You could smell the bitter sweet fumes carried on the warm winds long before you could see it. Then there was a ‘putt-putt-putt’ as his air machine descended towards the town. Everyone was excited, and I mean everyone, even Mrs Watson and she never got worked up about anything. Like she said, she was saving herself for Jesus when he returned to Earth.
I was thinking to myself that maybe Jesus wouldn’t make Culpepper City his first priority and perhaps Mrs Watson would have to wait some. But then what did I know?
Culpepper wasn’t really a city, in fact it took a huge stretch of the imagination to see it even as a town. We had one main street and nothing much else. The founding fathers had big plans for the settlement and had decided on calling it a city from the word go, as a signal of the things that would come to pass. To be honest, we’re still waiting.
The railroad had built their tracks about 100 miles to the north even though Culpepper had sent the great and good to convince them otherwise. There was talk that the city council had even tried bribery, but these rail folks were being bribed by bigger fish than us and so it made no difference.
When Captain J. Welbeck announced in the papers that he was going to fly from Maine to San Diego in a craft that he had designed himself, well it was all we could talk about, try as hard as we might not to.
Culpepper City was in the middle of nowhere, and we only got on the map ‘cause the Pony Express had once used it as a place to change horses. Now the Mayor felt that if the Cap’n (as he called him) proved that Culpepper City was a natural stopping off point for these here flying machines, then maybe we’d grow to be a real city in two shakes of a tail.
The Captain’s people had telegrammed ahead with instructions on what the flying machine needed in the way of landing. A flat surface, not too stony, not too grassy that ‘stretched for a good distance’. No one knew how far that was, but the whole of the town got to clearing the long field behind Dee’s farm. Every stone was lifted, every bush cut and every blade of grass tamed within an inch of its life.
Some of the better off ladies in town sent for new dresses from a catalogue that Mrs Miller kept in her store. I even heard tell that some of the women of Culpepper were hoping that the Captain might be single and ask one of them to marry him. No one had seen a picture of the Captain, but the women were willing to take their chances given that the alternative was dying an old maid and being buried in the unmarried section of the cemetery. Culpepper did all it’s sorting in the graveyard to save the Lord some time on judgement day, at least that’s what the Pastor told us at Sunday School.
So the big day arrived and all of the townsfolk had been standing beside the long field since sun-up which at that time of year was about 4.30. We didn’t see the machine until late in the afternoon and yet no one had moved an inch in case they missed the most important thing to happen to Culpepper since Billy the Kid had robbed the Culpepper City Farm Friendly Bank.
And then there it was, coming out of the sky and heading for the line of flags that the folks had put down as instructed in the telegram.
There was whooping and hollering and young Bessie asked her Mom if it was an angel. I had never been so excited in all my life and as it got closer and the noise got louder, my heart started to beat real fast. No one had ever seen a flying machine before and some folks fell to their knees and started to pray and there was a lot of ‘thank you Jesus’ as if we were witnessing a miracle – which we probably were.
It fell slowly on to the long field and as the wheels touched the ground safely, everyone started to ‘cheer’. Then the flying machine bumped back into the air and the townsfolk all went ‘ohh’ because they were thinking it was going away again. Then it landed, bumped, lifted into the air a couple of more times all followed by ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ from the folks until it came to a stop at the end of the field. Any further and it would have flattened Jake’s prize bull.
Captain Welbeck got out to a hero’s welcome. He was carried back to where the Mayor was standing on a box with a speech in his hand.
“Good people of Culpepper City,” he started, as the Captain remained sitting on the shoulders of the townsfolk. “It is my privilege, nay, it is my honor to welcome the brave flyer Captain J. Welbeck to our great city”, and while the Captain was sitting on the shoulders he took off his flying hat and glasses and it was then that we realized that the Captain was a woman.
“Captain Jenny Welbeck,” she told the crowd who dropped her to the ground in shock. The single ladies, tutted, shouted ‘well really’ and stormed off home.
Mrs Watson said that Jesus would get to hear about this, and if she was any judge, he wouldn’t be happy. Women weren’t meant to fly and that was an end to it.
The Mayor’s wife, who had had the bedroom repainted several times until she was happy with it and one she assumed would be fit for a flying hero suddenly changed her mind and said the Captain could stay at Culpepper City Hotel as she was expecting visitors any day now. I’m thinking that the fact that the Captain was young and pretty didn’t help her case much.
The Mayor asked if I would escort the Captain to the hotel on two accounts, I reckon. One was that the hotel belonged to my Mama and two, the Mayor’s wife had suddenly felt faint and demanded to be taken home that instant. “No ifs or buts, Jacob, take me home - now!” And that was that.
Mama gave Jenny the best room in the house, and told her that no way was she accepting any payment for the room. Jenny tried to insist but she ain’t seen my Mama when she’s in full flow. It’s her way or else.
After a good meal, Jenny said goodnight but that she might have a surprise for us in the morning. I couldn’t get to sleep that night thinking what the prize might be and then over a big plate of grits and eggs the next morning she asked if me and Mama would like to go up in the flying machine. Mama said God hadn’t given her wings. She said thank you kindly but there was no way she was getting in that contraption. I looked at Mama and she just said ‘No!’ but she knew I wouldn’t shut up until she said ‘yes’. Which is what she did, eventually.
There was an excitement in the pit of my stomach and my breathing got real hard but I was determined that I was going up. Jenny made me sit in the front seat (after she’d cleared out all her stuff) and then went to the propeller and pulled it real hard. Once it was started and whizzing around, Jenny jumped in.
She took the machine up to the end of the long field and then got out and turned the thing around then just as easily jumped in again.
Jenny shouted “Are you ready?” I stuck my thumb in the air to tell her I was and soon we were shooting down that field, fast like. Then a weird thing happened, the ground fell away and we were flying. Man it felt good. I looked over the edge to see Mama crossing herself. She’d be asking God to take care of me. If we climbed any higher, I could probably tell him myself.
Nothing in the world can get you ready for flying, it ain’t like anything you’ve ever experienced and the first time is extra special. We flew over town and I could see that Jenkers was lying on his roof without a stitch of clothes on. I always wondered what he did up on that roof. I could see the guys rounding up the cattle over on the Four Circles ranch. The wind was blowing in my face and hair and I didn’t ever want to come down. That is until Jenny said we’d need to head back on account of the fuel getting low.
That was the best day of my life, ever.
Jenny left that afternoon and headed somewhere south and west and I wondered if they too, thought she was a man.
A few years later, Jenny flew across the Pacific alone and broke all kinds of records.
One day - a while back - out in the middle of Arizona, she disappeared. They never found her body.