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Authors: Walter J. Boyne

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BOOK: Air Force Eagles
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"There's nobody better than you at that."

Ruddick expected a little additional small talk, but Woodson went on for twenty minutes complaining about his office staff and, of all things, his desk—it was an antique, he couldn't get rid of it, the drawers stuck, the veneer was peeling, a childish catalogue of annoyances. The conversation was worse than trivial, it was bizarre, and the Secretary's quivering voice rose with the intensity of his complaints. Ruddick was glad to say good-bye finally. If the man was this troubled, it might mean big trouble for Milo Ruddick.

He walked to the window to gaze over his property again. When the phone rang this time, it was with the high-pitched bell of his private line.

"Ruddick here."

"This is Dixon Price. We need to talk." Price's voice varied with the situation, suiting his tough, chameleon-like personality exactly. He'd have been at home on a carnival midway, on the docks in San Francisco, a stage in New York, or pleading a case before the Supreme Court. Whatever it took, Price had it, in spades.

"What's the problem?"

"The same as always, money. I've recruited half a dozen new organizers to send to Georgia and Mississippi, but I'm having a little problem with my bank."

Ruddick was silent for a while. During the war, Dixon Price had run McAmer, the McCallum family's oil company. He had managed the complex series of deals with Woodson, involving Brazil and Switzerland supplying oil to Germany via Spain. After the war, Dixon had created the largest law firm in Little Rock and had become a part of the governor's kitchen cabinet. Many people—Ruddick included—thought that Dixon really ran the state. The
Gazette
had once run a cartoon showing the horse-faced governor sitting on the birdlike Price's knee, a ventriloquist's dummy. It wasn't exactly fair, but it was a political fact of life that Price and the governor were more than close.

For the past five years, Dixon had been deeply involved in Ruddick's special project and had used his own funds for the recruitment of potential Klan leaders. Dixon was indispensable to the future of the Klan.

"Let me see what I can do. I know you've really extended yourself."

"I'm glad to do it, Milo, but I'm just caught short this year. You know what's happened to prices. Do you want me to contact our overseas friend for some new merchandise?"

Ruddick pursed his lips and whistled. "I don't know, Dixon. We pretty well have the best of the crop in hand now, and—"

Dixon's rough laughter interrupted him. "And you don't want to part with any of them. I know. But there's still a market out there for the second-rate material, things we can still have shipped in."

He was right, of course; the basement of Ruddick's home was filled with racks of paintings, the heart of the "lost" Hermann Goering collection. Only he could enjoy them—and that was the way he preferred it.

"You're right, as usual, Dixon, much as I hate to admit it. See what you can do and get back to me."

Ruddick leaned back in his chair to examine again the hazardous course he was charting. He knew in his heart that the emotional basis of the Klan ran too deep in Southern culture for it to ever die. But the Klan was an object of national ridicule, and rightly so. A primitive Rotary club, its members were largely ignorant rednecks hating blindly without a cause. But loosely organized as it was, it had potential. After all, Hitler had started his political career with a party with seven members. There were still thousands of Klansmen, and millions more would join if the Klan could be revitalized. It was a question of organizing it properly, giving it the right goals. And the name had to be changed to something ambiguously popular. There was no doubt that Dixon could get some more paintings—the man had his hand in everything—but if he got them, would it be possible to give them up?

*

Salinas, California/December 24, 1947

The party got more comfortable as the adults got more to drink—the men Old Forester bourbon, the women a rough Italian table wine from a local farmer—and the children came to the point where they knew each other well enough to play and not yet well enough to fight.

The U-shaped frame and stone house progressed from the original clapboard Roget farmhouse, which was one wing, to the new stucco addition where the Bandfields lived. Nestled between the two wings was a courtyard with a swing set and a swimming pool for the kids. Clarice Roget had chosen the site carefully. Both front porches overlooked a dry river valley winding its diminishing channel out through parched rocks and scrub pines to the town. Hadley Roget was standing with his arms on the railing, staring out at the flickering lights that each year reached out closer to them from Salinas.

Bandfield came out and slipped his arm around his old friend's shoulder.

