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September 29th, 2003

The Yellow House

by Thom McVann

The bright yellow house facing the Atlantic Ocean on Dune road in Westhampton Beach New York was not just another expensive beach house in the Hamptons. It was different-truly different. First there was the color: taxicab yellow. Then there was the full-scale life-sized 1917 sopwith camel biwing WWI British fighterplane, also yellow, in the front yard, not to mention the yellow l950’s New York city checker taxi cab bearing New York license plate “YELLOW ONE” parked by the front door. Yes, it was different, and in time I came to know that the yellow house was not a mirage shimmering on the white sand beach before the blue summer ocean, but rather the local entrance to Oz. 1979 was the first full year I lived in Westhampton Beach as a married man. I had lived here at the beach for a few previous years as a single man, but that is for another story, which will probably never be told. At least not by me. Early summer has always been my favorite time at the beach. The ocean is swimmable, but cold enough to let you know that winter has only recently left. A refreshing dip in the early July sea at this latitude is a truly eye-opening experience. Along with invigorating swimming, early summer also brings on the fresh green hue of the new beach grass without the annoying bugs of the hot, humid days to follow. Best of all, the emergence of the new summer generates in the human breast a stirring that the time has once again come to start new things and meet new people.My first trip to the yellow house was as a result of my new wife, Kathy, and I having met someone new to us on the first Friday in July of that year at a local watering hole known as The Patio. Jack White, the owner of the yellow house, was both new and different. New in the sense that we had just met him, different from you and me in the way that Harry Potter is different from muggles. Jack exuded a sense of wonder and immediately made life exciting and fun for those lucky enough to be invited into his presence. The three of us had a great evening getting acquainted. He seemed very interested in the fact that I was a lawyer and said he would likely need my services tomorrow. Since I was just starting a private practice after a few years in government service, I was hoping he would call even if tomorrow were Saturday.

By the time my wife and I bid a goodnight to Jack, we were all on a first name basis. He was calling her Kathy and me Thom and we were calling him JW, which, of course, was his real name. I must admit that at first he seemed a bit out of place in a casual Long Island in spot like The Patio, dressed in a black silk top hat, neatly pressed tan chino pants, a button-down white shirt open at the neck and brand new thick-soled high work boots. But by the end of the evening as he climbed behind the wheel of his yellow New York checker taxi Cab, his attire seemed just right.

The next morning at about 10:00 a.m. Kathy and I awoke in the small Main Street Condominium that was the nid d’amour of our freshly minted marriage to the joyous chirping of our small green phone, which both looked and sounded like a frog. I recognized the voice on the other end of the frog phone as that of JW.

“Come to the yellow house on the beach right now or else!” he ordered.

“Do you know that you woke us?” I asked.

“So what?” he replied. “I am inviting you for a morning dip in my pool and you had better show up in the next 15 minutes. Bring Kathy! Wear bathing suits! I may need a lawyer here before long.” The frog phone went silent; he had hung up.

We dressed quickly. The process of going from our usual nid d’amour attire to bathing suits required only one step. We decided to take Kathy’s five-year-old Mercury Capri because it was yellow, which somehow seemed right. We knew the yellow house on Dune Road, not because we had ever been there, but because it was hard to miss, well-known and much discussed by the local residents.

The Capri glided into the yellow house drive after the three-minute trip down Main Street and across the bridge to the beach. After alighting from our not-so-stylish ride, we crossed the front entrance circle, passed the sopwith camel, turned right at the parked taxicab and approached the gates of Oz.

The doorknocker was a large brass gong, which I struck with the provided wooden gong striker. The door opened and we were greeted by a slender young woman wearing white shorts and a white man’s shirt with the name “Kato” embroidered on the pocket. She handed us fluffy yellow bath towels and said, “I am Kato, JW’s faithful houseboy. JW greets you and offers coffee on the deck. Walk this way, please.” We walked that way. The short walk from the front door to the deck was a passage through the front room of a yellow wonderland. The color scheme consisted of many shades of yellow, from almost orange to almost green. I never thought there were so many hues of yellow. The walls were pale yellow, the floor tiles were lemon yellow mixed with yellow white and sunny yellow, the couch was a dark yellow and light yellow chintz with squash yellow pillows and the yellow-gold lamps had yellow bulbs behind yellow shades.

