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Almighty Father, Who wilt hear the prayer of them that love Thee, we pray Thee to be with those who brave the heights of Thy Heaven and who carry the battle to our enemies. Guard and protect them we pray Thee, as they fly their appointed rounds. May they, as well as we, know Thy strength and power and armed with Thy might may they bring this war to a rapid end. We pray Thee that the end of the war may come soon, and that once more we may know peace on earth. May the men who fly this night be kept safe in Thy care, and may they be returned safely to us. We shall go forward trusting in Thee, knowing that we are in Thy care now and forever. In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.”

prayer read by Chaplain William Downey to the crew of the Enola Gay


Nothing to be Afraid Of


CK Miller


I first met Brother Harry in the late summer of ‘48, just before his famous Dewey-defeating whistle-stop tour, three years after Hiroshima. He and Bess were still staying at the White House then, though a lot of it, including their bedroom, had been cordoned off because of how dilapidated the building had become. The smell that wafted up from the basement at night as temperatures dropped brought to mind a catacomb. Everywhere, floors sagged and swayed. A piano leg had punched through a corner of the Trumans’ family room. Harry claimed his bathtub, as it filled, sank precariously into supporting beams weakened by 150 years of plumbing and electrical renovations, making bath time “a little scary.” Their only child, Margaret, who disliked living in “The Great White Jail,” had already left to pursue her singing career. By Christmas, workers would have begun its almost total deconstruction and the Trumans moved across Pennsylvania Ave into the Blair House.


I received his invitation through Senior Warden A J Hoyt following a meeting at Missouri’s Grandview Lodge where Harry himself was a Past Master of some thirty-seven years standing. No agenda was revealed to me at this time, nor was any real itinerary. I was simply taken aside and solemnly informed that Brother Truman, now Sovereign Grand Inspector General at our Southern Jurisdiction Headquarters, would appreciate it if we could at my earliest opportunity spend some time together at his DC residence, which of course everyone knew was the White House. All travel and accommodation expenses would be taken care of. After a while, our Treasurer, a man renowned for his political connections, walked over and happened to mention that newly appointed US Secretary of Commerce Charles W Sawyer, acting through the Civil Aeronautics Board, had arranged that, until further notice, no TWA flight between Fairfax and Washington National airports would be filled to capacity, even on a standby basis. The implication of course being that, however last-minute my arrangements, I would always find a seat. During this divulgence, he pressed into my hand a crisp new twenty-dollar bill—scribbled on it in red pencil, a telephone number and one word: limo.

It is a Masonic creed to help our brothers. Think of us as a globally distributed church community or patriarchal band society such as envisioned by the early 16th century Anabaptists. Classes at the University of Missouri where I taught Religious Studies wouldn’t resume until the fall. Because history seldom changes, none of my course outlines differed from previous years. Oxford’s “Journal of the American Academy of Religion” had expressed an interest in two essays I’d submitted over the summer, if not for their upcoming October issue, they said, then almost certainly for January of ‘49. They also liked a critically appreciative review I’d written of a colleague’s textbook. The preparation, publishing and political requirements of my professorship appeared well in hand. So even were my curiosity somehow restrainable (and my procrastination would not cost Trans World Airlines upwards of forty dollars a day) there seemed no better time than the present.

Lucy, my wife, who’d never been to the nation’s capitol or up in an airplane, would have loved to accompany me. Wistfully she speculated on how exciting it might be to see for oneself Washington’s famous landmarks: the Capitol Building’s massive frescoed dome and many murals depicting great moments in American history; the steeple-like Washington Monument, once the world’s tallest structure; the Lincoln Memorial, inspired by the temples of ancient Greece and home to Abraham’s giant stone likeness; and of course the President’s Palace. “The Appalachians are said to be breathtakingly colorful this time of year,” she sighed. “I’m sure mother would be happy to take Annabelle for a few days,” she then mused, blinking as in afterthought. Of course she knew better than to press the matter further. Still, it broke my heart a little seeing her try to hide her glistening-eyed disappointment behind keen sightseeing suggestions, fastidious packing and well-wishing kisses and smiles. But Masonic confidentiality and the personal, and somewhat urgent, nature of Brother Truman’s request had made it clear the invitation was for me alone.

That night, unable to sleep, I dialed the number on the twenty-dollar bill. A long, chauffeur-driven Cadillac collected me in the wee starry hours during which, history records, the savage red-man liked to attack white settlements. The plane, a Boeing Stratoliner, took off in predawn’s darkness and met the rising sun over Cincinnati. While my fellow travelers slept, smoked, and read magazines and newspapers, like a child I gazed down through wispy clouds at buildings and bridges and crisscrossing railway tracks that reminded me of my father’s elaborate model train sets. Dawn’s first gleaming reflected off the misty Ohio, making it look like liquid steel coursing through late summer’s rusting greenery and foundries’ smoldering stacks. Indeed the entire vista appeared to me as a sprawling mechanical slime, the spreading eschar of some infectious organism.

A pretty stewardess interrupted my reverie to offer me a beverage. By the time she’d dispensed to me my measure of hot coffee and banal chitchat, Cincinnati’s festering industry had disappeared to the west. Miles below, timber-frame homes specked West Virginian mountainsides. I made out what appeared to be a church, a school, a hospital. Cars as small as ants wound their way down asphalt ribbons, carrying microscopic men to work. I knew the aircraft I was in to be a refurbished long-range bomber, an erstwhile flying fortress, not unlike the Enola Gay, and wondered how it would feel to lay waste to the world below, and if the invisibility of humans at this altitude had made our job any easier. I pressed my cheek to the window, let the sun’s radiant orb burn spots on my retina then closed my eyes and imagined its bloody afterimage as the harbinger of devastation.

I woke to a gentle tap on the shoulder and a lipstick smile. It was already time to deplane. Out on the tarmac, a uniformed driver stood beside a sleek black Lincoln sedan, in his hands a piece of cardboard with my name on it. 


