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The Sunny South
St. Marc, Haiti, January 4, 1934
The steam coaster which shuttled between the capital of Port au Prince and the northern city of Cap Haitien stopped at the small port of St. Marc twice a week. Since most people went by water, as opposed to risking a journey on the accident prone railway, the landing of the steamer was something of a social event. The many people of all categories who hung about the town square came down to the wharf simply to see who might arrive, and to get the latest news.
Mr. Howard Pardoe had waited in his room at the Hotel de Paris, watching the crowd gather on the wharf. It was only when he saw the ship in the offing that he went downstairs and walked the few hundred yards to the waterfront. He had, during the last few months, become a familiar figure in St. Marc.
Despite his denials, almost everyone took Mr. Pardoe for an American government official connected in some way with the occupation of Haiti by the United States Marines, now in its last year. As such, he was invited to the homes of those members of the elite who had chosen to forsake the capital for the picturesque little port up the coast. Having got him at their tables and in their salons, they were delighted to discover an American whose French was quite good, and who was a man of the world. He was, in their terms, something quite close to a gentleman. Even though his hosts were sometimes confused by Mr. Pardoe's dry humor, and would have preferred a real man of letters, he was popular enough to be invited back.
A couple of local gentlemen had told him they were sorry that he was leaving, and had then looked a little put out when he explained that he wasn't leaving. Their looks suggested that, however nice an American might be, Haiti had had a few too many foreigners for rather too long.
Mr. Pardoe knew, as he stepped on to the wharf, that he needn't worry about the attitude of the crowd. It was true that there were occasional drunken celebrations of the forthcoming independence, and thus what amounted to celebrations of the departure of the Americans. There were also many anti-American pieces in the newspapers, as well as angry satatements from young political firebrands. For example, one of these latter had declined an official invitation to a reception for a visiting American commission with the words,
"Nigger Jacques Roumain refuses to associate with whites."
On the other hand, none of these sentiments had much application to daily life. Almost any white was well treated in Haiti, even when he came as an exploiter. The Americans were perceived as being much less greedy than the Europeans, and were really quite popular. Right now, people made way for Mr. Pardoe in his white suit as he moved to the edge of the wharf.
The coaster was old and rusty. Just aft of an old- fashioned open bridge there was a tall straight stack which produced surprising volumes of gritty black smoke. As the ship drifted in to the wharf, bells could be heard for the engines. Almost immediately, there was a convulsive shudder as she went hard astern to check her way. Lines were thrown with a multitude of volunteers to catch them and slip them over the bollards. As the gangway came down, Mr. Pardoe scanned the rail for his visitor. There was only one white face, and that belonged to a large muscular bearded man. He looked like a marine who had spent the last six months fighting Caco insurgents up in the mountains.
While Mr. Pardoe, used to naval officers in Washington, was still trying to decide whether the man at the rail could be Captain Moses Whitby, the latter spotted him, conspicuous as the only white in the crowd below, and waved cheerily.
Mr. Pardoe's first action, after introducing himself to Captain Whitby, was to take him up to the town square for a drink. Apart from the mountains of the Artibonite looming purple in the distance, the scene could have been mistaken for one of the less fashionable neighborhoods of Paris. Leading off from the square were densely populated streets with Parisian names. The houses were all stucco, some in pastel colors, and all had balconies. Vegetable and fruit vendors were occasionally visible as they sought places in the shade.
The square itself was a fairly large cobbled area, baked mostly white by the intense sunlight. In the center there was a broken fountain and a statue of Dessalines, a hero of the original revolution of the slaves against the French. Since the square afforded no shade, it was empty except for a couple of slow moving horse-drawn vehicles and an ancient Renault taxi with a flat tire. A black and white cat crossed the square slowly, evidently being careful not to over-exert itself in the heat.
The stone Mairie, or town hall, dominated the square on one side with a flag hanging limply from its pole. A few of the people coming up from the wharf squatted in the scant shade that the Mairie provided. With their backs pressed against the stone in complete immobility, an observer with a sense of fantasy might have taken them for ground-level gargoyles. A greater part of the crowd drifted toward the real center of power, the customs house directly across the square.
In the successful revolt in the eighteenth century, the land had been distributed to the newly freed slaves, a tiny plot for each. There was thus no provision for a landowner class of the sort that flourished elsewhere in the Caribbean. Nevertheless, an elite of mixed French and black descent had arisen, and had differentiated itself from the black masses who spoke, not French, but Creole. The mulatre elite, while highly factionalized, held the real power almost all of the time. It thus needed a source of funds to enable it to live in appropriate style.
Most of the government revenue came, not though ordinary taxes, but on a duty on exports of coffee and other goods. Since these revenues were collected at the customs houses, the members of the elite appointed themselves and their relatives as customs officials. Once there, they simply helped themselves to whatever share of the revenues they felt they needed.
