Authors: Walter J. Boyne
McNaughton, as decisive as an executioner, stormed out to the communication truck. "Get me Marshall on company frequency."
The speaker crackled and the B-29's pilot said, "What the hell is the holdup down there?"
"Major Carrera, this is Troy McNaughton. Is our pilot on this frequency?"
Marshall's voice came on. "Roger, that. I'm reading you five by five."
"I'm going to give you some instructions, Mr. Marshall, and I want you to obey them. Do not, I repeat, do not take the aircraft beyond Mach .95. Do you understand?"
"Roger, I read you. But why? Everything is—"
"Marshall, my instructions are that you don't go beyond Mach .95. I'll explain everything at the debriefing. Now that's final! You can drop whenever you're ready."
High above them, the test pilot scowled in anger. The whole process was so risky that it wasn't worthwhile to make the flight just to go to Mach .95 again. He was sitting on a bomb—1,400 gallons of liquid oxygen and 1,300 gallons of diluted ethyl alcohol. If the two were mixed properly in the huge RLX-15 engine, he'd light a fire generating eight thousand pounds of thrust that could take him supersonic. If they didn't mix properly, if there was some leakage, some pooling of fuel or vapor, he, the MS-447, and the B-29 would disappear in a single gigantic fireball.
His teeth chattered uncontrollably as the freezing-cold metal seat sucked away his body heat through his thin flying suit—there was no room for leather coveralls. Marshall rubbed his gloved hand across the inside of the canopy, slick with Drene shampoo to keep it from frosting up. For the last forty minutes he'd been cramped into the tiny cockpit like an olive in a pimento, preoccupied with the long checklist, and alternating between savoring the prospect of being the first man to break the sound barrier and worrying about what might happen when he did. All of his own analysis indicated that things would go smoothly—but there were still those who predicted a catastrophic breakup of the aircraft.
Suddenly it hit him. It was Tuskegee all over again. McNaughton must have selected a white pilot for the honor, probably one of the guys who had done some of the early glide tests.
It was worse than unfair—it was stupid. He was the only one who was fully qualified, the only one who had made powered flights.
His anger built as he went on with the checklist litany, his gloved finger pointing to the propellant pressures, flicking the telemetry switches on, checking the trim. The airplane had only a few flights on it, but the instrument panel was already nicked and worn, the green priming showing through the matte-black finish.
The hell with McNaughton. There was nothing to keep him from following the original flight profile—just let the little rockets run and they'd push him right through the speed of sound. It wouldn't matter if they fired him. Even a colored pilot could get a job anywhere if he was the first man to break the sound barrier. Then he smiled through his anger, knowing that his father would disapprove, would tell him simply, "Do what's right, son!"
He tucked the checklist inside its metal jacket as the pre-drop countdown began. Carrera nosed the B-29 over into a slight dive, full power on all four engines, airframe quivering as it slanted through the crisp air toward the whitish-green desert below. When the countdown reached zero, the bomber would be passing twenty thousand feet at precisely 250 miles per hour, only two knots over the MS-447's fully loaded stall speed. It wasn't nearly as fast as Marshall would have liked, but it would be all Carrera could get.
"Three . . . two . . . one . . . zero!"
The bomb-bay's scissor clamps released and the rocket plane jolted down the retaining rails to burst like a bomb into the slip-stream's blast. The explosion of sunlight slashing into the cockpit momentarily blinded him as he fell away, yawing slightly in the silent glide beneath the bomber's belly. He eased the control wheel forward to accelerate. Now gliding faster than the B-29 could fly, Marshall felt speed cloak his gleaming white plane with stability, the crust of frost flicking off in a brief sparkling funnel of light. With two movements of his finger, Marshall fired the first engine. Igniting the rocket slung the rocket plane forward like an arrow out of a bow, leaving the B-29 and the chase plane behind instantly.
