In the World War II movie Twelve O'clock High former commander Gregory Peck returns to the derelict air base in England where he served during the most hazardous days of the war for American airmen. As he surveys the abandoned buildings and grass-grown air strips, the roar of B-17 engines and the radio crackle of bombing crew voices flood his memory.
The movie came to mind recently as I stood at the top a high hill on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Wind and waves have clawed away hundreds of feet from the dramatic cliffs that stretch for miles, but the site still offers a spectacular view of the beach and the deep blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Scattered around the rolling dunes like ships on an ocean of sand are are fifteen silver-shingled cottages owned by Cook's By the Ocean.
With its unique location, the cottage colony never wants for guests. As my wife Christi and I strolled on sandy paths that wound between green thickets of compass grass, we saw people sitting in front of their cottages reading or simply soaking in the sun. I remarked to Christi that this wind-swept hill is truly a place where you could air out your soul.
But in my imagination, there were no cottages or vacationers. Instead, I pictured several buildings of utilitarian design. Rather than summer visitors in various stages of relaxation, men and boys dressed in gray uniforms, heads topped with jaunty berets, were gathered near the brow of the hill, eyes fixed on the sky. I could hear excited shouts in English and German, while overhead, a slim-winged aircraft soared with the gulls over the first glider school in America.
The headline on the New York Herald-Tribune for August 17, 1929, read:
Cape Cod Cliff
Of Air Gliders.
The article reported that the hill was to be developed as a glider center by the American Motorless Aviation Corporation. Perhaps the first glider school in America. The school was inspired by the record-breaking flight of German pilot Peter Hesselbach a year earlier in Truro, the next town over. Hesselbach's sponsor was department store heir J. C. Penney'
The Herald-Tribune said the school had enrolled one-hundred-twenty students. It would start instruction with six German-built gliders. The school operators must have envisioned a major facility on the hill because nine more aircraft were on order. They would be housed in two steel hangars. There was a large combination mess and lecture hall, an administration building and a bathhouse with showers for men and women, suggesting that some of the staff had their wives with them. There was housing for officers, but the students slept in tents.
The fledglings pilot would first be taught how to glide from a high to a lower point. Next they'd learn soaring, the rudiments of balance, gaining and maintaining altitude, banking and guiding the aircraft. Instructors were imported from Germany, where glider design and flying was about ten years ahead of the U.S.
Helping the American syndicate pull the operation together was the Rhoen-Rossiten Corporation, the umbrella organization for Germany's extensive network of glider clubs and schools. Interest in gliding had flourished in Germany following World War One after that country signed the Versailles treaty banning motorized flight within its borders.
The chief pilot was Heinrich Knott. His assistant was Karl von Chligensperg, who had graduated from the Darmstadt, a major gliding center where Hesselbach had honed his flying skills. General manager of the school was an American, Major Vergne Chappelle of New York, who was vice-president of AMAC. Major Clarence E. Doll, another vice president, was operations officer. Lieutenant A. L. Selby, also of New York, was personnel officer.
Students were awarded blue buttons emblazoned with white enamel gulls. The number of birds on a badge depended on the student's level of attainment. According to the news story, the first gliding license issued in America went to a motorized airplane pilot named John Perkins. He was given a one-gull button for gliding from a 160-foot cliff to the beach. The two and three-gull buttons were awarded as a pilot passed various tests. The image of the three-button badge was used for the cover of Killing Icarus.
The youngest student was 15-year-old James Stewart. Flying was in the family. His father was director of the Aviation Corporation of America. Despite cracking up twice in his glider, he was described as a “brilliant' student.
Chappelle designed the two-piece uniforms worn by staff and students. The uniforms were made of stout water-proof material. Breeches were double suited gray. The top part was a combination shirt and wind breaker. For late autumn flying the shirt had a wool collar that came up over the ears.
