Magazine article USA TODAY

An Ode to Maxy Noble: The 50th Anniversary of the Japanese Bombing of Pearl Harbor Brings Personal Memories as Well as National Commemorations. (USA Yesterday)

Magazine article USA TODAY

An Ode to Maxy Noble: The 50th Anniversary of the Japanese Bombing of Pearl Harbor Brings Personal Memories as Well as National Commemorations. (USA Yesterday)

Article excerpt

NEW YORK'S SPIRES pierced shrouds of mist pressing down upon the city while wind cut into a matching cap and coat Mom had bundled me in that morning. As autumn's chill slithered across the harbor, the water churned between the U.S.S. Leonard Wood and its old pier, then, when our vessel sliced the bay, gulls circling its stern screeched warily at blasts from the ship's horn. Six decades later, that lonely, ominous sound still echoes.

The first night out, our liner plunged relentlessly through foaming Atlantic swells that sent Mom to bed with what she called "terminal real de mer," but dawn broke upon a tranquil ocean and balmy skies which held until we entered the Panama Canal. My father, a U.S. Army doctor with orders to the Philippines, took us on a shopping spree in Cristobal, and I returned with a toy rifle. Mom had selected a Chinese rug, and the shopkeeper wrapped it around a wooden peg, then had it stowed in our cabin. Later, I found that, when the sun struck our porthole just right, I could peel back its fringe and the deep blue nap would glisten as if kissed by morning dew. Ultimately, it was unrolled in our house in Hawaii on a sunny street bordering the parade ground two blocks from Wheeler Field.

While the Leonard Wood's wake melted into a slate-green Pacific, its wireless operator translated the dashes and dots of a communique to my father from the War Department. How could we know then that it was a reprieve, a call from the governor's office? Our destination had been changed from Manila to Honolulu. If it hadn't, you would not be reading this.

Hawaiian breezes were perfumed by fragrant tropical flowers; avocados fell from a tree in our front yard; and surf strummed the sands of Diamond Head. Sometimes, Mom would read to me from A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh series; other times, when she'd had enough, I would tag along some golf course with my father and Maxy Noble.

There still were horse soldiers in those days. Maj. Noble, a West Pointer, cavalry officer, and my father's best friend, would drop by our house for "one" beer, then they would spend lazy afternoons swapping lies and cussing Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt. Every time Maxy knocked on our lanai's screen door, he gleamed and glittered. A saber dangled from his left hip, and silver spurs spun on cavalry boots which held a spit-shine like I've never seen since. A Sam Browne belt's diagonal strap ran up across his chest to disappear under a khaki epaulet, but mostly it was the hat. Its leather noose rose jauntily from just below his dimple and hugged square jaws up to a wide brim with a dome circled by gold braid and tassels on its front.

The U.S. Cavalry drilled on the parade ground across from our street. Twice a month, Maxy would lead three columns of mounted, steely-eyed soldiers to "troop the line." Awestruck, I squatted on a curb with neighborhood kids waiting for him to spur his steed toward us, then, with practiced dexterity, he would reach down and I'd vault into space. Straddling his charger, I'd clasp that Sam Browne belt while we cantered to a reviewing stand amid pennants popping in the breeze. A metallic whisper of steel and sunlight glinting on a saber was the prelude to his crisp command: "Eyyyes, right!" His blade would flash, tip freezing at a perfect 45-degree angle to ground quivering with hoofbeats as every head snapped right. After the last trooper cleared the reviewing stand, Maxy would wheel his mount, spur it into a gallop, and return me to the peanut gallery. His horse would slow when we approached my pals and he'd lower me into a sprint, usually resulting in my taking an end-over-end tumble, but I'd rise like a victorious phoenix; these kids were now my troopers!

Then, a long shadow fell across my world: Maxy and his band were ordered to Manila. I wept when he left because the elegance of our island dissolved like wisps of rising smoke. Even though other people inhabited my life, Maxy Noble was gone. …

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