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Don’t Let The Bastards Getcha Down


Chapter Two (02)

West Point Beast Barraks

Now you’re just
the lowest of lowest, piece of shit A-rab. Got that?,”
Fisher jeered.
Next it was his roommate’s turn to try and out-do that,
insulting Bob, “And you Leeman, you are the most sorry ass
disgrace to the Corps of Cadets I have ever seen, you’re
nothing but a miserable wimpering piece of shit. Two piss
ant peas in a pod. Now get your neck in smacks!” This was
their cue for us to undergo the hitherto favorite form of
hazing at West Point called “bracing.” Because it was proven
to potentially cause permanent injury and damage to the neck
and upper spine, the practice of bracing had just been
“outlawed” and abolished at the Point. Though the first to
officially be dubbed “wrinkle-free, Class of 1973,” a
handful of upperclass cadets resented us for not having to
go through the pain and discomfort that had forever been a
sacred tradition at the Academy. So behind closed doors and
covertly “in-the-closet” so to speak (we actually were lined
up against their closet), they were still enforcing this
“illegal” practice on us. The idea of it was to have our
chins and necks held in to the extreme rear position so that
the back of our heads were jammed up against their closet
doors to the extent that as many wrinkled creases in our
chins resulted. “Three wrinkles ain’t enough, now get it in
smacks,” they goaded. Sweat poured down our faces in that
mid-July heat. They relished making our lives a living hell.
And all we could do was play their game, defying them by
holding out and enduring their cruel and unusually sadistic
punishment. When we weren’t spouting off “The Days” while
bracing up against their closet doors, we were spouting off
the Days in the mess hall, never getting enough to eat. In
that two-month period of Beast Barracks, there were new
cadets losing up to fifty pounds. And here is why. At a
typical meal Fisher the table commandant might smugly say to
his roommate, “Hey JD, ya know something?”
“What’s that BF?”
“I haven’t heard Hag-o-bean say the Days since...
(checking watch), since ten minutes ago. Hagobean the Days!”
“Sir, the Days. Today is Monday, July 21st, 1969.
Tonight’s activities at 1930 hours in the South Auditorium
of Thayer Hall there will be an upperclass motion picture
entitled ‘Play Misty’ starring Clint Eastwood and Jessica--”
“Alright, Clint Eastwood!,” JD exclaimed.
“Continue Hagobean,” Fisher prompted.
“On Wednesday, July 23rd at 1930 hours in the South
Auditorium of Thayer Hall there will be an upperclass motion
picture entitled... entitled...”
“Entitled what Hagobean, entitled --,” Fisher demanded.
“Entitled “Auntie Mame” starring--”
“Too late smack, start over, from the beginning.” So this is
how our meals went, constantly harassed to the point of
feeling starved after every meal, especially between meals.
Sad to say as West Point cadets, we joined the ranks of
America’s impoverished, going to bed hungry every night for
a very different reason.
Another favorite torture in their arsenal of terror,
and this one was their prize possession, was having Bob and
I wearing full backpacks, helmet, gear and rifles in hand
running up the West Point ski slope in the dead heat of the
summer, with sweat pouring out of us, repeatedly falling
down in delirious stupor in ninety degree temperatures. Once
when Bob appeared to be experiencing first stage heatstroke,
they had us resting in the shade for a 10-minute break. It
was clear Bob was becoming dehydrated, so I ensured he drank
water from his canteen. Between gulps, he shared with me his
fear, “Sheik [that was the name given me by a classmate
friend of mine], I don’t think I can take this anymore. I
think they’re gonna to kill me.”
“No man, we can show these bastards that no matter how
much shit they dish out, they’re not going to break us,” was
my response.
“I have a confession, the only reason I’m here is my
dad pressured me into going to West Point. It was never my
idea, but he said I had to go to an Academy. And ’cause my
eyes are bad, he knew I couldn’t follow in his footsteps at
Annapolis, so he made sure I came here.”
“Sounds a lot like my story... what lengths dutiful
sons will go through just to make their dads proud.”
“Yeah, even if it kills us,” Bob replied.
“Okay beanheads, back on your feet and up that hill!”
“Sheik, I don’t think I can make it much longer,” Bob
confessed under his breath as we rose to our feet, grabbed
our rifles and began running up the mountain again. And that
short, very telling, very ominous conversation proved all
too prophetically real.
That night Bob didn’t want to go to bed hungry again,
his empty stomach craved anything, even sugar junk. So he
snuck downstairs to the barracks basement vending machines
to buy a few candy bars. But an upperclassman caught him.
“What the hell you doing down here Mr. Leeman?”
“Sir, I’m hungry.”
“Leeman, you know this area’s off limits, especially at
this hour. Just wait’ll I tell your squad leader about this.
Now get out of here beanhead.”
Once word was out about his midnight escapade in search
of candy, famished from lack of food at meals due to being
hazed and starved so much, Fisher and company were now like
vultures going in for their kill. They wanted him so
miserable that he’d have to quit. 
I remember walking down the hallway to the latrine
overhearing Bob in Fisher’s room getting tortured
relentlessly. By now I heard him breaking down, whimpering
in tears. Two days later the word was going around that he
had suddenly gone on emergency leave back home to Maine. I
never heard from Bob again. Haunted by his final words to me
about not being able to take it any more and that they were
literally killing him, it was no more than a week later that
I learned my closest West Point ally and friend shot himself
to death with a rifle back home. There was no doubt in my
mind whatsoever that Fisher and his evil partners-in-crime
were Bob’s murderers. In their zealous mission to screen
out the so called “weaker ones,” they played God in wanting
to get rid of him until he was gone. Mission accomplished -
New Cadet Robert Leeman was now a dead ex-cadet. I hated the
bastards who were totally responsible for my friend’s death.
And ironically and tragically, Fisher and company’s tour of
duty that Beast Barracks summer ended with them going on
leave just before Bob committed suicide. A new set of
upperclass detail members arrived for the second half of our
training just as I heard Bob was gone. And the irony of
ironies was I heard Fisher and his buddies had gone on leave
to attend the biggest phenomenon of our times that took
place just one hour away from West Point. While my buddy was
being laid to rest, his murderers were among the million
young people partying down at the famous Woodstock concert.
It struck me as so sinister that they would be enjoying a
concert with soon to be dead legends Hendrix and Joplin
while my friend was rotting in a grave that they had already
dug for him back at West Point. Just thinking of this
horrible, tragic injustice haunted me for weeks and even
years afterwards. I will never forget the wrong they
committed. Bob Leeman will forever live on in my mind and
memory as a very dear friend and son who gave up his life
for father and country. And though the parallel of his life
with mine was so strikingly identical, I vowed to make it at
West Point in his honor, regardless of how much I hated it,
I owed it not only to my father but now to my fallen comrade
Robert Leeman as well.
Unfortunately Bob was not alone. There were other new
cadets that were also cracking under all the severe stress
and strain. Not long after Bob died, we heard another new
cadet lost it while standing in formation and, with the butt
of his rifle, he took out the upperclassman that was about
to inspect his rifle. Needless to say, that new cadet was
quickly and quietly dismissed never to be heard from again
as well. The attrition rate that first summer was very high. 
Meanwhile, a lot of humans were dying still in Vietnam.
West Pointer General Westmoreland had been “demoted” to
Army Chief of Staff for not seeing the Tet Offensive coming.
He repeatedly lied to the American public that the United
States was winning the Vietnam War. His pressure to get high
body count numbers had our boys in uniform massacring
village after village in Operation Speedy Express during
1968 and 1969. Though only one South Vietnamese village
atrocity made eventual headlines in November 1969 - My Lai,
desperate to reach their kill quota and thereby claim they
were falsely winning what had already turned into the
longest and most unpopular war in American history, our
troops were ordered from the top to systematically commit
war crimes, in cold blood murdering thousands of innocent
South Vietnamese civilians. The Pentagon then covered it up.
But investigative journalist-author Nick Turse reports these
war crimes in detail from multiple eyewitness accounts (both
American soldier perpetrators and Vietnamese victims) in a
chilling book this year called “Kill Anything That Moves.”
With the draft dodging, protesting hippie generation
gaining upper hand-momentum, having already help turn the
American public decisively against the war, three monumental
events of our times occurred within a month of each other,
momentarily shifting national focus away from the war.
Woodstock was forcing the unprecedented closure of the New
York Thruway a few short weeks after my Massachusetts
Senator and only Kennedy brother still alive drove his car
off of Chappaquiddick Bridge killing his female passenger
while Neil Armstrong was taking “one small step for man and
one giant leap for mankind.”
Despite not yet being allowed to watch movies in South
Auditorium, the moon landing was so huge a world event, they
even allowed us beanheads in there that Sunday evening, July
20th, 1969 to witness Neil making history.