The ban against motorized planes would come back to haunt the Allied victors. The German glider clubs and schools produced hundreds of young men who would be a ready resource of pilots and designers when Germany reconstituted its air force. Knott, in fact, said he saw a soaring pilot step into a motored plane in Germany and fly off without any further instruction.
Knott's observation was prescient. In time, German glider enthusiasts would be absorbed into the Nazi organization and their skills would be valuable with the formation of the Luftwaffe.
The school was a little-known part of aviation history when I made it part of the historical backdrop for my mystery thriller Killing Icarus, released on July 13 of this year by Suspense Publishing. I might not have known about it if I had not been introduced to Larry and “Cookie” Cardinal some sixty years ago.
The Cardinals ran a cottage colony high on a bluff overlooking the Atlantic. I was visiting the Cardinals with my new in-laws. While they sat in the living room enjoying refreshments, I wandered around and looked at the pictures on the knotty-pine walls. Cookie saw me looking at a photo of a large building and explained that it was part of a German-American glider school that had occupied the cottage colony
She said some of the lumber from the old school had been used to build the main house and cottages. I was starting my twenty-five career in newspapers, and had gotten in the habit of collecting obscure facts that were tucked in my head to be used at a later day.
That day came years after the visit to the hill top when I needed a front page article for a summer supplement put out by The Cape Codder, the weekly newspaper I worked for. I remembered the story Cookie had told me and asked around the office for leads to people who might remember the school.
I also wrote the Smithsonian Institution and asked if they had any material on the glider school. The air and space museum responded by sending me photos and news clips not only about the school, but the historic Hesselbach glider flights in Truro. By then I had interviewed some people who not only remembered the German glider flights in Truro, but had been part of the volunteer launch crews.
In the late 1980s I left journalism to start writing detective mysteries. I churned out eighteen detective mysteries and adventure books. I was trying to come up with an idea for my next book when I recalled the glider story. I re-read Knott's statement about the easy transition glider pilots could make to motorized aircraft. I began to wonder if any of the German glider instructors had returned to the Cape after the war.
I had learned from my research that the school flourished for a short time, closing in 1929 after the stock market crash. I hadn't visited the school while I was writing the book because I had enough information to write the story. But a few weeks after the book's publication I sent an email to the folks who run the cottage colony, saying I'd like to drop off a copy of the book, and almost immediately got an answer back to come ahead.
On a gloriously sunny mid-summer Cape Cod afternoon, my wife and I turned off the road to the beach and drove up a narrow driveway that was pretty much as I remembered it.
We found Kevin Sexton, one of the present owners, behind the big house at the top of the hill where he was cleaning out a pizza oven with a leaf blower I told him about my history with the Cardinal family, and when I mentioned their daughter Laurie, who was a teen-ager the last time I saw her, I got a time shock.
“That's my mother,” he said.
Laurie was on the beach, but Kevin took a few minutes from cleaning the pizza oven to chat about the cottage colony. The hill had quite a history even before the glider school. Guglielmo Marconi stayed in a cottage, now part of the colony, when he was working on his experiments with trans-Atlantic wireless radio. Lorenzo Dow Baker, the Wellfleet sea captain who introduced the banana to North America, owned some cottages there on leased land.
I had brought along a folder with some of the glider material from the Smithsonian. In with my notes, news stories and photos was an interview I had done decades before with Kevin's grandmother. I had always thought that her first name was Clarice. Kevin saw her name typed at the top of a page and said it was actually Charlize, a feminine form of Charles.
In my interview with Cookie years before, she said her father Herbert “Bert” Cook had been contacted by a New York syndicate looking to lease his land with an option to buy it.
“There was nothing but dunes at the time, the Marconi cottage and three of L. D. Baker's cottages,” Cookie said.
Her grandfather was an underwriter for an insurance company and kept his gear in a cottage where he stayed if there were a shipwreck. She said the syndicate put up one building they called “the mess hall,” which included a dining room, study and living room.” Wood from the building would later be used to build the Cardinals' house.
