“Anyone who has ever visited The Persian Cat in Vienna knows that there is no creature more deft, more supple, more responsive than a high-class courtesan,” Madame Waschbaer said. “And, as any who have attempted to cross me or my girls knows, there is no creature more dangerous and resourceful when angered.”

“Well, yes.” Inspector-General Baumkopf said, uneasily shifting in his mirror-polished boots. “So I’ve…heard, in any case. But still, what a remarkable ascent, from the whorehouses of our nation’s capital to sailing above the front lines for His Imperial and Royal Majesty’s Aviation Troops, hm?”

“I think you’ll find that it’s quite a remarkable ascent from anywhere to flying in a heavier-than-air machine, Herr Baunkopf,” said Waschbaer. “Even your men.”

The madame and the inspector continued strolling along the line of Albatros D.III biplanes turned out for inspection. The latest fighter designs from the Empire’s erstwhile ally, they were newly-built by KUK Waggonfabrik. Baumkopf gave a curt nod to the women and aircrews standing at attention in front of their machines before turning back to Waschbaer. “Yes, I’m sure,” he said. “But I wanted to see how and know why. That’s why I came myself instead of sending an assistant.”

“Well, the how you’ll see in a moment, when we fly a sortie,” said Waschbaer. “No demonstrations, this will be a live-fire exercise, a special delivery to our dear enemies across the lines. No wasted fuel or girls’ lives.”

“And why?” Inspector-General Baumkopf jabbed his swagger stick at the nearest pilot, Erna Pichler. “We do not see fit to put His Imperial and Royal Majesty’s delicate flowers on the front lines, so why do they fly above them?”

“Why, to release more of His Imperial and Royal Majesty’s strapping young lads to die for their country in the Russian mud, of course.”

“And why…er…why empty the brothels? Surely there are virtuous women who could serve and not-“

“Oh please, Inspector-General,” scoffed Madame Waschbaer. “Call a spade a spade. You may call the girls dancers, courtesans, prostitutes, whores, whatever you like, it is nothing they haven’t heard before.”

“Why…courtesans?” Baumkopf continued, looking uneasily over Erna Pichler’s various and sundry assets with a foreboding sense of familiarity. “You say they are deft, and supple, and all that, but-“

“But they are also tough,” the madame shot back. “That toughness is what will win them glory in this war while freeing your boys to be in a frozen trench someplace. And, if you’ll pardon my Francais, these girls are used to men getting screwed over thanks to them.”

Baumkopf, red as a cherry tomato, sputtered in response.

“Relax, it is a joke,” said Madame Waschbaer. “I am a commissioned officer in His Imperial and Royal Majesty’s Aviation Troops if you wish me brought up on charges for speaking so freely.”

The inspector-general continued walking past Erna, who gave him a smile and a wink, continuing the inspection almost automatically.

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His Sopwith Camel sputtering, Nigel Trelawney hurriedly tossed out whatever he could to lighten the craft. The jungle below loomed large as everything from the pilot’s parachute to his jacket plummeted to the canopy. A landing strut snapped on a mountainous tree, but the jungle didn’t quite capture the Camel. Trelawney made it back to base and ditched in his shirtsleeves.

The din attracted some Ut’uonoh tribesmen, who had noticed the odd birds flying overhead for some time. This one, though, seemed to have deposited some heavenly guano. A hunting party tracked the items to their source, and found Trelawney’s effects strewn about a quarter-mile of jungle. Most were useless; when the party returned to their village, the elder decreed that only the fabric was to be kept, as it might be useful for making rope

But when the pilot’s wallet was opened, there was a hushed silence. The images within, of a strange bearded man, were surely a sign, and must be treated as such. There was a great feast, much music and dancing, and the mystic images were incorporated into the elder’s traditional raiment, passed down from father to son.

And so it was that when the British High Commissioner arrived to seek an audience with the Ut’uonoh elder, the elder appeared clad in a garment which incorporated a handful of British coins featuring George V.

“How the bloody hell did the Ut’uonoh get that before they even met us?”

