Episode 301: The Sixth Flying Cloud Christmas Special
They'd stopped at Kwajelain to resupply, reprovision, and stretch their
legs before the long flight back to Australia. Captain Everett and his
guests were enjoying the closest thing the island had to tea at the closest
thing it had to a cafe.
Outside, a bright tropical sun shone
down on scenery worthy of a movie: swaying palm trees, clean white beaches,
and a distant line of surf. Inside, the mood was one of reflection.
"So you think that your Lady Warfield managed to escape," said Mister
"We must assume so," said Everett. "She would have made sure to bring men
with the skills to handle your vessel, they were several miles to the south
when the cruiser turned to chase them, and the day was heavily overcast.
With care, and a bit of luck, they might have lost their pursuers in the
clouds. I fear we gave the baroness something of a Christmas present."
Mister Cartwell did not seem disturbed by this observation. "Christmas is
supposed to be the season of giving," he chuckled. "That's how my family
began making railroad air brakes."
Clarice and Emily looked up. Like all Australians, they could sense the
approach of a good story. "Do tell!" they demanded.
The industrialist saw the anticipation in their eyes and smiled. "Mother
used to own a rail company," he told them. "It was a small outfit called
the Quakertown-Monroe Railroad that carried coal from mines in the
Appalachians down to Philadelphia. It wasn't much as rail
companies go -- just a single line and a few pieces of rolling stock -- but
it did turn a profit in good years, and the route was quite scenic. The
track ran west from the city through some beautiful stretches of farmland,
crossed over a shallow river, then climbed a steep wooded valley into the
mountains. It was the kind of landscape where you'd expect to find dragons
or trolls. When I saw it as a child, years later, it captured my
imagination. I suppose that's how I got my start in cryptozoology.
"Unfortunately, hauling coal was not a reliable source of income.
The mining companies are always trying to control supplies, rig prices,
and do what can to manipulate the market. The Federal Government does its
best to prevent that sort of thing, but when they can't, it's customers and
companies like Mother's that suffer.
"Was your father in the rail business too?" asked Clarice.
"Not at the time," said Mister Cartwell. "Back then he owned the Conshohoken
Pressurized Gas Company, which he'd founded in the 1870s to meet the
exploding demand for compressed air from firms along the Schuylkill River.
That was quite an industry in those days. They used to call that region
Hyperbaric Valley. He'd also branched out into storage tanks,
valves, pipe fittings, and the like. He was heading up to the mines with a
load of pressure regulators when he met Mother.
"According to Father, they got into in a furious argument about whether steam
or compressed air is better for mine engines. It's an old debate: one of the
great divisions of mankind, like the difference between men and women, dog
and cat owners, or people who put their rolls into the holder right way up
and those who let their paper hang limply from the bottom. It's also a tough
question to answer. Steam may generate more power, but pressurized air means
less risk of fire, and doesn't up fill the tunnels with smoke.
"As you can imagine, one thing led to another, and soon they were wed. They
spent their honeymoon at the Kittatinny Hotel. You can still hear the joy in
their voices when they talk about those days. But all too soon, they had to
head home and get back to earning a living.
"That first year was tough. This just before the Coal Creek War, when the
Big Coal had politicians in their pockets, and Mother's line was not doing
well. Her rolling stock was in bad shape, the tracks needed repair, and
freight rates couldn't even cover operating costs. Father's company wasn't
doing much better. The compressed air boom was over, no one seemed to want
any storage tanks, and there never has been much demand for pressure
regulators outside the submarine and party balloon industries, neither of
which were very big in those old Quaker communities.
"As Christmas approached, Mother was trying to think of some way to help
Father's business. The problem, she decided, was the age of his equipment.
If he had a fresh new set of modern high-pressure compressors, he could
capture a bigger share of the market.
Unfortunately, machinery like that costs money, and there was
no money to be found. There was nothing in the bank, no contracts were
coming in, and there was no prospect of any business in the future. At last,
after she'd tried everything else, she decided to sell the rail company. The
line itself might not bring much, but the engines were still worth something.
She kept the negotiations secret to keep buyers from getting together to
drive down the price. Also, she didn't want Father to know.
"On the fateful day, she signed the papers and went down to the marshalling
yard to wave farewell to the last train. She might also have shed a few
tears, but I doubt it -- Mother always was a very practical lady. Then she
climbed aboard her wagon, picked up the reins, and drove off to buy those
"Meanwhile, Father had been trying to think of some way to help Mother's
Her freight business might not be profitable, but there was plenty of money
to be made carrying vacationers up to the new resorts near the Delaware
Water Gap. Unfortunately, passengers don't seem to like riding in coal cars.
I've never understood why -- those things can be quite comfortable if you
remember to bring a shovel. That meant the line would need passenger cars,
which would be expensive.
"A loan was out of the question. No banker was about to advance him money
when the entire industry was deflating. At last, after some thought, he
decided to sell his company to raise the necessary cash. The equipment
might not be worth much, but the property would be attractive to
developers. He kept these negotiations secret -- you would have too, if
you knew what those commercial realtors were like. It all took some doing,
but at last he signed the papers, shut down the plant, turned off the
lights, and rode off to go shopping.
"They celebrated Christmas Eve at the farm. Father had managed to find a
turkey, Mother put together the trimmings, and cider was never a problem in
that part of Pennsylvania. The next morning, Mother took Father by the
hand and led him out to the barn, where she'd hidden his present.
"He never told me just what he thought when he saw a row of shiny new air
compressors, each one done up in a bright red ribbon, but I'm sure he was
surprised. He may also have been somewhat concerned -- Father always was a
quick thinker. He hid his feelings and led her down to the old spur line
down by the creek where he'd parked a string of Pullman cars under several
thousand square feet of wrapping paper."
Emily and Clarice exchanged glances, transfixed by the enormity of this
disaster. "What did they do?" asked Clarice. "They'd each given up the
one thing they needed to use the other's gift."
Mister Cartwell laughed. "Well, Mother always was very practical, Father
was a good thinker, and they did have a fleet of railroad cars along with
a set of air compressors. After they'd gotten over their chagrin, they
got to work on a design for automatic air brakes. Those were an immediate
success, and the company has prospered ever since."
Captain Michaelson raised an eyebrow. His manner suggested a certain
degree of skepticism. "It seems to me that I've heard a similar story
before," he observed.
Mister Cartwell's expression was as innocent as a child's. "I believe our
friend Bill Porter wrote it up for one of the weeklies back in '05,
though he may have changed it slightly for publication.
I think the original version is more plausible.
And the spirit is the same.
The greatest gifts are the ones that show how much we care."
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you from the crew of His Majesty's
Airship, the Flying Cloud!
We wish you the best of the season and the very best
of fortune in the coming year!
The Royal Navy Airship Service will be on vacation for two weeks while our
heroes (and heroines) do their `joy of the season' bit.
Season Seven will begin on 12-Jan-2015. We look forward to