It was a scenic drive across the Potomac on the newly rebuilt Long Bridge then north past elm-lined gardens, baronial federal agency headquarters, stately monuments, memorials, galleries and auditoriums until at last, ahead on our right, the Treasury Building’s massive colonnade and, on our left, the White House. I knew that when I returned home Lucy would pump me for every detail, as though to share herself in the adventure through my recounting of it, when, in reality, like the apt description of a fine meal for one who is hungry or of a warm embrace for one who is lonely, it would only make her longing worse.

We whisked in through the southeast gate where the day’s first tourists had already begun to form a line, then around a long curving driveway. Across the lawn a group of workmen, landscapers I assume, stood in the shade of a large evergreen that I knew to be the Atlas cedar planted by Teddy Roosevelt. Lucy had insisted I keep an eye out for it. And also for Andrew Jackson’s magnolias on either side of the mansion’s pillared southern portico. She’d pointed them out on the back of the twenty. I made a mental note to take a cutting from each, as souvenirs for her and Annabelle, before I left.

The car drew up in front of the centermost arched entryway: “the President’s back door.” With the driver’s courteous assistance, I stepped out into crisp autumnal air and bright sunlight. Lucy, excited to have seen also on the bill Harry’s controversial new balcony, had reported how critics claimed it compromised the facade’s, indeed the entire city’s, classical Grecian architecture. Of course she was eager for my firsthand impressions. Looking up, I was surprised to see Harry himself out standing on it, gripping its rail and peering down. Whether it was his hunched posture in leaning over to see us better or his diminutiveness relative to the huge porch, or only a trick of shadow, he looked old and confused. And for a dreadful moment, though I knew his eyesight to be poor, I wondered if I were expected, or if this were all just some outlandish joke or fiasco. We Masons are not without our pranksters. But then, perhaps sensing my discomfiture, he did something I will never forget. The most powerful man in the world—President of the United States and freemason of the highest rank and honor—removed his hands from his balcony’s iron rail and, for a heartbeat only, raised them as though at gunpoint. The Grand Hailing Sign of Distress—not a gesture one makes spuriously. Or accidentally—for this was no inadvertent morning stretch. After a moment’s vertigo during which I might have stumbled backwards into the car, I drew my thumb across my belly in allusion to the penalty of the master mason’s obligation: “to have my body cut in two, my bowels removed and burned to ashes which are then to be scattered to the four winds of heaven.” But he had already gone inside.

A white-gloved butler of formidable girth welcomed me into the vast, oval Diplomatic Reception parlor. A composed Warren G Harding gazed down from his place of prominence atop the mantle of a white marble fireplace that even without Lucy’s having coached me I would have known had warmed FDR during his famous “fireside chats.” Off to the right stood a pedestaled bust of George Washington that for an absentminded moment I mistook for Julius Caesar. Between these two artifacts, in a shallow alcove, hung the portrait of a dark-haired, bare-shouldered woman who was unfamiliar to me, and I made a mental note to ask Lucy about her.

I was led then through a set of double doors into a galleried corridor. In coming years, after Truman’s renovations had seen the mansion’s interior gutted and all wooden support beams replaced with steel girders, this ceiling’s vaulted architecture, though no longer structurally required, would be restored. But at the time, and as Lucy who loved to read of such things had informed me, it was arched to support the tremendous weight of three overhead floors. And so despite this lowest central hallway’s cavernous space, I experienced a touch of claustrophobia. And the fat butler, sensing in me now no desire to dilly- dally, briskened his waddle.


A groaning elevator carried us up to the State floor’s sumptuously red-carpeted Cross Hall. Overhead, huge cut-glass chandeliers that Lucy believed had been made in London the year before our Independence hung from an ornate plaster ceiling not quite level with a pair of high bronze light standards standing at the hall’s west end. Doric columns and pilasters towered over a variety of felt-upholstered empire chairs and settees. “Or, perhaps Sir is tired of sitting?” If I preferred, we could stroll the great hall until the President was ready. There was indeed “so much to see.” Until after the Civil War, this had been the largest house in America.

We ambled toward the East Room past glass-screened likenesses of James K Polk and Zachary Taylor. Lucy had thought that Borglum’s famous Lincoln sculpture might no longer be on display, but insisted I look for it anyway. The head emerging from rough-cut marble in a niche by the Green Room was smaller than her description of the masterpiece would have led me to expect, and I wondered if maybe she’d confused it with the artist’s work on Mt Rushmore. For this Lincoln, with its prominent lower lip and distinctive wart, struck me as so eerily lifelike that I felt it following me with its deep-set eyes. But when I turned to confront him, he averted my gaze as though to direct it through a glass partition out into the Grand Foyer, onto an expanse of golden-hued Joliet stone flooring beneath an arboretum of sunlight and plants and a museum of artifacts, plaques, flags and antiques, then to a larger-than-life painting of our forefathers signing the Declaration that Lucy had also insisted I see, and finally to the Grand Staircase where, between a portrait of William McKinley and a potted fern, stood the President.

Harry waved us over. “Good morning, Brother Bennet.” We shook hands using the master mason’s Tubalcain grip, each pressing his thumb into the space between the other’s middle knuckles. “Thank you, Eugene,” he said, then addressing the butler. “We’ll be in the Treaty Room. If you could bring us some coffee and croissants later... but don’t let anyone else up. Tell everyone I’m indisposed for the day. Unless those smarmy little twerps from American Tobacco show. Them you can make wait. Maybe clear the boots off that tiny wooden bench in the cloakroom and let them sit on that, facing the wall if you can manage it.”

“Very good,” said Eugene betraying only a hint of bemusement in the twitching corners of his mouth and the briefest arching of one fleshy eyebrow.

“They want to sponsor a memorial to the Babe,” explained Harry, “stick a cultural exhibit somewhere prominent out in the National Mall. Like a big bronze statue of Ruth in his Yankee uniform holding his bat in close to his chest the way he always did and staring out into some far-off bleachers where you just know he’s going to put one.” Harry removed his glasses to rub his eyes.


“A terrible tragedy,” said Eugene looking down, “Mister Ruth’s untimely death.”

