August 31, 1939
Shirley Blythe looked up at the sudden sound of many flapping wings. The congregation of seagulls, so placid a moment before, was beating the air, the birds squabbling frantically as they gained enough height to clear the top of the hangar, out of range of the gravel spraying from the skidding wheel of Gilbert Ford's bicycle. Their affronted screeching woke the little grizzle-coated terrier who had been sleeping in the shade of a broad canvas wing. Arthritic joints notwithstanding, Muggins leapt to her feet and bounded toward the boy, voicing her delight in a series of seagull-provoking yips.
"Uncle Shirley!" the boy cried, stumbling over the frame of the falling bike, but keeping his feet. He bent to greet the dog pawing at his knees, then asked, "Is that it?"
Shirley smiled to himself and wiped engine grease onto the rag hanging from the pocket of his cover-alls. "Sure is," he said, patting the pockmarked fuselage of his old Curtiss HS-2L with a nearly-clean hand. "Smoothest water landing you can make without your own feathers."
Gil rolled his eyes. "Not that old rubbish heap! The Cub!"
"Oh!" Shirley said, aping surprise. "You mean that?"
He gestured vaguely toward the edge of the landing strip, where a gleaming, chrome-yellow Piper J-3 Cub shone smugly in the August sunshine. Blunt wings stretched out either side of a rounded cabin painted that improbably primary shade, embellished along the sides with black racing stripes that ended in tiny zigzags of lightning. Perhaps these were meant to imply speed or agility. Paired with the Cub's eggy silhouette, the bolts conveyed only nervous energy. With a red nub in the middle of the propellor on its snub little nose, the Cub looked like nothing so much as a cartoon rabbit, poised to fly under the magical power of its fuzzy yellow ears.
"That," Gil scoffed. "Of course that!"
"Well then why did you ask?"
Gil ignored this and made for the Cub, eating up the distance with long, brisk strides that challenged Muggins to keep pace.
"Oh!" he moaned, reaching out a tentative hand to stroke the sunshine struts. "Hello, gorgeous."
"It's been here all summer," Shirley said, following his nephew unhurriedly. "Unlike some."
Gil groaned. "Dad made me work in his office. Two whole months! He said he wants me to learn about Business."
Shirley chuckled softly at the capital letter in the boy's tone. Ken Ford could try to make his golden-haired, spirited son into a Man of World, but first he'd have to get him to sit still for five minutes together. The only place Shirley had ever seen Gil completely attentive was in a cockpit. Two full months in Ken's office must have had him climbing the walls.
At the moment, Gil was fairly vibrating with excitement.
"Can I fly it? Please, Uncle Shirley, please?"
"You can fly in it," Shirley said evenly.
Gil's face fell. "Oh, come on. I can fly! You say so all the time. I'm a born pilot!"
"This," Shirley said, resting a strong, brown hand on the cheerful fuselage, "is not a toy."
"And I'm not a child!" Gil protested. "I'll be 19 next month. Oh, please, Uncle Shirley, I'll be careful!"
Shirley shook his head, impervious to his nephew's wheedling appeal. "Today, I fly; you observe. If you pay attention, maybe tomorrow . . ."
"Oh, I will," Gil said, already moving toward the hangar in search of goggles and flight jacket, shedding his rucksack as he went.
When he was far enough away, Shirley allowed himself a smile. It was to good have him back.
Half an hour later, a forsaken Muggins watched Shirley and Gil lift clear of the runway, climbing up, up, up into the brilliant blue of a clear summer afternoon. Shirley felt a bit cramped so close to the instruments, with Gil's knobbly knees tucked up nearly under his elbows. Still, the salt breeze blew crisply through the Cub's open cabin, cooled by the sun-dazzled waves of Four Winds harbor, mirroring the limitless possibility of the cloudless sky.
The Cub did not fly fast and it did not fly high. Five minutes after takeoff, they were barely at 500 ft, but that was no matter. No hurry. Shirley had been flying the Cub all summer, giving lessons and tours to the renters and sometimes just leaving the world behind for a while. Every time he went up, alone or not, he heard Walt Whitman singing in his ear:
From Paumanok starting I fly like a bird,
Around and around to soar to sing the idea of all,
To the north betaking myself to sing there arctic songs,
To Kanada till I absorb Kanada in myself
What would Whitman think of actual flight? Of this startling yellow absurdity hurtling through the heavens? Of this vast Canada? Shirley Blythe was not much of a one for yawping, but he resolved to sound one over the roofs of the world for good old Walt's sake next time he flew alone.
As the Cub swung out over the shore, Shirley spotted the unmistakable bulk of Bertie Shakespeare Drew's four black percherons, dark manes flying in the wind as they waded through the roiling surf. The storm that had pounded this coast three days past had long ago left the sky traceless, but the sea remembered. Waves crashed against the red cliffs down beyond the rock shore, sending plumes of foamy spray skyward, and even the beach-sea swirled and hissed, lapping at the horses' bellies as they dragged their traps through the swells. A storm like that tore the Irish moss from the underwater rocks and set it bobbing free in the churning sea. Then, the percherons would go to work, dredging it up from the tide in sopping traps so heavy that only the strongest animals could budge them. Bertie Shakespeare and his sons dried the stuff, baled it, and sent it off to a factory on the mainland where it had something improbable to do with canned food. They were beautiful animals, though, and Bertie was rightly proud of them.
