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Don’t Let The Bastards Getcha Down

 

Chapter Four (01)

Yearling Year - Life As A Human Again


Another great feeling of relief and liberation came
when I departed West Point for a full month of summer leave
in June 1970. I felt good about myself getting through what
I figured to be the hardest part of West Point, that first
year. Becoming a yearling or Third Classman meant I had
officially arrived as an upperclassman, no longer subjected
to that inhumane, nonstop bullshit life as a lowly beanhead.
My parents were both pleased and proud I had emerged a
survivor and my family seemed happy to have me home. My only
agenda was to catch a little R & R - rest and relaxation.


Mr. Tough Guy at home on summer break
leaning on sister's '67 Mustang

My mother insisted that I also pose at home
in my formal summer whites


At first appearance Camp Buckner looked like any other
summer camp out in the woods. It’s complete with a beautiful
Lake Popolopen running parallel to a series of old metal
barracks that ran about a hundred feet in length housing
the thousand yearlings undergoing their two month summer
training each year. Surrounding the West Point post that is
the US Military Academy campus is a twenty-five square mile
area bordering the Husdon River to the west that is the West
Point Reservation. It is a wooded, mountainous terrain where
Camp Buckner becomes the ideal location to similate training
in the field for the Corps of Cadets. Senior class detail
members were the cadre most responsible for leading the
yearling class in their field training.
I will always associate my Camp Buckner summer with
Mungo Jerry’s one hit wonder “In the Summertime.” I heard it
when I would wake up in the morning off a nearby radio
blaring it from WABC in New York City and it seemed like
every night as well. It was a fun kind of song that went
along well with the kind of summer fun I was having out
there in the woods with my fellow yearling friends.
NCO’s from the famous 82nd Airborne Division out of
Fort Bragg, North Carolina were on loan that summer to
conduct the intensive field training exercises during
“Recondo Week.” We were on bivoac out in the field for those
entire seven days. I recall one sleepless night enduring a
hard cold rain under heavy wet-soaked wool blankets that
only made life worse. We went dirty and grungy the whole
time. The mostly black sergeants from the 82nd Airborne
relished in their role of breaking in another “wussy” class
from the Point. They had us running with our rifles for pre-
dawn five mile jaunts around the lake to where some of us
were falling out puking our guts. As we ran, they had us
panting and chanting, “I want to be an Airborne Ranger,
living on blood and guts and danger. I want to go to
Vietnam. I want to kill me some Viet Cong.” These guys were
hardcore fanatics no doubt fresh off committing war
atrocities in Southeast Asia. They relished their role in
giving us “choir boys” a crash course in survival training,
where we underwent both day and night land navigation
exercises armed with just a compass to reach certain
obscurely marked land posts way out in the boonies. At the
end of one training session covering how to forage and
scavenge from the forest, for pure shock value the NCO
decided to top it off by biting off the head of a live
chicken and spitting out the blood all over us in the front
row. On another quite invigorating day we got banged up
learning how to rappel off mountainside cliffs. Still
another memorable turn was the pit full of mud and sawdust
where it seemed for hours we had to crawl around on our
stomachs underneath barbed wire with nonstop heckling and
jabs coming from our screaming sergeants. As we grew
exhausted and could barely move, I’ll always remember one
enormous sergeant repeatedly yelling, “Kill us, kill us
all!” This guy obviously got caught up in some frenzied
moment where he was flashbacking on his combat. We knew most
of these guys were wacked out from doing two or more tours
in Vietnam. It clearly showed. We finally moved onto our
hand-to-hand combat training in that same pit.
The one consolation for all this filthy, down and dirty
grunge finally came at the end of the week back at Camp
Buckner where we encountered the lake slide. After the scary
part of climbing up a one hundred foot tower, we held on for
dear life as we slid down a cable right into Lake Poplopen
to cool and wash off.


