Steady, soaking rain blurred the dim rays of gas light that struggled to illuminate the gleaming silver dirigible docked in Berth 32 of the great Airship Terminus above Victoria Station, London. Although there was no wind, the dirigible rocked at its moorings. The elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh painted on its prow bobbed and nodded regularly as if it adorned a ship at sea.
In the salon, ruddy-faced, barrel-chested Nick Bottom paced. He was easily the weight of four regular men. Replacement refit parts, the most advanced industrial clockwork machinery of the fledgling Industrial Revolution, had transformed him into a precision metalworking bellows. The parts, including his steel girder legs, lent him such great weight that as he stalked back and forth the entire airship rocked.
“Nick,” came the voice of the ship, with its distinct twang of the American West, “I know you been cooped up here so long you’re goin’ batty. But the pacing back and forth has got to stop. The rocking is making me seasick. And I’m an airship, for crying out loud!”
Bottom wrung his hands. “Can’t ‘ardly ‘elp it, mate,” he said. “The lads is out there, and the young ladies and gentlemen and all, and there ain’t a bloody thing I can do but wait for orders from ’Er Majesty!”
“Orders’ll come soon enough, I expect. Take a seat. Breathe deep and slow. Slow! Don’t blow! You’ll shatter a window!” Nick gave up and settled to the deck with a thump.
“Tell ya what,” said Ganesh, “I’ve been around the world half a dozen times. I’ve got stories enough to choke a horse. Want I should spin a yarn or two while we wait?” Bottom nodded morosely.
“Let’s just make like we’re sitting in a pub, with pints between us, like you mech lads do. What’s the first thing you always ask each other when you meet a new lad? ‘So how’d you come to get meched?’ right? Of course! So let’s just say you wasn’t all discombobulated, and went ahead and asked me that question. And I’ll answer it. What d’you say?”
Nick cleared his throat. “Sorry!” he said. “Didn’t mean to be rude! How did you come to get meched? Course, you ain’t like us East End lads, most of what came home from the Queen’s wars unfit for anyfink else but to enter mechanical service. You being educated and all.”
“Naw,” said Ganesh, “I only talk educated when I’m around folks that are, folks who need to be confident that they’re trustin’ their lives to a pilot who knows what he’s doing. All my learning I got from my ma. I was her star student. But mostly I educated myself with my primer, navigational manuals, and books I read for fun. I’m a farm boy.”
“Do tell!” Bottom exclaimed, now genuinely curious. “A farm boy?”
“Right down to the hay between my teeth and the manure between my toes.”
“So how did you get off the farm and into the air?”
Ganesh chuckled. “I flew off with the Great and Powerful Oz.”
Nick snorted. “Bollocks!” he exclaimed. “Did not!”
“Are you gonna let me tell this, or keep interruptin’ with yer ignernce?”
“Fine then! Tell your tale. I’ll keep my own counsel what’s tripe and what’s ripe.”
The day I rode away with the Great and Powerful Oz was gonna be hotter than hell, but it hadn’t gotten there yet. I remember for certain, ‘cause it was the morning of Independence Day. And that entire July was hotter than hell in the Rocky Mountains.
My pa sent me out first light that morning, right after milking, with the hired girl, to get in the last of the second cut of hay out west of the house. Then I was supposed to flood them five acres. But we missed our water turn that day you can bet.
It was the summer I was sixteen. Whiskers just comin’ in. Pimples. Drives you crazy, don’t it?
The other thing that was driving me crazy that summer was that hired girl. She was damn near two years older than me, which meant she was getting a little long in the tooth for there in farm country. On the ripe side of becomin’ an old maid.
To make things worse, there was a whole passel of kids in her mama’s house, and her papa only had a few acres, close to the mountains so real rocky and not up to much. And lots of mouths to feed. Thirteen kids. And she was way down the list. So her papa put her out to work for mine. Ma figgered as how there was already plenty of help in the house, so if Pa wanted to do the favor and put that girl to work, it would have to be in the fields. Pa was supposedly the boss, but when Ma decided something, there just weren’t no argument.
