The Captain's Palms

by THOMAS HEGGEN

LIEUTENANT ROBERTS was the only one on the Navy cargo ship who gave a damn about the war in Europe, and he cared profoundly. Scarcely anybody else even listened to the news, much less absorbed it. And it was a time of great news. Now, in the last days of April and the first days of May, 1945, the Third Reich lay in its death throes. Peace for much of the world was only days away, perhaps hours. It had already been rumored and denied, rumored and denied again. It was a time as exciting and, in the best sense, as great as the world had ever known; and in a minute displacement of the Pacific Ocean, the U.S.S. Reluctant went about its business and didn’t even look up. Its talk was of worn and familiar things: the States, the chow in the mess hall, the movies, and, long and always, the Captain. Once in a while a man would ask another: “They still fighting over there in Europe?” but didn’t really care.

Germany writhed in the awful constriction of Allied and Russian armies, vomited agony. The last-ditch defenders fought from the sewers of Berlin. Lieutenant Roberts sat for hours at a time in the radio shack with a headset on his ears, listening to the fading, crackling voices of the short-wave broadcasts. It was seldom that the ship was at an island owning a radio station, and much of the time short wave was the only means of getting the news. The phonograph in the wardroom, endlessly tended by Carney or Margrave or Langston, endlessly whining the sick, scratchy, distorted love songs of some years ago — “I’ll Never Smile Again,” “You’ll Never Know,”“It Can’t Be Wrong” — drove Roberts to the headset in the radio shack. It was virtually impossible to silence the monotone nostalgia of the turntable long enough for a news broadcast. Once Roberts had persuaded Margrave, the communicator, to put out every morning a sheet of mimeographed press news. The experiment lasted only a week and even Roberts had to admit that it was a failure. The copies were being tossed unread into the trash baskets.

Roberts had just had a run-in with the Captain when the news came of the final surrender of Germany. The Reluctant lay at anchor in the bay of one of the islands. It was early evening when the word came, the four-to-eight watch; and Roberts had the watch. Because there was no gangway down, he stood it on the bridge. There were several difficulties with the Captain. First the quartermaster dropped a megaphone on the deck of the wheelhouse, and the Captain was heard from on that. His cabin was directly below, and he couldn’t stand noise overhead of any sort. At night, awakening him from sleep, an object dropped on the deck overhead would send him nearly out of his mind with rage.

Then, after that first incident, it wasn’t ten minutes until the Captain came on the bridge again. He was obviously looking for trouble, and he found it. He saw a group of men on the foredeck leaning on the rail. Leaning on the rail was his currently favorite prohibition. He stormed over to Lieutenant Roberts on the wing.

“Do you see those men down there?” he demanded.

Roberts looked up with the minor annoyance of a man brushing away a fly. He nodded complacently.

“Well!” shouted the Captain. “What’re you going to do about it?”

Roberts looked around indifferently and summoned the messenger. “Go down and tell those men to get off the rail,” he said casually.

The Captain’s moustache bristled. His face and neck got red. “Get off the rail nothing!” he shouted. “You get their names and by God you put them on report! You get those men on report in a quick hurry or by God I’ll take care of you!” He started to walk agitatedly about. He never was a match for Roberts and he knew it.

Roberts turned wearily to the messenger. “Go down and get their names,” he said. The way he said it, it was understood that they were humoring a foolish child. Then he turned and walked away to the other wing, leaving the Captain muttering a familiar monologue: “By God what do you think I make these orders for — just to be doing something? By God when I say something’s going to be done it’s going to be done or by God I’ll take care of you officers! You bet I will.” A few minutes later, when Thompson, the radioman, came out and told Roberts that Germany had just surrendered unconditionally, he forgot all about the Captain.

