Ex Scientia Tridens

by Helen H.



Fifteen minutes.

Fifteen minutes of greeting customers of the First Commercial Bank of Boston while trying not to watch the clock as the hands slipped toward closing time. His new suit was heavy and hot, the broadcloth shirt scratchy, its separate collar too tight in the neck. He was going to rip the thing off as soon as he got home. Assuming Father didn't strangle him with it beforehand. The young man swatted away a fly that dared to approach the desk. Fourteen more minutes.

Something swathed in furs filled the bank's doorway and began advancing towards him, teeth showing in her rather florid face. The middle-aged woman hove to just as he stood up. "Gracious, Harriman, it's always a pleasure to see you, dear boy!" Her warbling voice was an attention-getter, and Harry repressed a smile of his own. "Working for your father again this school break, I see."

"Good afternoon, Mrs. Lambert."

"How is your mother?"

"She is well, ma'am. She returns next week from visiting Grandmamma in London."

"I can't wait to hear about her travels!" Mrs. Lambert exclaimed, adjusting the stole around her broad shoulders. The fox's dead eyes stared out at Harry with a malevolent glare. "Well, I must see to my little account, dear."

Little account? She's one of the richest people in town.

"Do tell your mother to call on me, won't you? I simply must hear about her dinner at the Palace!"

"I will, ma'am."

Mrs. Lambert moved ponderously away, the fox bumping up and down. "I'm so pleased that you're following in your father's footsteps. He must be very proud!"

He will be, for about ten more minutes.

A rustle of papers and a soft mumbling filled the air as the clerks started their accounting for the day. Alexander Nelson would wait for the stroke of three p.m. (alerted by the sonorous bongs of the lobby clock) and then emerge from his office to ensure that the last transactions were being courteously but efficiently completed. He would catch the eye of Andy McLaughlin at the door, the sign for the doorman to lock up. That would be Harry's clue to follow his father back into his office.

He had spent the morning deciding how he was going to approach the elder Nelson. I'll stand at the front of his desk, lean over, press my fingers down on the surface and say confidently, "Father, please sit down. I have some information to give you." No, probably not the best way to approach it. His father detested marks on the gleaming mahogany desktop, usually void of anything except a pen and inkstand and the pipe holder. No reason to incur his anger prematurely. Go in first, pull father's chair out, indicate that he should sit down. Then, put my hand on his shoulder, one man to another and declare, "Father, I've gotten great news. I've been accepted at Annapolis." Get it out in the open, right away.

And wait for the explosion.

The beautiful Seth Thomas pendulum clock in the lobby began to chime the hour. The last note was dying away when the door to the private office opened. Andy was tipping his cap to Mrs. Lambert and exchanging a few words with her. Mr. Nelson nodded, first at the doorman and then the chief teller and turned back toward his inner sanctum.

Clearing his throat, Harry said clearly, "Father, may I have a moment?"

Surprised, for personal salutations were forbidden during business hours, the elder Nelson hesitated for a moment and then beckoned Harry forward. The two approaches he'd thought about vanished as soon as his father seated himself at his desk. The Boston banker was impeccably dressed, as always, in a Savile Row suit of charcoal blue herringbone wool, a fresh rose in his lapel, his starched celluloid collar afraid to incur his wrath by wilting in the slightest degree. Diamond studded cufflinks glittered in the pale sunlight filtering through the office window. Time had been kind to Alexander Nelson in all respects. There were a few wrinkles showing around the gray eyes, the full head of hair just slightly darker than the goldenrod color of his youth. Middle age and an easy lifestyle had brought only a slight rounding of his stomach. His son had inherited his intelligence, broad forehead and strong chin as well as a shorter than average stature.

The desk was indeed empty save for the inkstand and pipe holder. A pipe was leaning against the ashtray, an ashtray emblazoned with the Amherst College symbol, Alexander Nelson's alma mater. On the wall behind him was a photograph of himself and Calvin Coolidge, a fellow Amherst alumnus. There were other pictures, too, pictures with parents and children standing in front of the Eiffel Tower, visiting the Coliseum in Rome, another of a drenched but happy family at Niagara Falls. In a place of prominence was a formal portrait of Harry and his baby sister Edith, the baby in the arms of its beautiful mother. Harry had inherited his red hair, bright blue eyes and passionate temper from her.

