December 3, 1976
New York City — I have this recurring dream, sometimes it’s a nightmare, in which I’m back at West Point, still a cadet. All kinds of weird things are going on, like in a regular dream. Real people and real faces from the past are mixed with an imaginary assortment of people and faces I’ve never seen before. Events swirl in a high speed merry-go-round of anxiety, a spinning place gone out of control, threatening to leave the face of the earth like a giant flying saucer and become a place apart, physically and psychologically. A thousand demands are made. Nothing can get done on time. If I shine my shoes and clean the room and make sure there are name tags on all my T-shirts and don’t study, I’ll flunk the fluids test tomorrow; but if I study and kiss-off all the other stuff, I’ll get written up and lose weekend privileges. Every decision is a dead-end street. Nothing goes right. The whole world is Post Finance, and they’ve lost my records.
Often the dream isn’t a nightmare at all. It’s an immensely interesting place to beg and the urge to remain asleep and allow the dream to run its course is irresistible. Sometimes the cat will jump up on the bed and bat me in the face and I’ll wake up, aware of myself as a guy asleep on Houston Street and a character in a dream at the same time. Then I’ll drop back on the pillow, and the dream will take off again right where it left off. People come and go at a leisurely pace. Time passes slowly. Relationships with others are formed, and they grow. Lessons are learned. Interiors are exposed, fears, feelings of pain and love and friendship and hatred, psychic peaks and plateaus and valleys. Roots surface. Secret leaves drop. Dreaming this dream is like living inside the body of every character in it. I feel the real feelings of the regimental commander. I peek behind his stiff posture and find a stoop-shouldered boy who would rather read books and listen to Judy Collins than lead men. I peek inside myself and find someone else. He thinks he knows it all, acts impulsively, fights the system, gets in trouble, and he doesn’t even know who he is.
Whether it’s merely a dream or a savage nightmare, there always comes a moment when I, the character in my own dream, wonder if somehow it all couldn’t have been different. Then the guy who is someone else makes a decision. The decision is to crank things up and push on, like putting a hammer to a star drill on granite. Invariably, the events which surround the decision have an ugly edge on them. Yet there are no heroics. There isn’t even any pain or fear. It’s really kind of a let-down. I have never been awakened at this moment, a dreamer with stage fright (though once in awhile I have wished it were so). In the end, nothing changes. Even in a dream, life at West Point resists change.
This moment of decision begets within me, in the dream, a viscous sense of longing. I remember the feeling. It’s the way I always felt as a kid when we would leave one Army post for another. Picture yourself standing at the rear of a train, watching your home town disappear in the distance, becoming smaller and smaller at the end of the silvery tracks. Every post was, however briefly, a home town, and leaving was always the same. You had the feeling something was being taken from you, but you didn’t know what it was, or who was taking it. So you keep your chin up, and you pretend it doesn’t matter. But secretly, you wish you could stay.
In the dream, after the decision is made, everything turns upside-down. I’m a leader, and I think I’m doing the right thing, but I’m called in and accused of fostering discontent within the company. I am ordered “not to be friends” with certain cadets. The whole thing is so confusing. It’s as if there are two of me, one living the life and the other watching and wondering, forever wondering, not if things are right or wrong, but if somehow life itself could be bent so that things are better. The experience in the dream is eerie, an out-of-body separateness not even drugs, in real life, will ever induce.
In the morning after one of these dreams, I’m always depressed, sad to have learned once again in a lesson taught by the subconscious that one may lie to oneself about experience for only so long, and then the dues collector — “truth,” or “fate,” or “God” — catches up with you, and you’re had.
A close friend of mine pointed out recently that the word “God” has crept into my writing with increasing frequency in the past couple of years. I hadn’t noticed. You know how you can do something absentmindedly, like washing the dishes, not really focusing on what you’re doing. You can write the same way. My friend reminded me that there are things none of us will ever understand, and when I come up against them, I haul out “God” and splash him on the page with my typewriter keys. It’s a comforting notion. Thanks, God.
What I’m admitting to here in my usual long rambling lead is a peculiar kind of narcissism, a dual obsession, on the one hand with West Point, and on the other with myself. I’ve always had a cranked-up, high-speed, low-on-efficiency-but-full-of-gas self image. In junior high, I was “conceited,” in high school, “egotistic,” at West Point, I had what was known an a “bad attitude.” This was roughly defined as believing oneself to be at least as important as the institution, and just possibly more so. All of these descriptions were accurate. In fact, the image that sticks in my mind when I think of the last 15 years of my life is the automobile. I loved cars. I wanted a ’49 Ford, then I wanted a ‘57 Chevy, then a T-bird, then a GTO. Once I scoured the pages of the Sunday Times sports section for a 1955 Mercedes Benz 300-SL Gullwing sports car. The only hot car I ever owned, however, was a 1964 Pontiac Bonneville Sport Coupe, used. It was a beauty. Over two tons of slate gray slab-side, the beast had a 400 cubic inch engine developing 350 horsepower, electric windows, power steering, power brakes, air conditioning, a reverb radio, and a six-way power seat. I owned it back in 1971, when it was uncool even to own a car. I mean, people who had to have wheels were into Volvos and used VW buses, and they worried a lot about exhaust emissions. My Pontiac was a rolling symbol of everything excessive and wasteful about America. I bought it for $200, worked on it for two weeks, got everything running right, new brakes and radial tires. Then late at night I used to jump in the front seat, put the hammer down, screaming along Route 22 across New Jersey, slipstreaming the dawn. The headlights poked the darkness, and at 80 miles per hour, the dashboard glowed like a turquoise sunset across the inside of the car. With the windows rolled up, the air-conditioning turned on and the reverb radio blasting Top 40 rock and roll, anything seemed possible. High speed driving sustained the notion.
Yet somewhere inside me inside the Bonneville inside the night, I knew it was all over. I would spend the next few years running in high gear, but after those nights in the Pontiac, when I’d drive and drive and drive until finally I’d pull over and pass out in the front seat somewhere east of Pittsburgh or maybe south of Wheeling, somehow after that, everything was different. Sure, I still like to drive, I’m still basically a night person, I still like loud music and the instant adrenaline of speed. But working on this foundation study of the West Point class of 1969, going back and talking to all these guys, I have come to know something about myself which was in that dream all along.
I guess that’s why I’m writing this newsletter, to answer the unspoken question in the eyes of the guys with whom I have spoken: Christ, Truscott, why? Why did you freak out and abuse drugs, be accused of insubordination, leaving the Army in disgrace, a black mark against the Academy, the Army, against those who put their trust in you, against the good Army name, Truscott?
This is not something which has come easily to me, for as anyone who knows me is aware, I have always delighted in being different, a person apart from all others, my own man. And so it will come as a surprise to those of you in the class of 1969 who are reading this, that some place deep inside me I have always wanted to be just like you. In a way, I’m writing this newsletter for myself, to get things straight (or at least less crooked) in my mind before going ahead with the rest of this examination of our class. But on a deeper level, I’m writing this just for you, because you deserve to know my secret truth. I have yearned, over the years, to have been ordinary, just a guy, somebody who possibly went steady in high school, got decent grades, maybe played a little footba11, went to West Point, graduating wondering which direction was “up” like everybody else, was a platoon leader, company commander, battalion staffer, growing older, balder, and maybe, just maybe, like so many of the guys I have interviewed, a bit wiser. To me, that’s ordinary, and there’s a big piece of me that wishes things would have turned out that way.
It’s not an easy story to tell. There are many twists and turns, most of them, ironically, not different but classical in nature. And the funny thing is this: After everything I’ve done, the only thing I feel really guilty about is not having known myself better along the way. For even as I seemed to have taken the most steadfast of stands, the most stiff-necked of positions, I was deceiving myself as well as those with whom I came in contact. This is not to say that I acted “radical” when actually I felt “conservative.” Nothing is that simple.
In a way, typically, I want to admit to my secret yearning to be ordinary as a reaction to what I perceive to be the mass-marketing of madness that’s going on today. One need only turn on the television to “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” to experience the selling of craziness. We’re supposed to yak it up as she and Gore Vidal discuss a TV special within the confines of her ward in a mental institution. In past years, the occasional foray into this forbidden nightmare world has always had a certain cultish attraction. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest when it was first published, comes to mind, as does Fred Exley’s incredible memoir/novel, A Fan’s Notes. We could identify with the protagonists of those books, and the value of such identification was that it taught us something about ourselves. But today, we are expected not to laugh with Mary Hartman, but at her as she mutters her way along walls within her presumed madness, clad only in flowered bathrobe and blank stare.
In the pages of national magazines like Rolling Stone, New Times, and OUI (all three of which I have worked for) we are treated to the pathetic spectacle of Brian Wilson, the Beach Boy, emerging from four years spent lying on his bed in his bedroom, abusing various drugs and generally not agreeing to cope with the real world, now granting interviews right and left, seemingly bragging about the years he presaged in the great Beach Boys song he wrote, In My Room. Only months ago, everyone even remotely associated with Wilson seemed intent on squelching the rumors and hiding the fact that the most brilliant Beach Boy of them all was a fat, lonely zombie. Yet Wilson’s interviews all have the hollow ring of promotion to them — not his own promotion, but that which is being urged upon him by those who stand to make a buck off him. Brian Wilson has become the Panda Bear of the craziness craze, and the tape recorder has become his zoo. The marvelous mysteries which lie behind the incredibly intricate and undeniably brilliant harmonics of Good Vibrations and the great Beach Boys album Pet Sounds, on the whole the work of Brian Wilson, have been reduced to stupidly transparent analysis by a New Journalism which would be better off left on the tape cassette. Today people seem to desire not mystery, but solutions. The popularity of pop magazines like People should be evidence enough of the atavistic hunger of the masses for pop-culture trivia.