As soon as he was relieved, Roberts went into the radio shack and put on the headset. The air was full of the great news. Roberts heard a transcription of the rolling eloquence of Churchill. He heard the text of the President’s proclamation from Washington. He heard the quiet, controlled exultation of General Eisenhower. He heard the news announcers. They talked from Reims, from “Somewhere in Germany,” from Paris, from Rome, from Lisbon, from London. The universal joy was only feebly relieved by cognizance of the still un-won Pacific war.

Roberts sat for a long time at the headset. When one station went off the air he switched to another. Almost frantically he would seek out a new station. Finally the news programs were all off the air or repeating themselves. There were only the sad iterations of American dance music on the radio bands. Roberts got up then.

The movie was just letting out. There were sudden shouts in the passageways, and the loud, happy voices of the crew as they swarmed forward to the fo’c’sle. It must have been a good movie. Hearing them, Roberts felt a sudden loneliness. He felt a vague sorrow, and pressing just behind it, an awful sick despair that he had lived with for a long, familiar time. He needed suddenly to talk to someone. He went down to the wardroom.

Carney and Margrave were alone in there. They pored over their acey-deucey game. The phonograph played “Paper Doll.” There was a crack in the record that clicked at every turn. The big fan droned in the corner.

Roberts stood over them for a moment. “The war’s over in Europe,” he said. “Germany has surrendered.” He stood waiting.

Carney looked up politely. “Yeah?” he said. Then, evidently feeling that some amplifying comment was indicated, he added: “Well, that ought to speed things up out here a good bit.”

“Yeah,” said Margrave, “it should.” He picked up the dice. “What’s the game?” he asked.

“Acey-deucey,” said Carney.

“Acey-deucey,” said Margrave. He rolled the dice. “There it is.”

Roberts smiled a little and went out. He should have known better than to expect anything else. No one could help him because no one gave a hoot in hell what went on beyond the confines of this ship. It was to the rest of the officers a matter of indifference that a war of supreme horror had ended. Just to establish this, Roberts went around and told his friends the news. Lying in bed reading a year-old Street and Smith detective magazine, Lieutenant Pauley agreed substantially with Carney: “Well, maybe they’ll get on the ball out here now.” Ensign Pulver was languidly militant: “I guess we took care of the bastards good this time!” Ensign Moulton was cynical: “That’ll hold them for another twenty years.” Ensign Kieth asked, “Did they catch Hitler?” Finally Roberts went to the Doc’s room. If anyone could help, it would be the Doc.

2

THE Doctor sat reading at his desk. The desk light shone on his forehead and on the bald part of his head. Without seeming to shift his eyes, he shot a quick, sharp glance at the doorway. “Come in!” he called to Roberts. He put the book aside. “Sit down. Take a load off.”

“Hi, Doc,” said Roberts. He sat down in the chair beside the desk, locked his hands behind his head, and leaned back against the bulkhead. “The war is over in Europe. Germany surrendered unconditionally at Reims.”

The Doctor stroked his mustache thoughtfully. “That’s fine,” he said. “That’s really splendid news. Has it been announced from Washington?”

Roberts nodded.

“That’s very wonderful news,” said the Doc softly. “Very wonderful.”

Roberts kept his hands locked behind his head. “Doc, here’s something for you,” he said slowly. “The most horrible war in history has just ended. A terrible war, Doc, a truly terrible one. You would expect this then to be a time of the wildest general rejoicing. And what do I feel? Doc, I feel depressed as all hell. What do you make of that?”

The Doctor squinted his eyes and leaned back in his chair. “Well,” he said, “I shouldn’t think that so remarkable. With anything as consummately absorbing as a great war there’s always a great deal of transference. You know: the great general conflict swallows the little individual conflicts. Also there’s the matter of war considered as a spectacle. War is a hell of a hypnotic and buoyant thing — viewed from a distance, a considerable distance — and it’s quite reasonable to expect a letdown when it ends.”

Roberts shook his head and smiled. “No,” he said, “it’s not like that at all. I know what it is. So do you. It’s just that I feel left out. I wanted in that war, Doc. I wanted in it like hell. Does that sound stupid?”

