Nestled between a couple of the tightly-folded Appalachian foothills, about 50 miles downstream from where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers merge to form the Ohio River at Pittsburgh, PA, lies Irondale, Ohio, where I grew up. Irondale is a village of about 300 people, having shrunk from a mighty 600 when I was there in the 70s and early 80s.
It was founded in the late 18th century when salt deposits were discovered at the confluence of what are now called Salt Run and Little Yellow Creek. Salt mining became its first industry, but was supplanted over the years by tin milling, clay mining and brick making. Today, the only real industry is a small recycling company where the main brickyard used to be.
That company is actually located in one of the suburbs of Irondale, called Salisbury. Now it might seem odd to speak of suburbs of a village, but that's sort of how we thought of it. Anyway, in older days, when my father was growing up there, Salisbury was the home of the clay mine, brick yard, and (clay) sewage pipe production that fueled the local economy. In still older days, the tin mill (America's first, the sign at Irondale's frontier states) was down in Irondale proper, although still on the 'other side of the tracks'.
Rail was the preferred mode of transport for moving the raw materials and finished products around in those days, and the tracks connected Salisbury, Irondale and Cream City (the other suburb, where I spent the first 9 years of my life) with the rest of the world. My teenage home in Irondale proper was very near those tracks, with just a small road and Little Yellow Creek separating us. There was a level crossing a quarter mile away, where 'Main Street' (now called East Avenue) crossed the tracks, so we would get a loud whistle anytime a train came through.
Now I'm told that in its heyday, Irondale had a cinema, several bars, a general store, a barber shop, a post office and several traffic lights. Much of that had atrophied by the time I hit the scene, and today only the hair salon survives.
My Dad graduated from Irondale High School, but my Mom, seven years younger, graduated from the new Stanton High School. Stanton drew from several communities, not just Irondale. The Irondale school was relegated to grade school status. I spent a couple of years there and a couple of years at Hammondsville grade school (because that was closest to my grandmother's house, where I was dropped off in the mornings when both of my parents worked at Ohio Brass making electricity pole insulators). In time, I duly went to and graduated from Stanton too. Now it has been relegated to the world of middle schools, and local high school students are bused even farther away to attend Edison High, where my old rival Jefferson Union High School used to be.
Back to Irondale... Downstream from our house, past the bridge that led to 'Main Street', a large flood wall was built (during the Great Depression, I think, as part of a job creation scheme). This was one of the two best places to fish, although you usually only got bottom feeders who hung around where a sewer emptied into the creek. The other main fishing hole was the reservoir, in the other direction, up Salt Run about a mile from the village centre. The water level in the reservoir seems to be tied to the population of the village. It gets lower every time I see it, and I think that the village now gets water from the county system rather than the reservoir.
Next to the creek down at the flood wall was the large park that had a playground, baseball diamond and basketball court. It was also the site of the annual Irondale carnival, where dodgy rides were constructed and, thankfully, never disintegrated with people on board. I remember being told that reserves of some sort of hydrocarbon, probably coal, caught fire underground there in 'the old days'. How I don't know. Anyway, the park also had a small war memorial with WWII vintage small cannon for us kids to sit on or smoke cigarettes behind.
There are several roads into Irondale. The main one runs along Little Yellow Creek two miles down to Hammondsville (home of Stanton High School), where it hits a state road that roughly follows (Big) Yellow Creek down to the Ohio River and a four-lane highway. All others head upwards, as Irondale lies in a cup-shaped valley (or dale!). Irondale and Hammondsville sit at about 700 feet above sea level. About 500 feet above them lie the long ridges including Pine Grove and Chestnut Grove.
In this part of the States, you can see the hand-off from the landscape and economy of the east to those of the midwest. In the valleys, you see the rusting remnants of industry - coal, steel, clay, brick. On the ridges, you find open farmland, primarily dedicated to feed corn and dairy cattle (I think). Head east, and you get more of the valley-type feel. Head west, and the hills flatten out into the wheat and corn fields of the plains.
Ruling the local landscape is the Ohio River itself. Big, wide and slow, it separates my home state from the West Virginia panhandle and Pennsylvania, each less than ten miles away. The river always had huge coal barges moving up and down it, through the locks at the New Cumberland dam - built for flood control, not electricity generation. Coincidentally, right next to the dam is a huge generation plant - powered by coal rather than water. I believe it has the distinction of being the fourth largest polluter in the entire US!
When I was growing up, it lay within Stanton's tax domain, so the local tax revenues (and the children from Stratton and Empire, where it sits) flowed to my school. This gave us a great swimming pool, athletics track, tennis courts, auditorium and all other amenities that schools these days so rarely have. A fair trade-off for the toxins I grew up breathing?
Originally posted 5 May 2005.
My first proper military assignment began in West Germany in March 1991, a year and a half after the fall of the Berlin wall and only months before the full collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet the unit I joined maintained its Cold War mission at least until I left in the Spring of 1993, and probably significantly longer.