Camp Buckner's slide for life capped Recondo Week

That was the fun refreshing part. The
rigorous Camp Buckner training got us in a lot better shape
in a short two month period. And though it was an exhausting
and strenuous challenge, it sure beat Beast Barracks from
the year earlier.
One of the great things about being a yearling at Camp
Buckner is we were finally allowed to attend weekend passes.
So a group of us hopped the Greyhound bus that drove us the
fifty-five mile stretch down to the Big Apple. I had only
been to New York City a few times as a kid, mostly to visit
my oldest sister who lived there for awhile. Despite being
naïve and inexperienced, as a young adult I was eager to
expand my sheltered world and there is no better place to do
it than in “the City that never sleeps.”
I settled in as a yearling for my second academic year.
But I approached this autumn not only as a liberated human
being (and no longer a robot like the year before), but also
as an Army football player. My glorious sport had never
failed me in the past, and it wouldn’t in the fall of 1970
either.

Michie Stadium on an autumn Saturday afternoon

Though the conditioning drills and daily afternoon
practices were plenty grueling, football always kept me in
halfway decent shape. The hardest part of playing football
at the United States Military Academy were the workouts that
began in March every year. The hour long sessions in the
padded hot steaming wrestling room where coaches grilled us
through a series of nonstop conditioning drills was like
nothing I had ever experienced before. The kicker was they
allowed us no rest between drills, so that for a full sixty
minute workout we were moving our body in ways we never
moved before. Zero rest time between drills was the killer
causing tough guys to faint and fall out right and left. The
coaches designed it both to get us in shape in the shortest
time possible while making it such a hardcore sacrifice that
only the strong survived. I will forever remember my aching
body after those workouts literally waddling back to my
barracks in the dark just to lay down in my bed and crash.
Enduring the pain made making the team all that more a badge
of honor. Those who survived those three weeks were then
entitled to start spring practice that lasted another month
culminated with the annual inter-squad spring football game
at Michie Stadium.
During the spring and fall football seasons due to our
grueling workout and practice schedules, the football team
took all their meals together in the mess hall. Breaking
bread and dining daily with those you just sweated off
pounds of flesh with trying to kill each other on the
gridiron offered us players a special bonding experience
with fellow warriors that is unique unto itself. It was a
special club that offered more freedom to get crazy, letting
it all hang out in a place where hanging out wasn’t allowed.
Perhaps that is why they had our tables in the mess hall
adjacent the brigade staff table. We were notorious for our
bad manners and starting food fights. And Sheik was reveling 
in his newfound freedom. I remember throwing a potato at a
buddy who ducked and it flew over to the next table straight
into the splattered coffee of some six striped brigade dick.
He jumped up, stormed over to our table and furiously
demanded the person responsible be immediately identified.
Of course the football team shared a brotherhood loyalty
that was thicker than any cutthroat, warped sense of duty
that this guy’s brigade team had bought into. He just stood
there making a complete idiot of himself as we snickered and
smiled under our breath until he feebly gave up, retreating
back to his table and the rock he crawled out from. The next
day a brigade staff member was suddenly assigned the
additional duty of patrolling through the football table
area during meals giving us dirty looks. This “heightened
security” (or insecurity depending on your frame of
reference) only challenged us on the football team all
the more to incite more anarchy and impropriety. We were
responsible during the football season as an impromptu pep
rally of sorts for such massive, wide scale food fighting in
the mess hall where throwing bread and potatoes halfway
across the mess hall for five minutes of chaotic abandon
became a contagious autumn football fever ritual. The
football team’s antics loosened up the Corps and gave even
the stiffest of robots a few minutes of anarchist pleasure.
This power to delight and entertain on and off the field of
battle only intensified our brotherly love for each other.
So that is why my days as an Army football player provided
me by far with my best days as a West Point cadet. 
I would also be less than honest if I omitted the fact
that playing football always provided me that much needed
physical outlet to vent my anger and aggression in a way
