“Stay close, now, Philip,” Warner told his son. “It’s still a bit drizzly; you’ll want to stay under the umbrella.”
“It’s OK, Daddy,” Philip said. “I’ve got my hat on. And it’s not too wet out here.”
Warner just smiled down at his 6-year-old who was bouncing a little in place and taking in all the fascinating sights at Lakehurst Naval Air Station, New Jersey. He glanced at the truck from the radio station and that nice Mr. Morrison whom Daddy had taken him to talk to as they waited.
As always, Philip held tightly to his favorite popgun. Both barrels were corked and ready in case of trouble. He wasn’t planning to shoot because the corks in the barrels weren’t attached to the gun with string. They had been, once, but that was a few hundred shots ago and his parents hadn’t yet put new strings on the corks. Eager as Philip was to take aim and let something have it, he knew it would be a nuisance out here.
“Wonder how much longer it’s going to be,” groused Oscar, Warner’s older brother.
“Oh, the rain’s letting up,” Warner said. “Shouldn’t be much longer, I wouldn’t think.”
Philip stood at the thin fence and sighted down the barrel of his popgun, scanning the skies. He stopped suddenly and looked harder.
“Daddy! There it is! There it is!” And he pointed out across the landing field.
“Good eyes, Nephew,” Oscar said. “You’re a regular eagle eye scout.”
At first only a darker smudge of gray against the lighter gray of the sky, the airship became more distinct. Then it made a turn, presenting its entire length to those waiting on its arrival.
“Isn’t she beautiful, Daddy?”
“Yes, she certainly is,” Warner agreed. “And quite graceful.”
“Don’t think much of the flag on the tail fins,” Oscar muttered, too quietly for Philip to hear.
Warner gave his brother a look.
“I know; I talk a lot,” Oscar said, still quietly. “But you mark my words: that twisted cross is going to cause a lot of people a lot of trouble before long.”
The airship swung around again to stop over the mooring mast.
“What’s that funny word on the side, Daddy?”
“That’s her name, Kiddo. It’s written in an old-fashioned sort of lettering. It says Hindenburg.”
“Oh. That’s not how Mrs. Forbisher teaches us to make our letters.”
“I should hope not,” Warner said. “Your writing is difficult enough to read as it is.” He was pleased to get a fond smirk from Oscar.
Hindenburg dropped her mooring lines to the waiting ground crew. She floated quietly, waiting to be cinched down to the mast.
Philip, meanwhile, spotted a target. He raised his popgun and took aim at the swastika on the upper tail fin. His finger brushed the trigger a little too hard and both corks flew from the gun.
Before he could search for them, a light and a noise caught his attention. The aft section of the airship was crumpling.
“Dear God!” Oscar yelled. “It’s on fire!”
Warner grabbed Philip and held him close, ready to scoop him up and run if necessary. The three watched in horror, along with the few other spectators and those waiting for friends and family to debark.
Within a single minute, the great airship had crashed to the ground. An exploding gas cell shook the air and wiped out the peculiar letters that spelled out the ship’s name. The ship’s aluminum skeleton began to collapse. Men who had run away as Hindenburg fell now ran back toward the wreck to see if there were survivors to be rescued. Two of the ground crew escorted a badly burned survivor between them.
Oscar nudged Warner. “Let’s go. He’s seen enough,” he said, nodding down at Philip. Warner chastised himself for not realizing that. He steered Philip away from the carnage and toward the car. As they drove back to Warner’s home, Philip, not looking up, asked in a small voice, “Daddy? Why did it burn so fast?”
Warner cleared his throat. “German airships use hydrogen gas for lift. It burns very easily. Doesn’t take much to set it off.”
“Oh.” And he fell back into silence.
Martha came down the stairs half an hour later after checking on her son. The brothers were sitting in the living room, absently sipping from their wine glasses.
“He’s resting,” she told the men. “He’s quite shaken up.”
“He’s not the only one,” Warner said.
Philip, alone at last, looked at his popgun; his mother had stood it up in a corner in his bedroom. He didn’t understand how it could have happened, but the evidence was clear. The weapon’s two empty barrels accused him.
He burrowed his head into his pillow and sobbed quietly, waiting for God to punish him for destroying the Hindenburg and killing all those people.