The Allied Command Europe (ACE) Mobile Force (Land Component) was much bigger as a unit title than it was as a unit. This brigade-sized, seven-nation unit was largely a diplomatic tool, whose usefulness mainly depended on the blood spot it would leave behind when it was over-run by Soviet tanks. Let me explain.
The job of the AMF(L), as it was more conveniently known, was to deploy rapidly to the flanks of NATO's heavily guarded central European defences if the enemy hordes tried to do an end run. This meant that the unit had to be ready to fly to Denmark, Norway, Greece or Turkey at the drop of a hat. As such, it was one of the few light units in Germany. (Most were full of tanks and armoured personnel carriers).
Now, being light was good news for being able to deploy quickly, but it wasn't necessarily great when looking down the barrels of 200 thundering T-55 tanks. So in all probability, had the balloon ever really gone up, the AMF(L) would have deployed with its soldiers wearing their seven different national uniforms; these brave soldiers would have locked arms and fought bravely in the name of international solidarity (for about 35 seconds); and they would have been annihilated. Their deaths in unified endeavour would have helped to cement the resolves of their respective domestic publics and thereby their home governments to commit (as each had promised to do by treaty) to the mutual protection of Western Europe. So, as I said before, the squidgy AMF(L) blood spot that remained once the communist hordes had rolled through would be our true contribution to freedom and democracy.
As a pretty selfless guy who was up for a challenge and happy to do his part, I didn't mind all of this very much at all. I didn't, however, go out of my way to spell it out for the 40 men whose lives I was responsible for. I suspect they may have had concerns with a couple of the finer points. Still, the risk had become a purely theoretical one by the time that I arrived at the U.S. headquarters company of the brigade - HQ CO AMF(L), (are you getting this abbreviation stuff)? - to take charge of my infantry platoon.
As it turned out, it was a lot of fun. We didn't waste loads of time maintaining tanks and personnel carriers - because we didn't have any. We got lots of cool training time around Germany. And we got super cool training deployments to Denmark, Turkey, Italy and the UK.
What's more, we worked closely with, and thereby learned to disrespect, distrust and generally look down upon, soldiers from many other countries - almost as much as we looked down upon our countrymen in competing armed services (Navy, Air Force). I joke. We developed real respect for our Nato brethren forces and enjoyed working with them - especially the Brits and Germans.
I swear I had a conversation with a Turkish officer who told me, when I asked why he carried a pistol loaded with LIVE ammunition at all times, that he needed it to protect himself from his troops. He went on to say that he could kill nine of his soldiers per year without having to fill out any paperwork. Once he hit double figures, he needed to complete some forms. Maybe he was just pulling my leg.
Our deployment to Italy was unique for two reasons: first, we could not take any weapons or gas masks, because the Austrians would not allow us to travel through their country by train with these things; second, our company commander didn't go, so I was in charge of things. It was winter / mountain survival training in the Alps north of Venice, and it was great. Without the weapons, it felt like a boy scout jamboree - cross-country skiing, downhill skiing, snowshoeing, sleeping in snow caves - fantastic!
I remember another such outing - without weapons but with our commander - to Bavaria for mountaineering training. This training wasn't especially military, as it was run as part of the U.S. military's recreational facilities at Garmisch - the sight of the Winter Olympics many moons ago. Our hiking guide during one phase of the training carried a guitar with him, and we sang for much of the night once we reached our hut on a ridge overlooking Austria. It was like The Sound of Music all over again - but with a country & western twang and no lederhosen.
Don't get me wrong. There was plenty of 'proper' military training as well, even if the unit's raison d'etre had recently dissolved.
While I was a light infantry platoon leader in Germany with the US Army, I got a chance to take a US platoon (30-40 men) through a 3-week course at the Centre d'Entrainement Commando on the French - German border. Although the main camp was located on the German side of the border, on the edge of the Black Forest, the training (as the name suggests) was run by the French. My platoon was attached to a French combat engineer company that was rotating through the course as part of its annual training calendar.
The US platoon I led was a composite one - half picked from across my own company and half from a US combat engineer unit from the same NATO brigade. The senior NCO was from neither of these units, as his main job was translating within the Protocol Office of the international headquarters in Heidelberg. He was there to help us communicate with our French comrades, in case my 6 years of French classes let me down. If this all sounds a bit complex, then you are getting the picture.
The idea of the course was to put small units and their individual members through stressful physical and psychological tests to help them bond and work better in the future. This objective was only partly applicable to us, because my bastard platoon would disband, with members heading back to their respective permanent units, as soon as the course finished. For us, it was more a chance to do some tough training and improve cross-national relations and understanding at a grass-roots level. The real pressure was to make sure that we did well in the course so as not to let our country down!
