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Don’t Let The Bastards Getcha Down

 

Chapter Five (01)

Cow Year - Truth or Consequences



The Class of 1973 became the first West Point class to
go to Airborne School en masse. I flew from Bradley
International Airport near Hartford, Connecticut to Atlanta,
Georgia and then took a bus to Fort Benning, the home base
of the Army’s Airborne School as well as Ranger School and
the Army’s Infantry. As one of the Army’s largest military
installations opened in 1918, it is home to 120,000 Army
personnel from active duty to reserve to retired and
civilian employees. In July 1971 while I went through
Airborne School with my class, it was our temporary home.
Enduring hot humid mid-summer heat averaging in the
90’s in the Deep South was never quite my cup of tea. My
body has always been a super-sweater when temps even reach
the lower eighties. The first week of Airborne School
consisted of ground training that included lots of physical
endurance exercises like early morning runs. Cadets that had
one too many the night before at the officers club were the
first to fall out of formation puking their alcoholic guts
out, reminiscent of the Camp Buckner runs the summer before.
Also that first week we were introduced to the thirty-four
foot mock towers that had us harnessed in all day long
landing repeatedly in sawdust pits practicing parachute
landing falls (PLF’s).


Airborne training from the towers

The second “tower” week we graduated
to the two hundred fifty foot mother-of-a-tower that came
closer to simulating what it would be like landing on the
ground with more advanced and intensive PLF training. All
this redundancy day after day and week after week to me and
my classmates just seemed like superfluous overkill kind of
punishment from Hell. Finally the last three days of week
three were what we had all been waiting for. Outside of a
couple days needed to adequately prepare for jumping and
landing, Airborne School could just as easily have been
conducted from start to finish in just one week. As far as I
was concerned (shared by the vast majority of my peers), it
was a needless display of wasted time. But the Army by
design invariably drags everything out, throwing in lots of             
harassment from training sergeants that religiously adhere
to traditional rituals, like constantly ordering us to do
pushups on red rocks. Similar to Beast Barracks, it was all
orchestrated to test our limits with more of the same
mentality of weeding out the weaklings. So after the three
long weeks and the sacrifice invested, Airborne School
graduates could take a little pride when they got Airborne
Wings pinned to their puffed out chests. Throughout the
school, hundreds of times each day we heard puffed out
chests bellowing, “Airborne!” as if just by saying this
abracadabra word, you suddenly could claim you were a hot
shit king of the hill. Needless to say, my entire time at
Fort Benning, I was not impressed. Though I will say this
much, the long awaited jumps provided a thrill of a
lifetime.
The actual jumping out of the C-130 airplane at an
elevation of twelve hundred-fifty feet was really the only
worthwhile adventure to be had that summer in Georgia. I
definitely was nervous going up in the plane prior to the
jumps. I’m sure most all my classmates also felt the same
butterflies in the pit of their stomachs too. Nervousness on
the very first jump undoubtedly got amped up a notch when a
sergeant ordered us in unison to “hook up” on the metal rod
extending the length of the aircraft. And I’m certain that
acute nervousness by then was turning into a full fledged
“scared shitless” as each of us moved a man closer to the
open door where each second or so another one of us was
taking the plunge. And probably a few of us were secretly
shitting in our pants as we each took our turn jumping out
of the airplane. During that first half second of free fall
out of the plane, we were at the total whim and mercy of the
powerful thrust that whipped at and jerked us like we were a
moth flying into a fan. If there ever was a time of losing
bodily control of your sphincter valve, that was it.
Once we felt the clank and jerk of our parachutes
opening up, the rest was gravy, or heavenly depending on
your metaphor. To me it was closer to heavenly as the
stillness of floating silently and gently to earth once
you’ve looked up and confirmed your chute was completely
open was nothing I have ever experienced before or after.
That minute and a half of floating in the sky while gazing
at the land and horizon of the earth, soaking in every bit
of delight, actually transcended into a sort of mystical,
spiritual journey for me. I loved it. But soon enough all
good things must pass as the ground kept getting closer. I
heard the megaphone of sergeants on the ground giving
further directions to us descending parachutists.
The fear factor came back right about then as we fast
approached the ground. This of course is where practicing
PLF’s finally did come in handy and where risk of injury was
at its greatest. Thankfully out of my three jumps (now it’s
five jumps including one at night) required to qualify for
Airborne wings and graduate the program, my falls were easy
and light without a hitch. And on the one less than perfect
landing where I came down heels first, I was most fortunate
to land heels to ass in three inches of ass cooling water in
Phenix City, Alabama. Had it been on terra firma, my heels
and ass might not have fared so well. There were occasional
injuries of guys spraining or breaking their ankles or legs
as befell one of my future roommates. And I guess I had a
close call when on one jump my chute apparently failed to
open completely. But no panic from me as I was too busy
floating in my rapture and overlooked even looking up to
notice any malfunction. Not until the megaphone from the
ground shattered my rapture with “Mae West, Mae West C-154!”
C-154 was my number and Mae West was code for your chute is