Harry returned his eyewear to his face. “A goddamn national disaster is what it is.” Behind thick wireless lenses his pupils resembled acorns. “But what gets my goat is these tobacco crooks caring only about how they can squeeze a buck out of it. To them it’s just another advertising gimmick. They want a plaque with the caption ‘From American Tobacco’ above some biographical details. Like it was them who made America and the Babe possible. As if to suggest that to not smoke or chew tobacco and love baseball is unpatriotic. Play up the Babe’s endorsements of chaw and cigars, but with no mention of the throat cancer that killed him.” Harry paused to tug on his bow-tie as though it had suddenly grown too tight. “I’ve been to more damn ballgames than any other President. And hell, I’ve smoked a cigar or two myself over a good card game.” The way his jaw muscles bulged struck me as a bulldog’s, one reluctant to surrender a stick it had fetched. “Still I’d like to choke those little weasels till their eyes pop out, then shake-em till they’re limp and blue—them and all their slimy ilk!” Anger seemed to suit his stout round features, to inflate away aging’s sags and creases, and fill him out.

“Ah Mister President,” chortled the butler, “you do have a way with hyperbole.”

But I myself didn’t feel Harry had exaggerated at all. History records his artillery unit, in continuing to shell German positions even after the signing of the armistice, had extended WW-I’s hostilities by up to six hours. Afterwards, in a letter to his then fiancé, Bess Wallace, he’d written, “It is a shame we can’t go in and devastate Germany and cut off a few of the Dutch kids’ hands and feet and scalp a few of their old men.” His claim to have “never lost a wink of sleep” over his decision to a-bomb Japan at the end of WW-II was also well documented. Though up until that moment I’d understood this remark not as a reflection of his callousness to the horrors inflicted on a quarter-million Japanese civilians, but more an attempt by our Commander-in-Chief to absolve the crews of the various support, weather, reconnaissance and bomber aircraft involved in the missions, all of whom had been just following his orders and some of whom had later required psychiatric care.

“Thank you, Eugene,” said Harry by way of dismissal, “and maybe some fresh fruit as well.”

We didn’t speak in ascending the Grand Staircase. Harry ran ahead, taking the steps two at a time, and I, though less than half his age, could not keep up. He paused at the top to wait for me and then to let me catch my breath. “Didn’t get my morning stroll in today,” he explained. “Had to see Bess off. She’s back home in Independence for a few days to look after some family matters. Maybe you saw her fly by the other way.” I knew of Mamma Truman’s recent stroke. But Harry’s vagary and quip seemed to suggest that Bess’s departure had been precipitated by my visit. Though, unlike Lucy, she probably hadn’t minded her exclusion. Her distaste for White House life was no secret.

“That’s too bad,” I replied, “I’d really like to have met her.” This was in fact true, and not, as Harry probably thought, just a conversational formality. In 1935 my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Of course this was terribly upsetting to Father and me. But the doctor had assuaged that there was in fact little or nothing to fear. Treatment for this disease had enjoyed some remarkable advances over the previous decade. He’d recommended her as an excellent candidate for a new, less disfiguring, modified radical mastectomy procedure to be followed then by the injection of radium through long needles precisely inserted into affected areas. This alone promised a five-year survival rate of almost seventy percent. He’d assured us that this would at the very least buy time during which much greater advances, possibly even cancer’s total eradication, were a near certainty. But despite medical science’s great skills and hopeful prognoses, Mother refused all treatments except for the laudanum to which she eventually succumbed. Bess’s father, David Wallace, plagued by debt, depression and alcoholism, had ended it all with a gun in the bathroom. And while his suicide might be seen as more overt than my mother’s, I wondered if Bess, also eighteen years old and home at the time, had ever forgiven him his cowardice.

“Another day then,” said Harry leading me into an enormous, yet incongruously stuffy, room. Spread across black-walnut flooring, a tapestry of crowns and shields and fleurs de lis, in its faded majesty, struck me as a Tudor king’s cloth of state—perhaps the baldachin that had canopied Henry the VIII’s throne. But its rectangular arrays of patterns, to my inexpert eye, clashed mightily with the variety of mismatched-print sofas and chairs faced about the room, as if this furniture were in storage here rather than part of any decorating effort. A crystal-bead chandelier dripped like a great god’s viscous tear from center ceiling. A beehive clock between candelabra on a fireplace’s stone mantle seemed to stand as second to a young Alexander Hamilton framed above, helping him mark time.

Harry bade me sit in one of two armchairs that had been positioned near an end table above which glimmered a huge giltwood-framed mirror and upon which sat a record player not much larger than a waffle iron, its entire turntable covered by an unlabled black disk. “Ed Wallerstein at Colombia sent it over just last week,” said Harry fondling some dials at the front of the case. “Gifts like this usually come with strings and, often as not, a lot of bad press.” The way his eyes narrowed as he frowned at some unresolved grudge made me think of ants burning under a magnifying glass. “But I couldn’t refuse,” he added. “It’s the latest thing from Philco. First phonograph designed to handle Columbia’s new microgroove plastic. Turns at less than half the speed of the old ones, even has a diamond-tipped stylus.” Harry took from his jacket’s breast pocket a soft-looking piece of cloth that smelled faintly of rubbing alcohol. “But it’s just a machine, a toy. This here’s why I get such a big kick out of it:” Gently he began to wipe the record’s vinyl surface. “Any little fleck of dust can wreck it,” he explained, adding then as from out of the blue, “Funny we’d figure out how to build an atom bomb before a decent long-playing record.” A short zip preceded the crackle of the needle as Harry positioned the arm. “Shit!” He slapped his thigh. “I mean, manure!” He shook his head. “See, this is my Margaret singing with the Detroit Symphony last March on Ford Motor Company’s Sunday Evening Hour.” His voice seemed to quaver with pride. “Her first public performance, broadcast by ABC to over fifteen-million listeners, largest audience ever for that sort of thing. She sings coloratura soprano, which I’m told is about as tricky as it gets. Does three numbers: first some Spanish folksong I can’t pronounce, then some aria about Brazil, and finally—at my own personal request—The Last Rose of Summer.” Harry’s voice had cracked on “Summer” and he paused to swallow. “I’d try to put the needle right on it but I’m afraid of scratching it again.” Indeed his hand was trembling. “So we’ll just listen to the whole darn thing, if that’s okay.”

