Ellie returned to the living room, coffee pot in hand. After she refilled mugs, she stopped to feed another log into the fireplace. When she came back and sank into the worn, overstuffed armchair, the room was quiet.
“Don’t tell me Riordan finally ran out of stories to tell.” She looked over at her aunt’s… Well, whatever they were. “I didn’t think that was possible.”
“What would you like to hear?” Riordan sipped his Irish Breakfast tea, one arm around Aunt Becca’s shoulders.
Ellie tucked her legs up under her, mirroring her aunt’s posture. “What was Exeter like during World War II?” She hesitated. “Or do you not remember back that far.”
Riordan laughed. “No need to be delicate, Ellie, dear. These old bones were around back then, though I was young when the war broke out.” He paused. “You know, I think the most exciting thing that happened was just after the war.” He took another sip of tea, then set the mug aside. “Uncle Patrick was around that day, so it must have been the late 1940s, before he went off to Korea. It was fall, and the trees were in full color.”
He narrowed his eyes and looked up to the sky. “I was in grammar school at St. Brigid’s and we were just finishing up for the day. The nuns were leading us across the courtyard between the school and the church when one of the girls shrieked.” He frowned. “Now that I think about it, Mary Feeney might have been the one who screamed. Mary O’Leary now. She and F.X. were just a year behind me, and at first I’d thought he had just pulled her pigtails again, you know how boys do.”
Ellie snickered at the idea of Mr. O’Leary pulling his wife’s hair. She couldn’t imagine the kindly shopkeeper as a boy. “Why did she scream?”
“Oh, didn’t we all want to know.” Riordan winked. “I turned around and she was pointing up to the sky. There was a man parachuting down through the air. Even the nuns couldn’t keep order for the next few minutes.”
“Why, their rulers in the classroom?” Aunt Becca lifted an eyebrow.
“Now, Becca, I’ll admit they did rap my knuckles a time or two. But most of them, they could intimidate you just with a look.” Riordan shook his head. “No, they tried, but we weren’t looking at them.” He sighed. “The war was recent enough that we still remembered it, and the drills they used to do in case the Germans or Japanese did come over here. We didn’t know what was going on.”
“Then what happened?” Ellie sipped the hot cider she’d poured in lieu of coffee.
“Sister Mary Joseph was the principal, and she always carried a giant ring with every key in the school and the convent on her belt.” Riordan grinned. “She walked up to the flagpole and clanged the keys until we settled down.” He rubbed his free hand over his ear. “I was close to the flagpole, and my poor ears were ringing by the time everybody settled down. Sister called us all to attention, then told little Sister Mary Elizabeth to call the chief and send somebody over to make sure the poor man wasn’t hurt.” He shook his head. “She’d come over from Ireland, and always had a bit of the brogue on her voice, but that day it was as strong as anybody just off the ship. If my gram hadn’t sounded just as Irish, I wouldn’t have been able to understand her.”
Riordan paused to sip his tea. “Sister herded us all back inside, so I had to wait until after school to learn more. F.X. and I usually walked as far as his pa’s store together. It was either that or walk with my older sisters, and I wasn’t about to do that. They didn’t want their snot-covered younger brother tagging along, either, or so they always told Ma and Dad.”
Ellie snorted. “I can’t picture you as a snot-covered little kid.” She snickered until she had to set her mug down so it wouldn’t spill.
“As far as my sisters were concerned, I was.” Riordan quirked the corner of his lips up in a half-smile. “The fate of all little boys, I think, is to have that reputation.” He sipped his tea, then put it down. “When we reached the store that afternoon, it was crowded full of people — O’Learys has always been the best place for information, especially in those days when Exeter only had a weekly newspaper. F.X. led me around back so we could go in through the storeroom. The store was smaller back then, when it didn’t stock beer or 30-odd kinds of chips. Milk, bread, meat, some paper goods — just the essentials. The storeroom was where the coolers are now, at the back of the building. We dropped our books in the storeroom and crept up to the door. F.X. cracked it open, and we could hear the men talking.”
“They say anything about what that man was doing floating down from the damn sky?” Riordan couldn’t tell who it was, but he knew the voice.
“Watch your mouth, Frank. The boy’s going to be in here any minute.” Jack O’Leary was easy to recognize. “The chief said he couldn’t tell me anything.”
“He was Navy — I recognize the uniform.” Uncle Patrick hadn’t any doubt in his voice. “Seen too many of them over in Japan to miss that.”
“Navy?” Frank snorted. “Ocean’s a sight far away from here. Shouldn’t the fool be breaking his neck closer to Boston.”
“Squantum’s got an airfield,” Uncle Patrick said. “Ayer too. Might be a training exercise gone badly.”
“Well, now, I don’t know about that.” Jack said. “I hear that sailor was pretty banged up — and a lot of the marks were scabbed over pretty well. He didn’t get those falling into a tree today.”
“What’s the Navy want with an airfield in Ayer?” Frank snorted. “Squantum, sure. That’s right on the Bay and it’s a real Navy base. Ayer’s an Army base. No water around it, unless you count the stream, and it’s barely worth paying to put a bridge across.”
“We never did find out what happened with the sailor who crashed in town, but a few weeks later, the Worcester paper had a story that the Navy was closing its base at Ayer and moving those operations east.” Riordan shrugged. “The rumors flew all through the winter with little else to talk about. Some people tried to investigate, asking the chief questions more in line with Watson than Sherlock Holmes.” He shook his head. “No subtlety, and the chief wouldn’t talk. Probably couldn’t talk, if it came down to it.”
“So nobody ever did find out what happened?” Ellie frowned. “I wonder if I asked around, did some research, I could find out now.” She thought for a minute. “Too bad my dad’s not Navy instead of Army, he might know somebody.” She tapped her fingers on the arm of the chair. “Still, it would be a good puzzle to solve, and could make a great exhibit for the new museum’s opening in the spring.”
Riordan nodded. “You’d have a lot of interest,” he said. “That’s one of those stories that gets handed down — anybody who’s from here knows it, and I’d wager a lot who aren’t from here have heard bits and pieces.” He held his hands out, as if to weigh the possibilities. “Could be a good story if you can find out, even one that brings in some notice from outside the area to the mill project — good notice for once.”
Ellie nodded. “We need some of that right now.”