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Beating the Bushes
Island Park, Idaho, May 4, 1933
The road ran by a cold blue lake so wide that the other side was only a blur. Beyond that far shore, looking north, Cynthia Harding saw a range of mountains, high and bare, which moved off to the east. Behind her, another range reached northeastwardly to meet it. At their junction, some twenty miles distant, but invisible from her perspective, was Crow Pass. In the westerly direction, the lake covered about half of what she could see. Beyond it there was nothing but flat empty ground beneath a threatening, but still bright, sky.
It was spring on the high northern plains, but it seemed more like February to Cynthia. The wind blew hard enough to raise whitecaps on the lake, and to send spray up over the rocks. On land, it tore loose and sent tumbling fragments of the low orange-yellow scrub that seemed to be all that grew. She was cold enough to wonder bitterly how a place that was only a desolate waste could have been given a name that made it sound like a Chicago suburb.
Cynthia was about to retreat to the only shelter, a little cafe at her back, when a sudden realization held her. For almost the first time in her life, she could see no people, and, except for the road, no signs of human habitation. There weren't even any animals, such as the elk or moose she had seen in the preceding days. There wasn't a single bird in the air.
She wondered, as a private joke, if the absence of life had anything to do with the fact that she had crossed the continental divide the day before. At the time, she had wondered what it was, and had asked. She now recalled the answer.
"You can stand there, facing east, and piss in the Atlantic. Then you turn around and piss in the Pacific."
That, she thought, was the west in a nutshell. In a place where a seemingly respectable old man spoke like that to a woman, nature might prove to be no less bizarre and perverse than human society.
The solitary cafe seemed an unlikely place to meet anyone. Cynthia thought it still more unlikely that her aviator would show up. That would be nothing new. Her driver would then take her back to Bozeman, Montana, and the railway. From there she would continue her odyssey in search of the rest of the flyers on the list General Mitchell had given her.
BuCon's research and training establishment had been given a name, OPERATION TEST, but they had found no one suitable to put in charge of it. Some of the old war-time fighter pilots, having long since given up flying, were too settled into civilian life to have any interest in the position. Others were too far gone into alcoholism.
There were a couple who were still functioning mentally, and were still involved in aviation, but who were obviously incapable of running what would be a fair-sized operation. Indeed, one of them was quite close to the image of the itinerant airman which had once caused so much amusement at lunch at the Occidental. Cynthia was very much afraid that Captain Moses Whitby, ret., might turn out to be another such. Tied for fourth among American aces in France, there was nothing to object to there. However, Gerneral Mitchell's recommendation of him had been uncharacteristically guarded.
"I just never understood Moses. He wasn't like any other fighter pilot I've ever seen. He was always out early in the morning doing exercises and lifting weights. Then he'd monkey with his plane along with the mechanics. He flew very well without bravado or any distinctive style. Unlike the others, he didn't drink and didn't go out at night. But he got into fights and half killed a couple of people with his fists. He just didn't seem to understand that the others had to blow off steam occasionally. I'd have gotten rid of him if he hadn't systematically shot down Germans."
Cynthia's curiosity had been aroused by this description, and she had asked if Whitby had the potential to be a leader.
"I shouldn't think so. A real lone wolf. Although the ones he didn't beat up liked him. He's also intelligent. No question about that. But, as I say, I just don't know."
As Cynthia was about to go inside, she noticed a vehicle approaching in the distance and throwing up dust from the gravel road. After it had disappeared around a bend and then reappeared, the car disclosed itself as a tattered old black roadster. When it stopped fifty feet away, Cynthia could see that a young woman was driving. The man sitting beside her, who emerged smiling, was obviously Captain Whitby. The woman drove off as he approached Cynthia, as if abandoning him to her.
Large and muscular with a short carefully trimmed beard, Whitby looked like an old-fashioned blacksmith. On the other hand, his speech, as he greeted Cynthia and remarked humorously on the surroundings, was that of a rather educated man. Again, while there was something definitely military about Whitby, he was, at the same time, unlike any military man Cynthia had ever met. She could already see why General Mitchell had found himn confusing.