"Bet you're thinking how happy Clarice would be to see this shindig."

Hadley nodded. "This place is a monument to her, you know. She built it because she was tired of you and me running around playing with airplanes. She wanted it to be just big enough for two families—with lots of babies."

"Well, even Clarice would have enough babies to go around tonight."

"How's little Ulrich getting along with your kids?"

"He's a nice boy, shy, after all he's been through. Lyra watches over him like a tigress—I think she's a little too protective."

"Patty still crazy about Lyra?"

"If she liked a man as much, I'd shoot the bastard. I think they get along so well because they both know how miserable it is to be married to a pilot."

Roget turned and eyed him quizzically. "I hear what you're saying, but I can tell you're not too happy. What's the matter?"

"I'll be honest with you, Hadley. I don't like having people living in our side of the house. You and Clarice were always over in your own wing, but Lyra and Ulrich are just down the hall. I can't walk around in my underwear, and Lyra is so nervous that I'm afraid I'm scaring her."

"Did you tell Patty this?"

"She just laughed at me, told me I was gone most of the time, and that it wouldn't be forever."

"Be patient, son. After all Lyra went through—the Nazis, the bombing, losing her husband, everything—she'll need a little time. And Patty's right. The Air Force keeps you on the go most of the time; you're more like a boarder with bedding privileges than a husband."

"Well, that's not all. I think Patty's drinking too much. She's got a glass of wine in her hand all the time. And she's putting on a little weight."

"Aw, Bandy, you're full of it. What the hell is that in your glass, milk? She's just relaxing from her worries." They stood together quietly for a while, then Roget said, "I guess Patty told you that we're starting to lose our ass in the housing business."

Bandfield put his fingers to his lips and pointed—two deer were walking quietly in the shadows at the edge of the old flying field. Then he whispered, "Yeah, cut-throat competition from jerry-built houses. She says we're trying to build quality houses like we built quality airplanes, and we've priced ourselves out of the market. The question is, are you willing for us to fold our tents and get out of the business?"

Roget stood and stretched. Two inches taller than Bandfield, he had the ropy, hard-knit muscles of a man who'd labored all his life. He was letting his white hair grow long again, a sign that he was at last beginning to overcome the melancholy that had engulfed him when he lost Clarice. Once it had been his trademark, one of his few vanities, a great mound of silver that made him look like an old-time prophet. Clarice had always taken care of it for him, shampooing it, only trimming it when absolutely necessary. When she died, he'd had it cut off and buried with her.

It bothered him that for all the years they'd been married, he'd been preoccupied with work; now that she was gone he thought of her constantly, missing her, and grieving that he had not paid more attention to her. The sorrow had changed his nature, too; once he'd been a punster, always ready with a joke, usually a bad one. Now his long rugged face was etched with lines and tinged with sadness.

"Hell, Bandy, I've folded more tents than a tribe of Indians. I never liked building houses, anyway—the damn things don't fly. How long a tour of duty are you going to have to pull with the Air Force this time?"

Bandfield laughed. "Depends. Patty says we've got plenty of money, but I figure I ought to stay in for twenty, anyway, and nail down a pension in case we go bust again."

"Pension, you don't give a goddamn about no pension, you just want to fly the new airplanes. Don't try to bullshit old Hadley."

Bandfield nodded and grinned. It was true—but he couldn't admit it to Patty.

Roget's voice went up an octave. "Your marriage is as weird as mine was—I hope you take better care of Patty than I did of Clarice." They drained their glasses and Roget went on. "Anyway, I've got some ideas about going back into the airplane modification business, and I'm not so sure I can handle it without you."

Bandfield groaned. The only time they'd ever made money on airplanes was during the war, when Patty was running the plant, subcontracting parts for the bigger contractors. Every time they'd try to build airplanes themselves, they'd been squeezed out of the market.

"Don't you groan at me. I've got some good ideas, can't miss."

"Like the Aircar?" Roget had dumped a small fortune into a combination car-plane that was a bad car and a worse airplane.