that society admires and rewards rather than punishes
behind bars. That is why so many golden boy athletes in
America often blur the lines and go over the edge to end up
behind bars. In a culture where sports generate so much
money and gifted athletes are so worshipped as modern day
gladiators, from very early ages they are given differential
preference and latitude to break rules, cut corners where
the standard bar is habitually lowered in deference to their
athletic prowess. Invariably some let the idolized
worshipping go to their heads and they are allowed to get
away with committing transgressions as a privilege of their
status, believing their impunity affords them that right.
Due to the restrictive milieu at West Point, in my
experience members of the Army football team rarely crossed
over that line. However, twenty-three year English professor
Bruce Fleming at Annapolis in an article in the New York
Times three years ago did openly criticize officials at the
Naval Academy of lowering both academic and moral standards
in a desperate effort to attract and keep more gifted
athletes. In a do or die attempt to remain competitive at
the Division I level, Fleming accuses the administration of
recruiting athletes with lower moral standards that lack
commitment. In recent years Navy football players have
frequently been involved in alleged sexual crimes and
apparently been given passes. A pending case right now is on
trial with three more Navy football players accused of gang
raping a female classmate after getting her drunk last year.
So today even the service academies are not entirely immune
from offering athletes a degree of preferential treatment
but in my day I never witnessed it at West Point. But then
again four decades later times have mightily changed.
Even though as a sophomore or yearling there were no
longer upperclassmen making my life a living hell, pissing
me off every single day to no end, I still had plenty of
repressed anger I’d been building up over the last couple
decades of my life that desperately needed some form of 
release. And football was always my ticket. Oppressive male
authority figures starting with my own iron fisted military
father and continuing with my West Point “superiors” (be
they higher ranking cadets or officers) always gave me
reason to feel good channeling my anger into the sport that
had brought cheers and accolades to me year after year.
Throughout my decade of playing organized football, I
was never the fastest and, at a little over five feet seven
inches I was always the smallest on every team I ever played
on from middle school to college. And though I had been a
starter on both offense and defense in high school, given my
obvious physical limitations, at West Point I had to go out
for defensive halfback or cornerback only. Of course playing
at the Division I level of major college football, the
competition is a lot more intense and the players are a lot
bigger, so I was just happy to make the team. Plus playing
defense has obvious advantages. I found hitting your
opponent versus getting hit a lot more satisfying. As a
member of the junior varsity, always never more than a third
or fourth string defensive back (DB), we served as mere
practice fodder everyday for the varsity squad. But facing
off daily against the first and second string Army offensive
teams only made me a better player. It sharpened my evasive
skills trying to avoid trapping lineman a hundred pounds
heavier that came charging at me. I had to use head fakes,
shifty hips, sidestepping along with my hands to ward off
the full brunt force tumbling toward me, and sometimes I
managed to even make the tackle on the ball carrier. I
wasn’t always so lucky though and got my ass kicked a few
times. But tackling runners and receivers provided all the
payoff I needed to love the game, be it on the practice
field or the big games that I was living for as the starting
DB on the Army Junior Varsity squad.
We played a visiting Amherst College varsity in a
scrimmage and beat them. Our regular season games competing
against mostly Ivy League schools typically involved road
trips to Yale, Princeton and Harvard on Friday afternoons.
Being able to take a bus to these regional games on a Friday
morning allowed us early long weekends that included an
overnight away from the Point. And even more of a thrill was
our gridiron domination over our rich kid opponents. I
played my best game against the Yalee boys with an
interception and a blitzkrieg sack on the quarterback. The
road games to these college towns along with the camaraderie
I shared with my teammates was my all time favorite West
Point experience. And for my participation, I received a
football letter that I proudly wore on my grey jacket,
signifying my accomplishment as an Army football player my
sophomore and junior years. After the inter-squad spring
