A Sword For A Marine
A Sword For A Marine
Rachel R. Hartman
I don’t really come from a military family. My maternal grandfather was a sergeant in the 32nd Division (“Red Arrow Men”), a maternal great-uncle is an Airborne veteran, but most of my relatives have been Methodist pastors, teachers, and farmers. I didn’t grow up near a military base. Yet somehow after college I began to collect a number of friends who were veterans. A Marine Master Sergeant, who directed the throwing of birdseed at our wedding. A submariner who offered to play bagpipes as I went down the aisle. A few other Navy enlisted. And one Marine captain, whom I’ll simply call Elizabeth.
Elizabeth joined the Marines after college, during the Vietnam period. Her husband served overseas in the Army. One evening many years later, a group of us had gotten together for conversation, and somehow or another, the conversation turned to weddings. Elizabeth was asked if she and her husband had both been in uniform and if both of them had worn their dress swords. Elizabeth’s teeth came visibly on edge, and she explained that she had not gotten her sword because during the Vietnam War, the male officers in the Marine Corps were considered to have a greater need for the dress weapon. As a female Marine serving stateside, she had never received her Mameluke, a weapon every Marine respects as a symbol of their service. Everyone present agreed that this was annoying and unfortunate, and the conversation moved on to other matters.
The next evening, my husband and I went out for supper, and between the sushi and the entrée, we reviewed the previous night's conversation, once again coming to the conclusion that this had been rather stinky and how rotten it was that Elizabeth was still angry about it because the problem had never been fixed.
Then my husband looked at me and asked, "Why don't we get her one?"
And I said, "Well, I do know this catalog that carries them...."
Over the entree we hashed out the plan. We were confident that we could front the cost of the sword, but we also felt that a big present like this is fun when it's from a group of people rather than just a couple. Besides, we could easily picture the reaction of Elizabeth's other friends should we shut them out.
The next day I sat down and sent out an e-mail to ten or so of Elizabeth's friends who I thought would be most willing to participate, laying out the situation, citing the cost of the sword, and asking who wanted to play along. Naturally they all did. We discreetly checked with her husband, who was delighted with the idea as well as the opportunity to help surprise his wife. A few other names were suggested, so that by the time I got around to ordering the sword the following Monday, we had nearly twenty people involved from all parts of the country. This made me confident enough to request FedEx Second-Day shipping.
Other ideas sprang up. We should have it engraved. We should get a sword rack. We should buy chocolate. People started sending me money, more than the suggested donation amount, adding, "If you need more, let me know." Others pledged funds as soon as their next payday arrived. We planned to present the sword to Elizabeth at the big anniversary/birthday party at their house in late October. I sent out a request for recommendations for local engravers.
The box from the manufacturer arrived ... and thus began the first plot complication.
They sent a Navy sword. This is a very pretty weapon, but there was no way I could give this to Elizabeth. I was on the phone to the manufacturer before the bubble wrap had time to hit the floor. Fortunately the nice customer service lady wasted no time in apologizing for their obvious error and promised to send me out a pre-paid UPS label, the better to return the sword.
While the money continued to come in, we started our presentation plans. I claimed the privilege of handing the sword to Elizabeth, but also wanted to make sure that the other co-conspirators attending the party would have parts to play as well. Jody, who had known Elizabeth for many years, relayed to us the tradition of paying for a sword (even a gift sword) with a coin so that you do not pay for it in blood, and so Megan (the birthday girl of the weekend) was tapped to present Elizabeth with a suitable coin. Ruta, who had known Elizabeth even longer than Jody, just happened to have a Kennedy half-dollar from 1968, the year Elizabeth entered the Marines, which we agreed was a suitable coin.
Megan’s mother Beth volunteered a presentation box. John, an Annapolis graduate and Navy veteran, told us about military sword holders and how he could get one. Jody started collecting names for an illuminated scroll that would serve as our gift card, which Lee agreed to read in her best field herald voice.
The right sword, the Mameluke, finally arrived and was as magnificent as I hoped it would be. One Thursday, when I knew Elizabeth would not be attending the usual weekly gathering, I brought it over and let David, an experienced swordsman and weapons-maker, check it out. He pronounced it most excellent and worthy of our favorite Captain. A few other co-conspirators were present and took turns holding it very carefully and making appropriate sounds of awe, mostly with vowels.
Next was getting it engraved. My day job was getting crazy, especially with an unexpected promotion in the works, so Ruta graciously volunteered to handle the engraving part of the project. Supplied with the names of two engravers, both fortunately close to her home, she set out. The first engraver unfortunately declared himself unworthy of the project, but the second engraver was experienced in such things and quoted a reasonable price for the work.