She also remembered “the shower building,” and that it had showers for both men and women. The administration building had offices and repair shops and it was where the officers slept. “During the summer the boys (students) slept in tents,” she said
“They were young fellows, 17, 18 and 19, who were interested in flying.” The school had its own electric power, probably the first electricity on the back shore.
“They flew the planes off here when the wind was east, if I remember right. When the wind was west they took the plane to Corn hill and flew off there. They ran it for two summers then of course the Depression came long and they went down the drain. We got all the buildings and started the cottages.”
One of the students, a man named George Smith, came back after the war to visit the school site. Cookie also remembered a German instructor, “kind of a blond, nice-looking guy.” Her girl friend had a crush on him, Cookie said, but she wasn't interested.
She remembered the gliders being launched from the cliff with a sling shot arrangement. “They'd fly back and forth. If the wind was good they could go on indefinitely.”
Kevin showed us the inside of the main house, and that's where I got my first rush from the past. The walls had knotty pine walls, just as I remembered. Rush Number Two came next when I saw a photograph on the wall of the old administration building. I took a photo from my files held it next to the one on the wall. They were almost identical.
The third rush came when Kevin showed me a photo of Cookie and Larry. They were cuddling cheek-to-cheek and looked almost exactly as I remembered them.
Before we left the hill we strolled around the property. I gazed up more time at the cloudless blue sky where the first bird men of Cape Cod, for a brief time, had defied the laws of gravity and carved their special niche in aviation history.
Swimming with the sharks: Kemprecos mystery revisits popular character
By Barbara Clark
The Barnstable Patriot, Jun 1, 2018
Sometimes fictional characters catch a kind of local hero status, and we may have one such example in these parts – fictive fisherman and charter boat captain Aristotle “Soc” Socarides, who springs straight from the pen of Cape Cod author Paul Kemprecos.
Kemprecos’ first “Soc” mystery novel, “Cool Blue Tomb” (1991), garnered a Shamus Award for best paperback novel. Soc’s adventures continued for six books or so, then took a hiatus while Kemprecos took a dive into big-time publishing, collaborating for several years with bestselling author Clive Cussler and introducing special assignments expert Kurt Austin for Cussler’s blockbuster NUMA Files series.
After dealing with the stress of turning out a decade-worth of thrillers at the killer pace of one per year for Cussler, Kemprecos decided to gear back down to the Cape Cod lifestyle, responding to fans’ requests to resurrect the Soc series. The unruly but usually philosophical PI/Vietnam vet/boat captain resurfaced in “Grey Lady” (2013) - see sidebar, and is back again in the new adventure, “Shark Bait.”
Kemprecos recalled how his two writing paths came together when he met with Cussler while working to create the Austin character and ran into a stumbling block. “Think Soc!” Cussler advised. Austin, said Kemprecos, appealed to Cussler as a “Soc-type character.”
In “Shark Bait,” Soc lands in his usual mess of trouble, this time involving iconic film stars, mobsters, some biker bar types, a hidden tunnel and a historic Cape Cod legend.
All that, plus a 15-foot great white shark named Emma.
Soc is hired by a cantankerous guy named Gill and undertakes a nighttime stakeout at Gill’s oyster farm to try to discover who’s plundering his oyster beds. After the stakeout takes an unfortunate turn, Soc finds himself in need of a new truck, and coupled with some pending boat repairs that keep him from working his charter boat, he needs to re-think his finances.
As luck would have it, he finds temporary work as a boat handler for a Hollywood crew working locally to film “The Pirate’s Daughter,” a thriller about pirate captain Black Sam Bellamy and his maybe-lover, Mary Hallett, both famous in Cape Cod lore.
Soc is told that the previous boat guy met an untimely end when he got drunk, fell overboard and then fell victim to Emma, as post-mortem marks on his body indicate.
But was it Emma? The big fish is under scrutiny by the coastal group that’s tagged her as part of a study of local shark behavior. Whether she’s the culprit is a question Kemprecos and Soc will eventually answer, but not before Soc encounters more sharks – this time of the more common two-legged variety.
