The Last Bizarre

His true nature is beyond accurate description. Apples was a rare civil servant. At work, he was rarely civil and he was no one’s servant. I first met him in 1954 when I was a lieutenant; he had charge of the planners and estimators in Boston Naval Shipyard. The Apples appellation, which he didn’t like, was tacked on to him in the thirties when he was an apprentice. Because of his impoverished circumstance at that time, he frequently had only apples for lunch.

From that humble beginning Apples became a member of the powerful clique of senior civilians who, to a significant degree, ran the shipyard. His brother was a judge. In Boston, the city that spawned Edwin O’Connor’s Last Hurrah, that meant that Apples had political influence. Regardless, by his own admission he had humility. Once during a meeting with his peers he said, “I’m more modest than anyone here.”

Lyman Carlow, who achieved fame in the Shipyard as the Chief Planner’s verbal sparring partner, replied, “Well, you have the most to be modest about.”

Apples snapped back, “You bet!”

Apples wasn’t formally educated, but he possessed innate intelligence, cunning, and guts, all of which were honed in tough East Boston. He was an excellent judge of character and since most of his minions also came from East Boston, his treatment of human resources reminded me of a circus lion tamer getting the most out of his beasts.

When we first met Apples saw through the differences in the cultures that reared us and recognized in me someone who also came from the pre-World War II working class. This meant that we had no reservations about saying to each other what was on our minds. Many times he taunted, “The Shipyard Commander needs me more than he needs you!”

I have to admit that Apples was right and particularly so concerning an event related to the christening of a Pakistani minesweeper.

During World War II a number of family men in their late thirties took jobs in the Shipyard. When the war ended Apples maneuvered to keep the best of them. They were vulnerable because returning veterans had job preference; only Apple’s political connections kept his men from being discharged. This necessarily loyal cadre were privy to, and often entertained by, Apple’s many shenanigans, one of which is worth recording for posterity.

A Friday afternoon disclosure panicked the Shipyard Commander, a captain who would soon be considered for promotion to rear admiral. The Yard had completed activation of a minesweeper and on Monday afternoon the good-as-new vessel was to be formally presented to representatives of the Government of Pakistan by officials from the U.S. State Department. Just as the Captain was looking forward to a before-dinner martini a white-faced aide brought to his attention an order that was written in the form of a Chief of Naval Operation’s standing instruction. A three-foot square bronze plaque with prescribed wording to commemorate “the gift from the people of the United States of America to the People of (recipient country) is to be mounted on the bulkhead at the quarterdeck.” Further, “the ceremony is to be conducted in front of the plaque.”

There was no plaque!

Since more vessels were being so transferred by other naval shipyards at that time, the oversight would be noticed. A complaint from a testy diplomat would jeopardize the Captain’s chance for promotion. To say the least he was in a sweat until the Chief Planner appeared and in effect said, “Never fear, I’m here.”


Russell MacDonald, a gentle, good-humored master carpenter from Lunenburg, Nova Scotia was one of Apple’s special cadre and a member of my car pool. At that time Russ was the planner for restoration of Old Ironsides, the two-hundred year old frigate that graces Boston Harbor. Since Russ was not from East Boston he was regarded as the most reliable of the cadre. Russ was amused about what was going on and on the way home that evening told me how Apples barked orders as if he was in a command post during a heated battle.

The owner was scheduled to open his foundry-supply warehouse on Saturday morning so that Russ could obtain the letters of the specified size and style that the pattern makers needed for the prescribed inscription. The pattern makers followed by the molders would work on time-and-a-half pay on Saturday. The plaque would be cast late Saturday night. On Sunday machinists on double-time pay would plane and polish the rough casting. Every phase had to be perfectly executed; there was no time for rework. Russ would be in attendance the entire time.

Thus during our ride to work on Monday morning, Russ told me that the effort was successful, the finished plaque was in Apple’ office, and that he could visualize the scene when the Shipyard Commander expressed appreciation. Of course no one was going to say how much the plaque cost and how the extraordinary overtime charges would be buried among charges for the ship overhauls then in progress. Only Apples was gifted with the wherewithal for such legerdemain.

When I arrived that morning I had to pass the Chief Planner’s small glassed-in office. He was sitting behind his desk and talking to Saunders from the Supply Department. Apples’ desk had been cleared of the usual paraphernalia. The impressive plaque, in the midst of lots of white tissue paper, was oriented so that one could read the inscription while standing in front of the desk. I could see that eager Apples already had the cat-that-swallowed-the-canary-look on his face. He was waiting for the Shipyard Commander to come in and say, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”

Uninvited, I sauntered in and and without even saying good morning I just stood there and read the cast-in-bronze declaration. Because he seemed to be losing track of his conversation with Saunders, I sensed that Apples was watching me suspiciously, as a dog guarding a bone. That triggered an idea.

I moved my head slowly as I followed each line, then suddenly stopped, backed up my glance a bit, and bent as if carefully examining only a small area. The conversation ceased. I knew that I had all of the Chief Planner’s attention when I said, “How do you spell Pakistan?”

Apples jumped up, ran around his desk and suddenly red faced and frantic, said, “Where? Where? How do you spell it?”

I calmly answered, “I don’t know. I just wanted to know if you knew how to spell it.”

When I walked away, the nicest thing I heard was, “You wop son of a bitch!”

Good-guy Russell who had hung around just outside the doorway, was hysterical.


Copyright © 2005 (text only) by Louis D. Chirillo

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