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Don’t Let The Bastards Getcha Down

Chapter One (07)

Life Before West Point


About a week after my second and final high school
party, the mandatory sports award assembly took place at
school where I received my Most Valuable Player Award.
Though I was only the glory boy-running back for the second
half of the season after the first-string tailback got hurt,
I gained over five hundred yards in just four games. I was
the workhorse who regularly carried the ball up and down the
field right into the red zone only to have the lame
quarterback suddenly want to hog the ball so he could score
the touchdown himself and invariably he’d have us stalling
out near the goal line. It ended up a bad, worn-out joke as
I knew I could have scored a lot more touchdowns that would
have kept us in games with a decent chance to win. But hey,
at least I got acknowledged for my contribution that season
and that was good enough for me.

Aside from collecting the
MVP award that day, I fondly recall one more rare highlight
right after I accepted the trophy. Apparently Barbara had
not given up on me after all. She was waiting for me outside
the auditorium as I walked down the hallway with her proudly
walking next to me beaming as my wannabe girlfriend, hearing
congratulations from all directions from passersby. It felt
good enough to still fondly recall years later even if it
lasted only a few fleeting seconds. Also equally gratifying
was the caption in the yearbook photo of me accepting that
award from my coach that read “the quiet tiger garners MVP.”
This time “El Tigre” showed up outside the home in that
auditorium that day in front of the whole student body
cheering me on for my accomplishment.               
Of course the most significant highlight and
accomplishment came when I was notified by Congressman
Edward Boland’s office that he had nominated me to attend
the US Military Academy at West Point. The reason I ended up
at West Point and not Annapolis was because when I went for
my physical exam I learned I did not have the required
twenty/twenty vision. Fortunately for me, apparently an Army
grunt’s eyes don’t need to be quite as sharp as a naval
officer’s. It came as more of a blow to my dad than me, so
much so that my father immediately drove me down to
Washington DC and Annapolis to meet with his former skipper,
Medal of Honor winner Admiral Red Ramage. Though my dad
never knew it at that time, it was Captain Ramage who years
before went after my father with revolver drawn to actually
murder my dad after he had gone below deck refusing to kill
any more innocent Asian women and children. My dad later
learned from a shipmate what Ramage tried to do had he not
been talked out of it by several crewmen on the deck. So
despite the Pentagon Admiral paying lip service to my
father’s request to make the promised call to Annapolis to
pull a few strings to get my vision requirement waived,
thankfully I never did make Annapolis. First and foremost, I
would prefer to make it on my own merit as I in fact did in
getting accepted to West Point. And secondly, had I gotten
in and went to Annapolis only to later find out that the
reason I had made it was because of the man who once tried
to murder my dad, that would have been enough to force me in
good conscience to resign. So in retrospect, I’m very
grateful that Ramage showed his true colors right to the end
and lied to my father’s face in his DC office promising he’d
make that call when I’m certain he had no intention of
following through. Just another lie from Pentagon top brass.
Fate intervened on my behalf and a far more important
call came in late February informing me I’d been selected to
attend the Military Academy. Needless to say, it was my
dream come true to make any Academy, especially on my own
merit. It gave me the opportunity to play major football at
Division I level. Basically my one chance to attend college,
my family was too poor to otherwise pay for my college. It
also was my ticket to not feeling like a piece of shit loser
in life. Again, it was my mission and dream come true. And
my dad was plenty happy too despite not attending Annapolis.
Since my birthday was rapidly approaching, my father
proposed celebrating my big weekend together with just him
and me taking another fishing trip to my favorite place
Vermont and then finishing it out with a visit to my future
home. My father and I along with sometimes my younger
brothers would drive hours and hours from our home up to
Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine in search of the big
rainbows and brown trout in such famous rivers as the Batten
Kill and Androscoggin and I’d always end up catching nothing
but a foul mood. My father and youngest brother often fared
better. I learned like Dorothy that “there’s no place like
home” where my favorite fishing hole in the world was just a
minute’s hop, skip and a jump away in our backyard brook.
On the last leg of that memorable weekend, as my dad
and I drove onto the West Point campus for the very first
time, I was totally enthralled.

My future home

The setting was so enchanted
to my wide-eyed innocence, West Point’s majestic banks
overlooking the scenic Hudson River, the mammoth gray stone
granite walls of its historic buildings, and the super cool
Dress Gray uniforms of its cadets scurrying about. Instantly
it brought me back to my youth watching those TV episodes of
“West Point Story” filmed on the same location years before.
I could not wait to be joining those cadets dressed in gray.
It was the best birthday present ever, lots better than
my gift three years earlier, the record album that included
America’s number one song from 1966 and my favorite, Staff
Sergeant Barry Sadler’s “Ballad of the Green Beret.” Worth
noting is its enormous popularity as the top hit of that
entire year. It spoke volumes at the time reflecting this
nation’s pro-Vietnam War sentiments. Then just two short
years later a complete one-eighty as the nation had clearly
turned against the war, so much so that incumbent President
Johnson never sought re-election due to his unpopular war
record. “Fighting soldiers in the sky” as a favorite of
mine also revealed just how mesmerized and hooked I was as
the patriotic son of a decorated war hero, wanting more
than anything to follow in his giant military footsteps.
Seeing West Point up close and personal that birthday
weekend, I was sure that I was one huge step closer to being
on my way.

