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Country editors boy, p.22
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       Country Editor's Boy, p.22

           Hal Borland
 
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  So I became aware of the girls, but I didn’t go courting. I was busy, for one thing. If I wasn’t playing football or basketball or practicing for the 440-yard race in track, I was studying, or I was working at the News office. Besides, I still had no clear status in school, for I was less than a full-fledged junior and more than a sophomore. I was almost automatically cast in the role of a lone traveler. It was a role I had had for quite a while, and it had been ingrained in me during the lone years on the homestead. The year in Brush had weakened it somewhat, but there I had had boys for my companions, the usual boy society of that age group at that time, which had no particular interest in girls. I still had the idea that if I was going anywhere in life, I would have to go alone. I was sure I wanted to go somewhere, and I was almost equally sure I could travel faster by myself.

  Perhaps I would have been less sure of all these things if Little Doc Williams hadn’t felt the same way. He, too, was going somewhere, and he hadn’t the time to waste on girls. We never discussed it then, but it must have been implicit in our attitudes. Some years later we did talk about it, and Justin—he was no longer Little Doc but a full-fledged doctor—Justin said, “Maybe you are right about you being a loner, but I wasn’t. It was just that I wasn’t seriously interested in girls. After all, we grew up in the country, and I had access to Dad’s medical books. We knew the difference between boys and girls. There wasn’t any urgency to find out things we already knew. Besides, there were a great many important things to learn, both in school and out. And I think we had a pretty good sense of time. We knew there would be time for girls later. As there was, of course.”

  I suspect that he was right. But I know that it was the movies that gave me my first broad look at the world of make-believe and the sentimental dreams that became so much a part of life in the next few decades. I know that it is an old, established custom to speak of the late war years and the 1920s which followed as a time of forthright realism when the romantic notions of the Nineties were finally laid to rest; but I am not at all sure that is true. I would say, rather, that we were being transported from the candy-coated fables of the late Nineties to the lacquered and gold-plated fables of the Twenties. And the vehicle that was taking us was war.

  Woodrow Wilson had been re-elected to the pious boast, “He has kept us out of war!” But on February 3, 1917, only three months after that election, we broke diplomatic relations with Germany over unrestricted submarine warfare. On March 12, only eight days after Wilson’s second inauguration, the notorious Zimmermann papers were intercepted, revealing a German plot to get Mexico to enter the war and attack the United States. On April 6 the Congress, at the President’s request, declared war on Germany. On May 18 all men between the ages of twenty-one and thirty were registered for selective conscription. On June 5 the first members of the American Expeditionary Force landed in France.

  There in Flagler we were aware of all this in a kind of remote, impersonal way. We read the news. Those over twenty-one registered for the draft. But there I was, projecting motion pictures, week after week, that showed the antics of Fatty Arbuckle, John Bunny, Ben Turpin, Louise Fazenda; that showed the never-never land of William S. Hart and Pearl White and Theda Bara and Constance and Norma Talmadge. Remote as it was, however, Flagler wasn’t alone on this. All over the United States people were watching those shadows on the screen, those candy-coated fables, while the furious storms of the twentieth century were rumbling like distant thunder on the battlefields of Europe.

  18

  THOUGH WE WERE NOT totally unaware of the war, it didn’t dominate our lives or make anywhere near the impact it did back east. The only major effect in our area was that the price of wheat went up to the highest it had ever been. The News carried a column of war news each week, a syndicated summary prepared in Denver and a part of the preprinted “patent insides” of the paper. We knew the Germans were giving the British and French a hard time and we knew that submarine warfare was making it difficult to remain neutral. When President Wilson asked for a declaration of war, Father printed a first-page story about it.

