It had been more than forty years since my father had been back to West Point. He had returned for his fifth reunion, making the trek from Fort Benning. He returned a year or two later when his brother was stationed there. But he had not been back since; he talked about attending the fiftieth class reunion in 2000, but he let it pass as well. The occasion that brings us back today is a football game, a meaningless game in another less than memorable Army season. But despite the lack of fanfare, today would still be one to remember.
His arrival today would be very quiet, practically unnoticed, far less dramatic and less anticipated than his first. Back then, there was a welcoming party at the entrance gate, and the hell began as soon as he set foot on campus.
Our drive to West Point is really “something” to use my father’s term. We come up a mountain, with the Hudson River below and another mountain on the opposite side rising above us. The view is spectacular. However, one soon feels isolated here. We pass few cars and only one or two homes tucked away in the woods as we continue ascending. If a homesick cadet wanted to run away from the Army, I am not sure where he could go. We pass a place called Camp Buckner where Dad says he spent a summer, but it doesn’t look like much of a summer camp to me. After several more empty stretches, we come upon the campus entrance. It too looks like it could be easily passed without being noticed. It all makes me wonder why the British were willing to pay Benedict Arnold for this remote outpost.
The campus itself is on a steep hill. At the bottom of the hill, train tracks parallel the river; both the tracks and the river run along two sides of the hill, taking a sharp turn as they pass the campus. The football stadium, where we will go in a few hours, is at the top of the hill and is reached by yet another long, winding road that is probably no longer than a mile but takes quite some time to traverse. The parade ground, about halfway up, is our first destination today.
Dad wanted us to see the parade (scheduled just prior to the game): three thousand cadets marching in unison, all wearing those funny high hats and carrying sabres by their sides. I am sure it would have conjured up many memories for him, but unfortunately we just miss the festivities. Instead, we wander the parade ground and the surrounding area, mixing in with the cadets and the many other visitors during the post-parade mayhem.
As we survey the campus, there are several items of interest he points out instead. Directly facing the parade ground is the commandant’s and the superintendent’s houses, not that he remembers much of these as they were places to avoid during his four years. On the parade ground itself is a memorial to Colonel Thayer, the founder of West Point. Also facing the parade ground is the mess hall which Dad wants us to tour, but visitors are not allowed inside. “That’s really something,” he tells us. “They crank out three meals a day for several thousand people. It’s quite an operation.” It also appears to be the only eating establishment around; I can hardly imagine what it is like to eat in the same place three times a day for four straight years.
We bypass the mess hall and meander towards the cadet barracks instead. After a short walk, we come upon several stone buildings: nondescript and about three or four stories each; I imagine they look exactly as they did back in 1946 when my father first arrived. One of the buildings is Grant Hall; it is the place where cadets went to meet their dates, one of the few places my mother remembers from West Point. I wonder if it still serves the same purpose. Across from Grant Hall is a building guarded by several cannons which Dad says used to be the riding academy, although it looks like it may now be a gymnasium or something similar. Apparently, they used to have horses and taught cadets to ride. I find it interesting as he had never before mentioned anything about riding horses.
As we mingle with the crowd, Dad appears in his element, guiding our group and occasionally waylaying cadets to ask about anything that appears changed from the old days (and then he lingers to tell them about his own experiences at West Point and beyond). After more wandering among the stone buildings, he finally spots his old barracks, and shortly after introduces himself to a Master Sergeant (one of the indigenous workers) who agrees to give him a tour of the barracks. The rest of us wait outside while he and mom poke around inside.
Dad does not say much upon returning, only that it still looked familiar and things had not changed all that much. Although, the cookout several cadets were preparing in the barracks quadrangle does raise his eyebrow; he makes it clear this was not something that would have been allowed in the old days. In addition, I find it interesting that he neglects to comment on the presence of the many female cadets, something else which must seem out-of-place as well.