The first object to strike my eye that was not yellow was a large red-and-white cowboy shirt with long white fringe stuffed with foam rubber to simulate the chest it had once adorned and mounted inside a glass case, which was hung on the wall. A small plaque affixed to the yellow frame around the case announced that the shirt within had been worn by John Wayne in his l940’s classic film “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.” In the far corner of this yellow salon, I spotted an American Flyer child’s sled bearing the name “Rosebud.”

Before my eye could take further inventory of the objects and furnishings in the room, Kato led us out into the bright yellow morning sunlight that was flooding the large outdoor pool deck. JW was sitting at the edge of a small circular swimming pool while a pretty girl floated in the pool near his dangling feet. Upon seeing us, JW said, “Maestro, please,” and to my utter amazement the formally-attired classical string quartet that I had not previously noticed on the far side of the deck began filling the morning quiet with the sound of Mozart.

The three men and the slender girl that made up the quartet on the deck looked a little too warm in their heavy black formal attire. The pale young woman playing the cello in her long dark red velvet gown looked like a wilting rose in the rising summer heat. “Name that tune,” said JW with a smile. While I may not know much, I do pride myself on my ability to recognize the music of Ludwig von and Wolfgang Amadeus. I closed my eyes and drank in the sweet sounds wafting across the deck. I made my choice. “The violin concerto No.1 in B minor, written in Vienna in 1790,” says I.

The lovely sounds of Mozart’s allegro moderato continued as Kathy and I slid into the little round pool that shone like a turquoise gemstone in the center of the deck.As we paddled around in the heated water, JW asked if I was sure that it was indeed the B flat minor piece that I had identified. As I began to doubt my choice of Mozart concertos, I heard a new sound in the rare morning air, the popping sound that can only be made by a small aeroplane engine pulling off power to go from a steep climb to a power off descent. While I might be mistaken about the music of Mozart, I could never misidentify the music of a 1917 vintage fighter plane. You see, I am an amateur pilot and aficionado of the early days of aviation and know all about about these things. The sound was coming from a Spad S.XII of the type flown by the French in the spring of 1917 during the “Great War” and the Spad was in trouble. Looking up into the 1979 morning sky, I watched as the ghostly aviator from the past desperately tried to evade an evil-looking black German Albatros D.Va with its 180 horsepower Mercedes engine which was swooping down for the kill.

I rubbed my eyes and shook my head. The black Albatros was under the ghostly control of none other than Hauptman Edouard von Schleich, the “Black Knight,” who had flown his last mission over France more than a half-century ago and died in bed in his native Germany in 1947. What was he doing now over Westhampton Beach, Long Island, New York when it was some 67 years ago to the day in 1917 that his most famous henchman, Manfred von Ricthhofen, the “Red Baron,” had been dispatched to Valhalla by an intrepid member of the royal fling corps in a Sopwith Camel?

Now a second German Albatros suddenly appeared in the sky and this one was crimson in color. The Red Baron was back from the dead and joined the attack on the hapless ghost flying the Spad. The Spad pilot fire-walled his throttle and shook off both Germans with a perfectly executed Rickenbacker roll. The precision of the maneuver allowed the full power of the eight-cylinder, liquid-cooled Hispano Suiza engine to drag the Spad out of danger and it rocketed free from its pursuers and ducked behind a passing cloud. The Black Knight and the Red Baron buzzed around the sky like a pair of angry wasps looking for something to sting. Then I heard a sound that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand at attention. The music should have been Wagner rather than Mozart, because the ack-ack-ack of the twin machine guns behind the hump of a yellow Sopwith Camel shook the morning air. Could the ghostly hand on the stick be that of Roy Brown, the long dead Canadian ace. The legendary hero of the Royal Flying Corps, history tells us, had shot down the Red Baron over a French farm field. One fateful day in 1917, near the Argonne forest, Brown came out of the sun, diving straight at the Baron, the camel’s machine guns spitting death, sending the noble Baron spinning out of control trailing black smoke through the fiery gates of Valhalla and into immortality.