“Please,” I nodded.

Harry twisted a knob. An eerie, fluttering wail, accompanied by background moans and screeches, filled the air. “You’d never know she’s coming fresh off a bout of bronchial pneumonia,” he bragged.

Lucy had long asserted that I suffer from amusia, or tone-deafness as it’s better known. I’d always thought this just her way of teasing what she called my “uncannily bad” singing voice, though I myself considered it no worse than anyone else’s. But the sounds that issued then from the Philco gave me cause to revisit her assessment. Clearly I was missing something. Certainly I had not been invited to the White House to offer musical review. Harry Truman, a man famous for getting to the point, was beating around the bush.

Looking down at the floor’s broad tapestry, trying hard to appreciate the shrill gargling howls of Harry’s dear Margaret, I thought I saw something move out of the corner of my eye. But, absorbed as I was in trying to compose some positive comment that would not ring ingenuous, I gave it little thought. Two years later, Paul Hume, music critic for the Washington Post, in reviewing Margaret’s performance at Constitution Hall, would describe her as “extremely attractive” but “flat a good deal of the time,” unimproved over the years and unable to sing “with anything approaching professional finish.” Of course I couldn’t have known this at the time, or of the scathing letter Harry would immediately fire off to Mr Hume calling him among other things “an eight ulcer man on four ulcer pay” and threatening him with bodily harm should they ever meet (a letter which, ironically, Hume would sell for 3,500 dollars the following year). But I did sense in him a father’s ferocious pride and knew it would serve best to be kind. “I’m no expert on fine music,” I ventured, “but I think her voice has a haunting quality.” I hoped Harry would interpret this remark to mean hauntingly beautiful as opposed to plain scary and was in the process of studying his face to see if I’d succeeded when, again, I saw movement off to the side.

“This old building’s falling down,” said Harry, probably sensing my start. “All the shifting and shaking makes you see things.” He looked tired.

It indeed seemed plausible that some maintenance worker or housekeeper’s activity on the floor above might have jostled the chandelier, and that what I’d noticed was merely refracted light wobbling in any of the room’s several large mirrors or many polished surfaces. I nodded and tried to sway to the tempo of Margaret’s strangled screams.

“I know you’re wondering why I asked you here,” said Harry, his voice lowered now in confidentiality. “But see, if I tell you outright, I’m afraid it’ll dispose you in some way or another, and I want you totally unpresuming, at least for now. Can you trust me on it just a little longer?” It was a polite, but nonetheless rhetorical, query, and so I continued rocking and bobbing to the strange threnody shrieking from the Philco.

“So tell me,” he blinked, “do you believe in spirits?”

“Spirits?” I said, though rather dumbly I’m afraid. “You mean like ghosts?” The music made it hard to concentrate. Instead of resined bows on fine-tuned spruce and maple instruments, the Detroit Symphony’s string section might as well have been scraping their fingernails on chalkboards as the song’s lyrics entered a refrain of the word “aye” repeated over and over probably to suggest weeping but that struck me more as a mix of terrified gibbering and wheezing, hysterical laughter.

“Let it mean whatever the hell you want it to mean, Professor,” snapped Harry. Then, “Sorry, my apologies, Doctor Bennet. I’m so goddamn frazzled lately. Won’t you please just share with me whatever thoughts you might have on the subject?”

“Please,” I said, “just John.” Up until that moment, I’d thought it had been our Masonic brotherhood that had warranted my invitation. But now, from his having twice addressed me by academic titles, I realized that it was not our commonality, but our difference, that had drawn his attention. Mother, whose maiden name was Darrow and had come from Monopoly’s real money, had left behind a sizeable estate along with a generous life insurance policy that had allowed me to attend both Yale and Princeton. Harry’s family’s financial difficulties, on the other hand, had kept him from progressing beyond high school, making him the first President since Grover Cleveland last century to hold office without a college degree. And though it is to confuse a historian with a historical figure, it is common for laypersons to revere theologians. I am often addressed as “Reverend” in correspondence and in person—when, in fact, faith biases, indeed all but precludes, the study of religion. The teachings of freemasonry are extensive but esoteric, and I wondered if Harry was given to this common misunderstanding.

Someone it seemed had again trodden on the floor above. For all around in the periphery of my vision amorphous objects flickered in and out of existence like neon lights giving up the ghost. A teacher, over time, indeed develops eyes in the back of his head, which is to say, acquires a feel for others’ presence of mind. I began to sense all around the room, just out of eyeshot, an audience’s groping attention, but which I ascribed to Secret Service agents discreetly performing their protective duties.


“You okay, John?” said Harry drumming his fingers on the table.

The music’s volume increased as Margaret trilled toward some crescendo. I clasped my hands together to prevent placing them over my ears. “Every religion,” I began, reverting to lecture, “avows supernatural creatures—angels, demons, bodhisattvas, ghouls, rakshas, deities and demi-deities—good and evil entities hierarchically arranged and balanced so that there is always one that reigns supreme.”

Because belief in God is a prerequisite of freemasonhood, I felt this was a safe assertion.

But it seemed to annoy Harry who muttered, “Even in heaven, there’s no damn escaping politics,” and began to tap his foot.

“And every religion,” I continued, “reifies in certain humans the divine. Even a lowly Catholic priest may intercede with God. Most Christians deify Jesus; Buddhists Buddha; Muslims Mohammed. Shintoism, Japan’s dominant religion from 2000 BC, regards the emperor as a god, which is why, alone and defeated after Germany’s surrender, they still couldn’t possibly accept our Potsdam Proclamation which demanded Emperor Hirohito’s authority and influence be eliminated for all time and exposed him as a war criminal. Even after Nagasaki, it was only Hirohito’s renouncement of his status as a living god that allowed his subjects to finally surrender.”

Harry raised his fist as if to thump the table, but then, probably in deference to Margaret’s spinning vinyl, lowered it. “Guess we put paid to that Jap nonsense then.”

