|The Lady of
by Drake Hackett
Special to the London Daily Observer (Part One)
Sunday, August 22, 1938
“But if you want to know the BRAVEST pilot ever to race in the Schneider...well, that I can tell you. Denis Conlon, paws down, no question about it.”
I knew Keith Lawton was going to makes me ask it; he never just pauses for effect, and then delivers his punchline. It’s not his style and never has been, as I have good reason to know.
Keith and I have been close friends since the Great War; we were in training together for the RFC when the Armistice came. Afterwards, we went knocking around the Outback in an old Bristol biplane, just a pair of free-spirited, freelance reporters, looking for stories and getting in and out of all kinds of scrapes. And through it all, despite the occasional argument and even a fight or two, we always remained friends, something that I’m sure has a lot to do with our respective breeds. (We’re both herding dogs; Keith’s an Australian Shepherd and I’m a Queensland Heeler.)
Those days ended when Keith proposed to my sister Lucille, “This is no life for a married canine, Drake...and certainly it’s no life for her.”
I was unhappy, but I wasn’t bitter; at their wedding, I was Keith’s best male.
And so we went our separate ways -- myself to New Guinea and her Grace the Duchess of Strathdern’s gold mine, and Keith to South Africa, where he went to work for the Alan Cobham Air Shows. Within two years he was manager, and in 1934 he became first assistant director of the MacRobertson London-to-Australia Air race. Two weeks after that, he was offered the job of organizing the Schneider Trophy race by the Spontoon Island Air Race Association.
He took the job, and the rest is history. As of this writing the Schneider Cup has reclaimed its place as the world’s premier air race event...thanks in no small part to the efforts of Keith Lawton.
When I had come to the Spontoons as The Duchess of Strathdern’s chief publicist, needless to say, one of the first things I had done was look up my old mate. We greeted each other warmly, shared a Bundaberg or two, and then Keith invited me to dinner that evening. As a measure of the respect that the Spontoonies have for him, he’s one of only a pawful of outsiders permitted to live on Main Island.
Now, it was after dinner, and Lucy had put the pups to bed, and excused herself...leaving Keith and me alone with a pail of cold beer on the big, rambling verandah of his Polynesian log-house.
I could see why Keith liked living here.. Across the lagoon, Casino Island was lit up brighter than any carnival, and the bustle of the tourists so palpable, you could almost feel it.
On Main Island, by contrast, the only lights visible were coming from darting fireflies and a pair of coconut oil torches, the only hubbub, the chirping serenade of the crickets.
Something splashed out in the dark water, momentarily distracting us, then I turned back to Keith once again.
“So all right mate, I give. Who IS this Denis Conlon of yours?”
Actually the name wasn’t wholly unfamiliar to me. In preparing for my role as Katie MacArran’s publicist for the 1938 Schneider Cup race, I had studied the previous years’ results up and down, five ways from Sunday. I knew that there had been a Denis Conlon entered in at least one of those events, but couldn’t recall for the life of me which one, or where he had placed...though not in the money, I was aware of that much. (By this time I could name every single Schneider’s top three finishers in my sleep.)
Keith responded to this by refilling his glass, and then doing the same for me. It was another sign that I knew well, and it meant that he was about to launch into a long story.
“Depending on who you ask Drake, he’s either most courageous pilot ever flew in the Schneider, or a complete nutter.” He took a sip, and when he lowered his glass, he looked as if he were confronting a dingo, “But mind, that second assessment NEVER comes from someone who was there that day, who saw what happened.” He stopped, took a longer drink, then looked me square in the eye. “And to be just plain brutal about it, Denis Conlon’s the fur who REALLY put the Schneider Cup back on the map. Most folks say I did it, but it never would have happened if it weren’t for him.”
It was Speed-Week, 1935 – Keith’s first year as the new organizer for the Schneider, and he was under a tremendous amount of pressure.
“The Althing had only hired me to re-organize the Schneider-Cup, not turn it into a week-long extravaganza. To say that they went along reluctantly would be an understatement, not an exaggeration. I’d made a lot of promises and spent lot of money, and now it was time to for me deliver.”
It didn’t start out well for Keith; his idea for an opening event, an airship race between the Graf Zeppelin and the Republic had gone over like a lead glider. He had just finished entertaining a rather unhappy delegation of casino operators on the subject, and was about to go home for the day, when his secretary poked her head round the door.
“Sorry to disturb you on your way out, Mr. Lawton, but there’s some kind of disturbance over at one of the Casino Island docks, they’re asking for you.”
