ON A CLEAR, bright morning in April of 1912, Hollis helped his mother cut the ribbon that hung across the first-class entrance to the Wendell Dakota. It was a two-person job, because the scissors, like the airship, were enormous. One of the silver blades caught the sun and beamed it across the faces of the crowd gathered at the Newark Sky-dock; everybody blinked at once. The blades snapped together. There was a momentary hush as the halves of the ribbon whipped and fluttered in the wind. Then the crowd erupted into cheers. Tall black hats tumbled up into the air along with short-brimmed bowlers and floppy caps.
A pair of earnest young crewmen hopped up on the platform with Hollis and his mother. They took the giant scissors and disappeared, leaving the two Dakotas to wave and grin and bask in the hoots and hollers of the exhilarated crowd. Hollis felt a gentle hand on his shoulder and glanced up at his mother. Without unfreezing her smile, she fanned her face with a few up-and-down waves of her hand and rolled her eyes. Hollis gave a quick nod in agreement. He was sweating right through the fabric of his custom-tailored suit, giving some of the richest people in the world—not to mention their servants, biographers, music instructors, translators, masseuses, and governesses—a fine view of the spreading stains that had already claimed his armpits. And he thought it must be ten times worse for his mother, who was wearing a complicated dress topped with a lace collar that crept up her neck and presented her head to the world like a blossoming rose.
Hollis let his gaze drift across the jostling landscape of passengers waiting to board, their faces flushed and shiny in the heat. Uniformed stewards assigned to each prominent family were scattered about to ensure that no first-class feathers were ruffled by line-cutting or a lack of decorum. Red-capped porters dotted the crowd like cherries on a rich dessert. As high as the roof of a midtown office building, the top of the sky-dock was the first-class rallying point, where the wide gangway transferred passengers to their expansive staterooms in the upper third of the airship. Below them, second-class travelers looked forward to their own well-appointed rooms, while third class would make for shared bunks (men to starboard, women to port). At the bottom of the towering sky-dock, steerage passengers were bound for the holds that surrounded the coal bunkers and boiler rooms.
“I suppose I’ll take a hot day over a stormy one,” Hollis’s mother said, blowing a kiss to some ancient specimen whose pince-nez flashed as he bowed.
“I have to get out of this suit,” Hollis said, resisting the urge to loosen his tie. Using his hand to block the sun, he observed the far edge of the platform where the last passengers were gathered. Beyond them, the blue sky hung empty, and he imagined the clouds had been driven away at his father’s command.
* * *
BESIDES THE CREW MEMBERS readying the ship for launch, Hollis was the first person to climb aboard. It was part of his belated birthday present: he’d turned thirteen last month. He clanked up the ramp from the snipped ribbon to the first-class promenade deck in heavy, steel-lined boots. Every passenger wore them for boarding a Dakota Aeronautics ship so as not to get blown out into the sky by a vicious gust of high-altitude wind. Accidents happened, but the boots kept the blow-away rate to a minimum.
Hollis was greeted at the top of the ramp by Marius Rogers, one of the laborers at the fringes of any given airship’s crew—assisting the chief second-class purser, performing minor plumbing repairs, helping the ship’s librarian stay organized. The joke was that Marius had a secret twin; he always seemed to be in two places at once.
“Morning, Mr. Dakota.” Marius tipped a nonexistent cap by tugging on a lock of his hair. Hollis held out his hand, and they shook. Marius made a face. “You stick that in water?”
“It’s hot out.”
“Oh, come on, now. We’re in New Jersey, not New Guinea. And it’s not even summer.” He dropped Hollis’s hand with exaggerated disgust. Then he stood a little straighter and added a crisp, “Sir.”
“Not you, too,” Hollis said. Lately, crewmen had begun to treat him with an alarming level of professional respect. “Marius, you don’t have to sir me.”
“Better get used to it.”
Hollis sighed. “When did you slink aboard, anyway?”
“Been here three days.”
Marius laughed. “I doubt the stokers want me anywhere near a furnace.”
Hollis eyed the screw top of a hip flask peeking out of the crewman’s uniform pocket. “I’m glad you caught this assignment.”
“Honest truth, I would’ve booked passage anyway, just for the ride.”
“Maybe next time you’ll get to,” Hollis said. Marius smiled weakly. Concerned that the man had taken this as a threat to his job, Hollis pointed at the screw top. “I don’t care about that.”
Marius shifted his weight, and the flask dropped out of sight. “You know, Mr. Dakota,” he said, “I never seen anything like this ship. Every hair in place. They could load the passengers, give it a shove, and let it fly itself across the Atlantic.”
“It would have to be a pretty big shove.”
