EDITOR’S NOTE: The following appeared in the October 28, 1988, issue of National Review.
The following eulogy by WFB was one of three delivered at Trinity Episcopal Church in Newport, R.I., on September 16, 1988. Reginald stoops served informally as a scientific advisor to NR.
#ad#”But how otherwise did you enjoy the evening, Mrs. Lincoln?” has become gallows humor. Even so, it was the line that came to mind on Wednesday morning when Christo called me and gave me the news. His second sentence–perhaps his training as a journalist prompted it–was, “It happened at 11:22.” My eyes turned to a gaudy new chronometer sitting on my desk, guaranteed not to lose more than seven-tenths of one second in one year. The exact time was 11:45.
Ten days ago I told Reggie that our navigational worries at sea over the exact time were ended, that whenever we set out to cross Long Island Sound–or Narragansett bay–or the Atlantic Ocean–we would never again have to worry about exactly what time it was in Greenwich, England. He said that he longed to see the new clock–our studied fantasy about the months and years we would sail together after his freak illness never flagged in our thirty brief conversations during the past two months. I commented that no doubt he would insist on taking my chronometer apart and ridding it of that seven-tenths of one second annual problematic. I went on to ask him what his weight was today, and he said 137 pounds, which permitted me to say that we would have no further excuse for singling out Danny Merritt to go up to the masthead; and he laughed his gentle laugh, and said with that little hoarseness I was becoming used to, “I guess you’re right. On the other hand”–his voice registered now a trace of curiosity–”they’re giving me something to make me fatter, so don’t count on it.” I didn’t count on it, because of course I knew; he by then knew it, and he knew that I knew it, and so it goes.
I knew it even back on the eve of his marriage, in June, as a few others did, who managed more successfully than I to internalize that knowledge. But on Wednesday, thinking back to Mrs. Lincoln, I forced myself to think not about what had happened at 11:22 on that morning, but about what happened during all the years I had known him. Was it one hundred nights or was it one thousand and one nights that we shared, in fine and awful circumstances, the cockpit of a boat, and I experienced the soft delights of his understated company? Oh yes, he could drive grown men to tears with the deliberateness of his reactions. Rehearsing an emergency drill, the second night of our Pacific crossing, Dick Clurman asked him where the lifesavers were stored. He reacted as if he had been asked to give a brief definition of the Fourth Dimension. The pause, the slight clearing of the throat, the innocent look of a man accosted by an angular question: but followed by the exhilarating frankness of his reply (“I’m not quite sure at this point”). In the book from which that passage comes, I quoted from Christopher’s journal. He had written, a few days before we landed in New Guinea, “You find out on a trip like this who you can absolutely depend on. And really, the answer is, Pup and I agree, that the person who is absolutely dependable in every situation is Reggie.”
“We didn’t mean”–I added in my book–”that anyone on board had ever broken the inflexible rule of interpersonal courtesy, merely that Reg is a critical mass of intelligence, good nature, and composure. He has never complained about anything.” A year later, at a reunion of the crew, he presented us all with T-shirts on which the entire paragraph I have quoted was reproduced in DRINK COCA-COLA sized type.
“He has never complained about anything,” I reminded myself on Wednesday, thinking back first on the pleasures he had got from life, and then of the pleasure he had given to everyone who experienced him.
But the climax was ahead of him, when those words were written, coinciding–providence can be that: providence has its elfin ways–coinciding with the beginning of human predicament, one can only with dumb hesitation rail against the God Who, at one and the same time, took his life, but also gave him the supreme gift, the woman he married, who did more than all of science’s opiates to make those three months endurable; to make that, paradoxically, a period of unparalleled happiness.
When finally I brought myself to visit him other than on the telephone, face to face, it was just before Midnight, and we embraced, after his very best friend, my son Christopher, had kissed him on the forehead. He pronounced my name and managed a smile. I looked at his fine face and thought back this time to another moment of great strain. It was mid March in 1957. The little dinghy in which we had set out to retrieve a duck blind a mile in front of my house on Long Island Sound had upset, and we realized, suddenly, that our lives hung on our ability to swim, in our heavy winter clothing, in freezing water, to a promontory a half a mile away. For a full freezing minute we could not judge whether we were making headway against the northerly wind, but we were. Gradually, painfully, we made progress. Fifty yards from land he looked at me and said, “Go ahead. I can’t make it.” I could not help him with my frozen hands, but I sang raucously to him, and I pried with unfeigned imperiousness, ordering him to continue to beat his arms, however limply, against the waves. In five more minutes we were there, crawling on our stomachs to shelter.
What brought this to mind was the infinite dignity on his frozen countenance that afternoon, 31 years ago, which I saw again, on Monday night, on his pallid, skeletal face: struggling to live almost as a matter of good manners, but resigned to die; determined only that he would never complain, never let go that fierce dignity which he carried in good times and bad times, drunk or sober, exhausted or animated, in sickness and in health.
I had a bouncy friend who once managed a witticism. “When I get to St. Peter,” he said, “I’m going to ask him to take me to the man who invented the dry martini. Because I just want to say, ‘Thanks.’”
I am a Christian who, believing that our Redeemer lives, knows that one day I’ll be once again in his company, on that endless journal in the peace he know enjoys. When that time comes for me, as for others here, I shan’t forget to say, as in my prayers I have said so often during the last days, Thanks. Thanks for the long play that came before that fatal bullet struck him down. Thanks, everlastingly, for the memories, everlasting.