By Brian M. Howle
The Summer of 1965 was a pivotal year in the development of yours truly. My only brother – seven years my senior – graduated from high school and was commissioned into the U.S. Air Force Academy. My sister – ten years my senior – had just graduated from U.S.C. and was traveling Europe before beginning her post-graduate work.
And I was 11 years old.
Well, I’m pretty sure that my folks looked at each other one day and realized that – except for the hyperactive 11-year-old – the nest was just about bare. Then they watched me zoom through the house, as I attempted to complete about two dozen tasks at one time, yammering away incessantly all the while. Then they looked back at each other.
Oh yeah, I was going to be spending time at a summer camp that year.
So, in typical parent trickery, they called me into their bedroom one day in the Spring, and showed me a beautiful, full-color brochure which extolled the wondrous adventures and activities of the Citadel Boys Camp.
“Look, Brian, you’ll be paddling boats, and sailing, and hiking, and swimming and a whole schedule full of things to do”, they smilingly began, as they baited the trap, “and it’s just filled with boys your age. Oh, you’ll have the best time … You’ll just love it!”
Well, yeah, the pictures were colorful, and all the kids were smiling and doing all sorts of really cool stuff. But like a feral puppy not quite sure of taking such an unknown leap of faith, I was a bit apprehensive.
“Um … how long does this camp last?” I asked.
“Two whole, fun-filled weeks!” was the that’s-right-go-on-and-stick-your-paw-in-the-bear-trap response.
I was starting to sway … it did sound awfully good.
“What else do they do there?” I inquired with a sprinkling of interest.
“Oh, lots of things .. you can take up archery, and shooting skeet, and…” they began, as I quickly cut them off.
“Skeet? With a shotgun?” I perkedly asked.
“Oh yes, and you can also take marksmanship in their indoor shooting range”, they merrily chirped, taking a step back to watch the trap snap shut, “with real military .22 rifles!”
Yes! Kids with guns! My kinda place.
“Okay, sounds good to me”, I said, never hearing the twang of the spring’s release, never seeing the impaling crunch of reality’s brutal jaws coming, “Sign me up, I want to go!”
So, spring turns to summer and one glorious sunshine-filled day, we loaded up the ol’ Galaxie 500 with my foot locker (filled with enough underwear to endure a nuclear winter, each pair emblazoned with my name in Magic Marker on the waistband) and headed South for Charleston. It was a beautiful day, and my folks were smiling and chatting, as I aimlessly stared through the window – counting all the telephone poles, mailboxes, signal lights and Fords – between Andrews and Charleston. I was oblivious to the changes that were about to unfold before me.
As Dad wheeled our turquoise battleship into the Citadel compound, I looked up at the tall, arching gates.
Big gates. Big, heavy, steel and wrought iron gates. Gates joined to high, thick walls and rows of black, pointed wrought iron. Kinda like a fort.
And being like a fort meant, like being in the military.
And being in the military meant discipline.
Oh, this was going to be a long two weeks.
Gene Autry’s “Don’t Fence Me In” played at megavolume in my head, as we passed by the huge parade ground in the middle of the compound. Huge, majestic live oaks, heavily draped with moss, stand over the lush grounds, encircled by imposing castle-style buildings that comprise the physical plant of The Citadel.
Dad pulled up to the unloading zone, and I was having some serious second thoughts about this whole deal. I shared my concern with my mother.
“Listen, I paid good money for you to come here and enjoy yourself”, she sternly informed me, “and by crackie, you’re going to enjoy yourself”.
Mama always had a way of explaining things to me so that I could understand.
I helped Dad haul the foot locker over to a loading cart, and we swung it over to join with all the other foot lockers, where they were tagged and send off for delivery to our assigned rooms.
The guy in charge of signing everyone in led my folks and me inside the dormitory. Each dorm is shaped like a huge box, with 20-ft.-thick walls serving as the barracks. Four stories high, each upper floor’s balcony railing overlooks the quadrangle in the middle – which I would come to intimately know and loathe as “The Quad”. The mesmerizing checkerboard pattern that runs across the center of the building makes perfect 90˚-turn marching a snap. And where the huge expanse of open tile – surrounded by a perfectly square enclosure with multi-leveled baffles and nothing but flat, reflective surfaces all around – acts as an acoustic amplifier to the nth degree, amplifying even the slightest of sounds to massively reverberate throughout the entire building.
I thought back for a moment… nope, this was not in the brochure, either.
The room was, not surprisingly at this point, very austere and small – but it was located in one of the four corners – and the acoustic design essentially missed the corners. This came to be extremely important during my stay, although I didn’t know it at the time.
