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27 August 2009
Speed Week!
Lady of Nîmes
Part Eleven
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 Eleven)

Sunday, August 22, 1938

Keith can laugh about it now, but at the time it happened, he was raving and foaming as if he’d got the rabies.

“It’s just a good thing I went over by Eastern Island FIRST thing that morning, before breakfast.  Lord only knows what would’ve happened if I’d gone there on a full stomach.”

The day after the Pilot’s Reception, then as now, was a day without much activity.  No demonstrations were scheduled, and even practice runs were forbidden until 3 in the afternoon

Keith had planned it that way, long in advance.

“I figured even the fans who weren’t at the Pilots Reception would be having their own private parties at the hotels and casinos....and who wants to hear a race-plane going past their window when they’ve got a proper hangover, eh?”

In this, Keith’s canine instincts proved to be spectacularly correct...and it’s only become a greater truism with each passing year.

For his part, my friend had no such problem.  As the organizer for Speed Week, he had certain image to maintain (to say nothing of needing to be available in case of unforseen circumstances the next day), and so he’d imbibed only modestly at the Reception.

“OUR real party came after we got home.” Lucy wagged her tail, looking fondly at Keith, “After what he said to Mr. Conlon about his feelings for me...well, how could it not end up that way, eh?”

Keith rapidly cleared his throat, drawing an amused look from her.  (That’s my sister, can’t resist a tease now and again.)  Then he continued with his story.

“I was on my way out to have breakfast at Luchows, when I heard Miss Makele calling after me.”

“Excuse me, Mr. Lawton?   Denis Conlon’s on the phone, says he’s found a sponsor for the Lady of Nîmes.

Keith debated for moment whether to go and have a look right then, or save it until after breakfast.  He finally decided to go to Eastern Island first and get it out of the way.

“According to the rules, either me or someone on the board had to go and confirm that Mr. Conlon did indeed have a sponsor.”

I felt one ear going up.  “What for mate?”

Keith’s eyes narrowed, and I saw his tail stiffen.

“Coz of a stunt some bludger had tried to pull at the Mac Robertson race a year earlier--showed up with a plane had the SORI logo on the side, and in big, bold letters.  Only thing was, SORI had never heard of him.  I gave him the bum’s rush right quick when I found out, but I only found out by pure chance, y’see.”

“Ah,” I said, “Say no more pal, I get the picture.”   If there’s anything Keith can’t abide, it’s a cheat.

“Anyways,” he was saying, “I took the launch over to Eastern, and decided to walk the rest of the way over to Superior Engineering.  When I got to Conlon’s slip, he and his boys were just pulling his plane out of the shed.   On the back of the fuselage, near the tail, I could see some new lettering, in bright, red script...but couldn’t quite make out the words.  But then I got closer, and....”

And when he got closer, Keith stopped dead in his tracks, eyes blinking like a semaphore, tail frozen in place, and his eyes expanding so hugely that, “I was expecting they might pop at any second.”

Even then, the explosion might still have been avoided.....except at that moment, Denis Conlon came out of the hangar, wiping his paws on a rag.

“Top o’ the mornin’, Mr Lawton,” he said, waving cheerfully at his plane, “Sorry, I didn’t tell y’ ‘bout us havin' found a sponsor earlier, but up came that business wi’ Miss Casandonte’s plane, and....well, never mind.  As yer can see, we’ve got one now, an’ I must say the boys did a right fine job with the letterin’, don’t ye think?”

Keith’s only response to this was a choking, inarticulate whimper.

This was something Denis Conlon couldn’t fail to notice, and he didn’t fail to notice; one of his sharp, black ears raised up two inches higher than the other.

“Eh?  Is there something wrong then?”

Keith’s body began to tremble as if he’d just trod upon a live wire, and spittle commenced to dribble from the corners of his mouth.

“Something wrong?   Something....WRONG!”  He wheeled on Conlon, with all his teeth showing,   “You stupid, Bushmill’s-swilling gallah, what’re y’trying to do, RUIN me?!”

Conlon just looked even more bewildered than before.

“Wha...?  What did I....?”

That was what really set Keith off.

“You (blankety-blank) git!  YOU CAN’T HAVE JUMPING JIMMY’S PLEASURE PALACE FOR A (censored) SPONSOR!!!”

Keith paused here for a moment, in the hope of enjoying the spectacle of my beer coming out of my nose.  No such luck, but very close.   I laughed so hard, I had to hold onto myself.  Oh, the things you WISH you’d been there to see for yourself.