“No,” said the Doc, “but it is rare.” He lighted a cigarette. “You never did satisfactorily explain to me how come you’re so all-fired anxious to fight this war.”

“I don’t know that I could,” said Roberts. “I don’t know how you go about explaining a compulsion. That’s what it is, of course.” Roberts had a crooked smile. “Did I ever tell you,” he went on, “what a long and consistent record I have as a frustrated anti-fascist?”

The Doctor shook his head and exhaled smoke. “I think you omitted that.”

“Well, I have,” said Roberts. “A truly distinguished record of frustration. When I was eighteen I quit high school and went to New York and got signed up as an ambulance driver in the Lincoln Brigade. That time, the war was over before they could ship me out.” He scratched his ear. “But I don’t guess there was much anti-fascism to that. It was just a hell of a gaudy thing to do. I was quite a hero when I left.

“Then,” he went on, “in 1940, in my last year of pre-med, I quit school again. This time I went up to Montreal and tried to get in the RAF. I think that by then I honestly had an idea of what was involved. It was strictly nothing doing, though.” He tapped his teeth. “They threw me out on this foolish malocclusion. Same thing in 1941 when I tried to get in the air corps — all three of them. They wouldn’t have anything to do with me. This is the only outfit that would have me.”

The Doc was quiet a moment; then he said, “I could kick you for ever leaving med school.”

“So could I,” said Roberts. “Now. Particularly now. Particularly today. I chase the hell out of this war and it quits on me.”

“I would remind you that there is still a war out here which you may very well see plenty of.”

Roberts shook his head. “Not a chance. I’ve sat on this bucket this long. I’ll sit here now till it’s over.”

“And I would further remind you,” said the Doc, “that it’s through no fault of yours that you’re on this bucket instead of in a grave in Germany.”

Roberts grinned. “What an enchanting thought,” he said.

The Doctor pushed back from the desk. “And I would still further remind you,” he said briskly, “that what we need is a drink. How about getting the orange juice.”

“You’re right,” said Roberts. He went for the orange juice and the Doc broke out the alcohol and they sat together with their drinks for over an hour. The Doc was at his best. He told about the patient of his who had tried to change his sex with a selfamputation. He told a couple of fine stories about alcoholics. When Roberts left an hour later, he felt some better. He thought now that perhaps he could sleep: it was after eleven. He went up and turned in.

3

BUT he couldn’t sleep. Langston snored lustily in the top bunk and Roberts lay and studied the lights of the island circled in the porthole. At first he tried to keep his thoughts centered on neutral, tranquil things; but soon, like a car with a locked steering gear, they ran helplessly out of control and he was back again with his own conflict and thinking again of the war and the victory. He was thinking now of the celebrating cities, of the celebrating cities that had known the war. There were snake dances through the streets of Rome, they said. He tried to see Rome but he couldn’t make it convincing.

London he could see very well; the parading regiments and the intimately cheering crowds and the grinning soldiers and the officers weaving just a little as they marched. The pubs would be absolute madhouses and the beer would be passed back over the heads of the mob to be spilled or drunk before it ever got beyond the third row, and everybody would laugh and nobody would give a damn and ‘way at the back someone would shout despairingly for his beer. And naked girls would appear at the balcony windows of hotel rooms and call happy things down to the streets, and then arms would appear and drag them laughing and squealing back into the rooms. It would be like that in all the cities that had a stake in this day; pushing, shouting, fighting, drinking, love-making; all personal identities frenziedly submerged in the shining common identity of a fabulous victory.

