The Righteous Stuff
by Jeffrey D. Waggoner
based on characters and situations in the
“Domination of the Draka” novels written by S.M. Stirling
CATAWBA COUNTY, OHIO
“Where are we going, Daddy?” It was a hot, dry day, but the small boy bounced up and down on the seat of the little Stanley Midget steam car as it sputtered down the two-lane blacktop road. His father smiled at him, then turned his attention back to the road, which twisted through peach orchards and farms outside of the sleepy little town on the shore of Lake Erie.
“I told you, Allan, that we were going to the Wine Islands.”
“Butbutbut…we can’t be, Daddy! Where’s the ferryboat! The last time we went on the big ferryboat, with Mommy and Janey!”
“There’s more than one way to get to South Bass Island, Allan. Think about it a minute.”
Allan Northfield looked up at his father, then down at the floor of the steam car, his brow furrowed in thought. “Well…we drove right past the ferry boat, and that’s the only big boat. We aren’t anywhere close to the water yet, so we’re not going in a little boat. You can’t drive a steamer across the water, can you, Daddy?”
Duane Northfield looked down at his son once again, still smiling. He’ll get this thinking thing down yet, he thought. Smart as a whip, ’way smarter than me or his mom, but always leapin’ first, thinkin’ later. No way my boy is gonna be a farmer all his life, that’s for sure.
“Cars can’t drive through six miles of lake, son. How else do you think we might get there?” As he asked the question, he turned past the old gypsum quarry onto another two-lane road much like the first. Except for the quarry off to his right and the little town of DeLery’s Landing, for two hours of driving the view had been of nothing but farmland–soybeans, tomatoes, some sweet corn–and the inevitable peach orchards that gave the peninsula the nickname “Peachtree Island.” “Anyway, you’ll know soon enough. We’re almost there.”
The six-year-old suddenly gave a squeal of delight, as they turned left off the farm road onto a narrower strip of pavement. “AIRPLANES! Wow, Dad! I never really got to see one, up close!” He was bouncing on the seat faster all the time, until it seemed he might bounce out the open window.
“Today’s the day, son. Happy Birthday!”
“We really get to go up real close? Can I touch one, please?”
“Bettern’ that, birthday boy. Today you’re gonna fly in one…the first plane ride you, and for me, too.”
As the ’steamer rolled into the crushed-gypsum parking lot, Allan and his father could see three brightly colored biplanes–one red, one white with blue and yellow markings, and a shiny black one than obviously was much newer than the other two. It had a metal fuselage, and a bright yellow cowling over the engine and swept-back wings, while the other two were of doped fabric and wood construction, with exposed radial engines and straight wings.
Beyond the barnstormers’ planes, however, was a huge, gleaming, high-wing monoplane, seemingly made out of silver. Radial engines were hung under the wings, and a third engine could be seen in the nose of the aircraft. It was the largest vehicle the man and his son had ever seen, except for railroad engines and the occasional lighter-than-air airship. America had never adopted the airship the way the Europeans and Africans had, and so Duane Northfield had never seen one except at high altitude, cruising like a giant fish high in the sky.
The boy was out of his seat like a shot, and ran to the flightline in a matter of seconds. His father followed a bit more slowly, but he too was fascinated with the shining vision of an airplane. The plane was constructed entirely of aluminum, corrugated like a galvanized metal roof, but with a shine that indicated little wear and painstaking maintenance. Blue wing tips, a blue area around the cockpit windows and the red tip of the rudder were the only color variations on the ship. Bright blue letters on the side of the fuselage proudly proclaimed that the aircraft was the property of “Island Air Ways.”
“Dad, isn’t it beautiful?” Allan said in hushed tones. He had come to a stop at the white picket fence marking the entrance to the blacktopped runway and hanger area, his eyes huge. The fence did not have a gate–just a light metal chain clipped across the opening–but Allan had been taught when very young to stay out of other people’s yards.
His father looked around. The only office building was a simple, white-painted frame building the size of a very small house, just behind them. On the other side of the plane were two tired-looking galvanized-metal hangars, a red Standard Oil gas pump plainly visible between them. The single runway–a few thousand feet of single-lane asphalt, like the road they drove in on–stretched off to the open side of the hangars. Altogether, not much of an airline complex, Duane thought. More like somebody described one to a guy without enough money to build the real thing.
The trimotor, though, was different. It sat there like a queen, glowing in the late-summer sunshine. Duane knew it had to be like an oven inside that metal contraption in the mid-August heat, but he, too, was itching to be inside, to soar over the fields of northwestern Ohio.
“She’s really sweet, and flies like nothin’ else in the air, that’s a fact.” The speaker was a florid-faced heavyset man in overalls and a plaid work shirt, stained with grease, oil, and most likely yesterday’s lunch as well. “She’s the biggest passenger airplane in the world, and she’s all mine. Howdy, boys. I’m Myron Harshmann, and I am sole owner, operator, and pilot for Island Air Ways.” He stuck out a beefy hand to Allan’s dad.
“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Harshmann. Name’s Duane Northfield, from over by Woodville. This here’s Allan, and he’s gonna turn six years old tomorrow. Say hi to Mr. Harshmann, Allan.”
“Sir? Can we fly in your airplane? Can we, really?” Allan had regained his energy and was hopping up and down again. Then he stopped, suddenly, looked down and the ground, then up at the man again. “I mean…sir, we would be mightily pleased if you would allow us a trip in your airship.” His voice was as carefully measured and even as a young boy about to explode with excitement could control.
“Why, sure, Allan. That is, if your dad here has a buck and a half a person for a ticket.” Harshmann looked sheepish, as he noticed the Northfield’s sturdy farm clothing for the first time. “You know, I’m just startin’ out, tryin’ to get a mail contract with the U.S. Post Office, and got bills to pay, for sure.”