Hollis stepped out onto the flat expanse of the first-class promenade deck. The fresh-cut pine planks had been sanded, waxed, and buffed to a glossy sheen. Straight ahead, the overhang of the topmost recreational area—the sundeck (steel-lined boots required at all times)—sheltered fifty reclining chairs bolted down in a perfect row. In the enticing shade behind them, a hundred round black stools squatted next to a mahogany bar as long as a city block. Unopened bottles of clear and amber liquor, including his grandfather Samuel Dakota’s patented Moonshine Whiskey, were stocked ten feet high along the back of the bar, the small print of their labels reflected in gilded mirrors. Bright little dots of light slid up and down the bottles in time with the gentle bobbing of the docked airship.
Above the bar was the row of glass that defined the starboard edge of Il Bambino’s Restaurant. Its chef had abandoned a thriving career in Florence to create a first-class menu for the Wendell Dakota’s maiden voyage. On his birthday, Hollis had been treated to Il Bambino’s signature dish—braised rabbit on a bed of prunes in a white wine reduction—which he suspected was a punishment disguised as a gift. Skewering the center of the restaurant was the false smokestack, an exact replica of its two functional sisters that loomed over the back half of the sundeck. Each funnel was emblazoned with a black beetle, the logo of Dakota Aeronautics.
Hollis leaned against the rail and craned his neck in the other direction, toward the bow. Both the promenade and sundecks continued unimpeded for a few hundred feet, then began to slope upward, gently at first, then severely, until Hollis’s eyes were following a vertical wall up into the sky, as high as the smokestacks. This was the forward prop tower, built above the nose of the ship to house the turbine that spun the main propeller—the biggest in the world, and Propulsion Weekly’s current centerfold. Only three of the eight steel blades were visible from his vantage point, each the size of a freight-train car.
“I think Mr. Castor is trying to get your attention,” Marius said, pointing toward the dock.
Hollis tore his gaze from the tower. His mother waved up at him. A tall man had joined her on the platform. He put his arms out at his sides, palms up, and cocked his head—the universal gesture for quit messing around and get on with it.
Hollis gave his stepfather a brusque professional nod. He pulled a glass vial from the breast pocket of his suit and dangled it out over the rail. The crowd hushed and watched him expectantly. The christening ritual for a new airship’s maiden voyage was usually performed by one of the company’s board members, but earlier this morning, Hollis had unwrapped a surprise present to find the vial of dirt. He could still hear his mother’s low, serious voice:
Send her off, Hollis. Your father would have wanted you to.
Down on the dock, photographers hid behind black curtains, thumbs crooked over the triggers of their silver flashbulbs. Hollis glanced up at Marius, who said softly, “If you’d like, I can give you a nudge when the wind’s just right.”
Hollis took a deep breath. “Thanks, but I think I’m supposed to do it myself.”
A proper airship christening was performed by spilling the dirt out into the sky at the precise moment the wind shifted, scattering it away from the ship. It was bad luck for the dirt to blow back onto the deck, which was why the more experienced members of the aeronautical community generally performed christenings.
Hollis uncorked the vial and closed his eyes against the blinding pops of a few premature flashbulbs. He felt the wind swirl around him. He concentrated, listening hard, trying to plot its meandering course. The glass vial was getting slippery in his sweaty hand.
Don’t rush it, Hollis.
All at once, the wind began to cool the back of his neck. He pictured the dirt scattering above the crowd. He could practically trace the journey of each little particle through the air. It was now or never.
He tipped the vial.
The crowd cheered. He opened his eyes in time to see the dirt float down in a loose spiral away from the side of the airship before vanishing into the sky. He exhaled. Flashbulbs popped. Frantic photographers rushed to pull glass slides from their cameras as assistants replaced the bulbs. His stepfather beamed. Leaping up onto the platform, his stepbrother, Rob Castor, whistled shrilly between two fingers jammed in the corners of his mouth, then doffed his hat to let hair the color of sun-bleached straw whip in the wind.
Marius saluted and returned to his post at the top of the ramp. Hollis put the empty vial back in his pocket, a souvenir of his first christening. When he glanced down to shield his eyes from the extra-bright glare of a flashbulb surrounded by a white reflecting umbrella, his breath caught in his throat.
A tiny pile of dirt sat atop the otherwise spotless railing, a smudge that hadn’t been carried out into the sky.
He told himself that it could have come from somewhere else. A bit of debris that fell from the prop tower. Ash from a crewman’s cigarette. But he knew that every inch of the ship had been scrubbed, spit-shined, and polished for today’s maiden send-off.
It had to be dirt from the vial.
Hollis leaned his elbows casually against the rail as if he were taking one last look across the dock and nudged the dirt with his sleeve to brush it over the edge. He strained his eyes to make sure every last speck blew away, but such a tiny bit was lost as soon as it hit the swirling air.
Text copyright © 2013 by Andy Marino