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Doomsday and Mr. Lincoln.

The life of her son hung in the balance. Even the President might be too late to save him.

It was in the early spring of 1865 that I was detached from my company-Company H of the 9th Massachusetts-and assigned to duty in the office of the Secretary of War at Washington. This was a move I did not particularly welcome, and when later I was told that it had come about through political influence, I was still less satisfied with it. But I was only a lieutenant, and the orders had passed far above my head, and I had no voice in the matter. The decision was taken after an appeal by a certain congressman from Boston who was thinking to gratify my father by executing a favor upon his son.

Anyhow, I reported, as directed, to the Hon. Edwin M. Stanton in his office, which he occupied as Secretary of War. The interview taught us much about each other.

He lifted papers from his desk, reviewed them, set them down, and gazed at me. I stood to attention.

"Your name is Lieutenant Amos Chittenden?"

"Yes, sir."

"You come from Boston?"

"Yes, sir."

"I have understood that people from Boston hold strong opinions. Is that true?"

"Most likely, sir, so far as matters of importance may be at issue."

"You may stand at ease, sir."

"Thank you, sir."

"You need not thank me. I ask for no thanks. I ask for no opinions either. Any matters which may arise in this office are ipso facto matters of importance. If you are to be one of my secretarial aides, you will be required to abandon your native habit of forming opinions while in my service. Any opinions formed here will be mine. Is that clear?"

"It is, sir."

"Do you think yourself qualified for this service?"

"Not knowing the service in detail, sir, I find it hazardous to say. But I do not anticipate any difficulty."

"Your confidence, Mr. Chittenden, may perhaps approach insolence."

"That I would regret, Mr. Secretary."

"How did you contrive to obtain this assignment to the safety of Washington while serving in the battlefront?"

"I wish to make it plain, Mr. Secretary, that I had no part in whatever course of action deposited me here."

"You expect me to believe that?"

To this I remained silent. Mr. Stanton flushed. He had been given a lesson in manners. He said, in an affected tone, "I seem to detect the effects of education at Harvard College in your general deportment."

"It may well be so, as I am a recent graduate of that institution."

"I trust that you learned habits of promptitude in that august academy. "

"I trust so, sir."

He turned toward a small desk in the corner opposite to his own, motioned me to it as to my post, and then resumed his study of documents before him. Such was my reception.

Thereafter, it seemed that no matter how early I arrived at the office, the secretary was there ahead of me. Though I told myself that it was not worth it to try to beat him to work in the morning, I was determined that someday he would find me at my desk, instead of the other way round.

But there he was behind his great corner desk, saying nothing when he saw me come in each morning, but only seeing me. His head didn't turn; only his eyes. His silver-rimmed spectacles had small oval lenses. They made his eyes look smaller than they were. They did not blink; they were as black as little bits of Pennsylvania anthracite in his white face, which turned pink when he was put out. He was often put out, Then he tried to act calm, but his white hands quivered in spite of all he could do. His long grizzled beard did too. He was a proud man; hardworking; smart as a new dollar; legal minded; went by the book; too proud to think anybody else his equal in all such matters.

"If you do your duty, don't ask me for praise," I heard him say to people who worked for him. "I do my duty, and nobody praises me, nor do I expect it."

One day he scornfully added to these remarks, "If any of you want buttering up, go see Mr. Lincoln. He always has plenty of goose grease to give out."

If I set down so much about him, it is because I am concerned to give for my own satisfaction an account of matters "of importance" which, once begun in my thought, will not lie quiet till completed.

I will therefore state that on the morning of April 14, 1865, 1 came in at ten minutes to eight. Mr. Stanton was writing. He always had papers to do, and kept the taper burning on his desk for his sealing wax. Without stopping his pen, which I could hear, he watched me to my desk in my corner of his private office, and only when I got out on my own work did he let me be. In the next room the telegraphhad already started up. There was nobody in there to answer it. The major was late.

At eight o'clock the secretary got out his big silver watch and looked at it. He might just as well have said out loud, "He's late, and there's the telegraph to be answered. Somebody will pay for this." He put the watch on the desk where he could keep his eye on it. I certainly felt glad not to be the major, for the reception that was building up for him.

