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27 August 2008
Speed Week!
Lady of Nîmes
Part Three
by John Urie

Keith Lawton, organizer of the Schneider Trophy races held on Spontoon Island,
tells the story of Denis Conlon's entry in the 1935 race.

The Lady of Nîmes

by Drake Hackett

Special to the London Daily Observer
(Part Three)

Sunday, August 22, 1938

“It’s in THERE?  You’ve GOT to be blinkin’ joking me, mate!”

( These, of course, are not Keith’s actual words. )

The ‘hangar’ where the Lady of Nîmes was reportedly being reassembled was inside the Superior Engineering facility -- and it was actually a drydock, normally used for the repair of water-taxis and motor launches.

“No bigger than yer average back garden greenhouse.” Keith said to me, looking almost as nonplused as he must have been that morning, “‘Truth be told, it was smaller than the crate in which the Lady of Nîmes had arrived.”

What Keith hadn’t suspected of course, what that the crate might have contained more than just an unassembled aircraft.  All of Denis Conlon’s tools and equipment had also been inside...along with two drums of latex and sixty gallons of ‘special fuel additive.’    

Even now, three years later, why he’d not brushed Conlon off when he had the chance is still a mystery to my friend.

“I had managed to shut the door to my office before he could tell me that he’d found a place for his plane.  Could have pretended not to hear him.” He shook his head, looking even more doleful than a minute ago. “But of course I didn’t, did I?”

Instead, Keith had opened the door again

“Excuse me...WHAT did you say?”   

“That I’ve found a slip for me airplane.” the grey-muzzled fox answered cheerfully, “so now can we...?”

Keith quickly raised a paw.

“On Eastern Island?”

“On Eastern Island.” Conlon responded, “Now then....”

“And facing towards the lagoon?”  That hadn’t been one of Keith’s earlier conditions, but it was still part of  the rules.

“And facin’ towards the lagoon.” the fox replied.

Keith just dropped his arms and stared.


Conlon winked.  “Over at Superior Engineerin’.  Come along and see for yerself, why don’t yer?”

There were only about a thousand other things Keith had needed to do that morning...but he’d told his secretary to hold his calls, and followed Conlon out to the water-taxi dock.

“Superior Engineering?  It couldn’t be; the old boy had to be making it up.  Everyone and their uncle had been trying to hire space from the McCraddens for the better part of a fortnight, and none of them had been successful.  I know for a fact that Malcome was offered five hundred quid for the use of his secondary hangar on race-day...and he’d absolutely refused to even consider the offer.“  

“Why’d he do that, then?” I asked, though I already suspected the answer.  Malcolme McCradden and his boys are serving as part of Her Grace’s race crew for the ‘38 Schneider.  He’s a Scot of the old school....won’t interrupt a job once it’s started for anything.

Sure enough, it turned out that the hangar in question had been occupied by a DC-2, halfway through a complete overhaul.

That was when Keith told me the drydock in which Denis was now putting the Lady of Nîmes back together had ALSO been in use the day before.

Immediately, both my ears stood up.

“Then how the Devil did Conlon get hold of it, and so quickly?” 

The left corner of Keith’s mouth turned halfway upwards.

“Through highly unconventional means.”  

What Denis had done was challenge Malcolm’s eldest son Padraig to a drinking contest...and put him straight under the table.

Even so, the old fox had been lucky his opponent’s father was who he was.  Another sea-otter might not have owned up, given the circumstances of the victory; Paddy had fallen victim to one of the oldest confidence tricks out there.  After carefully picking his target, Denis had strolled into the Harp and Thistle pub, and intentionally seated himself at a table already littered with empty shot glasses.  Then, when Padraig McCradden had walked in a moment later, he had picked up one of them and begun waving it round in the air, loudly declaring, in a half drunken voice, that he needed a slip for his Schneider Cup racer...and he was willing to bet his plane and all his money against moorage for her that he could outdrink anyone in the pub.

“If you know Paddy McCradden as well as I do,” Keith told me, with a canine snicker, “then you know he’s never been one to turn down that sort of challenge...especially from a fellow Hibernian, and a nearly plastered one at that.”

Paddy, in fact, soon figured out that he’d been duped -- but not until it was too late for him to walk away.  (and by then he was INCAPABLE of walking.)  Malcolme, though furious, had agreed to make good on his son’s wager and the launch occupying the drydock was moved out to one of the inner Nimitz islands for the duration.

A Scot of the auld school.

Still, the whole thing might have been a ruse; Conlon might only have been SAYING that his plane was inside that shed...but no, there on the dock beside it was the packing crate, one side off and standing empty.

“So NOW, might we see about enterin’ the Lady of Nîmes in the Schneider?” Conlon asked, folding his arms beginning to sound impatient for the first time.

Keith fidgeted for a second before answering. “Let’s go back to my office.”

I felt my head tilting sideways.

“You didn’t even ask to have a look at his plane first?”

“I did actually,” Keith leaned forward on the chair arm, “but Conlon insisted not until she was put back together...and anyways, I could see part of an airplane propellor through one of the windows.  SOME kind of aircraft was in there.”

I nodded, but I wasn’t quite satisfied.   Why had he needed to go back to his office, all of a sudden? 

“Truth of the matter is, pal,” Keith answered, his tail going up between his legs again. “you’re right, we could have discussed Conlon’s entry right then and there, but I needed some time to think; I’d not the foggiest idea what to do next.”

As Lucy had earlier pointed out, it never occurred to Keith that the old boy might actually pull off finding a place to moor his racer on Eastern...let alone by the following morning. 

“Finally, I just decided, ‘no more games.’ I’d be straight up front about it from then on.”

He took Denis Conlon into his office and invited him to sit down, then poured a drink for both of them.

Then he laid it out for the old, black fox.

