I had to get down that slope in a hurry, a slope so steep and rocky, so wet and slippery, a centipede would have had trouble keeping its footing. The lives of two people were at stake and it was up to me to get to the bottom in time to save them. I suppose that was the stickiest moment in Tim’s “Case of the Crying Signpost.” That, or the night when one of the lives at stake was mine, the night Tim had to fly in a plane without wings.
I’m getting ahead of myself, a thing not easy to do when the story isn’t even begun. I should start by introducing myself. My name is Gwendolyn Morgana Melcham. For some reason, I’ve always been called Nelly, which is OK with me since I never much liked the names, Gwendolyn and Gwen.
My chief companion in life—and the person who has gotten me into the most trouble—is the remarkable, the incredible Tim Morcombe. Now, I’m guessing most of you know little or nothing about Scotland Yard or about its most famous cases, so you’ll be wondering who this Tim Morcombe is. Well, I could fill a large book with the answer to that question but, as the saying goes, a person is as a person does and because this story of mine is going to tell you a lot about what Tim does, I’ll let you decide for yourselves what kind of person he is.
I’ll tell you one thing Tim is not. He is not ordinary. I even met him under the most extraordinary circumstances. The year was 1936 and the world felt much larger back then. Of course, I don’t mean it was physically any larger but there were no trans-oceanic TV broadcasts, no internet, no smart phones, no jet planes and no space satellites. Distant places were harder to reach and information traveled more slowly. I think you get what I’m saying.
Part of my problem was I felt all alone in that great, unfamiliar world of 1936. I was twelve. My mother, Davey Morgan, was a world-famous aviator. In those days, a woman aviator was called an aviatrix, as if there were any difference between a male pilot and a woman who did the same thing.
My father, George Melcham, was a ship’s captain for an ocean shipping company operating out of New York City. With my father constantly away from home on distant seas and my mother always flying, I was mostly left alone in Chicago with my sweet but doddering great aunt, Cecilia Morgan. Two or three times a year, I’d get a visit from one or the other of my parents. I seldom saw them together.
At the end of 1936, I was in seventh grade. School had gotten off to a rocky start, mostly thanks to my teacher, Miss Bayard, who had decided I was lazy. The truth be told, I wasn’t lazy and I didn’t need disciplining but my teacher didn’t see things that way. To her way of thinking, the only cure for my laziness was constant disciplining.
Things had gotten so bad I was seriously considering leaving school after the Christmas break. Then, out of the blue, my Dad wrote inviting me to join him for a month-long vacation in Puerto Rico. He wanted me to take a train to Miami, Florida and catch a boat to the island. He had written to my principal and, somehow, he had gotten her to let me out of school for four weeks.
Believe it or not, this news didn’t exactly thrill me. Although I liked seeing my Dad, it was nearing the middle of the school year and the idea of falling behind in my classes and missing all kinds of school activities felt scary and unpleasant. On top of this, I had never traveled by myself and San Juan, Puerto Rico, seemed a long way to go. As I say, the world felt much larger back then.
In the end, I decided I couldn’t let my Dad down. So, early one morning in the first days of January, 1937, just before sunrise on a gloomy, cold day, my Aunt Cecilia loaded me into a taxi that rumbled to our front door, brown smoke belching from its tailpipe. In less than an hour, I was on a big, black train pulling out of a Chicago railroad station to start its long journey to Miami.
I’ll skip the details of this trip. Being shy around strangers, I kept mostly to myself, speaking only to order meals, sleeping most of the time and willfully ignoring the monumental scenery unfolding outside my train window. When I arrived in Miami, I was supposed to go to the Port of Miami to catch a boat to San Juan but the minute I hopped off the train, a red-faced porter came up and asked if I was Nelly Melcham.
I said, “Yes, sir.”
Nodding, he handed me a note. It was from my mother. In her scrawled handwriting, Davey told me to skip the boat and go to the airport instead. Dad had wired her about my vacation. To save me some time, she had arranged for a friend to fly me to Puerto Rico.
That’s right, fly. It doesn’t seem to be much of a big deal today but, in 1937, flying over the ocean was a very big deal, especially for a girl afraid of heights. Don’t laugh. Even though my mother was a world-famous aviator, this twelve-year-old girl preferred her feet solidly on the ground, not in some flimsy crate bouncing on high winds. For one bleak moment, I was ready to turn right around and head back to Chicago but it was too late for that. I was already a million miles from home.
The red-faced porter helped me find a taxi to the All-American Airport, which was somewhere on the outer edges of Miami. On the way, I kept telling myself surely Davey would only entrust her daughter to the safest, most reliable pilot she knew. Unfortunately, the thought didn’t make me feel any better.
The airport turned out to be a roughshod place with rusted, metal buildings and sod-grass runways. Not the kind of place to inspire confidence. I can still remember walking into the pilot’s lounge, identified by a small sign over the door of a squat hut, my one suitcase in hand, looking for a man named Charlie Hall. Well, I had an easy time finding Charlie, who was drinking his early-morning coffee with a few fellows around a table in the back of the building.
As it turned out, that was the only thing easy about my trip. The only thing to go as planned. Little did I know, I would never make it to Puerto Rico.