"Father, I need to tell you something."

The banker looked up expectedly. His eyes roamed inquisitively across Harry's face. No doubt he was seeing the slight flush on his only son's cheeks, the red tinge moving up to his hairline. Perhaps he even caught that Harry was breathing a little quickly. Harry hoped that he also wasn't missing the determination in his eyes.

"Well, son? What is it?"

One fast, deep breath. "I'm turning down the chance to go to Amherst, father. I--"

"Don't tell me you're going to Yale instead!" his father cried. The gray eyes were flashing now, his own skin beginning to turn red.

"No, sir. I've accepted an appointment to Annapolis. To the Naval Academy."

That Harry had told him he was going to the moon wouldn't have been as big a surprise, judging by the look on Alexander Nelson's face. "Harriman, have you lost your senses? What--"

"--Father, you've often spoken of the need to do something, be something. To perform any task, any job, to the best of your ability. To provide a service to your fellow man that solidifies your place in the world. Banking is a noble profession," Harry added, as a protesting look began forming on the other man's face, "but service to our country -- what could be better?" Harry wasn't captain of the debating team for nothing. He was adept at constructing an argument focused on structure and reasoning, culminating with a carefully worded conclusion that would reinforce his position. No need to rush. So why had the words come out in a torrent?

His father sat quietly, mouth working. The jawline was becoming stubbornly firm. Harry knew that he had expected his eldest child to graduate from Amherst, go into the bank, marry a respectable Beacon Hill girl and raise a fine family. Now out of the blue, this dream was in jeopardy. At least the Amherst and banking part. The next few moments were crucial. Would he call his son Harry or Harriman? One would leave room for acceptance; the other--

"Harriman, what is your rationale for this? I applaud your desire to serve your country, but there's nothing to stop you in banking." Harry doubted this, but did not interrupt. "You can go anywhere! One day you would be president of First Commercial Boston, my boy. I am grooming you to it! An Amherst degree, the right clubs, entrée to the highest echelons of business...nothing would be denied you. Service to your country? There are many paths you can choose -- perhaps politics is in your future, son! I myself was approached as to my interest in becoming Secretary of the Treasury. However, with the current administration...." The words trailed off, but the dark look on his face continued. "And what of a wife and children? There is a question of gainful employment. Naval officers are paid a pittance. How would you support your family? Of course, your mother and I are prepared to assist, but there would be no need with your position at the bank. Speaking of your mother, I'm sure she will never hear of this!"

"I believe that Mother has reconciled herself to it, Father."

Alexander Nelson's voice grew flat. "You've spoken to her of it already, then."

Harry couldn't miss the accusation in the words. Nelson males had always prided themselves on being the head of their families. This would seem to Alexander Nelson as a betrayal, but that was far from the truth. There were other familial obligations to face. "I had to, sir. I wanted her blessing after I spoke to Aunt Edith."

"Of course," his father rumbled. "It was Edith you approached to nominate you."

Edith Nourse Rogers had been elected to the House of Representatives in 1925, in the process being the first woman from an eastern state to do so. Much of her perspective was formed by what she had witnessed on visits to French battlefields and field hospitals during the First World War. Her views were well known on veterans' affairs. She would welcome a Nelson in the military.

"Knowing how close Mother and Aunt Edith are, I thought it prudent."

"Your mother is content then, in sending her only son off to an uncertain future?"

"Uncertain only in that I do not know my duty stations, will not know for a long period of time. But I can assure you that my future is secure." He had stood up to his father in the past, but that had been some little point of fact that he couldn't even remember right now. Surprisingly, a wave of calmness settled on him. "I've been working toward this for a very long time."

