branch that held the purse strings. Were the President to ask Congress for money to build a race plane, especially as a pursuit plane prototype... Jack Finlayson could just imagine the headlines in the isolationist press. The Chicago Tribune and the Hearst newspapers would have field day.
Just the same, FDR began quietly discussing with Harry Hopkins how best to quietly sound out some funding for the project.
More weeks passed. Thanksgiving Day came and went. Then, three days later, shortly after midnight, the phone in Jack Finlayson’s modest Georgetown flat began to jangle. It took the raccoon a good while to answer it...not because he’d been asleep, but because both he and his wife had been otherwise ‘occupied’.
“Sorry to disturb you at such a late hour,” said Harry Hopkins, “But believe it or not the Boss may have come up with a solution to our problem. Can you come over to the White House right away?”
When he arrived, Jack Finlayson was literally whisked directly into the Oval Office, where he found Hopkins and the President in the midst of an animated discussion.
“Ah, there you are, Major.” said FDR, clenching his famous cigarette holder in his famous jaunty grin. He gestured to a chair in front of his desk. “Come and sit down. I have something I want to show you.”
The raccoon took his seat, and President Roosevelt slid a folded newspaper across the desktop
There, circled in blue pencil, was a small article from the Los Angeles Times; “H-1 Racer Will Return To California.”
“Well, what do you think, Major?” said Roosevelt, his grin becoming even brighter, “You suggested we design our new pursuit plane first as a race plane prototype? Well there it is...already built.”
“As a matter of fact,” chimed in a beaming Harry Hopkins, before Finalyson could respond, “Howard Hughes has already tried to promote the H-1 as a race-plane prototype, but the War Department turned him down.” here, the antelope allowed himself a dramatic pause, “Because the H-1 hadn’t been built to Army Air Corps SPECIFICATIONS.”
Jack Finlayson frowned slightly as he picked up the article and began to read. Yes, why the Hell hadn’t anyone thought of this before? The Hughes H-1 Racer was practically everything they were looking for. It was fast, unbelievably fast; it had twice broken the landplane speed record, in 1935 and again in 1936, and twice set new transcontinental speed records, in June of ‘36 and again just the previous January. (That last feat had earned Howard Hughes the coveted Harmon aviation Trophy.)
But the most attractive thing about the Hughes H-1 was that it had achieved all that without the aid of a huge engine. It was propelled by a Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp Jr. – a power plant with no more displacement than that of the standard Wasp, but with a much lower profile. No, the source of the H-1's brilliant performance was it’s flawlessly smooth surface, it’s close fitting bell-shaped engine cowling to reduce airframe drag and improve engine cooling, it’s gently curving wing fillets between the wing and the fuselage ( to help stabilize the airflow, reduce drag, and prevent potentially dangerous eddying and tail buffeting, ) and in it’s hydraulically retractable landing gear.
In short, the H-1 was potentially the American equivalent of the Supermarine S6.
Or...was it? Jack Finlayson’s frown deepened as he tried to recall more of what he knew about the Hughes H-1...and it’s creator.
Designed by Richard Palmer, together with Hughes himself, and built by a team headed by Glenn Odekirk, the plane had originally been intended to compete in the Bendix and Thompson Trophy races. Instead, at practically the last minute, Hughes had withdrawn the H-1 from both competitions with no explanation given. (Some said that he had pulled out in order to avoid facing Katie MacArran’s nearly unstoppable Mc-1a Pony Express.) Whether or not the rumor was true, the fact remained that the H-1 had never flown in either open competition or over a closed course.
Another undeniable fact was that the H-1 had set it’s first landplane speed record exactly three days after Katie MacArran’s pilot’s license had been revoked...thus eliminating the possibility that the Pony Express would trump the achievement.
Or so Howard Hughes might have believed. As soon as the pinto mare had returned to Britain, (where she was still allowed to fly), she and the Pony Express had promptly done just that, streaking a to a new landplane speed record of 360.22 mph, and handily beating the H-1's top mark of 352.38 mph. The following year, Howard Hughes had reclaimed the record, but even so...
