My Academic Travails and Triumphs

As I expected I did well in 'Plebe English.' Freshman Reading and Composition. I could write well - very well in fact. Years later I began to realize that I had the famed Celtic Welsh literary genes in my blood. After all, 11 generations of my Welsh Preacher ancestors had to write and preach the gospel aloud to peoples who might be illiterate - not only in English, but their own ancestral Welsh even if they spoke it in that musical language. 

Besides writing Expository prose - the bed rock form of clear English that prose that military men would have to write - and  be read (and followed) by others, I could and did compose Poetry, pecking it out on my portable typewriter emulating the all lower-case modern writings of e.e.cummings and the clever metaphors of T.S. Eliot. 

It was clear, that West Point put great stress at its university level, on clear writing, comprehensive reading, as well as forcefull speech. For military orders, especially on the battlefield had to be crystal clear with no ambiguities, when transmitted by message, or in war plans, or by telegraph that came of age in the Civil War, or over radio, by voice later when that technology came of age. 

But a surprising portion of my classmates were weak in 'English.' Many who were strong in engineering subjects wrote badly and more significantly did not like to write. I enjoyed it. In fact that was a weakness of mine too. For once I had a small portable typewriter before me, I would spend entirely too much time composing imaginative verse and prose, compared with the heavy math and language I was supposed to master.

My imaginative prose and poetry - which flowed up from my ability to use striking metaphors rooted in vivid cadet life which all of us shared, utterly apart from my graded class assignments, drew attention by my classmates, a few of whom were determined to take over in time the Cadet Magazine called the "Pointer." I dashed off short prose and poetry pieces for the Pointer - and by my sophmore 'Yearling' year, combined it with my photographic - both taking pictures and darkroom development of them which I had learned from Uncle John and Aunt Mary Kretchmer at their camera store in Omaha one high school summer. My photographic skill has remained with me all my life. And it is one skill I seemed to have passed onto my son David - along with my first Canon, Nokia and Roliflex cameras I bought when they first emerged on the world scene.

All that was at the expense of my grinding math studies, which I had little talent for, and my atrocious German, which I had absolutely no 'memory' for. (I often wondered whether my extreme, natural, and fluid mastery of written and oral  English simply submerged my ability to think in Spanish - in high school - or in German, at West Point.) I THINK in literary English. Which has led to my mastery of many other things over the years, both within my Military career and beyond.

So I barely squeaked by in German classes, getting, alternately 1.7 to 2.3 on a scale of 3.0 in all assignments. I passed, but I never could use more than a handful of German phrases. After all, I reasoned, Germany just lost the war with the US and I was not likely to have to operate on a battlefield where I would need that to deal with locals. Its now up to the Germans to learn English!

I cranked out my math assignments with no joy, and got by there too - with daily grades from 1.9 to 2.4. Always on the margin, because, besides my immersion in reading and writing - for the joy of it and not just because I had to - I started to retreat on Sundays to the Chess Club rooms - to play and take my mind off the academic grind and the perpetual, chin-in, harassment as a Plebe by the Upper Classes if I hung around my barracks rooms. Some of whom, I swear, had sadistic streaks in their personalities.

But I at least knew the importance of Math as the basis of Engineering, and many future military skills I an officer would have to master. So I cranked along, joyless, but productive enough to pass.

Now the one other, besides English, class that I took to, was "Military Topography and Graphics." With that ponderous name, that subject had to do with the underlying skills of map reading and production, military photographic interpretation (aerial photos) for intelligence trying to figure out what the enemy might be doing, using all the pantographical equipment that required. This included dual lens stereo graphic photo interpretation. Small computers were not developed yet, GPS was unknown, but maps abounded.

I always had been a good map reader, and I took to topographic, contoured maps like a duck to water.

I even developed, while looking at them in the bright-light outside-windowed classrooms which were on the top floor of the great Washington Hall (mess hall building), the ability to look, without a dual-lens reader, stereo photos, and see them in the 3d dimension. I trained my eyes to diverge - rather than converge as people's eyes naturally do when looking at a photograph. So my left eye could 'see' the left image, and my right eye could 'see' the right image. So my brain could 'see' the third dimensional scene.

Smugly I knew that would be a useful military skill.

One of my roommates - Grady Banister actually had foundered in French, a year earlier! For he had actually been admitted to West Point in 1945, heading for graduation in the Class of 1949. But he struggled with the French Language and at the very end of his plebe year - May 1946 - he was found 'deficient' in French. He was given the opportunity to leave the Academy, study on his own (he actually got a tutor) and then take a 'turn-back- exam in August. He passed it, was declared proficient in French, and so was admitted to our class of 1950, arriving in time to start the academic year. So Grady. who became one of my roommates, was a '5 year' graduate, rather than 4 years. With French mastered, he did well for the last 4 years and graduated on time with the rest of us.

