History Mystery #3: The Night Flyers

Author: Elizabeth McDavid Jones

Illustrators: Paul Bacham,  Greg Dearth and Nenad Jakesevic

Publishing Year: 1999

Setting: North Caroline coast, 1918


Eleven-year-old Pam Lowder misses her father. He's in France, fighting in the Great War (no one then suspected they'd need to specify which world war the history books would refer to). It's so hard to focus on schoolwork when her father takes up all her thoughts, but she knows she has to try, to make him proud. Trouble is, she's already behind because she needs to spend so much time working on her family's farm. And yet her parents expect her to go to high school. She's hardly even been past the outskirts of her little town! The neighbor girl, Mattie, thinks it's a waste of time for Pam to go to school at all. Mattie doesn't attend; she has to help too much at her farm, and she figures with all the work she and Pam have to do, neither have time to keep up with the kids in town. In fact, no one in Mattie's immediate family can read or write, including her father who's stationed with Pam's.

There's not too much time to dwell on her embarrassment about not doing well in school. Someone new has moved to town--very rare in those days. Especially considering he has a German accent. Pam's seen the propaganda posters featuring nasty caricatures of German soldiers and just about hates them for forcing her father to travel across an ocean to fight them. And he was asking after the homing pigeon Pam and her father have. Pam loves spending time with animals, especially her pigeons. She understands animals and connects with them. No awkwardness there. When Pam's chores are done, she goes to her pigeons. The half-wolf dog she's been taming barks into the darkness. At first Pam thinks the dog is just misbehaving, but a man steps out from the shadows to reveal himself. It's the German!

The man introduces himself as Mr. Arminger. He has questions about the homing pigeons, so Pam's mother sent him to find Pam with her flock. Pam reminds herself that her mother said he's done nothing to prove he's an enemy spy, and shows him around. She finds him easy to talk to, and loves that he treats her like an equal. Mr. Arminger is especially curious about the fact that her pigeons can home at night. He offers to buy them all for two hundred dollars (just over $3,400 in 2014). With that much money, Pam's mother wouldn't have to work in the town drugstore anymore. They could hire someone to help with the farm. But Pam just can't part with the pigeons she's raised. They mean too much to her. Mr. Arminger asks Pam to think about his offer, and says he'll get in touch with her again. Pam's mother is fine with the decision, and adds that they really don't know anything about Mr. Arminger nor why he'd want to pay so much money for birds.

Pam misses school the next when she and her mother have to help their cow through a difficult labor. When she goes back the day after, she learns Mr. Arminger came asking for her! Naturally, the schoolhouse is buzzing with what the strange man wants the pigeons for. Things escalate into the son of Pam's mother's boss accusing Pam's father of being a spy, and Pam punches him in the face. They end up fighting, and sent home from school. The boy, Henry, taunts Pam that her mother will be fired. Maybe Pam should take the $200. But Henry's father isn't at the drugstore, and his older sister tells their father the truth later anyway.

Back at home, Mr. Arminger comes calling again, this time offering $200 for just one mated pair. Before Pam can wrap her head around the idea, Mr. Arminger makes a sudden movement and Pam's dog goes for his leg. Fortunately, Mr. Arminger isn't hurt--the dog mostly got his pants. Plus, Pam had warned him that the dog wasn't fully tamed yet, so Mr. Arminger doesn't hold it against Pam. The commotion draws Pam's mother out of the house and when Pam explains that Mr. Arminger offered to buy the pigeons again and she refused to sell again, her mother asks Mr. Arminger to stop coming to visit Pam. He seems like a decent man, and is settling into town nicely, but he can't keep coming after Pam.

The next morning starts horribly: one of Pam's pigeons is missing. Henry aggravates Pam again, but in front of her mother so she just barely keeps her temper. But then when she goes to her pigeons later in the day, her best one is also missing. She's sure Mr. Arminger took the birds. She sets out for the plot of land Mr. Arminger recently bought. But it's deserted. Only the run-down shack that's always been there indicates anyone ever lived there, and not in some time. Pam is certain this means Mr. Arminger is a German spy. She tells her mother her fears when she returns home, and while she agrees it looks suspicious, her mother cautions Pam against making such a serious accusation yet. Then Pam's mother breaks her own bit of news: the dog has to go. She's never been fond of keeping a wolf hybrid, and now with the new calf and the leg-biting...If Pam doesn't take to dog out into the woods herself, her mother will "take care" of the dog.