Roberts saw all these things in separate scenes, as though they were changing slides of a stereoscope. And now, suddenly, the series of the tumultous cities clicked out and in its place came a very different scene. Roberts recognized its origin as a picture in Life magazine. (My knowledge of the war comes straight from Life, he thought ironically.) There was a field in France and a farmer was harrowing this field, walking behind the harrow. The furrowed rows were very straight, except in the middle of the field, where they broke and gave way for the mounded grave of a British Tommy. It looked like lovely country, green with trees, with the soft haze of distant hills in the background. The rows of the harrow detoured for just the area of the grave and then they ran on straight and unswerving. It was that way the war had moved off and left the Tommy, too. The grave looked lonely in the bright sunshine.

The dead, Roberts mused — what could you say for the dead of this war? What could you really say? Well, there were a lot of things you could say automatically and without thought, but they were all the wrong things; and just this once, just this one war anyhow, let us try to say true things about the dead. Begin by canceling the phrase “our honored dead,” for that is not true: we forget them; we do not honor them except in rhetoric, and the phrase is the badge of those who want something of the dead. If the dead of this war must have a mutual encomium, then let it be “poor dead bastards.” There is at least a little humanity in that.

Sleep was out of the question. Roberts sat up suddenly, rubbed his eyes. Langston snored above him in a perfect monotone. He got up and in the dark put on his clothes. He bumped against the coaster chair and made a noise, but there was no hitch in Langston’s breathing. Roberts went out and down the ladder to the quarterdeck. It was a cool night with a little breeze blowing, and overhead there were patches of clouds. Over on the island the lights burned their night vigil. Tonight, perhaps because it was a cool night for sleeping, there were no late-talking groups sitting about on deck. Roberts couldn’t see another soul on deck. He started walking up and down on the quarterdeck.

V-E Day aboard the Reluctant, he composed, was observed quietly, without ostentatious display, and with a grim awareness of the still unfinished Pacific war. Appropriately, the ship’s company marked the great day in restrained but distinctive fashion. Lieutenant Carney and Lt. (jg) Margrave, swept up in the spirit of the moment, played a game of aceydeucey in the wardroom. Lt. (jg) Langston observed the day by retiring at nine instead of ten, and by sleeping a little more soundly than usual. Ensign Pulver was moved to the extent of rigging a portable fan at the foot of his bunk. The gruff but lovable old Captain couldn’t quite conceal an unusual generousness of spirit, placing only twelve men on report during a fifteen-minute period. But in these small though significant ways it was, for the Reluctant, just another work day on the road to Tokyo.

And all of a sudden Roberts had to do something. And it had to be against the Captain: it had to be. This thing was suddenly just as obligatory and inevitable as his next breath; and just the thought of it was like a door opening out of prison. And he knew right away what to do. The Captain’s palm tree. The Captain kept a small palm tree in a painted fivegallon can on the wing of his bridge, and it was the joy of his life. With slow, deadly certainty Roberts walked up to the boat deck and out on the Captain’s wing. There, in the corner, was the palm tree. It was very dark and he couldn’t hear anyone moving about on the bridge overhead. He jerked the palm out by the roots and threw it over the side. Then he took the can and scattered the loose earth about on the deck. Then he put the can down and went around aft of the house. Already he felt worlds better, but still there was something undone. And immediately that thing was revealed to him too.

Automatically he recalled the Captain’s obsessional hatred of noise, particularly noise at night, particularly noise in the area of his cabin. He went down to the cabin deck and found what he wanted. It was a gangway stanchion, about the size of a baseball bat, and solid metal. He went up to the port wing of the Captain’s bridge and calculated. The Captain’s bedroom was just inside, and the Captain slept athwartships. The head of his bunk was right against this bulkhead. Roberts figured: it was about three feet off the deck; it was right about here. He swung the stanchion with all his strength against the bulkhead. Then he swung a second time and a third. The blows shook the house like an explosion.

Roberts placed the stanchion carefully at the Captain’s door, walked calmly down the ladder and around the house, and returned to his own room by the starboard ladder. He undressed carefully and got into bed.

Langston was awake and sitting up dazedly. “What the hell was that noise?” he mumbled.