But the sword wasn't the only item to be engraved. Once John had sent me a spiffy official Marine Corps sword holder, we had to get the nameplate engraved. Fortunately Elizabeth was out of state that week, so I called her husband to get Elizabeth's final rank and years of service. He gave me his best recollection, then added, "And if that's wrong, it's still pretty close." We agreed that Elizabeth would be too polite to mention any slipups. So the sword holder nameplate went off with my husband and me one evening to one of the local malls ... and thus began the second plot complication.
Carry-in charge for a non-store item. Okay, I'd figured as much. What I didn't figure on was going back to pick it up, look at the nameplate taped to the order sheet, frowning, and asking, "Is this the right plate?" The text was correct, but something didn’t quite look right to me. We were in a hurry, but as we were in the parking lot heading for the truck, I said to my husband, "I really don't think this is the right plate." The proportions looked wrong and the adhesive backing wasn't as I remembered it. When we got home, I checked the plate against the available space on the holder. I was right; it was wrong. Height wrong, width wrong, proportions wrong ... the only thing right about it was the text. I called the engraving store and slapped the manager's pinkies for trying to pass off a substitute as the original. After several sincere apologies from her, we arranged to return to the store to see what arrangements could be made. The sword holder came along for the ride this time. After searching through the plates she had in stock, the manager had to confess that they didn't have one that was a precise fit ... but they had one that was just a few millimeters off in height, which could be cut down to fit. I agreed that this was an acceptable solution, and left them to it.
In the meantime, John was not content to supply an official Marine Corps sword holder. Oh, no ... he had another surprise in progress, one that he shared with me as a deep secret, lest our fellow conspirators be disappointed it if didn't go through. He had a contact on the staff of the Commandant of Marines, and started the procedure of getting a letter of congratulations written by the Commandant himself, General Jones. Naturally I thanked John for arranging this and told him I'd reimburse him from the collection funds for FedExing it here so it could arrive in time for the party. FedEx's services were indeed required—it arrived at David's house the morning before the party. John thoughtfully scanned the letter for me and e-mailed it so that we would have a backup plan in case FedEx didn't deliver on time. After some thought, I asked Allen to read the letter. John, as I mentioned earlier, is a Navy veteran, and Allen is also a Navy veteran, and since John lived on the East Coast and couldn't make it to the party, and Allen has a nice speaking voice and has known Elizabeth for years, it seemed appropriate that he read the letter.
While the letter was making its way through the Commandant’s office, we began to polish up the presentation choreography. The e-mails were flying, as we knew that there would be no opportunity for any rehearsals. My friend the retired Master Sergeant was brought in as a consultant, and suggested that we open proceedings with the reading of the traditional Marine Corps Birthday message, adding, “I know I’d like it if I were getting a dress sword.” I was never a recruit, and I don’t speak NCO, but I figured that his suggestion should be ranked somewhere between a request and an order. Frankly, I was thankful. The Marine Corps Birthday message would relieve me of the need to write or improvise an introductory speech, it would set the appropriate tone for the occasion, and it would serve to inform those guests who were unaware of Elizabeth’s time of service. Plus reading a speech meant there was a definite beginning and end, which would give my fellow conspirators a better time frame for getting into position. But other matters were not so easily managed. We had originally hoped that the Texas weather would be kind enough to permit us to do the presentation outside, a venue preferable to trying to cram all the guests in the dining room with we conspirators struggling to make our way through the crowd. The week of the anniversary party, however, was one of the wettest weeks of the month, and there was an extremely high probability of rain for the day of the party. I struggled between my wish for a smooth and comfortable presentation and my Texan’s respect for all the rain we could get.
The rain notwithstanding, all the pieces were finally coming together. By Friday evening, we had the engraved sword, the coin, the sword plaque, the illuminated scroll, and the Commandant’s letter.
Saturday morning began earlier than usual. Since Elizabeth was still completely in the dark about her present, she had asked if I would bake some bread to bring to the party. I had no excuse for declining; we had already got to quite elaborate lengths to keep the Mameluke a present, and refusing to bring my usual homemade goodies to the party would’ve been quite out of character for me. So I baked the bread, ran down the long checklist of everything we needed to bring, then my husband and I headed north for the party.
We arrived around 1 o’clock, and Elizabeth just happened to be out giving some of the guests a walking tour of their 80 acres, which gave me a chance to confer with my fellow conspirators. A few minor adjustments were made to the presentation plan, and we set 3 o'clock as zero hour.
Minor plot snag: David had very carefully put the Commandant’s letter in his van so he would not forget it, then forgot that he had agreed to loan his van to his friend Michelle so that she could do some moving. Luckily Michelle was brought up to speed and managed to make it to the party before zero hour. Allen had prepared for this by printing off the e-mailed text I'd sent him Friday night, but was happy to have the official copy in the official folder. Zero hour approached. We warned some un-involved guests to stick around for the cake-cutting. The cake-cutting ended up being done inside due to the predicted dreary weather. We sang "Happy anniversary to you" and "Happy birthday to you," then as soon as some more cake had been passed around, I checked with Elizabeth’s husband, and he agreed that now was as good a time as any.