game my junior year, the DB coach called me into his office
and gave me the bad news that my prospect of making the
varsity team my senior year was pretty nil. The Class of ’73
happened to have a surplus of players in the Army defensive
backfield. So as much as I loved my Army football
experience, as a senior I had too much pride to still be a
lowly JV guy and chose not to play. Now had I been a member
of the Class of ’74, I might have been a starter as a
senior, but I would have also had the dubious distinction of
being a member of the worst Army football team in its long
glorious history. Army managed to lose all ten games during
that fall season in 1973 just months after I graduated. In
2003 Army managed to do even three games worse at 0-13.
Speaking of losing seasons, in recent decades that is
pretty much all the Army team has ever known. Despite Navy
and Air Force producing winning teams complete with a bowl
invitation virtually every year, Army nearly always loses.
They have lost to Navy eleven years in a row. The current
coach is the sixth coach in a row with an overall losing
record spanning the last twenty plus years. With only one
winning season the entire last sixteen years (and that was a
marginal seven win, six loss season in 2010), Army’s overall
record from 1997 through 2012 is an atrocious 47 wins versus
140 losses, among the all time bottom dwellers in Division I
college football history the last couple decades.
Why such a stark contrast between the losing Military
Academy and the two other winning service academies? As a
diehard loyal Army fan, I can’t say for sure why the night
and day disparity exists between programs. Despite Navy’s
unprecedented win streak over Army, Army dominated Navy last
year right up until the final minute. In fact, regarding
time of possession, first downs and overall offensive yards
(Army ranked number one in the nation in rushing yards),
Army outplayed the majority of their opponents this last
season despite a pathetic two win, ten loss record. Army
typically plays competitively if not dominantly until the
final quarter when invariably Army gives up crucial points
that lose the game. Competing against opponents every week
that outweigh the Army players by an average of over fifty
pounds per man means that by the fourth quarter, that gross
mismatch is finally taking effect. This explains how West
Point loses so many of its football games by the end of the
last quarter. The only reason Army lost to last year’s BCS
Orange Bowl-bound Northern Illinois (12-1 regular season
record) was a missed extra point. A missed extra point or a
fumble in the red zone at the most inopportune times (as
Army is most prone to doing) results in momentum swings that
cost another stolen victory snatched from Army in the final
minutes. These kind of demoralizing defeats so common to the
Army team carry a cumulative effect that undermines a team’s
self-confidence and plants the seed of doubt that over time
develops into a chronic culture of losing.
Sadly, Army has been losing so long now, that they have
created a longstanding culture of defeat, and I believe that
is the main reason why they so rarely hold onto their leads
during their closing minutes of the final quarter. The
psychological potency of having a losing culture for so many
decades is the most feasible explanation to account for Army
producing losing seasons every year while Navy and Air Force
nearly always have winning seasons. Their athletic
requirements, physical standards and recruiting mechanisms
are all pretty much the same... though granted, a promising
prospect would undoubtedly prefer playing for a school that
nearly always has winning seasons over one that nearly
always loses. Perhaps this reality alone ultimately explains
the blatant discrepancy between programs.
I find myself rooting not just for my Army team but all
my fellow Academy teams as well. After all, they are the
eternal Division I underdogs, the classic modern day David
versus Goliath story, outmatched by much bigger and stronger
brutes that often aspire to playing football professionally
on Sundays. And then each season even Army provides just
enough gratification for us diehards by pulling off an upset
or two each year, last year playing their best game against
a worthy, nearly always winning rival Air Force but also
beating Boston College in the final seconds and the year
before beating a regular bowl contender in Northwestern the
same year they went on to beat powerhouse Nebraska... on any
given day, of course that to me is what makes college
football so tantalizing. Several years ago prior to mighty
Notre Dame’s resurgence, for a time even Air Force and Navy
were taking turns bumping off the Fighting Irish each year.
Everyone loves these Cinderella stories with such long shot
odds, and let’s face it, every game for an Academy team is
long shot odds.