only partially opened, so resort to Plan B of manually
pushing open your reserve parachute. Again thankfully by the
time I actually did look up, the last of my creased
parachute fully opened. Strange I never realized anything
was wrong since, had it been a serious Mae West, I sure as
hell would have noticed my more rapid descent, but I didn’t,
rapture notwithstanding. Of course on one of the weekends
being so close to Atlanta, a group of us headed to lights of
the big city and checked out the Underground that had just
recently been opened in that fast growing metropolis. Had a
cool time with my buddies, bar hopping a few Underground
saloons.
After my Airborne adventure, I traveled deeper into the
Deep South with a flight from Atlanta to New Orleans, and
another bus onto Port Charles and what I quickly concluded
was the armpit of Army posts - Fort Polk, Louisiana. It
opened in 1941 and in 1943 served as a German POW camp. As
my “on the job training” for the summer, I was assigned to
an Advanced Individual Training (AIT) Infantry unit. AIT was
the ten week course a soldier takes after Basic Training. My
training was considered an informal apprenticeship as a
future officer learning primarily from the lieutenant who
served as company training officer and the captain who was
the company commander. I’d get picked up every morning by
the lieutenant and shown the ropes of what it’s like to
train troops headed to Vietnam. The Fort Polk training and
area had an informal name called “Tiger-land” as its
stateside jungles best simulated the jungles found in
Southeast Asia. Though I had melted under the Georgia sun, I
was Louisiana deep fried in my own oil, boiling in sweat
under near hundred degree temps with matching humidity in a
snake infested alley not far from the gator infested bayous.
I’d leave my air conditioned bachelor officer quarters, step
outside and within a minute be drenched with waves of sweat
pouring out my spores. Hence, my three weeks at Fort Polk
were mostly one sweaty armpit of a blur, constantly fighting
off heat exhaustion as the sweat hog of all sweat hogs.
The officers treated me with respect and I had no major
complaints with them or the friendly privates I encountered.
One night the first week there I recall waiting for the
lieutenant in what he called their “little NCO-officer’s
club,” a small room adjacent the company commander’s office
adorned with Playboy girl pinups for wallpaper. It was
already after nine o’ clock when the lieutenant walked in.
“Sir, you think we can go home now,?” I hinted.
“In a bit yeah, but first I want you to spend a little
time with the troops before they hit the sack tonight.”
So I followed him into their barracks where he introduced me
to some of the soldiers mulling around. As a West Point
cadet I guess I must have been a bit of a novelty to them.
“Sir, are you our new lieutenant?,” one soldier asked.
“No I’m here for the next couple weeks for some on-the-
job training to observe a real AIT company in action.”
“You’re lucky sir, we’ve been here for nearly two
months,” that same soldier lamented.
“I didn’t want this Army sir,” another private said.
“You drafted?,” I asked.
“No sir, I was ordered into the Army. It was either
this or jail,” explained the second GI.
“Yeah ol’ Henry here shot his cousin,” a third soldier
volunteered.
Henry then explained, “I caught my cocksucking cousin
in bed with my fifteen year old wife. Now what the hell’s a
husband supposed to do, so I shot that sucker right square
in the ass! They were about to put me away for two years in
the Tennessee State Pen, so I took this.”
“Yeah and he don’t know how to read and write,” added
the soldier who already outed him.
“Shit! Back in the hills outside Nashville, ya just
don’t have to,” Henry reasoned.
“So you guys all from the South?,” I asked.
“Born and raised in the good ol’ South,” answered the
first soldier.
“May the South rise again! Whoopee!,” shouted the out- er.
“’Cept me sir, why they send me all the way from
Minnesota down here?,” still another soldier queried.
“Don’t know private, I never asked to come here either,
guess that’s just the way the Army operates,” I speculated.
“Sir, you know where we’re headed after AIT?” the first 
soldier inquired. The room got quiet as all ears perked up.
The soldier outing the other interjected, “I heard the
lieutenant talking to the first sergeant saying all us
draftees and enlistees will be headed straight to ’Nam or
Korea!” Moans were heard from soldiers reacting to their
prospect of ending up in Vietnam. It was true that more AIT
graduates got shipped out from Fort Polk to fight in the
jungles of Southeast Asia than any other Army post.
“Damn war’s gotta end sometime,” I feebly offered
knowing probably a few of these guys I was talking to would
not be coming back alive. Just then the bell sounded for
lights out and I left the young soldiers pondering their
Unknown, very uncertain futures. 
Since these AIT trainees were nearing completion of
their ten week course, up next they underwent field training
exercises out in the steamy boonies. As the caravan of
trucks pulled up to unload the soldiers, the ROTC-trained
lieutenant suddenly turned the company over to me as the
grading sergeant stood there observing and making notes. Ill
prepared, I felt like I was being thrown into a lion’s den.
After I managed to call the company into formation, I turned
to the grading sergeant and asked, “What am I supposed to do
next?”
“You and your men will be attacking a VC village one
point five klicks west of our current location. You will
hold a command briefing with your squad leaders before
departure. You will be assigned a radio man for
communication with the command post.”
I was nervous as hell, feeling like I didn’t have a
clue what I was really doing out there. I reminded myself as
a future naval officer, I’d most likely never need any of
this training anyway as the fish out of water there in the
