Medal in the Sky

LEO RoSTEN writes under two signatures — his own and Leonard Q. Ross, under which he wrote the ever-popular, The Education of H*y*m*a*n K*a*p*l*a*n. Mr. Rosten has taught at Yale, is faculty associate at Columbia University, and was deputy director of the Office of War Information. In 1945 he was sent to Europe on a special mission for the Secretary of War. He has written Hollywood: The Movie Colony; The Movie Makers; The Washington Correspondents; and many movies, notably Walk East on Beacon; Sleep, My Love; and The Dark Corner. He recently won the George Polk Memorial Award for his article,Is Fear Destroying Our Freedom?” and is editor of A Guide to the Religions of America.

by LEO ROSTEN

REUBEN TODD was a soft boy, with a silken voice and eyes like glowing candles. The fact that he could lift 400 pounds with ease had nothing to do with his inner soul, which was plastic as a child’s. His head was small and beautifully formed; his skin — blue-black — glistened in any light. He spent most of his time in Ward 8 sitting on the edge of his bed, putting his bathrobe on or taking it off. Sometimes he would do this all day long. When Lieutenant Sally, the chief nurse, first asked him why he did this, he told her, “Might get me home this very day, might get me off real far away.” His sentences often turned out in rhyme.

Ruby was brought to the base hospital one day when the sun was showing off with an inferno of heat that made Coke bottles droop out of shape on the airfield. Ruby had gone AWOL, and when the MPs found him finally, sitting barefooted under a cottonwood tree some four miles from the post, all he said was something about a medal in the sky; it sounded like jabberwocky and Ruby had a strange, euphoric smile, so they sent him to Ward 8. The first thing Ruby said when Captain Jarvis, assistant chief of the neuropsychiatric ward, interviewed him was this: “Cap’n, could you be a good gennuman and lend me some money?”

“Ruby, you know that officers aren’t allowed to lend money to soldiers.”

“Oh, I know that. But ‘tain’t much money.”
“How much money are you thinking of, Raley?”
“Three-four cents.”

“What do you want it for?" asked Jarvis.
“Ah want t’ go shoppin’,”said Ruby.

Ruby had been assigned to a work crew on the great white cement field where the planes took off and landed all day long. He loved to wash the planes down — but he would often “disremember “ what he had been told to do and would wander around, instead, in mild disorientation. He usually ended up in the precious shade of a cottonwood tree, where he would sit down, take his shoes off, hunch his back against the trunk, and give himself a good talking-to. “Now, Ruby,” he would say, “you jest put that haid t’ work and try to ‘member what that nice white gennuman tole you t’ do. C’mon, Ruby. Ain’t gonna move them feet one speck ‘til you do. What that nice white gennuman tole you, Ruby? What he said?”

Sometimes he would sit under the tree all day long, his shoes off, his naked toes wriggling in the sand or earth; and when an MP patrol would find him — sometimes on the edge of the field, sometimes four or five miles from our installation — and would ask what in the goddam hell had happened, Ruby would sigh, “Ah got t’ thinkin’ o’ my Aunt Sooky an’ fust thing you know, here Ah was.”

He often talked about a medal in the sky and expressed the liveliest interest in who was going to be awarded it. When officers pressed Ruby for details, he would chuckle and refuse to answer.

After Ruby was sent to Ward 8, Captain Newman gave him the briefest of intelligence exams. “Ruby, I’m going to ask you some questions — simple questions. I want you to think carefully and answer carefully. I’m going to write your answers on this piece of paper.”

“Oh, my,” Ruby sighed. “You lettin’ yo’self in for a big disappointment, Cap’n.”

Newman smiled. “What’s your full name?”

“Reuben Todd Blessby God.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“That’s what ole Aunt Sooky calls me, sence Ah been a babe in the ohrange box. Ah’ll say it easylike so’s you can write it down: Reuben Todd, blessed by God.”

“You must have been a happy baby.”

“Oh, Ah still am, Cap’n,” said Ruby solemnly.

“What’s your father’s name, Ruby?”

“He ain’t got no name.”

“You mean he’s dead?”

“That’s what Ah do mean, Cap’n. Daid folks got no name.”

“Well, what was his name?”

“Oh, he was name o’ Ebenezer. But no use writin’ that down, Cap’n. No one ever call him that. Write down what people call him: ‘Pokey.’”

“And your mother?”

“Mah mammy?” Ruby brought a sigh up from his deepest depths. “Mah poh Mammy. Me an’ three mo’ chillun she had an’ then she die, too.”

“I’m sorry.”