After they were seated at a table in front of a window, Cynthia began with her usual preamble, by this time quite polished. When she made it clear that the position in question was a responsible one with a good salary, Whitby acted rather uncomfortable.
"I didn't have it in mind to work for anyone else. My group will contract to test planes for the navy under almost any conditions you want. Apart from that, I don't take orders. I had too much of that in the old days."
"What is it that your group does now?"
"We're a touring air circus. We do acrobatics at county fairs and the like, mostly following the weather. I'm on vacation now. My wife's family has a farm near here. We'll be setting out again next week."
Cynthia had by this time learned enough about flying to ask some intelligent questions, and Whitby answered them. He then continued his account of the air show.
"The culmination of our show is an aerial combat between an American ace and someone we claim to be an ex-German ace, one of the others in the group. This has to be staged, of course. We can't really shoot each other down, and we have to be careful not to accidentally spray the crowd with machine-gun fire."
"You use live ammunition?"
"Yes. But we aim to miss, or occasionally put a few slugs into the wings or tail. Then, later, we can show the holes to anyone who's sceptical."
Whitby described his operation with amusement, and without any apparent misgivings about putting one over on his audience.
"To end the combat we have one of the planes fire a burst, at which point the other pilot pulls a cord that sets off a smoke bomb in the fuselage. Then he puts his ship into a spin and miraculously recovers just in time to stagger in for a landing. Then the ground crew swarms over the plane with fire extinguishers and rescues the pilot."
"That sounds pretty dangerous, even so."
"Well, I'm usually the one who gets shot down, and I can make it look pretty convincing without it's really being dangerous. Of course, we have to please the crowd and have the American win. Lately I've been affecting a German accent, and I go raging around shouting at the crowd after I get out of the plane."
"That part sounds fun."
"It is, at least for a while. The smarter people aren't taken in, but we give a show for our money, unlike the other carnivals. They get people gambling, and then steal them blind."
By this time Cynthia sensed some real possibilities. She also decided that she had better be direct.
"We're really more interested in training pilots than in testing aircraft. It sounds as if your present operation could be converted into a pilot training program and expanded. Would you be comfortable with that?"
"I don't know. Angel and I have enough money as it is, though it's not much by the standards of most people. We like flying and don't have much reason to change."
"The navy badly needs someone to do this. As it is, it's really not prepared for modern warfare. You'd also have the best planes that could be found."
"I would like to get my hands on something more interesting than Jennys."
Cynthia felt as she had in a brief stint as an insurance saleswoman. She also sensed victory.
"General Mitchell said many good things about you, but he said that you didn't seem at all like the other pilots."
Whitby laughed as he hadn't before.
"I used to have tremendous fun with Billy. Once I put in an official request that, if I were killed, I wanted my ashes taken up in a plane and scattered over the German lines. He called me in to talk about that, and I just kept a real straight face and talked about my mother."
"You know, brilliant as he is, there's something about him that invites that."
"He's so serious. Later on, I realized how lucky we were to have him, particularly after he got such a raw deal. But, back then, whenever I had an idle hour, I'd think up something to keep things in flux. I don't think he ever did catch on."
Cynthia felt an urge to recommend Whitby on the spot, but she knew she should ask more questions.
"How many pilots do you have in your flying show?"
"Usually about eight. There's some turnover. We've had four killed, and there are usually a couple that leave after each year. Four of us have been together for years now."
"Have you had fights with your pilots?"
"Not often, but I have had to pop a couple of people."
"I guess you'd have to make those commanding officer type speeches to a couple of hundred pilots."
"Two hundred! Well, I don't give orders. Angel and I decide what we're going to do, and the others seem to come along. Often we talk things over with Zeke and Bob."
"Do you teach people to fly from scratch?"