So Pam sadly but dutifully takes her dog deep into the woods. When the dog gives chase to a rabbit, Pam sprints away, swimming through a pond to throw the dog off her scent. She keeps running, fueled by anger and sadness, until she finds herself somewhere she doesn't quite recognize. And there's a freshly-cut path just in front of her--and the smell of a pigeon loft. Suddenly a truck drives past on the path. Pam hides and can see the driver is Mr. Arminger, with two other men. She decides to camp nearby (she brought a homing pigeon and sends her mother a message about this) and steal out before dawn to get her birds back--they must be on the property. But there are literally dozens of birds there, and before Pam can find hers, Mr. Arminger sees her prowling in the loft. She tries to run, but he grabs and takes her inside the cabin.

A short time later, the truth comes out: Mr. Arminger and his companions are training homing pigeons to fly at night, so they can deliver messages in war zones at any time. Pam doesn't believe him at first, but he shows her the first page of some classified documents. He also explains that his accent isn't exactly German. It's Pennsylvania Dutch. He was raised Amish, and learned to train homing pigeons when he was younger. The US government considers him such an expert that they hired him for the project. Finding that Pam already had night-flying pigeons was a boost. He makes one final offer, this time to buy the eggs of Pam's pigeons, if she'll train the babies and not tell a soul what she's doing, other than her mother. Pam is a little sad she won't be able to tell her schoolmates that she can do something important even if she isn't a good student, but loves the idea of helping her father.

But Mr. Arminger doesn't have Pam's pigeons. Who does? As Pam makes her way home, she figures it must be Mattie's brother Buell, who has some homing pigeons and might have want to sell hers to raise money for his family. Before she can look for evidence that it might be him, she see her dog is back--and growling at someone.

It's Henry! He yells that the dog is trying to kill him and Pam's mother comes running. Pam calms the dog down, and can see that he hasn't touch so much as a hair on Henry (which prompts her mother to let her keep the dog). But something is in his pocket--one of Pam's homing pigeons. Pam and her mother make immediate plans to talk with Henry's parents to see where the other pigeons are, despite Henry's insistence that he didn't take them. Even if he didn't, his parents need to know that he was planning to steal this one.

And it turns out that Henry is innocent of the previous thefts. It's not long before Pam realizes what really happened to her pigeons: Mattie. She confronts Mattie, who admits she took one of Buell's pigeons to try to sell to Mr. Arminger, but the bird was sickly and not a night flyer, so he didn't accept the offer. The bird died on the way back home, and she took one of Pam's, since she had so many, to replace it. She noticed the pigeon seemed lonely and took another to keep it company. Mattie enjoyed having something all to herself so much that it was hard for her to part with the pigeons, though she did intend to. Pam accepts her apology, privately thinking that without Mattie's theft, she would never have the chance to train birds for the government. She even comes up with an idea: Mattie is going to help Pam raise a few baby pigeons, to keep as her very own.

A Peek into the Past

The United States entered World War I in 1917. By then the war had been going on for a few years already. Trench warfare was common, a brutal and dangerous way to live (although troops were rotated out of trench duty regularly). Pinned down in unsanitary tunnels and ditches, soldiers risked disease as well as death from enemy fire. Communication was difficult; radio and telephones were unreliable in the best of conditions. Homing pigeons became very important and even saved lives by alerting of the need for extra firepower. The US even trained some pigeons to home at night, a difficult task that seemed at first impossible, but getting knowledge to and from the front lines was crucial to winning the war, so it had to be done. The "bad guys" that the US and its allies were fighting against were the Central Powers, most readily identified as German (although other countries were in the Central Powers as well). In the US, anything German quickly fell out of favor. German measles, also known as rubella, became liberty measles, sauerkraut became liberty cabbage, dachshunds became liberty pups. Other aspects of the anti-German sentiment were less amusing. German immigrants were suddenly suspected of being spies, although very few were. They were sometimes run out towns or even murdered. When World War I ended, the victors felt the need to punish Germany for starting a war that caused so much bloodshed and imposed heavy sanctions on the country. Many historians point to the resulting poor German economy and morale as a key reason a charismatic Austrian named Adolf Hitler later came to power.


Dedicated to "my husband, Rick, and my children, Mandy, Lindsay, Whitney, and Michael."

Pam's neighbor has twin babies. It seems she has some trouble nursing them. The doctor suggests she drink lots of (cow) milk. When I had supply issues nursing my first, the pediatrician's nurse told me that dairy fat helps lactation.

I like that Pam isn't a top student. It's realistic that some people will struggle in school.

When Pam swims through the pond to throw the dog off her scent, it reminded me of Uncle Solomon's advice in Meet Addy.

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