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Don’t Let The Bastards Getcha Down


Chapter Two (01)

West Point Beast Barraks

 

Those days and weeks leading up to my report date on
July 1st, 1969 to West Point were all good. Through my older
half-brother’s electrical engineer father, I was able to
land a month long gig with my brother working as electrician
assistants on the construction of the latest Anheuser-Busch
brewery plant in Nashua, New Hampshire. I loved how everyone
respected me as soon as they learned I was headed to such a
prestigious institution. It gave me that much needed boost
of confidence to finally start believing in myself. Now I
could be somebody, free of that chronically low self-image
as the undeserving loser in life. Right about then came
America’s number one hit that remained the nation’s most
popular song that entire month of June, Henry Mancini’s
“Love Theme to Romeo & Juliet.” It was the perfect
soundtrack mix to my life at that moment in time, made of
fantasy fulfillment, romanticized hope and lofty aspiration
as the cadet-to-be.
Then came the day I’d been dreaming and waiting for,
the day I became a cadet. I was scared shitless, though
too much the tough guy to ever admit it. The most honest I
came on the way to being dropped off was answering my
mother’s question, “How are you feeling?” 
“I’m pretty nervous...”
“Well, like your father said, we’re so proud of you.”
My mother was always very supportive and positive. Her
baby making career had spanned twenty-two years spawning
nine children. For years she was active in Cub Scouts and
Girl Scouts. Whatever little time she had between her duties
as wife and mother, she avidly wrote and published poetry
and short stories in magazines like Saturday Evening Post,
including a couple of unpublished novels. Before she died
seven years ago, she completed “Creek Blossom Woman,” her
heartfelt homage to her Ojibwa great-great grandmother.
The two and a half hour drive from the hills of western
Massachusetts to West Point, New York was visually stunning,
especially as we approached Bear Mountain along the steep
banks of the Hudson River near West Point. My mother
remarked, “It’s so beautiful here.” Just then the sign
pointing to our destination appeared.