The secretary signed, folded, and sealed half a dozen papers before the major actually arrived. Then we heard a heavy door close gently in the telegraph room, which meant that the major had come in from the corridor to his own office instead of entering through the secretary's main door. The secretary glanced toward the other office and then took up his watch to fix the major's exact degree of tardiness.

He then turned to me and said, "Lieutenant, fetch the major in here."

In the next room, I found the major opening the slats of his shutters. I nodded to him to go in to the secretary. He shrugged, giving me a wink. I didn't want to go back to my desk to listen to his dressing-down, but knew I had to. So I did.

"I'm sorry, sir," the major said, standing beside the secretary's desk. "I couldn't help being late."

There was no answer to this but the itching noise of the secretary's pen going along the page with the self-content of a man who was never wrong. The major glanced at me, and the secretary observed this-how, I do not know, but he looked up, and said in his high, dry voice, "Do you know precisely how late you are, major?"

The major reached for his own watch.

"Do not trouble, sir," said the secretary. "I can tell you. You are precisely 14 minutes late. It would be bad enough if you had a private employer. But you do not, sir. You are employed by the public of the United States, who pay your salary out of tax levies in the interest of the war. I represent that public in my position as Secretary of War. I will not tolerate--"

The major, with a frontiersman's sense of justice, interrupted, which amazed me.

"As I told you, Mr. Secretary," he said, "I couldn't "help being late. The streets are so

crowded nobody can get through."

"And why are they crowded, major?"

"Why, as you must know, sir, it's General Grant. He is in town, and wherever his carriage--"

"Ah, yes. He has managed a sort of notoriety with his victories."

It was not the first time I had noticed that Mr. Stanton was displeased by the approaching end of the war. Lee had already surrendered to Grant, and all that remained was for Sherman to take the surrender of Johnston. Mr. Stanton made no secret in the office that he believed the South should be beaten so badly that she could never again hold up her head. The President took the opposite view, which had already prevailed in the merciful terms of surrender given by Grant to Lee. If there was bad blood between Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Stanton, this was the cause of it, I'd say. The major did not answer the secretary now, for it was evident he could not do so with respect.

The secretary flushed and said, "You've wasted enough of my time, and your own, major. Get your tablet. I will dictate."

While he waited for the major to return, the secretary nibbled on some imaginary kernel of something, which made his whiskers shake rapidly. Then, when the major was ready, sitting alongside, he dictated, watching every stroke of the major's pencil, and frowning, and nodding forcefully, as if to control the pencil himself:

"The Secretary of War and Mrs. Edwin M. Stanton beg to decline the gracious invitation of the President and Mrs. Lincoln to attend the theater this evening, April 14, 1865, at half after eight o'clock."

The major could not help looking up in astonishment at the words he had written down.

The secretary understood him and snapped, "That is all, major. And never mind having any opinions as to this. I would rather be rudely sincere by absenting myself than politely hypocritical by attending."

"Yes sir," the major replied. "I didn't mean anything, only a presidential invitation is usually--" He thought it wise to change the subject. Standing up to his full height, and stretching his big arms downward with a boylike sort of good-natured strength-he was a powerfully made fellow-the major said"I'll be in the audience tonight, sir, I expect. We have tickets."

"Have my note copied very neatly," the secretary ordered, "and send it instantly to the White House by orderly. And one thing more, major. "

"Yes, sir?"

"I believe I shall require you to remain on duty this evening, here."

"On duty?" the major repeated. It was hard to swallow, with all his plans for the evening.

"You will have to forgo your theater engagement, sir. Something might come through on the wire, and if it did, you would convey it to me."

The major's voice cracked when he exclaimed, "I had no idea I'd be late this morning, Mr. Secretary. I left home in plenty of time."

"That's very unpleasant of you, sir," the secretary stated, with almost a smile on his mouth, but not in his eyes. "Your being late has nothing to do with my orders. Please attend to my message to the White House immediately."

For an hour or more there was quiet in the office; but the air seemed-to me, anyhow-full of what we all thought of each other. As the major came and went with dispatches, not even official words were exchanged. He was about to retire to his own telegraph room from one of his little forays when, without knocking, the corridor orderly opened the main door and said, in military style, "The President, sir!"

