June 15, 2018<>Palm Springs

I write novels. More specifically, I write historical novels, most of which are set in the 1920s, '30s, and '40s.

It might surprise some to know that writing believable fictional history requires knowing a good deal of factual history. For that reason I spend a lot of time in libraries and museums. Research is one of my favorite parts of the craft, especially time spent in museums. For example, my current book project is about a group of World War Two pilots so I was on my way to bone up on some WWII warbird details.

Now, depending on the type of aircraft in which you are interested, there are two excellent air museums not far from my home in Santa Monica, California. One is the Planes of Fame Museum in Chino, and the other is the Palm Springs Air Museum. It was to the latter of those I was headed.

Even though most museums offer research docent services, I prefer to do museums on my own. If I tell a docent what I think I want to see, I will generally walk right past what I really needed to see while following my guide to what I thought I needed to see. I think it has something to do with serendipity.

Unfortunately, this is one of those times when a docent was a necessary evil. Despite being a licensed pilot and restoring a warbird of my own, owners of restored aircraft who don't know me tend to be very protective of their million-dollar babies, insisting that a docent accompany anyone who wants to go beyond the ropes and get close enough to take in the details. I can't really blame them. I'm the same way about my vintage AT-6 trainer, and it represents little more than a drop in the bucket compared to the high-dollar restorations I was on my way to see.

The Palm Springs Air Museum is housed in a small cluster of modern buildings on the east side of the runway at Palm Springs International Airport. I found a shady parking spot near the administration building, although heat was not a big issue by the time I arrived. That was another condition on which the museum insisted; my visit had to be after closing time. My guess was they didn't want paying guests to see someone receiving preferential treatment.

Walking into the museum lobby was like strolling into a refrigerator. I'm not sure what they thought would melt if they turned the A/C up to a reasonable setting, but I would not have been surprised to see icicles hanging from the display cases. Maybe they rent a back room out to the county morgue.

A fellow in a snappy uniform behind the reception counter put on a sad face as I approached. "I'm sorry, sir, but we're just closing. Can you come back tomorrow?"

I smiled. "I don't think I'll need to do that. I have an appointment for some after-hours research with . . . ." I checked the name I scribbled in my notebook when I made the original arrangements. "With Moira O'Brien."

He returned my smile and said, "Oh, yes." Glancing to his left, he said, "Moira's on the telephone, but I'm sure she'll be right with you."

I looked where he looked and saw a shock of very red hair above a big smile and a smart phone. The rest of Moira O'Brien was in a gray T-shirt, blue jeans, and well-worn athletic shoes. She was leaning against a wall and in the midst of a animated conversation with whomever was on the other end of her cell connection. From my vantage point, Moira O'Brien appeared to be about fifteen. Swell.

It was about then that Miss O'Brien looked toward the counter and the fellow behind it pointed to me and then at her. She glanced at me and nodded to him. It took her less than a minute to finish her conversation and begin walking in my direction.

I was glad to see her put on a few years of age with every step she took in my direction. I don't mean she turned into an old hag or anything, but face to face, I figured her age to be about the same as mine—late twenties, give or take, but I bet she still shows her ID to a lot of bartenders.

Offering her hand, she said, "Good afternoon, Mister Coleman. I'm Moira O'Brien. Sorry to keep you waiting."

I shook the hand she offered. The girl had a firm grip. "You didn't keep me waiting, Ms O'Brien. I might have even been a little early."

She beamed a bright smile at me. "Oh, good! Let's grab some coffee in the café while you tell me what it is you specifically want to see."

According to the sign, the Freedom Fighters Café was closed for the day, but a few folks were dawdling. Moira stepped behind the counter and filled two mugs of coffee from a glass pot. The coffee was strong, but drinkable.

"Now, Mister Coleman, what are you here to see?"

The jury was still out, but I was beginning to think Ms O'Brien might be okay. "Well, how 'bout we get on a first name basis and eliminate some syllables? I'm Matt."

She gave me another of her bright smiles. She seemed to have a never-ending supply. "All right, Matt. I'm Moira."

"Irish, right?"

Moira was still smiling when she said, "Yes. It means rebellious woman, so watch out."

"I will heed your advice on that matter. To answer your question about why I'm here, I'm particularly interested in the American Volunteer Group P-40B in your collection."

She nodded. "Miss Josephine. The restorers did a beautiful job on her. She looks like she just rolled off the assembly line. Now she has the paint scheme of the 14th Air Force after it took over from the China Air Task Force and the AVG. I can assure you from the ship's records, though, she definitely served with the AVG. I assume you know some of the P-40's history in China?"