The first task was a timed five-mile road march, which the entire unit had to complete within a given time period. Failure meant being sent home from the course in ignominy. About half-way through, it became obvious that one of the NCOs from the engineer unit was having a very difficult time. He began lagging the rest of the unit. Coaxing, cheering, shouting and threatening all failed to get him to pick up the pace. His body was simply not up to it. In a rare moment of Rambo machismo, I took the pack from his back and strapped it onto my chest. I had been training a lot, so carrying two didn't kill me (although it did take the starch out of me!). He was able to catch up during the final mile, and the unit made it into the course - but not by much. We had to plan carefully how to help that guy through each of the tough events that remained before us. (He worked hard and did fine!)
I remember that much of the training had to do with conquering fear of heights or enclosed spaces (e.g. tunnels). Several of my men had these fears in spades, so it took a fair bit of psychology to figure out which buttons to push to get them through some things. The good thing was that it didn't leave time for me to worry much about the heights and tunnels, which might well have frightened me considerably if I'd had more time to take notice of them.
The hardest bit came when a severe claustrophobic had to crawl through a long sewer-like tunnel to gain access for the rest of the group into a depot we were meant to be raiding. He was a squad leader - in charge of 9 men. He was facing his worst nightmare, but he couldn't back down. If he did, all of his men would see it. That would spell the end to his days as a leader in that unit. We had a five minute heart-to-heart at the mouth of that tunnel, and he did it. He came out the other end crying and trembling, but no one cared about that. He had faced his fear, so he maintained (and amplified) the right to demand that his men do the same if and when the time came. I've rarely been more proud of anyone than I was of him that night.
The officers and NCOs had meals in a special mess. The breakfasts introduced me to a great French military tradition. When a person entered the mess, he shook the hand of each person already eating and said good morning. Each incumbent rose to shake the newcomer's hand as he approached. What a friendly way to start the day.
I became quite good mates with the second-in-charge of the French engineer company. My halting French combined with his decent English meant that we could communicate just about anything we wanted to one another. He was from Alsace, the French region just a few miles away, so he spoke good German as well. He admitted that he had not been impressed by our US unit in the early days, but that he was amazed how quickly we came together as a unit and managed to get through everything even though we had weaknesses as individuals.
One of my soldiers put his boots by the fire after we reached a rest camp on part of a long mission. We all grabbed a few hours sleep before moving on at sunlight. Unfortunately, the poor guy's boots had melted by the time he went to put them back on. Luckily, he had a second pair.
Each day we also had training in hand-to-hand combat. The (very tough) instructor latched onto one of our guys as his guinea pig for demonstrating submission holds. He stated proudly that one could make someone do almost anything by applying the right sort of pressure to a painful area. Upon wrenching my guy's wrist in an ugly way, he demanded the poor soldier take a bite of grass. I was on the verge of an international incident, as I felt I might have to intervene on this guy's behalf. The instructor gave me a look as if to say, 'Trust me on this one.' My soldier held tough for one excruciating minute then gave in. The instructor immediately let him up, offered him hearty congratulations for holding out so long, said he'd been made to do the same thing in earlier days and invited him to dine in the instructor's mess. Wheeow, glad that one ended okay.
Another of the instructors was new to the course and pretty junior as a soldier, but he was of southeast asian heritage and obviously extremely well schooled in the martial arts. I, for my sins, was asked to hold a small twig between my teeth while he did a reeling 360 degree flying kick. He flicked it from my mouth without leaving a scratch. We found out two weeks after returning to our base that the course had been hit by a bout of bacterial meningitis and that he had died from it. We must have made it out just in time.
The final exercise involved a long covert, foot movement through the Black Forest, with a raid at the end. These French engineers specialised in path-finding - laying out a route for others to follow, so they took the lead through most of it. Eventually, time came for us to forge the path. A number of my soldiers were pretty bushed by then, so we had to devise a strategy on the fly to split my unit into two parts. I would take the 'fast' group and mark the trail for the rest, while the rest of the unit moved at a more even pace.
My 'leadership' worked fine in getting the fast group through, but then it gave way somewhat to my more powerful 'sleepiness'. Despite trying to stay up and make sure that my second echelon made it in safely, I drifted off into un-leader-like sleep. My excellent second-in-command brought in the trailing group good as gold. The watch woke me, and we all celebrated completing the course successfully (and getting some really cool badges for our uniforms).
Still, drifting off seemed one of those things that MacArthur or Eisenhower (or my own best squad leaders) would not have done. It's one of the many small examples in which my weakness broke the surface into the light of day. I didn't have the resoluteness, the physical selflessness, to be a real leader in the Army. I've nothing but respect for those who do.
I am fundamentally weak, in both physical strength and emotional resolve, so it's quite odd that I ended up as an Infantry officer in the U.S. Army. Just goes to show what a series of ill-considered decisions by an individual, coupled with low-quality screening on the part of large public bodies, can accomplish. It didn't take long for me to realise that I was more likely to follow in the footsteps of Gomer Pyle (okay, he was a Marine) than those of Patton and Bradley.
I showed up at my first unit - one of the few light infantry units in Germany, where tanks dominate the terrain - when my company was on a field exercise. The lieutenant whose platoon I was taking over (as he moved to another role in the company) let me borrow his equipment so I could get straight out to lead the next mock operation. I literally didn't even drop off my bags back at the garrison.