Mr. Lincoln came into the office backward, bending over a little and wagging a worn, plain woman in after him. I had not seen him many times, and it struck me right droll that all I could see of him that morning, at first, was long coattails and long flat back, and dark hair ragged over his crumpled white collar, and his black stovepipe hat, which was dented and rubbed the wrong way.

Now, contrary to much opinion, I regard Mr. Lincoln as the most remarkable man of the age. I know all the arguments against him, and some of them have point. But I do declare that if you could listen to what he had to say and really hear it, what you heard was the voice of one who really respected human nature, and tried to account for it, all of it, good and bad. I'd heard better speakers-the Reverend Mr. Parker, at home, and several of my professors at Harvard. I'd seen grander-looking public figures-Senator Sumner and Secretary Chase. I'd encountered better-educated men--Mr. Emerson, for example. But with all his rumpled, loose-hanging garments, and his pale-brown face with its warts and its gullies, and his gangling movements, Mr. Lincoln had something shining straight out of the heavy shadows under his brows that went right to you. Sometimes you thought he'd crumple up with fatigue before your eyes, but then he'd crack a joke or just look at you in silence, and you would nod your head and agree with what he really was, no matter how he might pretend to be nobody much. You did, anyhow, if you weren't Secretary Stanton.

When he saw the President bringing that old woman into the office that morning, the secretary jumped up, bright red, and cried, "Who is that, and what does this intrusion mean?"

Mr. Lincoln turned around and swept off his hat with a comical swagger, and said, "Why, this is Mrs. Ezra Grimes, from New Hampshire, Mist' Secretary. I found her wandering outside, and I brought her here to see you, because she says you refuse to see her, being a busy man and all."

The secretary squinted over his collection of official thoughts, and then said, "Grimes? Ah, yes. I have nothing further to say about the case, as I believe I have already made clear. Good day, madam."

The President turned to her and threw his long arm out in delight.

"You see?" he said to her. "I told you he'd remember the name. Memory! But we'd better ask him to reopen the case." The secretary began to speak angrily, but the President silenced him with uplifted hand. "Go on, Mrs. Grimes. Tell him."

Mrs. Grimes took a staggered breath. She was not used to grand places like this, or high people, and she touched her bonnet on top of her topknot, and it shook with her nervousness, and she felt the knotted ties on her short black cape and she tried to make herself seem smaller. But she was large, and her scrubbed, knotty hands were large, and because she was desperate, she found plenty of dignity to be who she was and where was. When she spoke, her feelings were under powerful restraint. This made her words stronger as they came.

"My boy, Charles Allen Grimes, Mr. Stanton."

The secretary nodded. He knew all about that, as did we all. He fell to his desk and dashed off a few lines while Mrs. Grimes went on talking.

"Charlie is only a few steps away from here," she said, "in Fort de Russey prison. He is ordered to be executed this morning. I wrote you from New Hampshire, all about it. I could get down there to the prison in four minutes, if I had to, with the proper order in hand."

The secretary did not answer, but held his new dispatch out to the major, who stepped forward and took it.

"Immediate, major," the secretary said, "by mounted messenger. And order him to hurry."

The major saluted and left. Mr. Lincoln watched all this quizzically.

Mrs. Grimes continued, "Charlie isn't what you'd properly call a deserter, Mr. Stanton. We're right proud people in my family, and I wouldn't be here without the truth."

The secretary sat putting little things straight on his desk, as he replied, "Madam, I am sorry for you. But I do my duty. Do not distress me by an appeal which is useless."

The President suddenly became energetic. "How's that? Useless? Don't be in such a hurry, Stanton. Listen to any woman speaking for her son's life." He frowned, and looked at them in turn, as If to wonder if he might be hurting instead of helping. He started to do the door of the telegraph office. "I'll leave this with you, now," he said. "I'll just go and scan the telegrams, in case of news from General Sherman. Stanton, you hear her now, mind!" He went out quickly and shut the door.

Mr. Stanton stood up and sat down again, furious, saying, "What earthly good is it to torture ourselves, when-----"

"As I wrote you, sir," Mrs. Grimes declared, hardly and clearly, "Charlie came home on furlough to Lebanon, New Hamshire, spent a month with me, and we had a real peaceful and happy time together, until the last week. Then came his trouble."