  When recruits were asked for, maybe half a dozen young men from our area went to Denver and signed up. I remember only one of them, a devil-may-care young cowhand from one of the outlying ranches. He went to Denver, joined the Marines, and when he had a leave a few weeks later returned to Flagler and spent almost the whole day parading up and down Main Street in full dress uniform, even with a cartridge belt and a pistol strapped on his hip. When it was almost time for the westbound train on which he was returning to Denver he went down to the depot and, with a crowd of maybe a dozen loafers and curious youngsters watching, fired two clips of cartridges from that big black automatic pistol. He aimed at somebody’s stray dog a hundred yards or so away in the un-fenced pasture south of the depot. The closest he came with all that shooting was about two yards from the dog, but he kicked up a lot of dust and made a lot of noise. Then the train came in, the cowboy Marine yelled “Yipeeeee!” and got on board, the grinning conductor said to anyone listening, “He’s off to catch Kaiser Bill, I guess,” and laughed, shouted, “All aboard!” tossed his metal step into the vestibule, and signaled the engineer. The train rolled out and that was the last we ever saw of that cowboy in his parade uniform of the United States Marines.

  That summer, however, we had a chance to look a long way into the future, though nobody knew it at the time. All the way to World War II and beyond, in fact.

  It was early June, a beautiful day with the mildness of early summer all around. It was a slack day, a Friday, after the paper was printed for the week. Mother had taken the day off to do the week’s washing, and I was helping Father break up the forms and distribute the type back into the cases. I was at the case, slowly distributing type, and Father was at the stone, whistling softly to himself as he worked. Then I saw this man come down the stairway, a tall, broad-shouldered man in a dark suit and wearing a soft hat over iron-gray hair. He looked important, a man of affairs, somehow. He came in, glanced around, said to Father, “You are the editor?”

  Father wiped his hands and came to the front of the office. “I’m the editor. My name is Borland. What can I do for you?

  “My name is Buck,” the stranger said. “I spent a year or two in this neighborhood some years ago. Before you came.”

  “I’ve only been here a couple of years.”

  “I have come back on a—an unusual mission. I hope you will keep my confidence. It will be best for all concerned, for me, for the Army, for the government, for everyone, if you print nothing about me or what I do here.”

  I saw Father’s surprise. Most strangers who came to the office wanted a story in the paper about themselves or a puff for their business.

  “What I am here for,” Mr. Buck said, “is not wholly secret, but it does have its confidential aspects. May I speak freely?”

  “Of course.”

  Mr. Buck glanced at me, and Father said, “That is my son, Mr. Buck. He can hold his tongue as well as I can.”

  “Well,” Mr. Buck said, “I have invented a device that will put an end to war. Not only the present war, but war for all time. I am here to test and perfect it, with the blessing of high officials entrusted with the safety of our country. I do not expect the layman to understand, but you are obviously an intelligent man who can grasp the fundamentals. I have invented a flying torpedo which can deposit a high-explosive bomb at any strategic point even twenty miles away. It flies through the air. It can be directed from the ground. Half a dozen of my flying torpedoes could devastate an enemy army. And without the loss of one man on our side. It is this device that I am here to test and about which I request your silence.”

  Father stared at him for a moment, then asked, “With high-explosives, did you say?” His voice was tense.

  “I am testing it without explosives,” Mr. Buck said firmly. “There will be no explosions of any kind. No one will be in danger. My tests will be only of the vehicle itself, its f
light and directability.”

  “What is this vehicle?” Father asked.

  “An aeroplane. A small aeroplane which can be directed to its destination from the ground. It has no human pilot.”

  “Suppose it should strike a house.”

  “That is precisely why I am here. There are large areas of vacant land here, with very few houses. I am making arrangements to conduct my tests out west of Flagler, and the aerial torpedo will be directed away from town. Moreover, its test flights will be limited to a mile or two at most.”

  “You can be sure of this?”

  “Absolutely. My dear man, this is no pipe dream or harebrained idea. This is a device that high-placed army men have examined and which, when my final tests are completed, will be turned over to the government. It is for your ultimate safety as well as mine and that of everyone in this whole country. Right now it is as nearly foolproof as any flying machine can be made.” He paused and smiled. “Will you keep my confidence? Can I rest assured that you will print nothing about me or my tests in your newspaper?”