As for Hughes himself, the good news was that they would have no trouble talking the coyote into taking on the pursuit plane project as a private venture. In fact, he would most likely insist upon it. The bad news was that even in the domain of aircraft design, a field noted for it’s profusion of cranks and eccentrics, Howard Hughes remained extraordinary. He would start a project, abandon it practically on a whim, then come back to it at his leisure. Look at what had happened with his movie epic, Hell’s Angels. No sooner had the coyote completed his principal photography than he had tossed every inch of footage in the trash and started the project all over again, this time as a talkie -- and never mind the expense. He was also had known to have an almost paranoid aversion to dirt, a particularly astounding compulsion for a flier; aviation was a grimy business at best.
Still...it was at least worth sounding Hughes out, and Jack Finlayson said as much when he finished reading the article.
As it turned out, setting up the meeting was almost too easy. A telegram was dispatched to Howard Hughes c/o Hughes aircraft in Culver City California, explaining that the USAAC was greatly interested in discussing ‘the future possibilities of the H-1.’ Literally within the hour, a phone call was received from Noah Dietrich, Hughes’ fursonal assistant, saying that H-1 would be stopping in Cleveland on it’s way back west, and it so happened Mr. Hughes was planning to meet the plane there. If Major Finlayson and Mr. Hopkins could see their way clear to being at Cleveland Airport the following Saturday at say, around 10 AM, Mr. Hughes would be only too happy to meet with them.
Both Harry Hopkins and FDR were elated at this piece of news. Jack Finlayson was uneasy. Hughes was letting someone ELSE fly the H-1 back to California for him? And if he was going to do that, why was he meeting the plane almost 2/3 of the way across the country from it’s destination?
Something about that wasn’t kosher.
Five days later, found Jack Finlayson and Harry Hopkins sitting in the badly underheated main terminal of the Cleveland Airport, sipping hot coffee while awaiting the appearance of the H-1 racer and wondering where the heck it’s creator was.
And wishing that Hughes had picked another location, almost ANY other location for the rendezvous. Almost immediately upon his arrival, Jack Finlayson had found himself being pestered for autographs by one adoring fan after another. ( It was nearly impossible for the raccoon to remain unrecognized in the home of the Thompson Trophy race...especially with that blown up picture of himself on the wall, waving from the cockpit of the Gee-Bee R-1. )
“You know,” he said to Harry Hopkins, jacking a thumb at the photo, “In a way, it’s too bad the R-1 isn’t around any more. It’s an almost textbook example of how NOT to build a pursuit-plane.”
Harry Hopkins just kind of grunted a little. This meeting had already becoming much too public for his tastes, and Howard Hughes hadn’t even arrived yet. And speaking of the coyote...
“Where the Hell IS he?” the antelope demanded, looking at his watch for must have been the twentieth time.
“It’s early December, Mr. Hopkins.” said Finalyson, speaking with confidence he did not feel, “Not the best time of the year for flying, take it from one who knows. Frankly I’ll be surprised if Hughes DOESN’T show up at least an hour or two late.”
The antelope snorted and looked out the window. Yes, it was cold out there, but the sky was clear and the windsock out at the edge of the runway was hanging limply on it’s pole. Finlayson was just about to respond to this, when a young rat in a wool mackinaw approached the pair.
“Excuse me...gentlemen? The tower just spotted the H-1 on approach.”
“See?” said Finlayson rising to his feet with a smile.
“Fine, where’s Hughes?” said Harry Hopkins, only a little placated. The Major pretended not to hear, instead addressing the rat again.
“Has the pilot radioed for landing instructions?” he asked. It would help to know the H-1's approach vector.
“Not yet,” said the rodent, and now Finlayson frowned as well.
When they got outside, the raccoon could almost sympathize with Howard Hughes’ absence. It wasn’t just cold, it was COLD; a bitter, angry cold that penetrate his leather coat like the breath of a ghost. He hadn’t experienced anything like it since his childhood, up in Alaska.
Fighting it off, he raised his binoculars, looking east/northeast. Yes, there it was...a tiny, silver speck, growing rapidly as it approached.