"Madam," the secretary interrupted in a flat voice, "under my duty as Secretary of War, I have sworn to myself, for the good of the American army, whose effectiveness is now necessary for the policing of the defeated enemy, that no convicted deserter shall have pardon or commutation of sentence. It is vital that we keep discipline, especially now when everyone is ready to let down and run riot over the approaching end of the war. There are simply ways to do things and ways not to do them. I have fought alone during this whole tragic conflict to maintain what you might call military proprieties! The President is against me, always has been, stops at nothing to undo what I have done! The colossal task of keeping order! Of disallowing the luxury of sympathy! You, madam, and your sort, do you imagine you make my task and easier? I must say, you try me sorely, madam!"

She took a step nearer to him at his desk. She towered over him. "But this ain't a rule, Mr. Stanton! This is my boy! This ain't your trouble ! It's mine!"

In silence the secretary took out his huge watch and squinted close at it, and I had a sudden suspicion about why he'd made such a long speech to her.

Mrs. Grimes stared at him with his watch, and then the terrible thought struck her, and she leaned out and turned his watch to see the hour. It was ten o'clock.

"Why do you show me the time?" she asked.

"It is now too late, in any case, Mrs. Grimes."

She was stricken away from him by what he told her.

"It was to be at ten o'clock?"

The secretary nodded.

Gaunt and awkward, she backed away to a leather chair and sat in it bolt upright. Her face was the color of granite. She covered her eyes with her great-boned hands. She wept and tried to hide the fact. It was like seeing a pine tree weep.

"Come, Mrs. Grimes. Come, now," the secretary said. "Better if you'd spared us both this poor show. Come. I shall have someone assist you forth, madam."

The door from the telegraph room opened. The President returned.

"Now let me hear your solution, Stanton," he said.

The secretary did not answer, but, with his small white hand held close to his chest, merely indicated the weeping woman.

"You have concluded, of course, Stanton," the President said, "to at least postpone the execution of this man until you can make further investigation?"

The secretary scowled, fearing to have the whole tedious scrape opened up again. He silently showed Mr. Lincoln his watch and made a gesture of finality.

Mr. Lincoln said loudly, "Oh, no, it ain't!"

"It is," Mrs. Grimes said, lowering her hands slowly to her lap and gripping her reticule.

The President turned a shade pale browner. "Oh no!" he cried. "It must not be! It surely ain't!" Then he went to her and took her hand, and just laid his other hand on top of hers, and said, "Well, Mother Grimes, I didn't stop to inquire the hour that was set, before. You have my deepest sympathy. I'm proud of how hard you tried to save him. I wish I'd ha' known him, the better to comfort you now."

She looked up at him and nodded. She had herself under control, but some strong need of memory made her speak her feeling to him./

"I shall tell you how 'twas anyway, Mr. Lincoln." The secretary watched them from his chair, as if in exile from any sort of feeling. "Charlie came home for his furlough, on the farm, in Lebanon, New Hampshire. I am a widow, and there's where I live. I had already given four sons to death for their country."

"Four," Mr. Lincoln said; "no, five! They who give are asked again. . . . Stanton, do you hear?" The President sounded fierce. "We've taken her fifth boy!" He turned back and pressed her hand.

"Yes, all volunteered from our farm," Mrs. Grimes resumed. "The eldest fell at the first Bull Run, that's Joe. Artie at Antietam. My poor little Phil died after Fredericksburg, though we'd thought to save him. And young Ezra at Brandy Station. And this one, Charlie, fought in all his battles only to come home to me on furlough, and there to meet the woman who brought him to this."

The secretary gave a sniff.

"He went back to his regiment," she went on, "and he would not forget her and he would not for her. He applied for leave and was refused. Meantime, she came trolloping down to Washington all the way from home, to see him. She knew he couldn't come. She knew she shouldn't write him. But she did. And he came."

She paused to collect her good heart, and then resumed with energy.

"It was only to get a kiss or two from the fool girl and go back and fight again. He was a good boy--I know he was--a big, loose-skinned, overgrown boy pumped full of humors and dear things he don't understand that drove him!"

Now she was able to release her feeling, and peaceful tears began to fall openly.