Louisiana boonies. I didn’t even know how far a “klick” was.
We soon headed out toward the mock VC village, walking in a
meadow alongside a woodline of trees. I was leading the four
platoons each in single file toward our VC destination. Our
mission was soon interrupted by a close encounter with a
live coral snake that soldiers quickly killed as if it had
been put there as a toy prop that was part of the war game.  
“If we were in Vietnam, we would not be walking out
here in the open, right?” I had to ask the grading sergeant.
“If we were in Nam attacking a VC village, we’d either
blow them away calling in an air or artillery strike, or
napalming the shit out of them,” the sergeant responded.
“Sergeant, how do you know it’s the VC you’re wiping
out and not another My Lai?,” I really wanted to know.
The grading sergeant defensively answered, “Our
intelligence community in Vietnam has had an excellent
record of steering us straight! When we attack villages,
believe me, we know whether they’re VC or not... but then
again, sometimes just when you think you can trust a gook,
he turns into VC Charlie. I’ve seen little kids tossing
grenades at us.”
Just then the radio man interjected, “Damn, I’m sure
glad I’m in the Florida National Guard and will be sipping
piña coladas on Miami Beach next week.”
“And everybody drafted or enlisted’s going straight to
Nam,” I sadly contrasted.
“That’s why they sure as fuck better learn how to fight
here before it’s too late,” warned the training sergeant.
“How much further is it up here sergeant?,” I asked.
“Don’t you think you better send your point man up
there to find out?,” the sergeant sternly hinted.
“Any volunteers to be a point man?” I asked.
“Sure, sounds like fun!,” The soldier running up to me
excitedly exclaimed.
“You won’t be saying that in two weeks when you’re in
Nam soldier,” the annoyed sergeant retorted.
“Go up there another fifty to a hundred yards and see
if you can identify the VC village in the woods there. Let
me know with a hand signal,” I instructed.
“Sure thing sir!,” an over-eager point man yelled back.
Overcome by the sheer farcical fakery of this simulated
“wannabe Vietnam” exercise, I blurted out, “This can’t be
anything like Nam!”
The sergeant grew defensive again. “We do our best to
simulate actual combat conditions out here... but you really
want to know the truth? Over in Nam you don’t know where
Charlie might suddenly come from, so this ain’t nothing like
the real thing. These war games here are a fucken joke if
you ask me.” I was amazed how finally just before we began
playing John Wayne in the woods the cold harsh reality
sprang out. This sergeant just couldn’t hold the official
line of bullshit in faking it anymore. These Army grunts
were being set up to die when “the real thing” came crashing
in on them in a few weeks. Though I appreciated his blunt
honesty, I  found myself unsettled with his truth as I
commanded the first two platoons to a frontal assault on the
mock village while the other two took an oblique position
attacking from the right flank. As chaos broke out with
Exploding artillery simulators and the wave of GI’s madly
running and firing off blanks in the woods as they swept
over the couple of thatched roof hooches, a rope hammock and
about ten training sergeants playing “VC” that soon
pretended to be dead. The sergeant was absolutely correct.
It was a cruel and sick joke the West Point Pentagon was
tragically playing on those poor, defenseless, many soon-to-
be-dead American boys. In the words of Country Joe McDonald,
“And it’s one, two, three what’re we fighting for? I don’t
give a damn, next stop is Vietnam.” 
The biggest highlight of my Pelican State visit was my
weekend in New Orleans. Though its climate left much to be
desired, I loved that city. So while “Jeremiah was a
bullfrog” was blasting Three Dog Night’s mega-hit “Joy To
The World” to a world that included that far-reaching
armpit of the Army, I was partying with buddies in the
French Quarter of Bourbon Street at Pat O’Brian’s and a slew
of other joints. Loved the ladies there too, though I never
quite scored with any. The closest I actually got was
merely a smile from a little hottie on the bus headed back
to Port Charles. I started singing along with James Taylor’s
version of the Carol King classic “You Got A Friend” that
was a hit that summer playing on someone’s radio there on
the bus. It was just one of those moments in time that
became a permanent snapshot of my life, perhaps made more
indelible by the fact that Sweet Baby James is a fellow
March Twelfth Pisces from Massachusetts (at least for a
time). I have always loved his music and thought I even
could sound a lot like him singing his songs. And I think
that girl sitting three seats in front of me on that
Greyhound bus that day must have also thought so.
In any event, my trip to New Orleans was the best time
I had all summer long. But at one point, we started running
out of money. Suddenly a cadet I will not call my friend
came up with the demented idea to “find the gay section and
go beat up some fags” as our solution for lack of money. I
hate to say it, but West Point in the early 70’s was a
bastion of homophobic bigots. I was always hearing about
cadets I knew who went “gay bashing” in the big cities like
New York and now New Orleans. My response to the asshole
suggesting we beat up and rob a homosexual, “You know what
they say, guys who get off gay bashing must have something
to hide, like their own latent homosexuality.” I’ve always
been a firm believer that when we have a very deep, visceral
and reflexive type of reaction to someone we just hate, more
often than not it’s more about something we don’t like or
accept within ourselves that unconsciously brings up such
intense aversive feelings toward that person. Hence, our
acute over-reaction.
Of course when I said this, the first thing out of
homophobe’s mouth was, “You must be a fag yourself coming to
their defense like that.”
My reply, “If the shoe fits buddy, I suggest you wear