Since 2013, Kemprecos has alternated between Soc and another new thriller series featuring ex-navy SEAL Matt Hawkins. The second Hawkins book, “Minoan Cipher” (2016), was nominated by the International Thriller Writers Association in the category of best paperback.
Now, however, Kemprecos thinks he may just decide to concentrate on Soc. He says he’s been glad to slow down from his former writing pace. “There are a lot of distractions in life now,” he said, referring in part to his rambling back yard and a fence that needs a re-do.
According to the author, Soc’s getting a little older, and so is his Maine coon cat, Kojak, who continues to share Soc’s Cape Cod boathouse, dispensing his cat wisdom. But is Soc mellowing? Kemprecos says, “Definitely. ... He’s not as manic.” Kemprecos admits that he knew Soc in the past as a “slightly crazed character.” Now, the author says, he’s “less acerbic” and focuses “more on [his] observations” of events and people around him.
Kemprecos also referred to the difficulties of aging a fictional character who’s being “restored to life” after a pause of 15 years or so. The author has chosen to let Soc show his age a bit, but mutes it, setting “Shark Bait” in the early 2000s, just before the hi-tech explosions of internet, smartphones and Facebook. Readers will welcome reappearances by Soc’s stubborn, solid family and his old friend Flagg.
Asked whether succeeding as a writer is harder – or easier – these days, he said it’s a little of both. Now “It’s more like the movies,” in that publishing companies are now owned by huge consortiums where the idea is just “to make a profit. They go for the known [name],” he said.
At the same time, with the many new publishing options available to authors today, it’s possible that some unknowns can break through independently of the big publishers, catching the public’s fancy.
Kemprecos is at work on a new Soc story, with another special Cape Cod twist: How about a mystery connected with the past history of a glider school operating out of South Wellfleet in the 1920s?
No matter how many surprises are in store, Kemprecos says that his goal is always to write “books that are fun and entertaining.”
“Shark Bait” By Paul Kemprecos
Suspense Publishing, paperback, $13.95
OFFICIAL AUTHOR WEBSITE
Ever since I penned Bluefin Blues, the seventh of the Aristotle “Soc” Socarides Cape Cod detective books, readers have asked me if I planned to write another in the series. I was up to my eyeballs writing the NUMA Files with Clive Cussler, a job that demanded all of my working time, and then some. When the collaboration with Clive ended, I stuck with the formula that had worked so well, and pounded out an adventure story, The Emerald Scepter, which was published in May. In the meantime, I joined with Suspense Publishing to introduce new readers to the Soc series in e-book format. Work began on audio versions as well.
While I peddled my adventure book, I pondered whether to take a crack at another Soc story. On a beautiful July day, my wie Christi and I took the ferry to Nantucket so I could look into using the island as a backdrop. The old whaling port has changed since Herman Melville used the “Grey Lady of the Sea,” as a setting for Moby Dick, but it still enjoys a fog-shrouded mystique and offered all sorts of possibilities. The book is available as a trade paperback and in digital format. Suspense has also re-published The Mayflower Murder as part of the project to get all the series back in print. Stay tuned for further details!
From "Grey Lady"
Rich people must be used to helicopters buzzing their backyards. The party settled back to its sultry summer night rhythm soon after the aerial inspection. The golf carts continued to drop off well-dressed guests. The lighthearted chatter and laughter played against the backdrop of classical music.
Minutes earlier, Ramsey had shifted from his greeter duties and he'd been moving from guest to guest like a honeybee gathering pollen in a field of wildflowers. He greeted some guests with a quick handshake, a word of welcome, and a gesture toward the bar and food. With others it was a double handshake, a shoulder squeeze, a cheek peck for the women. The smile switched on and off like a strobe light.
“What a character. Aristotle Socarides is a diver, a fisherman, and a PI who just can’t seem to stay out of trouble. He’s the brainchild of a genius—Paul Kemprecos—who knows a thing or two about writing action and adventure. I bow to the master and urge all of you to read this latest installment in a first rate series.”