"That was a fluke, Bandy, and you know it. No, I think—damn it, I know!—that there's going to be a market out there for big airplanes that can drop water and chemicals on forest fires. God knows we've got enough forest fires every year to make a market. That's one thing. The other is converting surplus airplanes to executive planes—you know, taking a Lodestar, stripping out the military gear, cleaning it up, putting in a luxury interior, and selling it for a company plane."

"Sounds good to me, because you and Patty can handle it here in Salinas. We know who all the good workers are—start small, and work up. If it gets to be too much for you, I'll ask to be released."

They shook hands and Bandfield continued. "I think converting airplanes to fight forest fires is the best bet to start with—the whole west needs help with that."

They heard Patty laughing and then she called, "Bandy, get in here and watch Lyra set the house on fire." Bandfield rolled his eyes and tilted an imaginary shot glass back.

Roget scowled, "She ain't drunk, Bandy, don't kid yourself. And even if she was, she'd still be able to handle you."

Inside the group was gathered around a table that had been cleared and covered with a rough canvas tarpaulin. In the center was a hot plate, with a pot bubbling on it, the smell of hot metal searing the air. On the floor was a washtub filled with water.

Roget handed Bandfield a fresh tumbler of whiskey and whispered, "Looks like your visitor friend is loosening up."

"A little dago red will do that. She's sure looking better. I wish she'd do a little walking around in
her
underwear."

During the war, Lyra Josten had been in the German resistance movement, doing espionage work for General Henry Caldwell. She'd arrived from Sweden six months before, pale and painfully thin, her eyes dull with fatigue and anxiety, a sharp contrast to plump, rosy-cheeked Ulrich. It was clear that she had been denying herself to make sure that her baby was well fed. Now both were looking beautiful, thanks to Patty's tender care and lavish diet. As Lyra busied herself with a ladle and gloves, Roget said, "I'd never thought two young women would get along in one house like they do."

Bandfield nodded. Patty was a wonder. When she'd heard that Lyra needed help to get into the United States with her baby, Patty had roared into action. Within a few weeks she'd secured all the paperwork and arranged for their transportation over.

Lyra was bubbling with pleasure. "Ladies and gentlemen! We're going to play an old-fashioned Russian Christmas game. First, you stand up and tell where you were last Christmas and where you want to be next Christmas. Then you pour a splash of molten lead into the water. When it cools, you fish it out, and the shape of the metal will tell your fortune."

Waving the ladle she said, "Patty, you go first while I make sure the children stay back."

Patty took the ladle, saying, "I was here in this house last year; I hope we're all here next year." She poured a stream of lead into the washtub; there was a hissing stream of steam as the lead settled toward the bottom.

Lyra scooped it out. "See, it looks like a star! That's a good omen, it means your wish will come true."
"Who's next? Bandy?"
"No, let young Lyra go next."
Lyra took the ladle and began to speak in a quavering voice.

"This really works, you know. Last year in Stockholm, I wished we would be in the United States—and look at us here, with you good people."

She stepped over and took Bandy by the hand. "Come here, because the wish I make is going to please you."

"I wish you all a Merry Christmas—and for next year, I wish Ulrich and I will be in our own home."

Bandy blushed as Lyra poured the lead into the water—she had him figured out, no question. Patty was smiling as Lyra pulled a long silver strand from the tub and flourished it.

"What is it? I can't tell what it is."

Bandfield took the still warm lead and slowly rotated it. "Well, if you hold it this way, it looks a little like a map of Argentina. But if you turn it this way, it looks like a bear."

Lyra took the metal. "I'm going to put this away so we can look at it next year and see what it was trying to tell us."

***

Chapter 2

Nashville, Tennessee/January 8, 1948

Relaxed as a stroked kitten, Ginny luxuriated in the unaccustomed comfort of the fieldstone rambler that served as the McNaughton Aircraft Company's guesthouse, taking advantage of Stan's absence to play her private hair game. Placing her right hand at the top of her head, her fingers worked incessantly until they had grasped an individual hair. When she had it secured in solitary splendor, she pulled it, stretched it out in front of her mouth and bit it in half. It was a reflexive habit she'd had since adolescence and it drove Stan crazy.

BOOK: Air Force Eagles
13.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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