So I called for everyone's attention, explained that there was a birthday celebration coming up next month that meant a lot to Elizabeth, and said that I knew we were jumping the gun a bit, but since everybody was here, I hoped Elizabeth wouldn't mind the anticipation. I remembered to say "I quote," and started reading the birthday message:
- On November 10, 1775, a Corps of Marines was created by a
resolution of Continental Congress. Since that date many thousand men
have borne the name "Marine". In memory of them it is fitting that we
who are Marines should commemorate the birthday of our corps by
calling to mind the glories of its long and illustrious history.
- The record of our corps is one which will bear comparison with
that of the most famous military organizations in the world's history.
During 90 of the 146 years of its existence the Marine Corps has been
in action against the Nation's foes. From the Battle of Trenton to the
Argonne, Marines have won foremost honors in war, and is the long eras
of tranquility at home, generation after generation of Marines have
grown gray in war in both hemispheres and in every corner of the seven
seas, that our country and its citizens might enjoy peace and
- In every battle and skirmish since the birth of our corps, Marines
have acquitted themselves with the greatest distinction, winning new
honors on each occasion until the term "Marine" has come to signify
all that is highest in military efficiency and soldierly virtue.
- This high name of distinction and soldierly repute we who are
Marines today have received from those who preceded us in the corps.
With it we have also received from them the eternal spirit which has
animated our corps from generation to generation and has been the
distinguishing mark of the Marines in every age. So long as that
spirit continues to flourish Marines will be found equal to every
emergency in the future as they have been in the past, and the men of
our Nation will regard us as worthy successors to the long line of
illustrious men who have served as "Soldiers of the Sea" since the
founding of the Corps.
Unsurprisingly, Elizabeth stopped cutting more cake and just about came to attention as soon as she heard "On November 10, 1775, a Corps of Marines was created..." Like any good Marine, she raised a loud “Semper Fi!” at the conclusion of my reading, then like any good hostess resumed cutting the cake. When I signaled Megan to give her the coin, Elizabeth recognized the significance of the date. While she was admiring the coin (thinking that was all there was to everything), we got the scroll to Lee, who started reading. At the same time, I got the sword and held it behind my back until Lee got to my cue. It was actually easier to hide this than I thought because it was so crowded in there, and I was wearing a rather bulky sweater, though I regretted the sweater later as it got muggier.
For the record, Elizabeth's expression when she realized what we'd done was everything we could've wanted. Shock, delight, awe ... and a rather unladylike ejaculation when I handed her the sword. She barely got it unwrapped as Lee finished reading. Absolute joy,and definite blurry eyes as she read the inscription on the scabbard: “With thanks for your service.”
At this point, Elizabeth thought it was over. She had no idea. Allen started reading the Commandant’s letter, and if I thought Elizabeth had come to attention during the birthday message, that was nothing compared to how she reacted to hearing the words "One of the great pleasures of serving as Commandant...." She just about started crying again as Allen read. Allen later told me he quit trying to look at her--I'd had a similar problem during the birthday message. Both Allen and I started out doing the good public-speaker technique of lifting your gaze to your audience every sentence or so, but ended up staring at the page because we were in danger of breaking up.
Elizabeth's reaction to the Commandant’s letter was "How the hell did you manage this?" I explained that John has contacts, and she shook her head in amazement. Allen came over and handed her the folder, coming to attention and snapping off a perfect salute, which was amazing considering how crowded it was. I was standing between them, and unfortunately I couldn't get out of the way any more than I already was. But there was enough room that Allen didn't whack me with his hand, and Elizabeth was able to return it just as gravely.
Julia handed over the gift-wrapped sword holder, and Beth signaled the start of the Marine Corps Hymn. "From the halls of Montezuma” rattled the walls, Elizabeth joining in with plenty of vigor, even as she was tearing the wrapping paper off. She grew blurry-eyed when she saw the nameplate engraved with her final rank and years of service, but came back in time to finish out the verse.
Presentation over, we headed to the living room so that Elizabeth could sit down and admire her present. I told her how the Commandant’s had been personally signed, not by auto-pen, and she got the shivers. There was much admiring of the Mameluke, the plaque, and somewhere in there I ran out to our truck and presented her with the chocolate, explaining that we'd had a surplus and turned it into Godiva dark chocolate. She approved.
Now here's a final plot twist: Remember that conversation that I described earlier, and how that was the start for this whole grand conspiracy? It turns out that after that same conversation, Elizabeth had reflected on how she was still cross about not getting her sword, and had actually started shopping for one. But then she decided that she should just let it be, and if she still wanted one in a year, she could get it then.
Unsurprisingly, she's happy it worked out the way it did, and I'm certainly happy it worked out the way it did ... as I said to Elizabeth, we did this "out of love and because it needs doing." Best motivations in the world.