My point here in that we get what we deserve. As a nation, we have become obsessed with examining the livers of the celebrities who seem to symbolize our culture at the expense of any questioning of the motives and methods by which we live our lives. It’s easy to pop the occasional Valium, or tipple the extra martini, secure in the knowledge that so-and-so, the TV star, was just busted toting a full bottle of methaquaalone. The effect of trivia is a tranquilizing one. And the weirder the trivia, the more calming its effect. Everyone seems to be looking for an excuse for the little black hole in one’s soul which so burns the eye if it is glimpsed. Truth be told, we deserve our national disgraces, our Watergates, our assassinations, our pay-offs and cover-ups. Richard Nixon and his 26 years of public life is only one example of the fact that try as we may, we have no excuses.
In retrospect, the West Point dictum we were taught on the first day of Beast Barracks, so easily attacked from the Left, too easily accepted by the Right, seems to have merits “No excuse, Sir,” we were told, was one of our “four answers,” the other three being “Yes, Sir,” “No, Sir,” and “Sir, I do not know.” There were millions of answers at West Point, of course, and no one really believed the dictum. It was simply accepted as part of the game. Life at West Point was a game. Nothing was for real. Nothing was forever. Everything was pretend. We frequently used the phrase, “play the game,” in order to describe what was necessary, as Plebes, to survive, and as upperclassmen, to succeed.
I didn’t play the game. I had plenty of excuses for this decision which I made, most prominent among them the belief that I was “different.”
So let me tell you about my belief that I was different from you. Let me sketch the career of the guy whose grandfather’s portrait still hangs in Grant Hall, one of two in that august place who were “non-grads.” I say sketch, because I’m going to bounce and touch here and there, no particular emphasis intended, like the little daubs of paint in a painting by Cezanne. So stand mentally across the room and cast a critical eye. This newsletter is a room in my own personal museum.
When I was a sophomore in high school in Leavenworth, Kansas, I was an honors student and number one in the class in ROTC (then mandatory), a member of the Honor Guard. I was gung-ho. I was hot. I was a squad leader with the worst squad in the company. I turned them into finalists in the school drill competition. I had a guy in my squad whose father was a four-time loser, in the federal pen for the fourth and final time. The kid had done a year at “B.I.S.” Boy’s Industrial School, the notorious reform school in south Kansas. I taught him to snap an M-1 rifle around better than any cadet I ever knew in four years at the Academy. That squad was mine. He was mine. If I said drop, he asked, “how many?” He stood about six inches taller than me and outweighed me fifty pounds. We got along fine. He saved my life one night in downtown Leavenworth outside Teen-Town, just as I was about to be stomped by a half-dozen guys I had tangled with earlier in the week at a bowling alley. I won the Chicago Tribune Award for Leadership in high school ROTC that year. I was sixteen.
We moved to Carlisle, Pennsylvania. No ROTC there. I let my grades slip, spent most of my time working odd jobs after school. My one great accomplishment was that I broke the school record for the 25 foot rope climb. This earned me a berth on the track team. I went to all the “away” meets. I was assistant to the team physical therapist, and I ran mop-up leg on our losing mile-relay team. The day after school let out, I took off on a bicycle trip which took me 2,000 miles across the country with Fritz Lash, a friend who would later become a classmate of ours. We were gone two months. We had a ball. Fritz wrote a column about the trip for his local newspaper. I did a lot of thinking, riding a steady 10 miles per hour west on old U.S. 40. I was seventeen.
We moved to Alexandria, Virginia. I went to Mount Vernon Senior High School. I took a job as a clothing salesman in a small men’s store, and arranged to get out of school early for the job. I earned $22 a week, big money in those days. I drank a lot of beer in Georgetown. I was an A-Team-debater, and beat the Virginia state champ in the state prelims (losing later). Debate gave me all the trimmings of leadership, the finishing touches, and none of the necessary wisdom. I was good on my feet. I could sell both Hart Schaffner and Marx suits and big ideas. Patsy T. Mink, the freshman Congresswoman from Hawaii, appointed me to West Point. I was qualified medically, physically, and academically. I received no extraordinary pressure from either of my parents to go to West Point. I did not get along very well with my father. My mother “understood” me as only mothers can. When the time came, I was simply prepared to go. When I think about it now, I guess the best reason I had for going to West Point was that I had never thought about going anywhere else. My paternal grandfather was a four-star general. My maternal grandfather was a retired Engineer colonel and a grad. My father was a grad. My uncle was a grad. I was eighteen.
Before I left for West Point in June, I went to visit my grandfather, the general, who was dying in Walter Reed hospital. I had always known him as Grandpa, but really he was The General. If there was one person in all the world I wanted to be like, it was him. He was a man for all time, a man who knew diplomats and kings, presidents and persons wealthy and wonderful beyond all powers of my imagination. He grew up in the Army with Patton, when they were lieutenants and captains in the Cavalry. They played polo together, gave parties together, raised hell together. By legend, they symbolized the Army of the 20’s and 30’s in the same way Fitzgerald and Hemingway symbolized the lifestyle of the literary intellectuals of that time. He knew Churchill, he was close friends with DeGaulle, Eisenhower, Bradley, Marshall. He was amazing.
And all these amazing men, from the sergeant who was his driver throughout the war (after whom he nicknamed me a private nickname only he used: “Bull”) through the generals and royalty of post-war Europe, and men of whom I had never heard, such as Richard Helms — all of them would come to his house in suburban Washington to visit and sit on his screen porch in the afternoons and sip warm martinis and listen to The General. Through his incredible life, from rural Texas and Oklahoma to the command of two Armies during World War II, he had retained a queer individualism, a stately yet weird, rebel aura that was reflected, I learned, in his innovative military tactics, in the way he captained a polo team, in his manner of dealing with superiors, contemporaries, and subordinates. This individualism extended, I found, to the fact that few meals — and not one supper I can recall — were served in his house that he didn’t help cook. Then he would preside over the meal in coat and tie (often worn over old Army khakis), letting out a bellowing “Now let joy be unrestrained!” before anyone was allowed to take a bite. He was the unquestioned leader of a family in which there was no lack of hierarchy, and his word was law. But he seemed to spend equal quantities of time in the kitchen, garden, carpentry workroom, and study. He took equal pride in the nuance of the taste of a dish, in the turn of a phrase, in the grip of a hammer, in the turn of a shovel. Looking back, I remember him best as man who seemed to equalize those aspects of life which were not popularly accepted as equal. He was always The General, sure. But to me, as a kid, he was more than that. He was a statesman of family as well as country. He was a man to whom the kitchen was not a place to stoop, but a place in which to create.
But in June of 1965, he was dying. Like many great men who spent themselves in command of armies or in control of countries, men who made the decisions which spent the lives of other menm dying was a long, ugly process. It was as if he were being taxed for having tried to preserve civilization in an uncivilized manner. He lay in the hospital, plugged into every machine they had. If ever I had entertained notions of calling a halt to the conveyor belt I seemed to be riding to West Point, they ended at his bedside. More than anything in his life, he told me, he had wanted to go to West Point. Sam Houston’s grandson beat him out for the congressional nomination. He was, at the time, a graduate of the eighth grade, and the teacher in the same one-room schoolhouse where he completed the eighth grade. It was the last formal education he would receive. He told me he had spent his life following the example set for him by the son who called West Point’s motto, “Duty, Honor, Country,” their own. It had been his motto, too, he said.
When I arrived at West Point, a letter he had written me from his bed in Walter Rood was waiting for me. In an almost illegible scrawl, the letter said all the things he had told me in the hospital. I could still see him in my mind, one finger over the hole in his neck, wheezing out the words in a strangely high-pitched yet forceful screech. His thoughts jumped quickly through the letter, from pride in his grandson to remembrances of Texas when he was 18 years old, and on through his life in that quick stream of consciousness, that meeting of oneself as if for the first time which is dying. I remember reading that letter, sitting alone at my desk after Taps, the lamp pulled down tight against the desktop so as not to reveal too much illegal light. The letter had been handed to me four days earlier by two sneering upperclassmen who wanted to know if it was from my girlfriend.
I could still see him leaning back against a stack of pillows on that stark white bed, skinny and half-naked his head jerking from side to side like a baby’s, tubes running from his nose and neck to machines which chugged obscenely at his bedside. My grandmother would have been at his side as he wrote the letter, helping to hold the page, moving his glasses back up on his nose when they slipped.
He whispered his legacy across the page in an almost pathetic last grasp at immortality. I knew they were the last words I would hear from him. I knew how strongly he felt the pull of pride in his country, his feeling for duty and honor, all of which were symbolized for him by West Point. I loved that old man, yet I resented that letter. I was sometimes so proud to be his grandson, it hurt. But his letter, and my sitting in the llth Division of Central Barracks, meant that part of my life belonged to him and his memory. Ultimately it had been my decision to go to West Point, but there was more to it than that. Part of me belonged to the legacy he had passed on to me; part of it belonged to the things he believed in, the principles by which he had lived his great life. Part of my life, in essence, belonged to West Point.
