Barnstormers

Here’s the next chapter of my new story, about two women and a plane near the dawn of the aviation industry. I read it at the Tamale Hut on April 14, 2018.

Chapter 7 – Hog Island Intrigue (part 2)

In our last exciting episode, Bridget and Kiki arrived the Hog Island air base, outside of Philadelphia, to pick up a new plane, after having been driven off the road by two men in a truck, who took the folder of information that might have identified the mysterious criminal known as the Belgian.  However, the men left behind a photograph which might be of the Belgian, and on the back were the letters “H.V.E”.

– – – – –

The Hog Island facility was primarily a shipyard, where they built everything from cargo ships to troop transports, but recently a small area was set aside to be used as an airfield. The Pennsylvania Air National Guard was using it as a training facility, but a few civilians had used the site from time to time. There were rumors of a larger airport being planned for the Philadelphia area, to replace the dozens of tiny airfields that were opening all over the state, and this site was often included in the discussions.

For now, the airfield consisted of two hangars, similar in size to the one in use by the Beckerman Flying Circus in Keyport, and a small office building on the edge of a large grass field. The hangar doors were open and even as the sun was just beginning to illuminate the terrain, men could be seen inside rushing back and forth as they prepared the airplanes for flight. Several planes were parked in front of the open doors, presumably waiting for enough light to safely take off.

Kiki and Bridget entered the office building, a drab two-story wooden structure, not expecting to see anyone in the office at such an early hour. They were surprised to see a handsome man who looked to be in his mid-20s working at a desk near the front of the otherwise empty room. They walked up and stood in front of his desk.

“Hi, what time do you expect Major Morrison in?” Kiki asked.

The man looked up at her and smiled. “I’m Major Morrison. And you are?”

“Oh, I thought you were the night clerk,” Kiki said, blushing slightly. “I’m Kristina Hansen, but my friends call me Kiki. This is Bridget. We’re here to pick up our plane.”

Morrison stood up and walked over to a file cabinet along the wall. He took a folder from the top and ran down the top page inside with his finger. “Ah, here it is. I saw this paperwork yesterday and thought it odd that we would be taking delivery of a civilian plane.”

“We’re not exactly civilians,” Bridget said. She opened a leather billfold containing her International Criminal Police Organization credentials and slid it across the desk. “You can see why we need a place to pick up our plane without arousing suspicion.”

Morrison looked at the card and smiled. “Oh, undercover, eh?”

“Don’t tell anyone, okay?” Kiki asked with a conspiratorial wink.

“Whatever you say. Take these papers down to hangar two.” Morrison took some forms from the folder and handed them to Kiki. “Talk to Sergeant Brenneman and he’ll get you what you need.”

“Thanks,” Kiki said, taking the papers. “By the way, is there any place around here a girl can freshen up?”

“There are some facilities in the back of the hangar,” Morrison said, “but it may not be what you expect. We don’t have many women stopping here.”

“I’m sure we can make do,” Bridget said. “Thanks for your hospitality.”

“My pleasure. Good luck with your assignment.”

The girls smiled and left the office. As they walked toward the hangars, Kiki said, “That Major guy was majorly cute.”

“I’ll say,” Bridget replied. “Hey, we forgot to ask him if he could help us get that photo from Mr. Price’s folder back to headquarters.”

“I’ll go ask him,” Kiki said, handing Bridget the forms and turning to head back to the office.

“Sure you wouldn’t want to ‘freshen up’ first?”

Kiki laughed as she jogged back to the office. Bridget continued on to the second hangar. It was a huge, wooden structure with two sliding doors that opened to allow the planes to enter and exit. Two planes with Air Guard markings, a Curtiss JN-4 Jenny and a Douglas O-2, sat in front of the open doors, and Bridget saw several other planes inside as she entered the cavernous building. She stopped one of the mechanics milling around and asked him to point her to Sergeant Brenneman. The mechanic seemed to be momentarily stunned to see a woman in the hangar, but he quickly recovered and pointed Bridget to a man standing at a workbench along the far wall of the hangar.

Sergeant Brenneman was older than Bridget and shorter than her by more than a foot. He had short salt-and-pepper hair and a cigarette tucked over one ear. He wore overalls similar to the other mechanics she saw in the hangar, but he had an insignia in his collar to signify his rank. He stood at the workbench, poring over some paperwork spread in front of him.

“Excuse me, Sergeant Brenneman?” Bridget asked.