This share was sufficient to support a whole class of ladies and gentlemen who founded and read little literary reviews, and who travelled to Paris whenever possible. Their style had been considerably cramped by the American marine General Russell, who considered these practices corrupt. The local elite was therefore prepared to risk instability, and even violence, in order to be able to return to the customs houses in full force.
It was thus not surprising that the best cafe in town, a copy of the Cafe de la Paix in Paris, was located next to the customs house. Captain Whitby, seated with Mr. Pardoe at a table under the awning, unlimbered his wartime French on the waiter. Perhaps because this was a bit removed from standard French, not to mention the Creole of the waiter, the captain ended up with a curiously colored drink of which he had taken only one sip. His companion offered to intervene, but Captain Whitby smiled and refused.
"It reminds me of France. It was hard to get anything without alcohol, and, when you did, it tasted like castor oil."
"The food's pretty good, though. At least, I haven't gotten sick yet."
"Angel will be in next week. When she gets here, we'll figure out what to cook from the things that are available. We can do a lot with just beans and wheat. We haven't had much else a lot of the time."
"You'll have to get used to being rich. Not only are you getting a good salary, but the money goes forever here. If you want to, you can live in the biggest house you can find, and fill it with servants."
"I don't think we could adjust to that. A little house on the beach near the airfield will do. Can you bank the rest of the money for me?"
"Certainly. That's about what I'm doing myself, except that I'll stay here in town. Local politics are unpredictable, and it's necessary to keep in touch with all factions."
Whitby held up both hands, as if the very idea of politics would upset that part of his stomach which hadn't already been disorganized by his drink.
"I'll be happy to leave that side of things entirely to you. How's the airfield?"
"Marginal. The American occupation built a system of airfields that were used for a time. Now, everthing's going to hell again. There's a creek running across one runway. However, with the price of labor here, we can soon put that to rights."
"You make it sound as if we can buy anything we want here, or do anything we want. Are there any restrictions at all?"
"Captain, I've been scratching around here for some time now, and I've learned enough of the local lingo to talk with all kinds of people. It'll help if I tell you just three things about Haiti. One. During a recent presidential election, one of the leading papers in Port au Prince urged its readers to poison the incumbent president. Two. It is legally proper and blameless to kill anyone who's widely believed to be a werewolf. Three. There is a loa, or Voodoo god, whose name is "Bull with three testicles." It's thought normal for a man possessed by this spirit to jump on any passersby, men, women, or children, and bugger them."
Whitby looked impressed.
"Sounds interesting. Any chance of seeing voodoo in action?"
"You see the less picturesque aspects of it all the time. It's just the religion of the country."
"Isn't it African in origin?"
"Yes, but it's also mixed with Catholicism in amusing ways. That bothers the mulatto elite quite a bit. They're embarrassed by voodoo. They think of it as lower class."
"Do the mulattoes have a different religion?"
"They claim to be pure Catholics. Really, they believe in voodoo just as much as the blacks. The difference is just that, when they get sick, they sneak the houngan or mambo in the back door."
"Maybe we could have our very own mambo for the airfield."
"New gods arise quite quickly here. There's one who's the spirit of an American marine. He speaks with a strong American accent and demands bourbon and corned beef."
Captain Whitby was sufficiently pleased to forget himself and take another sip of his drink. After choking and hitting himself violently in the chest with his big left fist, he remarked,
"I think I'm going to like these people. Was it part of their sense of humor to make this marine into a spirit by eating him in the first place?"
"I don't think so. One marine lieutenant was more or less eaten in 1919, but no others. At least, as far as I know. Human sacrifice is originally part of voodoo, but it seems not to be practiced anymore. I don't think you need worry about your pilots."
"It sounds like the perfect place for us. I think I'll keep my boys away from the natives, though. It might be the natives who'd get eaten."
When the waiter returned, the captain admitted that he hadn't eaten since breakfast. This time, he allowed Mr. Pardoe to order for him.
The airfield unfolded itself to Messrs. Pardoe and Whitby immediately as they crossed a ridge and caught a whiff of gentle sea breeze. The trip from town in a horse-drawn vehicle had been short, but, on account of the animal, odiferous. There was a canopy over the passenger section of the rickety open carriage which shaded only the part that Mr. Pardoe had considerately left for his guest. He had also brought along a basket of fruit which the captain declined, seemingly too much occupied with what lay ahead. Pardoe, undeterred, munched and threw out a succession of seeds, pits, and cores.
The future air base was nothing more than two intersecting dirt strips. From the low ridge, it was hardly distinguishable from the surrounding baked and trampled earth leading down to the rocky beach. Descending, they headed for a group of huts around which were ranged a number of aircraft. Several were biplanes of various ages which had been used by the marines and the civilian administration.