Pa had money, at least in comparison. He was mayor, and deacon in the church. He farmed nearly four hundred acres of hay and dry land grain, which is a lot of irrigated land. Had twenty milk cows, three hired hands besides all us kids. So I’ve wondered ever since if that girl’s mama didn’t hope she’d snag one of my older brothers. But they was all too smart to get suckered in. Or they all had their eye fixed somewheres else maybe. So I guess she fixed on me. And I was too stupid to mind.
Lookin’ back, I think Ma must have known what was in the wind. Exactly what. Better than me, for sure. I was just finishin’ hitchin’ up my favorite mule, Big Red, to the wagon, when here she come. She handed me some fresh bread and a hunk of cheese and some bully beef and nice sharp radishes, all wrapped up in an oil cloth, enough for me and the girl both, since we was gonna be too far from the house at dinner time.
Then she give us both a real stern look. “Now don’t dawdle!” she says. “Get that hay up, turn the water in, and get yourselves back here as soon as you may. Then we’ll all go into town.” There was an Independence Day rodeo at the fairgrounds, and a church supper. There was patriotic songs by the local Women’s Guild, and a big bonfire. Course we had all been looking forward to it all summer.
Ma, when she fixed a stare on you it felt like she was looking right through you to see what you had in your back pocket. And that morning she give me that don’t-you-dare-sass-me stare. ”Hurry back!”
“And you, girl—you work hard for your pay today.”
Anyways, I finished hitching up Big Red, and off we went. Ma stood there and watched us over the rise, real careful.
Soon as we was out of sight of the house, Sarah—that was the hired girl’s name—Sarah the Rassler is how I think of her all these years later—scooted right over next to me on the wagon bench until her leg was touching mine. It was a nice cool morning, but I thought my britches was gonna catch fire where they touched her gingham dress. I stared straight ahead. But she leaned in close until her breath was right in my ear and says, “I don’t think it’s gonna take us all day to get that hay in, do you?”
I kinda coughed a little. “Um . . . no . . . not if we hurry.”
“So no point in hurrying all day, right? Might as well take it easy. Enjoy ourselves.” Then she leaned her head against my arm real gentle-like and went to drawing little circles on my knee with her finger. There ain’t never been a sixteen-year-old boy who could keep his heart from ker-thumpin’ when a curvy little miss goes to drawin’ circles on his leg.
I was glad to hop down off that wagon when we got to the hay field, almost two miles away. Big Red was as old as me, which was mighty old in mule years, so he knew his business way better than I did. Which was why I liked him so much. Without me telling him nothin’, he walked along that row of hay, nice and slow, while I pitched it up onto the wagon and Sarah the Rassler spread it around. Down one row we went, and back up to the other, and without being told, Big Red pulled up right alongside the haystack we had started the day before.
I made that hay fly! Tossed it like a man possessed. Felt like there was a jitterbug in my chest. If Sarah the Rassler hadn’t been up top of that stack, trompin’ around with her skirt switchin’ around the top of her boots I mighta just calmed down and got that hay all done. But no. I could hardly breathe. As it turned out, the rest of that field wasn’t gonna get gathered that day.
The sun was barely up over the mountains when I forked up the last of that load. The stack was almost done, about as high as I could toss it. But I managed to get that load up there, even with Sarah the Rassler spreadin’ and trompin’ and swishin’.
“Toss me up that water jug,” she says, and then she flops down on top of the hay, clean out of my sight. Now, Ma had sewed up a crockery jug in layers of old quilt and canvas for me, and would always fill it up and put it in the trough over night, so it would stay wet and cold all morning while I worked.
“You sure you can catch this?” I ask.
“Hmmm . . . maybe. Maybe you better hadn’t oughta chance it though. If I miss and that crockery gets broke it’s you that’s gonna catch hob.” She rose up high enough to peek at me over the edge of the hay and drop a wink.
I took a running jump off the wagon seat and scrambled up top of the stack with that jug in my hand.
Now I gotta tell ya, that day was the first time I had been all alone with Sarah in a rasslin’ mood. First time she kissed me, right out of the blue, was on that very wagon, taking a load of wheat to the mill to get ground. We was ridin’ along in the shade under the cottonwood trees down the bank of the canal, with the cotton floatin’ all fluffy through the hot, still air, when she slides over quick as you please, waited for me to turn around all startled, and planted a big soft, wet kiss right on my mouth. I was so startled I didn’t have the wits to kiss back. Boy did she laugh! She slid right back to her side of the wagon seat and just sat there laughin’.