"I'm familiar with the basic story. I understand the American Volunteer Group ships were P-40Bs, sort of a cross between the P-40 Tomahawk Curtiss-Wright was building for the Brits and earlier versions of the US Warhawk."

Moira nodded and picked up the story where I left off. "A hundred P-40Bs were crated up at the Curtiss plant in Buffalo, New York and shipped to Rangoon, where what they called the 'government-furnished equipment'—gunsights, radios, wing guns, and that stuff was installed. Then, the hundred P-40s were delivered to the AVG at Toungoo, Burma."

We were playing a game historians play to show off, and I had one up on her. Either that or she thought she had me.

Doing a little smiling of my own, I said, "Except the AVG only got ninety-nine P-40s."

Moira gave me a puzzled look, and then the light dawned. "Oh, yes. One of the crates fell overboard during shipping and a wing assembly was destroyed so the hundredth ship couldn't be assembled." She looked me in the eye, gave me a slightly downgraded version of her smile,  and said, "I stand corrected, Mister Coleman."

"It's Matt, remember?"

Moira looked down, avoiding my eyes. I also noticed her signature smile was missing. "Yes. I seem to be forgetting a lot of stuff today . . . Matt."

Nice going, Coleman, now you've embarrassed her. That surprised me a little. Most historians have thicker skins. Oh well, this wasn't a date, it was work.

By this time we were the only ones left in the café, so I said, "Okay if we take a look at Miss Josephine now?"

She nodded. "Sure. It's this way."

I followed her down a hallway and beyond a pair of double doors opening into a dark hangar interior. My footsteps echoed eerily between the tall metal walls. The dark shapes of aircraft were silhouetted against the light coming through the open hall door.

Then, Moira switched on the lights and everything changed. Suddenly I was as close as anyone can come to going back in time. As if I'd been transported to the 1940s, I was surrounded by many of the warbirds that helped win World War Two for the USA. These were not recreations—they were the very ships in which brave young American pilots faced our Nazi and Jap enemies.

Even with eight or ten large aircraft crowded into the hangar, my eye was immediately drawn to Miss Josephine. She stood proudly between a North American B-25 Mitchell Bomber and a Navy Chance-Vought F4U Corsair. Moira understated the case when she said the restorers had done a beautiful job on the P-40.

Miss Josephine's green and tan camouflage literally sparkled and her shark's mouth nose art looked like it wouldn't hesitate to take a bite out of anything that got too close. Of course when these ships were flying daily missions they didn't stay so pretty for long, but it was a thrill to see what they might have looked like to a combat pilot the day his new ship arrived.

I ducked under the yellow wing of an AT-6 similar to mine and walked up to Miss Josephine. I was about to step over the rope intended to keep visitors from getting too familiar with her, but I stopped and looked at Moira.

She nodded her approval and a moment later we were standing side by side near the blue and white US star-and-bar insignia on the ship's fuselage between the port wing and tail. As I appreciated Miss Josephine's sleek lines from nose to tail, I had the feeling I was being watched.

I looked at Moira. She was, indeed, watching me. I was happy to see her smile was back.

"You know, Matt, I've seen a lot of men look at these ships, but never the way you're looking at Miss Josephine now. If I didn't know better, I'd say I was watching a man looking his best girl."

Returning her smile, I said, "I don't know, maybe you are, or at least as close to a best girl as I've got at the moment."

From there we worked our way around the P-40 while I snapped detail photos here and there. Moira took note of what I was photographing and occasionally asked what function the part served. She knew the history of the ships in the museum, but not much about how they worked.

For example, I made a close up photo of the three 30-cal barrels poking out of the port wing, and she asked, "Those are guns, right?"

"They are. You're looking at the business ends of three point-30 caliber machineguns. The P-40B has a total of six. It also has a pair of point-50-cal guns synched to fire through the prop from that cowling above the engine. Of course, unless the owner is a real stickler for authenticity, these are mock guns. or even just barrels."

"I bet they made a . . . what's that sound?"

I heard it, too—a low-pitched whine gradually increasing in pitch and volume. I knew the sound, but it took me a moment to convince myself I was really hearing what I thought I was hearing. I looked toward the cockpit canopy. It was closed tight and there was nobody in the ship, which confused me even more.

Explaining what seemed to be going on to Moira, I said, "That sound is an instrument gyro winding up. Somebody or something just turned on Miss Josephine's master electrical switch."

