36.

“OKAY, BENNIE, IT’S A DEAL”

Napoleon is said to have remarked that a man makes his own luck. There is also an old Marine Corps maxim that may express the thought more precisely: “Luck occurs when preparation and opportunity coincide.” So it was to be with Bernard Adolph Schriever. Major General James McCormack, Gardner’s choice to lead the building of the ICBM as vice commander of the ARDC, had a heart attack that spring and would have to retire soon. The number of stars an officer wore on his shoulder tabs could matter in an enterprise like this, because he would have to hold his own against civilian contractors who might try to bully or hoodwink him and against other generals who had competing interests. Gardner had the choice of going with Schriever, who was to have served as McCormack’s backup in the field but who had only the single star of a brigadier awarded the year before, or finding another major general qualified to replace McCormack. He hesitated, scanning the records of potential candidates. Vince Ford urged him to give the command to Schriever alone. Schriever and Ford were friends and Ford owed Schriever a professional and moral debt for bringing him back on active duty.

Their relationship was not, however, the reason for Ford’s recommendation. Ford had seen Schriever manage one high-tech study project after another. He knew how pragmatic yet tough and independent-minded Schriever could be and what moral courage he had displayed in taking on the mighty LeMay Ford was convinced that Schriever was precisely the man for the job, that the lack of a second star would prove no handicap. But Schriever and Gardner had not hit it off at all well during Gardner’s initial weeks at the Pentagon in the winter and early spring of 1953. Gardner had at first mistaken Schriever’s controlled manner for lack of imagination and written him off as another careerist. “He felt that Bennie ran too long in one spot,” was how Ford put it with a smile of remembrance. Gardner had also offended Schriever by one of those acts of alcohol-induced boorishness to which Gardner was prone. Bennie and his wife, Dora, had given a welcoming cocktail party for Gardner at their home in the Belle Haven section of Alexandria, Virginia, south of Washington. The guest of honor had arrived pre-stoked for an evening of inebriation with a couple of his double-shot potions of Old Forester and ginger ale already under his belt. After several more, he had picked up a newspaper, sat down, and expressed his scorn for host and hostess and the rest of their Air Force company by burying his face in the paper for most of the party. It had taken Gardner a while to discern the knowledge and character Ford knew so well beneath Schriever’s restrained exterior. And it took time for Bennie to understand that despite Gardner’s abrasiveness and occasionally outrageous behavior, this was a man who cared about the same things he did and who possessed the daring and influence to accomplish them. Nevertheless, the memory of that inauspicious start to what was to become an extraordinary collaboration and abiding friendship seemed to linger with Gardner as he skimmed the records of possible two-star replacements for McCormack. It did not linger for long.

Early one morning in May 1954, the telephone rang in Schriever’s office. His secretary picked it up to find Gardner’s secretary on the line. She said that she was calling for Gardner, who wanted to speak to Schriever. His secretary replied that he was out at a meeting. Gardner’s secretary said he wished to have lunch with Schriever that day at Restaurant 823, a German rathskeller located in a basement at that number on 15th Street in downtown Washington. Would Schriever please call back when he returned to say if this was possible? In the meantime, Vince Ford arrived at Gardner’s office on the fourth floor of the Pentagon. He heard Gardner talking to someone on the phone behind the oak door to the inner office. “What’s up?” Ford asked the secretary, with whom he shared the outer room. “He’s talking to Mr. Talbott and he’s trying to locate General Schriever,” she said. Ford had noticed that Gardner somehow “had a way to look and listen in four different directions at once.” He apparently overheard Ford. The busy light on the telephone line Gardner was using suddenly went out on the console on his secretary’s desk and his door opened. “Hi,” he said to Ford. “Come on in a sec.” He told the secretary to try again to reach Schriever. Ford took a chair at the conference table opposite Gardner. “The job is Schriever’s—if he wants it,” Gardner said, raising his eyebrows, his face softening into a half smile in recognition of Ford’s successful lobbying. Just then the secretary appeared in the doorway. “General Schriever will be at the River Entrance at noon,” she said.

Bennie was waiting for them when they arrived precisely at noon. The River Entrance facing the Potomac was the status entry to the Pentagon. The chiefs of staff and the secretary of defense and other civilian VIPs had their offices on that side of the building. Officials of Gardner’s rank were allowed to park their cars in the small lot there. They climbed into Gardner’s Cadillac convertible, Schriever in the passenger seat in front and Ford in the back, and, as Ford described Gardner’s speed-limits-be-damned driving, “boomed across” the 14th Street Bridge into Washington. Ford observed that the fancy auto “would be a wreck—finished ahead of its time, like one day he would be. He was as hard on his cars as he was on himself.” Swinging down I Street, Gardner suddenly turned sharply at a parking lot near the intersection with 15th, bounded over the curb, and stopped just in front of a “Lot Full” sign. The Cadillac straddled the sidewalk at an angle. Schriever smiled and shook his head. Gardner got out and tossed his keys at the outstretched hands of several parking attendants. They were used to him and were grinning. He was a generous tipper.

The “823,” as its habitués called it, was a short way down the block on 15th. “It’s always gemütlichkeit at Restaurant 823,” the ad in the yellow pages of the telephone book promised, and so it was. The rathskeller had an old-fashioned imitation Bavarian atmosphere with a violinist and two pianists on back-to-back grands, draft beer in steins, and the heavy, hearty German food that patrons happily consumed in these years before cholesterol frights. Gardner had discovered the “823” during business trips to Washington in earlier years while he was running Hycon Manufacturing. The moment they walked down the steps to the basement level and entered the restaurant, it was clear that the waitresses and barmen knew and liked him. As he passed through he called to them by their names. His favorite waitress, a woman named Helen, pointed them to a booth and then came over with a smile and asked, “Know any new dirty stories, Mr. G?” “No, but I could use one,” Gardner responded in kind. She leaned forward, cupped her hand, and whispered into his ear, both laughed, and Gardner, no beer drinker, ordered his double Old Forester and ginger ale. “Bennie, what’ll it be?” he asked Schriever. “I’ll have a martini, very dry, Beefeater’s with a twist,” Schriever said. He quickly and uncustomarily added, “Better make it a double.”

Ford had a Scotch and watched Schriever’s face. He could see that from the sudden invitation to lunch, Bennie knew something was up, but did not appear to have guessed what it was. He was wrong. Schriever had guessed precisely what was up and was prepared. As soon as his martini arrived, he circled the bell of the glass with his right hand and looked straight at Gardner, who now wasted no time. “Bennie,” he asked abruptly, “how’d you like to run the new missile organization we’re setting up in California?” The eyes behind the thick rimless glasses fixed on Schriever. The wheel had come full circle. Schriever had needed Gardner to launch the ICBM enterprise and Gardner now needed Schriever to carry it to fulfillment. Bennie desperately wanted the opportunity, but was determined to have it on his terms because he was convinced that was the only way he would succeed. And so he deliberately kept Gardner waiting to raise suspense. He slid his long fingers up and down the stem of the martini glass for several seconds while he glanced down in thought. At last he looked up at Gardner.

“I’ll take the job, but only on one condition,” he said.

“Like what?” Gardner responded aggressively.

“I’ll take the job,” Schriever said, speaking slowly so that each word came through distinctly, “provided I can run it—completely run it—without any interference from those nitpicking sons of bitches in the Pentagon.”

Gardner seemed pleased by this Gardner-like response. “Okay, Bennie, it’s a deal. The job is yours,” he said.

Schriever ordered a middle European dish that his German ancestors had appreciated, pig’s knuckles, for lunch.

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