“Hmmm, he’s really pouring it on.” Finlayson muttered, not at all comfortable with what he was seeing; the H-1 was coming on so fast, it might have just rounded the final pylon in the Thompson.
As the Hughes racer closed, it’s features became more and more distinct, and they could hear the whine of it’s engine becoming a throaty growl. Only...why wasn’t the pilot slowing down? And...
“Why hasn’t he put down his landing gear?” asked Harry Hopkins, turning to the Major. Before Finlayson could answer, the pilot did it for him; the H-1 flashed over their heads in the blink of an eye, heading towards the southwest and shrinking to a silver pin-head.
And it was fortunate that there were no reporters standing nearby to hear Harry Hopkins remarks on the subject.
When they debarked from their train in Washington the next day, the antelope was handed a telegram from Hughes Aircraft. He said nothing at first, but Finlayson could not help noticing that the insides of his ears had turned the color of glowing coals.
And that was nothing compared to FDR’s reaction when he read it:
“Forgot?!” The fisher nearly exploded with rage. “Hughes says he just FORGOT! How the...Y...He...DEUCE do you forget something like that?”
Jack Finlayson did not respond. It was a rhetorical question, and besides...the meeting with Howard Hughes had been Roosevelt and Hopkins’ idea, not his.
“You forget your house keys,” the President continued, his demeanor cooling from volcanic to merely sulphurous, “You forget to send Aunt Betty a birthday card, you do NOT forget a meeting with a high ranking official to discuss the building if a new pursuit plane.” He pointed a finger at Harry Hopkins, “Harry? As far as I’m concerned, it’ll be a cold day in Hell before that coyote ever gets a chance at another government contract. Pass the word to Harry Woodring when you see him, will you?” (Woodring was FDR’s Secretary of War.) “No, never mind, I’ll send him a memo myself.” He picked up a the telegram, read it once more, then dropped it on his desk, muttering, “Forgot!”
It took several more moments for the President to calm down completely. Later it would be revealed that Howard Hughes had changed his mind about the meeting and ordered the H-1 to bypass Cleveland out of fear that ‘the government will steal my design’.
But that piece of news would not come out until both Hughes and FDR had long since passed from this earth. For the present, Harry Hopkins remarked, sardonically, (and with a wistful note in his voice?) “Maybe he was afraid that we brought Katie MacArran with us?” Rumor had it that the only thing Howard Hughes was more afraid of than dirt was the 14th Duchess of Strathdern. Certainly, for the past three years, he had avoided her like the plague, except for taking the occasional potshot in the press.
“As if she could ever show her face in Cleveland again.” Jack Finlayson responded. It wasn’t much, but anything to lighten the mood. But then, something occurred to him, and he added, “You know, it’s almost too bad. Katie MacArran...now THERE would have been the almost perfect choice to design our new pursuit plane.” This suggestion generated a pair of very odd looks on the faces of both Hopkins and FDR, and the raccoon added quickly, “Yes, I know. She’s a female, she had her pilot’s license revoked for the Thompson Trophy incident...and she’s also a British aristocrat. But think about it: She’s a successful race-plane designer, she worked under Reginald Mitchell, she owns her own aircraft company, North American, and their export fighter (Yes, THAT’s where I heard the words!) the NA-50 has been a huge success in China. Furthermore, she’s an experienced combat pilot who knows the capability of the ME-109 first-paw. I’m telling you, if it weren’t for all those other problems, she’d be exactly the designer looking for.”
In response, Hopkins and Roosevelt just looked at each other once more, and then the antelope turned and said gently to Finlayson, “I’m afraid...that would be an academic question anyway, Major Finlayson. Katie MacArran was killed in action over Nanking -- two days ago.”
The details were still sketchy, but this much was known; Major Catherine MacArran, of the China Air Force, had died while leading her squadron in defense of the US Navy gunboat Panay, when she’d been dive bombed and sunk in the Yangtze river by planes of the Imperial Japanese Navy.
“No one knows exactly what happened,” Harry Hopkins was saying, “but several survivors of the Panay report seeing her plane hit the water. It went under almost immediately.”
