R505: the Flying Cloud

Episode 51: The Flying Cloud Christmas Special

R-33 lowering a fake Santa Claus sleigh

"Captain Everett!" The girl's voice was full of surprise. "Are you standing the mooring watch tonight?"

Roland P. Everett, Captain of His Majesty's Airship Flying Cloud, R-505, looked up to see Sarah standing at the foot of the companionway. As always, her smile was bright.

"I felt that the crew deserved shore leave after the sterling service they've rendered," he replied, "and I suspect Lieutenant Iverson could use some rest after his recent adventures, so I decided to take this watch myself. What brings you to the control car so late?"

"I wanted to review Wallace's figures on fuel consumption. I'm sure they're correct, but since you did bring me aboard as ballast officer, I felt it was my duty to check them."

"Quite," said Everett, returning to his novel. "Carry on."

The girl flipped through the fuel log, scribbled a few figures, then glanced at the book in Everett's hands. "What are you reading?" she asked.

"Something Adrian brought over on the R-317. It's a work by one of those new American authors -- a fellow named Hemingway."

Sarah cocked her head thoughtfully. "I've heard of him, but I've never seen any of his work. Could you read some to me?"

Everett glanced at the passage he'd just finished -- a vivid description of Brett Ashley -- glanced at the girl, and hesitated. This might be just asking for trouble. "It's rather involved," he said cautiously. "Not quite the thing for such a peaceful night."

The girl laughed. "Then tell me a story. My grandmother always used to tell me stories on nights like this."

A story? thought Everett. This hardly seemed appropriate behavior for the bridge of one of His Majesty's warships. But officers in the Royal Naval Airship Service had a reputation for eccentricity. And his career had been more eccentric than most. He gazed out into the night, remembering...

"It was shortly after the War," he began. "I had just transferred to the Airship Service after..." he shook his head wistfully, "... I don't suppose you need to know about that, and I was serving aboard the R-35 under Lieutenant-Commander Fitzmorris.

"This was not an easy posting. Fitzmorris was a superb commanding officer, but he didn't suffer fools gladly, and he was quite intolerant of mistakes. As a new flight officer, I made more than my share, and he had imaginative ways of showing his displeasure.

"One of these was with his watch assignments. On that particular night, he'd ordered me to man the upper lookout station after I'd mishandled some tea. It was late December and the weather was terrible -- freezing wind and driving snow. I wasn't quite sure why we needed to keep a lookout, for there wouldn't have been any other vessels out in such vile weather, but you did not argue with Captain Fitzmorris.

"There I sat, alone in the cold, feeling somewhat sorry for myself. The night was black as a miser's heart and the chill cut straight to the bone. We had electrically-heated garments for conditions of that sort, but these were never very satisfactory. The heating coils were always too hot and everything else was always too cold. To make matters worse, it was the night before Christmas. This was always a special time in the Service. Did you know that in the first year of the War, troops on both sides stopped fighting on Christmas Day? Some even met between the lines to share a fleeting moment of peace. The Christmas Truce, they called it. High Command was furious. Can't have that sort of thing during a major global conflict..." The captain sat for a moment, lost in his memories.

"So what happened?" asked Sarah, bringing him back to the present.

"Something quite unexpected," said Everett. "As midnight approached, I saw a light some distance ahead! At first I wasn't sure I believed it, for who would be aloft on a night like that? Then I wasn't sure I dared report it, for the consequences of being mistaken did not bear thinking about. At last I decided it was better to risk the Captain's ire than risk a midair collision. So I screwed up my courage, keyed the intercom, and called, `Upper Lookout to Bridge, I see what look like running lights, bearing 350.'"

"Fitzmorris's response was immediate. He must have been in the control car conducting an inspection, and he did not sound pleased. `Are you sure?' he snapped. `We don't see it from here.'"

"I squinted through the blizzard, wondering if I was imagining things, but the light was still there. `I'm sure, sir', I replied, as boldly as I could manage.

"'Very well, Mister Everett', he announced. `We'll have a look. But if this is a wild goose chase, there will be the devil to pay.'"

"The helmsman brought us around to the north. This took some doing, for those early Armstrong- Whitworth Class ships could be a handful. I lost sight of the light during the maneuver. As you can imagine, I was not pleased by this development, and I could imagine the punishments that lay in store for me when it turned out there was nothing there. I peered into the blizzard, searching for some trace of the thing. Then I spotted it again, directly overhead."

"What was it?" asked Sarah.

Everett paused, wondering how much of his story would make sense to this young maiden from a South Pacific island. "Are you familiar with the legend of Saint Nicholas?" he asked.

"When what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a miniature sleigh drawn by eight tiny reindeer," the girl quoted with a smile.

"Precisely," said Everett.

Sarah's eyes grew wide. "But I always thought that was a myth. Do you mean to say it's real?"

"Yes, Sarah, there is a Santa Claus," said Everett. "Or so it seemed at the time. I could count the reindeer, all in their harness, through gaps in the clouds. They weren't galloping, as one might expect, but soaring through the air with their legs tucked beneath them like great brown birds. Behind came the sleigh, with a jolly old man, dressed in red, there at the reins. He was staring straight ahead, intent on his flight, but I thought I saw a hint of a smile. An instant later they were gone, vanished into the storm."

"What did you do?"

Everett shook his head ruefully. "As you can imagine, the situation was a bit of a poser. I couldn't report what I'd seen or they'd think I'd lost my senses. But I had to report something or I'd be in serious trouble. `It was a ship,' I said at last, `on a crossing course, bearing approximately 340, speed 35 knots, altitude 4000.'"

"'What kind of ship?' asked Fitzmorris. He sounded skeptical.

"'I can't say, sir,' I told him, `but it might have been Scandinavian. One of their coastal blimps, perhaps, blown off course in the storm.' I was rather proud of that bit of improvisation.

"'Very well, Mister Everett,' came the reply. `Remain at your station and let us know if it reappears.' It was strange, but I thought I heard laughter in the background.

"The bridge crew were still laughing when I got off watch. By then I'd figured out what had happened. They'd arranged a rendezvous with the R-33, which was also on patrol that night. The other ship flew overhead, hidden by the storm, and lowered an observation car disguised to look like Santa Claus and his team. It was a good trick -- one I imagine they'd played on other new officers -- and it might almost have fooled me, were it not for what happened next." He paused.

"What was that?" asked Sarah

Everett smiled. "Why, a few minutes later, the real Santa Claus flew by."

Real Santa Clause taking a break atop the R-35

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you from the crew of the R-505! May your old year end in happiness and your new one begin with optimism and joy! The Flying Cloud will be on vacation next week. Season Two will begin on 4-Jan-2010. We look forward to seeing you...

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