In addition, there were six brand-new Seversky fighters. Shiny silver monoplanes with closed cockpits, their nicely faired radial engines and rounded wings suggested strength and stability. While it would be an exaggeration to say that they looked sleek and dangerous, their simple lines contrasted encouragingly with the cluttered aspect of the biplanes.
Major P. de Seversky was, in his way, almost as romantic a figure as Billy Mitchell. With his origins in czarist Russia and his great talent for design, he was also an energetic entrepreneur who would sell anyone anywhere a few fighters. If, for example, the American government turned down his entry under a particular advertized specification, he would be back a week later, with a modified aircraft and a different engine, as an applicant under a different specification. He didn't succeed in selling much to the Army Air Force, and was occasionally ridiculed, but those who knew thought he had as good a chance as anyone of designing a dominant fighter.
The compact little fighters in front of them were, arguably, as good as anything flying. The British were still using biplanes as their first line fighters, as were the French, Italians, and Russians. Even the Japanese hadn't converted entirely to monoplanes. Whitby, Mitchell, and Murphy had all agreed that the most important thing was to get started with training on monoplane fighters. In order to fill out the numbers and provide variety, they had also bought second-hand aircraft from many other sources.
The mechanics were young Haitians who had been trained by the Americans. Also standing around was the collection of local people which tended to follow foreigners, just to see what they were doing. While the mechanics were readying one of the fighters, Whitby looked over the assemblage and spoke quietly to his colleague,
"I'd rather not have everyone in the world watching us, but I guess none of these people are Jap spies."
"I think we'd attract more attention in the long run if we put up barbed wire fences and kept people out. As far as news goes, St. Marc is an awfully long way from Japan. Even further than it is geographically. If there are leaks, they'll come from Washington, not here."
"And then we'll know because Jap tourists and businessmen will start coming to Haiti with cameras."
"Yes. They'd be very conspicuous. And I'd know about it if anyone tried to recruit any locals to spy for them."
Just then the engine of the Seversky started, and further conversation was impossible. It took some time before Whitby was ready to fly. He first walked around the aircraft, inspecting it minutely. He then got into the cockpit, gunned the engine several times, got down again, and had the mechanic get into the cockpit. He then, by means of elaborate gestures, had the mechanic manipulate engine and controls in various ways while he watched and listened. Several times he got very close to the spinning propellor on his tours of inspection. Finally, he got in, had the wheel chocks removed, and taxied to the runway.
As the little ship headed into the light breeze and began its takeoff run, it bounced alarmingly over the rough ground. Still, it gained speed and eventually lifted with an unpleasant whine. Whitby banked slightly and circled slowly as he gradually gained altitude. Then he flew in a series of large ovals, evidently checking the coastline and the landmarks. After that, he headed out to sea. Thus far, he seemed extremely cautious and systematic in everything that he did. That would ordinarily have been a good sign. However, Mr. Pardoe had heard that caution wasn't a desirable characteristic in fighter pilots.
It had always seemed important to Howard Pardoe to carry a badge of office. At BuCon he had had his green celluloid eye shade, and a row of pens and pencils in his shirt pocket. Here in St. Marc, he affected a pair of binoculars slung around his neck in a leather case. While they would be useful in watching the air force he hoped to create, he also used them to look at all manner of things that caught his interest. Sometimes, as a joke, he would follow the progress of a friend on the street with them, and then reproach him with supposed immoral tendencies that could only be detected with binoculars.
It was the work of a few seconds to train the binoculars on the little Seversky, which was otherwise only a speck in the sky. Then a surprising thing happened. When Whitby must have thought he was out of sight of land, he began a series of aerobatic manoevers Mr. Pardoe found astonishing. There were loops, barrel rolls, and outside loops. Most dangerous, there were spins with recoveries almost at sea level. At times it seemed that the new air commander would kill himself before they even got started.
After an hour or more, the Seversky skimmed over the trees and dropped gently on to the runway. When Whitby had taxied up, flicked off the engine and climbed down, he headed for Pardoe.
"Sorry to have kept you waiting so long. I thought I'd better find out what it could do."
"I was watching you with my binoculars. It looked as if you did about everything with it."
"I'm happy with it. It's probably about the best fighter that can be built around that engine."
"So we're in good shape, then?"
"For the moment. Unfortunately, this ship may be obsolete within a year, certainly within two."
"I dare say we'll have the money to buy whatever supercedes it."
"I don't think the Japanese will sell. According to Commander Murphy, they're about to open up some distance between us. They probably already have the new test models."
Mr. Pardoe hadn't known Captain Whitby long enough to know whether he
was a congenital pessimist, or whether he exaggerated difficulties in order
to make his own performance seem more impressive. He supposed that he would
find out soon enough.
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