Bill Todd -- Two Aviators
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 Chapter 10

Ivan's Arrival

In late August, Viv got a surprise when she came down for breakfast. Ivan was there. She could tell at a glance that he had recovered.

     Having come unannounced to London, he had spent the night in a hotel, and then come down on an early train. Viv, full of questions for him, was glad that Liz and Barbara were still asleep.

     Ivan was hungry, and, having ordered an omelet, he began to tell Viv about his plans for the Walrus. Half-way through, he laughed and said,

“You already know, don’t you?”

“Joseph Smith and Mutt Summers figured it out, but they haven’t told anyone but Liz and I. The men we work with now don’t know about the sonar.”

“Suffice it to say, it works. We’ve tested it fairly thoroughly, and even figured out where to put the operator and his screen on the Walrus. I have your reports, and we’re ready for the next step.”

     Ivan had already approved the attack tactics with the 37mm cannon. In the time it was taking to procure them, Viv and Liz had practiced target shooting on an old wooden barge anchored off the coast. In addition, they had practiced landing in a small marked-off part of a rural airstrip in preparation for carrier landings. Ivan asked, “Is Liz as good as you in these areas?”

“Not quite, but close. We can approach the target with evasive maneuvers, and still hit it. And it’s not hard to sit the Walrus down in a short space.”

Ivan smiled, a little like a schoolboy playing hooky, and said, “Then, you and I can take a little railway trip to the west. No need to hurry breakfast. There are trains all the time.”

     When Viv went up to get her things, Liz was sitting up in bed. She was as surprised as Viv had been, and also wanted to know how Ivan was. When invited to come along on the ‘mystery’ trip, she declined,

“I’ll stay here and reassure Barbara when she gets up.”

     It was a country railway journey of little stops and a lot of chug-chugging up and down gentle hills.  The windows were all open, and bucolic smells drifted in to make the more allergic people sneeze. Occasionally, a stray air current would bring in some smoke from the engine, but it seemed to be bad form to take any notice of it.

     They eventually got to the town of Dorchester, where they had a wait between trains. It was almost another England. There were people lounging around the station and the tea shop opposite who might as well have been speaking a foreign language. There were horses pulling carts in the street, and the people looked rather like the furze-cutters from a Thomas Hardy novel. Ivan was enjoying it all, pointing to things and people in none too subtle ways.

     As always, Ivan liked to talk with people. He asked one man who was covered with dirt whether he had been sweeping chimneys. The man replied, surprisingly in standard English, “I wish I were, old chap. Chimneys are up in the air. I’ve been down below in the sewers.”

The question, embarrassing Viv, had been put in a humorous way. So was the answer. The conversation continued, Ivan remarking easily that he built and flew airplanes. The man asked him if the planes often crashed, and Ivan responded, “Usually when the pilot’s drunk.”

“Perhaps not drunk enough.”

He then had some advice for Ivan. “When your planes all crash and you lose your money, the best way to hide from your wife and family is to work underground. In my case, they never think to look for a chartered accountant in the sewers.”

Viv found herself somewhat aghast as Ivan smiled at both of them. When their conversant ambled off down the street, Viv asked Ivan, “Did you bring me here to widen my horizon?”

“Only incidentally. The next train will bring with it something different.”

     The next train went south, and the scene gradually changed. The real ocean as opposed to some sheltered inlet, was bestrewn with signs, almost omens. There were different birds in a bigger sky, towns and villages that looked outward rather than inward, and, then, the smell of salt. Finally, the Channel. The same channel as that bordered by the familiar Isle of Wight, but, here, much wider, more part of the Atlantic.

     The ocean they had recently crossed was certainly real enough, but it had been viewed from high on a great ship. As they drew along the low coast, they could see people actually living from the sea. Viv had always been puzzled by the sea chantey about ‘sinking a Spanish pirate in the lowland sea.’ How could a sea be ‘lowland’? However, this one did indeed have a ‘low’ atmosphere about it, reminiscent of the other phrase, ‘going down to the sea in ships.’  

     Portland Harbour was old, and everything was stone, buildings, houses, jetties, and docks. A body of water large enough to provide anchorage for a fleet was contained by a semi-circular stone jetty with several openings, just wide enough for ships. At the moment, only a handful of vessels, large and small, were riding at anchor in the light chop.

     They walked some distance from the station along the harbor perimeter, passing all sorts of dock buildings, and something that looked like a customs house. At one point, a railway track ran down the middle of the street with a shunting engine pushing a few goods wagons in a cloud of steam and smoke. Ivan was obviously excited, again like the schoolboy at large, and Viv could see nirvana approaching.

     It turned out to be a large ship moored against the jetty. Ivan had never seen it, but recognized it from pictures and blueprints. Viv didn’t need to be told that it belonged to a company organized by himself. She didn’t think it particularly beautiful, but she produced a theatrical little shriek. That didn’t fool Ivan, who laughed, but he nonetheless seemed to appreciate the sentiment.