The thought tore me apart, ripped at my guts until the light from the lamp flickered and swam before my eyes, and with fists clenched and tears flowing, I climbed back in bed, resolved not to tell anyone about the letter. It was something I would live with in my own way. I slipped stiffly between the taut sheets and thought again of his gaunt figure on that hospital bed, wished there in the dark of room 1144 that he wouldn’t die, wished that he would live so that someday I could tell him of my dreams as he had told me of his. And then I indulged myself in memories of growing up among his books and papers and memorabilia downstairs in his study, at his arm on the screen porch, at his elbow in the garden, listening to the kinds of stories books are written about. It was the Fourth of July. He died two months later.
As a Plebe, especially during Beast Barracks, I had it knocked. I knew the manual of arms better than most upperclassmen. I could march, I could spit-shine shoes, I had taken bayonet training and the daily dozen in ROTC. I got in my share of Plebe trouble, but mostly, a guy who had been to the West Point Prep School and I helped the rest of our squad struggle through Beast.
Then “the regular year,” as it was know, came along, academics began, and by virtue of the fact that I lived two doors from the Regimental Commander, I became his clerk, virtually immune (as were my roommates, assistant clerk and runner) to company duties and the normal rigors of Plebe life. This did not sit well with classmates in company D-3, nor did it tickle the fancy of the upperclassmen. But we were effectively insulated, and inevitably, I began to drift. During my free time on weekends, I went over to the sound rooms at the library and listened to records and read. The rest of the guys were into groups like The Association, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, or maybe if they were really far-out, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. I listened to Dylan, Them (featuring then-unknown Van Morrison), the first Paul Butterfield Blues Band album, the Blues Project, the Fugs, some Thelonius Monk, and I had every Otis Redding album, most of James Brown’s. When we went to New York for football and basketball games, afterwards I visited the Apollo Theatre and the Five Spot Cafe.
I wrote letters, dozens of them, to anyone I could think of. Like many college freshmen, I indulged in poetry. Here. I’ll show you a poem I wrote on the train on the way to the Air Force game in Chicago in the fall of 1965. The original copy, pulled from my files, has no title.
Face cold and hard
Gallops by —
Piled high —
A protest placard
A catcall at America.
It screams: “Look at me!
Turn around, come back;
I’m the life you never see
On the other side of the tracks.”
On the train
Shiny cars, soul-savers
The same in person
At the unsightly sight they see —
Factories, smoke, lumberyards reek
With odors unkind to the nose;
The shantytown no one knows —
Dark bodies in the shadows
White palms waving to the train
Someone’s sly grin
“Look what they live in”
He doesn’t know the pain.
Still cold and hard
In the night
Moonlit and starred —
A mockery of Democracy
And the “Great Society”
In the lean,
The extraneous lard;
Through all time
In a nursery rhyme.
I met a girl at the Air Force game, and she became my new girlfriend. I broke up with my old girlfriend, from high school, during Christmas leave. When we returned to West Point, I wanted to quit, for a lot of good reasons, like a lot of other homesick Plebes. And look what was going through my head back then, before the popularization of movements, before the common warmth of shared feelings like that stuff in the poem. But I didn’t quit, like a lot of other guys who were probably thinking the same private thoughts. My friend, Ed Rehkopf, currently a civilian and the manager of the Thayer Hotel, comes to mind. All things taken together, I guess I was a pretty normal Plebe, except for the state of my health, which left me, after the year, with a sense of vulnerability I was not soon to forget.
I was hospitalized for a week in the Fall with bronchitis. Then two weeks later I came down with double pneumonia and spent a month in the hospital. I was sent to Walter Reed in May, suspected to be harboring a brain tumor because I experienced frequent vertigo problems. They ran me through all the tests, all the way to the neumoencephalogram, where they bubble sterilized air into your cranial cavity through your spinal column, and strapped down, shoot X-rays of the old gray matter through the air-bubble. A hideous, painful experience, memorialized recently in a grisly scene in “The Exorcist.” On my way back to West Point, I was laid up for three days in a hospital at Fort Dix waiting for a plane. The guy in the bed next to me, a young Marine my age, died of leukemia, hemorrhaging and convulsing and spewing blood from his mouth and ear, as we sat there watching a track meet on television. I lay in bed that night, remembering waking up from a four day, 104 degree coma when I had pneumonia, and being told later that I came rather close to dying in my sleep. I recall resolving never to react derisively to anyone’s request to go on sick call, as was the macho attitude in those days. It was June, and Plebe year was over, I was nineteen.
Yearling year passed almost without incident. There were these exceptions:
I began reading a lot of books, and to my surprise, discovered Ideas.
I subscribed to the Village Voice and began writing letters to the editor, which the Voice, Dan Wolf’s tongue in his cheek, published. The tone of my letters was firmly conservative, and I frequently took issue with the rantings of people like Jerry Rubin, whom you will recall was convinced he was going to lead a revolution of the white middle class youth of America against their parents, colleges, and government. Ten years later, we all know how revolutionary was the young white middle class. Just ask your stockbroker.
I became friends with Gary Moyer and Rich Hubshman, two First Classmen who were not held in the highest esteem by their classmates or the Tactical Department. Moyer and Hubshman, with whom I used to discuss the profundities of such questionable texts as the Tolkien Trilogy (Lord of the Rings, etc.) were the cadets I was ordered “not to be friends with,” an order I pointedly refused to obey. It was the first time in my experience as a cadet that I was caused to reflect on the basic wisdom of an order coming from the establishment at the Academy, and reject it.
I rejected my least-loved academic subject, chemistry, finishing the course somewhere in the bottom ten in the class. With class standing in the top third in other subjects, I was interviewed near the end of the year by a member of the Chemistry Department faculty. He wanted to know about my apparent lack of affection for the subject. When I responded to his question, “Don’t you care about Chemistry?” in the negative, I was reported for the disciplinary offense, “lack of judgement,” an accusation with which I would remain well acquainted. I was awarded a 15 and 20, and prophetically walked off my last hours on the area with Hubshman in the days immediately preceding June Week. I carried a small City Lights Books edition of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in my hat, and chanted verses to Hubshman as we passed each other on the area. We memorized most of the poem during those 20 hours together on the area.
I discovered there was a tendency towards a kind of rudimentary Zen meditation walking the area, M14 rifle perched upon the shoulder. Surely it was the intention of the Tactical Department that a punished cadet become enlightened in some primitive way as he trudged from one side of Central Area to the other in the hot sun. Presumably, one left punishment tours with a sense of resolve about the offense one had allegedly committed. This was certainly the case with me, however, I’m not sure that what I resolved on the area was exactly what the Tactical Department had in mind. I lost my sense of dedication to the goals of the Academy. I mean, I could have told that chemistry professor that the subject simply confounded me, which it did. But being punished because I told him, honestly, that chemistry just wasn’t my cup of tea? Something was amiss, I figured, in a system which punished raw honesty, and would have rewarded the half-baked answer. I could have floated with the response that the subject had me confused and confounded. I was twenty, and I had discovered righteousness.
In July, I went on Army Orientation Training, the frequently misnamed “third lieutenant” program, to Fort Knox where I served for a month as Executive Officer of an Armor Advanced Individual Training company. I taught all the company classes, got a lot of good training, had some fun, learned a bit. Like the time a PFC walked into my office and said, “Sir, I need some help. I got a girl pregnant.” No problem, I said. We’ll get you a three day pass on Friday, you can go home, make her an honest woman, and be back in an M-60 tank on Monday. “But you don’t understand,” he said in a thick, Kentucky hills accent. “She’s my sister.” He was, I found, part of “Project 100,000,” the Army’s ill-fated attempt to relax its draft qualification levels in order to provide more grist for the mill that was Vietnam in the slimmer of 1967.
Pay for those trainees was something like $89 per month. I had mixed emotions on the day after payday when 15 to 20 guys from the company came back from the PX wearing “jump boots” just like mine, wanting to know how I got such a good spit shine, their eyes full of admiration for the young cadet who had captured their imaginations with his shiny boots and starched fatigues and stiff, yet understanding, military bearing. The boots, I learned, had cost each of them about one-third of a month’s pay.
In August, I went home to Leavenworth, Kansas, where I worked as a volunteer in the local Neighborhood Youth Corps federal poverty program. Half the kids in the program were kids I had gone to high school with five years before. They were drop-outs, and every one black. In July, there had been savage riots in downtown Newark, and there was a good deal of fear even in a town the size of Leavenworth (40,000) that the “long, hot summer” wasn’t over yet.
I couldn’t figure out why my girlfriend who went to school in Chicago was spending her whole summer vacation, the entire three months, getting ready for her sorority “rush week” in September. I mean, things were happening. We broke up. Slowly, my eyes were opening to the world which lay outside the confines of the Army posts on which I had grown up. Not incidentally, I had a dalliance with the evil weedy marijuana, a substance with which I was already familiar, having made its acquaintance as a high school sophomore while hanging out with some local hoods. The stuff grew along the roadsides in Kansas. Not that marijuana significantly changed my perception of the world around me, for it did not. Even then, I did not subscribe to the popular notion that smoking grass was a revolutionary act. It got you high, and high, things looked and sounded clearer, closer, more simple, in a way. But nothing had changed. Nothing was different, if you get the distinction. Different wasn’t a state of mind, it was a way of being.
