BRIGADIER GENERAL WILLIAM B. WILSON of the Quartermaster Depot in Algiers leaned back at his desk and shouted across the room to his deputy in a rich Southern accent: “Ham, listen to this, goddamit, sometimes I think those English think they own us.”
The Colonel addressed as Ham looked up from the Stars & Stripes. “What have the limeys done now?” he asked.
“Just got this letter, damnedest thing I ever saw,” the General said. “It’s from an American major, too, just goes to show how those glib bastards can put it over on us if we don’t watch ‘em.”
The Colonel called Ham said: “Yeah, they sure are good talkers.”
Listen here, now, he says: ‘Am writing you at the suggestion of Major General His Excellency Lord Runcin – that fancy bastard. I met him one time down at the Aletti, and I just happened to say, like anyone does who’s a gentleman when he says good-bye, I said to him: ‘If there’s anything I can ever do for you, just let me now.’ He came right back at me and said: ‘I may,’ he said, ‘you Americans have everything, you know.’ So damn if I didn’t get a letter from him about two weeks later reminding me of what I said and asking me if I’d get him a jeep. Well, this Amgot thing sounded pretty important to me, so I just about busted my neck to wangle him a jeep. Soon as he got that he wrote me thank-you note and asked me if the Americans had any pipes, that he was lost without a pipe, and could I get him one? So I got him a pipe. Then I had to get him an electric razor, for godsake. Then he wrote me that chewing gum was such a curiosity among his staff would I get him a large box of chewing gum? He even had the nerve to ask me to get him a case of whisky, he said he got a ration of rum and gin, but all the Scotch was imported to the States, so would I mind terribly nailing him a case of Scotch? I made up my mind I was never going to get him another thing after that, even if I got sent home.”
“What’s he want now?”
“He doesn’t want it, this Major of ours wants it, that’s what makes me mad. Old Runcin seems to think I’m a one-man shopping service, and he goes around recommending to people to write me all their screwy things they want.”
“Well, what does this guy want?”
“Jesus, Ham, he wants a bell.”
“What the hell for?”
“He says here: ‘I consider it most important for the morale and continued good behavior of this town to get it a bell to replace the one which was taken away as per above.’ I don’t know, something about a seven-hundred-year-old bell. But that’s not the point, Ham. The thing that makes me mad is this English bastard thinking he owns us.”
The Colonel named Ham, who was expert at saying Yes to his superiors and No to his inferiors, said: “Yeah, I see what you mean.”
“They do it all the time, Ham. You watch, an Englishman will always eat at an American mess if he gets a chance. Look at Lend-Lease, why hell, we’re just giving it to ‘em. And don’t you think they’ll ever pay us for it. They won’t even thank us for it, Ham.”
The Colonel named Ham said: “I doubt if they will.”
“I know they won’t. And look at the way they’re trying to run the war. They got their officers in all the key spots. Ham, we’re just winning this damn war for the British Empire.”
The Colonel named Ham said: “That’s right, I guess.”
“No sir, I’m damned if I’ll root around and find a bell for this goddam sponger of an Englishman. Where the hell does he think I’m going to find a seven-hundred-year-old bell? No sir, Ham, I won’t do it. Write a letter to this Major, will you, Ham?”
“Yes sir, what’ll I say?”
“Lay it on, dammit, tell him the U.S. Army doesn’t have a stock of seven-hundred-year-old bells, tell him he should realize there is a war on, tell him to watch out for these goddam Englishmen or they’ll take the war right away from us.”
“That reminds me,” Livingston said. “You said you had something on your mind this morning.”
“Matter of fact, I have. Since you’ve been getting all the results, I thought maybe – ”
“Want to go in the other room?” Livingston asked politely but importantly.
“Nothing hush-hush,” the Major said. “Might as well tell you right here.”
And he told about Adano’s seven-hundred-year-old bell. He told how it had been taken away, and about what he had done to try to get another. Two drinks had made his mind relax, and he told his story beautifully.
He made the town’s need for a new bell seem something really important, and he made the bell seem a symbol of freedom in Adano. He made it seem as if the people of Adano would not feel truly free until they heard a bell ringing from the clock tower of the Palazzo.
And not just any bell. He described what he thought was needed in the bell: a full, rich tone; no crack of any kind; and a touch of history that would mean something to the Italians.
His story was nicely told and his audience was just right. The Navy has a quick sense of tradition. All the folderol – saluting the quarter deck, the little silver buck to mark who should be served first in the wardroom, still calling the captain’s court of justice going before the mast, the marvelous poetic orders “Sweepers, man your brooms: clean sweep down fore and aft” – these things made Navy men able to grasp the idea of the bell, and be moved by it.
Major Joppolo finished: “And that’s all it was, Livingston. I think I want to get this town the right bell more than I’ve ever wanted anything in my life.”
Commander Robertson was the first one to speak: “Seems to me we ought to be able to find a bell,” he said.
“Lots of bells in the Navy,” said Robertson’s communications officer.
“It’s got to be just the right bell, though,” Livingston said.
“Yes,” Major Joppolo said, “that’s the important thing. It’s got to be the right bell. I wouldn’t want to give these people anything but just the right bell.”
Commander Robertson stood up and said: “Let me think, seems to me,” and he walked around the room.
Then he said: “I think maybe I can get just the kind of bell you want, Major.”
Major Joppolo said: “Do you really think you can?”
The Commander said: “I think maybe.”
Major Joppolo said: “If you can, I’m going to switch over to the Navy.”
– John Hersey