Would Roy Brown be a match for both the Black Knight and the Red Baron? The deadly duo wheeled and soared in unison. We could see and hear everything from our wet perch in JW’s pool. Mozart filled the air. Was this truly an already-fought dogfight from “The Great War” being refought overhead? Would the outcome follow the dictates of history or was this to be the end of Roy Brown, the Sopwith Camel and the Spad?

Where was the Spad anyway? As I remembered the Rickenbacker roll that had saved the pilot of that sturdy craft, showing the French Tricolor on its tail and wing roundels, I wondered if perhaps one of the American Aces like Eddie Rickenbacker was at the controls. That’s when the Spad made a low pass over the pool and I spotted the bright green shamrock next to the open cockpit. The apparition in the leather-flying helmet must have been William Cochran, who hailed from Dublin and was known as “The Flying Irishman.”

There were now four ancient aircraft filling the morning blue with sights and sounds that brought delight and awe to Kathy and me, not to mention the members of the chamber ensemble who were no longer looking at their sheet music, but still playing with perfection. The musical signature had changed from allegro moderato to andante. Kathy said, “Tom, are you still sure that this is Mozart’s Violin Concerto No.1 in B minor? I always thought that the second part of No. 1 was adagio. Are these little airplanes really from the First World War? How do you know the names of the pilots? I think I’m dreaming, but in my dream Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in D goes from allegro moderato to andante while No.1 goes from allegro moderato to adagio.” JW said nothing.

The Black Albatross was right on the wing of the Red Albatross. Flying in unison, the black and crimson pair became the two edges of the mythical “Sword of Seigfried,” ready to slash the Spad and the Camel to ribbons. The Flying Irishman, being better endowed with more balls than brains, went on the attack.

The liquid-cooled Spad engine allowed its wild and crazy pilot to quickly climb above the tandem German menace and then nose over into a full power dive without the telltale change in pitch associated with the usual air-cooled craft. The maneuver gave the Irishman a few seconds of surprise over his prey. He swooped down, like the hunting hawk he was, on the unwarned Black Knight. Unfortunately our hunting hawk failed to consider the presence of the Red Baron on the scene and, in the blink of an eye, the Baron’s single gatteling gun sounded off and he dropped from view. The ghostly Irishman had been returned to the ancient abode of Irish ghosts. Scratch one good guy. Now Roy Brown was alone in the sky with red and black death. In German he was called “Der Rote Kampfflieger”; the French spoke his fearful name as “le diable rouge,” but whatever you called the Red Baron he was the most feared and skilled fighter pilot of his day, the earliest “top gun.” This courtly Hun had given many intrepid Englishmen the honor of death for King and country. Between the Knight and the Baron, they shared over 30 kills. They were the tigers of “the flying circus” and young Roy Brown was alone in the cage with them. The music was now sounding a lot like rondo allegro vivo rather than the presto of the third and last part of the No.1. I knew I was wrong and started to disbelieve my eyes as well as my ears. Kathy was right; this was all a dream. JW said nothing.

The Black Knight made the first move. He suddenly dropped under his famous companion and, rolling right while starting a full power climb, he tried to get into position for a kill from behind and above Roy Brown. The move was a mistake. The keen Brown had noticed the movement of the Knight’s rudder as soon as the doomed pilot pressed the pedal. The countermove was a classic lesson in aerial combat, and when all was said and done, it was Roy Brown who wound up positioned for a kill. The twin machine guns behind the Camel’s hump barked and sounded the Knight’s death knell. He went down in flames. The ocean rushed to meet him. I didn’t see the splash, but the Knight was gone from the sky.

Now was the moment of truth, mano a mano; the Red Baron and Roy Brown would duel to the death. The sky seemed to turn a more vibrant blue. The white puffy clouds stood out in three-dimensional majesty. Enter the actors: Wheeling across the now electric sky, they dove, soared and climbed, trying to catch the other’s first mistake. They were both flawless, but the Baron’s machine suddenly let him down-and I do mean down. His Albatros became his albatross and, like the ancient mariner, the water would soon be all around him.

