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A Spring Vacation
St. Marc, Haiti, March 20, 1935
It was the first time Cynthia Harding had been outside the country since being taken to Europe as a teenager. The memory of that earlier holiday was a rather mixed one. It was, in fact, in the French Channel port of Dieppe, while her parents were surfeited with fish, that she had begun to display those characteristics which later led to such difficulties. St. Marc rather reminded her of Dieppe. It was also a fishing port, but, like Dieppe, it lacked the overpowering stench that permeated such places as Gloucester and Reykjavik. Also like Dieppe, there was a touch of gaity just under the surface. The people, despite their obvious and extreme poverty, looked ready for fun and games.
At the very next table in the cafe there was an elegant and good-looking man who visibly appreciated her. It seemed likely that there would now be an opportunity to recreate some of those earlier adventures. Of course, back in Washington, she wouldn't have had an affair with a black man. But they spoke French here, and race hardly made any difference.
Mr. Howard Pardoe, seeming to read her thoughts, said,
"I imagine, Cynthia, that you'd really enjoy Haiti if you could spend some time here on your own. Despite everything, it's a cultured and interesting place. In that theatre over there you could have seen, more than a hundred years ago, a play by Moliere."
Cynthia knew that her companion was gilding her particular lily a bit. She had had a good basic education which showed through in some places, but, apart from an occasional biography, she seldom read a serious book. Instead of pointing that out to Mr. Pardoe, who did read thoughtfully, she asked,
"How are things going out at the airfield?"
"That's rather a long story with many uncertainties. However, I'm pretty sure that you chose the right commander. You did choose Captain Whitby, didn't you?"
"I suppose as much as anyone. You feel comfortable about him, then?"
"I like him and enjoy his company. But almost everything he does makes me profoundly uneasy. I think he not only marches to the proverbial different drummer, but lives in a world of his own invention."
Mr. Pardoe removed his spectacles, held them at arm's length, and looked through them with a squint. It was as if he thought that this unusual use of his lenses would enable him to see the world as Whitby saw it. Apparently seeing something disturbing, he put his glasses back on with a decisive gesture. He then summed up.
"The fact that he's highly rational most of the time doesn't fool me for a minute. Captain Whitby might end by doing almost anything."
Cynthia was puzzled and anxious.
"That sounds to me as if I didn't pick the right man."
"Not in the least. We're preparing for war against a nation which contains a high proportion of crazy fanatics. Since they'll have superior equipment, we need a bunch of even crazier ones. It takes a man like Whitby to lead them. If you're through with your drink, we'll go out there. Then you can see for yourself."
It was Angel who greeted them at the little house tucked betwen the airfield and the beach.
"Nice to see you again, Cynthia. Moses will be back in a bit. He's up at Gonaives."
Cynthia had recommended approval of the satellite airfield up the coast, but had the impression that it was intended for little more than an emergency landing field. She now gathered that it amounted to more than that. In fact, Angel seemed a little uncomfortable about it.
"A lot's happened since we got here. We haven't really tried to teach the general air strategy that Moses believes in. Apart from making the kids into the best fliers we can, we've tried to produce a combat atmosphere. To that end, Moses took all the members of the old flying circus, plus some other experienced pilots, and sent them up to Gonaives. They're the enemy, so to speak."
Angel gave a nervous laugh, and, when no one else said anything, continued,
"Anyhow, we have an exercise scheduled later, so you can see for yourself."
Cynthia was still dressed for travelling, but Angel equipped her like herself, with tan shorts and tunic, and a sort of bush hat. Everything was too big, but the belt held it all together. Only the boots were impossible, but Cynthia was found a pair of sandals.
"We wear boots on account of the snakes, but we'll keep you well clear of the underbrush."
"I've always rather liked snakes, but I guess these are poisonous."
"Some are. I don't like them even when they aren't."
While they had been in the house, there had been the noise of airplanes taking off and landing. However, as the two women left Howard Pardoe with his tea and set out across the airfield, there was almost no sound coming from any direction.
The aircraft were dispersed around the field, each one being surrounded by a U-shaped wall of sandbags. It was some time before they reached the nearest cluster of three of these shelters. Voices were now audible, and Angel explained,
"We have two pilots for each ship. They take turns flying it, and also do most of the maintenance and repair. This section here is on ground alert, which means that they're supposed to wait until unfriendly or unidentified aircraft are spotted. Then they take off immediately and investigate or intercept."
Angel gestured with her open palm, and smiled somewhat apologetically,
"We'd like them to do schoolwork when they're waiting, but they spend most of their time shooting craps for pennies."
The voices were now distinct, and did indeed concern the exchange of money. As the women rounded a wall of sandbags there came into view, first a Seversky fighter, and then, just beyond the emplacement, an open hut affair with a thatched roof. Six boys lay on the parched ground in a circle around the dice.