Roberts pulled the sheet up to his chin. “I didn’t hear any noise,” he said. And then he added, “But I do now.” He could hear the screaming voice of the Captain, and the opening of doors, and the scurrying of many feet, as of quartermasters and messengers running down from the bridge. They were wonderfully pleasant noises. Roberts listened to them for several minutes, until he fell asleep.

4

THE Captain’s palm tree must have held for him a symbolism or complex sentimental value far exceeding that of its mere eye appeal, which was negligible. It must have, else how could you account for his reaction to its sabotage? The Captain’s reaction was violent. It was roughly ten minutes past eight in the morning when he stepped out on the wing of his boat deck and discovered the loss. Immediately he let out a bellow for poor little Cornwall, his steward’s mate. He pointed fiercely at the loose earth strewn about the empty and overturned five-gallon can. “Don’t touch that!” he shouted at the bewildered Cornwall. “Don’t let anybody near that!” It is hard to say just what his purpose might have been: perhaps in the first minutes of his grief and righteous wrath the Captain thought to make a shrine of the scene of vandalism. At any rate, later in the day he made Cornwall sweep up the mess.

Then the Captain bounded up the ladder to the bridge. His face was stained deep purple as he lurched toward the microphone of the public address system. He had a moment of furious trouble with the switches and buttons, and then his amplified and unmistakable voice startled the morning peace.

Awakening was for the crew of the Reluctant an unusually gradual process. It began feebly at six o’clock when Chief Johnson held reveille. It continued at seven when a majority of the crew actually got up and began to move dazedly about. Usually it was ten o’clock or thereabouts when the process was completed. The Captain materially speeded things up this morning. His voice came to the crew like a douse of ice water: —

“All right now, goddamit, listen to this. Some smart bastard has been up here and thrown my palm tree over the side, and last night he was getting smart and pounding on my bulkhead. Now I’m telling you by God right here and now I’m going to find out who done that if I have to tear this ship upside down doing it. There’s going to be a general court-martial for the fellow who did that! Now if you know anyone who had anything to do with it, you better get up here and tell me. That’s your duty by God — that’s your duty. I can tell you right here and now that there won’t be any liberty on board of this here ship until I find the bastard who’s been getting so goddam smart!”

This was substantially the text of the Captain’s address. The delivered version was actually longer, but then it tended toward repetition and, in the end, incoherence. The crew listened at first with shock, then with wonder, and finally with conspicuous joy. “Hay, did ya hear that?” they shouted at one another. “Somebody threw the old man’s tree over the side!” All of a sudden it was a wonderful day, and every man on the ship was instantaneously wide awake. Down in the compartment men guffawed and slapped each other on the back. There was less evident rejoicing out on deck, under the Captain’s eye, but it was there just the same. The threat of restriction depressed no one, for this was a crew of realists, all of whom knew that the ship wasn’t going anywhere near another liberty port. It would have been hard to give them anything nicer than the Captain’s news.

After addressing the crew, the Captain summoned Mr. LeSueur, the executive officer, and addressed him for fifteen minutes. The pitch and volume of the Captain’s voice were high. It was reported he told Mr. LeSueur that if he didn’t find who threw his tree over the side and pounded on his bulkhead, by God he’d put him, Mr. LeSueur, in hack for ten days! He ordered Mr. LeSueur to send a boat ashore to dig up two small palm trees and return with them. He further ordered Mr. LeSueur to set a watch on the starboard wing of the boat deck from sunset until 8:00 A.M. The sole duty of the watch would be to guard the two palm trees, and God help them if they went to sleep!

The Captain had a busy morning. After Mr. LeSueur he summoned and received a series of visitors. It was shrewdly noted that they were crew members who had been consistently civil to him. Undoubtedly the Captain reasoned that civility constituted loyalty, and that these were his friends. All these visitors reported the same thing: that he had tried to pump them for information. All of them told that the old man had cocked his head and coyly assured them that he had a damn good idea who it was and that by God he’d fix him. And all of them agreed that the Captain hadn’t the foggiest idea which one of his 180-odd enemies had struck.