 

Other Than Academics

But there were other things to be engaged in. Saturday Parades and inspections in the Fall, as the leaves began to turn. Endless harassment by the upperclassmen of my 'F-2' company. Progressive mastery, including pure memorization of both nonsensical and practical information contained in "Bugle Notes" which every Plebe was issued. Which information had to be disgorged at almost every Meal in the giant Mess Hall.

Then Plebes could visit relatives in either Grant Hall, or at the Thayer Hotel.

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In my full dress gray's at the hotel waiting for a guest.

 

 

 

 

I met my Aunt Arleen at the Thayer Hotel one Sunday when she came up from New York City. Here is another very early picture of me on the Thayer balcony overlooking the Hudson. I am in my formal Dress Gray Uniform. The fact that I am a plebe is indicated by the fact I have no small 'gold stripes' on my lower sleeve - which only start when one is a Yearling - 2d year.

 

 

 

So I waded my way in the first West Point Academic year through my classes, and by Christmas break I had passed, barely, all my classes. 'Plebe Christmas' when all the other classes could go home - if it were not too far across this broad land before Air Travel was cheap and ubiquitous.

If the plebes were lucky enough to have a date who lived close enough to West Point to come for football games or Christmas Break some pairs would venture down the hill of 'Flirtation Walk'

For the first time, in Cullum Hall, Plebes could dress up in their formal, long tailed grey dress coat and attend the Annual Formal New Years Eve 'Hop' - dance where they could entertain dates. there was a Receiving Line where the Superintendent - Major General Maxwell Taylor - the legendary commander of the 101st Airborne which jumped into Normandy - and his wife met the Plebes. Civilly, with the usual military courtesies, but none of the 'upperclass' treatment, for they were home or elsewhere on Christmas Leave that no plebes could enjoy until next Christmas.

And for the first time the plebes dancing with their dates danced the last dance with the lights down low to the most traditional song of remembrance "Army Blue."

And of course some Plebes whose dates came up to West Point while the upper classes were away on Christmas Vacation, were tempted to take their date down 'Flirtation Walk.' I am sure many did.

 

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The Entrance to Flirtation Walk

 

 

 

Flirtation Walk in the summertime.

 

 

There is an unwritten rule that neither upperclassmen or the Tactical Department officers 'police' that lover's lane.

 

 

Every Cadet an Athlete

Another major part of West Point’s continued training after the first summer’s Beast Barracks are the obligatory athletic sports. Obligatory in that every cadet must participate in either intercollegiate sports for which he is qualified and competitive enough for Army coaches to put him on either the ‘C’ squad –  freshmen with potential talent, ‘B’ squad – junior varsity, or the ‘A’ squad – full fledged Intercollegiate sports. All those cadets who are not good enough to compete at the intercollegiate level must compete in intramural sports. Every cadet is an athlete every year, apart from required gymnasium.

 

The fundamental importance of competitive sports at West Point was underscored when General Douglas MacArthur was the Superintendent 1919 to 1922 he stated:

 

"On the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that on other days and other fields will bear the fruits of victory."

 General Douglas McArthur

 

 

That is inscribed over the entrance to the original Gymnasium at West Point.

 

In other words competitive athletics are preparations for officers in winning modern wars. Long gone are military commissions' based only on wealth, family status, or politics. But a winning competitive spirit and will to win.  

And West Point sports range from the well known football to the lesser known squash and handball, as well as some sports I had never seen such as lacrosse. Which I had never seen growing up in Colorado. But which I found myself plunged into.

I was not big enough for varsity football, but someone noticed I had great endurance while running. I didn’t know enough about Lacrosse to realize I might make a good ‘midfielder’ – who have to run hard from one end of the field to another, repeatedly, in the constantly-running game - setting up defense, or at the other end, attacking.

While I barely knew how to handle the lacrosse stick and carry the hard rubber ball without dropping it, if I could scoop it up from the ground, or intercept a pass, I got the hang of it pretty quickly.

The east coast powerhouses, where the game was developed by Indian tribes, were Johns Hopkins and Maryland. Cadets from the eastern seaboard usually knew and played the game in high-school, if not college. One classmate of mine was pretty good – Bill Lamdin, whom I met decades later at Fort Carson.

And so I found myself on the B-Squad plebe year, largely to oppose the A-Squad players and give them a real workout. What I did not know was that one way the big Army Football linemen kept in shape off-season was to play lacrosse, and especially against the B-Squad.

I realized what I was in for the first season when I was running the length of the field having scooped up the ball and as I closed in on the goal no less than All-American, 220 pound football player Dan Foldberg was playing defense, carrying a very short lacrosse stick right in front of the goal. Before I even got a shot off  he blocked me right out from in front of the net and could have flattened me coming down on my helmet with that stick.

Needless to say I never made the ‘A’ Squad in Lacrosse.   

Track was more my kind of college sport.

Next West Point 6

 

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