The boys were even younger than Cynthia had expected. However, there was also a hard middle-aged look about some of them. These particular faces wouldn't have been out of place at a race track, and a couple of the smaller boys looked like jockeys.
Angel addressed them familiarly, as if they were someone else's little brothers. She introduced Cynthia by her first name, and explained that she worked with the Mr. O'Brien (Commander Murphy) who had recruited them. One of the boys, obviously the brash one, burst out,
"Hey, are you a pilot too? We'll let you shoot at us if you'll keep us company afterwards."
Before Cynthia could reply, there were other voices. Among them was a big blond boy who looked as if he had come off a farm.
"Yore ass, Jake. If she's like Angel, you better hide in the ditch."
In this short time it was accepted that Cynthia was a demon fighter pilot, the equal of Angel. Angel winked at her, and said to them,
"Lucky for you she's not flying today."
Then to Cynthia, she said,
"These guys are getting better. Timmy here gave me quite a battle the other day before I put a few slugs in his tail."
As they wandered away, Cynthia raised the subject of her greatest concern.
"It sounds as if you really are shooting at each other. But I understood that no one's been killed yet."
"Not in combat. We've had two killed in accidents. One flying into a hill in a rainsquall, and the other foolish daredevil stuff. We've actually made the combat less dangerous than just the process of learning to fly a hot airplane."
"I saw from the reports that we've had four planes shot down. Isn't it a bit of luck that all the pilots were able to parachute?"
"Well, there are really only two ways that a pilot can be killed. One is by being actually shot. We started by taking the fifty caliber gun out of each ship, leaving only the thirty. Then we gave them only enough ammunition for a few bursts. In addition, there's the armor on the cockpit sides, the armored seat, and the armored headrest. About the only way a pilot could be hit would from the side, and then only his head would be exposed. We older pilots make sure not to shoot from that angle, and there's almost no channce of the others shooting that well."
"So no pilot has been wounded at all?"
"Not by a bullet. The other way of getting killed is to be trapped in a burning plane. That's almost happened. Of course, in the first place, it's very hard to shoot down a modern fighter with just a thirty and limited ammunition. The most we generally get is a few holes in the wings or fuselage. But we do have a tremendous amount of combat, and it does happen. Moses has managed to modify the fuel tanks to make fire less likely. It's still scary, but I guess that's what we're here for."
"I must admit, I hadn't expected the boys to be quite so young. Commander Murphy and his assistants do all the recruiting, and I hadn't met any of them."
"It's the right age to learn to fly. Most of them don't have enough sense to be afraid."
"Do they talk about flying all the time?"
"Very seldom anything else. When someone does get shot down, the kid that got him walks on air for weeks. We old pilots place our bullets in areas that don't matter much, but we get on a kid's tail and stay on it. Then he knows we could get him if we wanteed to."
They arrived at a series of interconnected shacks, and Angel said,
"We call this headqyarters, but it's really just where everyone hangs out and has fun."
"I can hear something happening just behind that wall there."
"That's the boxing ring. A lot of these kids were boxers at home. They often stage little bouts and bet on them. Let's go see."
Aside from a few glances from the couple of dozen spectators, the women's presence seemed to make no difference. Above then, in a homemade ring, were two boys, almost naked, sweating profusely in the heat. Cynthia realized that the blows were so quick that she could hardly see them. It was the sound of them landing that sickened her. Angel shouted in her ear over the tumult,
"They never seem to have rounds. They just fight to exhaustion."
Even as she spoke, it was apparent that one of the boys was slowing. Cynthia did happen to see the left hook which caught him in the mouth and knocked his mouthpiece across the ring. Then there was an indistinct flurry of blows. The result was that the boy was knocked spinning against the ropes. When he rolled off, dazed and staggering, his gloves were hardly above his waist. The other boy moved back, wound up, and dropped him with a right to the face.
The winner was immediately mobbed by yelling boys. Others, swearing and muttering, reached reluctantly into their pockets. One of the latter, having paid his debts, went up to assist the loser in his attempts to crawl out of the ring.
Angel led Cynthia to an adjoining shack, where they each had a moderately cool drink. Angel gestured in the direction of the boxing ring and explained,
"That last blow wasn't fair by ordinary standards. However, the hundred and fifty kids here have a society with its own rules. They enforce them themselves. Moses and Howard and I take control in some areas, but we stay out of others."
"You stick mostly to the flying?"
"We do that, but one of the most important things is right here. In the evenings and early mornings I teach English, Moses teaches math and science, and Howard teaches history. We dole out money to kids on the basis of the effort that they put in. Then they gamble on everything they can think of. Some of them spend their winnings on the girls who come in to clean."