My platoon had three squads of about ten men each, plus a communications specialist, a medic and an NBC (nuclear, biological and chemical) specialist. They had been 'in the field' for a number of days before I arrived and were already pretty tired. They were, though, understandably excited to see their new platoon leader. I had the tough-man's short haircut and the badges to show that I was parachute and Ranger qualified. Surely this let them know I was a leader worthy of their respect???
We were to conduct what is called a 'movement to contact' in the wee hours between midnight and sunrise. A force embarks on this type of mission when they have a rough idea but no specific intelligence of where the enemy is. Essentially, it involves moving in a formation that lends itself to rapid deployment from traveling to fighting posture, so that when you encounter the enemy you can quickly transition to the attack.
My platoon sergeant, the oldest and most experienced member of the unit, was injured, so one of the squad leaders was acting in his place. Our plan was based on a standard template of such operations. I would travel behind the lead squad, with him just ahead of the trail one. The radio man was with me, the medic and most of the heavier weapons (machine guns) with him. When we met the enemy, his contingent would quickly pull up beside mine to gain and maintain a superior base of fire on the enemy forces. Then I would peel off with an assault force to swing around the flank while the platoon sergeant and half of the platoon continued to lay down covering fire.
I carefully mapped out our route and distributed the relevant compass azimuths and distances of each leg of the mission to the squads. After a thorough briefing, careful equipment preparation and detailed rehearsals of the scenario described above, we set out on the mission.
The movement was going well, but in the relatively featureless terrain I had a hard time (which I never admitted, of course) verifying our position on the ground relative to the map used in the planning and in guiding our movements. By the time that we had covered more than the planned distance to the enemy without any sight of them, and as the scheduled hour of the confrontation came and went, I had to stop the formation and convene a leaders' meeting to double-check our position relative to the map.
We (myself and these over-tired squad leaders and stand-in platoon sergeant) decided that we were actually very near where the enemy must be. I took an executive decision to quietly move the platoon sergeant and his contingent into a perfect position to lay down fire on the identified terrain. Then I set out with my assault team to sneak up on the enemy from the flank. When I gave the signal, we would spring a perfect surprise attack on the opposing force, none of whom had yet realised we were on their doorstep.
It was all coming together. In addition to demonstrating textbook planning and preparation and executing a good (if somewhat uncertain) tactical movement, I was exhibiting the sort of flexibility that came with real tactical genius. I was on a buzz; my men had shrugged off their sleepiness and looked sharp and poised. We stealthily swept around in an arc, knowing we were moments from dealing death to the baddies.
A shot rang out just ahead. One of the enemy must have spotted us. I ordered my assault team to return fire and launched a green flare - the signal to the platoon sergeant and his fire support team to start shooting as well - into the air. All hell broke lose. The rattle and cough of automatic weapons echoed in the pre-dawn darkness. The smell of cordite filled the air.
I moved my assault team forward in bounding rushes. First one half, then the other. Everyone moving in short bursts - three steps then hit the ground, three steps then hit the ground. We closed in for the final assault. Time to signal to the platoon sergeant to lift his fire, as we were about to sweep across the enemy position and didn't want to get shot by our own men - the ultimate tragedy.
Before I had time to launch the appropriate flare for that signal, I caught sight of several faces of the enemy, only to realise that they were not the enemy at all! My sweeping arc had had a rather grander swing to it than I thought. I had circled round completely. Both my assault team and the platoon sergeant's support team had inflicted heavy casualties, but unfortunately we had inflicted them on one another! In a spectacular display of tactical ineptitude, I had completely destroyed my own unit.
The actual opposing force was sitting a half mile away, it's men getting bored, waiting eagerly for sunrise and breakfast and wondering what all the fighting was off to the southeast.
My company commander, who always had a soft spot for me and luckily subscribed to the school of learning through mistakes, assured me that my unit and I had done many things well. My men were also strangely forgiving of the fact that I'd led them to slaughter themselves. Over not too great a time I was able to (re?) gain their respect and enjoy a great year, including many more field exercises.
My commander was right - we learn from our mistakes. Despite having bucket loads of fun with a quality bunch of guys, I left the infantry when I got the chance and left the military once I had completed my obligatory service. I'll leave the fighting to those better suited to it.
In the summer of 1987, I reported back to the U.S. Air Force Academy, where I'd spent a semester on exchange from West Point the previous year. This time, it was for a three week training programme in Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape - a course designed for current and future pilots, in case they get shot down behind enemy lines.
If I remember correctly, the first couple of weeks were very soft, unlike Army courses, where there tended to be hazing for hazing's sake, this one was very civilised until the time came to impose a hostile scenario to consolidate the learning. The survival phase was mainly classroom work, other than a 'survival meal' in which we (in small groups) had to kill and eat a rabbit and a chicken. I'd had to do that in previous courses I'd done anyway. Things got interesting when we launched into the evasion phase. Three man teams were designated to navigate from a place where they were notionally shot down, via partisan camps and avoiding enemy patrols, to a point of safe passage to friendly territory.
