The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Six

Episode 301: The Sixth Flying Cloud Christmas Special

Santa as an engineer

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 Cartwell.

"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 compressors.

"Meanwhile, Father had been trying to think of some way to help Mother's company. 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."

Compressed air tank

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 seeing you...

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