Brenneman looked up at Bridget and said, “Yeah?”

“Hi, I’m Bridget Doyle. I believe you have a plane for me.” She handed him the forms that Major Morrison had given her.

Brenneman stared at her for a second then took the papers and skimmed them quickly. “Oh, yeah, the Jenny. It’s right back here.” He led her to the back of the hangar, where another Curtiss JN-4 stood. This one did not have the Air Guard markings like the one Bridget saw outside. The fuselage and the rudder were painted red, while the two wings, the stabilizer and the wheel covers were yellow.

“It’s beautiful,” Bridget said.

“It’s a bit gaudy for my tastes,” Brenneman grumbled. “So you’re going to get it out of my hangar?”

Bridget dropped her bag and took off her jacket. “Once I give it a thorough going-over.”

“But my men inspected it, and it’s ready to go.”

Bridget turned and looked the sergeant in the eye. “I don’t mean any disrespect to your men, sergeant, but my partner and I will be trusting our lives to this machine, and I’m not going up in it until I personally make sure that it’s ready to fly.”

The sergeant held Bridget’s gaze for a few seconds, then shrugged his shoulders and said, “Whatever you want to do.” He turned and as he walked back to his workbench, he mumbled under his breath, “Crazy woman.”

Bridget hung her jacket on a nearby chair, and after walking around the plane a few times, began to inspect the plane, piece by piece.

– – – – –

An hour later, Kiki walked in to the hangar and found Bridget working on the engine of the plane. The propeller was on the ground at her feet and there were several piles of small parts strewn about.

“Hey,” Kiki said, “how’s it going? I thought we were ready to fly.”

Bridget looked back and pushed a stray hair from her forehead with the heel of her hand. “Yeah, they did a fair job on her, but I’m making a few modifications that I was working on with the guys from Aeromarine.” She stepped back, wiping her hands on a rag she took from her back pocket. “So what do you think?”

Kiki walked around to view the plane from the other side. “She looks great! And I like the paint job. When can we take ‘er up?”

“I need to finish the modifications to the engine. After that, we should be ready for a test flight. Did you get the picture sent to headquarters?”

“Went out in the last batch of mail. Jimmie personally made sure that it was not tampered with before the plane took off, and he assured me that the pilot is trustworthy.”

Bridget’s eyebrows raised. “Jimmie, huh?”

Kiki blushed. “I mean Major Morrison. He’s really very nice.”

“I’ll bet. I wish I could say the same for the rest of the crew here.”

“What do you mean? I thought Jim .. I mean the Major said that Sergeant somebody or other was going to take care of us.”

“Brenneman. Yeah, he was okay, I guess. But the rest of these guys … pffft.” She waved her hand in the air. “Wouldn’t give me the time of day. You remember how all the guys worked together back at the Flying Circus?”

“Yeah, so?”

Bridget pointed to a tall, blond man in oil-stained coveralls working on an engine along the back wall. “Go try to borrow a wrench from that guy.”

Kiki looked at the man, then back at Bridget. She shrugged her shoulders and walked over to where the man was working. “Excuse me, may I borrow a wrench?” she asked, but the man didn’t even acknowledge she was there. “Excuse me,” she said again, this time a little louder. Several of the other mechanics stopped what they were doing and looked over to where Kiki was standing.

She walked right up behind the man and said, “Hey, I was talking to you.”

He looked over his shoulder and said, “Yeah?” He then went back to his work.

Kiki looked back at Bridget and furrowed her brow. Bridget just shook her head. Kiki turned back and poked the man in the shoulder with her forefinger. “Hey, what’s your problem? I just wanted to borrow a wrench.”

The man put down the screwdriver he had in his hand and turned to face Kiki. “Look, lady. Why don’t you leave me alone? Do I go into your kitchen and bug you for a frying pan?” Several of the other mechanics snickered as the blond man turned his back to Kiki and resumed working on the engine.

Kiki stood momentarily with her mouth open. Then her face started to turn red. “Listen, you …” she said as she reached for the man’s shoulder, when someone grabbed her wrist. She turned and saw it was Major Morrison.

He held her arm and looked around the hangar. “As you were,” he said, and the rest of the mechanics went back to whatever they were doing. He turned to the blond man. “Jackson, give this woman a wrench.”

The man looked back at Morrison with a half-sneer, then held out a wrench to Kiki. She took it from him and he immediately turned back to his work. Morrison guided Kiki over to where Bridget stood before Kiki could say anything more.