It is childish in the extreme to hide by closing one’s eyes. Yet it seemed to work. Margaret’s singing and the feeling of being scrutinized rescinded as I bowed my head in order to collect my thoughts. “Belief in the existence of a human spiritual component, a soul if you will, that survives and transcends bodily death, is universal to all religions, too,” I said, “and all but the more nihilistic philosophies.” The muffled acoustics of my voice seemed now those of a confined space and lent to me the impression that I was speaking inside a trunk or a casket or with heavy blankets pulled up over my head, much removed from the spacious room in which Margaret’s recital shrilled. “Prayer itself is a form of communion with the other side.”

Harry’s foot-tapping continued. I imagined him hopping, running, fleeing his daughter’s cries, and, only by biting the inside of my lip, was able to suppress an inappropriate urge to giggle. Blood salted the tip of my tongue. Something ethereal tickled my cheek, and, just before opening my eyes, I thought of Annabelle. “Christian mythology is rife with ghosts and spirits. After his crucifixion, Jesus’s appeared—”

“Yeah, I know the scripture,” he interrupted, nodding vigorously. This didn’t surprise me. Extensive memorization is essential to Masonic Degree Proficiency. Our rituals and catechisms are both exhaustive and arcane. Harry, the first Southern Baptist president, began to recite as if reading from a King James Bible open on his lap:


“And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus,the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you.


Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.”


Harry’s Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed. “Yick! But I bet a lot of people see a hell of a lot crazier shit than that all the time. Nuthouses are full of the poor sons of bitches...” His voice had trailed off as though distracted. For a moment he appeared to doze, then waking with a snort. “This is the hauntedest house in America, sure as shootin!”

In hushed asides so as not to frighten our dear Annabelle, but with a mischievous sparkle in her pretty eyes, Lucy, who thrived on such lore, had indeed told me things: of the Lincolns’ Green Room séances to contact their little son Willie who’d died of typhus there, and of Abraham himself still knocking on doors late at night, tapping people on the shoulder; of the entrepreneur who’d sold the land on which the White House stood, said to on occasion announce himself from the second floor’s Yellow Oval Room; of Dolly Madison guarding her precious rose garden; of Anne Surratt pleading for her mother’s life; of deceased ushers and doormen seen still on the job; of a British soldier from the War of 1812 who walks the grounds at night, torch in hand, still trying to burn the place down; of a black cat whose appearance heralds national crises.

“History attracts ghosts,” I observed. Margaret’s diamond-tipped voice howled like a cold wind as I followed Harry’s gaze to the record turning on the Philco. Its fine grooves seemed to reflect the chandelier’s light in a colorful spiraling illusion of oil on water. A hypnotic effect. Still absorbed in Lucy’s spooky tales, I watched Hamilton climb down from his perch above the fireplace, draw a long pistol with a curved wooden handle then fire it into the air, and for a moment sensed that were I to look into the giltwood mirror it would not be my reflection I saw looking back.

“Okay, I’ll say this—” Harry began, but then appeared to reconsider, interrupting himself under the pretext of making minor adjustments to the Philco’s dials. “This is my favorite part, here.”

“I’m a Doubting Thomas, myself,” I admitted, sensing he’d been about to reveal something pertinent to my invitation, hoping to pick up our conversational thread. “Doubt is the cornerstone of science. I too would’ve had to see Jesus for myself. Even now I question the veracity of that account.”

His stillness seemed to encourage I continue.

“But then perhaps any religion’s greatest failing is in taking its myths and metaphors too literally. ‘Truth’s the clapper less the bell\Imagination’s brittle shell\Die and it may serve you well,’” I quoted, realizing I’d digressed, but finding it easier to listen to my own voice than Margaret’s. “Death harbors no individual, and no agenda,” I opined. “There are no chain-rattling ghosts in our basements or attics, only in our minds.” I was about to expound that if there were in fact any possible interaction between this life, this corporeal, physical plane, and whatever becomes of us in the hereafter, then surely—given how many have gone before, how many die tragically each and every day with so much unfinished business—there’d be much more of it. That we no more exist after death than before conception. But it occurred to me then that perhaps my mother’s demise had left me cynical. For if there’d been any way she could have visited us, consoled us, apologized for or explained to us her overdose, she would have. But she hadn’t. Even as Father poured himself into an early grave, she’d said nothing, done nothing. All that had remained of her were our memories and a puddle of her bilious vomit; whatever else had ceased to be.

The chandelier’s beads tinkled softly as Eugene the butler entered pushing a service trolley carrying a silver tray and coffee set. Harry raised a hand to stay his progress then, mercifully, turned down the volume on the Philco, reducing Margaret’s wails to sighs. “I’d take it even one step further,” he whispered, looking fixedly at me as though to scorch me through his lenses. “I wouldn’t believe unless someone else—someone I could trust—saw, too.” White as marble, Harry stared at me until I understood.

Then he beckoned the butler over. “Thank you, Eugene. But I think we’ll take our refreshment in the Oval Office instead. Just leave it by the desk.”

“Certainly, sir.” Eugene’s sharp about-face in returning to the trolley suggested military training.

“Him walking around up here makes me goddamn nervous,” said Harry when we were again alone. “These old floors are pretty punchy. Do you play poker?” His expression radiated childlike guilelessness and hope.      


“Poker?” Surely I had not been invited to the White House for cards. “I know the game,” I ventured. “But haven’t played since college, and then only for pennies. Gambling’s for optimists. We pessimists take no pleasure in happenstance.”

Harry, who would become the last US President not to retire a millionaire, began to chuckle. “Goddamn, but I think you’re right, John. Hell, I think you might’ve just saved me a small fortune, too. An outlook as positive as mine needs a stricter nanny.”


“But I have twenty dollars if you’d care to give me a lesson,” I challenged. Though even as I did, I regretted my hubris. Lucy would be dismayed. Not over the money, but the bill itself, that I’d forsake such a wonderful memento. I was sure she’d already allocated a place of distinction for it in one of her many scrapbooks.

Applause for Margaret’s performance melded into smooth, crackling white-noise. “Fair enough!” said Harry, standing. “Let’s go play at my desk.” He shut off the Philco, carefully lifted the needle, again wiped the record then, holding it by its edge, slid it into a waxed envelope. The room felt empty without Margaret. I realized I’d been shouting.