Inspired by the song ‘6 pence and moon’ by Hiroki Kikuta, released under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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The strange diminishing of honeybees in the summertime, desperate measures were called for. Apiaries throughout the USA were willing to pay top dollar for live bees, especially vital queens and viable sections of comb. Most wound up coming from India, where the beekeeping practices might not have been up to snuff but the bugs were cheap and plentiful.

That’s where I come in. Bees, live bees especially, are considered to be dangerous animals. They need to be escorted by a courier at every step of the way. That doesn’t necessarily mean cuddling up to them, but you have to keep the box in sight.

I boarded Eastern Airlines Flight 887 from Delhi to London with the courier case, all wrapped in bright orange quarantine tape, bumping against my leg as I limped to my seat and stowed my cane.

“Did you need a hand, hun?” a stewardess said.

“What I need is a leg,” I joked. “I’ve tried everything from surgery to magnets, but it still gimps out on me.”

“You were injured by…magnets?”

I set the case of bees down on the seat I’d bought for it–the profit was more than enough to pay for their own seat. “I took an arrow to the knee,” I said.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, clearly getting neither that joke or its predecessor.

“It was a work accident,” I said, deciding to level with the lady who’d be bringing me my booze over the course of the next sixteen hours. “The bees got out once, and I’m allergic.”

What can I say? I like to live on the edge.

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All jetliners accumulate oily residue near their exhausts. It’s rarely a serious concern, being as it is mostly carbon that can’t be burned any further, but the vagaries of air travel in the jet age are such that planes can’t be washed often. It takes an eight-hour layover at an airport with the right facilities, meaning that hardworking airliners are lucky to get a bath once every two months.

Aircrew and ground personnel are sometimes known to scrawl graffiti in the residue, much like a merry prankster wiping the mud off a dirty car to write “wash me.” It’s frowned upon, obviously, and much more difficult in the post-9/11 era, but earlier aircraft often went aloft with a variety of crude or humorous temporary tattoos inscribed where (hopefully) no passengers could see them.

In 1979, a Lockheed L-1011 TriStar belonging to Midwestern Airlines (MSN 1251, registration N983MW) had one such message discovered by its ground crew at 6:32 AM during routine preflight checks. The message, “LOOK OUT BELOW,” earned eyerolls from those who saw it. The pilot for the flight, Capt. Laudner Bellow, found it even less amusing: he’d been known as “Lookout” Bellow in his years flying Linebacker raids over North Vietnam. He angrily ordered the crew to scrub off the message before departing for Baltimore.

On its final approach to Baltimore/Washington International, a cargo door on N983MW blew open, scattering items from the cargo compartment over a wide area. The plane landed safely, and the incident was traced to a stress fracture in the locking latches. Despite some suspicion of Capt. Bellow for sabotage, the incident was quickly forgotten and N983MW was repaired and returned to service.

Six months later, another message appeared at around noon just before a trip to Chicago: “MIND THE BUMP.” The ground crew chief at Baltimore, Ernest “Bumpy” Washington, Jr., took the apparent joke in good humor but noted it in the log. That afternoon, N983MW encountered severe supercell thunderstorms midway through its flight, causing violent turbulence that injured three passengers whose seatbelts had not been properly secured. There was no question of “Bumpy” Washington having cause the turbulence, but rumors began to swirl among Midwestern Airlines staff about N983MW.

The situation was not improved when, a month later, “OUT OF GAS” appeared written in the residue that had accumulated since N983MW’s wash after its Chicago accident. The crew, superstitious, insisted on a full preflight check, which uncovered nothing awry. The delay forced a temporary route reassignment, and as a relatively new jet N983MW was reassigned to fly the LAX-Honolulu route for a month. On its first flight, Hurricane Fico forced the aircraft to circle for hours before landing, and the captain estimated on touching down at Honolulu International (on two engines, to save fuel) with less than ten minutes of powered flight time remaining.

