Posted by: James Atticus Bowden | December 13, 2018

Why I Stepped Off the Side of the Earth 50 Years Ago


Two Seniors, Same Guy – Boy and Man

Why I Stepped Off the Side of the Earth 50 Years Ago

A few months back I wrote a piece about stepping of the side of the earth when I went to West Point 50 years ago. Fifty years is the “golden” anniversary because it’s so prominent in human lives. Few get to celebrate a diamond time of seventy-five years. Fifty is the time for complete reflections before time runs out for most. This fiftieth anniversary for me is about the crucible of my life. Childhood shaped my form, but the United States Military Academy at West Point and the Army made me the man I am. Or, perhaps, they gave me the mirror to see my soul and make lifetime choices. Either way, the Lord God gave love, grace, and discipline all along.  My 50 year reflections may speak to your decisions in life.

I didn’t know West Point would be such a plunge from all former reality. I knew it would be challenging, but I had no clue it would be more like prison than college. I thought I wanted to study civil engineering with a side interest in politics and history. The 1964 World’s Fair images of highways across the Amazon jungle still captured my imagination. That’s funny now. Why build highways across the Amazon?

I had choices for college. I was competitive enough to try for an Ivy, but had no desire to go to school in the North. I got early acceptance to Duke and Georgia Tech in January 1968.  Early in February I got a Presidential appointment as a son of a Regular Army officer. It was a competitive appointment. There was only one West Point, so, yes, I had to go up North.

Why West Point? As an Army brat, I’d been around Army bases, troops, jeeps, trucks and tents, etc. all of my life. My parents and all their friends were “Army.” I recalled marching soldiers singing “Jodies” from when I was four at Ft. Leavenworth. I’d always wanted to be a soldier – for a period of service.

My Dad pointed me to West Point when we went to the 1959 Army-Navy game. His boss, Brigadier General Van Wagoner, gave me the book “The West Point Story” and wrote a message to me. I considered the option from then on, but there was no pressure in any regard.

My father had had an appointment to West Point and turned it down to go to the University of Arizona where he could drive cars and chase girls. Wise man. He spoke highly of the West Pointers he knew in the Army. I was more motivated by thoughts.

I read a lot of history and biographies since I was eight. I thought war was a central experience of mankind. My boyish mind likened myself enough to Ernest Hemingway to think I should experience war, not shirk it. See mortal combat, survive, and move on. Seriously, I thought that.

In my Junior year my father almost died from a heart attack. I was confronted with life and death balanced in the next breath. That winter our big English paper was about our philosophy of life. I reasoned what are you willing to die for – defined life more clearly than what do you want to live to do. My paper was “A Philosophy of Death.” My teacher loved it. I was 16 years old.

I figured I was willing to die for my family, my faith, and my country.

Specifically, I was willing to die for America while killing Communists. Living in Europe during the Berlin Crisis, seeing the Berlin Wall at age 13, and reading all that history made me want to defeat Communism. I knew it was as evil as Nazism.

Then, there was Vietnam. My dad was there 1956-57. He told about the terrible things the Viet Minh did to people. Through my high school years I watched his peers and my older sisters’ end of our generation go to Vietnam. I’d read enough military history to actually guess the Vietnam War would last 10 full, fighting years to 1975. There’d be war enough when I graduated from College. I knew well that the Army was a better deal as a lieutenant than as a private. And, my parents would never sign enlistment papers for me at age 17.

I knew I’d always wonder “what if I went to West Point?” Duke University really appealed to me. But, what if?  I chose the United States Military Academy. My Senior English teacher told me, “You are wasting a great mind.”

I went to West Point to be a soldier – an Army Officer. Period. At the end of the long, hellish first day of Beast Barracks, we signed the papers with the oath we had sworn a few hours before at magnificent Trophy Point. I was thrilled. Sincerely.  I was in the U.S. Army.  I was a soldier.

Before the Crucible



  1. Nicely done. I had to go to an Academy or have a
    a full ride. I had never really considered any route
    other than military. Lost an athletic appointment
    to Air Force. Congressman a friend of my Dad from
    WWII. Was full at Air Force. I wanted to fly. My military acquaintances said I could go Air Force
    from West Point. Not if they change the rules when
    you start junior year. Couple of aviators on faculty,
    notably Jack Woodmansee, my Mil History P, convinced me to go Army Aviation. It’s all good.

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