An explosion of sunlight streaming through three floor-to-ceiling windows greeted us as we entered the Oval Office. Directly in front of the center window, between an American and a Presidential flag with matching golden-eagled finials, stood a console table cluttered with books and framed photographs and what appeared to be a short-wave radio receiver. Harry began pulling down roller blinds, dimming our  surroundings like a swiftly approaching thunderhead. The floor’s enormous throw rug, its Presidential seal molded as in dried mud, exactly matched the drapes, a shadowy gray that spread like smoke into the room’s single elliptical wall’s mushroom-colored paint and the furniture’s dusty-rose upholstery. The entire office exuded an overcast opulence, the earthy lushness of a pending storm. Harry’s bric-a-brac littered desk seemed an extension of the console table, both being of the same height and made of the same lustrous cherry or mahogany wood. To the right, a seascape’s single sailing ship, possibly the Mayflower, hung above a television with an almost foot-wide screen. To the left, a bewigged George Washington in full military regalia gazed Napoleonically out over a world globe.

“Drag one of those chairs over,” said Harry, producing from his desk a large wooden tray of poker chips and a deck of playing cards. “Coffee?” His hand shook as he poured. “You know I once took Churchill for over two-hundred dollars,” he boasted, “though Winston was roaring damn drunk at the time.” Then, like Moses parting the Red Sea, he began pushing aside with his forearms items cluttering his desk: a statuette of Chief Blackhawk; a clock barometer; a 4-H paperweight; a letter opener and a pair of scissors; an ear of corn in Lucite; two engraved ashtrays; a small naval cannon on a wooden base; a bust of Artigas; General Lee on horseback.

According to Lucy, who remembered having heard it on, of all places, ABC’s “You Bet Your Life” radio quiz show, Harry had first announced the atom bomb’s readiness and his intent to use it on Japan to members of the White House press corps during a poker game aboard the USS Augusta. I removed the twenty from my billfold and laid it on his desk. Harry picked it up, squinted at the red writing, then placed it along with a twenty of his own under a wooden desk sign with “The BUCK STOPS here!” written on the side facing me. Then he divvied out two rows of chips, each embossed with the Presidential seal. Judging by the emptied tray’s worn varnish, they’d seen a lot of action. He began to shuffle. “Ever heard of a game called, seven-card, low hole card wild?” The cards riffled back and forth in his hands like a tiny bird trying desperately, over and over, to escape. “You’re gonna love it! First we each get three cards. Two you keep down as your hole cards, one you can turn up that we both use. Then two more cards are dealt up for a total of four shared. Then we each get one last hole card down. Your low hole card’s wild, so each player’s guaranteed at least one. We bet before each of the last three. How about say two-bits—that’s one chip—two raises max? With more people we’d play high-low, but with just the two of us, let’s say best hand only takes it.” He looked up to see if I was following. Like anger, gambling seemed to balloon and rejuvenate him. “Hell, best way to learn is to just play.”

And so we played.

Bruce Lambert, Harry’s longtime friend, supporter and poker buddy back in the early 20’s when Harry’d been Jackson County’s court commissioner, would years after his death remember him as a  “chump” who always stayed to the end of the hand, who always had to know what your hole card was. And indeed it soon became apparent that Harry never bluffed and never folded. This rendered moot his better understanding of the odds and allowed us to play on into the afternoon and evening, pushing chips back and forth with neither side prevailing.

Not having slept more than an hour or two since the previous morning, and now adjusting to another time zone, I found myself drifting in and out and might have nodded off completely but for the sound of Harry’s chips clacking into the pot, a mounting sense of being watched, and the trembling of the earth whenever, like a weighty apparition, the butler would materialize with fresh coffee and snacks. But Harry looked no less weary. As I shuffled the cards in my own slow smushing way, his head lolled gradually forward until his chin touched his bow-tie.

Again a door opened, the floor shook and the windows rattled. “Will there be anything more before I turn in?” asked Eugene.

Harry woke with a grunt, stood and began raising blinds. Out on the lawn, stars twinkled through a moonlit oak’s dark skeleton, a burnt brainstem’s outward-branching neurons preserved as melanitic char. “No,” he replied, “we’re fine. Sweet dreams.”

“Yours as well then, sirs,” said Eugene. “Night staff will attend to you henceforth. Please don’t hesitate to ring should you require anything.” He looked at me. “We’ve made up the Lincoln room with fresh towels and bedding.”


Harry laughed. “Of all the dead presidents wandering around this place, he’s the biggest pain in the ass. Abe doesn’t say much, usually just sits on the bed chuckling at some funny bit of theater improv, hoping you’ll stick your finger in the hole behind his left ear. Momma refused to sleep in his room, not because she was afraid of him but only because she supported the Confederacy. You ready to turn in?”

Though we were both fading fast, neither much concerned with the game, I shook my head. In our twilight state of too much coffee and too little sleep, the cards had become a catalyst, divining like the Tarot of a future indivisible from its past. Perhaps remembering another time, Harry dealt an extra hand, then made no effort to conceal his hole cards: three deuces. Though it would have seemed not to matter which he kept, he studied them until his chin again found his bow-tie and he spoke in the mumbled non sequiturs of the somnambulant: “James Byrnes wanted to drop it on an urban area to show the Ruskies what we’re capable of...” A thin strand of drool dangled from his lip, rising and falling like a yo-yo with each breath. “Henry Stimson insisted we pop the next one right away...” His eyelids fluttered. “Too bad for Nagasaki it’s cloudy over Kokura...” Even though I hadn’t made a bet, he pushed one of his chips into the pot. “I call!”

Reaching for a chip of my own to play, I instead picked up a small red plastic hotel and placed it on Oriental Avenue’s turquoise title. Lucy rolled the dice from Jail, landing on burnt-orange St James Place built up with two green houses. Beside me, Annabelle bounced up and down excitedly. “Pay!” she squealed, waking me.

