At the Beach
Lagonda Beach, Florida, March 3, 1942
Marie-Claude Serrault, against all her prior expectations and imaginings, found herself in the passenger seat of a twin-engined private aircraft which was on a submarine patrol. As the owner and pilot banked and turned slowly at five thousand feet to reveal yet another expanse of light blue ocean, she attempted to search it systematically with her eyes, looking for any break in the surface. It was, really, hard monotonous work. Her eyes and neck got tired, and she was forever seeing little things that turned out to be nothing. But, still, it was part of an exciting new life which she infinitely preferred to the old one.
She, Charlotte, and Hans had been in Florida a week, leaving Klaus and Frank Scrutt in Cincinnati to run the railway while Annette kept track of the many things the men were likely to forget or ignore.
They had come, not to vacation, but to try to discover whether there was anything at all, no matter how insignificant, which could be done to mitigate the U-boat onslaught. It had already exceeded anything anyone had imagined. There were hardly any defenses against it. Virtually all the escort ships were required to operate with the fleets, and the few left couldn't begin to protect the hundreds of tankers.
The U-boat crews, veterans of over two years of war, acted as if they were on holiday. There were no tough convoy escorts to penetrate, and almost no air defense to worry about. They surfaced at night, picked out the tankers against the brightly lit coastline, and ran in, overhauling them easily when necessary. The prudent U-boat commander conserved torpedoes by reaching ideal position, and then fired only one tube. In most cases, the tanker would have her back broken, and would settle slowly in a pool of blazing oil or gasoline. The light generated was often sufficient so that the submarine could cruise slowly past, her crew at the rail snapping pictures with their Leicas.
There were, for the moment, sufficient stockpiles of oil in the northeast so that the interruption of the tanker flow didn't interfere with war industries. On the other hand, it would take many months, long after the tanks in the northeast were dry, to organize something resembling a defense. Moreover, at anything like the current rate of loss, the tanker fleet would soon be depleted to the point of not being able to keep up the supply even if the U-boat threat were mastered. It was also getting increasingly difficult to find crews for the tankers.
They had, however, some resources. The Erich Stuhlenkamp Fund, for which a new manager had been found, was generating money. Charlotte was using a little of it to hire civilian pilots to fly submarine patrols in private planes during the daytime. Even though they wouldn't be able to do anything to a U-boat, submarines ordinarily kept clear of aircraft and submerged if they came close. If they could drive the U-boats a little further off shore during the daytime, it would get them that much further from the tankers hugging the coast. It would also mean that, even at night, it would take them a little longer to run in to the best hunting areas.
It was relatively easy to find willing pilots and a nondescript collection of aircraft. For example, the gentleman in the pilot seat beside Marie-Claude was a retired banker who had little to do these days, and had been happy to volunteer himself and his aircraft. He refused any sort of compensation, and seemed particularly pleased to have Marie- Claude come with him. He had remarked more than once that, with her young eyes, she was far more likely than he to see a submarine.
It was when they had been out for over an hour that Marie-Claude finally did see something a little different, a pattern of white foam like that produced by waves braking over a ledge. Without taking her eyes off the spot, she had difficulty attracting the notice of the pilot. She thought he was a little deaf, and, of course, the noise of the engines didn't help.
Finally, by poking him in the arm and gesturing, while still keeping her eyes on the spot, she got his attention. But, then, he couldn't see anything. She began to suspect that his vision wasn't good enough to justify his being in the air at all, but it was too late to worry about that. He did eventually turn in the right direction, but, then, the nose of the plane threatened to block her view. Half screaming at him, she got him to ease off to the left a little.
They were about a mile up, and Marie-Claude was soon able to make out the long black shape, half under water, as it broke through the light sea. The banker did finally manage to make out the submarine, and sent in a radio report. He afterwards said,
"It won't do much good. They don't have anything to send out, and the tankers can't just turn back."
"The men on the sub must have seen us by now."
"I'm surprised they're still on the surface. We must look like a light bomber with our twin engines."
To Marie-Claude, the dark shape, so sleek and fast, looked very menacing, more like a poisonous amphibian than a shark, and she was rather alarmed when her companion said,
"We'll put a scare into them."