On the way to West Point

My father read, “West Point, just seven miles away.”
My stomach churned acidic as my head grappled with the
reality that in a few short minutes my life was taking one
drastic, very radical turn that would leave it never the
same. In civilian clothes I exchanged my last goodbyes with
my parents on Clinton Field and lined up in single file with
other new cadets to board the bus. As I stepped onto that
bus, one last time I glanced back at my proud stoic father
and weeping mother, their gaze firmly etched forever in my
mind.
An upperclass detail member had told us “no talking” on
the bus, but I quickly learned the guy sitting next to me
wearing glasses was also from the nearby New England state
Maine with a career Navy father as well. His spectacles also
explained why he ended up at West Point instead of Annapolis
like me. That summer Bob Leeman wound up in the squad and
barracks room right next to mine. Sharing such remarkably
similar backgrounds, in that three minute drive to the start
of our first day activities, we already knew we had a whole
lot in common. We joked about being sheep headed to the
slaughterhouse that first day of Beast Barracks as the first
two months at the Point are aptly called. Little did we know
just how lethal that slaughterhouse would be.
The idea behind the very first day and moments of Beast
Barracks is designed to scare the living shit out of every
new cadet. After getting off the bus, we were placed in
separate groups and subjected to our first official hazing
exercises. Everywhere upperclassmen were stationed screaming
and barking out instructions, demands and insults, in effect
bombarding each new cadet with stress overload. Upperclass
detail members were posted every twenty yards or so down a
long hallway with four or five new cadets lined up in single
file in front of each upperclassman. It was my new friend
Bob Leeman’s turn with me right behind him. The disapproving
detail member screamed at Bob, “Mister, you throw that bag
down like a little girl. Now get out of here!” As Bob left,
it was my turn and the upperclassman barked, “New Cadet,
throw your bag to the floor!” With some force I threw my
overnight bag to the floor. “Throw it to the floor like you
mean it!” Starting to get pissed at the absurdity of all
this, I threw my bag harder to the floor. “What’s your
problem mister? Do I detect an attitude problem here?”
“No sir!”
“Yeah, I think we got a smartass here who thinks he’s
better than everyone else! Toss your damn bag on the floor.”
Beginning to feel furious with this asshole, this time I
threw the bag savagely to floor.
“Mister, I said toss your bag to the floor.” This time
I threw my bag even harder to the floor.
“What’s your name mister?”
“New Cadet Hagopian sir!”
“What the hell kind of name is that?” “Armenian American sir!”
“Sounds more like an A-rab to me. Where’s your turban?”
This racist asshole was really pissing me off now. “I
don’t wear a turban, I’m American.”
“Mister, a new cadet knows only four answers - yes sir,
no sir, no excuse sir and sir I do not understand. You got
that? And every time you open your mouth, you address me
as sir. Got that A-rab?”
“Yes sir!” But “asshole” was what I was thinking.
“Go on, get out of my sight, you fucken A-rab.” And
this bit of racism came even long before 9/11. It gave me a
sinking feeling of nausea in the pit of my stomach knowing
the place I had so long admired was turning out to be a
redneck haven already within my first fifteen minutes there.
I walked down the hallway to join the short line at the next
station. Bob stood in front of the detail member instructing
him to salute. Bob awkwardly saluted the upperclassman but
his salute was apparently far from proper. The detail member
asked, “What’s your name new cadet?
“Robert Leeman sir!”
“Mr Leeman, you need lots of work in front of a mirror.
Now go outside and report to the man in the red sash!”
Bob started leaving without his overnight bag.
“New Cadet Leeman, aren’t you forgetting something?”
Bob turned back around, noticed his bag and retrieved it,
glancing nervously at me before leaving. I stepped forward
and delivered what I thought was a brisk, crisp salute.
“Mister, straighten that hand out. Not like that, like
this,” demonstrating, I then attempted again. “That’s the
ugliest salute I’ve seen all day! You better hope you don’t
end up in my squad. Go outside and report to the man in the
red sash.”
After opening the nearby door to the outside, I spotted
the detail member wearing the red sash, “Sir New Cadet
Hagopian reports to the man in the red sash.”
“New Cadet Hagopian, see that black door over there?
Open it and it will take you down a hallway and your first
door on the right will be the cadet barber shop. Go mister.”
Following instructions, I entered the cadet barber shop
where twelve barbers were cutting voluminous amounts of hair
off each new cadet in all of ten seconds per shaved cut. New
cadets stood in line at attention as barbers finished one
head and called out “next” for another. Some cadets reacted
sadly in shock to see their hair gone. Another barber swept
the hair piling up quickly on the floor. It soon was my turn
and bingo, I too was an instantly shaved jarhead-like
creature. Right after that in a nearby room I joined other
new cadets lining up being measured for uniforms by tailors
and getting issued clothing supplies, blankets and
accessories. It operated like a fast moving assembly line.
A short time later new cadets were wearing white T-
shirts, gray gym shorts with flapping supply booklets pinned
conspicuously to our shorts, freshly issued black socks
and black shoes receiving our first marching drill training
and looking clumsily inept. As Bob and I marched in our
platoon formation, out of the corner of my eye I noticed my
parents watching me. Excited parents spotting their sons in
formation and tourists opportunistically took pictures with
cameras to capture the awkward moment for posterity.
Meanwhile, upperclassmen were busy shouting out instructions
and demands.
A short time later the commanding officer at West
Point, Superintendent Major General Koster, addressed the
cadet parents assembled in chairs on the tree shaded lawn
overlooking the picturesque Hudson River in the distance.


