Authors: Murray Pura
“Yeah. I just don’t want that buzzard Wolfgang Zeltner to win.”
Kipp Danforth and Ben Whitecross stood by Kipp’s SPAD. All around them ground crew darted back and forth between aircraft checking wing struts, wheels, ailerons, and everything else. Now and then an engine would cough to life, run for a minute, and then be shut down.
Kipp checked his watch. “Fifteen minutes to go. Zeltner got the first takeoff slot with two of the French pilots.”
“It doesn’t matter.” Ben stared past the SPAD at the other planes nearby. “The officials time everyone from liftoff. Zeltner could land at Dover Sky five minutes ahead of you or me and it wouldn’t make a difference—not if he’d set off ten minutes before us. We’d win.” Ben pointed with his chin. “There he is.”
They both stared under the wing at Zeltner, who stood tall, blond, and slender in his three-quarter-length black leather jacket.
“He’s dressed like it’s the Great War,” grumbled Kipp.
“Perhaps it still is for him. You know he always regretted not besting Richthofen’s record of eighty kills.”
Zeltner appeared to feel their eyes on him for he turned and looked
directly at the two of them. He lifted the hand holding his leather helmet in half salute.
They each raised a hand in response.
“It’s Baron von Zeltner now, you know,” said Ben.
“I saw that in the paper. When did that happen?”
“In ’22. Your brother Edward said the Weimar Republic was looking for heroes. He was one of the ones they chose to put on the pedestal. Permitted him to add the “von” to his name. Yet a few weeks later von Zeltner joined a right-wing party the Weimar leadership detests.”
“Edward is always up on the politics,” grunted Kipp. “He fancies himself the first man in the kingdom in ten years.”
“What was the name of the party Zeltner joined? The National Socialist…hang on…the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, that’s it. Big name, isn’t it? Your dad and Edward call them the Nazis. Heard of them?”
“I’m too busy flying mail.”
“Well,” Ben went on, “they’re a pretty violent lot. They go around and beat up people they don’t like. Their leader’s in prison right now.”
“Hmm…so von Zeltner’s part of that?”
“I know he has a cruel streak.” Kipp slapped his leather flying helmet against his pant leg. “Never pictured him as a thug though. Not his style, is it?”
“I’m sure he appoints others to do the street work while he sits in an office.”
“That doesn’t sound like his style either.”
Ben shrugged. “He looks the same as when we met him in London in 1920.” He leaned on the lower wing and stared at von Zeltner. “Remember that social event for pilots of all sides? He took an interest in your wife, if I recall.”
“And to yours. Do you think he knows who we are?”
“Oh he knows.”
“Then you can be sure he wants to beat you,” said Kipp.
“And you, the son of the man hosting the race.”
“But especially you, Ben. He’ll never forget how you tore up his squadron and won the Victoria Cross in the bargain.”
“Never forget…or forgive.” Ben thrust his hands into his pockets. “This race needs to be won by an Englishman!”
“Gentlemen! Aviators!” A heavy man in tweed coat and cap stood in the middle of the parked airplanes. “We are about to begin. Your names will be shouted out in groups of three. Those three will take off side by side. Then another three will be called and so on until all twenty of you are up. The winner cannot be announced until time of arrival at the finish line is compared with time of takeoff and the exact amount of flying time is calculated. Obviously the pilot with the shortest flying time shall find himself the winner of the Lord Preston Cup and two thousand pounds sterling.”
He consulted a sheet of paper. “Remember your destination is the estate of Dover Sky in Kent. Each of you has been furnished with a map. There are large markings chalked out on the airfield there. In addition red, white, and blue balloons surround the landing strip. Do not go below one thousand feet unless you have engine trouble and must touch down. Pray choose an unpopulated area if that is the case. Any questions?” He paused. “No?” He brought out his pocket watch. “Gentlemen, to your planes. The air race from Liverpool to Dover is about to begin. May the best man win!”
Kipp climbed into his cockpit. Ben ran fifty yards to his SPAD and swung himself up.
The words were shouted from one end of the meadow to the other as pilots started their engines. Roars and rumbles and exhaust filled the July air. Suddenly a flare gun was fired, and a red ball of fire arched over the field. The heavy man in tweed shouted through a megaphone above the growl of engines: “Von Zeltner! St. Laurent! Hugo! You are cleared for takeoff!”