They immediately went into a sharp bank, peeling off like a fighter plane in the newsreels, and then went into a wild dive with their engines screaming at an ever higher pitch.
The submarine, which would have been right in their sights if they had had any, showed winking lights. There was just time for Marie-Claude to think that they were sending a message before bullets began ripping through the wing, only a few feet from her.
Terrified as she was, Marie-Claud realized that her banker, half-blind though he might be, was still a good pilot. Her stomach might be being left behind, but his sharp turn left the bullets behind. The aircraft seemed to be still in one piece, and he continued to weave violently as they came down close to the water and made their escape. When they were out of range, he said,
"Those are tough people. Submariners are supposed to be mortally afraid of airplanes."
Marie-Claude was herself in a state of euphoria, which was tempered only slightly when the banker said,
"I have no idea where we are. I'll just go west until we hit land."
It wasn't long before Marie-Claude could see land, and then she could see Route 1 running parallel to the coast. They turned south along it, and, with the aid of a road map, she was soon able to locate them.
Marie-Claude was quite excited about her adventure, but Hans said that it proved only that it was useless to send out civilian planes on submarine patrol. She supposed that he was right, but could hardly imagine what else they could do.
Since there was, indeed, nothing else to do, Charlotte suggested renting a boat, with the idea of seeing what conditions were like off the coast, particularly at night. With the gasoline rationing, they found it easier to rent a sailboat, an old thirty foot sloop.
They set out late in the afternoon. Charlotte had done some sailing, and claimed that it was one of the easiest arts to master, much simpler than non-sailors realized. Marie- Claude found that, with all sails set in the light breeze, the boat practically steered itself. Only a slight pressure on the wheel was required to keep to a fairly straight course. Hans took his turn next, and Marie-Claude was gratified to see that he didn't do much, if at all, better than she. They practiced coming about a couple of times, and Charlotte concluded,
"That's about it. If the wind blows up, we take down some of the sails. If the wind drops, we just sit."
It was a gray day, pleasantly cool, with only a light southwest breeze and low swell. Heading southeast on a starboard reach, Marie-Claude sat watching. This was another new experience, hopefully less dangerous, but still exciting. She had, she thought, as much love of nature as the next person, more, for example, than Charlotte. Indeed, she often talked of her occasional trips into the French countryside.
None of that, or even the flight in the airplane, had prepared Marie-Claude for the placid immensity of the sea that now surrounded her. The setting sun, an unabashed red- gold, lit the darkening blues of the east with shades and tones she had never seen before, blurring the horizon with a clear, and somewhat intimidating, intimation of the black night to come. She said to Charlotte,
"If I were the captain of a U-boat looking at this, I'd just go on forever, and never stop to torpedo anyone."
"I'm afraid that, in his mind, all of this will only add glory to the kill. Instead or burning men alive, he'll fit it into some awful Tuetonic Valhalla."
Hans, who now took exception to Charlotte's anti-German remarks, replied,
"He'll just be a man at war, like the others. The British and Americans don't hold their fire because the surroundings are beautiful."
Hans would himself be going into the army in a matter of weeks, and Marie-Claude was secretly afraid that he might turn out to be just like the U-boat captain. But that wasn't really so bad. She and Charlotte had discussed the matter, and Charlotte had said,
"Hans is totally different from Erich. He'll be a first-class soldier, and Klaus says the best soldiers are less likely to be killed."
It sounded like a convenient fiction to Marie-Claude, but she had found that, more than anything else, her job with Charlotte consisted in helping the other woman believe what she needed to believe.
When they were some two miles offshore, they noticed a cloud of smoke to the south. The binoculars revealed the bridge and bows of a tanker, heavily laden, crawling north along the coast. She was as close to shore as she could be without seriously risking running aground, and was probably fairly safe until dark.
Hauling in the sheet and pointing as close as they could to the wind, they settled on a course which would take them just offshore of the ship. The wind picked up a little, and, wetting their lee rail at times, they sped southward. However, the darkness fell faster than they could close the distance. Within an hour, the ship had disappeared. She was, of course, running without lights.
