At four o’clock next afternoon, Lieutenant Roberts sat in his room talking with Lieutenant (jg) Langston, his room-mate. It had been a busy day, unloading dry stores on to 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 jamb 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 wool. On the cotton wool, very bright, lay a strange device. It was a medal cut out of shining brass in the shape of a full-grown palm tree with overhanging fronds. Fastened at the back of the medal was a piece of gorgeous silk, blue and red and yellow, secured at the other end to 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. D. ROBERTS, FOR ACTION AGAINST
THE ENEMY, ABOVE AND BEYOND THE CALL
OF DUTY, ON THE NIGHT OF 8 MAY, 1945
Roberts looked at the medal for 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’ 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 quietly to Langston.
Langston passed the medal back. “Did you take care of the palm tree?” he asked curiously.
“I must have,” Roberts said softly; and he smiled again that funny twisted smile. 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.