Lucy had told me how the White House’s upper floors were off limits to tourists without a congressman’s note. Certainly visiting hours had passed. And surely the Secret Service never slept. Yet someone had managed to enter the office. “War!” said Harry looking much revived. “That’s their game. But trust me, it’s different how they play it. You see her don’t you, John?” he asked, his voice brittle with trepidation.

It was hard to say what I saw. He’d turned the lights off. The only illumination now came from grounds and façade lighting, the moon’s low bubble waiting to be pricked by the Washington Monument, and the short-wave’s radiant dials and gauges, all of which the newcomer seemed to absorb rather than reflect, appearing as a tiny shrouded figure, visible mainly for what it obstructed, like a discarnate shadow cast to Harry’s right. He’d completely cleared his desk. Through tall, spit-shined windows the ancient cosmos twinkled in its lustrous finish.

There came from behind me a gentle knocking on the farthest of the four doors leading out into the West Wing. “That’s probably just  McKinley climbed down from his painting again,” explained Harry. “Poor bugger. Such a horrible, slow death: gangrene from a gut shot.” On another door, the rapping continued. “Still, nicest damn guy you’d ever want to meet. You know what he said after that crazy asshole Leon shot him? He said, ‘Be careful how you tell my wife.’ Really! Mortally wounded, shot clean through the stomach, the bullet lodged somewhere deep in his back where the surgeons never did find it, and his biggest concern’s how’s Ida gonna take it. Then, when men from the crowd and members of his own guard jump on and begin subduing the son of a bitch, you know what he says? He says, ‘Go easy on him, boys.’ Seriously! Hell, I’d have lived just to see that bastard torn limb from limb.” Harry cocked his head at another spate of soft, insistent tapping, now on the nearest door. “She’s not in here!” he called out, then whispering, “He’s looking for his wife. Poor Ida, a beautiful but helpless woman who just curled up and died six years after him. Probably convalescing up in one of the servants’ bedrooms.” Briefly Harry hung his head. “I’d ask Will in, but he doesn’t care much for War. Prefers concord and assimilation to conflict and conquest. “Let’s see what you got,” he said, nudging the visitor with his elbow.

As the figure leaned forward to lay a card in the center of the desk, there reflected in its polished surface the face of a little girl about Annabelle’s age. But where Annabelle of dark ringlets, rosy complexion and winsome features was almost unbearably beautiful, this child was hideously ugly and deformed. Thick keloids’ puckered tendrils bulged on her throat and cheeks like a demon’s gnarled hands, kneading and twisting when she frowned. Sallow skin, gray as the rug beneath our feet, covered her hairless scalp. Cataracts like curdled cream totally obliterated her pupils.


“Nothing to be afraid of,” said Harry, probably sensing my shock. “You get used to ‘em. Look at her card.”

I looked. It was of a suit I’d never seen: an apple with a bite missing that I assumed to be an iconic allusion to Eve’s eating of the forbidden fruit in Genesis 3:6. Also, the entire card glowed like a television’s screen, but far more lucidly. Color cathode-ray tubes were still a dozen years away, liquid crystal displays perhaps another fifty, with 3D and ultra-thin surface-conduction and carbon-nanotube displays evolving not long after. So even before there appeared in the card a little girl’s perfect face, high-cheeked and almond-eyed but smiling with the innocence and thrall that renders such racial attributes superficial and children everywhere adorable, it struck me as magic. Perhaps a trick involving mirrors or hypnosis. For it seemed to project as opposed to merely display images, so that instead of pictures on a screen, it was like an utterly transparent lens enlarging another reality. The digital technologies that would antiquate Harry’s Philco, too, lay forty years ahead, with micro-transduction amplification and ventriloquous projection another score again. So when a child’s voice began to effuse from the air itself, speaking as if for my ears only, so intimately as to almost tickle my earlobes with her breath, to be barely distinguishable from thought, I put this down to magic, too.

“Hello, my name is Keiko.”


“You hear her, right?” whispered Harry, leaning forward. “Right?”

“Yes,” I nodded, “I can.”

Harry exhaled. “Different story each time...”

“I am in the first grade at Shiroyalna Primary School.” As she touched the card, its view zoomed back to reveal a large, modern ferro-concrete building disgorging from its central doors children of all ages carrying books and lunchboxes, skipping and chattering into the misty sort of sunlight one associates with rainbows. “But today school has been cancelled. An Instructor from the Military has told everyone to go directly home or to a shelter.” It’s touching how children add import to authority. How their sweet voices drop to convey respect, how seriously their words mete out awe and reverence in relating our directions. One of her fingernails had peeled back. She pressed it into its bed before again touching the card wherein now it could be seen that the school stood on a hillside surrounded by woods. A thin, persistent wail not unlike Margaret’s singing echoed in the distance. “Many bombs have fallen. Every day the sirens warn us. It is nothing new. The Instructor from the Military has said the situation is under control and there is no reason to be afraid if you follow procedure. Like if you hear an airplane flying, especially very high, do not look up. It is hardest for boys.” It’s precious, I thought, how children enhance our narratives with their own. In the card, from higher still, a quiet, well-planned residential district grew. Bicyclists and pedestrians waved as they passed each other on tree-lined avenues alive with quacking tree frogs, buzzing honey bees and the coo and clatter of doves and woodpeckers. “Some listen for the airplanes, hoping they will come.” There opened up below us then a dense surrounding metropolis of busy thoroughfares lined with shops and factories, well-maintained houses and apartment complexes overlooking grassy parks’ ponds and temples and a breathtakingly beautiful bay aflock with swans, egrets, herons and eagles, all within a city of crisscrossing waterways nestled into green hills. “No one wants to sit in rows like garden vegetables and be told what to know.” The droning harmony of a flying super-fortress’s four engines became felt more than heard. “No one wants to sit in a crowded bunker and be safe either. So I walk into the forest where I am not afraid of snakes.” Cloud cover began to obscure visibility as the supercharged whine of air-cooled combustion blended with a rushing wind. “There are tiny fish in the stream you can catch in a cup.” The view through the card lurched suddenly upwards as if relieved of a great weight. “It is good luck to catch a red-bellied newt. But you mustn’t hurt them.” Then, through the card, we fell. “So that is what I am doing away from school. I am looking for newts to catch and make a wish. Also for snakes for my father’s garden so they will eat mice and he will laugh and say, ‘Keiko, you are better than any son!’ and seem a little nervous. I think someday I will learn more about
these animals.” Then, just as we had risen, faster and faster we fell, through blue sky and silver clouds and, just as the upturned faces of school children and the fiery splash of a cherry-tree’s dying leaves became visible and nature’s laughter and song could again be heard, all sight and sound vanished so completely that even the Oval Office in which we sat now appeared as at the center of an endless, milky-grey void. “There was a light too bright to see, a sound too loud to hear, a pain too great to feel.” As there came gradually into focus an otherworldly scene of nightmarish desolation, it occurred to me that every religion also has its purgatory. For miles, as far as could be seen, a ravenous black sky sucked ash and dust up from burning rubble, the only sounds now distant screams and the hissing roar of hell rising.