After rejoining us, Dad takes moment to regain his bearings and then drifts back towards the parade ground. There are still many people milling about in the street, mostly visitors who came to see the parade and spend time with their sons, daughters, boy friends, or girl friends. We have a little time before we must make our way to the football game, so we meander a while longer, passing more cannons, trees planted by various graduating classes, and sundry other sites which Dad continues to point out.
He shows us the spot where he took the academy oath, several days after arriving. I wonder if he had realized what he had gotten himself into at that point. Near this spot we pass a cadet walking back and forth in the entrance of one of the buildings: four steps to the right and then four steps to the left. We all debate what terrible thing he has done to deserve this punishment while other cadets are enjoying a cookout.
As I get a better feel for the campus, I realize it is actually a little city; a cadet need never leave its cozy confines. In addition to the living quarters and the all-purpose mess hall, there is also a laundry, a hospital, and a post exchange where a cadet can obtain uniforms and other essentials of daily life. Up the hill from the parade ground, there are two chapels, a Catholic one and a Protestant one side by side (I wonder if these days there are accommodations for the cadets of other faiths as well).
Beyond the cadet world, there are homes and schools for a number of regular army personnel; their homes and schools for their children are nestled among the hills as well. For recreation, there is also a ski slope and a golf course, although the only thing my father remembers about these is picking up rocks at the golf course, apparently, at the time, a popular assignment for first-year cadets. There is also a cemetery; Dad says that his brother and his wife are buried here. He’d like for us to visit it too; however, we are not sure where it is located, and besides that might have been too much for one day anyway.
The football game is enjoyable; it is close and our team plays well at times, and the kids think it is really exciting when they shoot off the cannons (after an army score). It also provides another opportunity to talk about the old times; Mom, this time, is reminded of the Army-Navy games she and Dad attended (although, she only remembers the cold of Philadelphia in December and that my father and the other cadets stood the entire game). But I suppose the afternoon may have been somewhat anti-climactic. We had already seen what we had come for; the game was really only an excuse for us to visit the place where my father started his military odyssey.
I can’t imagine what memories filled my father’s head as we rode back down the hill to the parking lot, passing many of those old familiar sites for the second time today. As we stare out the bus windows, I wonder how many emotions he experienced in just this one day. I think it may be a while yet before he will even be able to tell us himself. There must have been so many anxious and agonizing times during his years at West Point–he has often described the whole experience as one of the most difficult of his life–but it appears the memories today are all good. In fact, for months to come he will continue to mention the trip, often asking each of us for our impressions as well.
Our family moved so often while my brothers and I were growing up that, in twelve years, we rarely attended the same school two years in a row; I myself wound up attending twelve different schools. In addition, each of us struck out on our own from different locations, so we landed in three disparate points (following short itinerant periods during our adolescence years): Mike in the Chicago area, Steve in the New York City area (providing us a convenient jumping off point for our trip today), and I in Charlotte. As a result, we have family reunions somewhat infrequently. We almost never have everyone together for Christmas or Thanksgiving, and we tend to miss most birthdays and other important growing up events. We do have an active summer exchange program, however. Often, one or both of our Yankee contingents will visit and Mom and Dad in Charleston for a dose of the beach and the pool, while other years, the Southern wing of the clan ventures northward. Special events, like our trip to West Point this day, are even rarer still.
Therefore, these days discussions of the old times with the family are quite rare as well. But our current circumstances provide us the opportunity and the earlier events the impetus for such a discussion. Not surprisingly, the stories continue for some time into the evening tonight. Dad especially is in rare form tonight as he regales us with stories well into the night
“I only had a couple of jumps that were a problem,” I overhear Dad telling my sister-in-law Gail as I tune in to their conversation during dinner. “I must have made about fifty or sixty in my whole career . . . Anyway, when I was with the 101st airborne . . .”
“This was in Kentucky,” Mom explains for Gail’s benefit, “at Fort Campbell. We lived in Clarksville–in Tennessee.”