  “As long as you do not endanger the town or anyone in the area, yes. Beyond that I can make no promises.”

  “Thank you. Thank you, sir!” Mr. Buck thrust out his hand. “And if you wish to witness our preliminary tests, I will be glad to have you on hand. If all goes well, we should have the runways completed and ready for our initial flight by Sunday afternoon.”

  He left the office and Father stood there speechless, watching him go up the steps two at a time. Then he said, “Well, I’ll be damned!”

  He came over to the case where I was at work. “You heard what he said.” He shook his head and glanced out the big window and up the stairs again. “You never know, when a man talks like that, whether he’s a nut or a genius.” He got out papers and his bag of Bull Durham and rolled a cigarette. When he had it going he said, “I didn’t recognize the name at first, but he fits the description to a T. Doc Buck, they called him. I don’t know where he got the ‘Doc,’ but he used to have a place out east of town. Never did any farming. Always was tinkering with machines. Built a tractor that wouldn’t run and a windmill that wouldn’t pump water. But this idea he’s got now—well, it makes sense. An aerial torpedo could be quite a weapon.”

  I had the afternoon off and nothing special to do, so I got on my bike and looked up Little Doc. He was at the drug store, but he had the afternoon off too, so we decided to go down to Verhoff’s Dam. But as we went down the back street past Alexander’s lumber yard I saw Doc Buck talking to Mr. Alexander while a couple of men loaded boards onto an out-of-town Ford truck. And Little Doc said, “I guess they’re taking lumber out to build the tracks for Doc Buck’s flying machine.”

  I was dumbfounded. “How did you know about that?” I asked.

  “Everybody in town knows it, I guess. Why? Is it a secret, or something?”

  “It’s supposed to be a secret.”

  Little Doc laughed. “They drove into town last night with the flying machine right out in plain sight on that truck. And he was around town this morning telling everybody he was going to end the war in Europe with it.”

  “Where is the flying machine now?”

  “I don’t know. Probably out at the old Elgin place. That’s where he’s going to try to make it fly.”

  Little Doc obviously knew even more than I did about this. “Why don’t we go out to the Elgin place and look?” I asked.

  So we rode out the Arriba road four miles, then turned south on an overgrown trail. A man named Elgin had homesteaded there about ten years before, had plowed a few acres, built a little frame house and a sod barn, lived there long enough to prove up, then had moved away. One of the real estate men in town had the land for sale. We had been there a few times, hunting rabbits. The house was just a weather-beaten shell, windows gone, several boards missing from the roof. And cottontail rabbits had burrowed under it from all sides. We always could count on getting a couple of cottontails there.

  We rode into the forlorn dooryard and, as always, flushed a cottontail that scurried and disappeared under the house. The buffalo grass had healed most of the scars of tenancy, leaving only the path to the pump, which now lacked a handle, to the old privy, which had no door, and to the sagging sod walls of the barn. A big clump of cactus near the privy was in bloom. There weren’t many places left where cactus throve, so we went to look. There were both prickly pear and grizzly-bear in this clump. The prickly pear was loaded with yellow blossoms big as tea roses and that marvelous cactus-yellow, rich and waxy looking. The flowers on the grizzly-bear were a bit smaller and a bright rose color, one of the most luscious pinks I know. I hadn’t seen such a show of cactus blossoms since the second year on the homestead, when the whole school section east of our land burst into cactus flowers the same week. We went to look and admire, and to mark the place for a later trip when the juicy, oversweet, seedy prickly-pear fruit would be ripe. The fruits on the grizzly-bear weren’t worth trying to eat; they were too spiny and they hadn’t much taste anyway.