"We usually get guys who are reasonable flyers to start with, and then teach them aerobatics and dogfighting. Sometimes, though, we pick up someone who looks real good and teach him everything. We got Zeke that way."
"Your wife helps you in all this?
"Yeah, Angel really keeps it all going. She's a very good flyer, the second or third best in the group. Most of the guys can't stay with her, but they'll bust a gut trying to. If she wanted to, she could crash them into the hills."
As Whitby talked about his wife's flying, it was obvious that he was very proud of her. Cynthia put in,
"I'd like to meet her."
"You can. She'll be back to pick me up soon."
"Good. I suppose you must both have been surprised to get an inquiry like this, particularly from a woman."
"Yeah. For one thing, I was surprised that Billy, or anyone, knew where to reach me. Then it did occur to us that he might have attracted a following of deluded cranks. But you did write on official stationery, so it seemed worth while to talk with you."
"Are you sure I'm not a deluded crank now?"
"I can tell the signs by now. You don't look like the type that wants to jump out of a plane using an umbrella for a parachute."
"No, I can reassure you on that point. I've never even been up in a plane, and I'm not sure I want to."
"You'll want to learn to fly if you're going to be involved in this. We'll teach you."
Cynthia felt sudden alarm at the idea, not only of flying, but of doing it according to the safety standards that most likely prevailed in the Whitby aerial circus. It was also not lost on her that Whitby seemed to be assuming that he would be selected for the position. Before she could say anything, the old Ford drew up, and Whitby went to the door.
The woman who got out was blonde, and much younger than Captain Whitby. She had an open, rather pale, face, and her body looked almost as muscular as his own. Dressed in jeans and boots, she paused a moment to get her windblown hair out of her face. In that instant, framed against the lake and the mountains, she struck Cynthia as a creature of the vast empty spaces of the earth.
After a very few minutes of conversation with Angel, it seemed to Cynthia inconceivable that she could ever be capable of real deceit, or even of not stating exactly what was on her mind. Cynthia wondered if that was the reason Whitby hadn't originally brought her in.
It was also a puzzle how Angel had acquired Whitby. He obviously had an eye for ladies, and he could have found a conventionally pretty woman. Moreover, Angel seemed entirely devoid of all the flirtatious little tricks that, in Cynthia's experience, allowed a woman to trap a man such as Whitby. She wondered if it might have been her unusual name. Someone whose own name was Moses might have felt an affinity for an angel, particularly one who could do aerobatics in God's own heaven.
Putting these things from her mind, Cynthia asked Angel if she minded moving around all the time.
"Not really. This is the closest thing we have to home, and we spend about a month a year here. For the rest, I kind of enjoy always flying to some new town. We have a routine all worked out, and we get comfortable pretty quickly."
As Angel and Whitby described it, a basically chaotic way of life sounded settled and sensible enough to satisfy an elderly retired couple. Cynthia, in her turn, explained much more about the politics of the operation than she had intended. Whitby had a way of asking probing, and even personal, questions in a humorously impersonal way. In response, Cynthia found herself dropping a broad hint as to her relation to D. D. Ricketts. Whitby caught on immediately and remarked laughingly to Angel,
"I knew she had to be a very special friend to someone to be sent out here with all that responsibility."
Ready to take umbrage, Cynthia discovered, to her surprise, that a subject which was usually a source of great embarrassment had suddenly become a simple matter of fact. She replied,
"My family would think their worst suspicions had been confirmed if they knew about this. But I have a daughter to support, and things haven't been easy on the whole."
Angel was quick to add her own confession.
"Moses and I aren't really married, and we go out with other people sometimes. I guess whether we have a common-law marriage depends on what state we happen to be in."
There now seemed to be no reason to hold anything back, and Cynthia explained Mitchell's and Murphy's ideas about recruitment, the use of live ammunition, and the likelihood of a foreign location.
Whitby took a few minutes to digest the information, and responded slowly.