Alexander Nelson realigned the items on his desk, squaring them with the corners. He did this whenever he was in deep concentration on some problem that commanded all his attention. It was not a time he liked to be interrupted. Yet interrupted he was. His head snapped up when there was a knock on the door. "Come in!" he said in an irritated tone.

The head of the bank's senior teller appeared around the edge of the door. "Mr. Nelson, we're done for the day, and everything is in order."

"Thank you, Tompkins."

"Yes, sir. And may I say, Mr. Harry Nelson," he added, pushing the door open further, exposing his gangling frame, "that my fellow tellers and I congratulate you on your chosen profession. Massachusetts men belong on the sea. We'll be raising a glass to you, sure enough."

Harry ducked his head, avoiding his father's eyes. "Thank you, Tommy--Mr. Tompkins."

Tompkins started to say something else, then caught a glimpse of his employer's face. His mouth formed a thin line as he hurriedly shut the door.

"Well. You told everyone but me, I take it." Alexander went back to studying the top of his desk while drumming on it with his fingers at the same time. "I've got a Lodge meeting to attend. We'll speak of this later. Go home. I'll talk to you then."

"But, sir--"

"Go, Harriman. I insist. Now is not the time." He stood up and turned towards the office closet, effectively ending the conversation.

Harry recognized the set to his father's shoulders. Now was indeed, not the time. Alexander Nelson could be as unbending as his wife when it came to information he was not prepared to hear. At least she had heard her son out when he approached her with his proposal. Harry excused himself and walked dejectedly out of the office.

Andy already had the heavy bronze doors open. "The mobile's around the corner, son," McLaughlin whispered out of the corner of his mouth.

"Thanks, Andy. Sing out if you see Father heading that way, won't you?"

"My loudest whistle, youngster."

Harry hurried around the corner. Carter was standing outside the passenger door of the enormous Chrysler automobile. He went ramrod straight, then touched a finger to his cap and opened the door. In a fluid motion Harry slipped inside the car.

"Well?" a deep melodious feminine voice questioned.

"It could have been worse, Aunt Edith," Harry answered. "Father wants to wait until he gets home and discuss it then."

"Hmmm. Well, dear, you are correct, it could have been worse. Your father prides himself on not making snap judgments. However, he cannot be allowed to brood. That is unacceptable." She rapped on the window, and Carter turned around. Crooking a finger at her nephew, she said, "Come, young man. Time to bring the fight to the enemy."

Harry's eyes flew open. Aghast, he cried, "Aunt Edith, please! Father will not appreciate your interference." The moment the words were out of his mouth, he regretted them.

Edith Rogers tipped her head up and spoke down the length of her magnificent nose. "I will excuse your rudeness this time, Harriman. I understand the heat in which your words were spoken. I do not consider it interference. I have a stake in this, too, as the nominating authority. My brother-in-law has finally accepted that my time in the House is no fluke. Surely, he cannot doubt my sincerity when it comes to public service."

Carter had gotten the door open by then, and nephew and aunt emerged into the soft light of the afternoon. "Once more into the breach," Edith intoned, and began walking towards the bank. Harry readjusted his collar and followed.

Silhouetted by her luxurious ermine coat, a lavish orchid corsage decorating the lapel, Edith Nourse Rogers was a formidable sight. The eldest Nourse daughter was a descendant of one of the pioneer families of Massachusetts. The only blemish on the family tree was the decision by ancestor Matthew Nourse to take the side of the Crown during the Revolutionary War. He had packed up the entire family (save for a caretaker nephew) and set sail for England, not returning until well after the new republic was established. In the meantime, the nephew -- Harriman Nourse -- had made a fortune in maritime affairs, raising a fleet of fishing boats that rivaled the Continental Navy in its size. He had graciously returned a large majority of the proceeds to his Uncle Matthew, who had a head for business himself. The fleet was soon augmented by scores of horse-drawn drays that were eventually replaced by motorized trucks servicing the dozen or so of canneries and warehouses that ranged up and down the eastern seaboard. The Nourses were very, very well off, the Crash of '29 doing little to upset their success.