Harry stood and turned on the lights. “So what’d you see?”

I had to clear my throat before speaking. “Hiroshima?”

“Nagasaki actually. That idiot Sweeny missed the downtown core by over a mile or we’d of killed twice as many. General LeMay said it best: ‘You fucked up, didn’t you Chuck?’ But that’s not the thing. The thing is, you saw it too. I’m not nuts!” The items from his desk lay scattered around it on his rug like debris from a blast, or maybe a flood. On the other side of his wooden desk-sign I now saw was written “I’M FROM  MISSOURI,” referring to skepticism, Missouri being the “Show me” state. Our reflections in the dark windows stared back at us. “We’re working on one now’s supposed to be a thousand times more powerful,” he said. “Sure as shit, no one’ll ever make war with us again.” But the girl and her card were gone.

Harry picked my twenty up off the floor and handed it to me. “Let’s call it a push. I’m beat. What do ya say we hit the hay?”

The Lincoln Room’s tapestries appeared cut from that in the Treaty Room and made me wonder how many acres of these rugs lay about the mansion. The chandelier of globes and dangling prisms had probably once held candles. The marble fireplace resembled the others I’d seen, as did the paintings and antiques arranged about the huge chamber. Perhaps due to my weariness, the most distinctive feature of the Lincoln Bedroom was the bed. An enormous rosewood headboard and large footboard towered over a (lumpy) mattress so long that, even stretching, I could barely touch intricately carved birds and grapevines with my hands and feet at the same time, and so wide that, lying in the middle, I could not reach either side. According to Lucy, it was the same bed little Willie Lincoln had died in. Indeed, instead of a pillow, I noticed tucked into its great hand-stitched sail of a quilt a small boy curled into the fetal position: fragile, emaciated, with dark circles under his eyes. Lincoln himself had apparently never slept in this bed. But which did not stop him from sitting on the edge as I fell asleep. Perhaps it was his brooding silence, or the smell of wood smoke and paraffin and a wooly hint of body odor, or the way his long moon-shadow fell across my face and the way the mattress sagged. But I knew it was him. Lucy had told me that of all the rooms in the White House, this was the worst. I heard the crinkle of a page turning and realized he was reading. I didn’t mind. Mother had often read me bedtime stories that continued wordlessly after I fell asleep. Perhaps that is why Abe’s presence made the room cozier, less foreign, somehow more familiar. When there came a polite tapping on the door, I simply called out, “She’s upstairs.”

“No, it’s me, Harry,” said Harry. “I ain’t dead. Mind if I sleep in here with you?” He sounded on the verge of tears.

“No. Yes. Sure.” Abe stood as I went to open the door.

Harry entered followed by what at first I thought to be several long black lizards, but then realized were children crawling on their bellies, their skin burnt completely away. He never asked me if I saw them too. Instead we both just climbed into Lincoln’s big ornate bed and slept till morning. Then, much refreshed, we returned to our lives, me to my writing and teaching, he to campaigning for his second term. We spoke no more of our time together. Though he did invite me to return, to bring my lovely wife, even wrote a note, adding that if it ever failed to gain us entry into any part of the mansion, someone would get a punch in the snoot. Lucy clapped her hands when she read it. Then she put it in a scrapbook.

A week later Harry moved across the street, and the palace that had been built by slaves and free men working side by side a century-and-a-half earlier was demolished, and its ghosts along with it. Rebuilt, it looked the same, but wasn’t. We visited a number of times over the years. And always its restored architecture, endless redecorations and rearrangements of Victorian and rococo furnishings and vast collection of art and artifacts failed to disguise what had become a thoroughly modern fortress. All the steel and concrete available in Washington at the time had gone into constructing in its once dank subbasement the safest fallout shelter in the world. Harry moved out for good in January of ’53 a few days after the first hydrogen bomb’s ten-megaton test detonation vaporized over three-hundred million cubic meters of Bikini Atoll rock. He died in ’72, before the end of Viet Nam.


So it wasn’t until the next millennium that I, now an old man, saw him again, standing down by the Grand Staircase where we’d first met. We had new warfare now, all covert ops and drones. I’d heard the White  House had new ghosts now, too, the kind that gnaw on your feet at night and try to choke you in your sleep. Annabelle and her granddaughter, Lucy, had accompanied me on this trip but were off touring the satin-walled Red Room, ogling and awing over its French Empire derived furnishings’ richly carved and finished woods decorated with ormolu mounts. Harry should be proud, I thought. We had our first black President. Since having served with blacks in WW-I, he’d always championed civil rights, even appointed the first African-American Ambassador. I would’ve liked to stay and chat, but Lucy, my wife, who’d died the year before, wanted to go see the cherry trees around the Washington Monument, now in rare full bloom. She loved the rosy fragrance beneath their ephemeral pink clouds. They came from Japan, she reminded me tugging on my hand, over three-thousand of them, given to us in 1912 to celebrate a growing friendship. I was a little surprised Harry recognized me. He hadn’t aged at all. Saw him spread the fingers of his right hand as though about to wave but then restrain himself. Gave a little nod instead after making eye contact through those ashtray-thick goggles of his. Watched him pucker up, seem to mouth a wiseass little smooch. But then realized that wasn’t it. That inane kissing wasn’t in his character. That he was just saying, “Boo!”