It becomes difficult to separate fact from fiction at this point, as it had become well-established around the Midwestern Airlines watercooler that N983MW was cursed and its misfortunes predicted by preflight graffiti. No doubt many pranksters took it upon themselves to add to the legend with their own scrawls, and jittery crew chiefs marked down patterns that may have, in retrospect, been mere coincidence. Midwestern, for its part, simply tried to ignore the issue and scheduled M983MW for more cleanings than usual.

What is known is that on June 2, 1981, the message “GOODBYE” appeared near N983MW’s tail. The captain and flight crew refused to board the aircraft, prompting Midwestern to fire them all for insubordination. Three other crews also refused and were written up for insubordination before the staff of N946MW out of Detroit agreed to swap. The flight, a short hop across the Chesapeake to Richmond, was widely known as a milk run.

N983MW disappeared from radar twenty minutes into its flight, and the first debris washed ashore several hours later. The accident, along with another on September 22 of that year, caused a fatal loss of confidence in the TriStar as an airframe, leading to slashed production orders and the eventual withdrawal of Lockheed from the commercial aviation business.

No cause for the crash was ever determined.

Inspired by this news story.

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“So, Sean,” said the day shift manager at Hopewell Tri-County Airport. “I understand that you have been making our airport announcements for third shift for some time now?”

“That’s right,” Sean said.

“And are you aware of any…complaints…regarding the content or tone of your announcements during that time?”

“Not a one,” said Sean.

“Uh-huh.” The day shift manager said. “I’d like to read some feedback that I have gotten, if I may. ‘I was greatly confused when your airport announcer said that Flight 1066 to Brussels was departing from the vegan restaurant on Concourse A.’ ‘I heard that all cars parked in the structure after midnight would be subject to towing by a pair of angels armed with grappling hooks, but I did not find this to be the case.’ Shall I go on?”

“I’m sure I don’t know what they’re talking about,” Sean said. “People get a little loopy after midnight, don’t they?”

“Ah, I see.” The day shift manager did his best to keep a poker face but a vein could be seen quietly throbbing on the side of his large and domed forehead. “I have in my inbox, in addition to those complaints, a recording of an announcement made last month someone took on their cellular telephone. If you don’t mind, I’d like to play it for you to see if it jars anything loose, memory-wise.”

“Please do,” said Sean.

“Attention passengers for Edinburgh,” said what was unmistakably Sean’s voice, wavering as if besotted and filtered through a cell phone’s tinny speaker. “I regret to inform you that, due to black magic, your pilots have timed out and turned into lemurs. Columbia Airlines apologizes for the inconvenience but will be unable to provide lodgings during the estimated 97-hour wait before we can take off.”

“I don’t know who that is, or where it was recorded, but they clearly need to lay off the sauce,” said Sean earnestly.

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This post is part of the February 2012 Blog Chain at Absolute Write. This month’s prompt is “second chances.”

I had prepared very carefully, from packing everything days in advance to dropping the dog off at the kennel early to renting a car to get me to the airport as well as run those last few crucial errands. I even bought an extra waterproof camera the night before I left, remembering that I’d used up all my shots early last year.

Yet as I got up at 4am to be at the airport bright and early for my 7am flight, I had a vague feeling that I was forgetting something. It wasn’t until I was at the airport, staring at the electronic ticket kiosk, that the circuit finally closed.

My passport was sitting in a drawer at home, 90 minutes away.

I was trying to board an international flight.

People who work the ticket counters must get a lot of sob stories (even if most probably come from people trying to avoid paying a $25 baggage charge). I think the fact that I was trembling uncontrollably from sheer overwhelming stress did a lot to lend credence to my tale of woe. As my house was a 120-minute round trip away, and I had an hour until boarding, you can probably see where I was coming from there.

I hoped that the Dominican Republic might be like Mexico at El Paso in 2000, when all I needed was a driver’s license–but no, not in this age of international shoe and underwear bombs. The lady at the counter instead booked me for the second and final flight from the USA to Punta Cana, which left from Philadelphia at 10pm.

“I’m shocked that there’s another flight,” I said, with no small measure of relief.

“I’m as surprised as you are,” she said. “You have three and a half hours to get back here with your passport.”