“No need you bein’ sorry, Cap’n. ‘Twas ‘most eighteen years back.”

“What was her name?”

“Rachel. God bless Rachel Todd.” Ruby’s face darkened. “Those three. Them was the wild ones. Hated them and they hated me. Them was the ones sent mah Mammy to a early grave.”

“Who raised you, Ruby?”

“Nobody raise me, Cap’n. Ah done raise m’self.”

“Well, whom did you live with?”

“M’ Aunt Sooky.”

“ Where does she live?”

“Where she live? Why, Cap’n, Ah jest got to laugh. She live where she al’ays live. Down Aunt Sooky’s way.”

“And where is that?”

“You want me t’ tell you how t’ git thair?”

N-no,”said Newman. “ I just want to write something on this form.”

“Well, you jest write anythin’ you fancy, Cap’n, an’ Ah’ll back up every scratch o’ yo’ pencil.”

“Did you go to school, Ruby?”

Ruby knitted his brows. “You want me t’ tell you how t’ git to Aunt Sooky’s?”

“All right.”

Ruby leaned forward with a pleased air and pointed out of the window. “When you leave by yonder gate, don’ turn right and don’ turn left. Jest go straight, like a crow do fly. Then you meets a bridge, crosses that irrigatin’ canal. Thair’s where you got t’ be sharp, Cap’n. Don’ go straight and don’ go left. Jest go right. You go right ‘t. that thair place and keep goin’ day an’ night an’ you’ll fine yo’self praekly ‘t Aunt Sooky’s door.”

Newman put his pen down and filled his pipe. An AT-1 trainer, far off, began to cough and sputter in the sky. Newman hoped the boy would make it. “Did you work for Aunt Sooky, Ruby?”

“Ah done chohs an’ run errands sence Ah been able t’ spit.”

“Did you always work for Aunt Sooky?”

“Oh, no, Cap’n. Ah was a cow-boy.”

“A what?”

“A cow-boy, Cap’n; jest like’t sound.”

“In Mississippi?”

“Why sho’, Cap’n, we got cow-boys same’s everplace ilse.”

Newman rubbed his chin. “Ruby, exactly what did you do as a cowboy?”

“Well, that was by Mistah an’ Miss Fairabee. Aly, they was gcnnul folk. House like God’s mansion an’ chill un white as snow. Ah was mahty happy thair, Cap’n, for all them days.” His mouth was pink and coral when he laughed. “Mah goo’ness, Ah’d do the dishes an’ mop the floh, Ah’d clean the silver an’ wax the dohs. Then, when m’ work was folded, Ah’d take me out in the pasture an’ set thair an’ Ah’d pat them cows. Yes, suh, Cap’n, Ah was a right good cow-boy.”

After Ruby left, Captain Newman telephoned Major Hornaday. Ward 8 was entirely filled and since Ruby presented no real problem to anyone (except the MPs), Newman suggested that Ruby be transferred to work closer to his barracks, to some task that imposed no strain on the intelligence.

Ruby was put on permanent latrine duty. It did not interfere with either his euphoria or his meanderings. He kept wandering around the grounds or off the post, missing for hours at a time; and if the MPs didn’t find him, he would fall asleep wherever he was and sleep through the night and start wandering again the next day.

2

ONE Saturday night, after a prolonged search through the nearby town, they found Ruby sleeping in a chicken coop with the chickens all around him. The MPs loaded him into an open truck with six drunken soldiers and started back to camp. Two armed MPs were in the back of the truck with the men. One of the drunks, a North Dakotan named Stoker, began an altercation with the guards and, as the truck tore down the road, tried to grab his truncheon from one of them. The MP began to beat Stoker on the head. Ruby cried, “Oh, no, no, please don’, please don’ hit that white boy!” A second drunk leaped up and began to hit the MP, and the MP kicked him in the stomach and the other MP hit him on the head. “No, no, no, please, no, no, no!” Ruby cried, and burst into tears. Two men jumped into the fracas and the MPs laid about them with their truncheons, and suddenly Ruby — weeping and shouting — picked up an MP in each of his powerful hands and began to beat their heads together, pounding them like coconuts. He beat one guard into unconsciousness and broke the nose and jaw of the other before the driver stopped the truck and got in the back with another MP who had been riding in the cab, and they beat Ruby into insensibility.

They treated Ruby’s wounds in Emergency and then threw him into the guardhouse, where he wept all night and began to babble in jabberwocky. The next day they marched him to Ward 8 again.

Ruby stood before Captain Newman’s desk with his head hung low and an expression in which pain and self-reproach hung like owls. He had a patch on his head, a frightful purple bruise across his right check; his eyes were bloodshot and pulled up, and his nose looked scarred and raw.