Moira looked as confused as I felt. "Aren't all the electrical switches in the cockpit? There's nobody up there!"

Putting a hand on her shoulder, I gently directed Moira along the wing further from the propeller. "The switches most certainly are in the cockpit. I don't know what's going on, but we might be wise to keep away from that prop until we find out."

Now she looked a little panicky. "Is someone is trying to start the engine? That's not allowed in the hangar."

I was about to say she needed to explain the rules to whoever flipped the master switch when I heard something else—three distinct metallic clicks. They came from the wing about three feet away from my right arm. There was only one thing in that wing that could click.

I threw my arm around Moira's waist and dove for the concrete floor. Just as we got there, all hell broke loose over our heads.

Thirty caliber machineguns are relatively small as aircraft guns go, but six of them firing simultaneously inside a metal hangar sounded like the arrival of Armageddon. Throw in the added racket made by twenty rounds per second slamming into the metal hangar door thirty feet in front of the P-40, and you have a din loud enough to wake the dead. And just to make it all even more exciting, the guns were showering us with hot metal shell casings from the gun ejector slots under the wing.

Yelling to be heard over the racket, I said, "Come on, let's scoot out from under this wing!"

Moira and I took off on our hands and knees like scalded dogs, which, now that I think about it, is a rather apt description. We were just clear of the wing when the shooting abruptly ended with the sound of the last few brass shell casings bouncing on the concrete floor.

Now I know what they mean when they say "the silence was deafening." I also now know how it feels to have a cute redhead hanging on to me as if her life depended on it, which it had a few seconds earlier.

"It's okay now, Moira. I think it's safe for us to get out of here."

We got back to our feet and she kissed my cheek. "Until I can think of a better way to repay you, thanks for saving my life, Matt. If you hadn't heard those sounds and known what they meant, I'd be Swiss cheese."

I chuckled. "Hell, girl, I was saving my own hide. I just sort of brought you along for company."

In the lobby and Moira leaned wearily against the reception counter and pulled her trusty cell phone out of the right hip pocket of her jeans. She stood there looking at the screen for several seconds, and then looked at me. "I know I should call someone, but I have no idea who."

"I don't know either. Surely someone heard the racket those 30-cals were making, even out here in the boondocks."

Moira shook her head. "Not if a commercial jet was taking off from the airport on the other side of the museum property."

"Damn, I forgot all about the airport! I sure hope no jets were taking off. Miss Josephine could easily have shot one down. I think my suggestion about who to call would be to hold off a minute more and take another look at things in that hangar."

Moira frowned. "Do you think it's safe to go back in there?"

"As long as we don't stand in front of Miss Josephine."

"Matt, in case you didn't notice, there are nine other aircraft in that hangar and most of them have guns too."

"True, but I have a feeling Miss Josephine is unique in the behavior we just witnessed."

Still looking at me as I was nuts for wanting to go back to the hangar, Moira said, "Well, let's not piss her off again!"

We peeked through the hangar doorway. Everything had changed!

For one thing, there was a strong smell of burned cordite in there when we ran out earlier. There was no trace of it now. In fact everything looked just as it had before Miss Josephine threw her temper tantrum.

The two gaping holes in the big hangar door made by her thirty-cal machinegun slugs were gone. The piles of brass shell casings under her wings were also gone. Well, almost gone. Something glinted at me from behind the port main gear tire. I picked up the brass, but didn't mention it to Moira.

Moira was standing behind Miss Josephine shaking her head. "Matt, what the hell just happened to us?"

I shook my head and said, "Well, at least we know who to call now."


"Ghost Busters."

That got a laugh out of Moira. Her smile returned. "You nut!"

Then her concerned expression returned. "What in heaven's name should we do? We'll feel pretty silly telling anyone that preposterous story if there's no proof it happened. They'd think we imagined the whole thing. Hell, maybe we did!"

"Maybe we did. Since no permanent damage seems to have been done, I suggest we get the heck out of here and have some dinner while we consider our next step. I don't think well on an empty stomach."

Moira nodded. "Okay, but I need to go home first. I ripped the knee in my jeans when we landed on the floor." In a put-on upper crust voice she added, "One simply does not go out to dine in Palm Springs with a hole in one's jeans. It's so last year."

"I see. Okay. Do you want to meet somewhere or should I just follow you?"

"Well, it's a little more complicated than that. I rode my bike today, but my legs are still shaking so much, I doubt if I could ride it. Matt, If I asked real nice, would you give me a ride home."

"Sure, let's go."