“The DZ at Campbell–“
“That’s the drop zone . . . where they land,” Mom interprets again. She, of course, has heard all of his stories, and so she sometimes helps out. Of course, when she takes part, the stories take much longer as she often adds explanations or minor details Dad leaves out. Sometimes, they are never finished at all because she wants to talk about some person in the story. What happened to him? We haven’t heard from him in years. I did hear about his children though. And from there, it’s not long before the thread of the original story is lost.
But today, Dad persists, staying on track with his story. “The drop zone at Campbell isn’t that great, not like at Bragg. At Bragg, the DZ is really big and there is all this nice soft sand. At Campbell, all they did was clear the trees away . . . They left stumps there . . . we were in cost cutting mode at the time I think . . . it made for lots of hazards on the DZ. Anyway, it was a real windy day, and we had this really big jump . . . a lot of guys jumping, that is. They should have canceled it . . . the wind was about eighteen to twenty knots . . . Well, what happened this day . . . when guys landed, they got drug along the ground. Because it was so windy, the parachute literally became a sail. You couldn’t collapse it with all that wind. At a place like Bragg with a better DZ it might not have been so bad . . . But we had five guys killed this day.”
“Oh it was horrible, just horrible,” Mom adds, sounding as if she still can’t believe it.
“They went to the quick release parachutes right after that,” Dad continues. Now that he has started on the old days, he is off to the races. “They’d been resisting them up until that point. They thought guys might pop them too soon–before they hit the ground. That never really turned out to be a problem though.
“It was kind of funny though . . . our next jump . . . as soon as I landed, there was someone there to check on me. Did I need any help folding my parachute? Is everything okay? It was the only jump I had when anyone offered to help.”
“Probably should have asked him to send your waitress by with a drink,” I interject.
“Yeah, I would have if I had thought of it . . . of course, that policy didn’t last very long . . . Yeah, Fort Campbell was an interesting place,” he adds, sliding deep into what appears to be his reminiscent mode. “I remember we were organized into battle groups. I commanded an artillery company in our battle group. We had a really good group of company commanders . . . There were five of us company commanders. One of them became chief of staff of the army, two others made general, one three-stars, one two stars, and then the other one and I made Colonel . . . And they made a movie about one . . . Pork Chop Hill. And our battle group commander made general too. Not too bad,” he adds, looking to us for agreement.
“Fort Campbell is also where I met Crieghton W. Abrams. He didn’t look like much of a soldier . . . a short, fat, redhead, but he was probably the best damned soldier I’ve ever known. You know, they named a tank after him . . . We had a really good group of soldiers,” he reiterates. “We weren’t doing all that much back then, but that’s how it goes sometimes . . .”
“We were the only battalion to fight at night,” I pick up another thread a little bit later. “You had to fight the VC at night, but not everyone figured that out. We were a mechanized battalion . . . Originally though, I was the brigade exec . . . I got the opportunity to command after one engagement the battalion had. It hadn’t gone too well and we were debriefing the battalion commander at division headquarters. I remember the general asked him how come they didn’t get out of their APCs and fight like infantry. And this guy said: ‘Because we are a mechanized battalion. We don’t fight like infantry.’ The next day I got a call. Could I take over the battalion? Just like that . . .”
“I didn’t get back to the Division for a while after that . . . I remember a few months later coming back . . . for a battalion commanders’ meeting. We’d come out of the jungle in our fatigues; we were dirty and smelly . . . and we go into this nice clean building with air conditioning . . . And they would serve us iced tea from pitchers . . . oh gosh!” He makes it sound like air conditioning and iced tea were new-fangled inventions that he first encountered there in this faraway outpost. “For a couple of hours, I thought I was in heaven.” He smiles and shakes his head again as if he still cannot believe his good fortune.
“I had the battalion for about seven or eight months . . . It was just a few weeks before I was to ship out when I got the word about Tammy’s death. . . Everyone back home thought it was a mistake. It must have been me, not him. He was in Germany at the time; nobody was getting killed in Germany anymore.”
He pauses after this and while we sit quietly I wonder again about the uncle I never knew. He had been in the army more than twenty years before his death, a full Colonel by this time. I wonder what stories he too could have told: of the war in Germany, of all the crusty characters he had met as well, of all the places he had been shipped off to. My father doesn’t have many stories about him, maybe because their paths never crossed during those twenty years.