In order to avoid a possible collision, they came about and headed north northeast to let the tanker overtake them. Charlotte remarked,
"If we can't see the tanker enough to avoid colliding with her, I can't imagine how the U-boats will find her."
"There's no moon, and it's getting pretty dark. She may be safe tonight."
It was likely that there was at least one submarine closing the coast, but there was virtually no possibility of seeing such a low shape on the water. While they were themselves somewhat more conspicuous with their sails, an enemy submarine would hardly bother to machine-gun a mere sailboat.
Despite the impossibility of seeing anything, all three occupants of the boat had been staring seaward in the direction of the anticipated danger. It was finally Charlotte who turned around and burst out,
"My God, look at the shore!"
On the beach some miles away there was clearly visible an amusement park with lights outlining a ferris wheel and roller coaster. Lower down, there was, for miles, a continuous string of lights and neon signs. The effect wasn't that of pinpricks of light, but of a massive glow radiating outward and upward. Marie-Claude asked,
"Isn't there supposed to be a blackout?"
"Yes, there is."
He then continued with a sigh,
"Anyway, we won't have any trouble finding our way home. I had a feeling that I was losing track of our position."
Just as he finished speaking, Charlotte pointed abruptly toward the beach just south of the amusement park. Moving into sharp focus was the tanker. They could clearly see boats dangling from the davits. Charlotte pointed out,
"They've got the boats swung out off the deck already to drop."
"I don't blame them. There may be a sub maneuvering for position right now. Probably not far from us."
They again scanned the waters around them, but could see nothing when they looked away from the beach. They continued on the same course as the tanker gradually pulled even with them. When she got opposite the amusement park. The lights there were so bright that, against them, they could make out the outline of a man standing on the bridge looking out to sea. He had no more chance they they did of seeing a submarine, but he was looking anyway. Charlotte asked Hans,
"They don't carry any guns, do they?"
"They might have a few hunting rifles, but that would be it."
"What would they do if they did see a sub?"
"I suppose they could turn directly for the shore and beach the ship. It's momentum would carry it a long way over the sand even after they grounded. Then they might get away in the boats before they were torpedoed."
"It would take courage of an unusual kind for a captain to do that. Everyone would say that he was a coward."
"Well, little as they can see, they may mistake us for a sub. Then, if they beach themselves, we can sail in and take off the captain. We won't have room for the others, but you can tell him how brave he is."
People who didn't know Hans might not have known that he was joking. Marie-Claude laughed, somewhat nervously. It wasn't an impossible scenario. Similarly, it wasn't impossible that the tanker's crew would open up on them with whatever firearms they might have on board.
In the event, the tanker ploughed by, only a half mile distant, apparently without seeing their sails. It was now almost midnight, and, after a few minutes, they tacked across the ship's wake for the harbor.
After they had landed, they heard a loud noise that sounded like an
explosion in the distance, but Marie-Claude couldn't be sure.
Marie-Claude's first action on waking was to listen to the radio. A tanker had been torpedoed off the coast a few miles north of them. There seemed to be only two survivors. It could have been a different tanker, but she doubted it.
Charlotte was extremely affected by the news, Hans less so. But one thing was clear to all of them. It was much more important to get the lights put out than to try to carry on further experiments with private planes.
Right after breakfast, Marie-Claude and Hans got in the rented car and headed for the Coast Guard Headquarters while Charlotte went to City Hall. Marie-Claude, full of last night's events and prepared to be dramatic, was somewhat deflated when there seemed to be no one but a middle-aged female secretary at the small Coast Guard station. She was nevertheless launching into her prepared complaint when the secretary responded,
"I know, hon, it's terrible. Those men being killed just because people won't turn out their lights. You can send a written complaint to the captain, but it won't do any good. The Coast Guard can only enforce the blackout on the water. Go see the local authorities and see if you can light a fire under them."
There was a chance that one of the officers might turn up in a few hours, but it hardly seemed worth it to wait.