Another Army guy was in my small team. Our Air Force counterpart badly sprained his ankle relatively early on the first day, when we had three days walking and many wooded miles to cover. I have to say, he was incredibly stoic and brave, but still he had to lean on one or both of us. Of course, we had only minimal equipment and next to no food. We purified water from mountain streams or lakes with iodine tablets so as not to fall prey to dehydration.
We managed to avoid the enemy patrols, who concentrated disproportionately on obvious points like open space and road crossings, where lazy teams would wander to minimise the distance they had to travel. The smart money was on putting in the extra distance in order to avoid those traps, but that meant that the pressure was always on to ensure we didn't miss the time windows for presenting ourselves at the partisan camps, where we could get stew or other sustenance.
The resistance phase was 24 hours in a simulated POW camp. We were blindfolded and placed in solitary confinement - including little cramped boxes one could barely fit into by sitting and hunching over in a ball. This didn't bother me particularly, as I quite like spending time on my own and don't mind close spaces. I do remember, though, as I do from most of my military training courses, just being terribly impatient with the fact that my freedom was so restricted.
I was a bad student in that I never immersed myself in the scenario to get the most from it. I always satisficed AS A STUDENT rather than stepping fully into the role AS A PRISONER or whatever other role I was cast in. This is not to say that I never played the game. During interrogation, I gave no useful information and even managed to stick to a consistent story of misinformation. But how hard was that? They couldn't exactly chop my fingers off, kick me in the nuts or threaten to kill my family. They could only put me into some temporarily uncomfortable 'stress' positions that I knew caused no lasting damage.
As with most of my military training, I learned at least as much about myself as I did about the specific content of the course.
'A cadet will not lie, cheat or steal, nor tolerate those who do.'
Thus spake the Honor Code at West Point. Anyone deemed to be in violation of it had to appear before an 'Honor Board' in which the alleged facts of the case and any defense were presented to a 'jury' of peers, who would decide whether the charged cadet was 'found' (guilty) or 'not found.' A cadet found on an honor violation was punished severely, most often by expulsion from the academy.
The rationale for the weight placed on the honor code lay in the absolute trust that one officer must have in another in the profession of arms. As an officer of the state's armed forces, one's character and actions had to be beyond reproach. We all took it very seriously.
The first three elements of the code were relatively simple:
Don't lie - period. Not about your age when trying to buy alcohol, not about where you were when a surprise inspection the night before had detected you were not in your own room.
Don't cheat - period. Not on your homework. Not in an exam. Not when doing your push-ups for the physical fitness test.
Don't steal - period. This one, unlike the two above, hardly ever tripped anyone up.
The fourth element of the code - called the non-toleration clause - was more personally demanding, as it required that you report any known cadet infringements of the code. It didn't matter whether the culprit was someone you didn't know or your best friend, a rival or someone you owed a favour to. If you were found to have known of a violation and to have failed to report it, then you were in violation yourself.
My sense was always that cadets accepted the first three elements without question, but that some harbored doubt about the non-toleration clause. The trouble lay in the clause's perceived undermining of the value of camaraderie - another essential glue among military professionals. You had to know that your buddy would be there for you, no matter what. You were a team, in it together. Yet the non-toleration clause could be seen as flying in the face of that tightness.
In the end, I subordinated camaraderie as a stand-alone value to the principle of non-toleration. This was, of course, in keeping with what the academy wanted us to do, and I bought the official reasoning: camaraderie, team spirit, is not commendable when it serves an ignoble end (e.g. lying, cheating, stealing). Were we to elevate camaraderie above our ethical principles, we might find ourselves supporting cover-ups of looting, massacres, rapes or genocide during war, in the interest of 'protecting buddies'. I certainly didn't think that would be right. I do think that most at the academy bought into the non-toleration clause as I did, but it wouldn't shock me to learn that a (quiet) minority prioritised camaraderie instead.
I graduated from West Point in 1988. In 2002, I received a message from another academy grad, asking me to get in touch. I must have copied the phone number incorrectly, because I was unable to reach him. He left a further message and expressed a certain urgency to speak with me. Although we knew one another pretty well as cadets, we had never been especially close friends. Without other clear ideas for why he might be phoning, I suspected he might be looking for a job with my current employer and hoping for some help.
When we finally caught up with one another by phone, we engaged in the usual talk-once-a-decade chit chat about where our lives had got to, etc. He then adopted a very sober tone and said that something had been digging at his conscience for years and that he needed to make a confession to me.
He went on to remind me (I had no recollection) that he had been charged with an honor violation during my final year at the Academy and that he had called me as a character witness. I 'testified' as to my views of his character at the time, and in the end - on the basis of all the assembled evidence - he was not found. His confession to me in this phone call, you will have guessed, was that he had committed the offence, the details of which I can't remember.