I wonder also what a loss his brother’s death must have been for my father. I am reminded again of how he never really speaks of this loss or any of the other losses. He will tell the basic facts of how and when his brother died. He will mention his mother’s death, she died in childbirth, but he will always stop at that, never elaborating or expanding. He will never say what an impact these events had on him.
Tonight, as well, it is not long before he changes the subject; a moment later he is back in Korea, discussing a much lighter topic. “I remember we got wind of this guy who was being shipped to us in Korea . . . He had been a minor league pitcher for a while. My commanding officer wanted to make sure our unit got him. We were pretty competitive with our intramural sports . . . Well he got this guy assigned to our unit, and then he set him up as the bartender in the Officer’s Club. That was his only job. Couldn’t hurt his arm there, I suppose.” Now there is a big smile, harkening back the good old days once again.
Things take another turn after dinner as my brothers and I temporarily take over the story telling, competing for an audience as we tell the kids of each other’s childhood and adolescence.
“Uncle Dave used to eat only chicken,” Mike starts off. “The only way to get him to eat anything else was to tell him it was chicken. When he was a little bit older, he would eat hot dogs and bologna too. But that was about it.”
“Except for the one time with the cherries,” Steve adds.
“Oh yeah . . . the cherries. We were driving out to Fort Leavenworth–“
“No. It was coming back from Leavenworth,” Mom corrects. “He was just a baby on the way out. He was almost two years old when we cam back.” It was 1963 and we were returning to the east coast so we could board a ship to Italy.
“That’s right. He cried the entire way out. Do you remember that? You cried for 1600 miles.”
“But what about the cherries?” Joe asks his Grandmother.
“We stopped in Hannibal Missouri,” she begins, claiming this story for herself. She is usually neutral in these contests, but apparently has joined my brothers’ side tonight, much to my chagrin. “I remember it was Hannibal because it had something to do with Mark Twain. It is his birthplace or something like that. We ate on a paddle boat–on the Mississippi River. They had a restaurant on board . . . ” She is an infrequent story-teller, so her stories tend to have lots of color and gratuitous detail sprinkled in, much only indirectly related to subject at hand.
“Everyone thought David was so cute. While we were waiting for our food, the waitress brought him cherries–maraschino cherries. He kept asking for more and they kept bringing more. He couldn’t get enough. Of course, later he got sick in the car.” Then, after a pause she adds disjointedly (and unnecessarily from my perspective): “David was always getting car sick.”
Naturally, it is not long before my father takes over the story telling again. He too continues the focus on my capricious childhood behavior, telling of the peculiar receptions I provided him on his returns from Viet Nam. The first time, he tells everyone, I was hiding under our house porch at Fort Riley, uncertain about this stranger returning from some far away place. The second time, I informed him he was to come with me on a boy scout camping trip the next day. “I suppose he figured I hadn’t yet had my fill of sleeping under the stars,” he adds. He swears both stories are true, but I don’t remember either of them.
The kids seem to enjoy stories of their adult counterparts. I think it comforts them to know we too were once as small as they, that we used to think like they do, and that we too used to get in trouble from time to time. But now that we’ve started this discussion, my brother Mike’s kids want to know more about their daddy.
Of course, their Grandpa, always ready with a story, obliges them. First, he tells us of the time young Michael infiltrated the secret service. “President Eisenhower’s son was in the army too and he was stationed at Fort Benning the same time as we were. He was a classmate of my brother’s, by the way. Anyway, his son, the president’s grandson, was the same age as Michael, and he went to the same day care . . . I remember picking up Michael and there was the secret service agent down on the floor playing with your father . . .”