Charlotte had hardly had any better luck. She said,
"I found out right off that they don't want to turn out the lights. The clerk of city council sent me to the police department. They told me it was the Coast Guard's responsibility. They also said that the amusement park is outside city limits. I checked, and that part is true. They wanted me to go to the county sheriff, but I went back to city hall and managed to talk with a member of the council. He said that they tried to enforce the blackout, but that the local businessmen object. They say it'll hurt their business if they have to turn out their lights."
Hans was quite angry. He found it hard to understand that anyone would be willing to profit at the expense of what had happened the night before. Charlotte replied,
"I'm afraid I'm not surprised. It could happen anywhere, but particularly in Florida. This is a tourist state. That means that there are a great many sharks preying, in one way or another, on out-of-towners whose defenses are temporarily down. There's every kind of crookedness here, including selling people house lots which turn out to be under water. It won't do much good to appeal to the better nature of these people. A lot of them don't have any."
Marie-Claude asked what they were going to do.
"I'll get in touch with some local lawyers and start some legal actions against the worst of the offenders. But we can't get an injunction against everyone who has a neon sign. For that we need to generate enough publicity to force local politicians to enforce the blackout. We might dash off a letter to the editor of the local paper for a start."
The next day, another tanker had been sunk off the Florida coast. Charlotte and Marie-Claude composed the letter, and, not content to mail it, they took it to the office. Once there, they managed to get an interview with the editor, a Mr. Jack Lang. He was a relatively young man, better educated and spoken than Marie-Claude would have guessed from the quality of his paper. He also showed a certain understanding and sympathy for their point of view. In the end, however, he refused to print even a short form of the letter, much less the one in which the sinking of one of the tankers was attributed to the lights of the amusement park. His reason was simple.
"Our advertizers wouldn't tolerate it. At least half of them are burning lights along the beach every night. If they withdraw their ads, we'll be out of business. No paper can make it on the sale of papers alone."
"Well, I'll become an advertizer, then. I'll take out a full page ad with my message on it."
That stopped Mr. Lang for a minute. He then responded slowly.
"Since you didn't even ask what a full page ad would cost, I see that you're a rich lady. You want to mount a crusade, and use my paper to do it."
"Yes. We want these people here to stop helping the Germans sink our ships, kill our seamen, and imperil our national defense. Does that sound crackpot?"
"The fact is, an ad like that wouldn't work, even if you ran it every day for a month. At the end of the month I'd lose most of my other advertizing, and then you'll go back where you came from. And the Sun-Observer will be finished."
Charlotte showed signs of leaving in high indignation, but Marie-Claude touched her arm and smiled at Mr. Lang. He, somewhat encouraged, said,
"I know you think I'm just like the others, willing to have men killed for personal greed. But you don't understand."
Charlotte settled again in her seat to listen.
"You might not know it from my paper, but I've been trying to raise the level of civility around here. Most of the local people are neanderthals. The tourists we get here are, on the whole, the most crass that you can find anywhere. Sophisticated people wouldn't go near one of the local so- called nightclubs. They're the ones who'd adapt rather well to a blackout. They'd be happy with a candlelit restaurant and a shaded light over the front door. They go to Palm Beach and other places. The tourists who stop here are ones who've made a little money, often dishonestly, in places like New York. The men wear loud clothes and can't utter a single sentence without obscenity or blasphemy. The women wear loud clothes that are too tight and too young. Both get more obnoxious the more they drink. They think, quite rightly, that they wouldn't be welcome in a place that isn't garish. Unfortunately, being garish includes being brightly lit. The local businessmen know this perfectly well. No power on earth will get them to turn out their lights."
Charlotte replied plaintively,
"Isn't there anything at all we can do?"
Mr. Lang relaxed visibly, as if he had just been allowed to join the right side.
"You might get them to put up screens behind the signs to hide them from the water."
"That would help a little, but not much. From the water we often didn't see individual lights. Even when the tanker wasn't opposite the amusement park, the overall glow showed it in relief. I'm sure that's what allowed the U-boat to see it."
"Well, you have to start with something that people will read instead of crumpling up and throwing in the wastebasket. If you write a letter describing your experience and suggesting screens behind the signs, I'll print it. Make it clear at the beginning that you understand the importance of the lights for the local businesses. But you can write the letter in such a way that the more intelligent readers will realize that there shouldn't be any lights at all."