—Steve Berry, New York Times and #1 Internationally Bestselling Author
"Absolutely the best private-eye mystery I've read. I can't wait for the next one."
"There can be no better mystery writer in America today than Paul Kemprecos."
—Clive Cussler, New York Times
Writers are often asked where they get the ideas for their books.
For my part, inspiration has come from newspapers, television, other books and everyday observations of the world around me.
Killing Icarus is a bit different. The seed for my 19th book was planted by chance nearly sixty years ago during a visit to a wind-swept hill on the Atlantic shore of Cape Cod. During that visit I learned that in the late 1920s a New York syndicate had operated a school at the top of the hill where German and American instructors taught people how to fly gliders.
The school might never have come into being if not for the skill and daring of three German glider experts whose advanced design aircraft soared above the Cape's dunes and beaches in 1928, including one flight that broke the Wright Brothers record.
The school was highly successful, but it was only in operation a year before closing due to the financial stresses that came with the Stock Market Crash.
It took World War II to pull the country out of the Depression, and by then some of the Germans who had studied the flight of gulls above the Cape were part of the war machine American and Allied pilots were fighting in the air.
Through the years, I wondered if any of the German airmen every came back to the Cape. And if so, for what reason.
And more recently, I wondered how I could work the little-known story of German glider activity in the U.S. between the wars into a book. I came up with the idea for a reenactment of those glider flights as the focus of the story, but couldn't figure out how to use it in a mystery novel.
Enter Edward Hopper.
Hopper's paintings are famous world-wide. You would have to live on Mars not to be familiar with Night Hawks, the enigmatic painting of anonymous patrons gathered late at night around the counter of a New York coffee shop.
Hopper is most famous for his paintings of the city where he loved to paint the interplay of light and shadow on buildings. Hopper also loved Cape Cod, and he and his wife Jo, also a fine painter, spent half the year in the Outer Cape town of Truro.
Hopper would venture from the studio overlooking Cape Cod Bay to explore the hills and valleys of the small town in search of subjects for his art. Commonly, he would sketch a scene and do the actual painting in his studio.
So I asked myself a question. What if the German airman coming back to Cape Cod after the war encountered Edward Hopper?
This gave me a nexus, an intersection of lives, where I could ensnare a young woman in a web and describe her fight to untangle herself from its sticky strands.
Abi Vickers is an art historian named Abi Vickers who has hit the proverbial wall. Her husband ran off with his secretary, leaving Abi to clean up the wreckage he left behind. Her galleries, her reputation, her apartment in Boston's tony South End-everything she has worked so hard for-have been ripped from her life by an uncaring and unfair legal system.
When an old college mentor offers her a temporary job organizing his records at a cottage overlooking Cape Cod Bay, she accepts, hoping the sun-drenched scenery that inspired Edward Hopper will be an ideal refuge where she can reassemble the broken pieces of her career.
As she leaves Boston for the Outer Cape town of Truro, she looks forward to restoring her body and soul with spectacular sunsets, walks on a deserted beach, and to cleansing her mind with the contemplative practice of Zen archery.
But her dreams of peace and tranquility are shattered when she leans that a historic aviation event is about to be reenacted practically on her doorstep. Suddenly, instead of finding sanity, she wonders if she is going insane-especially when she starts seeing shadows flitting across the star-speckled sky.
She discovers the troubles that had plagued her in Boston were child's play compared to the dangers she is about to face. From the deadly cat-and-mouse game she must play with hired killers on the Nantucket ferry to the threats that emanate from an old barn near a fortress-like abandoned mansion.
Even with the help of a part-time, small-town police officer who is struggling to deal with the weight of his own personal baggage, and a German journalist who is not what he appears to be, Abi must tap into intellectual and physical resources she never knew she possessed.
Will they be enough?
If you'd like to find out how Abi makes out, you can pre-order the book in print or ebook from the links on this page or call your favorite book store.