Anyway, having taken the smoke once again, I probably should have resigned from West Point when I returned in the Fall. But in a perverse way, I was drawn to the place as never before. For the first time, West Point had become interesting. The idea that the Military Academy was not just a college, but a “way of life” now had meaning. It was almost as if I had to become aware of other ways of life in order to appreciate what West Point represented to America. It was a place which symbolized perfection, but was not itself perfect. In short, the United States Military Academy, home of the Honor Code, was living a lie. Or so I had concluded. I go back through copies of letters I wrote during that time, and I can see the outlines of my thinking taking shape. For the first time, I was curious about what made West Point tick. I had the germ of an idea that at the heart of the Academy was power, power as exercised by one individual over another, and power as exercised by the institution over the individual. What they were teaching us at West Point, I concluded, was the dynamics of power. All the other stuff, chemistry, juice, calculus, tactics, the social sciences — they were merely disciplines around which the subtleties of power revolved, like electrons around the nucleus of an atom. The word would never be uttered from the lips of a professor or the in the rantings of a tactical officer, but it filled the air at the Military Academy like a wet fog rising from the banks of the Hudson. For a long time I have wondered why so many of our classmates have ended up in law school — a loose estimate is about 75 — and why so many of them have done so well, editors of law reviews, managing editors, presiding judges of moot courts and the like. Now I know. Besides the practical wisdom of four or five years of the “real world” outside college, they carried with them into the discipline of law, the social, political and practical mechanism by which power is exercised in this country, the sneaky subtleties of power which were slipped to us under the counter of America at West Point.
I recently read a magazine article in which a friend of mine, a rather well known journalist, asked the questions whatever happened to the American Dream? I’ll tell you what happened to it. The American Dream, toyed with by politicians, worshiped as a pagan god by bad novelists, an obsession of thinkers like my friend the famous journalist, is alive and well on the banks of the Hudson fifty miles up-river from New York. The American Dream should never be treated as an abstract concept. It has always been, and will always be, embedded in the psychic substrata of people. Institutions like West Point have always understood this basic truth of American life. Human beings, not machines or computers or animals, have dreams. The American Dream is power, and power is worshiped at the Military Academy not as an abstract concept, but as a living, breathing being which can propagate itself in the nearly hermetically sealed environment of West Point as it can almost nowhere else. Every time a nobody becomes a somebody, the American Dream is realized, and it happens every day at West Point.
Fascination with power is one thing, however, and its exercise quite another. I was amused as a cadet to read Norman Mailer, in his excellent book about the peace march on the Pentagon, The Armies of the Night, refer to himself as a general-writer, marching word-soldiers across the page. The image is a romantic one, and of course, he was monkeying, as Mailer is wont to do, with the age-old notion of the pen being mightier than the sword. Yet what gave Mailer’s notion of himself as a general-writer strength, I believe, was some deep, inner knowledge that command of letters and command of men are profoundly different. Mailer is an incurable romantic, but he is no fool. My amusement at Mailer’s metaphor has tempered into admiration. He knew something I didn’t. But I was getting there at my own speed, just as I’ll bring this rambling digression back under control, at my own speed.
I guess it was Cow year that I decided to cash my check as a cadet and start playing the game by a different, as yet undetermined, set of rules. I had no idea what I was going to do, but I knew that I didn’t like the system the way it existed then. If you played the game right, you studied hard, you did your job (as a Cow, it was squad leader) and you ran for the third year in a kind of third rate high school popularity contest which was the aptitude system. One was rated by one’s peers and one’s superiors, and these ratings were elaborated upon by the tactical officer, and finally, one became a number. Number one was tops. Number 30, if there were 30’guys in your class in your company, was bottoms. To compound dignity or disgrace, one found oneself in the top fifth, the third fifth, the bottom fifth, wherever.
As if being reduced from a person to a number were not enough, the system was so designed that the top numbers were rewarded, as First Classmen, with commands, and the bottom numbers were seemingly punished for not having played the game well. Thus if you ended up in one of the two bottom fifths, you were perceived to be lacking in leadership traits, and you would become a file closer (a nothing), or a training sergeant (a nothing with a title).
There is logic here, and there is irony. The Military Academy, worshipful of power, rewarded those who learned to wield it the West Point way. However, the Academy, having identified those who would graduate in a year’s time lacking in leadership ability, had consciously formed a system to insure that these individuals received no further active duty experience in leadership positions. In effect, the elite corps within the Army represented by West Pointers had secured within itself a smaller, more elite inner core: those who played the game well at West Point could be counted on to continue playing the game well as officers. Power was propagating power. There is within this closed system a kind of primitive instinct, such as that found in the lower primates, for survival and a continuation of the species at any cost. Institutionally, this translates into preservation of the status quo, and ultimately, into preservation of the Academy itself, preservation of its place within the Army and with American society at large. Did West Point see itself in 1967-68 symbolically as a virtually cornered rat? With anti-war and anti-military feelings on the rise in America, the image had more than a breath of authenticity. It had the dead ring of truth. Still, one wondered.
There was only one way to find out: test the system. I was by now in a new company, H-3, formed to contain an expanded Corps of Cadets. We had a new tactical officer. We had a new regimental commander. His name was Colonel Alexander M. Haig, Jr. I remember him well. He was a soldier’s soldiers a man’s man. When he took over the Third Regiment, he brought down the hammer and brought it down hard. Everything was going to be perfect in Haig’s regiment. To set the examples Haig decided that his regiment would march with thumbs pointed stiffly towards the ground alongside the index finger, which was to be curled, along with all other fingers, precisely and stiffly at the first knuckle. Haig attended meal formation after meal formation, parade after parade, occasionally plucking from a company some poor schmuck to give him a little extra instruction, in finger-curl and thumb-point, in front of the entire regiment. This routine went on for weeks, Haig pacing the sidelines of one formation after another, his gloves clasped tightly in his left hand, striking his left thigh time and time again. In those moments of quiet at supper formation, when orders were not being reads and commands weren’t being barked, you could hear him even if you couldn’t see him. Click. Click. Click. The taps on the heels of his shoes hit the concrete. Slap. Slap. Slap. His gloves caressed his thigh.
I was amazed by Haig. I sensed in him something special, something powerful, and finally, something sinister. He had an unusually casual way with cadets in a one-on-one situation, calling many by nicknames he seemed to pluck from a bottomless pit of snappy, wisecrackish handles. It was not long before I became acquainted with him. He called me “Mr. T.” And he confided one afternoon, in a relaxed moment, without probing from me, that his apparent obsession with pointed thumbs and curled fingers was merely his way of “putting his signature” upon his unit. Indeed, his method was effective. Haig had a feel for the weaknesses of man which I have never encountered since.
We were having problems with the Plebes in company H-3. They seemed vaguely out of control. It was difficult to put one’s finger on it, but something was wrong. Specifically, there were two Plebes who were so uncoordinated and out-of-sorts and generally frightened that even their own classmates picked on them. Then there was a “cool crowd” who thought they were too good to be Plebes. Let the other guys, the dingbats who had problems, take all the gas. There was a cadet phrase, “all over it,” which described the attitude. The situation, as several other classmates and I read it, was potentially explosive. A dichotomy had formed in the Plebe class within the company, and it wasn’t just untenable, it was dangerous.
You must realize here that Plebes were about 18 years old, a few older. Many colleges have established huge mental health facilities to deal with the problems of young people away from home for the first time. At West Point, cadets were expected to fend for themselves, and for each other. This was, in fact, a major function of Plebe year. For if this much criticized and frequently reformed system was meant to have a single effect, it was to act as an equalizer. These guys came from all over the country, the sons of bankers and farmers; presidents of high school honor societies and guys who barely managed the academic bottom line; all-state football players and guys who had trouble doing ten pull-ups; black and white and brown and Protestant and Catholic and Jewish; from all 50 states according to their representation in Congress; guys who could shine shoes, and the guys who just couldn’t. Plebe year was supposed to boil them down into one soup: Plebe. It didn’t taste very good, from the bottom of that bowl, all would start from Zero. Whether or not the system at West Point was corrupt and you’re hearing from one of the system’s loudest and longest critics, at least there was the goal that rich or poor, dumb or smart, hot-stuff or totally at loose ends, all Plebes would at least initially be equals. This was the ideal. Like most ideals, it was difficult to achieve, and infrequently met.
When I got to be a squad leader, I had one of the totally uncoordinated guys in my squad, along with a couple of the cool guys. The dichotomy was right there in front of me, in my squad, so I decided to end it. I figured the little guy (he was a “runt” as well as physically uncoordinated), could be as good as the rest of them. I resolved that the rest of the squad, for the first time, would take as much pressure as he did, so I laid it on in spades, and I knew how to do it. Word got around that I was being unnecessarily harsh on the Plebes. Nobody bothered to ask me why I was turning up the heat, or whether it was being applied equally. The First Classmen in the company decided that I was going about my business all wrong, and so one day I found myself in the office of Colonel Haig, being ordered to “ease up,” and to “do what you’re told.” I told him that I thought there were serious problems in the company, but he wasn’t interested in hearing my analyses. He was interested only in seeing to it that I followed orders, that I knuckled under to the chain of command. That was the way the game was played.