Keith had wanted to throw a paperweight at her.
“How she always managed to find the WORST possible moment to deliver bad news is a mystery I shall never be able to fathom.”
The problem was on Casino Island’s recently completed Pier 7, where the newly arrived P&O liner, RMS Corfu was busily disembarking her passengers...or rather ATTEMPTING to disembark her passengers. Approaching the pier in his private launch, Keith could see planted squarely in the centre of the dock, a huge wooden crate, “a thing the size of a tramcar, almost completely blocking everything. The passengers could only barely get by, and their larger pieces of luggage were having to be passed around it one at a time. Needless to say, the mood was less than than cordial, and above the din of angry passengers, I could hear a pair of vulpine voices shouting at each other. I recognized one of them; Sergeant Orrin FX Brush of the Spontoon Constabulary...and the first thing I thought was, ‘What the devil do they need ME for?’ Sergeant Brush is not precisely incapable of handling himself.
Pushing his way to the front of the crowd, Keith came upon Sergeant Brush standing face to face with what first appeared to be a grey fox, but on closer inspection it turned out that only his muzzle was grey in colour, the rest of him was a black as anthracite -- and so was his mood.
“If I told you exactly what he was saying to the good Sergeant,” Keith chuckled and raising his glass. “you should never be able to print it....but the gist of it was that if Sergeant Brush or any of his other ‘flatfoots’ so much as laid a finger on that crate, ‘Ye’ll be needin’ some o’ these native pearl divers to t’go get yer teeth back.”
Under normal circumstances, that would have been sufficient cause for Sergeant Brush to produce his famous ‘headache maker’, but even HE wasn’t about to brain a fur of such advanced age...especially in front of a crowd of onlookers.
“Yep, that was the reason for his grey muzzle.” Keith told me, “saw it when I got closer; he must have been sixty if he was a day. Teeth as yellow as corn kernels, and a face so craggy, you could have hidden pennies in the creases. Thin too, stuff some straw in his sleeves, and he would have made a perfect scarecrow. “ He took another sip of his beer, “But for all that, I had the feeling that if it did come down to blows, Orrin Bush might not necessarily be the one to come out on top. You know what I mean, I’m sure Drake...you and I saw that black fox’s type many a time in the Outback.”
Yes, I knew, and yes we had...tough, old cobbers, much harder to take down than any young scrapper you might care to put against them.
“But anyway,” Keith went on, “finally, I understood why I’d been wanted here. A fight between these two was exactly the sort of publicity the Schneider-Cup race didn’t NEED.”
At that moment, almost as if on cue, the old fox had put his paws on his hips.
“For that last time, get me someone with some racin’ authority here!”
Keith had quickly stepped forward.
“All right then, here I am. What can I do for you?”
The black fox instantly turned on him, looking Keith over as if sizing up a fast-talking peddler. (Not surprising, vulpines are not noted for their friendliness towards shepherd dogs)
“An’ who might YOU be then?” he demanded, his left eyebrow climbing all the way up to his forelock
Somehow, Keith had held himself in check.
“I’m Keith Lawton, chief organizer for the Schneider-Cup Competition, and again, what can I do for you?”
Keith laughed and shook his head as he remembered what happened next,, “I swear mate, it was as if someone threw a switch. Just like that, the old boy was all smiles and his paw was shooting out so fast, it, I had taken it before I realized what I was doing.”
“Ah, the very fur I’m lookin’ for.” he said, shaking Keith’s paw nearly hard enough to dislocate my shoulder. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance, sorr. Denis Conlon, late of Spiddal, Ireland.” He waved a paw towards three other furs, a gopher and two stoats, all of whom had been standing in a rough cordon around the crate, “An’ these are the members of me crew. Paddy Martin an’ the Donnelly brothers, Mick and Mike.”
When he said the word, ‘crew’, Keith began to get a very uneasy feeling -- that he knew what all this was about. Denis and all three members of his crew were dressed in grey, khaki coveralls, of the type frequently worn by aircraft mechanics.
“Except...” Keith shook his head again, “I could swear I saw what looked like a tuxedo jacket underneath the collar of Denis Conlon’s outfit. ‘Never mind about that.’ I said, folding my arms, and trying to appear authoritative, ‘You still haven’t told me what it is you want.’”
Denis responded to this by looking at Keith as if he had just asked for directions to the moon.
“Why isn’t that obvious, boyo?” he said, sweeping his paw grandly in the direction of the packing crate, “I’m here to enter the Lady of Nîmes in the Schneider Cup Race.”