“That’s the beauty of the damn things”
After being severely wounded on Guadalcanal, my father, Zach Davis Cox, spent a lengthy time recovering. However, with a war on, there wasn’t time to recover in a hospital. Practically as soon as Dad could move around on his own, but still in a body cast, he was assigned to the Norfolk Navy Yard. By serving as head of security at the Navy Yard, he freed up an able bodied man for combat duty. During his stay in Norfolk, his immediate commanding officer was Colonel John R. Hendley.
Unless you are a very old Marine, the name John R. Hendley means nothing to you. But if you are an old Marine, that name will send chills down your spine. Colonel Hendley had retired before World War II and had voluntarily returned to active duty soon after Pearl Harbor. While he knew that he was no longer fit for combat, he believed he could adequately fill a state-side slot. Colonel Hendley’s reputation arose from his long service as the Commandant of the Marine Corps Officer Candidate School in Philadelphia, PA, before it was moved to Quantico. Practically every senior officer in the Marines had received some training in Philadelphia and from Alexander Archer Vandegrift on down, they were all still terrified of Colonel Hendley.
While Colonel Hendley may have mellowed some in his retirement, his reputation was such that Dad was not going to take any chances with him. Dad was always careful to have a spotless uniform on, to have his shoes shined, and to execute as sharp a salute as was possible while encased in a body cast when he knew that he would be meeting Colonel Hendley.
Colonel Hendley’s office reflected the meticulous attention to detail for which he was famous. The windows sparkled. The shelves were in precise order. His desk was clean and clear. And most of all, his hardwood floors were waxed and polished to an immaculate shine. One day, Dad reported to Colonel Hendley’s office to deliver a routine report. About mid-way through the report, Dad noticed that Colonel Hendley was slightly rocking back and forth in his chair and then with a tremendous sneeze he let loose with a deafening “Ah-choo.” Simultaneous with the sneeze, Colonel Hendley expelled a full set of false teeth that whizzed past Dad’s head in a gentle arc that landed them on the far side of the room. Upon hitting the floor, the false teeth gracefully slide across the slick waxed floor, first twisting one way and then another until hitting the far baseboard and rebounding as if in a vain attempt to return to the place of warmth and comfort they had so recently occupied.
While Dad’s head was still turned looking in amazement as this spectacle, a voice within him warned, “You better not even smile!” With that, Dad snapped his head back around in the position of attention without even a shadow of a smile on his face. Colonel Hendley arose, withdrew a handkerchief from his pocket, and walked over to retrieve his teeth saying, “That’s the beauty of the damn things!”
Dad said the hurt of not being able to laugh was like a knife being stuck into his ribs. But he knew that if he even thought about smiling, he would completely lose control. Colonel Hendley bent over to pick up his teeth with the handkerchief, but only sent them spinning further away on the waxed floor as if they were a yearling colt frolicking in their new found freedom. Another knife plunged deep into my father’s side, but still, he maintained control. Colonel Hendley finally corralled the errant teeth and excused himself to wash them off in the men’s room.
With Colonel Hendley out of the room, Dad was able to let enough of the pent up laughter out so he could talk without losing control. When Colonel Hendley returned, Dad finished his report as rapidly as possible and was dismissed without any of the usual follow-up questions. Once out of Hendley’s office, Dad still maintained his composure. He didn’t let himself go until he was out of the building and back in his own office. Then, Dad laughed longer and harder than any time since before he had been wounded.
Perhaps in appreciation of the supreme self-control that my father had displayed and perhaps also for the quality of his job performance despite being in a body cast, Colonel Hendley gave Dad the finest fitness report he ever received while in the Marine Corps. And in those days, a fitness report from Colonel John R. Hendley meant something.