THE FIRST torpedo hit. Some days don't start off well. The second torpedo hit. The third torpedo hit. Some days do not get better.
The lieutenant, of whom we shall speak today, was having a quiet breakfast in the wardroom - few breakfasts are noisy, unless there are torpedoes - but his early morning calm was much disturbed.
He raced to his battle station in good time for the ship to sink with a mightly glug beneath him, but it all turned out fine, as you might say.
Lt. Edouard Izac was picked up by the offending submarine and taken to Germany in 1918 as the only Navy officer prisoner of the war.
He made numerous attempts to escape and finally succeeded getting out of an intensely guarded prison camp and walking seven days across Germany to swim the Rhine, at last, into Switzerland. Then home to America with his valuable information. Too late, of course. The war ended as he arrived.
So he was given the Medal of Honor and worked for a newspaper and served 10 years in Congress and with his late beloved wife spent recent decades traveling about the world on freighters and that is pretty much it.
This week I stopped by for a Christmas visit with the Medal of Honor hero and have several shocking things to report. He has turned 86. He used to be just in his 20s. Time is indeed a swallow.
I have felt the greatest respect for this man, whose personal modesty is such that not everybody has heard of him, but I will not duck the truth, either: He spread a lot of pepper during his escape, knowing they would send hounds after him.
"They snuff up the pepper," he said with a grin, "and can't follow the trail. Which is why pepper was contraband in prisons. They never let you have pepper."
This man, for all his crown of silver hair and sweet fine way of speaking, nevertheless peppered some of the best bloodhounds of Germany, an act which most people regard as substantially more serious than civilized men can condone. He was under duress, yes. He had already had one rifle stock broken over his head, in an unsuccessful attempt at breaking loose from his captors, and had been pretty well roughed up, starved, and otherwise inconvenienced on numerous occasions.
The citation for the medal, which is the nation's highest military honor, does not say anything about injuring the hounds, and it could conceivably be argued that when one is between a rock and a hard place even the most abandoned barbarism may surface in an otherwise noble fellow.
Flawed, yes. And yet it was a joy for his visitor to sink down in the big stuffed sofa and listen as he touched lightly on the years gone by. Lightly is the only way to touch a year or a decade, if it was once yours.
He had a farm down at Gordonsville and decided to dam up a little stream for a lake. Now that is living. Nothing in human life is better than puddling around with water, and making a lake is a supreme joy. The fish were scarcely to be believed, they were so fine, but he still does not know how the pickerel got in (the water was colder than usual for Southern lakes, he admits) and maybe a bird dropped some pickerel eggs from Minnesoto. Or maybe some oddball (for Albemarle County has many persons who march to uncommon drummers) of the neighborhood had imported them as a novelty, like the carp or the starling or the English sparrow (ealier misguided importations).
Old Jostphus Daniels, who was Secretary of the Navy in 1918, when Izac won his medal, made him sit right down (after a reunion with his wife and baby daughter) to writ it all.
This was published as "Prisoner of the U-90" by The Fleet Review (New York) and it was a good idea because Izac now does not think about it much and would never have remembered all the details if he had not written it all at the time, with an introduction citation by Daniels.
Secretary Daniels used to like to say, especially if there were a lot of Army people around, "Well, as you know, they only captured one of us. Couldn't keep him."
This hinted, of course, that it's too bad that not all prisoners of war had the ingenuity courage, gumption, etc., of a Navy man. Used to burn the Secretary of the Army up.
The medal was awarded Nov. 11, 1920.
"Down at the Washington Navy yard," Izac well remembers. President Wilson didn't present it. Secretary Daniels didn't present it. They were too important. Some young fellow presented it (namely, Franklin Delano Roosevelt) and by golly he was a handsome fellow. "Six feet five if he was an inch, and clean and full of life." Izac nods his head as he says it.
When World War II occurred, Izac was in the House of Representatives from San Diego. That was a Republican stronghold, "more than Orange County," but Roosevelt swept him into office for five terms.
"I never had any illusion it was my popularity. It was Roosevelt. And when he died, I lost."
But when the war came, Izac said he didn't see how anybody could be surprised at any atrocity the Germans might commit. (He remembered the rifle butts against his head, and the roughings up as the pious peasants of Baden watched approvingly.) He never learned to love Germans.
"Alben Barkley, when the committee from Congress went to view the concentration camps at Eisenhower's request, always wanted to refer to the atrocities as those of Hitler. But in the report I insisted we use the word 'German,' not just Hitler, and I won. The Germans would trail in and view the camps and say they had no idea. No idea." (Izac approaches a contemptuous snort, pretending it is something in his throat.)
His father's family and his mother's family came from Germany and from Alsace. So he never blamed the Germans for their genes, just for their behavior.
They all wound up (these forbears) near the Iowa-Minnesota line. During the Civil War one of them, a huge man, sympathized with the South and his neighbors (Izac said) decided to lynch him. There was a confrontation and the fellow picked up a tremendous wooden wagon yoke and faced the crowd. He alone could pick up a yoke so heavy, so the rest just muttered and dispersed.
There was a family business up there in which one tremendous farm wagon per week was manufactured. It took many skills. They were superb wagons. Last forever.
"They made 50 a year, no more, no less," Izac said.
His living room, in suburban Maryland, has big old wooden floor lamps with Chinese silk embroidered shades with long tassels. There are some carved mandarin figures in wood, and a painting on silk the Freer Gallery has admired.
Izac's wife was Agnes Cabell, and she had all these things.
Her father was a general who entered the Forbidden City in the Boxer Rebellion. (He also was Pershing's viceroy chasing Pancho Villa around Mexico, when he wanted to be in Europe in World War I, and died of a broken heart because of that, Izac suspects.
"Before my wife died, she broke up a lot of these collections," he said, waving toward the odds and ends of the room. "We had a lot of junk."
By the ash tray on the table between us were two shallow dishes each containing a rosary, and in the center was a colored figurine of Christ with arms stretched out in a welcoming or supplicating way, towards a vase of bittersweet. There were a few other clues that Izac is religious though this was not discussed.
He drinks one bourbon per day and has one cigar.
He sits straight without rigidity and without effort. He has dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and lives alone. No unmade bed, no junk sitting around the floor. Everything straight and neat.
He and his wife once missed getting to Bethlehem for Christmas Eve. The freighter made too many stops. Never mind, he's been to Bethlehem more than once, he says, but they were sorry that time to miss the ceremonies.
If anybody visits him, he goes to the door and waves until the car pulls off. In a way it's nice not being a hero or a congressman any more. He can move about the city and nobody stops him, as they would a celebrity.
Once, another Navy officer let a reporter know, Izac had to go to a naval hospital every month to pick up medicine that could not be delivered, and there never was any place to park, and it took Izac much of the day to accomplish this monthly chore. Someone who knew of this finally called the hospital and said it was a damn stupid shame that a Medal of Honor man, who had served in the Congress for years, had to go through that hassle every month.
They found a place for him to park, and it was a great help.
"But if you waited for Izac to ever say anything about the trouble, you'd wait a long time. He's one of those grand old men - I don't know how many we still have left - who never thinks of asking for anything from anybody. It never occurred to him that if you're in your 80s and hold the Medal and all the rest of it, maybe you don't have to stand around waiting like a 20-year-old seaman."
In some ways, you might say, the lieutenant has stayed 20.
"Oh," he says, "it's not what you were, but what you are. That's what counts."
To be your beadsman now, that was your knight.