“For what it’s worth, Major.” FDR added, “Her Grace died very bravely. Before she lost her life, she and her pilots had racked up the highest score of any squadron in the CAF...Chinese OR mercenary.” He looked away, tapping his fingers on his desktop, “And if it hadn’t been for them, God only knows...”
Jack Finlayson didn’t hear the rest; he was thinking about Katie MacArran. So Colonel Chennault had not only give her planes to those Chinese pilots... he had given her command of them as well.
And in response, she had fulfilled her promise to the Louisiana quarter-horse, molding them into top-notch fighters. He could remember her now, how she had practically gushed over him like a schoolgirl on their first meeting, he recalled the letter of introduction to Reginald Mitchell that she had given him, and her own ideas about the new American pursuit plane.
And yes, he remembered how beautiful she was...had been -- even in a baggy flight suit that fit her like an oat sack
In his time, Jack Finlayson had seen a lot, and much of it wasn’t pretty. If there was any raccoon not given to maudlin sentiments, it was him. Nonetheless, he found himself flicking something wet and stinging from the corner of his eye.
Nothing else was accomplished in the Oval Office that evening.
Or for the next two weeks. The first snow fell, Congress went on Christmas hiatus, and the President made ready to return to Hyde Park for the Holidays...while Jack Finlayson, daunted but not deterred, continued to rack his brain for a solution to their dilemma...to no good end. It was a forlorn yuletide in the Finlayson house that year.
But then, three days after Christmas, while the raccoon was eating a quick lunch at a Horn and Hardart, he looked up to see Harry Hopkins approaching, with a big smile on his face.
“She’s alive, Major.” the antelope said, by way of greeting.
Jack Finlayson did not bother to ask whom Hopkins referring to.
“And the rest,” he thought, as the rickshaw driver pulled his rig up in front of the Duchess of Strathdern’s rented cottage, “is history.”
As he came up the front walkway, the raccoon saw lolling about the verandah, the same huge lion who had greeted him the first time he’d met Katie MacArran, along with the Chinese red panda (What was his name again?) who served as her head of security. The two of them appeared to take scant notice of the Major as he approached, but Finlayson was well aware that they had been posted there to await his arrival. Indeed, the panda was keeping a close eye on the Major’s rickshaw driver as he turned his rig around and headed back the way he had come. The lion meanwhile was watching the road, making sure Finlayson had not been followed.
They rose as he mounted the front steps.
“Major Finlayson?” said the panda, raising a fist clasped in a paw, “Welcome to the Blue Pearl Cottage.” He gestured towards the front door, “Won’t you come in? Her Grace is expecting you.”
“Thank you, Shang.” said the Major, remembering the panda’s moniker in the nick of time. He turned towards the big lion. “And, er...Raibassu isn’t it?”
“Yes.” said the big cat, bowing slightly, with a humble smile. It was hard to believe this was the same lion who had treated him like a beggar with scabies the first time they had met.
Leaving Raibassu to keep watch on the road, Shang conducted the Major inside the house.
“Her Grace will be with us shortly,” said the panda, closing the door behind them, “Would you care for a drink, while you wait?” He pointed to a small, rolling bar, parked in one corner and stacked with bottles, a contrivance known in Britain as a butler. “I’m afraid you’ll have to mix it yourself.” he added, with not a trace of contrition. “I’ve no skills as a barkeep.”
“Thanks, but no thanks.” said the Major, waving him off politely, “It’s a bit early for that and anyway, I always make it a point never to mix business and alcohol.”
“Yes, of course.” said Shang, with just the slightest touch of deference. “Why don’t you make yourself comfortable then, while I let Her Grace know you are here.” Jack Finlayson nodded and seated himself on one of the overstuffed chairs. When the panda had gone, he turned and glanced at the butler again. He had first encountered one while having an after dinner drink with Air Chief Marshall Ballory in the library of the Royal Aero Club. They were, the bear had told him, an ubiquitous feature in every London Gentlemel’s club...all of which, without exception, adamantly refused to allow females to set foot within their hallowed halls. That Katie MacArran should have a rolling butler here, in her cottage, spoke volumes about her feelings on the subject.