Exquisite Hudson River view from West Point

“Ya know you folks will undoubtedly be getting letters 
sent home from your sons explaining how much they may hate
it here. But I don’t want you to be fooled by any of their
cries for alarm. We have a proud tradition to uphold here at
the Academy. And the first order of business is teaching new
cadets discipline, that in order to be excellent leaders on
the battlefield, they must first learn to be excellent
followers here at the Point, as part of the discipline
process that will shape and develop your sons into becoming
tomorrow’s greatest leaders of the free world.” Nice piece
of propaganda and damage control before it even started
general. They thought of everything.
The dining experience at the Academy was like nothing I
had ever experienced before. Though the food was tasty, we
never got enough, not because of any shortage but meals at
West Point are upperclassmen’s favorite time for hazing new
cadets. The mess hall is massive with several wings where
all four thousand that make up the Corps of Cadets eat at
the same time. New cadets were assigned specific tables with
specific upperclassmen. One detail member sat at the head of
the table as the “table commandant” while the other was
flanked to his left or right. That first meal was lunch
and the table commandant that Bob and I had that first day
happened to be that same anti-Arab racist. “Mr. Fisher” was
busily giving us very rapid delivery instructions on new
cadet meal etiquette and protocol, “New cadets sit squarely
in their chairs keeping their eyes on their plates at all
times. Mr. Leeman, you are seated in the food announcer
position. As soon as the waiter brings the food, it’s your
job to announce each dish and pass it up here. Go ahead and
do that now.”
“Sir, the main course is-”
“What’s the main course Leeman?”
“Sir, I do not know.”
“It’s chili con carne. Now announce it.”
“Sir, the chile con carne is on the table.”
As Bob passed the trays of food down, he glanced upward
at the “table com,” who was quick to chastise, “What I tell
you Leeman about keeping your eyes on your plate? Berlin,
you are seated where the beverage corporal sits. All of you
guys will need to know my beverage preference for all meals.
Berlin, pour me a glass of ice tea with two ice cubes.
That’s my preferred beverage at lunch. Later you will all
need to come by my room to learn what my beverage is for
breakfast and dinner. Berlin, pour me my ice tea.” The table
com squinted at my name tag, “Hey Ha-jo-pin-yan-”
“It’s Huh-go-pee-in sir.”
“Hey smack, a new cadet does not speak unless asked or
given permission to speak. You got that Mister A-rab?”
“Yes sir.”
“Now before I was so rudely interrupted, I was about to
say that you are in the dessert cutter’s seat. Whenever we
are served cake or pies for dessert, it will be the job of
the dessert cutter to cut the cake or pie into ten equal
slices, and they all better be the exact same size,”
pausing, “Once each new cadet has served himself, each of
you needs to grab a little piece of bread off and have it
ready so when I say ‘eat’, you grab the piece of bread and
throw it in your mouth and start eating. Leeman, since you
are the food announcer today, it’s your job to say ‘Sir may
I make a statement?’, I’ll say ‘yeah,’ and then you’ll say,
‘sir, new cadets have properly served themselves and are now
prepared to eat,’ then when I say ‘eat’, you toss that piece
of bread in your mouth and begin eating. Take small bites.
You have my permission to watch me. “New cadets bring food
to the mouth like this.” He demonstrated squared off motions
of bringing food to the mouth. “Mr. Leeman, announce you’re
ready to eat.”
“Sir, the new cadets at this table have properly served
themselves and are now prepared to eat.”
“Eat!” New cadets quickly tossed the bread piece into
their mouths. “Hagopian, that’s way too big a bite. Mister,
when I talk to you, you are not authorized to eat or do
anything else but listen! You got that smack?” 
I quickly swallowed, “Yes sir.”
“Keep eating while I tell you guys new cadets will need
to be memorizing a little thing called ‘The Days’ around
here. That way when I see Hagopian or Leeman or any of you
smacks messing up, I’ll have you guys reciting the Days.
After lunch I’ll hand out the format to the Days and other
Fourth Class knowledge you will be putting to rote memory.
Got that?”
New cadets in unison swallowing their food, “Yes sir.”
“Too big a bite Leeman - the Days!,” ordered Fisher.
Bob haltingly explained, “Sir, I do not know the Days.”
The table com snickered, “Oh, you will.”
Mr. Fisher turned out to be Bob’s squad leader. Though
my squad leader seemed stern and strict, I was relieved he
wasn’t a racist sadist like Bob’s, who later that day taught 
new cadets the art of swift assembly and disassembly of our
standard issue M16 rifles. We met in a small lecture hall
with our rifles sprawled out in front of us on tables.
“Gentlemen, your weapon is your best friend and savior on
the battlefield. When out in the field, you should never
ever be more than a couple feet apart. You should be living
and breathing with your M-16. Take care of it, and it will
take care of you.” After a quick run through to demonstrate
the steps of assembling and disassembling our rifles, with  
stopwatch in hand, Mr. Fisher barked, “Assemble your weapons
now!” New cadets scrambled to put their rifle parts together
in as short of time as possible. “C’mon you guys, speed it
up!” All the cadets finished except Bob and I. “Leeman and
Hagopian, you guys are too slow. Before we leave this room,
you will all demonstrate proficiency in this exercise within
twenty seconds or we stay in here all day and night. So you
can blame your classmates Leeman and Hagopian if you’re all
sleeping here tonight. You guys got that?” They loved to pit
us against each other like that, of course all in the spirit
of competition and competency. Fortunately Bob and I shortly
mastered the art and we all got out of there soon enough.
Later that same first day we were issued the Fourth
Class Knowledge pamphlet that included “The Days” and
answers to all the stock questions that plebes (the term for
freshmen) had to spout off on cue. Relevant questions like
the volume of water contained in nearby Lusk Reservoir were
among the choice favorites. This exercise of demonstrating
your capacity to recall trivial information on a push button
basis for upperclassmen was the primary centerpiece to the
hazing our first year and a traditional mainstay of the
Fourth Class system and disciplining process at the Academy.
After dinner back in our rooms for our first few spare
minutes of the first day, we were frantically trying to put
all this garbage to rote memory so that the next day we
could pass muster. Lights out at ten and seven hours later
we would be at it again. I remember laying there in darkness
that first night wondering if I had made the right decision.
I hated my entire first day and with the pressure of being
expected to spout off bullshit like an automaton the very
next day, I could only imagine and dread the horror that lay
ahead on the other side of the too hard to come by sleep.
The next day came way too early as my two roommates
and I were suddenly jarred awake by the nearby cannon going
off on the West Point plain at five A.M. shattering the
early morning darkness. It was our alarm clock instantly
putting us in a frenzied state that became our daily living
reality, constantly moving from one scheduled activity to
the next all jam-packed day long. The nonstop pressure of
“hurry up” was just something we had to quickly get used to
in the coming days and weeks as part of surviving our Beast
Barracks summer. Our squad leaders yelling outside our rooms
to hurry up and get dressed to line up in formation out in
the hallway was a familiar scene played out all day long.
Each activity called for a specific uniform. Thus, we may
have started out in fatigues in the morning and then halfway
through the day end up wearing starched dress white shirts
and formal gray trousers. We learned the importance of
dress-offs, pulling the sides of our shirts back into a
crease tucked tightly into and beneath our trousers. Close
morning shaves, shiny shoes, polished brass belt buckles all
took on such crucial significance to the upperclassmen that
inspected us myopically five or six times a day. Prior to
every activity as we lined up by squad, platoon and company
in formation, starting in the hallway, then outside in front
of the barracks where we gathered regularly for the three
meals a day, drill instruction, parades, inspections and/or
marching to scheduled training events, our appearance and
behavior was under constant scrutiny and inspection. And
upperclassmen never hesitated in pointing out anything and
everything they could find less than perfect about our
appearance and behavior. Mechanically spouting off plebe
knowledge in between marching and training, especially
during meals was another demand that ranked number one as
the favorite upperclass pastime and dreaded involuntary new
cadet preoccupation.
An important part of our training came in the form of
learning to fire our M-16 rifles on the firing range so we
could become qualified marksmen and sharpshooters. I
remember hating the noise despite wearing issued earplugs.
In fact, unlike so many cadets, I never enjoyed shooting
bullets from guns that too often are used to kill other
humans.
All along in my cadet career I had been banking on
becoming a US naval officer upon graduation from West Point.
A provision existed then whereby I could qualify to be
commissioned a Navy Ensign upon completion of my education
at West Point, because my father was a career Navy man. So
firing a rifle was not something I ever planned to do again
the rest of my life. So I ended up achieving the minimal
requirement of qualifying on the rifle range as a marksman.
Other memorable training exercises that summer came in
the form of pugel sticks. All padded up and ready to go, I
felt like a modern day gladiator poking my opponent while
occasionally getting myself poked. I recall fantasizing
that instead of the other guy being a new cadet like me, I
visualized him being the sadistic bigot Fisher. And whenever
I did, I noticed I was knocking the shit out of my opponent.