Moira locked the lobby entrance doors and we walked into the parking lot. I clicked a button on the remote key fob and pointed to my pride and joy—a Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat. "That's mine."

Moira looked where I pointed and laughed out loud. "That's funny!"

In an irritated tone, I said, "You can still ride your bicycle, you know."

"No, no. It's not funny that you have a Hellcat wide-body. What's funny is my brother is an engineer at Dodge performance vehicles. He helped design that car and he's been promising to borrow one so I can have a ride in it, but he hasn't been able to get one. Now I can tell him not to bother."

"Oh. Well, it might be better not to say anything about it. I don't want your brother mad at me."

Moira looked at me. "He wouldn't be, but what difference does it make if he's mad at you? You don't even know him."

"True, but I have a hard and fast rule not to make people mad at me who design fast cars and have cute sisters."

"I see, and how long have you had this hard and fast rule?"

I glanced at my watch. "Oh, about sixty seconds."

Donning an expression of coyness, Moira said, "And you think I'm cute?"

"I'll reserve judgment on that until I see how you look in the Hellcat."

A few minutes later we were parked in front of a golf course home near the intersection of Frank Sinatra Drive and Bob Hope Drive. I said, "Wow, classy digs."

"Oh, this isn't mine. It's my folks' winter place. They don't use it much anymore, so I moved in to save some rent while I work at the Air Museum. Matt?"


"Would it be all right with you if we sent out for a pizza and had dinner here?"

"I guess so. Are you all right?"

"I think so. What happened in the hangar a while ago gave me what my grandpa used to call the heebie-jeebies. I just need some quiet to settle down."

"Sure. I can take off and we can meet up again in the morning to talk."

She almost shouted, "No!" Moira got an embarrassed look on her face and added in a calmer tone, "I mean I think we need to discuss what happened and we need a quiet place and . . . ."

Her voice trailed off. "That's fine with me, Moira."

My hand was on the console. She squeezed it gently and said, "Thanks for understanding, Matt."

The interior of her folks' place was first class all the way—hardwood floors, built-in cabinetry, and large windows overlooking a small lake on the golf course. Moira poured herself a glass of Ravenswood Old Vine Zinfandel that, according to the bottle, came from Lodi, California. I asked for a beer, if she had any, and she handed me a bottle of Fat Tire Belgian ale made in Denver, Colorado. Next she asked me what I like on my pizza.

"Salami and black olives—green olives if they have 'em."

"Okay, I'm calling Giuseppe’s. It's like a gourmet pizza joint, and they actually do make the best pizza in town. They might even have green olives."

Moira ordered a large deep-dish pie with half salami and olives and half pepperoni and artichoke hearts. Then she set her cell phone on the coffee table and said, "I'm going to take a quick shower. That okay?"

I chuckled. "Not that you need my permission to take a shower in your own home, but, sure. You can even take slow shower. I'll be here."

Her expression turned soft and she looked me in the eye for a long moment. "I'm counting on that."

I didn’t say so, but there was no way I was leaving now. I was getting a completely different vibe from Moira than I did at first. Not only that, but I was experiencing some pretty warm feelings toward her.

As things turned out, Giuseppe was faster at making a pizza than Moira was at taking a shower. I was just paying the delivery girl when my hostess reappeared.

Moira had swapped her gray T-shirt for a maroon one, her holey jeans for a well-worn but unholey pair, and her athletic shoes for bare feet. As she came closer, I detected the warm fresh scent some women bring with them when they step out of the shower. Her skin glowed with a soft radiance that matched her scent.

Noting the pizza box in my hands, she said, "Oh, I didn't mean for you to pay for dinner. I'm not very good at this hostess stuff. I don't have much company."

I set the pizza box on the kitchen counter and said, "Don't worry about it. I'd planned on taking you out to the classiest joint in town, so I got off cheap."

She stood close to me and leaned over to sniff the pizza. "Mmmm, smells wonderful! Come on, let's eat. Is it okay with you if we eat in the kitchen?"

Kidding, I said, "Well, I was hoping for romantic candlelight on the table, but . . . ."

Quickly turning toward a cabinet, she said, "Oh, I have some candles!"

I reached out and grabbed her arm. Pulling her close, I said, "We don't need candles."

Moira looked into my eyes with a meaning I could not misunderstand and we kissed a very long kiss that gave me tingles from head to toe.

When we broke for air, I gently embraced her and she rested her head on my chest. Softly, she said, "Does this mean I passed the Hellcat test?"

That threw me. "What the heck are you talking about, woman?"

