Posted by: James Atticus Bowden | August 1, 2018

50 Years Ago I Stepped Off the Side of the Earth

Inside the cover of the last issue of The Pointer magazine for my class. The other cover showed our 1st Class – Senior – photos.  The ID pictures were taken July 1st, 1968.  The day I stepped off the side of the earth.

50 Years Ago I Stepped Off the Side of the Earth

I’ve been fumbling with the words telling the fifty year old tale for a month. The competing messages step on each other’s transmissions – if you know military field radio talk. And, “If you know” is precisely the problem in communicating several messages at the same time. The reader has to know something about what you write to understand what you mean. But, no one, other than an Old Grad from the same era, knows the ‘something’ about West Point from after WW II to 1977 when girls were admitted. Graduates of institutions that emulated West Point had similar experiences, but back then no one gave a young man the full Monty, stepping of the side of the earth, real deal hell like the United States Military Academy at West Point did. None.

The training from July 1st to Labor Day was called “Beast Barracks” because we the beasts were to be broken and trained with bestiality and admitted to the Corps of Cadets only after surviving the summer. The measure of success for the cadre was how many New Cadets quit. Nowadays the measure of success is how many men and women stay. The difference is significant.

No one was trying to teach us leadership. They were trying to break us. We were supposed to learn to be good followers. We had to demonstrate complete, absolute compliance to rigid details for the silly and the sublime. We learned to follow orders to the letter and spirit of the command. It seems to me that it worked.

Some of my classmates recoil at the trivial and, often, sadistic techniques employed then and cheer West Point as it is now as a better place. I don’t want that discussion. I just want to share that fifty years ago I joined the rest of 1,244 boys – and stepped off the side of the earth. Four very long years later I joined 822 young men in graduating with a Second Lieutenant’s commission in the Regular Army and a Bachelor of Science degree.

That summer shook me to my core. Nothing ever tested me as thoroughly as that long Plebe year. Death of my wife was more emotionally wrenching. Ranger School and training in the Infantry was more physically demanding. Failures and challenges in family, career, and personally were more stressful mentally and psychologically. But nothing acted as holistically on me as a man – ever.  And, surviving Plebe year prepared me for every hardship and challenge to come.

West Point was a total institution. More so than many prisons in 1968. Everything was taken away from us as individuals and given back in tiny pieces as rewards for approved behavior. West Point was a very large “Skinner Box”. Everything, including our underwear and eyeglasses, was removed. All of our personal possessions, like a trusty alarm clock, address book and a pen, fit in a small personal lock box about the size of a loaf of bread.

Meanwhile, there was a lot of yelling. Inches from your face. In your ears. Red-faced screaming with the spittle splashing on you. Also, we were the last class to officially “brace”. Bracing is an exaggerated position of attention with your chin pushed back into your neck. If you do it hard enough, the pressure of your neck can sweat a penny to a wall. It’ll stay up when you step forward. Trust me. There were other tortures that are very funny among classmates in the re-telling. Not eating was popular.  Not so much at the time.

The hazing was on purpose. It was all part of “The Fourth Class System”.   Our entire Plebe Year the Fourth Class System was systematically studied by USMA. The basic idea was leaders had to learn to be good followers first. Classmates needed to learn to work closely together to build bonds of unswerving trust and loyalty. Over the decades, many things, silly stuff, had become tradition. West Point was like a tradition of traditions steeped in precedent based on history confirmed by status quo.

The topper was the totality of this strange, isolated place focused on war. War, war, war.

It was the height of the Vietnam War. We expected to go to the long war in Vietnam. The Vietnam War was unpopular. That’s why we’re the “Bottom of the Barrel” Class of 1972. We’re the only class ever, even when a handful of cadets entered a class, where every fully qualified nominee was accepted. Four or five thousand young men applied but only 1,245 were fully qualified mentally, physically and socially – or whatever they called citizenship, sports, leadership, etc. – for a minimum “Whole Man Score.”

The Army Officers in charge didn’t intervene in the bedlam run by youngsters only a couple of years older than us. As we were hazed, about 300 young soldiers our age were getting killed in Vietnam every week that summer. Our trials were meant to wean our ranks of weaklings, harden us, prepare us to follow, and then lead in combat.

I was 17 years old when I entered. By Labor Day, when I’d gone from 166 lbs to 132 lbs, broken an elbow, had a leg infection and toenail cut out, and not had a “bad” Beast compared to my classmates, I knew I was different. Deep inside, I felt a hard toughness.

My manhood was tested and not found wanting.

My identity changed.  My desire to live – Duty, Honor, Country – became consuming.  My devotion to the U.S. Army became absolute.  My loyalty to my classmates became unquestioning. My earnest, heartfelt ambition became serving in all things in a manner to earn and keep the respect of my classmates. My affection grew, and still does, to care for these other men – my band of brothers. My Christianity was strengthened and centered.  All of this happened when I stepped off the side of the earth.

Proud and True, Class of 1972, USMA.

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Responses

  1. Thank you, this is a fascinating insight.

  2. Jim excellent personal reflection on our transformation into Soldiers for Life and our bond as classmates. Misery loves company! Proud and True!

    Sent from my iPhone

    >


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