Farther out over the harbor now and Shirley relaxed, setting the machine to cruise and looking back over his shoulder to check on Gil. His nephew flashed him a brilliant grin and a thumbs up, evidently unbothered by the cramped quarters. Shirley pulled the Cub into a lazy circle, letting it drift slow and wide over the water.
An energetic tap at his shoulder made Shirley cock his head to listen.
"Look!" Gil shouted over the whir of propellor and the rush of wind. "Carl!"
The boy gestured to starboard, indicating the distinctive green hull of the Sweet Flag plowing the waves far below. Homeward bound, by the look of her.
Good. He shouldn't have gone out yesterday. Sea still unsettled. Blasted birds.
Shirley nodded back. Then, he dipped the Cub's nose and eased into a slow dive.
It wasn't a machine for aerial acrobatics, but it flew low and slow, perfect for buzzing by to say hello. Down and down, until they were barely 100 feet above the sea when they passed over the Sweet Flag. Carl must have waved because Gil was waving back, leaning so far out of the cabin that Shirley had to roll in the other direction to maintain equilibrium.
I'll call later.
Shirley turned toward the coast, aiming for the Four Winds light. From there, it was only a quick jaunt over to the now-mellow green house that Rilla and Ken had bought as a summer place after Cornelia Bryant had passed. They might have preferred to take over the old House of Dreams, but that abode was occupied year-round now, a retirement home for the happy couple who had named it nearly fifty years ago. Anne Blythe had teased that Gilbert would never stop working unless he were physically separated from the Ingleside telephone. Leslie had come back for the party, of course, staying in a comfortable hotel with Persis' family, but with Owen gone, she had been happy to turn the keys over to her old friends. Provided, she said, that they looked after the roses.
Shirley craned his neck as they passed over the House of Dreams. Yes, there was Mother, the bright circle of her broad straw hat unmistakable amidst the green and partifloral of her beloved garden. She looked up at the Cub's whine and there went Gil again, insisting on testing the limits of balance.
Over the red harbor roads and toward the Glen. Past Ingleside, where the Blythe girls had already hung buntings and canopies for tomorrow's anniversary party. Rilla and Ken Ford had been married twenty years and planned to mark the occasion with a grand gathering of family, friends, and neighbors.
Wasn't once enough?
Well, that was a problem for tomorrow. For now, the Cub soared out over Rainbow Valley, over the manse, over the village. Farther on, its shadow fell over the neighborless little gray house on the Lowbridge Road before turning toward fields and woods and marshy places where reeds grew in thick, whispering stands. Home was down there somewhere, but they had broken free of its gravity, tethered only by the promise of a warm supper when sunset had put an edge on the nipping wind. But for now, the Cub sailed on, toward an indistinct horizon where the blue of sea and the blue of sky mingled, indistinguishable one from the other.
"Can I really fly it tomorrow?" Gil asked, knees bouncing so that they rattled the teacups on Shirley's kitchen table.
Shirley scooped a short stack of letters out of spilling range and onto a nearby chair. The mail was the only thing out of place in the one-room apartment: clean-swept and sparsely furnished, the single bookshelf bearing one green volume and a regimented row of back issues of Aerial Age Weekly, the neat bed with corners tight enough to please both Susan and the RAF.
"That depends," Shirley answered, reaching down to scratch Muggins' ears as she sat beside him. "Tell me, what's a good cruising speed for that machine?"
"75 miles per hour," Gil answered without hesitation.
"And how high would you take it?"
"Oh, not over 1,000 feet. Though I notice you kept us very low today."
Shirley nodded. "And your RPMs at cruising would be . . ."
Gil squinted. "2150?"
"And on takeoff . . ."
"Lift the tail first. I know! I was listening!"
"Alright," Shirley conceded. "You pass."
"I can fly?"
"Tomorrow morning. Before the party. Be here at 8."
Gil's face split in the sort of grin native to toothpaste advertisements. He took another piece of shortbread from the plate in the center of the table and crammed it into his mouth.
Shirley buried his nose in his teacup to keep from grinning back. Gilbert Ford was entirely too pleased with himself already and it wouldn't do to praise him, even if Shirley had been the fawning sort.
"I read in the paper that the RAF is doing air defense tests," Gil said through a mouthful of crumbs. "Thousands of planes flying over Britain, just getting ready."
Shirley did not reply, glad of the shielding cup.
"Do you think there'll be another war, Uncle Shirley?"
"I hope not," Shirley replied. There was no ignoring the headlines, nor the none-too-reassuring reassurances broadcast over the radio. This wasn't like last time, when all the world had been ambushed by the guns of August. This time, it stalked them in the open, as a wolfpack circling a limping calf on the tundra, the inexorable noose closing no matter which way they dashed.
