Alice and the Sword

That title sounds like a Disney movie but it’s not. It is the story of how I came into possession of my Naval Officer’s ceremonial sword.

I came home at 18 from my freshman year at Cornell in 1960 to discover that my mother had run off again. This time to be with the loser who would be husband Number Three. That sounds like something from a stupid TV game show, but it’s not.

She had done it before. She had left Husband Number One, my birth father, when I was 2 or 3 years old. Actually, I don’t know who took off first because Hubby One, Bill Doran, disappeared at the same time. I never saw him again until I was 18 and looked him up. Never did find out where the two of them went.

I was turned over to the custody of my great aunt Lottie and her husband Paul. They were broke and we moved around from one relative and farm to another.

My mother returned when I was in the 3rd grade with Husband Number Two, Clyde Draper, and we moved to a slum in Pittsburgh while he attended watchmaker’s school. We then moved to Woodlawn, NY, an industrial area where we lived in Clyde’s brother’s cheap hotel. Actually, I spent much of my time on my uncle’s farm where my aunt Lottie now lived.

Clyde took my Mother’s departure hard. He ranted and raved and would not stop talking about it. Frankly, Clyde was not an easy man to live with before the divorce. He had been a Marine in the Pacific and participated in several landings. As I think about it now it seems likely that he suffered from PTSD before it had a name or was widely understood. He could hardly be described as a warm man and he was cheap. I had to save my money from my paper route and babysitting jobs to buy my baseball glove and bow and arrow. For my four years at Cornell he gave me a total of $400. Not quite enough. At the end of my Freshman year I quit my job waiting tables to study for finals the last two weeks and that ended my food program. I lived on wheat germ and sugar I stole from the cafeteria. Pete told me years later that if Alice had known that she would have had a fit!

He didn’t beat me at least not physically. It’s just that he wasn’t THERE. Although we eventually had a cottage on Lake Erie I do not remember a time when he took me fishing and he never took me hunting or attended any of my sporting events. That was OK, but now the situation had become miserable and impossible.

A friend of mine, Pete Gannon, and his family lived in a big house in Lakeview and they offered me a place to stay. I had a room on one end of the house all to myself and the Gannon’s home would be my home for the next six years. Pete and I had been good friends for several years in high school and along with another good friend, Bill Vogt, formed what we called “The Constipated Trio”.

Gordon Gannon was a successful attorney in downtown Buffalo back when it was a thriving city. That was before Buffalo deteriorated into a town half the size it was before all the industry left. He was a great golfer and fantastic wing shot. A big gregarious Irish guy with an infectious laugh, he was easy to like.

Alice, his wife was a blunt, hard smoking and outspoken woman who played the role of the socialite and hostess with aplomb. The frequently abrasive façade hid a heart of pure gold. I think she thought of me as another one of her kids. I discovered that somehow she had gotten her hands on the commissioning picture of me in my dress blue uniform and it hung on her wall until her death. Then for years it hung on Pete’s wall. I often wondered where she got it since I didn’t have one myself. I finally figured out that her address was the one I used on all my Navy paperwork. It WAS after all my home address. So it was Alice who got the news release of my graduation from The Basic part of the training.
She sent it to the newspaper.

The plans for Loi and I to be married were proceeding while I was finishing up my training to become a Navy SEAL. The date was set for two weeks after I completed Army Parachute Training at Ft. Benning, GA. I had no role in those plans. Loi’s widowed Mom had little money and neither did I so the festivities were to be modest. Alice played a role as if she were my actual Mother. She called the etiquette writer at the Buffalo Evening News for some advice on how to arrange the seating chart for all my parents who planned on showing up for the wedding. I don’t have a clue who invited them but Bessie and her third husband, Clyde and his new wife and Bill Doran and his wife all planned to attend the “rehearsal dinner” that Alice had set up for the Wanakah Country Club where the Gannons were members. Gordon had been club champion several times. As for Alice’s carefully planned etiquette seating plan….. my various parents blithely ignored it!

For the wedding I planned to wear my dress white uniform that I had never had an opportunity to wear. It had been purchased along with all my other uniforms with my uniform allowance received when I was commissioned. I also planned to wear my dress ceremonial sword that I had received as a gift from Alice when I graduated from what is now called BUDS. She was the only one who showed up at Little Creek for the ceremony. I don’t know where Alice bought the sword but I suspect that her older son had a hand in it. He was an officer in the Marine Corps Reserve. A sword has been a fixture in a Naval and Marine dress uniform for over 500 years.

When I tried on my whites a week before the wedding I got a surprise. Since my commissioning and after 8 months of brutal training, I had gained a full inch in my neck and two inches in my chest! No way to tailor the whites to fit so it was off to the tux rental place.

I never got to wear the sword…… then or ever. For over 50 years it has knocked around damp basements and unheated garages accumulating corrosion and weathering. I recently sent it to an outfit near the Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD and got it refurbished. I plan to give it to my grandson Malcolm, the only grandchild bearing my name. I am writing this so that when he reads it he will understand that it is a symbol of my affection and respect for the generous woman who gave it to me.

2 Comments

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2 Responses to Alice and the Sword

  1. I hope that Malcom will love and cherish the story behind the sword. Alice sounds like one of those kind souls who changes the lives of all who know her. I do not know what to say about your family, except that you became who you are in spite of, not because of them. We don’t get to pick our relatives, and we often love them, even though we may not like or understand how or why they do the things they do. I love the wedding picture and your graduation picture. Thank you for sharing this story.

  2. Sean Doran

    Thanks for sharing this. It’s very much appreciated. -Sean Doran

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