As we parted, I warned him that there was to going to be trouble in H-3. He warned me that there would be trouble for me if he continued to receive bad reports about me. Colonel Haig was not a man to mince words. He told me to get my little fanny back down to the company and straighten up and fly right, stuff like that. Those were words I understood well, even if I didn’t agree with them.
When cadet command details were changed, I lost the squad. In April, one of the cool-guy Plebes was found slumped in a telephone booth in the barracks, passed-out behind pills and vanilla extract (which had a 30% alcohol content, as I recall). His stomach had to be pumped, and he did a few days in the hospital, after which, he was transferred to another company. In May, several Plebes were caught off-post in civilian clothes after Taps with their absence cards marked “authorized,” as if they had just stepped down the hall to the john. This was not just a disciplinary violation of the most blatant sort, it was an honor violation as well. An investigation revealed the startling information that this had been going on for some time, and that most of the Plebes in the company were aware of the fact. Under the Honor Code, they were tolerators, and as guilty as the guilty parties themselves. Well. You can imagine the stink. You can imagine the cover-up. The Plebes who were actually caught off-post were expelled, and the rest of them were generally yelled at and given extra instruction in Honor (like extra instruction in finger-curl and thumb-point). Some Plebes were shifted out of the company.
A footnote to this little saga of the playing and not playing of the games. One of the two uncoordinated Plebes from that year ended up as company commander when he was a Firstie. The other was a cadet lieutenant. What did I say about the American Dream?
In May of 1968, another cadet and I paid an uninvited visit to Colonel Haig, asking to make use of our statutory right to see the Inspector General. We were interested in being excused from compulsory attendance at chapel services, we explained. It was a simple enough request. The regulation was as inappropriate to proper religious worship as it was patently unconstitutional. (It would take a 1971 Supreme Court decision to confirm this rash appraisal of ours). Colonel Haig listened attentively and then sent us packing back down to the barrack, with an admonition never again to raise this issue, if we knew what was good for us. By this time, it must have been as clear to Haig as it was to us that we were not overly concerned about “what was good for us.” Haig’s brief defense of compulsory attendance at chapel was unconvincing. In fact, the interesting thing about his performance in this matter was that he appeared just slightly panicked by our perfectly legal request to see the IG. Was Colonel Haig the proverbial, cornered rat on the chapel issue? Was it a fact that, moreover, his highly regimented regiment was collapsing like a house of cards beneath his personal “signature?”
Indeed, all the indications were there. Already there had been the famous incident involving the Yearlings who were to become known as the “Magnificent Seven.” One cadet had been caught smoking grass, and the Mag-7, as they were affectionately known, were accused of some form of “complicity.” No, they weren’t actually accused of smoking grass, or even of being near the guy who was caught doing it. They were the grass smoker’s best friends. That was enough for Haig. Lacking sufficient evidence to formally accuse them of a disciplinary offense and appropriate punishment, he instead unilaterally withdrew from them their summer leave privileges for the summer of 1968. When one of the Mag-7 asked Haig what he was expected to tell his folks about why he wasn’t coming home on leave, Haig told the bewildered cadet to phone his parents and tell them that they were short on cadets for the Beast Barracks command detail, and he had lost the drawing of straws. Haig told the cadet to tell his parents a lie.
The simple truth about marijuana smoking in the Third Regiment in 1967-68 was that it was widespread. I know. I was a part of the scene. When one enters into a secret pact such as the shared crime of smoking grass at a place like West Point, the word passes quietly, but quickly. One guy I knew spent his summer leaves harvesting grass in Iowa. I figured better than 10% of the regiment was into grass. Those were the guys I knew about or had heard about. Hell, you could hardly go a week without being offered a joint. If it wasn’t a cadet, it was one of the girls you met from surrounding colleges at the Saturday night hop. Anyway, my room had become a kind of regimental clearing house for information about illicit behavior. Reputations have a way of developing. Mine was that of a dissident, but more accurately, I was a one-man underground.
So you can see that Colonel Haig was a smart man. He had me pegged. Without a single shred of verifiable intelligence or evidence, he had smelled me out. I had already turned the corner. I wasn’t playing by the rules. He knew it, and I knew it. In another month, I would be a platoon sergeant in Beast Barracks under Bill Taylor, perhaps the most satisfying experience I had in four years at the Academy. But even then, I could see the gears in Haig’s head turning.
Jesus! Truscott writes letters to the editor of that Greenwich Village rag, the Voice! He even attended last year’s Voice Christmas party, and then had the gall to brag about it! It’s rumored he knows the well-known un-American, Norman Mailer. It’s known he will spend his summer leave in a South Village loft owned by a reporter for the Voice. The guy’s probably a communist by now, full-fledged, card-carrying.
Truth was, I was twenty-one, and enjoying every minute of it. My reputation had become my reward, my identity, my destiny.
Starting on September 5 of First Class year, I got in trouble. I resumed questioning compulsory attendance at chapel by requesting to see the Inspector General, along with my partner from the Spring, and two other cadets who were similarly inclined. I will point out here that though our intentions were noble enough, in truth, we were again bored to death, and began our involvement in a controversy that would end up as a case before the Supreme Court as much for fun as for anything else. It didn’t take long for the fun to fade. We had embroiled ourselves, we were soon to find, in a struggle with stakes much larger than anything we had anticipated.
“You know what’s going on here, Truscott?” Colonel Haig, now the Deputy Commandant, asked me one afternoon during one of our many five p.m. meetings on the subject of chapel. My shoes were neatly shined, my hair neatly combed, my uniform neatly pressed, and I sat across the desk from Haig on the edge of my chair as he continued to bellow. “If chapel falls, the next thing you know, we’re going to have girls in here. And then you know what? They’re going to get a girl cadet pregnant, and we’re going to be into marriage, and married cadet housing, the whole mess. Then you know what we’ve got? We haven’t got West Point anymore. All we’ve got is a goddam college.”
Righteous was our indignation when it became obvious that we were the object of special attention none of it adulatory — from the Tactical Department. What had begun as a mere diversion had become a cause. Battle lines were drawn. I was singled out as the leader of our little band. One night I showed up for my five p.m. conference with Haig, and after our usual lengthy colloquy, during which he accused me of various ills of the Academy, and seemingly, of society at large, he stood up and straightened his tie and buttoned his uniform jacket and walked around the desk and stood before met only inches away. He shook his fist in my face and said, “I’ll get you. I’ll see you out of here one way or another.”
In subsequent weeks, an “aptitude board” was quickly convened and just as quickly dissolved. It was to have examined my aptitude for the service, with an eye towards expulsion from the Academy. Then I was “turned in” on several bogus honor violation charges. It was never made clear to me who my accuser was, for in those days, no provision existed in the honor system for such information to be made known to the accused. But the nature of the “charges” made it clear that Colonel Haig was the accuser at least twice. In each case, an honor subcommittee dismissed the charges as not having merit. Now Haig openly accused me of being “beyond communism.” I always wondered what that actually meant, and began thinking of myself as a young American Trotsky, a breakaway scourge on both houses.
I was determined that Haig would not drive me from the Academy, and in the fury of my determination, I made one gigantic, and in retrospect, classically self-destructive, blunder. A telephone credit card number had been given to me over the summer with the assurance that all calls charged to the number would be covered by the national office of the SDS. From whence SDS funding for such a credit card was coming I did not know, but as I reasoned at the time, who was I to ask? If the SDS wanted to pay for the phone calls made by a cadet who was fighting the good fight against compulsory attendance at chapel, so what?
Needless to say, either the credit card number was a fake, and I the willing dupe of a hoax, or SDS refused to pick up the charges made from a phone booth at the Military Academy. The facts were never made known to me. The phone company contacted me and the other three cadets who had been using the credit card number, and we made restitution for all the calls we had billed to the credit card. Once they had our money, the phone company did its patriotic duty and informed the powers-that-be at the Academy that SDSers were among the student body, and here are their names. It was a moment which had been long awaited. We were quickly charged with “gross lack of judgement,” which surely we had shown. Specifically, I was to blame for the whole mess, and told the Tactical Department as much. Nevertheless, I and one other cadet were “awarded” a 44, 88, and 4 — that is, 44 demerits, 88 hours on the area, walking punishment tours, and four months confinement to barracks. The other two cadets, who were reasoned to have been under our evil influence, received half that punishment.
It was an ignominious end to what I had figured was my finest hour. Not only had we failed in our attempt to topple compulsory attendance at chapel (the IG responded to lengthy complaints with single sentence dismissals), but we had ended up walking the area, during June Week, seven hours every day, a spectacle for the entire Corps of Cadets to see. In fact, Major General Samuel W. Koster, at that time the Superintendent, made a point of referring to us in his final address to the First Class. He told the class we were an example of what happened to “troublemakers” in the Army. Indeed we were. The class presumably took notice. Koster apparently ignored his own advice, for in a little over a year, he was deposed from his post for his part in the cover-up of the massacre at My Lai. Tsk, tsk. Maybe if he had walked the area during June Week as a cadet he might have boned enough character to have known better.
