Benét And The Ensign From Alabama

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Taken aback, he sat down. I turned to page 168. Slowly I began Benét’s tribute to the men Logan had idolized all his life: “Army of Northern Virginia, army of legend,/ Who were your captains that you could trust them so surely?/ Who were your battleflags? Call the shapes from the mist,/ Call the dead men out of the mist and watch them ride./ Tall the first rider, tall with a laughing mouth,/ His long black beard is combed like a beauty’s hair,/ His slouch hat plumed with a curled black ostrich-feather,/ He wears gold spurs and sits his horse with the seat/ Of a horseman born. It is Stuart of Laurel Hill, / ‘ Beauty ’ Stuart, the genius of cavalry …”

“Who wrote that?” Logan asked, staring at me.

“Stephen Vincent Benét.”

“Where does he come from?”

“Pennsylvania. ”

“I can’t believe it.”

But I was not stopping now. There were other captains I wanted Logan to see pass in review; A. P. Hill, Early, and Fitzhugh Lee, Pelham, Joe Johnston, Ewell, Stonewall Jackson. … “And now at last,/ Comes Traveller and his master. Look at them well. … /They bred such horses in Virginia then,/ Horses that were remembered after death/ And buried not so far from Christian ground/ That if their sleeping riders should arise/ They could not witch them from the earth again/ And ride a printless course along the grass …”

Traveller’s master had yet to appear from the mist, but Logan could listen no more. Nor could he speak. He stood up and left the hut abruptly, with the lights still on.

Eighty years and three wars later, this young Southerner was still angry about Appomattox. It took a Yankee poet to change his mind.

The next afternoon Logan was waiting for me outside the debriefing room. He asked if I would lend him the book I had read from the night before. I would be glad to, I said, but warned that I had tricked him a bit in my reading. The book was much more than a hymn to the gallant South. It was the whole history of four tragic years that had left tens of thousands dead and wounded on both sides, freed the slaves, and made us one country again—with no enemy terrain remaining. Would he read it all, I asked, all 333 pages, from beginning to end? He promised he would.

He kept the book well into spring. Before he returned it, my brother (in service by then, and about to go over- seas) had sent me Benét’s Western Star . And by then, too, the poet who had taught me the most about America had died, at age forty-four.

Summer days are long in Iceland, but they passed quickly for those of us in VP-84. That summer the tide turned on the shipping routes. Now the German submarines were the prey, pursued incessantly from the air and sea. By October, when the squadron was recalled to Rhode Island, we were officially credited with three submarine “kills” and two “probables.” The inspired, never-satisfied skipper of the fleet air base in Reykjavík—Comdr. Dan Gallery—told us in parting he hoped we had “paid off ” Counting our losses of five planes and thirty men since San Diego, we hoped we had paid off too.

The day after arriving in Quonset Point, all hands were assembled on the seaplane ramp. In a brief ceremony our commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Staley, announced the squadron was being decommissioned. He praised our efforts against the submarines and wished us all Godspeed; VP-84 was no more.

Some while later, when I was a transport pilot at Naval Air Station Anacostia, I received a letter from Roy Logan. It was mailed in California and reached me shortly before Christmas. In the envelope were a note and a sales slip. The slip, from Newbegin’s bookstore in San Francisco, recorded the purchase of one copy of John Browns Body to be sent to Mrs. Benjamin Logan in Huntsville, Alabama. The note read: “Ev: you’ll be pleased with the present I sent my mother. She’ll think I’m in bad company. But I asked her to read it, from beginning to end, anyway. And now hear this —you can’t order me around anymore. I just made J.G. Good luck, friend. Roy Logan, Lieutenant, Junior Grade, USNR.”

It was Benét who had made the difference in Roy Logan—Benét, plus the only command I ever gave in the United States Navy.