At that moment, as if on cue, the pinto mare herself appeared in the hallway. In the time since their first encounter, Jack Finalyson had come to appreciate what formidable equine was Katie MacArran; she was the kind of female that made you want to jump up like a jack-in-the-box whenever she entered a room – and that was the reaction she almost provoked now. Her movements were graceful, effortless. She seemed almost to glide into cottage’s front parlour.
She was dressed for the occasion in a short-sleeved, Indian-pink caftan, of pure silk and with a beaded, double-vee neckline. Around her left wrist she wore an assortment of bangles, the one with the largest stones in the center, as was proper. With every step she took, the caftan seemed to flow about her body, molding and remolding itself to her every contour.
All in all, it was the kind ensemble that would give a censor from the Hays office conniptions...but then if you had pressed him as to the exact nature of his objections, he would cough, sputter, and then suddenly remember a pressing engagement elsewhere.
And that, Major Finlayson observed wryly, made this dress a perfect allegory for it’s wearer; it suggested everything, while revealing absolutely nothing.
“Ah, Major Finalyson,” she said, coming forward and extending a hoof, “How good of you to come, this is truly an honor.”
“A pleasure, I’m sure,” said the raccoon, bending forward at the waist to kiss the back of her hoof.
Of course this was hardly their first meeting...but it was their first even semi-PUBLIC meeting since Katie had been given the contract to produce the American Schneider-Cup racer / pursuit plane prototype. All the ones before had been conducted in great secrecy. In fact, as far as the world at large was aware, the Little Engine was strictly a race-plane, and had been produced entirely as a private venture.
And Major Finlayson’s presence here was a courtesy call, nothing more.
Thus it behooved the pinto mare to behave as if this were the first time ever that she had met Jack Finlayson, an act that was by no means difficult for her to pull off.
There were pilots whom Katie admired, (Wiley Post, Jackie Cochran) there were those whom she respected at a distance, (Ilse Klentsch). There were those whom she was proud to call her friends, (Jean Batten and Sophia Bianco) and still others whom she remembered fondly (Ray Parer, Mary of Bedford.) On the other side of the coin were the aviators whom she considered overrated, (Charles Lindbergh) and the ones whose skills Katie might begrudge if you put a gun to her head (Howard Hughes) But while she might see a true greatness in one or two other pilots (Roscoe Turner) there was one, exactly one aviator that Katie MacArran held in genuine awe...and it was the raccoon now standing in the front parlour of her cottage.
He was Jack Finlayson, the world’s most celebrated air-race pilot, the only air racer ever to win the Big Three air races, the Schneider, the Bendix and the Thompson Trophy. Not only that, the raccoon had taken the Thompson while at the controls of perhaps the most dangerous race plane ever conceived, the hideously unstable Gee-Bee R-1. (Katie herself could testify to that fact...or at least to the capriciousness of one of the R-1's successors, the super-speedy but also super-quirky Gee-Bee PDQ.) When Finlayson had taken the ‘25 Schneider Cup, Katie MacArran had been there to watch, and it was from that experience that she had learned one of the most important principles of air-racing -- one that would serve her well when her own air-race career began to blossom.
That was why her expression of admiration for the raccoon came as straight from her heart as it would have if this WERE their first introduction.
“As a matter of fact, Major,” she said to the raccoon, “I was just about to have lunch. Would you care to join me?”
“That would be splendid, thank you.” said the Major, doing his dead-level best to sound spontaneous.
“Excellent.” she responded, and then turned to Shang Li-Sung, “Shang? Would you have Hsing set another place for Major Finlayson please?”
“Right away, Your Grace.” said the red-panda, and then departed the room. The instant he was gone, the Major became serious.
“What are you having Shang do that for? Where’s your butler?” He groaned when Katie pointed at the portable bar and said, “No, not that thing, the REAL one.”
“I gave him and most of the staff the afternoon off so we could talk more privately.” Katie responded, brushing a tuft of hair from her eyes and raising a hoof, “Don’t get me wrong, they’re all completely loyal to me, but even so, they still gossip dreadfully. There isn’t a household staff in the world that doesn’t, not even the staff at Windsor Castle. That’s one thing I learned from owning a British Newspaper.”