it, own it, and stop playing games with yourself.”
“Fuck you faggot,” came the typical homophobe reaction.
Issues of homosexuality always seemed like they were
coming up at the Point. At least once or twice a year a
cadet would get caught in bed with another cadet and of
course immediately get run out of town. Rumors were always
circulating over the latest dudes discovered in some
compromising position. Though homophobia still rages on in
twenty-first century America, I’m heartened to see tolerance
and acceptance slowly becoming more the norm in our society
rather than the exception. Getting rid of the ridiculous
“don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was a huge step in the right
direction. But now there is an open policy allowing military
personnel to come out, an amazing accomplishment from the
Stonewall days when I was attending West Point. I recently
saw a gay cadet interviewed in the media reporting that all
is swell at the Point, maintaining all his straight friends
readily accepted his coming out, and went on to explain that
his significant other was also embraced by his straight
friends. I am glad for him, and if true for all gays at the
Point, I am even more glad. It would demonstrate tangible
progress being made at West Point, where back in my day
raging homophobia ruled rampant. Speaking of progress,
in November 2013 history was made for the first time
at the US Military Academy when two gay graduates
held their wedding ceremony at West Point.
Clearly American culture is
moving towards increasing acceptance and tolerance of gay-
lesbian-transgender individuals and couples as equal members
of our human family...long overdue despite the holier-than-
thou judgments from so many right wing religious fanatics.
One more perk for playing football arrived as an early
exit out of Bayou Country in late August when us football
players were allowed to fly back to West Point from our
summer training a week ahead of schedule for the start of
another fall season. I was more than ready for my third year
at the Academy as a Second Classman to begin.
I had always patterned myself after G-1’s Class of 1972
cadets who were then entering their final year as First
Classmen. The popular majority of that class of about two
dozen cadets were very easygoing, cool guys who also did not
believe in the silly demeaning class system. They always had
each other’s back and they always knew how to laugh and have
a good time. As a plebe they insisted I never call them sir,
and they always just encouraged me to be myself as a fellow
human being. They believed that better leaders lead by
example. They knew that group unity and cohesiveness
developed out of mutual respect and appreciation. Bruce (may
he RIP), Grec, Merk, Percy, Press and Russ were my West
Point role models. So as a Second Classman when it came my
turn to become a squad leader that autumn, I did not
hesitate letting my plebes know how I felt about the Fourth
Class system, just as my role models did for me.
“Guys, I make no bones about how I feel about the
Fourth Class system. I hate it and don’t believe in it. You
can learn to be a disciplined, effective leader without
going through a year where you have to be a robot, jumping
through hoops to survive. So when you’re in here, in my
room, you stand at ease, not at attention. If you have a
problem, I want you to feel free to come to me for help.
I’ll listen and if I can do something to help you, I’ll do
it. But out there you’ll have to play the beanhead game to
placate others in the company who still believe in the
bullshit. To prevent heat from coming down on you, I urge
you to play the game out there. Of course to a great extent,
you’ll need to follow the rules. As you know, Major Webb and
some of the upperclassmen will not hesitate to write you up
for all kinds of things. So it requires you to tow the line
to keep a low profile. But in here you can know that you can
take it easy, not have to spout off the bullshit. Just do
your best to stay out of trouble out there, and we’ll all
get through this year with as little hassle and stress as
possible. Any questions?” A far cry from my squad leader
Herbie’s welcome to G-1 speech two years earlier.
Life as a West Point junior was going along fairly
smoothly. I had a bad case of shin splints that football
season that interrupted my playing time, and the
relationship with the girl I was hoping might end up my
first girlfriend went south. But I was still content, 
enjoying a wider selection of course electives. Yes I still
had to trudge through such killer compulsive courses like
Mechanics, Civil Engineering and Thermodynamics, but with an
area of concentration “National Security & Public Affairs,”
it finally allowed me to begin choosing more classes that I
actually liked. Eventually West Point followed suit a few
years later with every other college in this country by
permitting its students to choose an academic major. But my
area of concentration provided options to study our Cold War
enemies the Soviet Union and China. So I busily took all the
Russian and Chinese history and geography classes offered.
Other courses I also kicked ass in were philosophy, American
history, American geography, cartography, English. I also
earned straight A’s in Portuguese. But having taken three
years of Spanish in high school, I had a head start
advantage since both of those romance languages from the
Iberian Peninsula were so similar. With Brazil emerging as
among the more powerful leading nations in South America, I
felt being fluent in the Portuguese language might become an
asset in my future. My Grade Point Average (GPA) at the
Military Academy ended up a lowly 2.33, averaging a B for
every two C’s. Considering the standard curriculum heavily
emphasized math, engineering and science courses that seemed
foreign to me, I did what I had to in order to pass those
classes and then excelled at the liberal arts courses of my
choice and liking.