“Well,” she says, “you can close your mouth and stop looking liked a stomped horn toad.”
“W-what did you do that for?” I finally manage to stammer.
“Got tired of waitin’ for you to do it.”
Then a week later we found ourselves all alone in the milk barn, washing up a stack of big milk cans, after the milkin’ was done. I was all hunkered down and she come up behind me and put her arms around me. That was the first time I was ever hot and cold at the same time. Chills runnin’ up and down my spine and face on fire both at once. I stood up so quick I knocked over that stool, and twisted around as I did. My face slid right up the front of her blue and white checked dress. And did she back away? Not a bit! Talk about face on fire! This time I was ready and threw my arms around her and held her up close. And the kiss was warm and soft, just like in my dreams every night since that ride to the mill. But then someone come bangin’ through the milk house door, and we jumped apart like scalded cats and hurried back to scrubbin’ out them cans.
But that mornin’ on top of the haystack was the very first time we was ever completely alone and—we thought—far from anyone to spy on us.
Now, you and me, Nick, we’re both men who have seen the world. So I won’t say much, just that we must have been a sight up top of that haystack.
That’s where we was, laughin’ and gigglin’ and rasslin’, with Sarah lookin’ up into that bright blue mornin’ sky, my eyes full of nothin’ but her, all snuggly and warm in that hay, and all our clothes all tangled around us every which way, and my hands findin’ their way to places they hadn’t oughta. It was first-time magic. Burned into my brain. To this day, every time I smell new hay I think of that girl.
All of a sudden she lets out a squeal and sits bolt upright, catches me a lick right smack on the nose with her forehead. Bloodies it good. But she don’t even notice. She slides down the side of that haystack all the way to the ground, skirt flyin’ up around her ears, most everything else unbuttoned, and her bloomers showin’ for all the wide world to see, and rolls across the ground right underneath the wagon.
I’m starin’ down at where she went, wonderin’ if I done something so horrible that she was gonna tell Pa on me, and him being deacon and all, it was gonna be a big scandal, and now was I gonna have to marry Sarah the Rassler, who was so old? I mean, it weren’t like there would be a baby or nothin’, since things just didn’t get that far. Events spoiled her plan, I reckon. Likely woulda worked, too.
But after a minute she finishes buttonin’ about a hundred little teeny wood buttons that hadn’t oughta got unbuttoned, and peeks out from underneath the wagon and stares back up at me—no—right past me. It wasn’t until I turned around to see what the heck she was starin’ at that I realized somethin’ had blotted out the sun.
An airship! Wasn’t much as airships go. Not like the behemoths in the dime novels I had hid up in the corn crib. This one wasn’t near that big. Just a little blimp. And not new or well kept up. Matter of fact she was just plain ratty. But she was the first I ever saw with my own eyes, and that mornin’, boy, was she a wonder! Big as the miller’s barn and floatin’ up there in that blue sky with those two little propellers pushin’ her along slantways to the wind, puffs of smoke and steam floatin’ behind from her little boiler.
Totally blotted out the sun. Wasn’t very far above us—maybe twenty, thirty foot—so it seemed to take forever for her to pass by, makin’ for the fairgrounds in town, where all the Independence Day celebrations was to be.
And all painted up every color of the rainbow! Lordy, wasn’t she a grand sight! Long dangly ribbons all ripplin’ in the wind. And painted on the side in red and yellow curlicue letters taller than me, “The Great and Powerful Oz”.
I’ll never forget my first sight of Ozzie Osmond. He was the pilot, of course. And the fireman. And the landing crew. And the showman. And the huckster of a patent medicine that would peel the paint off a plow. But accordin’ to him would cure the rheumatiz and gallstones and grow hair on a billiard ball. And all sorts of other whatnot.
But there he hung out the window, hallooin’ and laughin’ and wavin’ at us.
“Hey, boy!” he hollers. “Hay boy! Haystack boy!” He was so tickled with his own joke he like to bust a gut laughin’ like a dad-blame jackass. Thought he was gonna fall right out that window.
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