The Captain wasn’t the only one who was curious. The entire ship’s company was excited over this unrevealed hero in its midst. It was avid to locate him and do him honor. Little thoughtful groups gathered throughout the day and among them every name on the ship’s roster was carefully considered for motive and potentiality. The only man entirely free of suspicion was Whipple, the storekeeper, who lay in sick bay with his broken leg hanging by weights and pulleys from the overhead. There was no agreement among the investigating groups, although certain names were mentioned more often than others. Schlemmer, the signalman, was one active candidate and Dolan, the quartermaster, was another. But the crew was frankly baffled.

The really smart boys in the crew figured it must have been an officer. An officer, they reasoned, had both greater opportunity and larger motive. These speculators were of course getting warm, but they never really got hot. They mentioned Lieutenant Roberts as a possibility, but they deferred him to Ensign Pulver and Lt. (jg) Pauley. This was done because both Pulver and Pauley had a history of fierce and vocal threats against the Captain. Roberts never wasted his time that way. The smart boys finally settled on Pulver as their man, chiefly because he was so disarmingly unconvincing in denying his guilt. Ensign Pulver was flattered pink at the charge, and until the real one stepped forward he was entirely willing to be the interim culprit. He went around all day being disgustingly coy.

5

DOWDY, the boatswain’s mate, and Olson, the firstclass gunner’s mate, and Stefanowski, the machinist’s mate, met as usual that evening in the armory. They spent a very quiet, happy, and domestic time. For a long while they sat and digested the rich news of the Captain’s misfortune. Then Dowdy and Olson settled down to an accy-deucey game; Stefanowski went over to the phonograph and played Gene Autry records. At midnight Dolan, the quartermaster, came in. He had just come off watch and he had thoughtfully acquired some eggs from the galley on his way down. He got out the hot plate, got out tho frying pan, and put the eggs on.

Stefanowski looked up from his records. “I hear you threw the old man’s tree over the side,” he greeted.

“No, I didn’t,” said Dolan. He had a thoughtful look as he watched the eggs. “But I know who did,” he added quietly.

Both Dowdy and Olson looked up from their game. “Yeah?” said Olson.

Dolan nodded slowly. “Roberts did it,” he said. “Mister Roberts. I was on watch on the bridge and I heard this splash and I saw him. He was just taking his time.”

Dowdy and Olson and Stefanowski looked at each other. “Well I’ll be damned,” said Dowdy. “Are you kidding?”

Dolan was dead serious. “No, I ain’t kidding. I saw him.” He added fiercely, “Now goddamit that’s just between the four of us. I ain’t told nobody. You go spreading that around and you’ll get him in trouble.”

“Yeah,” agreed Dowdy, “we’ll have to keep it quiet.” He grinned suddenly and pushed back from the acey-deucey board. “Old Roberts,” he said admiringly. “That’s all right! By God you might of known he done it!”

Stefanowski smacked the workbench. “ You goddam right! He must be the guy that pounded hell out of the old man’s bulkhead, too. Man, he done a good day’s work!”

Dolan said: “That is one damned good officer! That really is.” He looked at the others for agreement.

Dowdy nodded with heavy authority. ”I know I ain’t never seen a better one.” He turned to Olson. “How about you, Tom?” Dowdy and Olson were the two old-time Navy men on the ship and the final authorities on naval matters.

“No, I ain’t,” said Olson.

Stefanowski was quiet for a decent moment. Then he said, “Well, all I say is, Roberts ought to have a medal for what he did. That was sure a hell of a fine job!”

“Hell, yes,” agreed Dolan. “Any guy that would fix the old man up like that ought to have a medal.”

There was a little quiet moment while Dowdy eyed the other three strangely. Then he said with an air of great decision, “All right, let’s give him a medal.”