And it only got more vexing for my pal from there.  Denis Conlon might have been a genius at aircraft design, but when it came to this sort of thing, he was the proverbial babe in the woods.

“But didn’t yer say I could have any legal enterprise here in the Spontoon’s as me sponsor?”

“Yes, I did, but....”

“And isn’t Jumping Jimmy’s establishment perfectly legal here?”

“Yes, but.....”

“And didn’t yer also say that Miss Baumgartner’s establishment would be a perfectly acceptable sponsor for me plane?   And isn’t she in the same business as Jimmy?”

“Yes, but....I thought you meant LUCHOW’S you idiot, not the....I didn’t think...why would anyone....?  I....you...ROW-ROOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!”

I almost fell out of my lounge-chair. 

“Oh, my Gaw....you HOWLED?”   I’ve only heard Keith do that once, in all the time I’ve known him, the day our first plane crashed in the Outback and became a write-off.

But it wasn’t funny, not really.  When Keith had said that this could ruin him, he had NOT been exaggerating.   Many of his sponsors and more than a few of the race fans hailed from America...not to mention my pal's hopes for a share of the American radio audience, the largest in the world

But with a plane sponsored by brothel running in the Schneider?   Not likely...not with New York District Attorney Thomas Dewey fighting to send gangster Lucky Luciano to prison on charges of ‘immoral slavery’ –  a campaign that was making headlines all across America.  Uncle Sam was taking an especially dim view of ‘the oldest profession’ at that moment....and Keith could just imagine what would happen if word of who was sponsoring The Lady Of Nîmes got round -- he'd be the laughingstock of the Air Race world, and that would be the least of his problems.

“Now the rule back then was that a racer could change sponsors ONLY if the sponsor agreed to it, so off I went, to Jumping Jimmy’s, and let me tell you pal, the old Jerboa couldn’t have been more co-operative with it.  No problem, no problem at all, he said.  He’d happy to relinquish his sponsorship of the Lady of Nîmes....for 2000 shells up front.”

“Why that little....” I snarled, “And you didn’t give in, of course.”   If I didn’t know Keith Lawton on that score by then, I never would.

He let out a short, pungent bark.

“And have every operator from here to Krupmark also trying to blackmail me?   Nooooooo, thank you, mate.”  He sighed and shook his head, grinning ruefully, “At the end of the day, it was my own fault of course.  We should have had a rule right out of the gate, saying that’ all sponsorships had to be approved by the SIRA board.  And we’ve got that rule now, but it didn’t solve my problem back then....an’ I’d no idea what to do.  Couldn’t go to the Racing Board with it, all I’d get was a chorus of, ‘We TOLD you so!’  Finally, I decided to go and have a chat with Sergeant Brush about it, if anyone knows the ropes round these Islands, he’s your fox.  But though he was more than sympathetic, but there wasn’t much he could do to help me.  Much as he disliked Jumping Jimmy, the little so-and-so was perfectly within his rights....and was one of these characters who knew just how far to push the line without ever actually crossin’ it.”

“Hmmmm,” I growled, reaching for another coconut crisp, “Sounds like you really had yer foot in it, mate?  So, what’d you do next.”

The response was a quick, neat yelp of laughter. 

“Nothing, I didn’t have to.   When I got back to my office a bit later, I found out the problem had solved itself.”

Yes, you guessed it, reader.   He stopped there, making me ask the question.

“All right...how?”

Much as I treasure our friendship, I still don’t think it was absolutely necessary for Keith to insist upon refilling BOTH his and Lucy’s glasses before answering me

“Seemed another backer had purchased sponsorship of the Lady of Nîmes away from Jumping Jimmy.  Mr. Conlon’s new host was the Grand Hotel and Casino.”

I felt one ear going up

“Eh?   You mean they met Jumping Jimmy’s price?”   The Grand is owned by the Ni clan, a family of red pandas NOT noted for putting on the kid gloves when someone tries to hold them up on money.

Keith threw up his paws like a revivalist padre.

“Mate, I’ve got no idea what they did, and I don’t WANT to know about it.   All I cared about right then was Mr. Conlon having a sponsor who wouldn’t drive the Americans away.”