It had obviously taken some real courage for him to come out with that, and I told him that I appreciated his call and admired him for undertaking to set the record straight with me. He did the same with every person who was involved in the case, and indeed with the Academy itself. For me, that is sufficient to expunge the stains from that period of weakness at West Point, but I'm not sure what the Academy's official view is.
Can honor, once lost, be recovered? I would like to think so.
Sitting down to a meal was not exactly a relaxing experience as a first year student at West Point. Plebes, as the academy referred to its freshmen, could not talk to one another and had to request permission to speak with anyone else. With this gag order in effect, they needed to perform a number of duties for the table.
Each table sat 10 people. These places were assigned, with the same colleagues sitting together for 3-4 weeks before new table assignments were made. There were four year groups at West Point, and each was represented roughly equally at each rectangular table. So, the top 2-3 seats were for the Firsties (seniors), the next ones for the Cows (juniors), then the Yearlings (sophomores) and finally, at the foot of the table, the Plebes.
The mess hall had waiting staff to bring food and drink to the table, where it was always served 'family style' in serving dishes to be doled out to each person's plate by the table occupants. The plebes' duties were separate from and complementary to the waiters' tasks.
Whenever new table assignments came out, each table's Plebes would have to confer in one of their rooms to divvy up information gathering tasks. They would then each go off to their assigned upper-classmen's rooms to request and record information about each person's beverage and dessert preferences for meals:
- The beverage preference could be as simple as, ' I always want water with ice.' But it could take on considerably greater complexity, as in, 'I'll always have the drink for the meal if it is a fruit drink, and in those cases I will have it with 2 whole ice-cubes - not bits. If the drink is iced tea, I'll have water, with no ice, unless it's at dinner, in which case I'll have the iced tea with 3 whole ice cubes. Never give me a chipped glass, or you'll be sorry you were ever born.'
-Similarly, the dessert preference could range from, 'I'll always have it,' to 'I'll always have cake, unless it has coconut in it. I'll never have pie unless it's apple. If the dessert is a tart, ask me at the table. If you forget, I'll kill you.' You get the picture.
So, among the things a waiter drops off at the table are a pitcher of drink, a bucket of ice and an uncut dessert. The plebes at the table had to serve all of the drinks and cut the dessert before turning to their own meals. Doesn't sound too tough, but there were a couple of complicating factors.
First, the plebes had to have all of the preferences memorised. No notes were allowed at the table. Given all of the other information plebes had to have committed to memory - the three menus for the day, a paraphrasing of every article from the front page and lead sports page of the the day's New York Times, the number of days until various important events in the year's schedule (the Navy football game, Christmas break, Spring break, graduation, etc.) and a small catalog of West Point and Army trivia - the brain became a bit cluttered. And let's not forget that the poor fella might have a calculus or electrical engineering mid-term test immediately after lunch!
Second, the dessert needed to be cut into the correct number of exactly equal pieces and needed to be presented to the 'table commandant' for inspection. Most desserts were circular. The centre of the cuts needed to be at the geometric centre of the dessert, or there was trouble. The cuts needed to be clean, so the plebe doing the cutting would literally wipe off the knife and dip it in water before each new cut. And as I said, the pieces needed to be exactly equal. If all of this was done correctly, but the dessert had the wrong number of pieces (based on incorrect memory of the dessert preferences for the upperclassmen) there was still hell to pay.
Now, a slight cheat was allowed for cutting equal sized pieces. Each plebe was allowed (read required) to bring a template to the meal. This template could not touch the dessert, but could be balanced on crumbs of bread that the Plebe set on the dessert. The template usually had a hole in the centre, to help place it correctly on the dessert. It also had (according to the rigour and comprehensiveness of the plebe's approach) colour-coded notches for a six-piece cut vs. a seven-, eight-, nine- or ten-piece cut. Beads of sweat would form on the forehead as the operation was performed and the plebe awaited the table commandant's judgement after inspecting it.
Let's say it all went fine. Whewww! Now the plebes can eat. They have some catching up to do, as everyone else has been eating happily while these duties were being performed. But they can't catch up very quickly. A plebe can only take so big a mouthful. If asked a question by an upperclassman during the meal, he must be able to respond after no more than three chews and one swallow. We did become adept at handling bigger and bigger loads within the required parameters, and it makes me wonder whether my throat actually expanded at university.
The bite-size limit was superimposed with an effective bite frequency limit as well. The plebe had to cut a bite European style, put the knife down and switch the fork to the right hand, put the bite in his mouth with the fork and place the fork back onto his plate before he was allowed to start chewing. He could not pick up his knife and fork again until he had swallowed the previous bite.
Given all of this, you can guess why 'boodle boxes,' the parcels of food mailed from home for consumption in one's room at night while studying, were so crucial to our lives. Having gone in as a skinny lad, I somehow managed to put on 15 pounds during the first year, even operating in this regime. You can believe I was very happy when my plebe year ended and I could hand over the table duties and other baggage of plebe life to the next class of unfortunates.
