Earl's daddy was a sharp-dressed man.
Each morning he shaved carefully with a well-stropped razor, buttoned a clean, crackly starched white shirt, tied a black string tie in a bow knot. Then he pulled up his suspenders and put on his black suit coat -- he owned seven Sunday suits, and he wore one each day of his adult life no matter the weather, all of them black, heavy wool from the Sears, Roebuck catalogue -- and slipped a lead-shot sap into his back pocket, buckled on his Colt Peacemaker and his badge, slipped his Jesus gun inside the cuff of his left wrist, adjusted his large black Stetson, and went to work sheriffing Polk County, Arkansas.
But at this particular moment Earl remembered the ties. His father took pride in his ties, tying them perfectly, so that the knot was square, the bows symmetrical and the two ends equal in length. "Always look your best," he'd say, more than once, with the sternness that expressed his place in the world. "Do your best, look your best, be your best. Never let up. Never let go. Live by the Book. That's what the Lord wants. That's what you must give."
So one of the useless things Earl knew too much about -- how to clear the jam on a Browning A-3 when it choked with volcanic dust and the Japs were hosing the position down would be another -- was the proper tying of a bow tie.
And the bow tie he saw before him, at the throat of a dapper little man in a double-breasted cream-colored suit, was perfectly tied. It was clearly tied by a man who loved clothes and knew clothes and took pleasure in clothes. His suit fitted him well and there was no gap between his collar and the pink flesh of his neck nor between his starched white shirt and the lapel and collar of his cream jacket. He was a peppy, friendly little man, with small pink hands and a down-homey way to him that Earl knew well from his boyhood: it was a farmer's way, a barber's way, a druggist's way, maybe the feed store manager's way, friendly yet disciplined, open so far and not any farther.
"You know," Harry Truman said to him, as Earl stared uncertainly not into the man's powerful eyes behind his rimless glasses, but at the perfect knot of his bow tie, and the perfect proportioning of the twin loops at either end of it, and the one unlooped flap of fabric, in a heavy silk brocade, burgundy, with small blue dots across it, "I've said this many a time, and by God I will say it again. I would rather have won this award than hold the high office I now hold. You boys made us so proud with what you did. You were our best and you never, ever let us down, by God. The country will owe you as long as it exists."
Earl could think of nothing to say, and hadn't been briefed on this. Remarks, in any case, were not a strong point of his. On top of that, he was more than slightly drunk, with a good third of a pint of Boone County bourbon spread throughout his system, giving him a slightly blurred perspective on the events at which he was the center. He fought a wobble that was clearly whiskey-based, swallowed, and tried to will himself to remain ramrodded at attention. No one would notice how sloshed he was if he just kept his mouth closed and his whiskey breath sealed off. His head ached. His wounds ached. He had a stupid feeling that he might grin.
"Yes, sir, First Sergeant Swagger," said the president, "you are the best this country ever brought forth." The president seemed to blink back a genuine tear. Then he removed a golden star from a jeweler's box held by a lieutenant colonel, stepped forward and as he did so unfurled the star's garland of ribbon. Since he was smallish and Earl, at six one, was largish, he had to stretch almost to tippy-toes to loop the blue about Earl's bull neck.
The Medal of Honor dangled on the front of Earl's dress blue tunic, suspended on its ribbon next to the ribbons of war displayed across his left breast, five Battle Stars, his Navy Cross, his Unit Citations and his Good Conduct Medal. Three service stripes dandied up his lower sleeves. A flashbulb popped, its effect somewhat confusing Earl, making him think ever so briefly of the Nambu tracers, which were white-blue unlike our red tracers.
Hot Springs, A Novel by Stephen Hunter. © June, 2000 , Stephen Hunter. Used by permission.
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