  From the cactus bed we could see the flying machine out back of the barn. We raced to be the first to touch it. Neither of us had ever seen an airplane, though we had seen plenty of pictures. This was an airplane, all right, though a miniature. It had a wingspread of no more than twelve feet, and like all the planes of that day it was a biplane. Its two wings were of canvas stretched over a wooden framework and braced with wires tautened by turnbuckles. Its fuselage was like the body of a big night moth, fat and tapering, and it too was of canvas over a wooden frame. In its nose was an automobile radiator with the Ford ensign in plain sight, and beneath the radiator a shaft stuck out. It had no propeller. Inside, directly under the wings, was a Ford engine, just like the four-cylinder engine in any Model T touring car.

  We were so entranced with the flying machine that we didn’t hear the truck until it had almost reached the barn. Then we jumped back, feeling as guilty as though we had been caught in some kind of theft. The driver of the truck yelled, “Get away from that torpedo!” then grinned at us and drew the truck to a stop. He was a stranger but a friendly person. We could look at the flying machine all we wanted to, he said, just so we didn’t touch things. He even got out and showed us how it worked.

  “The propeller,” he said, “goes here, on this shaft. Put water in the radiator, just like a car, measure the right amount of gasoline into the tank. Set the flaps on the wings, like this. Set the rudder, to guide it. Then wind it up, with the propeller, to start the engine, and away she goes!… You don’t believe it? Well, you’ll see.”

  “Can we watch?”

  “Tell you what. You help unload this lumber and I’ll give you a pass so you can see.”

  That seemed like a wonderful idea.

  “We’re going to build a track right down the slope, see? So we’ve got to put the boards where we’ll build the track. I’ll drive and you two unload the boards, six at a time.”

  That’s what we did, unloading the boards six at a time until the truck was empty. Then we rode back to the barn. The driver took a grimy notebook and a pencil stub from his pocket, asked our names, wrote them on a blank page, and under it wrote, “Pass these two gentlemen free,” and signed it J.C.R. His name, he said, was Jake. I never did hear his last name. He tore out the pass and handed it to me and asked, “You going to be out here tomorrow?”

  “I thought the flight was Sunday.”

  “That’s right, Sunday. But we’ll be building the tracks tomorrow and tuning up the torpedo. Just thought you might like to help, see how a big inventor does these things.”

  We said we would be there the next day, and he suggested that we put our bikes in the truck and ride back to town with him. My hands were full of slivers, but it was a small price to pay for having a part in a historic event. Some day we would be able to tell folks that we helped test the machine that put an end to war.

  Back at the office I told Father what had happened and what we were going to
do tomorrow. He wasn’t at all excited. He asked me if I didn’t remember the fence in Tom Sawyer.

  I remembered, but this didn’t seem like the fence at all. I told Father so, and he smiled and said, “All right, take tomorrow off and go out there and help Doc Buck. But you needn’t tell your mother unless she asks what you are up to. I’m not sure she would understand how important this aerial torpedo is.”

  Mother apparently hadn’t heard about Doc Buck. She didn’t mention him, at least, and I didn’t volunteer anything. The next morning I went down to the shop with Father as usual and did the morning chores. About eight-thirty Father said, “I guess I can handle things now, if you want to go. How are your hands?”

  “They’re all right,” I said, refusing to admit how sore they were.

  “There’s a pair of old work gloves on the shelf over there in the corner.”

  I put the gloves in my pocket, took my bike, met Little Doc at the drug store, and we rode out to the Elgin place. It was another beautiful June day, and Little Doc said, “I hope tomorrow’s like this.” I did too, because tomorrow was test day for the torpedo.

  Half a dozen men were at work. We left our bikes at the old barn, took a quick look at the flying machine, then went down the slope to where saws and hammers were making a lot of noise. Doc Buck was there, overseeing things, telling Jake what he wanted done. Jake relayed the orders to the workmen, but Doc Buck himself came over to us. Before he could tell us to go away I took the pass Jake had given us from my pocket and showed it to him. He glanced at it, looked at us with a half smile, and said, “All right, boys. You can move some of that lumber on down the slope and hand it to the carpenters as they need it.”

 
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