The eight summer weeks before my first academic year at West Point were pretty tough. They were designed to be. This cadet basic training, called Beast Barracks, existed (as far as I can tell) to do two things. First it steeped incoming freshmen, called Plebes, in the history, culture and mentality of the West Point and, to a lesser extent, of the Army. Second, it weeded out those whose applications to join were based on an incorrect perception of what West Point was like or whose acceptance was based on an overestimation of their ability to meet the Academy's demands - particularly its psychological (as opposed to intellectual) ones. This second objective called for Beast to be an exaggeration or even caricature of the balance of the West Point experience.
Much was made of the need to be physically fit, and I quite enjoyed the group runs in formation. This was mainly because we all had to sing out 'cadence calls' and run in step with them. This appealed to my love of music and rhythm, helped regulate my breathing and generally took my mind off the fact that most of my body hurt quite badly! Push-ups and sit-ups were also staples of the daily regime, as were assault courses, bayonet drills and team sports.
I was a very skinny lad, and it was easy for people to underestimate my ability to 'hang' with the physical demands. I remember my squad leader - an upperclassman who was our equivalent to a drill sergeant - preparing us for a volleyball match against another squad: 'Smith, you play up front and look for opportunities to spike. Jones, play back center to dig out the tough serves. Johnson......' You get the picture. When he got to me, he just said, 'Fraley, uh, don't hurt yourself.' Luckily, my skin was thicker then than it is now, so I took no great offense. I did, however, redouble my efforts (waking up with muscle cramp most nights from my exertions) to ensure I held my own in the physical fitness tests.
We also had to bring ourselves to much higher standards of personal appearance than the standard college freshman. Our shirts always needed to be tucked in so tightly that they fit snugly to our bodies, with no loose fabric. This was called a 'dress-off', and being caught with a poor one meant getting into trouble. Our shoes and boots needed to be stereotypically shiny as well. Beyond that, the instructions for exactly what to wear for a given activity were complex and subtle. Should I wear my utility belt with suspenders or without? Do I carry a canteen on the belt? One or two? Normal brown t-shirt under camouflage jacket, or a white 'PT' one? Soft cap or helmet?
We were drilled on the importance of properly securing and maintaining our weapons - in this case old M-14 rifles with the firing pins removed. Leave it out of reach, get into big trouble. Get caught with a dusty one, get into big trouble. Lose it (and believe it or not, some did), get into BIG trouble.
You may have picked up by now that there were lots of ways to get into trouble. The fundamental characteristic of the entire 8 weeks was to learn that you could never get everything right. There was always something you could be caught short on. We were all yelled at constantly, made to feel we were on the verge of expulsion, lower than dog dirt. We were only permitted 4 responses when asked a question: 1) Yes Sir (or Ma'am), 2) No Sir, 3) No excuse, Sir, and 4) Sir, I do not understand. Not much wiggle room for getting out of trouble. The summer taught us how to handle overload. It taught us life was not fair. It made us question what the hell we were thinking when we signed up for this!
Yet the richness of West Point's traditions, the physical impressiveness of the place, and the quality of the people we saw around us made us stay. Many wrote home expressing a wish to drop out. I personally proposed an alternative career in the clergy! Seeing the statues of memorials to alumni - Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Jack Pershing, Douglas MacArthur, Dwight Eisenhower among them - made one feel a part of something big, something worth striving for. The imposing granite buildings, seemingly carved into the hillside over the Hudson River, echoed the reputation that the Academy's alumni had for dependability in the most difficult of times. Even if we said the summer sucked day-to-day, we saw it as a right of passage into something worthy of our efforts.
At the end of Beast Barracks we celebrated during a long weekend for which many of our parents made the trip. We could see them during the day, show them around, brag to them of all we'd done. It was great to see my family, but when they left, I cried my eyes out. I knew that I had a long and tough few months as a Plebe (still sub-human) in the autumn academic term before seeing them again for Thanksgiving.
I didn't bask for long in the glow of high-school graduation. Within a few weeks, I reported (voluntarily!) to the US Military Academy at West Point, where I would spend the next four years getting a degree and earning a commission in the Army. And this while several of my friends enjoyed a summer before heading off to a life that I could only assume was like the fraternity existence in 'Animal House'.
The first year (called 'Plebe Year') at West Point is always quite a tough one, and 1984/85 was no exception. We couldn't talk, except in the classroom or our own room, unless we were instructed to do so by an upperclassman. We had to ask permission to ask a question - inefficient, I know. We had to walk at a ridiculously rapid rate, with our eyes straight ahead and our elbows locked. When in the barracks (military equivalent to 'dorms'), we had to walk right up against the inner wall of the hallway to be out of the way of the upperclassmen.