Beast Barracks Bayonet Training

Then when it came to bayonet training, jabbing the killing
knife into the padded prop, I found myself taking pure
unadulterated pleasure jabbing the shit out of Fisher once
again. Like football, these physical activities became a
great outlet for my pent up anger and aggression.
That summer us new cadets were often trained on the
West Point plain that was our parade field. Inextricably
unknown to me, apparently my marching steps had a bit of a
bounce to them and of course it caught the attention of Mr.
Fisher and his cronies. Seems that both Bob and I became
their most popular targets for the upperclass detail members
to haze during those first few weeks of Beast Barracks. I
think I was selected because I wore a defiant scowl on my
face as if to say “fuck you” to all those sadistic bastards
making my life so miserable. Bob became their target because
with his glasses and mildly geeky appearance, he was likely
perceived as vulnerable and weak. So a handful of
upperclassmen decided we were the weak links that were
deemed unworthy of making it past Beast Barracks. As such,
Fisher and his roommate had us regularly lining up against
their barracks room closet doors for hazing sessions where
without anyone else around, they could give us their best
shot at breaking us down, going over and above authorized
limits in delivering their torture.
“Hey A-rab, I saw you out there today prancing around
like you were purposely out of step with the rest of us...
you think you’re better than us, don’t you? I bet you
thought you were hot shit in high school, didn’t you? Well,
that doesn’t mean shit to us around here.

Go to Chapter Two (02)

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