The daughters of the current Nourse generation had benefited from this privileged life. Red-haired, with sparkling blue eyes and porcelain skin, Edith and her sister Elizabeth were the epitome of high New England society. Elizabeth had found herself wooed and won by Alexander Nelson, scion of a wealthy family known throughout New England for their business acumen. The Nelsons had turned from their own seagoing past (some said the Nelson forebears had dabbled in piracy and possibly the slave trade) to settle down in Boston and establish a bustling import/export company that traded with customers on every continent. Alexander's grandfather had broken away from the family business to found the First Commercial Bank of Boston, where Alexander continued its prosperous ways. The bank had also survived the Crash due to its sound fiscal policies, one of the few that had. While business was down, it was not enough to send tremors of fear through the walls of High Gables, the colonial townhouse on Beacon Hill that the Nelsons called home.

Her sister Edith had also married well, to John Jacob Rogers, a lawyer with political ambitions. Elected to Congress in 1917 from the Fifth Congressional District, his early death in 1925 was a shock to all. Edith Rogers had subsequently run for and won his congressional seat. She was a proponent of social issues, having being deeply affected by what she had seen in France in WWI and the later treatment of returning wounded men to the states following the war. Her constituents apparently approved of her efforts; she had been reelected in 1927.

It took but a few seconds for the door of the bank to open, McLaughlin recognizing the congresswoman immediately. Even if he had not, defenses against the generous smile of a Nourse woman were few. Marching across the polished marble floor Edith grasped the door of Alexander Nelson's office just as the knob turned and opened abruptly from the other side.

"Edith! To what do I owe this...honor?"

"A moment of your time, Mr. Nelson."

Harry's father leaned out and spied his son. "Ah. I said we would discuss this later, Harriman."

"The boy understands that, Alex. However, I do not. This will not take long."

"As you wish." He stepped backward and indicated the two of them should enter. Taking his coat off, he waited until Edith had sat down and then seated himself, first giving his son an irritable look. "I find it unacceptable that you were informed of this before I was, Edith."

"My acquiescence was absolutely necessary, Alex. We planned on working around yours if need be, which is what we seem to be doing at the moment."

"Although Harry says it is so," and here he gave Harry a passing, languid glance, effectively dealing his son out of the conversation, "I cannot believe that your sister gave her blessing to this new arrangement. I thought the Nelsons were done with the sea."

Edith Rogers dismissed that with a wave. "Just because your grandfather had terrible attacks of sea-sickness and became a landlubber is no reason that his great-grandson should follow in his footsteps. It's time that another Nelson discovered his true calling."

"Don't you mean that it's time a Nourse did?"

Edith inclined her head. "If you wish to take that as my meaning, you are free to do so. My forebears were sea-going men, as were yours. Pirates all, I wouldn't doubt." As he began to bristle, Edith continued. "Now, now, Alex, don't get your dander up. Whatever the situation, that was a long time ago. Let the boy find his way! Isn't that's what expected of any man?"

"Yes, but--"

"Excuse me! I'd like to get a word in edgewise here!" Harry exclaimed. He had tired of them forgetting he was in the room.

Two surprised faces turned in his direction.

"Of course, Harry."

"I beg your pardon, nephew. Please, speak."

"Thank you, Aunt Edith." Harry squared his shoulders and stood, arms akimbo, in the center of the room. "Father, although I would have preferred that it came from me, Aunt Edith has certainly explained the innate motivation I feel. I believe I was born to do this. I believe I was born to command, to captain a warship, keeping the oceans of the world safe for America and our allies. Then there's the possibility of exploration, Father! The seas are truly an undiscovered country, with scientific study in its early stages. No one has begun to uncover their true potential nor been able to harness their power. It may be possible to take part in this great enterprise. I certainly would like to try. Your support of my career goals would be very important to me."