“Well, Ruby,” Captain Newman sighed, “why did you do it?”

“Ah don’ know, Cap’n,” Ruby whined. “ Ah’m so ashame’ o’ ole Ruby, Ah don’ know what to say.”

“Did you know that one of the MPs you beat up is still in the hospital?”

“Oh, my. Ah ain’t mad — at him or any them other gennumen Ah had this set-to with. They’s fine gennumen, Cap’n. Ah’d like to shake thair hands right now. Ah’d give ‘em mah hand in fraindliness fo’ good, ‘cause Ah don’ mean no harm to no one.”

“Sit down, Ruby.” Newman held the pack of cigarettes out and Ruby took one with a pleased look. “Why did you do it, son?”

“It was the beatin’. That beatin’ they was givin’ that thair other white gennuman. Oh, oh, ‘t was tairrible t’ see. Ah begged ‘em t’ stop but they keep right on hittin’ an’ kickin’ an’ makin’ the blood go. All Ah truly do is pick ‘em up an’ knock their haids t’gether — like Aunt Sooky taught me—t’ make them stop. Thass all. Ah jest knocked and knocked—” He stopped as illumination struck him. “Ah guess thass what Ah did wrong. Ah fergot when to stop. Ah knocked and knocked and they stopped.”

3

AT FIRST Ruby loved Ward 8: he loved the clean white sheets and the cooling fans, the lazy living and indulgent regimen. But bit by bit the luster left his eyes, and his spirits sank and he grieved. He missed the open field and the healing sun, the cottonwood trees and their dancing shade, the sand and earth between his naked toes. He missed the touch of the planes’ wings and the droning sound of grasshoppers. He began sitting on the edge of his bed, taking off his bathrobe and putting it on, all day long, saying, “Any minute now Ruby goin’ home; got to be raidy for Hallelujah’s phone.”Even Lieutenant Sally, whom he adored, could not restore the luster of his laugh or his elfin smile.

Captain Newman knew there was not much he could do for Ruby Todd — except get him a discharge. And this he set into motion, requesting a hearing. And Ruby, who somehow heard about this from the amazing grapevine that ran through every nook and cranny of the installation, began to perk up. Every morning when Captain Newman entered the ward, Ruby would hail him with a smile. “Who’s gwina git that medal in the sky? Who’s gwina git that medal you can’t see or touch? ”

Newman thought up a new answer every day. No matter what answer Newman gave, so long as it was unexpected, Ruby would shake his head in admiration and chortle with glee. “Man, oh, man, jest lissun t’ ole Doc today.” Or, “Doc’s sure cookin’ with gas this mornin’.” The answer Ruby considered his favorite was “Satchel Paige,” until Newman answered one morning, when his brain was tired and he found no inspiration in duty’s round, “Ruby.”

Who’s gwina git that medal in the sky, Cap’n?”

“Ruby!”

“Who, Cap’n, who?” Ruby asked in excitement.

“You,” Newman said. “Reuben Todd, blessed by God.” Ruby hugged himself with delight.

The next morning, the moment he awakened, Ruby asked to see Captain Newman. He said, “Ah hate to bother you, Cap’n, but they’s a man you got to do somethin’ about. He keeps follerin’ me round. He jest follerin’ me every place Ah go.”

Newman hesitated. “Which man, Ruby?”

“Oh, Ah don’ know him. We ain’t been introduce.”

“What does he look like, Ruby?”

“He’s a white gennuman, Doc. A officer. Whaireveh Ah go, he follers me. Sometime he send a fraind. They’s three in all — ”

“Three?” asked Newman.

“Ah don’ want no one follerin’ me whairever Ah go.”

“Why are they following you, Ruby?”

“Oh, Ah know why, Cap’n. They tole me. They jest want to shake mah hand. They wants my forgivin’.”

Newman smiled, but it was a smile he put on by intention. “Would you let them shake your hand, Ruby?”

“Ah’s put m’ hand out t’ them a hondred times, if Ah put it out once.”

“And won’t they shake your hand, Ruby?”

“Oh, no, sub. They never do.”

“I wonder why.”

Ruby scratched his cheek and said, very slowly, “Them three is bad, Cap’n, real bad in th’ eyes of the Lawd.”

The Section Eight Board met in Room 109 of the main hospital building, and Private Jackson Laibowitz escorted Ruby over there. All the way over, Ruby kept chortling and making happy comments. “T’omorrow come, Jake, Ah be on m’ way to Aunt, Sooky’s.”

“Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched,” said Laibowitz morosely.

“No, no, I got the Lawd on Ruby’s side.”

“Natch,” said Laibowitz moodily, “but does the Section Eight Board know that?”

4

THE Section Eight Board sat at a long trestle table with a green felt cover on which, before each officer, lay a copy of Captain Newman’s clinical report and recommendation for discharge. From left to right the Board consisted, on this occasion, of Major Howard, who sucked mints; LieutenantColonel Frick, who always perspired; Colonel Wilfred Pyser, presiding officer; Captain Goldmark, who played the flute; and Major Eckers, who was the best bridge player on the post. It was Colonel Pyser whom Captain Newman worried about — a bald, blue-lipped, bird-eyed Iowan who wore a corset to stiffen his posture and a psychic hair-shirt to remind him of the infinite cunning of temptation.

At one end of the table sat Technical Sergeant McKlosky, stenotypist. At the other end sat Captain Newman. Private Reuben Todd slouched before the table, smiling sheepishly, one hand behind his back, the other scratching his neck or cheek or head as the moment moved him. The hearing lasted only six minutes. After the obligatory questions, Newman asked, “Private Todd, who is the President of the United States?”

Ruby looked at Captain Newman in surprise. “Howzat again, Cap’n?”

“I asked, who is our President? What is his name?”

“Oh, him,” Ruby chuckled. “You had me chompin’ thair for a bit, Cap’n. Why, sho’ Ah know that name.” He put his right forefinger under his nose, pursing his lips, and closed his eyes and thought. “Now don’ nobody tell me, cause Ah knows ‘t fine; All’ll get that name, jest give me time.” He shook his head and snapped his fingers, as if to rouse himself, and he kept saying, “All got that name on the tip o’ m’ tongue.” After he said this four or five times, he opened his eyes and sighed, “Ah don’ rightly recollect, Cap’n. Thassa mighty big name, you know. Ah ‘fess mah iggurance.”

Newman glanced at the officers behind the table. Colonel Frick was frowning. Major Howard was slipping a mint into his mouth with a smirk. Captain Goldmark was looking at Ruby with pity. Major Eckers glanced toward Colonel Pyser, waiting for a cue from him, and Colonel Pyser’s face wore the mask of disdain.

“What does the President do?” Newman asked. Ruby snapped his fingers. “ That what you been stretch in’ fo’? Why that fellow, he got a big bookkeepin’job in Washington.”

Captain Goldmark smiled. Major Howard smirked. No expression altered the glacial intractability of Colonel Pyser’s mien.

“Where is Washington?” Newman asked gently.

“Oh, thassa long, long way away, Cap’n. Yes, suh. You cain’t jest put on yo’ walkin’ shoes an’ mosey over thair. No, suh. Why, that place’s as far as Aunt Sooky’s, an’ you know how far Aunt Sooky’s place —”

“Ruby,” Captain Newman cut in, “what is the capital of the United States?”

“The what, Doc?”

“The capital of the United States. The seat of our government. The place where—”

“Downtown,” said Ruby.

Newman glanced at Colonel Pyser. Pyser sat erect and gimlet-eyed. “Ruby,” said Newman, “tell us about the men who keep following you.”

Ruby turned his head to one side, frowning. “Ah don’ like that question, Doc. You know that question do upset me.”

“How many men are there?”

“You know, Cap’n, ‘cause Ah tole you. Three men.”

“What are they doing, Ruby?”

“Oh, oh. They tryin’ t’ put a cuss on me, thass all. Givin’ me no privacy, thass all. Follerin’ me everywhair, an’ breathin’ hard t’ give me miseries. Them’s bad men, Doc, the Devil’s kine, wukkin’ ‘gainst the Lawd t’ git Ruby like they got my Mammy. You tell them to stop thair follerin’ an’ cuss-puttin’ — please, Doc.”

“Where are those three men now?” asked Newman quietly.

Ruby turned and moved his head, slowly surveying the room behind him. “Oh, they’s good at hidin’, they is. They’s jest outside, waitin’, waitin’.”

“Captain Newman,” said Colonel Pyser, “you may proceed to another area.”

“Ah ‘preciate all you doin’, Doc,” said Ruby suddenly.

Newman flushed. “Ruby, what work do you do here?”

Ruby bobbed his head around and laughed. “Thassa funniest one you eveh did ask me, Doc.”

“I see nothing funny about it,” Colonel Pyser snapped. “You will observe military decorum, soldier!”

Ruby’s face fell. “Ah ain’t meanin’ no disrespect, suh.”

“Just answer the question. What work do you do here?”

