The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Nine

Episode 539: The Eleventh Flying Cloud Christmas Special

Trench-digging competition

The inquest was over. At the head of the room. Michaelson reviewed the transcript while Everett and his officers and crew breathed a sigh of relief and congratulated themselves that the ordeal was over. MacKiernan reflected on the events of the past few weeks and shook his head. "Our adversaries held quite the contest," he observed. "I wonder who won."

Michaelson made a final marginal note and set down his pen. "Indeed they did," he remarked., "though it cannot compare with another that I witnessed."

MacKiernan and Miss Perkins exchanged glances. It was very unusual for senior captain to reminisce. They knew he had a history, some of which he seemed to share with Captain Everett, but its nature remained a mystery. Could this be a clue?

"When was this?" Miss Perkins asked, doing her best to pretend disinterest.

Michaelson glanced at the secretary -- it was clear that he wasn't fooled -- and seemed to consider her question. At last he reached a decision.

"It was a contest such as you never imagined, between the most terrible of adversaries..."

"This all happened shortly after the War," he began. "I was at the Royal Air Station in Sydney then, on Admiral Collins' staff when he was commander of the Australian Squadron. As Christmas approached, the Admiral summoned me to his office. 'Lieutenant-Commander Michaelson,' he announced, 'you'll be in charge of the Boxing Day competition between the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines. You will ensure that this contest is fair, even, and that neither side is embarrassed by the outcome'."

"As you must imagine, I regarded this assignment with some concern. The Navy and Marines may be kindred services, but siblings can be the fiercest of rivals, and those two have been rivals since time out of mind. Making the contests fair and even was going to be difficult, and ensuring that neither side was embarrassed would challenge the wisdom of a Solomon. I was also limited by tradition, and I will admit to some trepidation on the morning after Christmas as the competitions began.

"The first was always the Trench Digging Contest, in which the winner was the team that completed the longest section of trench in a given length of time. The Royal Navy was the underdog here, but the sailors were undeterred. When the starting bell rang, they set to work with a will, plying their shovels as if they were pulling at the oars, sending clods of earth flying as the coxswain called the time. As I watched, their trench grew, deepened, took shape and form, and by the time the final bell rang, they'd almost finished digging themselves in.

"Unfortunately, they were hopelessly over-matched. The Royal Marines do t hat sort of thing for a living, and their team had done itself proud. By the time of the final bell, they'd completed a substantial field fortification, with trenches, traverses, a parapet, and a firing step... all of them facing in the wrong direction."

"Facing the wrong direction?" asked Sarah. "However did they manage that?"

Michaelson made a dismissive gesture. "It was a simple enough mistake. Their sappers had only recently been posted to Australia, and they oriented themselves by the Sun, forgetting that in the Southern Hemisphere, this passes to the north.

"This disqualification was something of an embarrassment to the Royal Marines, and it seemed they'd fall even farther behind in the second contest: the blimp-handling race. This required two teams to drag blimps around a slalom course, and the Navy's team, drawn from trained handling parties, was heavily-favored to win. To their credit, the Marines gave it their best try. Those fellows clearly hadn't skimped on its meals -- I've seen smaller draft horses -- and if all they'd needed was brawn , they might have had chance, but this was a contest of skill and training, and there they came up short. To make matters worse, they'd ballasted their blimp too light, so that it lifted them in great leaping bounds, as if the were walking on the Moon.

"As they neared the finish, the Navy was well in the lead. Then a freak gust of wind caught their blimp and blew it into the pain t shop. You might think it would have bounced harmlessly away, since it was lighter t han air, but it's mass, not weight, that counts in these situations, and 70,000 cubic feet of hydrogen has a very considerable mass. The blimp smashed through the walls, splashing paint about without fear or favor, dragging the handlers behind it in a polychromatic trail. By the time the Navy team had recovered their feet, the Marines had won.

"The score was now even, but neither side was thrilled by the outcomes. This pattern continued as the day wore on. In each and every contest, the team that was heavily favored lost in some embarrassing fashion. In the four man steeplechase in full kit, the Marines' third runner handed on his rifle instead of his baton and their team was disqualified. In the deck swabbing derby, one seamen accidentally filled his bucket with Vegemite, which did not work to the Navy's advantage. The mule packing match would have been an easy victory for the marines had they not lost track of which were the marines and which were the mules -- a mistake anyone could make. And in the flag-hoisting competition, the swabbies pulled so hard they toppled their flagpole.

"By the end of the day, the score remained even, but tempers were high. Only one contest remained to break the tie and determine the victor. This was the rugby match."

"A rugby match?" Miss Perkins said apprehensively. "Surely that was not going to end well."

"So it seemed," said Michaelson. "Rugby is a beastly game, even when played by gentlemen, and these contestants were anything but. The Marines seemed drawn from sweepings so the guardhouse and barracks, while the Navy... well... you can find some tough physical specimens among the stokers and deckhands. The adversaries lumbered onto the field like bulls looking for something to charge. On the sidelines, I braced myself for the carnage. Then, when it seemed disaster was inevitable, the Admiral took the podium.

"'Gentlemen,' he announced, 'I regret to inform you that due to a clerical error, the rugby balls for today's game were delivered to an entirely different air station. In the interests of sportsmanship, your contest will take a different form. I notice several families with children among our visitors and guests today. The winner of our final match, and the day's competition, will be the team that can make the most children smile'."

The others raised their eyebrows. "Make children smile?" asked Iverson. "Whatever did the Admiral hope to accomplish?"

"I wondered that myself," Michaelson admitted. "'Sir?" I asked the Admiral. Then I paused, uncertain how to continue."

"'Watch, Mister Michaelson', he replied. 'Watch and learn.'"

"I anticipated disaster. These were hardened warriors, many scarred in body or mind by the War -- hardly what one would chose for nannies. How could they possibly entertain small children? Surely this experiment could only end in tears, But I'd reckoned without human nature. Even the toughest marine or hardest old salt remembers what it was to be a child, and soon the contestants were scattered about the field, surrounded by groups of laughing children."

The senior captain paused and gazed off into space as if lost in some memory. After a moment, Miss Perkins broke the silence.

"Who finally won?" she asked. "The Royal Navy or the Royal Marines?"

Michaelson seemed to collect himself. MacKiernan glanced at his expression in surprise. Was that a hint of a smile? From Michaelson?

"Both, I think," he replied. "For surely Christmas is a time for peace and reconciliation."

Child's toy bucket and shovele

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you from the crew of the Flying Cloud! We hope all of you enjoyed the year that is past and are looking forward to the year to come. The Royal Naval Airship Service will be on vacation over the holidays, but if all goes as planned, Season Twelve will begin on 13-Jan-2020. See you all then!

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