The academic load was quite heavy, with 50% greater credits per term than at normal universities. In addition, we had to memorise volumes of data that had nothing to do with our studies. Examples included: the breakfast, lunch and dinner menus for the day, the number of days until Army played Navy in football, the number of days until graduation for that year's senior class, the number of lights in one of the halls, the number of gallons in the reservoir, a special definition of leather, the proper response to the question, "How's the cow?" There were endless others, with the intent probably to make the task impossible and then see how we handled it. We also had to be conversant in every article from the front page and main sports page of the NY Times - our only contact with the outside world.
We picked up and delivered the upperclassmen's mail, newpapers and laundry. We counted down the final 10 minutes for them before every formation. We presented ourselves early for every formation to have our appearance and knowledge subjected to rigorous scrutiny. We took mandatory lessons, with graded bouts, in boxing.
But I'm jumping ahead of myself. Before moving into that relaxed existence in the academic year, we had to endure 'Beast Barracks' - basic training - for 2-1/2 months in our first summer. This was, I imagine, much like the basic training of new privates in the Army, but always with a special twist owing to the particular traditions of the Academy.
My parents drove me to West Point on that first day and attended a briefing with me in the football stadium. At the end of the briefing, parents were packed off to worry and fret about how their little babies were doing, and their little babies were thrown into the crucible. Amid constant shouting and confusion, I was shown to my room, where I had about six nanoseconds to change from my scumbag civilian clothes into my uniform. In a daze, I saw a small black bottle on my desk, sat down, turned it over to examine it, and unscrewed the cap.
Out poured the ink intended for my stamp pad, with which I was meant to mark all my clothes. In this case, I marked them rather differently than I was meant to, as the ink splattered over my white shirt and grey trousers. No time to change - screaming in hallway suggested I needed to move rapidly back out into the big world of training and hazing.
You won't be surprised to hear that I became something of a focus for the upperclassmen for the next few hours, especially for those most keen to hone their abuse and humiliation techniques for the upcoming weeks. The bookies that day wouldn't have given me good odds for making it through the evening's parade for the parents, let alone through Plebe year or the four-year course. I'll tell you now that I did, and I'll look forward to sharing a few more stories in posts to come.
None of us were uptight about the jump back into Ft. Benning. If we got hurt, we would still graduate on time from the course. The instructors joked that even if we died on the jump, we could wear the Ranger tab on our burial uniform. We had been so single-minded, so focused on getting through the course, that we did actually take this as a relief.
Although one guy fractured his leg and several others suffered sprains, I made it through my fifth and final jump in Ranger School (my tenth and final overall) unscathed. We were all treated as humans by the cadre in the final days of cleaning equipment and out-processing, having joined their fraternity in all but the most formal sense. That would come soon enough.
My elbow started bothering me in the last couple days, as I scrubbed and scrubbed at the equipment I had borrowed and used throughout the course. The inspections at the supply warehouse, where we had to return the gear before leaving the course, were notoriously picky, and I didn't want some administrative hang-up like that to hold up my departure.
At the graduation, I had more than a tear in my eye as received my tab. It didn't take long to shift into 'exit mode.' To avoid any hassles in returning my equipment, I agreed up front to buy anything that looked like it wouldn't pass inspection. So I had a half-full Army ruck sack to take with me as I drove off with my girlfriend, who had driven down from Virginia. We were heading back there for a romantic 2 weeks before each of us got back to work.
Having got 5 hour's sleep for each of the past 4 nights, I assured her that I was in good shape to drive the first leg of our journey. We hadn't made it 2 miles outside the gates of Ft. Benning when I awoke to find our car (with me supposedly at the helm) bumping across a grass field off the side of the highway I was meant to be on. I guess I had overestimated just how well rested I was. I ceded control to my girlfriend and promptly dropped into a deep sleep - this time in the passenger seat.
I awoke some hours later with my elbow throbbing and red. Cellulitis (a nasty skin infection common among the run-down bodies at Ranger School) had been building up over the last couple of days, and the bursal sac was infected as well. We went to some emergency room in north Georgia, where I got a prescription for some anti-biotics to set things right. It actually took nearly a month before that arm was back to normal.
We spent the next two weeks in a lovely condo on the shore of a gorgeous lake in western Virginia. The romance wasn't all I might have thought, though. All I could do was sleep and upon waking ask for the food about which I had just been dreaming. I had lost a bit more than 20 pounds in the past 9 weeks, and my body felt the need for replenishment acutely - certainly more than it felt any sex drive!
I slept better during the day than the night, as we had been forced into a rhythm of nocturnal activity in the course. I (strangely) sat outside under the stars, cleaning and adjusting my recently purchased equipment as my girlfriend slept inside. She forgave me. All in all, it took more than a month to get back into something like a normal routine and a normal mindset.
Ranger School was a terrible thing to go through but a great thing to have done. It taught me, taught us all, how far we could push ourselves. It provided a benchmark for physical hardship and discomfort that makes even my life in London seem relatively easy...
It gave me some interesting stories.
Ranger School I Ranger School II Ranger School III Ranger School IV Ranger School V
I'm curious. I like looking beneath and behind the obvious, also looking for what is between me and the obvious, obscuring or distorting my view.