The captain told us charity began
Aboard his aircraft carrier: the place
We had to call home. We’re in a race
With all the others—when we get every man
To voluntarily contribute, we’ll win
The plaque for Most Generous Ship in the Fleet!
Department heads like mine would repeat
This lofty goal at every briefing to ensigns
Like me: we had to raise the largest pile
And put the Old Man on its top. Like a prayer
I kept reciting, I urged my men to care
For “all of those less fortunate”—the smile
I gave them felt sincere. As we got close
To complete compliance (Comp-Comp), the mood
Grew buoyant as a following sea. Then rude
As a reef on no one’s chart, a sailor said no.
A sailor in my division. Seaman Ames
Told me he didn’t believe in charity:
We gotta help ourselves up, don’t we?
That’s what it says in the Bible. Back home,
They say begging breaks a man like a dry stick.
He looked like one himself—tall and thin,
Stiff as he sat in my office. I tried to pin
The “teamwork” ribbon on him; I tried the gimmick
Of saying this could hurt his career. He blinked
At that: I thought they said United Way
Was voluntary. You’re gunna force me to pay?
I told my boss, the First Lieutenant. His face pinked
Down to the silver oak leaf on his collar.
What’s wrong, ensign? Can’t you motivate
Your own men? Try again and make him donate
His fair share. It’s only a few dollars,
For Christ’s sake. But Ames refused once more.
I’m only one guy—what’s the big deal? I want
Them all to leave me alone. He looked more gaunt
Than he had the last time; he said other sailors
Were screwing with him about this Combined Campaign.
I’m so pissed off, I’ll never give a thing
To it now! I told the First Lieutenant, who hung
His head and said to his blotter’s coffee stains:
Did the iron fist in your velvet glove just turn
To rust? He waved me away without looking up.
When the Donors’ List was posted, I saw the ship
Had reached Comp-Comp. That day I went astern
And found Ames leaning on the taffrail,
Spitting into our wake. I asked what made
Him change his mind. The First Lieutenant paid
For me! He scowled and stood straight as a nail:
Take my name off that list! It makes me look
Like I broke! I said I’d see, but we both knew
We’d lost. On the hangar deck, they mustered the crew
To applaud the captain as he raised his plaque.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 Number 7, on page 25
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