“I understand completely, Mr. Harshmann, and I came prepared to pay. It’s Allan’s birthday, as I said, and we’ve been savin’ up so I could take him over to the amusement park on South Bass Island. Is that a buck and a half for a one-way trip, or will you bring us back again, if you don’t mind my askin’?”
“Oh, round trip, of course, of course.” Harshmann looked relieved. “You’ll love the Park, Allan, you really will. They’ve got a carousel, and a new, all-steel roller coaster that’s supposed to go forty miles an hour on the big drop. Not that you could get me on one of those things, no sir! No excitement like that for me!”
“Golly! Forty miles an hour! Is that fast, Dad?”
“Yes it is, son. The steamer only goes twenty-five, flat out, on a level road. But, Mr. Harshmann, I would expect this plane goes a bit faster, doesn’t it?”
The big man waved toward the airplane. “You bet! About a hundred and twenty, if we pushed her. But we don’t need to, not going to the islands. The trip only takes a few minutes, anyway. I make the trip six times a day, from seven in the morning to seven at night, and if I can get the mail contract I’ll buy a second one from Stout, just to haul mail and freight. Come on boys, let’s see who’s in the terminal, ridin’ with you, and we’ll get your tickets.”
A few minutes later they emerged from the small building, glad to be out of the stuffy “terminal.” Each held a blue-painted rectangle of flat aluminum, about the size of a business card, with a hole punched near one end.
“I thought tickets were made out of paper, Daddy,” the boy said, as they lined up at the gate with the five other passengers waiting for the flight.
“Me, too. Kind of an informal way to run an airline, seems to me.”
Harshmann bustled out of the terminal and past the passengers, unclipping the chain that served as a gate. He helped the passengers load their luggage–a couple of suitcases, and a large pink hat box–into the storage compartment behind the oval-shaped door that was located midway back on the fuselage. He made sure the passengers were strapped into their seats, then ducked back out the door.
A couple of minutes later, while the passengers sweltered in the hot metal box of the plane’s interior, Harshmann popped back into the doorway, lugging three large wooden crates. He struggled with each one to lift it through the doorway, make the right-angle turn and push it through the doorway into the baggage compartment.
“Can I give you a hand, Mr. Harshmann?” Duane asked the struggling pilot-owner.
“No sir, goes with the territory, that’s a fact! Part of my job, until I can hire on more help! Once the Post Office gives me that contract, I’ll be sittin’ in butter, yes sir!” The pilot started forward, locking the cabin door and squeezing between the seats that were aligned in two single rows, one on either side of the cabin. He dropped himself into the frontmost passenger seat with a sigh, and wiped his forehead with a large flowered handkerchief.
“Ladies and gentlemen, you are about to take a trip into history…on the shortest airline in the world!” Harshmann announced in a booming voice. “We serve North, Middle and South Bass twice a day, with four more run runs to South Bass Island Tuesday through Saturday. You’re flyin’ in the best, and safest, passenger airplane in the world today…the Stout Trimotor Model AT-8. With twenty-two leather seats and a window for each passenger, this plane is the model of air comfort and reliability. It was built in Dee-troit, Michigan, and came off the assembly line in April of just this year! I hope you enjoy your flight, and remember to consult the return schedule on the wall of the terminal on South Bass. Last flight back to DeLery’s Landing Municipal Airport will be at six-forty-five this evening. Hold on to your blue tickets–that’s your return trip, right there!” He looked at his watch. “Now, folks, it’s just about eleven thirty, so let’s get this baby off the ground!” Harshmann climbed up through the doorway into the cockpit, pulling himself into the left-hand seat. He started flipping switches, and then turned a crank above his head.
“What’s he doing, Daddy?” Allan asked.
“I’m not sure, son. I’m sure it’s some kind of…technical airplane stuff.”
As he opened the side cockpit window and strapped himself into the seat, Harshmann yelled back to the passengers, “Just a minute or two now, folks, and we’ll get the engines fired up and we’ll be off. I just had to trim the elevators a bit.” With that, he pushed each starter button in turn, and the three engines started with a roar, one at a time. The sound was tremendous, the loudest sound either the boy or his father had ever heard, louder than a farm tractor by far. Allan clapped his hands over his ears and turned to his father, his eyes round with fear. Duane reached across the aisle and gripped his son’s shoulder to reassure him. A moment later, the roar of the engines increased and the big machine began to roll.
Excerpt from On Eagles’ Wings: An Autobiography, by Allan Scott Northfield
My father and I were as scared as could be. I could see it in him as much as he could see it in me, but, in pure Ohio farmer fashion, wouldn’t admit it, then or later. The plane took off using only about a third of that little runway and it couldn’t have been flying at more than a hundred miles an hour. Uncle Myron was only a fair businessman, and not much of a salesman, but he was a fine seat-of-the-pants pilot. By the time he passed on he had more time in those old Stout trimotors than any other pilot anywhere in the world. He could feel how those things flew, even after he got an AT-10 with hydraulic boost in the steering.
And those old planes were beautiful machines. That’s why Byrd used two of them to go to the poles, and they ended up everywhere–in North and South America, in Europe, where the Fokkers had tried to copy the design and failed, and even in the Domination, eventually. I got to know that AT-8 like my own ’steamer over the next ten years.
That birthday trip to South Bass, to the Victory Gardens Amusement Park, only took about fifteen minutes. The park was the biggest amusement park in the world at the time, with the high-speed roller coaster and all, but all I remember from that day is the roar of the engines and soaring like a bird over fields and the lake. I knew from that day onward that flying was the only thing I could ever be happy doing for the rest of my life.