"And she--she didn't know military law, the little fool! But she cajoled him by her pleadings, for she sloved him helpless, shame's in his way, and he left camp. He was captured without a pass. And then I was telegraphed, and I came on and found him sentenced to death." She urgently pressed the President's hand. "Yesterday I saw him in the prison, and he gave me his word of honor as a man that he had not intended to desert, that he would have returned to the flag the very day he was seized. My son has never lied to me in his life, Mr. Stanton! He is no sneaking deserter. If so, I would say, 'He is not of my blood, though I bore him.'" She spoke as though he were not dead, but now she remembered, and grew weak. "He was true to his country." She bowed her head to Mr. Lincoln's hands. "He was the onlyone left to me."

The power of her feeling filled the high-ceiling room, and its effect silenced us all.

Then it was the corridor door opened and the orderly on duty called out, "The provost marshal from Fort de Russey with a prisoner, sir!"

The secretary half rose from his black chair. "What! How? Impossible!" he cried.

Mr. Lincoln turned to Mrs. Grimes and shook her arms, almost whooping, "Oh, me, oh, my! Here you are, old lady! I feared things had gone wrong, but here you are!" He turned to the orderly and said, "Send in the officer and his charge!"

The provost marshal, a stout, ruddy lieutenant colonel, entered from the hall, bringing a tall, corn-haired, tanned, houndlike youth, who was dazed and grinning, but worried.

When he saw Mrs. Grimes, he cried out, "Maw!"

She flew to him an took him in hug. She said, "Oh Charlie!" and then she was overcome by a farm woman's fury in her relief, and she scolded him, "You fool boy, you just wait till I see that girl!"

Charlie fumbled at her in embrace, and said, "Oh, shoot, maw! Lord, but I'm so glad t' see you this morning!"

"Mr. Provost Marshal," the secretary said, hardly able to speak, "I demand an explanation! Did you not receive the written order I sent you by mounted messenger within the quarter hour?"

"I did, sir," the provost marshal replied, producing a paper and holding it forth. Mr. Lincoln calmly took it from him, and did not read it, but regarded the secretary. "But the President's telegram reached me first with orders to stay the prisoner's execution and personally conduct him here, sir."

"Telegram!" Mr. Stanton exclaimed, sinking back in his chair.

Smiling with a high kind of peacefulness, the President said, "Stanton, that's where I had a little joke on you. I asked your major out there if the fort had the telegraph, and when he said yes, I knew what I could do. You're not up to the modern telegraph, Mist' Secretary; electricity beats horeseflesh."

Mr. Stanton gasped. "You wired Fort de Russey, just down the street,while we were waiting in here?"

"Why, sure," the President said with the quaintness of manner which nobody else could match. "I'd just's soon send a telegram a short way as a long way!" He took a card out of his pocket and scribbled on it, and then handed it to Mrs. Grimes. "Mrs. Grimes," he said, "here is Charlie's pardon. It was a close shave, though....Young man, your sentence to death by the court-martial is revoked by the President, who is the duly constituted reviewing officer in all cases of the death penalty. The president's pardon in this case carries with it an honorable discharge from the Army of the United States. Go home and support and cherish your noble mother who has given you a second life. And another thing, son." He went up to Charles Grimes, and put his long finger under the boy's very nose and said, in a confidential tone, "You watch your trollopin', my boy!"

Then he shooed them all, including the provost marshal, out of the office. The major withdrew discreetly. We were left with an attmosphere of considerable strain.

The President came over to face the secretary beside his desk. The secretary would not look up at him.

"Stanton," Mr. Lincoln said gently. "

Stanton," and at last the secretary looked up, and the President said quietly, "Stanton, I think I had better burn, without anybody else ever reading it, this dispatch you sent to provost marshal." So saying, he held it to the flame of the taper on the secretary's desk and only let it down into the inkwell dish when it was almost all black ash. He then found a black leather chair and let himself down into it. It was so deep it made his knees extend upward like a grasshopper's joints. He put his hand like an awning over his eyes. He looked tired and his voice was suddenly husky with tiredness.

"Stanton," he said, "I am a social failure."

The secretary regarded him stonily, not replying.

"I tried to get up a little box party for tonight," Mr. Lincoln continued, "and do you think anybody'll come to it? Not on your tintype. The major, out there, sent your note over to us at the White House."

"I'm really very sorry, Mr. President," the secretary declared coldly, "but Mrs. Stanton is indisposed."