“Mr. Conlon...I’m genuinely sorry to have to say this, but it’s too late to enter your plane in the Schneider Cup.  The rules state very specifically that all applications must be received no later than three months prior to competition...and even if they didn’t, we’ve already got a full field for the race; all slots taken.”

Keith braced himself, waiting for the inevitable furious riposte, “Why didn’t you tell me that BEFORE you sent me off to Eastern Island?” 

But Conlon wasn’t about to let him off that easy.  Instead he seemed to deflate into his seat and when he looked up at Keith again, he appeared to have aged twenty years in the space of a few seconds.

“Is there nothin’ that can be done sir?” he pleaded, clasping his paws to his chest,   “Please...I’ve worked so hard and come all this way.”  There were tears in his eyes as he spoke.

At no time, before or after, would Keith hate his job more than he did at that moment.

But not enough to shirk the responsibilities that came with it.

“Please understand, Mr Conlon.” he said, offering the fox the use of his pawkerchief, “I can’t make exceptions to the rules, not for anybody, and especially at the present time.  We’ve just spent the better part of a year putting the Schneider Cup’s rather chaotic set of rules into some semblance of order.  If we waive even a single one of them NOW, it’ll be like pulling a finger out of a dike.”

Conlon just nodded that he understood, and then stood up and left the office, crying.  Keith felt like stapling his own mouth shut, but at least he’d finally seen the last of the old vulpine.

“But you hadn’t, had you?” I asked him, the answer already quite obvious.

Keith groaned and put a paw over his eyes, grinning ruefully..

“He was out of my life for exactly two hours; I was just about to leave for lunch when I heard Ruby shouting, ‘You can’t go in there!’ Then the office door burst open and Denis Conlon came striding in, waving a copy of the Schneider-Cup rules like it was a battle flag.”

“There!”  He said, slapping it down on the desk in front of Keith, and almost causing the inkwell overturn. “Page 4, Section ‘C’, Paragraph 6.”

Before Keith could respond to this, a pair of spectacles had appeared on the bridge of Conlon’s  muzzle, and then he picked papers up again and began to read.

“In the event of a full field for the Schneider Cup race, alternate entries for the competition will be accepted, on a first come, first eligible basis.   These entries shall be subject to the same requirements as the those already accepted for competition.”

He stopped, smirked triumphantly at Keith, and then went on.

“In the event of a withdrawal and/or disqualification of any race participant, prior to the start of their first qualifying run, their slot shall be offered to the first alternate entry in the Schneider Cup competition.” 

He slapped the sheaf of papers down on the desk again.

“Thought yer could play the old fox for a fool, eh?   Well, lemme tell yer, boyo...”

At that moment, the door flew open again, revealing Keith’s secretary, and a pair of burly Spontoon constables.

Keith quickly raised his paws, speaking first to the two officers

“It’s all right gentlefurs, you won’t be needed here...but thanks just the same for your quick  response.”

“As you say, sir.” the bigger one answered, giving Conlon a hard look, and then the both of them tipped their caps and withdrew.

Keith waited until he heard the outer office door close and then turned his attention to his secretary.

“Miss Makele?  Would you be so kind as to go and fetch a Schneider Cup entry form for me?”

Her head fell between her shoulders, and she stared, wide-eyed at Keith.

“Mr. Lawton?  You’re not really going to...?”

“And please close the door firmly on your way out.”

“But Mr. Lawton, you can’t...”

“That will be all, Miss Makele.”

“But sir...”


“Ahm, yes...yes, sir.”

She didn’t so much close the door as slam it

“But how could you have forgotten that rule?” I asked.  Of all furs, Keith should have known it was in there.

It was Lucy who answered again. “Because it was my husband outsmarting himself again.  The alternate entry rule was a sham, nothing more.”

“That’s right, Drake.” my friend admitted, getting up out of his seat and going to one of the patio torches, which was starting to burn low, “I’d only had that rule put in to make it LOOK as if we had so much interest in the Schneider Cup, we might not be able to accommodate all our entries...when in fact, we had all of three teams lined up, and one of them was shaky.  Ahhh, this torch is gone, mates.  Hang on a sec, while I go fetch another.”

He went to a small shed at the end of the verandah, searching in his pocket for the key.

“The odd bit is though,” Lucy was saying, “It later turned out to be a good thing Keith had put that rule in.  For the following year’s Schneider, he had enough applicants to fill the field twice over...and that was only the ones who made the grade.”

“Yeah, that’s right.” said Keith returning with a new torch, which he planted next to the first, twisting it firmly into the ground. “But mind...that wasn’t where I had REALLY outsmarted meself.”  He leaned the first torch over until their wicks touched, the porch becoming noticeably brighter as the second one caught.  Keith moved them apart, nodding in satisfaction, then took his seat again

“Y’ see Drake, the language of that rule was far, far too vague.  If you read it a certain way, it appeared that alternate entries for the Schneider-Cup would be accepted, right up until the first qualifying run.”

“Right, I noticed that.” I said, “But pal, you had to know that once you agreed to accept that fox’s entry application, he was as good as in the race.” 

There has never been a Schneider Cup competition where at least one plane didn’t withdraw before the flag dropped.  In the ‘34 Schneider, EVERY competitor, bar one, pulled out before the start.

“Yeah, I know.” Keith answered, nodding and giving me that earnest look of his, “But I had to do it, don’t y’see?  I’d meant what I said to Denis Conlon about the Schneider Cup rules.  I couldn’t just up and waive them for a single fur’s convenience...not even my own.”

In response to this, Lucy leaned in close and gave her husband a peck on the cheek.

“What was that for, luv?” he asked, slightly startled.

She smiled and took hold of his paw, giving it a little squeeze.

“Just for being a good dog.”

                Speed Week!
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