There was a momentary glimmer of hope of salvaging anything out of this looming debacle when we ran into a friend of mine from Andrews, R.A. Green, who was also attending the same session.
Well, the grand tour was about over, so I walked my folks out to the car. There, Mom and Dad wished me well, as they cheerfully and speedily headed back to our comfy, quiet little home.
Things quickly changed after the parents left. The charming politeness afforded us in the presence of our doting parents evaporated under the hot Carolina sun, as gentlemen transformed into screaming neanderthals.
Now, up to this point, there didn’t seem to be much importance put on where we happened to be at any given time. But that wasn’t going to last long.
Our names were called out, and they began to herd us into our assigned squads. where I lost track of R.A. Once in, you were quickly encouraged to hate anyone not in your particular squad.
Our first order of business was learning how to fall into formation (where the handy checkerboard began to make more sense); and the second order was to learn difference between our right and left.
And dang if they weren’t downright rude about it.
One little kid in the next squad couldn’t hang with the pressure of repeatedly getting: wrong, and as his counselor (juniors and seniors with a serious ous need for control) leaned into his face to insult and demean him, to poor kid wet himself, profusely.
Again, not in the brochure.
Now, I didn’t find anything remotely amusing about this kid’s humiliation – but someone behind me did, and made very funny remark. Predictably, I exploded into laughter, which swiftly put the counselor in my face, to within eyelashes of a head butt.
“YOU THINK THAT’S FUNNY, LITTLE BOY?” He seemed sincere, yet, irate. “I’LL TELL YOU WHAT’S FUNNY WHEN YOU NEED TO KNOW! YOU UNDERSTAND?”
Suddenly, all those Sunday nights watching The Ed Sullivan Show played in my head, and the great lineup of Jewish comedians snapped into my mental Rolodex.
“Youuuuu don’t know from phunny”. I laughingly snorted.
In retrospect, that response was probably not in my best interest. But at the time, there was no Internet, so I couldn’t do the research that would have clued me in to the fact that there is no “Department of Humor” in military life.
“WHAT DID YOU SAY TO ME? ARE YOU CRAZY? DROP RIGHT NOW AND GIVE ME TWENTY!” he screamed, microns away from my nose, as I tried not to notice the bulging veins in his forehead.
I looked him square in the eye and said, “Twenty”.
I had never seen a man’s head explode before, but this guy came about as close as I’d ever seen. Fortunately, an actual officer – who was quietly overseeing the proceedings, intervened and calmed my counselor down. Then he pulled me out of formation and walked me over to the cool shade of the balconies. Then he quietly invited me to spend the night sitting in a lone chair placed in the center of the quad after we got all settled in.
Not in the brochure.
I was then led back to my Squad – as the previously loud and cluttered noise ceased and gave way to thundering silence – and we made our way to the supply office.
There, we were issued our official camp uniform – white T-shirts, blue shorts, white socks and tennis shoes, and blue caps. Then we gathered our towels and linens, and marched back to our rooms.
Now, apparently, there is a serious belief on the part of our military to make sure that – if an invading army did happen to overrun the barracks – they would nonetheless be so impressed by the fact that you can bounce a quarter off the sheets, it would distract them long enough for our boys to kill them. I could easily imagine the scenario:
“Ivan, can you believe how well these beds are made?”
“No, comrade, it is truly a miracle how these infidels can .. AAAaaaarrrrrrggghhhh!”
After an hour or so of mastering the square-corner sheeting technique, we were called to formation once again. They trotted us out, across the big parade ground, and over to the official Citadel barber shop for our summer haircuts.
As luck would have it, my squad was the first to arrive, and my counselor quickly moved me to the front of the line. Once inside the cool confines of the air-conditioned building, we became relaxed.
The doors swung open to the shop, and the sweet old man behind the chair motioned me on over. I took my seat, as he placed the little barber bib around my neck and spun the chair around to face the mirror.
“So, what did you have in mind today, young man?” he pleasantly asked.
“Oh, just a little off the top, the sides are fine”. I nonchalantly replied, settling myself in the big, cushy barber’s chair.
I watched in the mirror as he clicked on the electric clippers and ran a blue-liquid-soaked-comb thru my sunbleached bangs, parting it this way and that, making sure to find the exact natural part.
Then he placed the clippers on my forehead, right below the hairline, and made a single pass down the middle of my head, all the way back to my neck.
When he stepped back to align his next pass, my jaw dropped to my lap. I had a reverse Mohawk.
Eight or nine passes later, I was as bald as the day I was born.
And though I was young, and didn’t know much, I knew this:
This was not in the brochure.
– Next Issue –
Gimme Back My Bullets
The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, August 1, 2002.