At Mach .86, Marshall applied a touch of back pressure to rocket the MS-447 into its climb. It was a delightful airplane to fly, unstable at low speeds, but rock-solid now as he leveled out at thirty-six thousand feet and fired the second engine. Once again there was a jolt and the Mach built rapidly to .90, .92. He was blasting toward the sound barrier, toward certain fame—or certain destruction, if the doomsayers were right, if speed built the air into a brick wall to shatter the aircraft and sent it tumbling out of control.
"Do what's right, son."
He'd heard the words a thousand times in his youth, and they came to him now. McNaughton was the boss, he was paying him—his dad would have said he was "laboring in McNaughton's vineyard." With a sigh, Marshall reached up and flipped off both engines as the Mach meter touched .94. He was still accelerating, only seconds away from being the first man to break the sound barrier—seconds away from the record books—as the deceleration thrust him forward in his harness.
A wild surge of regret flooded Marshall. The war had ended before he could be an ace; this had been his one last opportunity and he'd tossed it away. His daddy would be proud of him, but that wasn't enough. He'd blown his chance!
The chase plane came up beside him; Marshall could see the pilot shrug and put his hands up as if to ask, "What the hell is going on?"
Descending at four hundred miles an hour, Marshall rolled the elegant MS-447 around the P-80. As he turned, keeping the Lockheed riveted firmly in the center of his canopy, he told himself, "Never again." Never again would he lose an opportunity like this, no matter what his daddy would have said, no matter what Saundra said. He'd had the world in his hands, and he'd thrown it away.
On the salt flats below, a technician looked up and said, "He hit just about Mach .95 on engine cutoff, sir."
McNaughton whirled on his heels and walked toward the waiting car. Bandfield raced ahead of him and asked, "What the hell am I going to tell Marshall? What am I going to tell the Air Force?"
McNaughton stared at him. "That's easy. You tell Marshall he's fired, and you tell the Air Force that we'll make another attempt in two weeks. Tell them to send us a pilot as good as Yeager—tell them to send us Stan Coleman."
Bandfield watched the door slam behind McNaughton, thinking how consistent the man was, always a bastard, no matter what the circumstances. He dreaded the coming session with Marshall.
Little Rock, Arkansas/November 8, 1947
The view from his offices on the top floor of the Arkansas Commercial Bank, the tallest building in the city, was remarkable. The Arkansas River crooked lazily toward the southeast, and beyond the line of hills was still faintly green. His wife's father, Judge McCallum, had once owned almost all the land spread out before him. When Alma had died the year before, title for the estate had passed to him. He drew immense pleasure from the knowledge, for he knew how important land was. His parents had been sharecroppers, poor white trash farming a section for the McCallums. From where he stood, he could see the old farm now above the bend in the river, a bluish haze from burning grass hanging over it. Milo Ruddick had worked many hours on that ground and knew that land was sacred, just like the blood of the people who owned it.
Most of the land was in jeopardy now, of course, but he'd make that right. There had been some necessarily extravagant spending. The organization he was developing was expensive, and some of his investments had gone bad. Against his will, he'd had to mortgage much of the property. And he'd had to do the same with the land in Texas, the real source of the McCallum wealth—now his wealth. The rich bonanza reaped during the war had disappeared in a glut of overproduction. He didn't like mortgages—they were a sacrifice of control—and Ruddick lived to control everything, land, oil, money, and people. With a sigh, he pressed the lever on his office intercom. He hated the gadget; once he'd have simply yelled for his secretary, but she was older now and hard of hearing.
"Cathy, I want to do some thinking in here, but I'm expecting some calls. The most important will be from Dr. Burton here in town—you know what that's about. The other will be from Secretary Woodson in Washington. And I'm expecting a call on my private line. I'd really prefer not to talk to anyone else."
It was unusual for him not to take calls—even when he was in Congress he liked to answer the phone himself, surprising his constituents with his accessibility. But events were closing in on him. Ruddick stepped into his private bathroom and splashed water on his face, then glanced in the mirror, surprised at the unaccustomed stubble on his chin. Wherever he was—Washington, Little Rock, on travel—his morning started with a trip to the barbershop for a shave and facial massage. Today he'd simply forgotten—a sign of how pressure was building. He frowned, patting down his tousled hair.