Kipp watched the three SPADs taxi, lift off, streak south, and then head east as they gained altitude. Von Zeltner’s plane had a distinctive paint scheme of black and yellow. Kipp muttered, “The same colors your squadron used. The same colors you plastered all over your Fokker triplane. It’s not 1918, Wolfgang. I suppose if there hadn’t been a rule that you had to use a SPAD you’d have a D.VII or an Albatros up there.”
Three or four minutes later a second set of names was called, and three more SPADs took to the air. Kipp opened and closed his hand on
the stick and gritted his teeth. A third set of names rang out, and another three aircraft took off. He squeezed his eyes shut and counted to sixty. Nine planes were already up and zooming through the sky for Dover.
“Whitecross! Dickens! Danforth! You are cleared for takeoff!”
Kipp waved his hand in the air and gunned the engine. His ground crew whipped the chocks away from his wheels and the SPAD rolled forward. Ben was on his left; Dickens on his right. They left the ground in unison, as if they’d been practicing the maneuver for weeks. Kipp adjusted his goggles and tightened the white silk scarf around his neck. It was the scarf he’d worn in France during the war. He nudged the SPAD higher and higher, leaving Dickens and Ben quickly behind. Then he aimed his plane towards the English Channel.
“All right, Wolfgang,” he hissed through clenched teeth, “where are you?”
Lord Preston stood by dozens of red, blue, and white balloons—the same colors as the Union Jack that flew from a pole next to a brand-new Quonset hut. He slapped a rolled-up newspaper against the side of his leg as he kept an eye on the northern horizon and glanced occasionally at the crowd of people spilling over onto the airfield.
“Shouldn’t they be here by now?” he asked out loud. “Eh?”
Victoria laughed. “Oh, Papa! You haven’t got anywhere to go. It’s your birthday. Relax and enjoy it.”
“I’d relax a lot more if this race were over and done with and no one was injured. Your mother feels the same way.”
“Well, you put up the cup and the two-thousand-pound purse, Dad,” Victoria reminded.
“In a moment of weakness, I assure you.” He glanced about him. “Where have the children disappeared to?”
“You can’t expect an empty sky to hold their attention. Only grown-ups are keen on that sort of thing. Aunt Holly and Harrison have the lot of them down to feed bread crumbs to the swans.”
“The swans! I hope Harrison keeps his wits about him. The pond is deeper than it looks and—”
“Father, I think Harrison knows a thing or two about ponds. And if he’s forgotten anything, Aunt Holly will be quick to remind him. Catherine, Christelle, and Char are at the pond as well. Please don’t fret about that along with the air race.”
“Hmm…” Lord Preston turned to his son-in-law, who was at his left elbow. “Jeremy, you and Emma have news?”
Jeremy looked at him in surprise, sunlight glinting off his round eyeglasses. “Who told you that?”
Emma put a gloved hand on her husband’s arm. “I did, Jeremy, dear. But I said we’d tell him at his party when everyone was present—not out here by the airstrip.”
“You can tell the others at the party,” said Lord Preston. He placed the arm with the newspaper around his wife. “Elizabeth and I prefer to hear about it now. It is good news, I presume?”
“Very good news, Papa,” replied Emma. “Though I think reactions will be mixed. Jeremy has been given a pulpit in London—and a very good one.”
“London!” Lord Preston was startled.
“Why, that’s miles away from Ashton Park!” exclaimed Lady Preston.
“We hear that Jeremy’s being considered for the post of bishop, and that if he does well in London he’s got it.”
“Em,” Jeremy reacted quickly, “you didn’t need to tell them that.”
“I did. It’s the only thing that would soften the blow of us packing up and leaving Lancashire.”
“A bishop?” Lord and Lady Preston responded together.
Jeremy looked at the ground and shook his head. “I’m sorry, Mum and Dad. I don’t have to take the London church.”
Lord Preston stared at him. “What?”
Lady Preston put her hands on his shoulders and kissed his cheek. “My dear boy, of course you must take it. God moves in mysterious ways. We’re so proud of you.”