“Oh...all right,” said Finlayson, still sounding a little dubious. Then she noticed him looking around the room. “Uhm...where are we eating? I, uh...don’t see a table anywhere.”
Just then, Hsing came in to announce the change of table settings was completed, and Katie resumed her semi-formal manner. With a sweeping hoof, she gestured towards the big rear window of the cottage where, at the end of a long, narrow pier that lead out past the boat dock and over the bay, where a table had been erected under a thatched pavilion..
“It’s such a lovely day outside Major, I thought we might have lunch out on the pier...if that’s alright with you.”
“That would be splendid,” said the raccoon. Katie nodded, offering him an arm, and the two of them went outside together.
When they were well away from the cottage, Finlayson’s manner changed once more.
“Before I forget, General...excuse me, Air Chief Marshal Ballory won’t be able to join us I’m afraid. He’s tied up over at the British consulate.”
“Yes, I know,” said Katie, a thread of bitterness in her voice, because she also knew WHY the bear had been delayed. Damn that frumpy bitch, the Comtess Henriette de Vitrines! Without even realizing it, she had managed to extract a measure of revenge for the water-taxi incident. “The Air Chief Marshal was kind enough to send a messenger to bring me the news.” she added, hoping he hadn’t caught her tone. She was not in the mood for an explanation.
But the Major only asked her, “How come we’re having lunch out here, if you don’t mind my asking?”
Katie smiled, “Little something I picked up in China: ‘If you don’t want ears at the walls when you speak, speak where there ARE no walls.’” she grasped at his paw and pointed, “Look, see there? Our table is set well out of earshot of the cottage, and we have an almost perfect view of our surroundings. If anyone comes our way, either from the house or in a boat, we’ll be able to see them long before they can hear us.” her hoof dropped into a sweeping motion, gesturing towards the lagoon below. “And see how clear the water is here? And because it’s low tide, it’s only a few feet deep for at least fifteen feet in any direction. That means you can forget about any swimmers or snorkelers trying to sneak up on us.”
“Hmmm,” said Finlayson, an unmistakable chord of respect in his voice, “very good work, Your Grace. I never would have thought of any of this.”
“Well, actually,” Katie admitted, feeling her ears warming slightly, “It was Shang’s idea, not mine.”
The table was set with two large plates, a pair of tumblers, a butter dish, and a covered earthenware bowl with steam rising from the edges. Next to this was a tall pitcher, filled with what might have been pink lemonade, except it was a mite too reddish.
“It’s cherry-lime rickey.” Katie told her guest, as he held her chair for her, “non-alcoholic. William Hearst has his lemonade, and I have this.”
Jack Finlayson seated himself, and then poured a glass for each of them. As always, the rickey was delicious; just the right balance of tart and sweet. It was Katie’s favorite summer cooler, and judging by the look on Jack Finlayson’s face, he was finding it much to his liking as well. She could also tell that he was eager to get down to cases, but by now the raccoon had to understand that Catherine MacArran, the 14th Duchess of Strathdern NEVER talked turkey before starting a meal.
And so, with that in mind, she reached for the bowl parked between them and plucked away the lid with a small flourish. There was no immediate response from Jack Finlayson, but Katie could almost hear his mouth watering. Raccoons simply adore corn on the cob...and this one was no exception, especially after sinking his teeth into the first golden-yellow ear.
“Mmmm,” he almost moaned, eyes rolling blissfully as he struggled not to wolf it down. “Mmmm if this isn’t the best sweet corn. Where the heck did you find it?”
“It’s Jersey corn.” the pinto mare told him, “I developed a weakness for it when I was in Lakehurst, working on the R-100 refit.” she took a big bite, chewed, and swallowed, “It’s the only kind of sweet corn I like any more.” she said. Then she winked, adding, “But fortunately, when you own your own air freight company, ‘certain things’ can be accomplished.”
If this pointed reminder of how much power Katie wielded had any effect on her guest, he gave no sign outward sign of it. For the next twenty minutes there was silence at the table, except for the sound of corn crunching and lips smacking.
Only after Hsing had cleared the first course away did either one of them feel free to speak again.
Hughes H-1 Racer: