Liz was driving her Ford coupe, the one with a rumble seat. Where the trunk was on most cars, it opened to make a seat for two persons. Since they couldn’t communicate with the driver, perhaps asking her to slow down, they were a little like prisoners. Indeed, they sometimes had the feeling that they might be bounced entirely out of the car.
Since her graduation from Wellesley, the rumble seat hadn’t been used much, and it was unlikely that it would be used on this evening. Liz was picking up David Randolph from his cruiser in Boston Harbor, and, even if she decided to reject his marriage proposal, it hardly seemed appropriate to put him in the rumble seat and bounce him out on to the pavement.
She wasn’t used to driving in high heels, and she almost went through a red light on the broad tree-lined Commonwealth Avenue before screeching to a stop. There also seemed to be a danger of catching a heel in her full skirt, so she lifted it well above her knees. It made her feel somewhat exposed, particularly when pedestrians were near, but it made driving easier.
It was probably a good thing that visiting warships weren’t docked at the Charleston Navy Yard. Liz’ stepmother, Barbara, insisted that Charleston was inhabited by Jews who would intentionally collide with one’s car, and then sue. Every third one, Barbara said, was a lawyer.
Liz didn’t believe many of the things that Barbara said. She also supposed that Barbara must know that her husband, and hence Liz herself, had Jewish blood. It was unusual for Barbara to be tactless. Moreover, it was rare for her to express prejudices, even the racial ones so prevalent in the South. But, anyway, Charleston was a rough neighborhood, more because of stone-throwing Irish youths than Jewish lawyers.
The HMS Southampton was instead berthed at historic T-wharf, right in the middle of the Boston waterfront. That, too, wasn’t a great place. There were drunken sailors, some of whom made peculiar requests of ladies, perhaps amounting to propositions, in peculiar languages. On the railway running down the middle of Atlantic Avenue there would be an occasional, seemingly forgotten, boxcar blocking an intersection. There were junkmen, often as Jewish as Barbara might have wished, sitting high on their wagons and casually prodding their horses along. Below these rather stately quasi-equestrians, and down in the grime, there were badly dressed, often ugly, pedestrians pushing heavily laden carts. These were often shoved heedlessly in front of slow-moving cars. In short, there was all manner of confused and confusing commerce. But there wasn’t much mayhem.
Penetrating into the traffic, Liz didn’t immediately spot the agreed-upon pick-up point. After being honked at vigorously for meandering, she found a place to stop and got out. There were some sailors around who whistled, but she didn’t think that they came from David’s cruiser. Then, she saw him, just as he saw her. A big man, he came running. The sailors disappeared.
Liz asked him to drive, explaining about her difficulties. He agreed, and said, “Of course, I drive on the left. That won’t cause any difficulty, will it?”
“People will adjust.”
Liz wasn’t sure how far David would carry the joke, but he, in fact, went on the right.
The written proposal, a rather formal one, had been sent by messenger, no less. Liz didn’t mention it, and she didn’t think David would. They talked about the things they passed, and she found herself relaxing back in the seat.
Liz happened to mention Sikorsky, and David, seeming impressed, asked, “Have you actually met him?”
“A number of times. Whenever he’s in the area, he comes to visit.”
“What’s he like?”
“A rather well-built energetic man, not exactly handsome, but compelling. The funniest thing about him is his voice. His English is good in the sense that he’s easy to understand, but it has a sing-song quality. He sounds more like a salesman trying to push his products than a great engineer.”
“He’s probably had to be a salesman at times. I gather that your father was his assistant in Russia.”
“From the early days until after the revolution. Sikorsky got here in 1919, but my mother had disappeared, and my father, Ivan, remained in Russia. He spent a long time trying to find her.”
“The uncertainty must have been very hard for all of you.”
“I was very young when I last saw her. I found out later that she’d been a nurse with the Tsarist army. Unfortunately, when the peasant soldiers were liberated in the revolution and went crazy, they turned on the nurses.”
“The ones who’d been ministering to them! That’s incredible.”
“It was because the nurses came from an educated class. It’s likely that the soldiers killed my mother.”
Liz was used to telling this story, and reactions to it varied greatly. David was quiet in an intense way, evidently trying to absorb it, and she continued, “So we got here in 1922. Ivan again joined up with ‘Eye-eye’, as we call him, in the aircraft company he formed with other Russians. They were brilliant men, but not good businessmen. Ivan, who is, got his idea and started his own aircraft company.”
The idea consisted in the fact that, if one built seaplanes on a waterfront, one didn’t have to have an airstrip or hangars, just an old fisherman’s dock with a shed on top of it. Liz explained,
“The cheapest suitable place Ivan could find was on Sullivans Island, near Charleston, South Carolina. It fronted right on the Intra-Coastal Waterway, which was good for take-offs and landings. The three of us lived in the shed, laying out our mats between parts of seaplanes.”
“That sounds like fun.”
“It was, really. We couldn’t get to school very much, so Ivan taught us himself, with some help from a retired teacher who lived nearby.”
“Life must have changed a great deal for you.”
“Viv and I didn’t grow up as little rich girls. Ivan’s business took off, but we were still living on the dock when he married Barbara. Life then changed a whole lot.”
“Was that because she wanted to change you?”
“To some extent. We were basically little savages who were good with wrenches, went up in the airplanes, and could curse along with the mechanics. Barbara wanted us to become little Virginia ladies. So we compromised. Since I was younger, she affected me more than she did Viv.”
“Your father’s airplane works must have grown quickly.”
“Like crazy. He took all kinds of chances, and seems to have had a lot of luck. Barbara tries to get him to slow down, but she can’t.”
David had recently been to the Bolsky home, and remarked, “I noticed the last time that you seem to be in the middle of a golf course.”
“Yes. Do you play?”
As they started up the high curving drive, Liz explained, “That’s the eighth hole on the other side of the water, and it’s pretty tricky. The fairway slopes left down to the water, so you have to keep your drive to the right, but not into the woods.”
“That must be the green out on that little peninsula.”
“A tough approach. Golfers who don’t have an inner competitive fire play to the base of the peninsula, and then chip out on to the green.”
“You must be able to watch the golfers from your house when they have difficulty.”
“We’re sadists. We watch with binoculars, and Ivan got us a high-powered telescope. You can see the facial expressions and guess at the words being uttered.”
Ivan was very cordial when David drove up with Liz. She was herself slightly puzzled. She had supposed that he would want to use a marriage on her part to merge industrial empires. Moreover, he didn’t usually think in terms of the social prestige a son-in-law like David might bring. On the contrary, he was proud of having been poor on his arrival in America, and he took pains to see that everyone knew about it. It might simply be that he liked David.
There was, indeed, something awfully solid about her new suitor. He had said very little about his position on the cruiser, only that he ‘tried to keep the main battery on target.’ Liz could imagine him squinting through a range-finder, and was sure that his six inch shells would, indeed, arrive on target. While the British navy had a history, illustrated at Jutland, of firing shells that didn’t penetrate German armor, David would keep firing just the same. Perhaps her father wanted for her a man who would coolly ‘carry on’ regardless of circumstances. Perhaps, in an uncertain world, she needed such a man herself.
The conversation soon turned to aviation. Ivan told how he had taught his daughters to fly at early ages, and it turned out that David’s father, the former ace, had done much the same with his sons. David’s older brother was an RAF bomber pilot, and David said, “I’m in the Fleet Air Arm myself. I’ve just been loaned to the cruiser for the voyage in order to fly the floatplane and spot the salvoes during firing practice.”
That was a big surprise. David wouldn’t be behind heavy armor, but was in a much more dangerous position. The calm steady man was turning out to be a bit of a daredevil. It was Ivan who asked, “Is that usual?”
“No, but I have a lot of relatives in the Admiralty, and they arranged it. The original pilot of the scouting biplane got banged up in a bad landing, and it was thought to be a good idea to get me out of England before I caused any more trouble.”
Everyone laughed, and Ivan said, “Well, you’ve landed in flying boat country here. We have the twin-engined Catalinas.”
“My little craft is just a float plane.”
“We have something like that down in the lake below us. How do you land it in rough water?”
“The ship goes ahead full speed, and then makes a sharp turn. As the stern sweeps out to the side, it leaves an area of relatively smooth water. One plunks the aircraft down, and it stops quickly. After taxiing up to the ship, the hook from the crane comes down. One puts it through the lifting ring, and is then swung aboard.”
Viv replied, “That sounds interesting.”
“It is the first few times, but it’s not really an interesting business. I’ll be happy to get back to my torpedo squadron.”
It wasn’t lost on Liz that pilots of torpedo planes were likely to get killed even faster than almost anyone else. Life with him might not last long, but it wouldn’t be dull.
Ivan had been pensive for a moment or two, and suddenly burst out, “Have you flown the Supermarine Walrus?”
“I’m afraid so. It’s a bit of a joke that Reg Mitchell, who designed the Spitfire, also designed a little flying boat biplane with a top speed of a hundred and thirty.”
“How does it fly?”
“Easily and beautifully. Like all his creations since those murderous racing seaplanes.”
“Will it land and take off from rough water?”
“Much better than the floatplanes. It’s bigger and more solid, but can still be catapulted from the cruisers.”
As the discussion continued, Liz took note of the fact that her father was fascinated by an obscure little aircraft that no one had much noticed. Something was in the wind, and Liz wondered if her father wanted her to marry David simply so that he could learn more about the Walrus.
At one point in the Walrus conversation, David volunteered, “There is a unique feature about the aircraft. Even in the air, the pilot can lift the control column entirely out of the deck and hand it to the co-pilot, who then attaches it on his side.”
That reply came from Ivan, Viv, and Liz almost simultaneously. David laughed and replied,
“The aircraft is so slow and steady that it will fly itself while the transfer is being made.”
No one else was really convinced, but Liz noticed that Barbara was obviously thinking deeply. Lord only knew what she thought.
On impulse, Liz looked at Viv and nodded. Viv immediately left the room and came back a minute later to announce, “There are some golfers having delightful difficulties on the eighth hole.”
There was a mad rush for the terrace, bordered by a low stone wall on which was mounted the telescope. Ivan insisted that David have the first look at a large portly man reaching into the water with a club, trying to inch his ball back toward the bank. As Providence would have it, he reached a little too far, teetered for a moment, and splashed into the muddy water. Amid joyous laughter, David relinquished the telescope to his host. Even Mrs. Bolsky picked up binoculars.
It was Viv who took David firmly by his sleeve and led him through the house to another lawn, off to the side. Liz followed, and Viv soon disappeared.
Liz was in a maroon velvet scoop-necked dress with no belt, and she reached back for the zipper, drawing it all the way down. She was facing David, some ten feet away, but it was clear from his expression that he knew what she was doing. She slipped the dress off her shoulders, and the weight of it immediately dropped it to the grass. Because of her height, she had trouble getting slips long enough, and this one was above her knees. However, it was her best piece of lingerie with lots of creamy off-white lace. Standing as straight as possible, with a severe expression, she impersonated a fashion model. David didn’t run away. In fact, he approached smiling, but slowly, as if he didn’t want to spoil the show. When he was almost within reach, Liz put her hands to the silk straps on her shoulders with a questioning expression. David nodded, and then, a few seconds later, put his hands to her bare midriff. His hands were cold at first, and Liz jumped a little. He began to withdraw, but she put her own hands over his, and brought them back to her. She asked,
“Have you done this before?”
“A few times, actually.”
Liz, liking the honesty, replied, “I wasn’t sure what would happen tonight. However, since I hate children, I’ve taken precautions.”
“I want children not to be my own. I have some precautions in my jacket pocket.”
Liz found herself laughing as she sank slowly to the ground.
As they were afterwards stretched out on the grass, David said, “I take it that this is your answer.”
“Good. It did occur to me that it might be a going away present.”
“It’s nice that we know each other so little.”
“There’s much to explore.”
They soon heard voices in the house just above them. Liz got back into her clothes fairly quickly, but David’s uniform had grass stains. There were also a couple of buttons missing from his shirt. Liz worked on him for a bit, and said,
“If you don’t move very much, your tie will cover the missing buttons.”
“I don’t think that will fool anyone. We might as well make our announcement.”
“Yes. A very quick wedding before you go to sea.”
Moving unobtrusively into the house, they found general hilarity and a detailed discussion of the events on the golf course. It turned out that the man on his hands and knees in the muddy water of the lake had summoned his caddy to help him out. Unfortunately, the middle-aged caddies considered themselves ‘professional’, and their duties didn’t include pulling golfers out of water hazards. The two partners had then rushed up to be of assistance, and there was some disagreement as to the next sequence.
The golfer had been half hauled out when, according to Viv, their grip had slipped and he had this time fallen full length on his back in the water. According to her father’s version,
“The partners were about to be pulled in, and they let him go to save themselves. That’s why he was so mad at them.”
The members of the club, wealthy and powerful, didn’t do slapstick comedy well. This golfer had had an impressive tantrum.
Liz figured that she and David had been well into their proceedings by this time. The golfer had eventually gotten out and calmed enough to drop another ball. However, still not having achieved the ideal emotional state for an approach to a difficult green, he shanked the ball into the water. He then threw his club into the middle of the lake, and marched, dripping, back toward the clubhouse. Viv said, “People’s shoes make funny squeaking noises when they’re soaked, and other people laugh at them.”
Ivan responded, “I don’t think his caddy laughed, but he did follow his golfer at a respectful, and therefore safe, distance. The rule seems to be that the caddy follows the golfer under all circumstances, but isn’t expected to display undue gallantry.”
In this atmosphere, the announcement Liz made was, of necessity, anti-climactic. However, Viv and her father managed to change gears and extend congratulations with happy faces. Mrs. Bolsky congratulated the couple with more restrained enthusiasm.
Ivan, seemingly realizing the need for the right sort of gesture, called for a toast. Liz had just raised her glass when she felt something go definitely wrong. Shortly thereafter, her stockings and underwear fell down. Evidently, like the golfer, her altered emotional state had interfered with her proper functioning, in this case, the adjustment of her fastenings. However, unlike the golfer, she was able to laugh along with the others. The men were then banished from the room while, still holding her glass, she was set to rights.
After dinner, when she was alone with Viv in the corner of the room, Liz said, “It’s a good thing there was a golf incident just then.”
“If there hadn’t been, I would’ve smelled smoke coming up from the basement.”
“You’re good at improvising, Viv.”
“I’ve had a lot of varied experience.”
“Have you ever undressed in front of a man other than a doctor?”
“In a war zone with no rest rooms, women tend to squat in the fields no matter who’s watching. I’ve also posed for artists. But I’m not like you, Liz. I only want men as friends. There are whole ranges of things I don’t feel or hardly know about. Not only sex, but flirtation, titillation, and other subtleties.”
“I guess a lot of it is silly.”
“Not if you enjoy it. I play other kinds of games.”
“Like air combat?”
“I suppose so.”
“Too scary for me.”
“Scary for everyone. But addictive in a funny kind of way.”
At the end of the evening, Liz asked Viv to drive them back so that she and David could sit in the rumble seat.