“What?” said Stefanowski.

“Let’s give him a medal.”

“Where you going to get it?” Stefanowski asked doubtfully.

Dowdy said scathingly, “You got a lathe down there in the machine shop, haven’t you?”

“ Yeah,” said Stefanowski, and there was the dawn of excitement in his voice.

“And you got plenty of sheet brass, haven’t you?”

Stefanowski got it now. “Yeah,” he said excitedly. “Hell, yes!”

“Well, all right!” Dowdy said triumphantly. “What more do you want?”

At four o’clock next afternoon Lieutenant Roberts sat in his room talking with Lt. (jg) Langston, his roommate. It had been a busy day, unloading dry stores onto barges, and Roberts had been out on deck since six o’clock. He was very tired and he sat in the coaster chair and contemplated a shower while he half listened to Langston describing a Texas snake hunt. There was a knock on the casing of the opened door and Dowdy and Olson and Dolan and Stefanowski stood in the passageway.

“Come in,” Roberts called. The four filed inside. Stefanowski was holding a small green box.

Dowdy spoke: “Could we see you a minute, Mr. Roberts?” He looked significantly over at Langston.

Roberts smiled. “Sure,” he said. And, in answer to Dowdy’s look, “That’s all right.”

Stefanowski passed the box to Dowdy. Dowdy shuffled a moment and looked again doubtfully at Langston. Then he went ahead. “ Well, Mr. Roberts, we just wanted to give you this.” He handed the box to Roberts.

Roberts looked puzzledly at the box. He looked at the four awkward, embarrassed men. Then, smiling quizzically, he opened the box.

It was a nice box and it had been floored with cotton. On the cotton, very bright, lay a strange device. It was a medal cut of shining brass in the shape of a full-grown palm tree with overhanging fronds. Secured at the back of the medal was a piece of gorgeous silk, blue and red and yellow, with a safety-pin clasp. The palm tree was embedded in a rectangular base, and words had been painstakingly cut with a drill press into this base. Lieutenant Roberts read the words: —

ORDER OF THE PALM
TO LIEUT. D. A. ROBERTS, FOR ACTION AGAINST
THE ENEMY, ABOVE AND BEYOND THE CALL OF DUTY,
ON THE NIGHT OF 9 MAY 1945

Roberts looked at the medal a long time. Then he smiled and passed the medal over to Langston.

“That’s very nice,” he said to Dowdy, “but I’m afraid you’ve got the wrong man.”

He and Dowdy looked deeply at each other, and Dowdy grinned. “Yessir,” Dowdy said. “We know that, Mr. Roberts, but we’d kind of like you to have it anyhow, sir.”

The smile on Roberts’s face was funny and tight. He pinched the bridge of his nose. “All right,” he said, “I’ll keep it. Thanks very much, all of you.”

All four were grinning proudly. “Oh, that’s nothing,” Dowdy said. “Stefanowski here made it down in the shop.”

“It’s a fine job,” Roberts complimented.

“Yessir, we think it is,” Dowdy said. The four stood awkwardly in the door, “ Well — ” said Dowdy. The four started out and then Dolan turned in the doorway and blurted: “There ain’t nobody that knows anything about this but us, Mr. Roberts. About the medal, I mean. Stefanowski, he didn’t let anybody see it while he was cutting it.”

“That’s fine,” Roberts said, “but it doesn’t matter.” He wanted to say something else, something of appreciation, but before he could form the words the group was gone from the doorway.

“Now I’ve got a medal to show my grandchildren,” he said pensively to Langston.

Langston passed the medal to him. “Did you take care of the palm tree?” he asked curiously.

“I must have,” Roberts said softly; and he smiled that funny twisted smile again. He took the box in his hands and looked at the medal and at the absurd ribbon, read again the words so painstakingly cut; and for the first time in perhaps fifteen years he felt like crying.