Marie-Claude agreed enthusiastically and they soon found themselves seated in front of a typewriter in the newsroom. They produced something which was at least a step in the right direction, and which pleased Mr. Lang. As he saw them out the door, he promised,
"If your letter doesn't cause a storm of protest, I'll give you support in an editorial."
Later, at the hotel, Charlotte raised the question of using Erich's fund to buy Mr. Lang's paper and mount what he called a crusade, with or without him. She then asked, with a little smile, whether Erich would have approved of such a course of action. Hans replied,
"He would've thought it hopeless, but he'd have enjoyed irritating some of these obnoxious assholes."
Marie-Claude was a little shocked at Hans' language, but laughed and replied,
"I can see that you're ready to join the army, Hans."
It was decided to look further into the possibility of buying the paper.
Mr. Bubba Howard, owner and manager of the amusement park, lived in a trailer on the beach. As he was fond of telling his friends, he had had to beg, borrow, and steal everything he could to buy the decrepit little park three years previously. There was consequently nothing left over for a house. None of this bothered Mr. Howard a great deal. He had everything he wanted in his trailer, and his house girl, Mina, kept things just clean and tidy enough to be comfortable.
Mina was, indeed, a very good girl. Ugly enough so that she couldn't command a high price, she nevertheless satisfied his minimal but rather idiosyncratic sexual needs. In reward for these and other virtues, Howard often brought her flowers, gave her little presents, and addressed her as Wilhelmina. No one else had ever done any of those things.
Mina, now forty-five, had had an unusually difficult early life, but had always said prayers regularly, even when she thought she wouldn't be welcome at church. She always prayed for the welfare of her five sisters and three brothers, her mother, and their various dependents. This part of the prayer was, however, rather mechanical and stylized. It was only when she prayed for the continued health and happiness of Mr. Bubba Howard that her enthusiasm came to the fore.
On this day, as on many others, Bubba rolled out of his trailer about ten, stretched, and then burped contentedly. He next began his rounds of the park, more to reassure himself that everything was still there than for any other reason. The ferris wheel and roller coaster would have been condemned by a building inspector, but for the happy circumstance that there was no building inspector. The township had virtually no organized government, and the county only a minimal one. Still, Howard was a fairly skilled mechanic, and he did his maintenance diligently. He thought that no one was likely to be catapulted off either contraption.
Since the park didn't open until six on weekdays, and there was still plenty of time for the chores, Howard wandered across the main road to Chuck's Wild West Rodeo and Hot Dog Palace for breakfast. Mina would certainly have been delighted to make his breakfast in the trailer, but he enjoyed the company of the regulars who gathered at Chuck's every morning. This was even more the case since he had given up drinking some years ago, and was thus without the bar-room society in which he had spent so many years.
Chuck's, a little too far out of town for the businessmen, attracted workmen, local truck drivers, and delivery men. In the morning, there would be only an occasional tourist. Bubba was among the minority who were self-employed, and was also the largest property holder in the crowd. He didn't, however, take that opportunity to play the lord of the manor. On the contrary, he frequently referred to his past as a cotton picker in Alabama, and it took very little prodding to make him expand on that topic. People like himself on the plantations had, he said, been treated very much like the black slaves who had done the same work in the past. There was one story he particularly liked to repeat.
"One hot day, my cousin, Billy Ray, he passed clean out in the fields. Heat stroke, I guess it must've been. The overseer came over and just kind of poked at him with the toe of his boot. Billy Ray didn't hardly move an inch. The overseer told me to get a pail of water and throw it over him. I knew he was worse'n that so I ran up to the big house so's they could call the doctor.
I get there and the old cook, she starts screamin at me, tellin me don't never come nowhere near the house. Just like the old days when the house servants wouldn't let the field boys near the gentry. Anyhow, with Billy Ray like that, I wasn't lettin that stop me. So I got up on the porch and old lady Comstock herself come out. I tried to ask her to call a doctor, but she don't even listen. Just orders me back to the field.
Then, before I know what's happened, there's the overseer with a shotgun, all set to blow me away. Seems like he saw me head for the house and grabs his gun. I was fired and marched off that place before I could say another word. Billy Ray didn't die, but he never was the same after that."