"What was it like?" Gil asked, shining-eyed and breathless.
What was it like? Even if there were words, they wouldn't make any sense to him.
"I puked a lot."
"What?" Gil recoiled, not having expected any answer, let alone one so incongruous. But how could Shirley tell him anything but the baldest facts?
Shirley shrugged. "Every time I got in a fight — a real fight — I'd puke when it was over."
Gil wrinkled his nose. But it was not every day that Uncle Shirley talked about the War at all, and Gil was not about to give up the opportunity to find out whatever he could.
"I read about you in Flying Aces," he ventured.
Shirley snorted. "Was I Kerry Keene or Phineas Pinkham?"
"No, it was really you!" replied earnest Gil. "They publish real news, too, you know."
"Very old news, if I was in it."
"You were great," Gil breathed, gray-blue eyes alight.
Gil appeared not to hear him. "They had your picture and everything. Thirty-four kills! You were a top-10 ace!"
"That's top-10 for Canada, not the whole RAF," Shirley demurred.
"Still!" Gil lolled theatrically over the tabletop. "I want to be just like you, Uncle Shirley."
"Don't let your father hear you say that," Shirley muttered.
"What? Why not?"
Shirley was brought up short. He did not often speak impulsively, and had to cast about for an acceptable reply to cover his mistake.
"You know why everyone thinks fighter pilots are young?" he asked.
"Because they don't tend to grow very old."
"I imagine your parents have big plans for you," Shirley persisted. "Being like me isn't any part of that."
"But you were so brave."
There it was again. That hero-worship. Flattering, to be sure, but Shirley did not need flattery. And this sort of thinking needed to be quashed without mercy.
Shirley shook his head. "No," he said. "Listen to me, Gil, this is serious. Everyone thinks a great pilot is brave. But they're wrong. A great pilot is meticulous."
He paused, checking to be sure that Gil was paying proper attention. The blue-gray eyes were wide under their fringe of golden lashes; the boy hung on his every word.
Shirley spoke with grave deliberation, as if he could armor his nephew in good advice. "Every time you go up — every single time — you have to be in command of every detail. Aware of everything. Your surroundings. Your equipment. Your own body. You have to take risks, of course, but small ones. Well-considered. If you get reckless in a fight, everyone will talk about how brave you were while they're attending your funeral."
A flicker of fear crossed Gil's face at this last.
Good. He should be scared.
"That goes for ordinary flying, too," Shirley said, sitting back, arms folded casually over his chest. "Don't be brave. Be precise. Every time. Is that clear?"
Gil nodded, swallowing at the same time, so that he resembled a golden prince only recently ransomed from froghood.
"Right. Tomorrow morning then?" Shirley asked, rising to clear away the teacups.
"Tomorrow morning," Gil answered in the soberest tone in his register.
It wouldn't do to send him off hang-dog, though. He was a good kid. And there was no war. Not yet. Maybe he wouldn't need the warning.
Shirley turned back from the dishpan and clapped a broad hand to Gil's shoulder.
"You're a born pilot, Gil. And I'll make sure you're a well-trained one, too."
"Thanks, Uncle Shirley."
The boy bestowed a convulsive hug, just as he had when he was a freckle-faced child, spending his summers flying balsa-wood gliders and begging for a ride in the Curtiss. Shirley held him for a moment, hoping against hope that they would have many a summer yet to let him test his wings.
When Gil had disappeared through the door with a farewell pat for Muggins and a promise to return at eight o'clock sharp, Shirley turned back to the dish basin. He rinsed the tea things and put away the plate of shortbread. Everything tidy now. Except . . .
Shirley retrieved the pile of mail from the kitchen chair. There was little enough of it — some circulars and bills and a note requesting a bird's eye tour of the Island. Once, there might have been an unsigned postcard from Berlin or a pristine issue of Der Eigene, useless to Shirley, who couldn't read a word of German. But it was the thought that counted. The last of those dispatches had arrived in 1934 — a postcard: You were right. No explanation necessary. At the time, Shirley had thought it was something to celebrate; five years of silence later, he could barely stand to imagine what it might really mean.
Shuffling to the bottom of the pile, Shirley drew out the only letter of any consequence. He should open it, but there was really no need.
Crossing to the telephone instead, he placed a call to the little gray house on the Lowbridge Road.
"Hello? Una? Yes, I'm fine. How are you? Listen, I saw Carl coming in when I was out over the harbor . . . No, that's alright, I didn't think he'd be home yet. I was just wondering: would it be alright if I came over for supper tonight? There's something I need to talk to him about . . . No, everything's fine . . . Yes . . . That sounds fine . . . Alright. I'll see you at six. Thanks."
Shirley hung up and sought the comfort of the old oak rocking chair that had stood so long by the window seat in the kitchen at Ingleside. Muggins trotted over and laid down before him, resting her graying muzzle on his foot. It was a small weight for so great a comfort, but it did not change the writing on the envelope. Sighing, Shirley ran a thumb over the eagle insignia in the corner:
RCAF: Royal Canadian Air Force.