“Well done, Jeremy!” Edward came over and pumped the cleric’s
left hand, carefully avoiding Jeremy’s prosthetic right arm and hand. “This is excellent news. I fear I must let my own cat out of the bag now.”
“What is that?” asked Emma.
“Mother and Father know, but no one else in the family does. The Conservative Party has chosen me for one of its candidates. I’m to run for a seat in Parliament the next election. I’m to run for Dover!”
Emma laughed. “No! Is it true? You and Char only a stone’s throw from us in London?”
“If I win, yes.”
Victoria hugged him fiercely from behind. “Of course you’ll win, old brother Edward. You’ve always wanted to rule the world, and now you’ve got your start.”
“Ouch! Careful of the pocketbook. I still have to get by Labor and the Liberals.”
“Well, Vic, Labor took power from the Conservatives and formed the government in January. I can’t underestimate them.”
“You’ll be first past the post, never fear.”
“Here they come!” a voice shouted.
The crowd made their way off the landing strip as the judges yelled into their megaphones. Five or six dots could be spotted rapidly approaching, darting underneath a white bank of cumulus clouds and dropping in altitude. As the shapes of the planes grew obvious, the colors of the SPAD in the lead became clear to the people on the ground: yellow and black. Close on the lead plan’s tail was a SPAD with a white cross painted on the fuselage.
“Ben! It’s Ben!” Victoria exclaimed as she pointed. “He has the cross. He’s right behind the leader.”
“And Kipp is right behind Ben.” Edward grinned. “See the black K?”
Lord Preston struck his leg with the newspaper. “First past the flagstaff wins.”
The roar of engines blotted out conversation. For a moment it looked as if both Ben and Kipp would overtake the black-and-yellow SPAD, but its pilot opened the throttle and surged ahead, streaking past the flagpole half a minute before anyone else. A groan swept through the crowd. Victoria closed her eyes and put the back of her
hand to her mouth. Lord Preston unfolded his paper and glanced at a list of entrants that included descriptions of their aircraft.
“I see.” He shook his head. “A German won. A Baron von Zeltner. I’d hoped to give the Lord Preston Cup to an Englishman first time around. Well, well, can’t be helped.”
Von Zeltner brought his plane about and touched down on the grass. Ben and Kipp came in for a landing minutes after him. The judges barked into their megaphones and reminded people more planes would be coming in over the next few minutes even as a cluster of men and women waving the black, red, and gold flag of Germany’s Weimar Republic rushed von Zeltner’s SPAD. He cut his engine quickly and the propeller whirred to a stop moments before the well-wishers reached his plane. Climbing out, he was swarmed by the flag bearers and lifted up onto their shoulders. Once his boots were on the ground again, a teenaged girl in a dress the colors of his plane kissed him on the cheek and presented him with a bouquet of roses. Smiling broadly, he lifted them to his face. Some were yellow, others scarlet, and still others such a bloodred they looked black.
“Shall I bring the trophy from the hut now, Lord Preston?”
Lord Preston nodded, his lips tight. “Yes, Skitt. They’ve set up a table for it on the other side of the Quonset. Not with red, black, and gold bunting, thank goodness.”
“That’s not all there is to say about it, surely?” Jeremy looked at Victoria. “Didn’t you tell me the planes all took off at different intervals?”
“Then who won must depend on when Ben and Kipp actually left Liverpool.”
“If it was the same time as the German, the race is over and done, Jeremy,” Lord Preston said.
Edward cocked his eyebrows. “Yes, but they might have taken off long after him. Jeremy’s right. The judges will have something to say about this once everyone’s touched down.”
The Germans moved their celebration to the edge of the field as SPAD after SPAD made its way in and landed. Lord Preston counted every one and was relieved when number twenty bounced over the grass and sputtered to a stop. The children boiled up from the pond,
whistling and yelling and waving their arms, Harrison and Holly running after them to herd them away from the airplanes. The judges gathered the pilots into a group by the Quonset where Skitt had placed the award cup on a table decorated for the occasion. The trophy was two feet high with large handles on either side and fashioned out of silver. Von Zeltner finally broke away from the Germans and made his way to the hut, the roses still in his hand.