A Marine captain solemnized the moment by reading the citation: "For gallantry above and beyond the call of duty, First Sergeant Earl Lee Swagger, Able Company, First Battalion, Twenty-eighth Marines, Fifth Marine Division, is awarded the Medal of Honor for actions on Iwo Jima, D plus three, at Charlie-Dog Ridge, February 22, 1945."
Behind the president Earl could see Howlin' Mad Smith and Harry Schmidt, the two Marine generals who had commanded the boys at Iwo, and next to them James Forrestal, secretary of the navy, and next to him Earl's own pretty if wan wife, Erla June, in a flowered dress, beautiful as ever, but slightly overwhelmed by all this. It wasn't the greatness of the men around her that scared her, it was what she saw still in her husband's heart.
The president seized his hand and pumped it and a polite smattering of applause arose in the Map Room, as it was called, though no maps were to be seen, but only a lot of old furniture, as in his daddy's house. The applause seemed to play off the walls and paintings and museumlike hugeness of the place. It was July 30, 1946. The war was over almost a year. Earl was no longer a Marine. His knee hardly worked at all, and his left wrist ached all the time, both of which had been struck by bullets. He still had close to thirty pieces of metal in his body. He had a pucker like a mortar crater on his ass -- the 'Canal. He had another pucker in his chest, just above his left nipple -- Tarawa, the long walk in through the surf, the Japs shooting the whole way. He worked in the sawmill outside Fort Smith as a section foreman. Sooner or later he would lose a hand or an arm. Everyone did.
"So what's next for you, First Sergeant?" asked the president. "Staying in the Corps? I hope so."
"No sir. Hit too many times. My left arm don't work so good."
"Damn, hate to lose a good man like you. Anyhow, there's plenty of room for you. This country's going to take off, you just watch. Just like the man said, You ain't seen nothing yet, no sir and by God. Now we enter our greatness and I know you'll be there for it. You fought hard enough."
"Yes sir," said Earl, too polite to disagree with a man he admired so fervently, the man who'd fried the Jap cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and saved a hundred thousand American boys in the process.
But disagree he did. He couldn't go back to school on this thing they called the GI Bill. He just couldn't. He could have no job selling or convincing. He could not teach because the young were so stupid and he had no patience, not anymore. He couldn't work for a man who hadn't been in the war. He couldn't be a policeman because the policemen were like his daddy, bullies with clubs who screamed too much. The world, so wonderful to so many, seemed to have made no place in it for him.
"By the way," said the president, leaning forward, "that bourbon you're drinking smells fine to me. I don't blame you. Too many idiots around to get through the day without a sip or two. This is the idiot capital of the world, let me tell you. If I could, if I didn't have to meet with some committee or other, I'd say, come on up to the office, bring your pint, and let's have a spell of sippin'!"
He gave Earl another handshake, and beamed at him with those blue eyes so intense they could see through doors. But then in a magic way, men gently moved among them and seemed to push the president this way, and Earl that. Earl didn't even see who was sliding him through the people, but soon enough he was ferried to the generals, two men so strong of face and eye they seemed hardly human.
"Swagger, you make us proud," one said.
"First Sergeant, you were a hell of a Marine," said the other. "You were one goddamned hell of a Marine, and if I could, I'd rewrite the regs right now and let you stay in. It's where you belong. It's your home."
Hot Springs, A Novel by Stephen Hunter. © June, 2000 , Stephen Hunter. Used by permission.
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