She put one of her big smiles on. "Back in the museum parking lot when we were talking about my brother, you said something about him having a cute sister. I asked if you thought I was cute. You said . . . ."

I interrupted her with a second kiss. It was another terrific kiss, but Moira had one track mind. ". . . And you said you couldn't answer my question about being cute until you saw how I looked in . . . ."

I put a hand over her mouth. "Yes, Moira, you passed. You passed!"

Looking like she'd just aced a history test on the Croatian renaissance, she said, "Oh, good! I've always wanted to be cute!"

I shook my head at her feigned exuberance. "Girl, you were born cute, and you damned well know it."

After the pizza, we shared a dessert that wasn't on Giuseppe’s delivery menu, and then we collapsed in the living room. Moira's laptop was open on the floor next to the cushion on which she was sitting.

Half asleep from a long and eventful day and too much pizza, I asked, "You workin' or playin'?"

She looked up from the screen. "I think I'm working.  I remembered something from Miss Josephine's aircraft history file. I'm checking to find out if I'm remembering it correctly."

"Will it explain what happened earlier?"

Moira shook her head. "I'm not sure anything will explain that, but this might be a clue. Here it is."

Now she had my attention and I was wide awake. "Okay, what have you got?"

"This concerns an incident at the AVG base at Toungoo, Burma. There are only a couple of paragraphs and essentially they're about volunteer pilots who never saw combat because they were killed or wounded in Japanese raids while waiting for replacement ships to arrive. One of those pilots was waiting for Miss Josephine, or at a ship with her serial number.

"The second paragraph mentions other pilots who flew her later claiming she had an eerie ability to get on the tails of Zeros and shoot them down. Some said she was charmed and others actually said they thought she was haunted."

By this time I was reading over her shoulder. "That sort of fits what happened tonight . . . if you believe in ghosts. Do they give the name of the pilot who died?"

"Not in this article, but I have another way of tracking it down. Hang on."

I was definitely hanging on. I was also imagining an ectoplasmic shape in Miss Josephine's cockpit blasting Jap Zeros out of the sky while shooting holes in one of the Palm Springs Air Museum's hangar doors.

"Okay. Here it is. The pilot's name was Lieutenant Don Kiefer. He was born 15 June, 1919 in . . . I don't believe this! He was born in Cathedral City, California. That's just down the road six or seven miles."

"What's more," I said, "Today is the Fifteenth of June. It would have been his ninety-ninth birthday."

Moira looked at me with amazement all over her face. "You don't suppose that . . . that . . . ."

"That Lieutenant Don Kiefer, US Army Air Force, was in Miss Josephine's cockpit tonight doing a little celebrating?"

She shook her head. "Matt, this is getting crazy. Now we've got a ghost doing something so real it scared the hell out of us, or at least me,  but according to the evidence, never even happened!"

Reaching into my pocket, I pulled out the thirty-caliber shell casing I'd found in the hangar and tossed it on the floor between the pillow Moira was sitting on and her laptop. The brass made an all too familiar ringing clatter when it hit the hardwood floor.

With a grin, I said, "Didn't it?"

Moira's eyes went wide as she stared at the shiny brass. "That's a shell casing! Where did you get that?"

"From the hangar floor behind Miss Josephine's port main gear."

Looking completely flummoxed, Moira threw up her hands and said, "This is crazy!"

"Maybe it's not a crazy as you think. Maybe Don left us a souvenir from his 99th birthday party."

- - - - -

During the next few weeks, Moira O'Brien gradually replaced Miss Josephine as my best girl and we began seeing each other nearly every weekend. On one of those weekends, Moira lead me a display area in the hangar where Miss Josephine was parked.

There were a variety of plaques and framed certificates on one section of the wall, and she pointed to one of the plaques on which a shiny brass .30-caliber shell casing was mounted. Below the casing, the engraving said:

In Memory of
June 15, 1919 – February 21, 1942
"They Also Serve Who Only Stand And Wait" ~John Milton


Story and design © Steve Eitzen
Header graphic & HPO logo © HPO Productions
Character images © 123RF used by license
AT-6 in flight image modified from U.S. Air Force photo
Aerial view of Palm Springs Air Museum facility © Palm Springs Air Museum
Freedom Fighters Café image © Palm Springs Air Museum
P-40 wing gun casing ejectors image modified from a public domain source
P-40 cockpit image modified from a public domain source
Dodge Challenger image © FCA US LLC
Shell casing image modified from public domain source
All rights reserved by copyright owners

This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, locations, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.