     From the jetty, the ship loomed high over them. There was a man in a little dock house who took them aboard without any fuss, and then left them to explore. After going up several flights of steps, they found themselves on a very large flat deck covered with railway tracks. There were a number of the funny looking little English freight cars scattered about, and Ivan, smiling, pointed down at the deck. The tracks were recessed in much the way as the tracks that ran along the nearby street. Except that, instead of having the tops of the rails even with the street, they were a couple of inches below the surface of the deck. It caused no problems for the railway wheels, but the arrangement made it awkward to walk across the tracks. Viv, knowing Ivan, caught on quickly and asked, “How long does it take to cover up the tracks with planks?”

“Twenty minutes or so.”

“And what would you do with these wagons?”

“They’re old derelicts. We could push them off the stern.”

“And, as long as there’s peace, will we shuttle them to and fro around the world?”

“Mostly between England and France.”

     As they stood at the edge of the deck against the rail, two boys in school uniforms and Eton caps rowed briskly past them in a double shell. Since they were both soaked from the waist down, it seemed that they had launched from a beach, one holding the boat upright while the other got in. Wet or not, they concentrated on their coordinated strokes, and didn’t even look up at the ship. Ivan commented, “If no one shows more curiosity about us than those boys, we’ll be doing well.”

“They’re busy rowing. What about the old sailors idling on the docks?”

“They may think we’ve got too much ship to just transport old freight cars around, but they’re used to inefficiency. England specializes in it.”

“Will we have the first privately owned warship in quite some time?”

“There were the privateers, of course. The war of 1812 had lots of them. Later on, they may have been more like pirates.”

“Will we be pirates who sink U-boats?”

“I’m sure the British government will soon legitimize us.”

“Rather the way Queen Elizabeth legitimized Sir Francis Drake?”

“Yes. For the same reason.”

“Liz and I’ll be flying off this ship. Make sure they don’t try to ground us.”    

      Once ashore, they found a suitable tea shop with a table in the front window that looked out on the busy scene. The waitress addressed Viv as ‘duck’, which pleased her. When the woman went to the kitchen, Viv said to Ivan, “After all, I’m the pilot of an amphibious aircraft. I am a duck.”

“Ducks also don’t sink. In that connection, we ballasted the ship for maximum seaworthiness by filling most of the hold with old lumber and thousands of empty but sealed oil drums. She won’t sink even if she’s torpedoed.”

“How nice! Should I sleep with a helmet so my head won’t hit a bulkhead when the ship’s hit?”

“Might be a good idea.”

“Okay. When do I get to land on the ship?”

“Liz’ husband will be back soon, and he’s used to carrier landings. We might have him show us the way.”

“I’ll be the co-pilot, and I’ll then make the second landing.”

Ivan tasted the tea and made a face, saying, “I hate tea with milk in it.”

“I forgot to tell you. Order lemon tea. Since milk doesn’t mix well with lemons, they won’t put any in.”

“Can’t I just ask for no milk?”

“You don’t understand England, Ivan. I heard of an American who liked those red coats the English wear when fox hunting. So he went to a Bond Street tailor and asked him to make a sport coat out of that material. ‘No sir.’ ‘You make sport coats, don’t you?’ ‘Yes sir.’ ‘You have the red material, don’t you?’ ‘Yes sir.’ ‘Then you can make a sport coat out of it.’ ‘No sir.’”

“I see. You have to circumvent customs without challenging them.”

“The circumvention works with tea, but it won’t with sport coats.”

“I may have to hire someone like Jeeves.”

     After tea, they wandered back to the ship. Viv was now taking up a more critical viewpoint, and asked, “Are those funny-looking snake-like things funnels?”

“Yeah, the original ones would have gotten in the way, so we led them off to the side.”

“I’ve never seen funnels that point down toward the water.”

“They’re forced draught, of course, with the idea of spewing the smoke into the wake.”

“Sounds dramatic.”

“It’s actually something the Japanese do with their carriers. I hope no one makes the connection.”

 “Well the railway on the future flight deck should convince people that it isn’t a carrier. Isn’t a ship also supposed to have some sort of bridge?”

“It would have obstructed the flight deck. But, you can see that little structure sticking out to the side below the level of the flight deck. There’s also one on the other side so that the officers can go from side to side to see when they need to.”

“They must be thrilled about that.”

“Awkward, but, they’ll understand.”

“The ship is certainly odd enough to draw attention. Will the wrong people figure it out.”

“Another thing the ship has that no carrier would have are those railings on both sides of the upper deck.”

 “It looks as if the rail is just low enough to fit under the Walrus’ lower wing and just high enough to keep the aircraft from veering over the side.”

“That doesn’t work on an aircraft carrier which flies planes of different dimensions. A rail such as that would just hit the landing gear of most aircraft and tip them over the side.”

“But a small flying boat like the Walrus has a lot of mass lower down, hardly above the deck, and would be saved.”

“No one would build a carrier just to fly Walrus aircraft.”

“Only you and Eye-Eye.”

As they left the ship, Viv said, “Between the rails on the flight deck and the barrels in the holds, you’ve thought deeply about safety, Ivan. More than usual.”

“It’s because I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep you off it.”

Bill Todd -- Two Aviators
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