Whenever he finished this story, Bubba would shake his head and stare balefully out the window, as if looking for some plantation owners on whom to take his revenge. Then, as often as not, he would add,
"I'm just lucky I was smart enough to get out. The others are still there."
There was never anyone to dispute these sentiments at Chuck's. Although Bubba was probably the only one who had ever actually picked cotton, there was a generalized dislike of even small businessmen who wore ties, much less suits, or who displayed any pretensions whatever. Indeed, any stranger who spoke with the ease and facility of Bubba Howard would have been regarded with suspicion for that reason alone.
Bubba walked back the long way, entering his property from the beach instead of the front gate. Mina would be at work in the trailer, and Manning Jackson, his part-time assistant and security guard, wouldn't arrive for some time. Bubba was happy just to stroll alone through the property he felt himself so lucky to possess.
Right after he had passed No. 3 Hot Dog Stand and the TOSS-A-RING booth, he noticed a Ford in the front parking lot. It was, he saw, a rental car from the only agency in the area. That meant someone out-of-town, almost certainly a tourist. Or, it might just possibly be a salesman whose own car had broken down. Approaching cautiously, Howard saw, without being seen, a woman looking in the window of the office shack.
Although she would anywhere be considered a good-looking woman, Bubba didn't like what he saw. If it had been an attractive young woman wearing a pretty sexy dress, even a very expensive one, he would have called out, and would have attempted to flirt with her. But this one, he knew, was dressed in expensive good taste. Bubba wasn't an expert on women's clothing, but he did know that the price of this woman's brown leather pumps alone would have dressed Mina for a whole year. He also resented it. Paying so much for such simple things was a waste, a particular kind of waste in which such people took pride. It was like lighting one's cigar with a ten dollar bill. It was an insult and affront to any man who had ever worked hard to buy his wife a pair of high-heeled shoes, and then gotten ones this woman would have sneered at.
Bubba also didn't like it that this woman was young, probably about thirty. The aged rich weren't so bad. He might even be rich some day, although, of course, not the same kind of rich. But the young rich were the ones who had never worked, who didn't even know what it was like to work. Besides that, rich women were worse than the men. The women hardly knew the meaning of money at all. They just charged everything, leaving a husband or father to pay. They more or less thought anything they took a fancy to was theirs. They might even steal things, knowing that there would always be someone to bribe the storekeeper and the police. There had been a rich girl who had stolen souvenirs from one of the stands. Bubba felt anger anew when he remembered how he had let himself be persuaded not to prosecute.
Not finding anyone in the office shack, the woman set off along one of the gravel paths. Bubba, showing surprising agility for one of his bulk, followed silently, always keeping behind something. He didn't find her terribly attractive, quite apart from his ideological objections. Her breasts were probably not even half the size of Mina's, and she didn't have a rear end that a man could grab hold of properly. Nor did she have a nice walk. Just straight ahead, her heels briskly crunching over the gravel.
It wasn't long before the woman arrived at the Gay Nineties Dance Hall. This was a small open area with a varnished plywood floor, and it was surrounded by pillars which didn't hold anything up. These were actually spare lengths of sewer pipe which Bubba had painted white, and which Mina had decorated with painted flowers and wreaths. She liked bright red and green a lot, but some were pink and orange. At one end was a little bandstand, and, on a plywood screen behind it, Mina had painted a big picture of a Victorian lady. She was in a long red dress and had black hair piled high on top of her head.
Around the floor, next to the pillars, were some benches Bubba had made out of driftwood. The arm-rests at the ends of each bench were in the style of old-fashioned wrought-iron, but were actually made of corrugated iron strips which Bubba had bent into the appropriate curves. When they finished the dance hall, Mina had been delighted, and had insisted that they themselves have the first dance in it.
The sign for the Gay Nineties was a large plywood one on two poles which straddled the gravel path. Mina, again, had painted it with a red and orange background and fancy pink letters. Bubba had then cut out the holes in the letters with a drill and fret-saw. At night, they shone a searchlight at it from the back, so that intense beams of light came through the letters.