Cynthia noticed how quickly Angel, now happily leading her through the classrooms, rebounded from her occasional realizations that she was living in a savage and brutal little society.
"We may have to bribe them to learn, but they learn quite a lot. More than they would in an ordinary school at home. I used to teach in a school in Kansas, so I have some basis for comparison."
As the discussion moved to Angel's past, they had another drink, this time coke with rum in it. It transpired that Angel had actually been a nun teaching in a parochial school in Atchison, Kansas when Whitby had come to do stunts for the county fair. As a reputable former officer and air ace, he had been invited to talk to the children at the school. One thing had then led to another.
"So it's been a long way around, but I'm happy to be back teaching again. And I get a kind of respect and attention that I never got before."
"This is a hard age to teach, too, isn't it?"
"I guess so, but we don't have any problems. We can do all kinds of interesting things in class that wouldn't have been allowed at home. I teach literature that would've given the nuns fits. Moses teaches them how to make bombs, and Howard teaches the history and culture of Japan."
"It sounds as if they'll know their enemy, and how to deal with him."
"That was the idea. We also teach judo and the other Japanese martial arts."
Angel then looked at her watch and exclaimed,
"I almost forgot. It's about time for the attack. The kids don't know about it, but we'd better get out near the ditch."
Cynthia, not understanding, followed her out of the building.
In the gathering dusk Angel and Cynthia walked over the open ground toward the beach. After they had gone a couple of hundred yards, Angel stopped and gestured back in the direction of the headquarters.
"We could watch from here, but I think you'll get more of the effect if we duck into that trench over there. We dug it for defensive purposes, so we might as well use it."
Cynthia was somewhat alarmed, but didn't want to betray her feelings by asking questions. She instead adjusted her hat to what she took to be a more military angle and scanned the sky.
Angel heard the planes before Cynthia did, and headed for the ditch. They were half-way there when a deafening wail broke out, apparently from a little wooden tower nearby. Then there was the roar of engines starting and planes taxiing down the field. Angel waved toward them as she shouted,
"That'll be the section of Skunk squadron that we visited. They'll be too late to get much altitude before the attack. I'll just check for snakes down here before you get in."
The trench was fairly deep, but, standing on the bottom, Cynthia could just see over the top.
"I still can't see any planes, Angel."
"Neither can I. We will, though."
It was then, as the roar of the planes taking off began to recede, that there came a higher pitched noise. Angel heard it, too.
"Those are the Hawker Hart biplanes. They sound like that when they dive."
A throng of boys came running and jumped into the trench. One of them almost landed on Cynthia, and was pressed up against her. The screaming of engines was now much louder, and it seemed headed right for them. Cynthia ducked down, squeezed tight between Angel and the boy, and attempted to cover her ears. She did manage to look directly up in time to see a plane hurtling right down on her. Then it darted out of sight, at the same time releasing a black object. There were a number of loud crashes as heavy objects hit and broke through the various makeshift roofs of the nearby headquarters building. No sooner had the planes roared off than Angel shouted out,
"Remember, newcomers, this is the time to keep down."
Almost on cue, machine gun fire broke out from various directions. Cynthia, thankful that nothing had dropped on her head, huddled lower against the boy. He smelled like a young antelope, and seemed to be practically naked. She wondered if he were one of the boxers she had seen earlier.
There was again a warning roar of engines drawing near, lower-toned this time. Amid the percussive thump of guns, bullets seemed to be flying all around. Some whined and smacked into the dirt, while others ricocheted off rocks and tore through the building. Angel found Cynthia's ear and whispered,
"I imagine Moses is with them, but he'll probably pretend to have returned just in time to intercept the atttack. He may claim to have shot one down into the sea."
As soon as the attack was over, they straggled back to the building. The scene inside was one of surprising disorder. In one of the lounge areas a sandbag had been dropped through the roof, bursting on the floor. The sand had scattered everywhere. Next door, near the pool table, it was evident that a bag of garbage had been dropped. While the odor was considerable, nothing was broken, and several people could have cleaned up the mess in an hour. The reaction of the boys was out of all proportion to the damage. Cursing and shouting, some rushed around frantically. Others stood quietly and looked as if they wanted to kill someone.
Angel motioned Cynthia aside and whispered,
"It'a amazing how serious and angry they get. And yet, they must know that there isn't really an enemy air force up at Gonaives."
"It looks to me as if they might lynch one of the attacking pilots if they shot him down."
"I hope it hasn't gone quite that far. Of course, Moses created this
fiction to give them the feeling of being at war. We found that these kids
are just as gullible as our old aerial circus audiences. Let's go over
and meet Moses when he lands."
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