In the end, due to demerits I had received while walking the area (the proverbial Catch 22.of punishment at the Military Academy — once they start flowing, they sure are hard to stop) I was a single demerit over the total allowed per semester, and a “conduct board” was convened to consider my case. The “conduct board” concluded that indeed, I was one demerit over. The case was referred to the Military Academy Academic Board, the body holding the ultimate power to dismiss a cadet. Brigadier General Bernard Rogers, currently Chief of Staff of the Army, then Commandant of Cadets, took an interest in the case. After a series of interviews, which he conducted during June Week while I was walking the area, General Rogers determined three things: First, there was evidence that certain discrimination had been shown against me because of my perfectly legal opposition to compulsory attendance at chapel (the ransacking of my room for subversive materials, threats by Haig, and other, lesser, incidents). Second, he asked me, in his presence, to remove the combat boots in which I had been walking the area for the past couple of weeks. My feet looked like two swollen hunks of chopped meat, bloody, patched with moleskin here and there, a disgusting mess. This was because we had been told by a tactical officer that as June Week area birds, we weren’t eligible to be medically excused from the area, and we were to walk our hours no matter what. Rogers immediately ordered a complete medical check-up of the remaining area-walkers (there were three of us). Visions of being charged with cruel and unusual punishment must have danced in his head. Third, I made it known to him in no uncertain terms that if I did not graduate, I was going to splash my story all over the front page of the nearest newspaper, which happened to be the New York Times. Generals don’t like their names in the paper unless They are winning battles, or these days, instituting popular reforms.
General Rogers, being a wise and prudent man (he was a Rhodes Scholar), decided that it was in his interest and in the interest of the Academy, in this case, to let individual differences slide. He convinced the Academic Board in a session which I attended to rescind certain demerits, and I was permitted to graduate. At graduation exercises, as I took my diploma from Rogers and shook his hand, I said, “I’ll do my best, Sir.” Rogers has gone on record in a book called “The Generals” as saying his decision in my case was probably the worst in his career. There is some doubt in my mind as to what Rogers actually meant by this remark — whether he was referring to the good of the Army, or the good of his career. In any case, the events of the following year bear him out. It was June 4, 1969. I was twenty-two, and my best just wasn’t good enough.
Going back over these years in my mind is like reading an adventure comic. The characters appear in those bright, lurid colors, on bad paper, talking in little balloons above their heads. Everything seems exaggerated and sort of pathetic. After graduation, things went into a slow spiral. That’s the way I think of those months, going around and around and around. Living was like trying constantly to keep my balance, as if the semicircular canals of my soul had gone out of whack. I was forever trying to focus my vision on a distant spot on the horizon and forever losing it. I broke up with a very warm, loving girl from across the river who probably could have kept my act together. But I didn’t want anyone hanging on as I subconsciously spun around and around and around. Somewhere inside me I knew what was coming. I seemed bent on living my life like a fast automobile taking a sharp turn too fast, skidding, skidding, crowding the edge, and sooner or later, I was bound to wreck.
I had my first breakdown at Fort Benning, during the Infantry Officer Basic Course. One night I found myself seated behind the wheel of my car, somewhere on the post, gripping the steering wheel and staring straight ahead. I hadn’t had anything to drink. I wasn’t under any extraordinary pressure, but I must have blacked out or something. I didn’t know how long I had been sitting there. I didn’t know, in essence, what had happened. The experience frightened me. I had the sense to realize something was wrong, so on my spare time, I went to the mental health clinic at Benning. After a series of interviews with young MD’s, I was taken to see a major who was apparently a shrink. He asked me what had happened, and I told him. I spent about five minutes with him. He wrote a prescription for a huge bottle of 25 milligram Thorazine, refillable four times, and told me to take it four times a day. You’ve got some anxiety, he said. Anxiety? Thorazine? Was he kidding? I took the pills like he said for a day, and it was like taking an eraser to a blackboard. I mean it just wiped everything out of your head, turned you into a grinning zombie. So I stopped taking it, and kept the bottle sitting around my ten-by-fifty trailer like a security blanket. I didn’t know much, but I knew now it was the Heavy Stuff. I figured I’d pop another Thorazine around the time the spiders came, the walls began to crawl, some weird time like that.
I was trying to keep my nose clean. I really was, but things kept cropping up. One day they announced to our IOBC company that we were expected to contribute a day’s pay to the United Fund. The battalion commander wanted 100% participation. It seemed there was some kind of contest between training battalions. Another guy and I went downtown to the United Fund offices and checked their records, making the interesting discovery that not a dime collected at Fort Benning or Columbus, Georgia, was going to a black organization. It was like this. All the white Boy Scout troops were scheduled to get a check, but nary was there to be found a single black troop on the list. It just so happened that our student company commander was a black ex-sergeant E-8 with a field commission as a captain, so we told him what we had found. He announced the facts to the company one day after training. There wasn’t much enthusiasm for the United Fund drive in our company after that. This was to cause quite a stir. Here were all these companies giving like crazy, competing to see who can come up with the most money, the highest percentage, and here was one company without a single contributor. Careers were seemingly at stake over the United Fund drive, and it didn’t take the Infantry School folks long to figure out who was to blame for the nonparticipation of our company in the drive. We were hauled into an auditorium and lectured by the guy who commanded the famous attack on Hamburger Hill. Remember Hamburger Hill? That was the nifty little battle in Vietnam where one battalion charged a hill and took about 30% casualties getting to the top. The hill was under NVA control again a few days later. The battalion commander, a local boy from Columbus, was a hero. He had many medals. He wore his medals as he harangued us about the United Fund, the general thrust of his logic being that if we didn’t contribute, we’d never make it as combat commanders in Vietnam. Well. If anybody should know, it was old Hamburger Hill himself. Presumably, he was to cast a spell, and like his chewed-up battalion, we were to charge United Fund Hill. The harangue went on and on.
Finally a first lieutenant who had been a sergeant E-7 with two tours in Vietnam who had a field commission, and who had about five Silver Stars of his own, finally this stocky little guy stood up and asked the colonel where he was during the attack on Hamburger Hill. “At my assigned altitude,” the colonel replied, not hip to the trap which was being laid for him. And what was that, asked the lieutenant. “About seven thousand feet, in my C and C ship, just below the brigade commander, who was below the assistant division commander.” They were all in helicopters circling overhead like they were watching a drive-in movie, while on the ground, 950 men were either killed or wounded. That’s what I thought, said the lieuteuant, sitting down. The whole company cheered. They didn’t bother our company with United Fund lectures after that.
I couldn’t seem to shake the tendency I had to continually land in the midst of controversies, however small. There was the memorable matter, for example, of mustaches. One guy in my platoon, a classmate as it happened, had grown a mustache in the two months between graduation and the basic course. The platoon advisor, a captain, ordered him to shave it off. The lieutenant knew the regulation which permitted mustaches, and refused. So the captain started riding him. Another classmate and I talked things over and decided we would grow mustaches, too. Other guys noticed what was up, and soon half the platoon was sprouting lip hair, drawing fire from the guy who had been singled out by the platoon advisor. Now the balance had tipped. It was a different matter, bringing smoke on 20 guys, instead of one. We stuck together. It was what you were supposed to do when you were in a unit. Hang tight.
One day I was called aside after training by the platoon advisor and another captain who was platoon advisor to one of the other platoons. (All four platoons had long since gotten the mustache bug). They told me they knew I had organized the “mustache revolt,” and they asked me if I knew why the regulation had been written, allowing mustaches in the Army. I played dumb, pretending to forget the photographs I had studied of generals like Grant and Lee in full beard, Sheridan and Custer with shoulder-length hair. “They wrote it in for the “n…..”s,” my platoon advisor explained, believing every word he said. “You know how then “n…..”s like to grow then little pencil-thin mustaches right along their lips? Them “n…..” women like it when they’re kissing. That’s why they got that regulation allowing mustaches.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. They were pathetic, but they were dead serious. They appeared to believe if they could convince me of the inappropriateness of the mustache regulation, I would in turn convince the company, there would ensue a mass shaving of upper lip hair, and their obsession with mustaches would be assuaged.
“How long have you been in the Army?” I asked the two captains. They were perhaps a year older than me. We were in a little room in the company headquarters, and the door was closed. I had my steel helmet off, and I remember sweat was pouring off my forehead, making dirty streaks down my cheeks. “Three years,” my platoon advisor said. “Same here,” said the other captain. “How long do you figure I’ve been in the Army?” I asked. No answer. They knew I was fresh out of West Point. “I’ve been in the Army for 22 years. All my life. When my old man was a lieutenant, just like me, he had a mustache. I’ve known colonels with mustaches, generals with mustaches, black soldiers with mustaches, white soldiers with mustaches. Don’t give me your bullshit about mustaches. Shove it up your cracker asses, where it belongs. And keep it there. If I ever hear either of you use the word ‘“n…..”’ in my presence again, I’ll report you up the chain of command until somebody does something about you. Now get the hell out of here, and leave me alone.” The two captains left. Heavy scene, right? Noble lieutenant vanquishes evil foes, is triumphant.
I sat down and cried. I remember sitting there in that hot little room wondering whether any of it was worth it, an unfocused sense of confusion and frustration and disillusionment. The whole scene replays in my memory in slow motion, frame by frame, and I can see the expressions on their faces, the pent-up anger, the ignorance, those two men standing there trying to force a stupid little issue like mustaches with the rusty razor blade of racism. Near the end of the basic course, I was called in by the platoon advisor and informed that he was rating me forty-four out of forty-four in leadership. “Any questions?” he asked. I just stood there and didn’t say anything, and he sat there in the same hot little room we had been in before, grinning from behind a gray government desk.