It must have been the extreme strain on the Merecedes engine caused by the Baron’s attempt to match his rate and angle of climb to that of the less-powerful but lighter Sopwith Camel that caused the Mercedes to throw a rod, shattering No. 5 piston, and starting an oil fire. Roy Brown saw the smoke and wagged his wings, signaling safe passage to the Baron. There was a code of honor among the early fliers that dictated no engagement of an enemy disabled by mechanical failure. The Baron however had other plans. He fought to hold control and altitude while Roy Brown began a descending right turn towards his ghostly aerodrome. Now the Baron was above and behind the unsuspecting Brown.

The heavy gatteling gun aboard the crimson Albatros fired a short burst. The Camel lurched and it began to go into a stall-spin. Would the spin become a graveyard spiral? Brown applied full power to get the nose up and used the left rudder to bring his craft under control. His skills were with him and the proud little Camel regained the sky. Brown climbed into the sun. At that moment, the Baron attempted the “coup de grace” in the form of a second burst, but his murderous gatteling gun jammed. Brown gained a position above and behind the Baron. The Baron tried to turn his wounded bird, first left and then right, but he could not shake Roy off his tail. The Baron tried a dead stick half roll, which failed and showed his underbelly to his pursuer. The Camel’s twin machine guns played taps for the Baron. He must have gone into the ocean without a splash, because we never saw one. I guess Roy Brown was low on fuel, because he flew off while the Baron was still spinning into eternity.

Back on the deck of the yellow house, in the year 1979, under a now-empty sky, I asked JW, “What just happened?”

“I guess you were wrong about the name of that tune,” was his reply. Before I could say anything else the houseboy, Kato, who was a girl, said,”The mayor of Jerusalem is on the phone looking for his daughter and the chief of police is at the door.”

The silent young woman who had been in the pool, floating near JW’s feet the whole time, got out of the pool and said, “I’ll take that call.” JW told Kato to bring the chief of police out to the deck and asked Kathy and I to remain. As we were toweling off with the fluffy yellow towels. the chief arrived on the deck looking angry. Without saying hello to Kathy and me, he started speaking to JW.

“Do you know that your lunatic antics have caused yet another major traffic jam on the beach bridge? I thought you promised the village trustees you wouldn’t pull any more hair-brained stunts after the traffic problems from your elephant parade on the beach last year.”

“I had no idea the five well-behaved elephants following a fine professional bagpipe band in an orderly fashion would cause such a commotion,” replied JW. “I did apologize for that and did promise never to invite elephants to my beach house again.”

“I have just had complaints that you held an unauthorized air show over your beach house this morning. That’s what stopped traffic on Dune Road and clogged up the beach bridge. Everyone got out of his or her car and was looking up. I may have to charge you with something because of this.”

“If I am going to be charged, then you had better to speak with my lawyer,” said JW, as he pointed to me.

Being JW’s lawyer did not seem like an entirely dull prospect, so I said, “Are you planning on charging my client on your complaint or that of an offended private citizen?”

“He will be charged on the complaint of the chief of police,” was the reply.

“Misdemeanor or Felony charge?” I asked.

“The highest charge I can think of is only a misdemeanor, so I guess he is lucky that the most he can get is one year,” said the chief.

I may have been wrong about Mozart’s No.1, but I knew that the criminal procedure law of New York State did not allow Misdemeanor charges based on hearsay complaints. Since the chief had not actually seen the so-called air show, and the sky no longer contained any evidence of whatever had happened, he needed an actual eyewitness to sign a complaint. Somehow I did not think he would find one. I told him what I knew the law to be and explained his liability for false arrest. He said he needed to speak with the District Attorney and he would get back to me. I suggested that he and the D.A. might want to discuss the law of time warps. After making me promise that my client would not leave town before Monday, the chief left the yellow house swearing to return. I asked JW what he thought of the legal fireworks he had just witnessed.

“I really like fireworks. What do you know about fireworks?” replied JW.

Thus began the summer of 1979-the summer of the yellow house.

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