Astronaut Neil Armstrong's Moon Walk

The vast majority
of early NASA astronauts were Academy graduates from West
Point, Annapolis and the Air Force Academy. Of course with
the two other major service academies specializing in
flight, West Point ranks third behind them in producing the
most astronauts at eighteen. Annapolis boasts 52 astronauts
and the Air Force Academy 39. The first West Pointer to
become an astronaut was Frank Borman (Class of 1950), the
first human to see the dark side of the moon. His two sons
were my teammates on the Army football squad. The second
NASA space program, Project Gemini, consisted of five West
Pointers and six were in the Apollo program, two of whom
walked later on the moon in Buzz Aldren (Class of 1951) and
David Scott (Class of 54). Of the twelve West Point grads
who have participated in the Space Shuttle program, one was
a classmate of mine, William MacArthur, who commanded the
last International Space Station expedition.
West Point graduate Edward White (Class of 1952) along
with his two crew members had lost their lives just two
years earlier, so America had much to prove in beating the
Soviet Union to the moon. And that grand prize arrived just
several weeks into my Beast Barracks summer. Apollo 11 pilot
commander on Armstrong’s same lunar mission was Michael
Collins (Class of 52), another Academy alumni. So with such
an illustrious history of US space travel, normally insular
West Point that purposely isolates beanheads from all major
events going on in the outside world, the 1969 lunar landing
was a rare exception. Though at the time I had been dreading
those first three weeks, I proudly sat there in awe of what
I was viewing on that big screen in South Auditorium. And
for a brief moment, I forgot how much I was hating West
Point. Momentarily anyway, I was overcome with that old
familiar feeling of being so proud to be an American,
especially a West Point cadet.
I recall one of the very first visits from my parents.


