Thus far in this series we’ve looked at plucky Mattie Ross, who grew up to be a banker, in Part 1: “True Grit’s banking surprise, and other fictional financiers,” and Gideon Bates, the fictional banker, in Part 2: “The newspaper man and the fair-minded bank chairman.”
Now we’ll look at a pair of bankers, one old and full of the wisdom of experience and one just starting out after a very rough experience in World War I.
One of them faces a challenging personal test.
The Marine who became a banker and faced a test
Now and then, military men have wound up in community banking. I have known several over my career, some still at it, some now gone.
I have traded books about Marines with a Georgia banking friend over the years. My friend is particularly fond of the W.E.B. Griffin series “The Corps,” about Marines. I tried that and found it a tad too realistic.
But one author we’ve both enjoyed is John W. Thomason, Jr., who died during World War II. Thomason was a career Marine officer who wrote both fiction and nonfiction while serving. Much of what he wrote concerned Marines, real and imaginary. One of his most famous books was Fix Bayonets! a book I have shared with some of my book bankers.
In one of his harder-to-find short story collections, Marines and Others, Thomason wrote a tale called, simply, “Hate.”
It’s the story of two bankers. One is a young banker, Wilmer Douglas, who had been a Marine in the trenches of World War I, and who has become a bank commercial lender. Douglas has a strong dose of what we would today call post traumatic stress disorder, which he has been fighting.
Out of the past …
Walking into the bank one morning, Douglas and a departing customer nearly collide. In the flash as they pass, Douglas’ memory is stirred, but he can’t quite place the man who jostled him.
As memories begin returning, his “dark waters,” as he calls them, begin to descend. Then Mr. Shields, the bank president, asks to see him.
The man he barged into—a Mr. King—is a small customer of the bank who made his way to the president to seek a farm loan. Shields has his doubts. And such loans are not the bank’s forte. However, the president has learned that King is a former Marine gunnery sergeant who had a rough war himself. This interests the old man.
King had been making a good go of the farm, but had had a bad year. A loan would get him back on a good road, and Mr. Shields is considering recommending the loan to another bank that does more ag credit. He tells Douglas that he might even lend King the money personally. But he wants to know more about King and his “Globe and Anchor Farm,” named for the Marine emblem.
Caught right in the crosshairs
Shields asks young Douglas to check things out.
“If he doesn’t get help, he’ll probably go under,” says Shields of farmer King.
In short, the report Wilmer Douglas is asked to research will make or break this small farmer. Not an unusual task, and the kind of decision many bankers have had to make.
Here’s the rub. The young banker and the Marine-turned-farmer don’t just happen to have both served in the war. They are not strangers.
And they are definitely not friends…
Douglas reveals to his fiancée that he served very unhappily with King, who is now, essentially at his mercy.
King had been his drill instructor in boot camp, and King, a rough-hewn man, had singled out enlistee Douglas, previously a college boy, for the worst of the riding that the Corps’ “DIs” have long been famous for.
This treatment went beyond the usual tough training of the Corps—Douglas was bullied. And one day on the firing range, Douglas was beaten up by King. When the company goes to France, King, in a departure from practice in that day, ships out with the same company. He continues to ride Douglas.
The young marine conceives a deep hatred of the sergeant. The unit goes into combat several times, and along the way, the young man resolves to kill him.
But after several actions, he has a change of heart. Douglas decides he admires the way King handles himself in combat. He tries to change his attitude, and learn to get along with King.
The change of heart never had a chance. King continued to abuse the young Marine. One night King rides Douglas particularly badly, and the soldier grabs his nearby rifle. Douglas shoots, but misses, and goes to military prison. His parents, having influence, later get him a pardon and he tries to rebuild his life, fighting demons.
His hatred, he tells his fiancé, had become veritable mental cancer, but burying himself in work and then love began to erase King from his thoughts.
The banker’s decision
And now his greatest demon is in his sights in a way where he can harm him more fully than a bullet could—and with no risk of looking like anything but a rational financier making a tough decision.
The temptation is overwhelming, and the young lender’s resolve to do the right thing is crumbling.
“He wanted three thousand, for a year,” Douglas tells his fiancée. “He’d do better with five thousand. It’ll set him on his feet for life. He’ll get what he goes after. His children will go to good schools when they grow up. With the driving power he’s got, he’ll be a rich man, as such things go, and a solid citizen. And now I’ve got him. I’ve got him.”
As a banker, Douglas has enough connections where he can not just deny the man the financial help of Mr. Shields, but he can ensure that friends in the town’s business circle will withdraw their support.
He has it in his hands to ruin former Sergeant King.
The young banker’s fiancée begs him to give up hate, but he parts from her determined to have his revenge.
On the appointed day, Douglas finds himself in a meeting with his boss, and King.
Douglas has already briefed Shields.
And, given the opportunity to ruin the farmer, he has instead done the right thing. He has given the man a good report and recommended the utmost help.
After the arrangements are made, the wise old president remarks by the by that wouldn’t it be remarkable if the two marines had known each other in France.
As Thomason writes, and not succumbing to a Hollywood ending:
“I know Mr. King,” said Wilmer Douglas briefly.
“I recognized you,” said William King, with an unmoved face, and they did not shake hands.
“King went out, and old John Shields, who always knew more than he appeared to know, studied the younger man for an appreciable time.
“‘I won’t ask you any questions, son,’ he said. “‘I don’t often go wrong on men, though.’”
And he hadn’t. As Thomason concludes the story, the young banker reveals that he’d decided that he must do right, for his own sake. As the reader leaves him, Douglas is well on his way to mending his tortured soul.
Would that we all do the right thing when temptation arises.
* [Editor’s note: Ordinarily references to the Marines would not be capitalized. However, I capitalized it in this article after re-reading the foreword to my edition of Fix Bayonets! That opening was written by Robert Leckie, a World War II Marine and longtime Associated Press writer who had found great personal interest in reading Thomason’s book while serving. Leckie turned his service in the Pacific into Helmet For My Pillow, a famous nonfiction memoir of the Corps. In the foreword he said of Thomason:
“… it can be said that in great part because of him almost everywhere for the quarter century of his career in the Corps, and still in many places of the world, the word Marine has been spelled with a capital M.”