Edith cocked her head and stared up at her nephew, then stood up from her chair and stuck out her hand. "That was well said, Harry. You have convinced me even further that I made the right decision. Here, we shall shake on it." Harry took his aunt's hand, shaking it solemnly. She turned back to her brother-in-law. "You know what I saw while visiting the Western Front, Alex. The men who had competent officers who cared about their well-being fared far better than the others. Your son has the drive and determination to succeed in this. And above all, he has your intelligence."

"Well, that's very true," Alexander Nelson said solemnly.

Edith Rogers caught her nephew's eye and winked.

"It seems I must take no exception to this, Harry. The sisters Nourse are never to be denied when their hearts are set upon something. It will pain me to pass along the news to my fellow alumni, but I will be able to at least tell them it's not Harvard or Yale. I expect you to gradate at the top of the class, Harry."

"I'll do my best, Father."

Alexander Nelson stood up and removed his greatcoat from the back of his chair. "I must move along to my Lodge meeting. Whatever you do, Harry, you know your mother and I will support you. We'll talk more later." Extending his arm, he said, "May I escort you to your automobile, Congresswoman Rogers?"

"Of course, Mr. Nelson."

They parted at the car, Alexander Nelson marching off to his meeting. Harry watched him go, sealing the moment into his memory. He had done his utmost in school, the single-minded pursuit of the highest grades possible in math and science paying off. Then there were the hours after classes studying shipbuilding, hours also spent reading Mahan and Corbett. Weekends had been reserved for trips to the Charleston Navy Yard to see the USS Constitution and marvel at her design. The thing was done now. He had done it. He was going to Annapolis.

Once back in the car, Aunt Edith turned to Harry again. "I am still of two minds, as you know. Your mother fears the danger, as do we all. America may be at peace at the moment, but any forward-thinking person can feel the rumbles of discontent that are fueling our world. On the other hand, how can I deny that we Nourses were born to sail the seas? Seafaring is in our blood, and it would appear that desire has been passed along to you. I hope that I will not come to regret my decision to nominate you to Annapolis."

"You will not, Aunt Edith."

"How soon must you leave?"

"Soon after I graduate at the end of May."

She heaved an enormous sigh. "Such a short time, so short. At least Elizabeth returns next week. She will have some time with you."

"It's what I've always wanted to do, Aunt. You know that, and even Father knows it, he just never wanted to acknowledge it. I think by the time he gets home, he'll be fine. If there is such a thing as destiny, this is mine. I intend to do great things for the Nelson family." It was said with all the bluster an 18 year old could manage.

Edith reached out and ruffled his red hair, and they grinned at each other. "I do believe you will, my dear."



Ex Scientia Tridens

The Naval Academy's motto, Latin for "from knowledge, seapower,"

(the Academy's crest incorporates the trident, emblem of the mighty Roman god Neptune)




A biography of the real Edith Nourse Rogers:

Edith Nourse was born in 1881 in Saco, Maine, offspring of a well-to-do family. A "tearing beauty," she was also charming, bright, and hardworking.

At the age of 26, Edith Nourse married Harvard Law graduate John Jacob Rogers. In 1912, five years into their marriage, he won election to Congress. Edith's settled world changed in 1917 when she accompanied her husband and other members of the House on a fact-finding mission to Britain and France. What she saw on the front and in the field hospitals moved her deeply, and she began intensely interested in military affairs.

In 1925, at the peak of his career, John Rogers passed away from the complications of Hodgkin's disease. Family and political supporters urged Mrs. Rogers to run for his seat. A special election was held, which she won handily with 72 percent of the vote, becoming only the sixth woman elected to Congress. A Republican, she would win every one of the next 18 elections, even during the Democratic landslides of the New Deal.

During her long career in the House (she died while in office in 1960), Edith Nourse Rogers sponsored bills to establish the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, expand the Nurses Corps in the Veterans Administration, and provide benefits for veterans of the Korean War. Her proudest accomplishment came in 1944, when she was one of the principal authors and sponsors of the historic GI Bill, which changed the lives of so many veterans and re-shaped the American economy. A corsage of orchids and gardenias was her trademark, determination her watchword.


Notable American Women: The Modern Period (Harvard University Press, 1980).



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