After Army lost to Navy in football a dozen years in a row
last December, pressure began surfacing from some powerful
voices that the academic standards at the US Military Academy
should be lowered to enhance recruiting higher quality players
to the Academy. First Boo Corrigan, the current Army Athletic Director,
and then famed alumni Pete Dawkins, the last West Pointer
to win the Heisman Trophy and play on an undefeated Army team,
both stressed that Army winning at Division I level college football
is imperative if West Point graduates are expected to win on the battlefield.
The fact is, for decades they’ve been consistently losing
on both the football and battle fields. So much for that argument.
A leading critic against the lowering of standards wrote a recent
op-ed piece published in the Washington Post.
West Point history professor Dwight Mears stated that standards
have already been lowered with 61% of the football team having
attended the Academy Prep School prior to entering
West Point just to sufficiently prepare them for the academic
rigors facing them at the Academy, maintaining that
lowering them any further would be a grave disservice
to the Academy and the Army.
     But this high profile debate placing additional pressures to
finally attain what the Naval Academy has been achieving year
in and year out soon will be reaching a high pitched crescendo.
Of course to compete competitively against teams like mighty
Notre Dame, Annapolis has in fact drastically lowered its
academic standards and paid a heavy price not on the football
field but in its severely tarnished reputation of so frequently having
its football players paraded before headlines on rape charges.
For years a mounting chorus of vocal critics has been
lambasting the Naval Academy for looking the other way
in enabling both academically and morally unqualified
individual athletes to play sports at the expense of the institution’s reputation.
This off the field battle will only get more heated as the Army football
team continues to be the all time joke as the perennial
Division I bottom dweller. This near exclusive focus on football
also unfairly overshadows all other collegiate sports played
at the Academy and many would argue winning in football
has no correlation whatsoever to winning in combat.
      Though it may be viewed as giving in to defeat and utter
humiliation while the Air Force and Naval Academies for
the most part still manage to stay competitive with the big boys,
perhaps West Point football should be demoted at least temporarily
to Division II status where it too could once again finally enjoy
winning seasons (although even that is questionable since in
recent years Division II teams have soundly beaten Army).
Since each year West Point is often ranked up there with the
academic big boys of the mighty Ivy League as among the very best
schools in the nation and Ivy League colleges have long been
Division II contenders in sports without even the luxury of
offering athletic scholarships, perhaps the US Military Academy
should take its cue from them and simply follow suit.
Or another possibility is to merge all the biggest Division I
losers together into their own conference to compete only against each other.
So that way, when Army dukes it out against lowly UMass or Army vs.
Temple or Hawaii, they might finally win more than
two or three games a year.
Oops, Army last season already did play both Temple and Hawaii
and gave each of those teams their only win of the season.
Certainly we have not heard the end of these intensifying
grumblings demanding a winning football team versus
inevitable dumbing- down, academic concessions.
Undoubtedly this battle will rage on even more
intensely in years to come.
Though I am passionately committed to exposing the
broken, inept West Point system that fails its mission of
producing strong leadership, admittedly my best experience
at West Point came as an Army football player (albeit a JV),
and as a result, I am a diehard loyal fan for life following
Army teams through all their demoralizing losing years. No
incongruence there as once an Army player, always an Army
fan, win or lose for life. A parallel dynamic exists in how
I feel toward my well meaning but very flawed father. I do
not condone or forget the damage my father’s abuse did to
me, but I will always love him as my loyalty and love are
enduring. The camaraderie I shared with many of my West
Point classmates and teammates along with my powerfully
positive football experience make me loyal to the Army team
for life. Obviously my relationship with my alma mater is
somewhat complicated, not unlike my relationship with my
own father. Life is made of shades of gray more than either
black or white. This little truism is not easily grasped or
acknowledged by the rigid authoritarianism at the Academy.
At the start of my second academic year in G-1, we got
a new tactical officer, a large man over six feet tall,
wearing a sheepish, shit-eating grin before us as the G-1
Third Classmen assembled to meet him for the first time. Now
that I was an upperclassman, I didn’t have to worry so much
about any Second or First Classmen giving me a hard time.
Now the only potential source of trouble could come from my
tactical officer and his fellow officers from the tactical
department. But based on first impressions, he seemed benign
enough, in a dumb sort of lost puppy way.
“Good morning G-1 sophomores, I’m your new tac officer
Major Gerald Webb. But you can call me Major Webb. I’m not a
West Point grad but a proud alumni from the State University
of New Jersey - Rutgers.”
“Alright!,” our South Jersey classmate exclaimed.
“I guess I was a bit of a jock there at Rutgers. Played
a little football and actually owned the shot put record...
for one day.” We quietly laughed. He went on to say, “I’ve
spent my last ten years proudly serving in the US Army as an
Infantry officer. Most recently I put in a two-year
assignment with the 23rd Infantry Division in Vietnam.
There, now that you know a little bit about me, let me tell
you what you’ll be doing as the G-1 sophomores. You’ll be
setting a good example for the freshmen in our company.”
We all looked at each other kind of strange not used to
hearing the civilian terms “freshmen” and “sophomore.”
“I expect your class to play an integral role making it two
years in a row that G-1 wins the coveted Superintendent’s
Award,” Major Webb rambled on.
“How long’s this going on?” I asked Mike sitting near.
“He’s scheduled for a full hour,” Mike lamented.

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