I bought a little 22 foot travel trailer and towed it to Fort Carson, my first duty assignment. It was a neat, cozy little place, with just enough room for one lieutenant, one stereo, a bunch of records and books, enough fatigues to get me through the week, enough civvies to get me through the weekend. I met a girl from Texas named Stella Janice. I called her Stella, though all her friends called her Jan. She was a school teacher, and there was something in her face that was Stella. I was a platoon leader, I was mess officer, I was training officer, and I taught nearly all the company classes, because I’ve always been good at teaching. I was busy as hell, and for the first time since Beast Barracks in 1968, I was happy. There was so much to do. We had a great company. All the lieutenants were good. The company commander was aces. We had problems. Race problems. Drug problems. I used up the remainder of my Thorazine bringing guys down off bad acid trips. Despite all the problems, we got along wel1, and everything seemed to function more or less on schedule. The squad leaders were my age. We understood each other. If you had asked any of us, from the company commander on down, we’d have told you we could take that company to hell and back any day. Christ, what a beautiful feeling, everything clicking the way it was. Even going up to the motor pool, long the bane of Army existence, had its moments. The worst guy in the platoon turned out to be the best mechanic. In a week, we had him thinking enough of himself that he even began bathing regularly, a phenomenon only someone who has lived in a platoon bay with a congenitally dirty, smelly crudball can fully appreciate.
General Rogers, last heard from on graduation day, was division commander. Rogers and I had a cordial relationship. I was called in to see him as soon as I arrived at Fort Carson. He was well aware of the fact that I had been writing for the Voice, and by now, LOOK magazine as well. He was amenable to my continued efforts as a writer, so long as I abided by Army Regulations, which stipulated, for security reasons, that I clear anything for publication through division headquarters. I was even furnished with my own copy of the regs. This was okay with me. Rogers and I had frequent conversations. He once asked me what I thought was the solution to the “race problem” at Fort Carson. (Those two words always sounded like they were in quotes). I told him the solution was leadership. Then I observed that every time there was a demonstration outside the front gates of the post, Rogers alerted several battalions to fend off any possible assault by 50 to 60 hippies. That didn’t make much sense, I said. If you’re not ashamed of anything happening on this post, why don’t you just let them in the front gate and tell them to demonstrate until their hearts are content? Later, Rogers would do just that, welcoming Jane Fonda and personally escorting her to his office to listen to her protests, then to the post stockade, and finally to the hospital — all to the bewilderment of Jane, and to the delight of the troops, I might add.
Then one day our company commander left the Army, and an individual who would become known to the entire company as “Jumping Jimmie” was delivered upon us. Jumping Jimmie immediately called in all the lieutenants and told us that, among other duties, we were expected to attend chapel every Sunday, and that we were to go through our platoon bays on Sunday morning, waking everybody up, urging chapel attendance on everyone. I, of course, lost no time informing him that I would have nothing of either activity. He told me if I knew what was good for me, I’d follow his orders. I asked him if he was, in fact, ordering me officially to go to chapel. He considered my question for a moment, then decided that the order being an illegal one, he would make it an official suggestion. I informed him that he should not expect me in chapel on Sunday, explaining the depth of my feelings about compelling people to attend worship services. We were not off with the best foot forward, that was for sure. It wasn’t long before I was called in and provided with a “sample” Officer Efficiency Report, just to let me know where I stood. The OER was 59 out of a possible 100. For West Pointers, venturing south of the 96 to 98 mark was considered a virtual death knell. For me, the bells were beginning their toll.
One thing led to another. Soon the company had closed ranks against Jumping Jimmie, this time without the involvement or urging of Lieutenant Truscott. The unifying element this time was marijuana. Virtually everyone in the company smoked pot, all the lieutenants save one, every sergeant except the first sergeant. Better than 75% of the battalion was into drugs from marijuana on up the drug ladder, and as one listened to the heartbeat of the Fifth Infantry Division (Mechanized) in barroom conversations and casual evenings off-duty, off-post, it seemed that the 75% figure was good division-wide for grass at least.
A time came when I was assigned to sit on a court martial at the Special Processing Detachment, a kind of clearing house for AWOL’s some bureaucrat back in the Pentagon had dreamed up as a cost-cutting device. I wish that bureaucrat could have been there to witness his genius at work. A major from division headquarters was president of the court. A captain from the class of 1967 with whom I had been casually acquainted while we were cadets was on the court, as was a warrant officer. The major convened the court at 8:30 a.m. and announced if we were to get out of there by 4:3O p.m., allowing an hour for lunch, we had about four minutes per court martial. He seemed to think that being assigned president of a court martial was only getting in the way of the Serious Business he had waiting for him back at his desk in division headquarters. We had 30 AWOL’s to try that day, and the major hinted broadly that the old “six and six,” six months in the stockade, six months reduced pay and reduction in grade to Private, would be in order for these little bastards. This was SPD, after all. Not a regular unit. These AWOL’s had already been arrested, and they were being held in pre-trial confinement. To the major, this was evidence enough of guilt.
We tried a couple of cases. The captain from the class of 1967 was given to asking a few questions from the bench, so I followed with a couple of my own. The major was impatient. The trials were bogging down. He cleared the court after a half-hour and instructed us that things were moving too slowly, we had quotas to meet, and that votes from certain members of the court were coming in with auspiciously low suggested sentences. The captain and I excused ourselves to the john and conferred. When we emerged, I called aside one of the lieutenants assigned to defend the AWOL’s — he had perhaps ten men to defend — and suggested he pass the word to the other defense counsels that it would be in their best interest to use their peremptory challenge, and use it wisely. I left to their imaginations whom they should challenge off the court. The major did not preside over any more courts that day. The captain from the class of 1967 ran things with an even hand, and we tried maybe ten cases.
I refused to sit on any more courts martial after that. The way that major ran the court was a travesty, and I knew his kind to be the rule rather than the exception. Conversations with the lieutenant defense counsels revealed horror story after horror story. It seemed there was no bottom to the pit of Army justice. In time, I was asked about my refusal to sit on courts martial.
I responded with an article written for the Village Voice, which I turned in at division headquarters, as per instruction. I had already made numerous complaints up the chain of command about the conditions over at SPD, to no avail. So the article described the injustice mill which was SPD, the behavior of the major (whom I named), and then I explained my own shortcomings as a judge of other men. After long consideration, I had come to grips with an essential truth about justice. I smoked grass, had smoked it for several years in fact, thus committing (however privately) an offense far more grievous than AWOL. I could not live with the idea of sitting in judgment of other men, when I was no better than they were. When I really thought about it, the whole scene was incredibly sick. Here was an entire division swathed in the cloud of marijuana smoke, officers, NCO’s, enlisted men, and this was supposed to be a chain of command, a real Army division? It was a big toy, and nobody was at the controls.
I was relieved of my command and assigned to a test-project 30 miles out in the boonies where I would live in a tent for six-weeks. It was during this time that I became acquainted with Fort Carson’s top drug dealer. He was a nearly invisible Specialist Fourth Class who had within his grasp the entire enlisted staff of the personnel and intelligence sections of division headquarters, most of the guys over at enlisted and officer records (a powerful bureaucratic spot in any division — they can literally make somebody disappear on paper), a good piece of division finance (equally powerful: purse strings), and he had good inroads into the military police. One need not elaborate on the power this guy had. I visited his apartment on several occasions. He was dealing in shopping bags full of acid, mescaline, and grass. I figured, at a minimum, he was netting $10,000 a week. Nobody knew about him. On the post, in the Army, he was just one more set of fatigues and an easily forgettable face. Invisible as he was, the dealer was above the fray, with dozens and dozens of smaller dealers spread out beneath him like a protective shield.
One night the dealer paid an unusual visit to my trailer. He had become the object of a Mafia contract hit, he explained. He had gotten too big. The Mafia was about to start moving smack into Colorado Springs in a big way, and they didn’t want any little punks like him getting in their way. (He would hardly have been a competitor. He wouldn’t touch smack, speed, or barbituates. He was one of the last of the fabled psychedelic dealers). He wasn’t panicked. He figured he had some time before they really turned on the heat. But that day he had picked up the phone and called a friend over at division personnel. This guy had in turned called a friend at a similar level in the Pentagon. In the afternoon, a set of orders was telexed from Washington to Fort Carson. A favor for a friend. On Monday, the dealer would be on his way to Korea, where he -would serve out the remainder of his enlistment in safety. Amazing.
His visit had greater importance than a diversion from the TV. The tip-off had come. Smack was on its way to Fort Carson. I reported this fact (for I took his word as a fact) straight to division headquarters. The reply, coming from a certain colonel with whom I had dealt previously, was we-don’t-want-to-hear-about-it. It would be almost a year before the Army would admit, at a Pentagon press conference, to wide-spread heroin abuse in Vietnam and a growing problem an Army posts in the United States. In 1970, nobody was going to stick his neck out and announce to the world that an Infantry division had a needle in its collective arm. Reforms are always more fun when they come down from the top.