When the lady got near the sign, she gave a funny movement, but kept going under and past it. Then, when she got to the Gay Nineties itself, she seemed to half fall against one of the pillars. Bubba, somewhat alarmed, moved closer, but positioned himself so that he was screened by the Roaring Twenties Ice Cream Parlor. To his amazement, the woman was laughing, laughing so hard that she could barely stand.
By this time, Bubba was beginning to burn. He was pretty sure that he knew why this visitor had come. After all, it was ocean front property. Bubba had been able to afford it in the first place only because it was far from fashionable places, and had been mostly swamp. Bubba, largely by his own labor, had cleared the swamp and brought in additional sand for the beach. The water from the swamp had been channelled into two parallel creeks which drained the area, and also provided seclusion.
Rich people always wanted secluded places so they wouldn't have to mix with their inferiors. This woman wanted to buy his place, tear down everything he had built, and put up an expensive house. It would be in what they called good taste, and wouldn't even be visible from the road. She might preserve some little thing, like the sign to the Gay Nineties, so that she and her friends could laugh at it. The worst of it all was that the rich were always cheap. She'd offer him half what his property was worth, not even enough to pay the mortgage. And then, when he refused it, she'd turn on her heel and never even look at him again.
Bubba thought this woman needed to be raped. He didn't want to do it himself, quite apart from fear of consequences. But he wanted to see the expression on her face.
It was too bad that she hadn't come later, so that Manning Jackson would be around. Manning, while not good for much, might well attack a woman like that if he found her poking around in a secluded place. Then, when he'd finished, Bubba, who'd be watching, would run up, pretend to rescue the lady, and chase Manning off. No one would ever catch the unknown intruder, and the woman probably wouldn't even call the police. But Bubba would help her try to pull her torn clothes together. If she was real nice, he might even lend her some of Mina's. Bubba liked the idea of having this woman cringe half-naked in front of him and beg him for something to cover herself with. By that time, she probably wouldn't be in much of a mood to laugh at the Gay Nineties.
Still behind the Roaring Twenties, Bubba returned to reality. Manning wouldn't be there for at least an hour, and the lady was now walking across the dance floor, stopping to smile at the picture behind the bandstand.
After following the uninvited visitor through the park, Bubba was almost inclined to let her go without saying anything. But his curiosity got the better of him. She might, after all, offer him a half million dollars for his property. He was sure she had it. Having always been able to disguise his feelings effectively, Bubba now called out in a jovial tone. The lady stopped, smiled, and approached him.
At first, he couldn't understand what she wanted. She talked about tankers being torpedoed along the coast, and wasn't it too bad. Bubba agreed affably enough, adding that he had once been a stoker in a ship's engine room. Then she finally got to the point. She wanted him to turn off his lights at night. His first reaction, before he really had a chance to think about it, was simply,
"You can't run an amusement park without lights, lady."
It turned out that she was really serious. Bubba again began to feel as he had when watching her at the Gay Nineties. He said, more menacingly than she probably realized,
"You're asking me to go out of business, lady."
And yet, still, she kept on. Bubba, smiling, replied,
"If I didn't run at night, I'd have to make more on Saturday and Sunday afternoons."
The lady brightened. She was all set to offer him money to close at night, probably ten dollars a week. Bubba continued,
"Maybe you could help."
"Oh yes, I'd be delighted to ..."
Bubba cut her off, and said,
"We have a little burlesque place here where a couple of girls from town come and do a little strip-tease, not all the way, but pretty much."
Bubba then paused. This was the kind of lady who wasn't offended by the mere mention of strip-tease, but she was having trouble figuring out what he wanted. After a minute's hesitation, she replied cheerfully,
"Perhaps you need some new costumes. I could .."
Here Bubba paused and gestured down at the woman's body. He then continued,
"You could do a dance and take off most of your clothes. You could keep your shoes and stockings on, and maybe a little something else."
The woman's expression was almost what Bubba had pictured in his brief fantasy when he had had Manning attack her. He couldn't resist adding laconically.
"And then, of course, it'll be mighty lonely here Saturday night in the dark. After you do your show, you could stick around with me. We could go down on the beach with a blanket and .."