"And the Grants have sent regrets," the President went on, "owing to the necessity of getting to Philadelphia this evening on family matters. I confess, I'm just amite vexed." He gave a scrap of a laugh, to show he was not serious, and then sobered when he added, "My wife feels it more than I do, of course, when this kind of thing happens. So it's poor excuse for a party tonight, hardly worth having at all, I do say."

"Oh,," the secretary said, "perhaps you will not go either, then?"

"Why, yes, I'll have to, recon. Not that I want to, any more than you do. I've seen the play before, and we really were having it for the Grants. But the theater has advertised a big ceremonial occasion, and I don't suppose everybody can back down and spoil the fun of the crowd there tonight." He smiled, trying to win Mr. Stanton with humor. "I ain't a Grant, nor even a Stanton, but maybe somebody'll be glad to see me there."

Mr. Stanton was unable to say anything to this, and after a moment, Mr. Lincoln added, with diffidence, "Thought maybe somebody'd be too glad, Stanton. That's why I want to ask you to let me borrow your major out there, just for this evening."

"What on earth for!" the secretary exclaimed.

"Stanton, I want him to go along tonight as any bodyguard. He's a mighty powerful fellow. While we were waiting out there the telegraph, we got to talking of feats of strength and similar phenomena, and with my own eyes I saw him take up a poker from his Franklin Stove, and bend it around his arm, and then straighten it out again. Let's call him in! Let's ask him about tonight!"

"Isn't that. If I told you, maybe you'd laugh at me." He looked up at Stanton under his brows. "Oh, shucks, I guess I can tell you; you've laughed at me, and worse, before. The fact is, Stanton, I've laughed at me, and worse, before. The fact is, Stanton, I've had a most miserably disturbing dream the last several nights. I never had a thing like that impress me so strongly. I dreamed the President was dead in the White House, and I just thought that tonight--you know, the way a man will, regardless of his good sense--I just thought I'd take a little extra care this time. My wife keeps asking me to. So this morning when I saw the demonstration I said to myself, 'I'll get Stanton's poker bender.'"

The secretary gazed at him with eyes like two small, wet, black stones. I had occasion to know, as a major had just had, that he is not a forgiving man. The President had crossed him only this morning, and in front of other people.

He stood up as though to conclude an interview, and said, "I hardly see how I can manage it for you, Mr. President."

"Oh, no, really!"

"No, I've already given orders that the wire staff is to work tonight. The major is the chief, and will be required here. I cannot trust the rest of them. You understand, of course, Mr. president?"

The President stood up and gazed about him. His gaze fell upon me. He gazed into my eyes across the room. He was solemn and weary and, I thought, indifferent to concealment of his inmost self. His look seemed to burn into me, as thought he sought delivery or protection or merely comprehension of his living nature from anyone else, even a lieutenant who happened to be there. The thought crossed my mind that, as Mr. Emerson might have said, president Lincoln was a fateful man.

He started and came to himself like someone lately lost in a dream, and he said, "Well, I guess it isn't fair to worry anybody else with my suspicions after all. No, if 'twas improtant, Stanton--why, maybe I'd try to outsmart you on it. But, of course, it ain't." He bent down and took his hat from the floor and started for the door. After a step or two he paused, and said half aloud, "Oh, me, oh, my! What a shame about tonight," and then walked on to the corridor door, where he turned, and said, "Good day, lieutenant," to me, and then, to my superior, "Good day, Mist' Secretary."

Mr. Stanton bowed, but did not reply.

The door closed.

A little while later the secretary left for the Cabinet meeting at 11 o'clock in the White House.

His absence gave me an opportunity to go an speak to the major on other than official affairs. I arranged to buy the major's tickets for that evening's performance at Ford's Theater, where Miss Keene was closing in Our American Cousin, which I had thought I must miss until then, and which I would now see, and at which I would also see Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln in their box. I reminded myself several times of how lucky I was to have that sudden opportunity.

But all the rest of that day I could not put from mind the recollection of the look which the President gave me, and the words he paused to speak more to himself than anyone else, just before he left us. I said to myself impatiently that his failure to obtain the major as his bodyguard for the evening would likely make no difference in any way--no difference at all.

But still, I kept thinking, what if it might? What if it might?
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Title Annotation:short story
Author:Horgan, Paul
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jul 1, 1988
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