No work, suh. You gennumen know that. Nobody work in th’ ‘Merican army.”

Colonel Pyser rose, struck the table with his gavel, and said, “Recess. . . . Gentlemen, wait here, please. Newman, may I see you for a moment?” He rose and the others rose and Newman followed Colonel Pyser into the hall, where Pyser turned to him, his lips thin as a dry thread. “What the hell are you trying to put over on us, Newman?”

“Sir?”

“Do you think I’m a horse’s neck? Don’t you think I can spot a rehearsed job when I see one?” “I — ”

“All that crap about men following him. That’s an act, that’s all that is. Who’s the President — Washington — the hell with all that. That man’s got the strength of a Mack truck, Newman! He’s stronger than you or me. Washington keeps screaming about turnover and depletion of the ranks and you want me to discharge a soldier who’d make a helluva good workhand just because he can’t do differential calculus ? ”

“Sir— ” said Newman, trying to control his voice, “that’s not the reason —”

“He’s putting on the cleverest goddam act I ever saw.”

“It isn’t an act, sir. That boy can’t follow an order —”

“He can swing a pick and shovel!”

“— or observe discipline — ”

“Oh, yes, he goddam well can if we stop mollycoddling him.”

“He’s getting paranoid, Colonel!”

Colonel Pyser’s eyes glittered. “Paranoid? That’s what you say, Newman. I’ll get a medical officer who’ll testify he’s just goddam goldbricking. Don’t think you can get a man discharged any time you want just by pulling some fancy language—”

“It’s not a matter of language, sir. This man isn’t fit for military duty. He can’t function properly. He’s gone off his rocker once and put two MPs into the hospital. He’s a sick man, Colonel, a very sick man.”

Colonel Pyser gave a clammy semblance of a grin. “Sick? Newman, get one thing through your head. In this army there are only two kinds of niggers: good niggers and bad niggers. There are no sick niggers. That buck in there is a bad nigger. And I intend to see to it that he turns into either a good nigger or a corpse!” He turned on his heel and started back to the room.

“Colonel!” Newman called sharply.

Colonel Pyser turned.

“May I quote you on that?”

Colonel Pyser’s skin turned the color of dust. “You try that, you son-of-a-bitch, and I’ll have you transferred to the most godforsaken post on the face of the earth.” He went back into the room.

Ruby cried a good deal that night, but Lieutenant Sally fussed over him, and Pepi Gavoni gave him some salami and milk, and Laibowitz taught him how to play Hearts.

The next day Ruby was smiling — secretly, silent. But he wouldn’t talk. Newman made a second request for a Section Eight discharge. By a four to one decision of the Board, the request was deferred “until further observation and further therapy have been diligently attempted.” Captain Goldmark, who voted for discharge, was sent to a training camp twenty miles further out on the desert.

That night, Sergeant Kopp came running into Captain Newman’s office, his face white as a sheet. “Doc. The back yard. Quick.”

Newman followed Kopp through the iron door, onto the sun lounge, out of the back door which Laibowitz was holding open with an expression of dismay, down the back stairs to the enclosure where the hospital sheep (who supplied living blood for Wassermann and agglutination tests) were confined. The sheep were huddled in a corner, baaing and bleating, uneasy in their shallow fright. Not all the sheep, though. In the center of the enclosure, three lay dead. Their throats had been cut. The blood around their heads was like a dark red mounting.

Newman stopped short. Kopp tugged at Newman’s sleeve. In the opposite corner of the yard, against one of the cement posts that supported the weight of Ward 8, Ruby Todd was seated, hunched up, his arms hugging his knees, his face turned to the twilight moon without sadness or joy or any expression whatsoever.

“I asked him why he did it,” said Arkie Kopp, “and he said something about them being the wild ones, the ones who drove his Ma to an early grave.”

Ruby was very quiet for the next week. He would not talk, even to Lieutenant Sally. He sat on the edge of his bed, putting his bathrobe on and taking it off, his brow knit, his eyes lost. When Newman spoke to him, he simply turned his head away and wept.

Then one night, just as Newman was about to leave the ward, Ruby cried out: “Who’s gwina get that medal in the sky? Ah’ll tell you!” He leaped into the aisle, pulling his bathrobe tight, and he bowed to Newman and Lieutenant Sally, and, with a bright and enchanted grin, recited: —

“Ah seen that medal
An’ Ah teched ‘t hard,
Meant for good boys,
An’ come from God.
“No medal for three boys
No medal for two,
No medal for shepherds
Or little Boy Blue.
“Ah got that medal
For Reuben Todd —
That medal, that medal,
That medal from God.”