Vietnam War drags on

The Vietnam War was still dragging on in 1972. And
Vietnam was like no other war America had ever fought. With
an unidentifiable enemy that utilized guerilla warfare
tactics with stealth and quick movement to attack and then
rapidly disappear under cover of darkness, the most powerful
nation and military in the world were ill-equipped to win
this kind of war. As the foreign occupier, we misjudged the
resolve, resiliency and strength of a people determined to
prevail over retaking its homeland. Despite Nixon and the
Pentagon continuing to lie to Americans that our nation was
winning over there, by 1972 only a relatively small minority
of Americans still believed the false dogma still spewing
from the propaganda war machine. With major events like My
Lai Massacre coming out (despite concealment of hundreds of
other My Lai’s committed by the American military), the Kent
State Massacre, Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers and the ever
rising toll of American soldiers dead reaching well over
50,000, America had grown increasingly sick and tired of the
longest running war in its history. Nixon’s promise to end
the war with the enticing slogan “peace with honor” was
coming under increasing attack. The Paris peace talks
between Kissinger and the North Vietnamese were bogging down
into a stalemate. With the November Presidential election
looming, Nixon felt pressured to pull enough troops out of
Vietnam to maintain a public perception that he was in fact
keeping his promise to America. So in 1972 leading up to his
landslide re-election, we heard more clever spin like, “stay
the course.”
West Point made some effort to try and keep up with the
changing times based on the unconventional warfare being
waged by our enemy in Vietnam. Thus, the Academy developed a
course called History of Insurgency and Counterinsurgency,
which of course I was quick to sign up for. By the time I
took this class, I had formed some pretty strong views
against the war. I clashed with my instructor, an Army major
who had served in Vietnam and needed to believe like many
vets that his and America’s heavy sacrifice had not been in
vain.
I contended, “Sir, our constant bombing of Cambodia,
Laos and North Vietnam, covertly hidden from the American
public for years, has failed miserably to make a dent in
slowing down the enemy or their supply lines into South
Vietnam. The VC and North Vietnamese Army are fighting for
unification of its people and when you’re fighting on your
home turf, their will to win has to be stronger than ours.”
“Be careful what you’re saying Mr. Hagopian. You’re
sounding a lot like that treasonous Hanoi Jane [Fonda]!”
“Sir, I just think it’s a losing cause in this modern
day and age to actually believe we can be an occupying force
for years at a time on some Third World nation’s soil and
expect to win wars against indigenous people fighting to
take back their own homeland.”

Go to Chapter Five (02)

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