My high school graduation photo

Though my father was locked in the middle of a two
decade long cold war feud with his big brother Avedes, he
always remained on good terms with his other siblings. So he
was eager to share the great news with his sisters Seran and
Helen who lived in Watertown near Boston. The two widows
were both very hurt that two of their three brothers were
not speaking and made a number of futile attempts to reunite
them to no avail. My aunts were my only real contact with
true Armenian culture and cuisine. Aunt Helen was the
perfect charming, gracious little Armenian hostess famous
for bringing out trays and trays of the most delicious
Armenian food in the world and then topping it off with a
ten-course dinner feast. Always so kind and loving, Helen
represented the ideal traditionally feminine Armenian aunt.
Her older sister Seran was a far more serious, highly
independent, intellectual career woman who all her life had
worked tirelessly for the ultimate Armenian cause - its
long-awaited independence as a sovereign nation. She
symbolized the ideal of the modern independent Armenian
woman, very thoughtful, dedicated and passionate about all
things Armenian. I loved them both very much. More than any
other family, they helped me understand and appreciate my
rich Armenian heritage and ethnic identity. Though my dad
felt close to his Watertown sisters, we rarely made the two
hour trip east on the Mass Turnpike to see them. I always
looked forward to going there not just for the fantastic
food from Helen’s kitchen, but I cherished exploring my
Armenian roots, mining my aunts’ treasure trove of family
information and culture about the old country. I wished my
father had been more socially inclined but he was reluctant
after a couple times when my aunts had invited Avedes too.
We went to see them on a Sunday in the spring of 1969,
a couple months prior to my reporting-for-duty date at West
Point. Word was out about my West Point Congressional
appointment via newspaper clippings my mother had sent. In
addition to my father’s two sisters, each of their adult
children were there including their grandchildren. My father
and mother were inside with all the other adults looking at
a book that Helen proudly displayed on her coffee table
featuring all the Armenian American veterans from World War
II that included a lengthy write-up on my warrior dad. Of
course this was his opportunity to mention how his son is
keeping with the family tradition by attending West Point.
Meanwhile, as young people naturally do (that is prior to
the video game-computer age), I was outside in the front
yard hanging out with my two younger brothers and Seran’s
grandson who was about the same age of ten as my youngest
brother. We were acting both frisky and bored with little to
do, so we resorted to doing what I alluded young boys do
earlier, throwing rocks up into the air as high as possible.
We weren’t really aiming at anything in particular, though
the street light was the closest object. Suddenly our little
second cousin randomly threw a larger stone up in the air
that happened to come crashing down with a loud thud on a
passing car. As its brakes screeched to a halt, all four of
bolted toward the front door when my stern father stuck his
head out to call us in for dinner. One glance at our guilty
faces and he instinctively knew we’d been up to no good. As
I was the last one in, he snarled, “What the hell were you
guys doing out there?”
“Go find your sisters and tell them dinner’s ready.” 
I walked through the house to the backyard and found my two
younger sisters and Seran’s granddaughter chatting away with
girl-talk. My teenage second cousin was one of those
striking little exotic Armenian beauties.
“Come and get it girls,” I invited. As I headed back
into the house, I think I overheard my cute cousin say, “I
think your brother’s a real fox.” Then came a most memorable
meal. While exchanging sweet silent smiles with my cousin,
the lively dinner table conversation suddenly grew livelier.
Seran’s son-in-law was busily voicing the nation’s anti-war
view at the time when my conservative father vehemently
disagreed, “I did twenty years on submarines in the Pacific
and I can tell you Australia’s not that far away. We gotta
draw the line in the sand somewhere, and right now Vietnam’s
Seran added, “Our brothers and sisters in Armenia are
still not free under Soviet Communism. We really do need to
take a stand and fight the spread of evil Communism.”
Her son-in-law countered, “Joachim, as the family West
Pointer now, you could, God forbid, be one day leading our
troops into combat. What do ya think? Should we be there?” 
After a long pause, I replied, “No, we have no business
being there, it’s cost us too many lives already in a war
we’re not even winning.”
“That’s why he’s going to West Point, he’s still got a
lot to learn,” my father quickly retaliated, then angrily
turning to me, “Since when did you turn against the war?” As
uneasy silence descended over the table, I said nothing,
feeling like I’d somehow betrayed America and my father.
“This sarma is so delicious Helen,” my mother offered
in a feeble attempt to ease the tension. Meanwhile, my cute
second cousin and I went back to smiling at each other,
despite the momentary awkwardness.
Helen’s middle age son then timely chimed in, “A toast
to Joachim, the family West Pointer.”
As everyone toasted, Seran added, “And may he be as
brave a military man as his brave and great father.”
“Here, here...” Once again, I felt I was on my way.

Go to Chapter Two (01)

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