"I don't know about having pilots shoot at each other. Single shots aren't much like machine gun bursts anyhow. I'll have to think about that. I do know this, though. Billy isn't going to like my fighter tactics. He's all offense, and I believe in taking the defensive."
"Is this something you've learned with your flying circus?"
"No. It really doesn't apply there. It's something I learned in the war. You see, everyone, including Billy, has a distorted picture of what happened."
As Whitby continued, he absent-mindedly twisted his spoon into a corkscrew.
"Every ace who lived to talk about it avoided dogfights. They kept altitude, watched their tails, and picked off stragglers and lone ships. They took offensive risks only when forced to. There were no exceptions. However, that doesn't sound good, so they lie about it now."
Angel broke in,
"Moses doesn't forget things that have to do with survival. Neither do I."
Whitby looked more intense than at any previous time. It had evidently been a long time since he had had a chance to expound certain ideas.
"There's a way I could defeat an air force trained by any offensive-minded strategist. I'd let them attack and keep my fighters high and beyond the enemy. Their fighter pilots and leaders would all want to engage, so they'd follow. I'd lure them as far away from their base as possible, and wait till they turned for home."
Whitby strung together silverware across the table to represent the front. The salt shaker was the friendly base, and he used his hands to indicate the two air forces. His left hand, representing the friendly fighter force, drew back and up, away from the front line, while the right hand pursued it. Then, the right hand retreated for its side of the line while the left hand also changed direction and followed.
"The minute they turned, I'd dive with my force for the tail of their formation and force them to maneuver before we turned away. After a certain amount of that, they'd really be low on fuel. That's a terrible disadvantage. Then I'd climb again, and get over them. The next time I'd make it look like another feint, but dive right into and through their formation, scattering planes all over the sky. Very quickly, we'd break off and climb again."
"So you could keep doing that as they get lower and lower on fuel?"
"Yes. Each enemy pilot will have the choice of not taking evasive action and being a sitting duck or running out of fuel. If it were a naval battle, the enemy fighters would never get back to their carriers. I'm sure it'd work."
Faced with all this, Cynthia wasn't sure what to say. But she knew that Commander Murphy at BuAero would want to know about Whitby's tactics in detail. She therefore asked him to go through it all more slowly while she took notes.
It was just as Whitby finished his explanations that Cynthia understood a little too well. Whitby's strategy was really best adapted to conditions in France during the war. It entailed letting the enemy bombers bomb one's own base at will while leading their fighters astray. When the base consisted of nothing more than a grassy field with tents around it, there was no harm in letting it be bombed. A modern air base with hangars, fuel storage tanks, and repair facilities was another matter. In naval war, such tactics would be fatal. One's own carriers would be sunk underneath while one was leading the enemy fighters to their destruction. Like so many others, Whitby wanted to fight his last war over again with the benefit of his post-war insights.
This realization presented Cynthia with a conundrum. Was Whitby flexible enough to take account of objections and conceive his strategy anew? She had a suspicion that he wouldn't be, at least when the objections were presented by a woman. She also had the feeling that, behind all that surface self-confidence, there was a highly sensitive person who might react to frustration in unforeseen ways.
Whatever doubts Cynthia might have had, Whitby was excitedly elaborating his plans and virtually hiring himself and Angel for the job. Seemingly realizing that he had gotten rather carried away, he laughed and said,
"I think you're going to be stuck with us. If, as you say, you're only looking at pilots with war experience who're now outside the military, you won't find many qualified ones. Most of the ones who're still flying are more or less degenerates. They'd drink your liquor, steal your money, and then disappear."
Cynthia had already seen enough to know that this was true. She hoped that Whitby was reasonable enough to eventually see that his tactics would have to be modified.
"Commander Murphy and Admiral Ricketts will make the decision. I'm pretty sure that they'll want to talk with you themselves."
She then looked more at Angel than at Whitby and said,
"Then, too, those tactics for air battle over land will have to be adapted for the navy."
Angel gave her a searching look, and Cynthia was sure that she would
start Whitby thinking in the necessary directions.
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