Then he drifts further back to tell of Michael’s birth and how he came close to being born in the back seat of their station wagon. “It was in Germany and the hospital was thirty miles away–in Heidelberg. There was no hospital where we lived . . . I’ll never forget this . . . a week before your father was born, our neighbors across the hall had borrowed our station wagon and had their baby in it; they didn’t quite make it to the hospital . . . The car never smelled the same after that . . . Anyway, it was a few days before Christmas when your Grandmother told me it was time. We got her into the station wagon. I picked up the army doctor; he rode with us to the hospital. I had an MP escort as well. But it was dark and the roads weren’t that great and that time of year they were icy . . . all that slowed us down a bit. And then the MPs got lost on the way there. I was certain we weren’t going to make it . . . I was sure there’d be another baby born in the back of our car . . .” He pauses to reflect, but it seems that is all there is to this story. Of course, we all know now they made it to the hospital on time, and Mike was born happy and healthy and lived happily ever after.
“You know, because your father was born in Germany it meant he had dual citizenship,” he starts another story almost immediately without pause. “He was an American citizen and a German citizen. Well, when he was about ten years old–we were in Pennsylvania–he met with the immigration representatives. They said they had a few questions for him. First, they asked him if he wanted to retain his American citizenship, and he said ‘yes’. They asked him if he loved his country, and he said ‘yes, he loved his country’. And then they asked him if his parents were with him today. There was a tense moment for us before he answered. Afterwards, I’ve always wondered: what if he had said no?”
“Oh no, your father was such a responsible child,” Mom speaks up for her son; she, at least, had never doubted his answer. Then, she adds an anecdote of her own for any other doubting Thomases. “I remember when we were at Fort Benning, the Brunsons lived next door to us. They had three children, three boys, wild boys, especially that Chippy Brunson; he was a ring leader, that one. They were always picking up things. You know, some children are like that–always picking up things. Whenever they visited Steve and Mike, I was a basket case. Grandpa can tell you. He’d come home and he knew right away if they had been over to visit.”
I look to my father for acknowledgment, finding it hard to imagine my mother as a basket case. “Anyway, Michael finally told Chippy Brunson not to pick up anything or touch anything. That took care of the problem.” After a moment of thought, she re-emphasizes this point: “Michael never picked up things; he never did anything like that. He always did what he was supposed to.”
“But didn’t he ever do anything bad?” I prod. Responsible child, patriot, eagle scout, there has to be some dirt somewhere. I was sure I wasn’t the only one who had thrown tantrums or gotten sick in the car. But all I get out of her is that Mike played with matches once, and that he and Steve would “cut up” in the back seat of the car when Dad wasn’t around to discipline them.
“You know your dad used to be a wild guy before he met your mom,” I say taking matters into my own hands. “He had a beard, he rode a motorcycle, he was a vegetarian, he lived in a log cabin with no electricity and no plumbing, and he tattoos all over his body,” I counter, most of it true. He grew up in the sixties, after all.
“Dad had tattoos? What’d they say?”
“Well . . . he had one right across his that chest said: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” I improvise.
This sparks debate among the kids as they decide upon the tattoos they want. Tim is going to get a Hercules tattoo in honor of the hero of his favorite TV show, and Maggie especially likes the idea of a Barney tattoo.
“And Uncle Steve too,” I continue my counter-attack, “when he was two years old he wanted lobster all the time. He would always ask for it; he had fits when he couldn’t get it.”
Mom verifies this is true (as I wasn’t even born yet). “My father, your great-grandfather, started him on lobster one time at a restaurant.”
“But I wasn’t about to buy lobster for a two-year-old, ” my father adds.
“And there was also the time that Uncle Steve took a picture of the leaning tower of Pisa, only in the picture the tower is standing straight and all the people and everything else is leaning. Have you ever heard of anything so silly?”
We run amok late into the evening, rambling and reminiscing; our conversation drifts from topic to topic: serious, controversial, even the unsolvable or unknowable do not slow us down. The conversation will eventually come around to politics as it often does and we take our usual sides, Dad and I lining up against my brothers. Our debates are spirited but never rancorous; we can disagree but still enjoy the debate. In addition, the conversation will move deftly through time, from the old times to current events and back to the old times. Of course, if we talk long enough, the conversation always gets around to the good old days.