Lucky for me I’d chosen to rent a car instead of taking a taxi–I really would have been out of luck then. Even if I’d been able to hire another ride, I doubt that any taxi driver would have been willing to violate the speed limit as flagrantly as I did on my way home. The trip usually takes 90 minutes one way; I did a round trip in nearly the same amount of time. I actually only missed my original flight by about a half-hour.

I introduced myself to the baggage handler as “the unfortunate with a tale of woe” as she reflected how quick my passage had been. The gate agent had changed shifts, with the matronly and helpful agent who rebooked my flight replaced with a male agent more or less my own age.

“You’re lucky she did that for you,” he sneered as my itinerary printed. “Normally, ‘I forgot my passport’ isn’t an excuse for waiving a rebooking fee.” I was able to make it to the gate without injuring him, an action which I believe qualifies me for a Nobel.

That aside, I wasn’t out of the woods yet. Bizarrely, my path took me further away from the Dominican Republic–first to Charlotte and then to Philly. Each connection was super-tight, less than 45 minutes from arrival to boarding. A delay of any kind would have stranded me overnight.

Amazingly, both flights were not only on time, they were early. 30 minutes early, both of them, a feat probably never equaled before or since in this age of delays and just-in-time arrivals. I had enough time to buy lunch and dinner and keep my family up to date on my progress via text.

Whoever scheduled the USA-Punta Cana flights clearly did so under the influence of powerful narcotics. There were two a day: one from Charlotte arriving around 5, and one from Philly rolling in around 10pm, long after the airport had basically shut down. When my flight landed (also 30 minutes early!) my tour company had long packed it in. The only fluent English speaker I could find (other than my fellow passengers) was a German expat working for another tour company who confirmed that a $70 taxi ride to my resort was the only option.

I split the ride part of the way with a couple from Connecticut (interestingly both academics, like me) but once they were dropped off at their rented Punta Cana townhouse it was just me and the driver with only my high school Spanish and his handful of phrases between us. I was, understandably, a bit nervous.

It didn’t help that he clearly had no idea where the resort was. We stopped three times for directions–a gas station, the Connecticut townhouse, and a police post–and most of the route looked to be raw, howling wilderness. I felt like I was being driven to the ends of the earth, and it was all I could do to maintain a cheery facade by tapping my bag along with the Caribbean beat in the van’s speakers.

Needless to say, I was so relieved when my resort appeared that I paid the asking fare, $80, without even haggling. The driver attempted to negotiate an airport return in a week, but I left him at the front desk while I went to my room, where my brother was already checked in, and basically collapsed.

But you know what? Aside from my slip, which I attribute to lack of sleep more so than anything, I was extraordinarily lucky. I got a second chance at my long-awaited tropical paradise vacation with my family, and I seized it. The rest of the week seemed like a beautiful waking dream, made all the sweeter by the fact that I almost missed it.

Check out this month’s other bloggers, all of whom have posted or will post their own responses:
Ralph Pines
Diana Rajchel

“No, that’s not it at all. Costs are going up and profit margins are shrinking, so over the last couple years all the major airlines have been operating under the principle of ‘just in time.’ Planes arrive just in time to take off for another city, crews get there just in time to take off. Computerization has made that level of precision theoretically possible. It ought to be a ballet of jets, gas, and pilots.”

“That doesn’t explain why the flights are always late.”

“Yes it does. Let me paint a picture for you: there’s bad traffic in Los Angeles. The flight crew is late getting in, so their plane is late to Indianapolis. The same plane is going to Detroit with a different crew, and the old crew is flying to Atlanta. Now you have three delayed flights due to one fender-bender on the beltline. A complicated system with a lot of moving parts and a lot of humans will break down, and those breakdowns create ripples throughout the system. So, inevitably, ‘just in time’ becomes ‘never in time.'”

“How do you know that?”

“Used to be a pilot.”

“Why’d you quit?”

“You mean aside from the stress that drove me to the hospital three times in my last six months? Aside from the one frequent flier that was so angry about the delay that made him miss his daughter’s wedding that he stabbed me with a fountain pen? Aside form the fact that my dream of seeing the world wound up being crashing in a Hilton on six different continents?”