The lady had now regained the power of speech.
"I know that you're trying to shock me, and it doesn't work. But I can also see that you refuse even to take seriously the fact that your lights are directly responsible for men being burned alive out there. Do you deny that that's what's happening?"
She then gestured out to sea. Bubba got angry and began shouting. The woman stood her ground and threatened to have his electricity turned off. That caused Bubba to stop and smile. He replied,
"That wouldn't make much difference. I have my own power plant."
He here gestured over to the generator shack behind some trees. The lady rejoined heatedly,
"Someone ought to blow it up!"
She then turned abruptly and made for her car. Bubba thought she looked a lot prettier when she was angry.
It was a little later when Manning showed up, unusually early. With his rolling gait and the pistol tucked proudly into his belt, he looked like something out of a wild west movie. He wouldn't be the quick-draw hero, or even the villain, but a figure of fun, perhaps the cook, who comes bumbling on to the scene too late to do anything.
As if his general appearance weren't enough, Manning had a way of sticking out his lower lip and rolling it down. That was probably what made some people think he was feeble- minded. He really wasn't, though. Admittedly slow, and almost illiterate, Bubba knew Manning to have a reasonably good understanding of the world around him. In fact, his outlook wasn't so different from Bubba's own. Like his employer, Manning knew that he was considered "poor white trash" by a great many people. Also, like the older man, he was quick to notice any sort of condescending behavior toward him.
But, while they both angered easily in such circumstances, the similarity ended there. Manning would react, entirely without subtlety, in direct and predictable ways. Bubba also knew him to have a vicious streak. He just knew that, if Manning had seen the lady prancing around alone, he would have raped her. He now called out,
"Too bad you didn't get here earlier. You missed some fun."
Manning came rushing up, all curious to find out. Bubba, reconsidering, replied,
After all, he didn't want to give Manning the idea that he could attack any woman he found alone in the park. He could get sued that way. Manning looked disappointed, but then Bubba remembered something.
"By the way, keep an eye on the generator shack the next few days. There was a crazy lady here who said our lights helped the German subs or some such shit. Anyhow, she threatened to blow it up."
Lagonda Beach, March 6, 1942
At dinner at the hotel, Charlotte shocked Marie-Claude deeply by coming down in a red and white striped dress somewhat reminiscent of a barber pole, particularly when she spun to emphasize the similarity. She also wore earrings in the shape of birdcages, complete with little imitation birds. Marie-Claude, after recovering, asked her if she were trying to make herself inconspicuous in their present surroundings. Charlotte replied,
"Very close to the mark. I bought these things today in those shops by the beach. I have plans for our favorite amusement park tonight."
The plans turned out to be beautifully simple, and Marie- Claude found herself agreeing to them happily.
It was dark when they parked between two other cars in the gravel lot. Since the amusement park advertized a picnic grove, Hans carried a picnic basket. The basket contained unusual fare, a five pound bag of granulated sugar and an equal amount of sand from the beach.
Charlotte wanted to proceed immediately to the Gay Nineties Dance Hall, where a victrola was audible, but Hans claimed not to know how to dance. Marie-Claude had wormed out of Charlotte the fact that, on her previous visit, she had threatened to blow up the power plant. She and Hans were both sceptical of Charlotte's claim that, with her new clothes and her hair swept up, she wouldn't be recognized. In consequence, they insisted that they keep in the thickest part of the crowd and engage in no transactions of any kind, even to the extent of buying a Coke or Moxie.
In the meantime, Hans visually traced the wires that ran overhead and powered the rides and lights. By the end of a half hour, he had discovered the trunk from which they branched, and which led to a shack behind some trees. When he got close enough to actually hear the motor, he pointed out the object of their search.
The gravel path came within about fifty yards of the power plant, which
was in a corner of the lot. Anyone who left the crowd moving along the
path to cross the intervening ground would be conspicuous. On the other
hand, there was a row of low pines screening the shack itself. Once behind
them, an intruder would be virtually invisible. There was no one who looked
like a guard around, and Hans, even if caught, could say he was only making
a dash behind the trees to satisfy a natural need.