Plebe year visit from my parents

It was a Saturday afternoon at the end of July. To fully
break us in during that first Beast Barracks month, no
visitation was allowed. That first weekend when visitors
were permitted, a small window of only three hours were
granted. The first two hours were spent just trying to get
to Cullum Hall where my parents were waiting. Looking both
worried and frustrated at the clock, then at the other
parents in Cullum Hall visiting their sons, my dad asked,
“Where the hell is he? It’s already after three!” 
“Jake I have no idea. I called his company two minutes 
ago but the line was busy,” my perplexed mother replied.
Meanwhile back at the barracks, I was the new cadet
standing last in a single file line that went out the
orderly room extending thirty yards down the hallway. One
upperclassman inspected each new cadet in the orderly room
while another supervised cadets waiting outside in the
hallway, “Get to attention plebes or no one’s going
nowhere,” warned the detail member in the hallway.
“How long you been wearing that shirt?” asked the cadet
in the orderly room.
“Since this morning sir.”
“Too long! Go change it! Next!” One new cadet left as
another entered. “Ever hear of a dress-off mister?”
“Yes sir.”
“Well your shirt hasn’t. Go back and get one. Next.”
Finally it was my turn. The inspector general mockingly
proclaimed, “You’re nowhere near ready Hagopian! You got a
smudge on your belt buckle the size of your nose!” So it was
back to my room with another quick application of Brasso on
my belt buckle. Later, rebuffed again, “Your appearance here
today’s been atrocious! You really expect us to unleash you
on the public looking the way you do?” After no answer,
“Sign out smack.” By that time it was already quarter after
four when I frantically arrived to spot my perturbed father
and bewildered mother still waiting there at Cullum Hall.
My mother’s relief quickly turned to concern. “Joachim,
you’re looking awfully thin and pale.”
“That’s because they’re starving us here. Let’s go to
the car, I don’t want to waste my last fifteen minutes
here.” So we sat the dwindling minutes in my parent’s car.


Sitting in Ford Gran Torino during my parents' visit

My dad had been doing pretty well by then, paid much fairer
wages working for tool and die shops that were not owned by
his brother. So eager to show off his brand new set of
wheels, his Ford Gran Torino, he asked, “What do you think?”
“I hate it here!,” I responded.
“No, I mean what do you think about our new car?”
“It’s nice... anyway, in my last five minutes before I
have to go back, all I can tell you is I hate this place!”
“That’s exactly what General Koster told us you’d be
saying your first day here, didn’t he Merrie,” my dad said.
“Well they murdered a buddy of mine!,” I countered.
“What?” my alarmed mother and father both gasped.
“Some upperclassmen here targeted both my friend and me
to try and haze us right out of the Academy and, in his case
they succeeded. He went home to Maine and killed himself.”
“Oh my God! That’s terrible!” my mom exclaimed.
“Well, that’s how bad it is here, they killed him. I
hate this place!” While my shocked mother was in tears, my
dad proceeded to tell me how he did not want me to end up a
lowly “peon” gauge-maker like him and how I was given a once
in a lifetime opportunity at the Academy that he wished he
had, attending such a venerable, prestigious institution as
the US Military Academy. That was the last thing I wanted to
hear, so with no more time left anyway, I retreated back to
my Beast Barracks hell.
As strenuous and demanding as that entire Beast
Barracks summer was, with a different set of upperclass
cadre during the second month, unlike July, I survived
August free of any conspiracy to harass me out of the
Academy. That last week of the month couldn’t come sooner
though, capped by the end of Beast Barracks thirteen-mile
march back from the field to the West Point campus. The new
cadets that outlasted our “basic training” were relieved to
finally join their permanently assigned cadet companies.
With four regiments contained in the Corps of Cadets, each
with nine companies A through I, I was assigned to G-1 in
the notoriously toughest and most strict First Regiment.
Thankfully Fisher and his murdering cronies were mostly in
F-1, the company with the most bad-ass reputation for gung
ho fanatics, so I felt I had at least dodged a major bullet
there. Though I made it past Beast Barracks, as a Fourth
Classman at West Point, I was not out of the woods yet. Next
on tap as a plebe was enduring the long academic year ahead.


Plebe Year

Go to Chapter Three (01)

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