All of this was happening at a pretty high rate of speed. The spiral — I was spinning again, lost in a funnel, a tinkertoy madness of which I was the sole architect. After I lost command of the platoon, everything seemed to slip away at once. I remember being down on the test project on a mesa in the semi-arid desert south of Colorado Springs, just north of Pueblo. I worked in the headquarters from four a.m. until noon, at which time I would promptly eat some mescaline and wander off in the gullies and craggy terrain where we were camped. I’d wander and wander in total amazement at the awakening of the land in April, early May. In the late afternoon, I’d pass out until my shift came on. Much later, a friend informed me that a Military Intelligence agent, a captain, had been assigned to the same test project to keep an eye on me. He slept on a cot not six feet down the tent from me. It would later amuse my friend no end that this agent, this professional Army spy, saw nothing strange about my behavior. I did my job, I was just a little weird, that’s all. Lots of guys got a little weird in the boonies. The big problem out there was alcoholism, just as it was a big problem Army-wide.
Sometime that spring, the Pentagon got into the act. My father, then a colonel stationed at Fort Leavenworth, was told that it would be in his and my best interest to “call your son off,” as if I was an attack dog with a set of teeth vine-gripped around some general’s leg. I had been in frequent communication with my family about my problems at Fort Carson, just as the same had been true at West Point. My father called me and said I had better get a quick pass and get myself over to Leavenworth. He was to call back the general with whom he had spoken before, and he wanted me there. I hastened to Leavenworth. My father thought it highly improper that he had been involved by the office of the Secretary of the Army, in a controversy which concerned his son, and so did I. But involved he was, against his will.
The general called back and passed the word that the best thing for me was a quick assignment to Vietnam where I would “cool off.” This smelled strongly, to me at any rate, of a punitive assignment to the war zone, a tactic not unknown during the Vietnam years in dealing with soldiers who were a problem stateside. The war in which the military establishment professed such a strong belief was also used as a kind of national tiger cage for military undesirables. And if someone like me were not to return? Those are the fortunes of war, buddy. I passed the word back to the Pentagon that if I was punitively assigned to Vietuam, I would publicly refuse to go, and take a suit into federal court to prevent such an assignment. In short order, elimination proceedings against me began to move. I refused to contest them believing then, as I do now, that my fitness to be an officer in the Army was properly questionable. I had done what I thought was right. But was what I thought right in the best interest of my platoon, my company, the Army?
A good friend, who had been a platoon leader with me at Carson, discussed this very question with me recently. Perhaps I had been cut out to be an officer and a leader. Indeed my bloodlines would indicate as much. But my cut did not fit the mold. This was perhaps the most difficult idea with which I had to cope. All that history and legacy, and look at me, not just a failure, but a total wreck. I fought with the notion, struggled with it, a kind of sloppy boxer’s clench with the self. And I lost, I broke down again, reeling off in a mescaline fog to my 22 foot trailer where I served out the final days of my military career banished from the battalion, in exile from the Army and from myself.
I left the Army in July, with $400 and a discharge “under other than honorable” conditions. This is what is known as a “bad” discharge. Once in awhile I take that discharge out of my drawer and look at it. It’s not very fancy, bold type on beige paper. It says what it says in as few words as possible. I wonder about that discharge. What does “other than honorable” really mean? That I’m a liar and a cheat and not to be trusted? Read the other way, ironically, it could mean super-honorable, rather than common old ordinary “honorable.” I figured then, and I figure now, that it’s not really very much to worry about. I acted as honorably as I knew how. I didn’t always do the Right Thing. Nor did I stick my head in the sands of Fort Carson when trouble raised its claws. Mine was not a distinguished Army career. It only lasted a year. But I’ve got no excuses. I just did whatever I thought was appropriate at the time. That’s the funny thing. I was never a revolutionary. I was a reactionary. I was vulnerable to every stimulus there was, no matter how small, and I reacted to each and every one of them like I did everything else, in high gear, at top speed. If I ever sat down and thought about things for a couple of days or so, without soaking myself in mescaline and beer, I might have hatched an idea or two, and then I might have done something revolutionary. A young American Trotsky I was not. It’s amazing. Looking back at my comic book life, I never even lived up to my own reputation. But I was twenty-three, and I was free.
I took off for New York City and started to work for the Voice almost immediately. What a good place for me. The one thing with which the Voice was generous was time. They gave you time to think, time to develop, time to write, time and space to be yourself in print. That was important. I needed plenty of time. I needed to let the string run out on the top, finish spinning and spinning and spinning. I needed to take my foot off the accelerator pedal and coast to a halt. That moment finally came late one night the next summer. It was
already, and I was living on an old Pennsylvania Railroad barge on the Hudson which another guy and I had converted into two apartments. We had huge French windows looking down the island of Manhattan from our berth on a deteriorated dock in New Jersey. The summer had been total madness, roaring up and down the Hudson in speed boats, drinking all night in a speakeasy on the Harlem River, gobbling mescaline and anything else we could get our hands on in quantities which approached the ridiculous. But it was exciting as hell. Just imagine that piece of your life on which you look back fondly, not because you were at your happiest, but because you were still young enough and strong enough to take the most chances emotionally and physically and not just survive, but thrive! It was like that over the summer. Hot nights and hot blood and loud music, the Grateful Dead and the Rolling Stones, mostly. Every time I hear “Workingman’s Dead” or “American Beauty” or “Sticky Fingers” I think of that summer. Then I think of the last party we threw in August.
It was a huge affair, there were maybe 200 people there, people we had picked up off the Morton Street pier with a flotilla of speed boats, friends from Jersey, all the river people. I was whacked on two huge horse capsules of mescaline, flying on coke, soaked in beers in short, stoned. Somebody dosed me with enough acid to float the barge. My blood heated up, and I saw red. I grabbed somebody and pulled them into the bedroom and told them I was leaving, I passed through red like a curtain and on the other side, everything had changed. My temperature shot up, and two friends packed me in ice. My temperature came down, but I didn’t. Everything around me was moving in slow motion, but late that night, I ran like a son-of-a-bitch up and down River Road, trying to shake the demon which seemed to have seized me by the neck. My friend Howie, a steelworker from Jersey who understood not one iota about what was happening, ran with me. Every time I looked at him, I saw this big bear of a guy, and I loved him for running with me that night. Still later, hallucinating fast fast fast fast, I figured I had died. This was what was on the Other Side. This was it. Of course, I had a classic psychotic reaction to an overdose of acid. But awash in a madness which seemed as real as a plate of eggs or a cheese sandwich, seeing all the weirdness as real life gave me a start I’ve never forgotten. For awhile there, I thought the morning would never come. Daylight somehow symbolized sanity. But daylight brought no relief. I stayed up for about 72 hours, and when it was finally over, I shook for a week, scared of myself, scared of what I had become without knowing it. Life was not mine to live with total abandon. Eventually, I grasped the notion that I was still alive, that I had a lot more life to live. But now things were different.
As I said before, I’ve always delighted in the idea of being different. But now I had encountered the flipside of different. It’s no fun over there. Playing the game that way was heads you win, tails I lose. Allow me to let you in on a little secret. Madness may indeed be a hot commodity on the popular culture marketplace, and it’s still fun to live our lives vicariously through the popular figures, the celebrities who seem to symbolize the culture. After all, we like to be outdone in our excesses by our heroes. We need a leading edge as a civilization. We need our conscientious objectors to war, if only to remind us that there is an alternative. We need our Bob Dylan’s, our Brian Wilson’s because in an odd way they confirm that strength has its roots in weakness. We even need our Richard Nixon’s to remind us of our dark side, the black holes into which we so reluctantly peek. And as much as we need them, we deserve them.
But let me tell you another little secret. Never have I been so glad in my life as I was that August week in 1971 to finally return to normal. A week or so after the party, our classmate Dave Vaught showed up to live on the barge for the winter and attend New York University Law School. His Southern Illinois grin and disposition filled that barge with a sunshine the summer had never seen. It was so good to see a friendly face from the past, so good to be back to ordinary. I was twenty-four, and I had finally bottomed out.
I changed after that summer. Life felt good for a change. Not happy, just good. I’ve only recaptured that initial feeling of relief, that sense of calm, a couple of times since then — odd moment, a mountaintop hot spring, driving through western Nevada at two a.m. — drifting edges of a life which has tended to hang in there closer and closer to the good old middle class. That’s pretty much the way those next few years went:
I’ve had my moments, chasing Bebe Rebozo all over Florida; War reporting in Israel and Beirut, Lebanon; magazine assignments that have taken me through ten foreign countries — most of the United States. Finally, in July of 1975 I resigned from the Voice. New management had come in, and I didn’t get along with the new system. I called the top guy the Alexander Haig of the New Journalism; he and I never saw eye-to-eye after that. I’ve still got my problems. Anybody who has ever tried to get me to come in short, to the point, and on deadline will tell you that. The thing now is that my problems are so marvelously ordinary. Sure, I still get that viscous sense of longing when I dream the West Point dream, the American Dream, about a place which like me, doesn’t even live up to its own reputation. There’s still a piece of me that’s pure Bonneville Sport Coupe, full of gas and flat-out, headed west. But there’s another piece now, with which I’m ever more comfortable, and that’s just plain Grad. Thank God. I’m twenty-nine, going slowly bald on top. Bye,
See you next year.
Received in New York on December 3, 1976
©1976 Lucian K. Truscott IV
Lucian K. Truscott IV, a freelance writer and author, is an Alicia Patterson Foundation award winner. His fellowship subject is West Point Men: Attitudes and Experiences of the Class of 1969. This article may be published with credit to Mr. Truscott as a Fellow of the Alicia Patterson Foundation. The views expressed by the author in this newsletter are not necessarily the views of the Foundation.