“Well, there’s something I can tell you about it, brother.” Lucy’s tail began to wag underneath her chair.  “Jumping Jimmy did all his banking at First Spontoon, and when he showed up to make a deposit next morning, he was wearing dark glasses, and walking with a limp...an’ it weren’t any two thousand Shells he put down either, more like two HUNDRED.”

We all enjoyed a good, if uneasy laugh.

“But why’d they do it mate?” I asked, “From what I’ve heard of the Ni, they don’t do anything out of the goodness of their hearts.  What was in it for them, then?”

Keith lifted a finger and waggled it.

“The very question I asked of Ni Peng-wum, next time I saw him, pal.”  (Peng is titular head of the clan.) “and there was quite a bit in it for him, actually.  As I’ve already mentioned, Conlon had become the crowd’s sentimental favourite by then...and no one new that better than Peng; every other fan that came up to the Grand’s betting window was asking if he could put a wager down on the Lady of Nîmes in the first qualifying run.  They couldn’t of course, not unless Conlon actually made it into the race, but that Peng, he’s a canny, old panda.  He knew plenty of other ways to make a bit of cash off Conlon and his boys.”

Grrrrr, there he went, making me ask it again.

“Such as?”

Keith’s face spread open in a big smile.

“Such as putting Team Conlon up at the Grand, and then letting it be known where they were staying -- which brought the race fans into the hotel, hoping to catch a glimpse of them -- and as long as we’re here anyway luv, might as well have a quick go at the Blackjack table, eh?”

I let out a short bark and a low whistle.  Keith was right, this Ni Peng-wum was a VERY clever panda.  And he turned out to be even more clever when he started giving Conlon and his boys 100 Shells worth of chips to spend in the casino every night, which brought even more patrons to the tables.

“They were allowed to keep anything they won, just had to return the principal before they turned in...which had to be by midnight, no exceptions.  Peng didn’t want Conlon’s boys showing up for work dead on their feet any more than he did.  Now that he had sponsorship of the Lady of Nîmes, he was in it to win.  And that turned out to be a big boon for Denis and his lot.  Instead of sleeping rough, now they were sharing a hotel suite, and that was just for starters.  First thing Peng did after buying that sponsorship was have his own, private plane moved out of its hangar on Eastern Island and the Lady of Nîmes moved in.  Compared to where Conlon had been keeping The Lady of Nîmes before, that place was like a palace, a palace the size of a Zeppelin shed.  And anything he needed, an odd-sized tool, a hard to find part, he had only to ask, and there it was by the end of the day.   The Grand literally couldn’t do enough for Denis Conlon and his boys;  Every day at noon, one of Peng’s furs would show up at the hangar to take their lunch order, anything they wanted, just name it.  And everything was on the house, food, liquor, everything except girls....which none of them had to pay for anyway.”  Keith sniffed and flicked at an eye, “And which Denis Conlon didn’t want.  Peng later told me that the old boy couldn’t get ten feet inside the Grand’s door without some pretty young thing making a pass at him -- and he refused every single one of their advances. ‘There’s only one femme I ever want to be with, missy...an’ I’ll be with her soon enough.’ That's what he always said to them“

I felt my own eyes blinking and getting moist.  Good Lord, we’ve all heard about undying love, but how many of us have ever really seen it?

“Peng later made even more money out of that sponsorship, something I’ll get to a bit later.”  Keith was saying, “But he never tried to exploit Denis or the Lady of Nîmes, never crossed that line, not even once.  One of his sons, for example, wanted move the Lady of Nîmes out her hangar every night, and charge the fans admission to have a look at her.  Peng wouldn’t even consider it.  ‘This is a race plane, not a carnival freak.’ he said.   He also gave Conlon and his boys free use of the ballroom stage to play some music any time they liked...but only when THEY liked, even though every time they did, it always brought ‘em packing into the Grand”

Right here, Lucy jumped in.

“But before Peng could make any real money off his sponsorship,” she said, raising a cautionary finger, “Mr. Conlon had to actually get INTO the starting line-up -- and before that could happen brother, he had two big hurdles to clear:   First, he had to pass the physical exam, and second, someone else had to drop out of the Schneider before completing their first qualifying run.”

Keith picked up his glass, nodded once, then took along slow draught.

“And with less than 24 hours to go before the flag dropped, mate....and none of the other planes showing any sorts of mechanical problems, Denis Conlon’s prospects for getting his starting berth were looking right, flippin’ bleak by then.”


(Ni Peng-wum is the intellectual property of Walter Reimer)
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