“What’s with that guy?” she asked when they got to the plane. “Does he have a problem with lady pilots or mechanics?”

“Yeah,” the major said, “actually he does.”

Kiki sputtered, “What do you mean? I can fly rings around any flyer, and I trust Bridget more than I’d trust any of them.”

The major nodded. “I’m sure you can, but most of these guys think that piloting a plane, or even working on one, is not a job for a woman. I’m not defending them. It’s just how they were raised. I gather you didn’t see much of this in New York or New Jersey, but people think a little differently as you move away from the more liberal areas of the country.”

“Well that’s just baloney,” Kiki said, her face still red with anger.

Morrison shrugged. “It may be, but you really need to be careful. Especially in the more rural areas. Not everyone is going to be on your side.”

“Me an’ Bridge can take care of ourselves.”

“I have no doubt about that,” Morrison chucked. “By the way, the reason I came out here is that a telegram just came through for you.” He handed Kiki an envelope, which she promptly opened and began to read.

“Where are we going?” Bridget asked.

“Cleveland. There’s reports that the Belgian’s syndicate is trying to move into the aircraft business there.”

“I’ve never been to Cleveland,” Bridget said. “But what are we going to do with our trunk?” She pointed to the trunk which sat open next to the tail of the plane. It had been delivered while Bridget was inspecting the plane.

“There’s a train that goes through to Cleveland,” Morrison said. “I can arrange to have it shipped there. You can pick it up at the station.”

“Thank you, Major,” Bridget said.

“My pleasure. Anything else you need?”

“Well, in about an hour, I’ll need some of your men to help me get this beauty out on the field.”

“You got it. Brenneman!” Morrison shouted. The sergeant walked over from his workbench and saluted. “When this mechanic is ready, I want some of your men to help push her plane out.”

“Anything to get her out of here,” Brenneman grumbled and walked back to his workbench.

“I’ll go make arrangements for your trunk,” the Major said.

“I’ll come help,” Kiki chirped, then added “unless you need me for anything.” She looked back at Bridget.

“Go,” Bridget said. “I’ll call you when I’m done.” Kiki followed Morrison out of the hangar while Bridget went back to work on the engine.

– – – – –

A few hours and one quick test flight later, the Jenny sat on the grass in front of the hangar with Bridget in the front cockpit. Kiki was talking to Major Morrison nearby.

“Well, I guess I should go,” Kiki said.

“I guess you should,” Morrison replied.

“We might pass through here again.”

“I suppose you might.”

“Is there anything to do in Philadelphia?”

Morrison smiled. “I think we could find something.”

“Would you come on already?” Bridget shouted. “I’m burning gas here.”

Kiki looked up at Morrison and said “See you around, Major.” She winked and ran to the plane. He watched as the engine revved and after a short taxi, the ship jumped into the sky. He shaded his eyes as he watched the plane shrink into the distance, then turned and walked back to the office.

Another person had watched the plane take off as well. Sergeant Brenneman stood at the corner of the hangar, smoking the cigarette that he usually had tucked behind his ear. After the plane left, he went around the corner of the building where there was a wooden phone booth. He stepped in, dropped a coin in the slot and dialed a number.

“It’s me,” he said. “They just took off.”

“Did you fix the plane like we discussed?” the voice on the phone asked.

“I couldn’t. One of them was by the plane from the time they arrived until the time it took off.” The voice on the other end said nothing, and Brenneman nervously took a drag off his cigarette. “But I know where they’re going.”

“Where?”

“I overheard them talking about Cleveland.”

“I see,” the voice said, and there was a click and the line went dead.

“You’re welcome,” Brenneman said sarcastically and hung up the phone. He dropped his cigarette in the dirt and ground it out with the toe of his boot before heading back into the hangar.

– – – – –

Who did the sergeant call? What peril awaits the girls in Cleveland? Are the initials “HVE” on the picture a clue to the identity of the mysterious Belgian? We’ll find out the answers to these questions and more in the next exciting chapter, which will premiere at the Tamale Hut on May 26, after which it will be posted here.

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If you don’t want to wait until May, you might consider joining my e-mail list.  Once a month, I send out an e-mail with information on my writing projects, and any literary events I might be attending, and I include a new chapter of the Barnstormers story (usually with additional content I don’t have time to read at the Tamale Hut) in every e-mail.  Click here to sign up today!

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