“Aside from all that? I just needed a change of pace.”

“Look at that rusted-out piece of garbage,” Neil said, examining the DC-3 hulk with a jaundiced eye. “Why don’t they clear it away?”

“Nostalgia, probably,” Gus replied. “Midwestern Airlines is the reason this airport’s here.”

Neil twirled one of his loader’s gloves. “There comes a time when you just have to let it go.”

“Let it go?” Gus said. “Midwestern Airlines was the first company to fly commercially west of the Smokies, the first company to run airmail to regional airports, and the first company to introduce first-class service!”

“What are you, a tour guide?” Neil sniffed. “Not many tourists out here on the tarmac unless their gate’s full and they need to be walked in. And even then they’re too grumpy to listen.”

“I started out working for Midwestern,” said Gil. “Worked for them for two years before they went bust and were bought up in ’85. They made all of us sit through a training video talking about how the company started with just a single Curtiss Jenny barnstormer and built it into the third-largest airline in the country behind Pan Am and Republic.”

“Two more airlines that have done just as well,” said Neil.

“Bah,” said Gus. “I don’t think forty-five counts as old, but you kids today make me feel it. Don’t think there were any airlines at all before the ones you flew to Disney World on.”

Over time, as their panic faded, the lost sparrows of Clan Oesoedd began to understand that they had been strangely blessed. Although sealed into the home of the giant hawks by the mysterious solid air with no hope of escape, they came to realize that it was a land of abundance.

The great striders moved in large numbers but also dropped vast amounts of food, indifferently leaving it as they strode off to be devoured by the giant hawks. They, unlike the striders in the World Beneath, never sought to harm the Oesoedd–the only danger was their innate clumsiness. Some even fed the sparrows, and all their leavings were carried away by slow, whining strider-piloted behemoths.

Echyd busied himself exploring the vast spaces and found a number of trees. Some were mock trees of the kind old Yn had once spoken of, but others were real and suitable for nesting. Chwi and Awr put a nest together as an experiment, to see whether the great striders would react violently as they sometimes did. Filled with unfertilized eggs, the nest lay undisturbed, and Chwi was granted permission to bring forth a brood.

Perhaps the greatest benefit Echyd and the Oesoedd sparrows came to recognize was the lack of llew, predators. The giant hawks came and went, devouring striders and regurgitating them for some unseen young, but seemed to take no notice of tiny sparrows, and certainly did not hunt them as the llew hawks did in the World Beneath. Dai and Ac even took to watching the hawks’ inscrutable movements, claiming that it inspired them. And there were no llew cats or llew dogs of any kind, save the very occasional one in a cage–a situation Echyd found devastatingly funny, given Yn’s tales of sparrows held captive by the striders in such cages.

The best way to sooth restive passengers, Kayleigh had found, was with a little humor. A quick internet search was enough to turn up dozens of corny lines which she jotted down on notecards and trotted out whenever the occasion demanded.

The run to Santa Mayo was always rough due to the crosswinds that constantly buffeted the island’s airport and Trans-Pac’s refusal to bring in smaller planes. Santa Mayo was increasingly popular with tourists, so a smaller jet or turboprop wouldn’t have been economically feasible, or so they said. But it wasn’t Trans-Pac suits enduring the bone-crushing landing and braking on every hop, either.

That day the flight had been particularly vicious, with heavy turbulence caused by an incoming weather front buffeting the plane as it made the trip. Kayleigh had gone through almost her entire stash of notecard air travel jokes to calm alarmed mutters from the passengers, winding up with her very last card as the jet came in for a landing which rattled her to the teeth.

“Welcome to the Santa Mayo Regional Airport.” she said, fumbling with a card. “S-sorry about the bouncy landing; it’s not the captain’s fault. It’s not the co-pilot’s fault. It’s the asphalt.”

A few snickers, but the tension in the air was still high. Kayleigh pulled out another rough-landing card. “We ask you to please remain seated as Captain Kangaroo bounces us to the terminal.”