The intercom buzzed and he ran to the phone. "It's Dr. Burton, sir."
"Hello, Dick, how is Marny?"
Burton's voice was thin and reedy; he was almost eighty and had doctored the McCallum family for the last five decades.
"Milo, I don't think she's going to make it. She needs a complete workup, and if my guess is right, some intensive abdominal surgery. It will be expensive, and I'm not sure it will do any good. Marny has been moping ever since Alma died."
"I know, Dick, I tried to get her to retire, but she wouldn't listen to me. I would have kept her salary going, covered all her needs. But she insisted on coming in every day, puttering around, storing Alma's things. But it doesn't matter what it costs—please see that she gets whatever she needs—I'll take care of all of it. And tell her I'll be down to see her tonight."
They talked a while longer and he hung up, a lump in his throat. Marny had been "given" to his wife as a companion when they were only three, a practice inherited from the days when the McCallum farms had been the McCallum plantation, worked by slaves. Marny and Alma had grown up together, inseparable, servant and mistress but the best of friends. They'd rented her a little cottage down in darktown, and even when she'd grown older and wasn't really efficient, he kept paying her an unconscionable amount, twelve hundred a year, plus all the little perks—lunch, leftovers, clothing from the family.
Marny was a good woman, and she'd sent two children to college on her salary. It showed what a good Negro could do, if they were treated properly. She'd fallen ill after Alma's death, and the situation became awkward. Ruddick had moved her into the little apartment in the basement that hadn't been used for years. Her daughter had refused him outright when he'd asked her to come there to help, acting strained and resentful, quite a different person than her mother. In the end it was Marny's son, Nathan, who'd come to live with her in Ruddick's house. He was a fine strapping lad, a football player in college, and well mannered; he took beautiful care of Marny, and he even helped around the house.
The phone rang—it was the Secretary of Defense's assistant.
"This is Milo Ruddick; yes, I'll wait."
There was irritation in his voice. Woodson was calling to ask a favor, and he had to hold the line and wait for him; he was obviously losing his grip, as if he were under some terrible stress. It had sometimes been the same during the war, when they were working so closely on the delicate oil transactions.
"Milo? Sorry to keep you waiting—I was just picking up the phone to talk to you when the President rang."
The Secretary's voice was tightly contained; Ruddick could close his eyes and see him, his faced lined, intense, waving his pipe as he leaned forward over a desk piled with files.
"How is Harry doing?" Ruddick asked.
"He's enjoying himself hugely. I wish I was."
"I understand that he's serious about integration, that he's going to make an executive order directing it."
"No question about it. He knows he needs it for the election. The timing will be critical—probably do it next summer."
Ruddick grunted and Woodson went on, "You know why I'm calling. I'm going to need your help."
"You know you'll have it." When he had been Secretary of the Navy, Woodson had opposed the idea of reorganizing the services into the Department of Defense, fearing that the Navy would be in a permanent minority in votes with the Army and the new independent Air Force. Partly to offset those fears, Truman had named him as Secretary of Defense. Ruddick wasn't sure he could handle the job; once during the war, when the deal with Germany over oil and tankers was about to be exposed, Woodson had come perilously close to self-destruction.
"I'm having a palace revolution over in the Navy Department. They say I'm bending over backward to favor the Air Force, to appear neutral."
"Nothing wrong with that."
"No, but I have to throw them a bone. I'm going to come to you to carve fifty million from somewhere for that classified project we talked about the last time you were here."
Ruddick grunted. Woodson meant a new aircraft carrier, one large enough to carry bombers with a nuclear capability. It would be tough to sell, with dozens of World War II carriers either in storage or being broken up.
"Pretty risky, Mr. Secretary. You're rocking the rolls-and-missions boat. If we have to pare the Air Force down to forty-eight wings to stay within budget, new carriers won't sit well with anyone.
"I know that, but if I give them this one they'll be satisfied for a while."
"They should be; they should name the ship after you. Of course, I'll find the money, but I'm going to have to twist a few arms."