By Brian M. Howle
In the previous issue, I had begun to recall my days at the Citadel Boys Camp in Charleston, S.C., where I spent the longest two weeks of my life. Hoo-Dooed into attending by my parents’ masterful plan to have two weeks in the wake of my siblings’ departure from the nest (my sister was traveling Europe prior to post-graduate work; and my brother was about to attend the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO), I quickly discovered that this camp was not at all like any other I had attended.
And initially, that was not a good thing as far as I was concerned.
At eleven years of age, I didn’t quite make the connection between The Citadel – the military college – and the camp. But shortly after our parents left us on that first day, the reality – and to me, the horror – of living in a military-style environment created my first bout of anxiety and stress.
After being tricked into receiving “buzz cut” haircuts at the campus barbershop, we were a bunch of small, pasty, squeaky-voiced, bald little rats, trying to come to terms with the concept of precision discipline.
And therein lay the paradox.
To say the least, I was not your prime candidate for officer material. I just happened that I didn’t particularly care for having to immediately follow every order and instruction that was barked to me during the most mundane of daily tasks. I had no problem doing things, or following orders, as long as the reasons were known and explained.
But common-sense reason and military thinking can not exist in the same universe. And so, my first order of business was to make myself invisible to those in command. After my initial encounter with an adult officer on the first day (the counselors were all college students, but chompin’ at the bit to taste the absolute power they had over our lives) – where I was invited to spend that first night at camp, sitting in a chair, alone, in the middle of the quadrangle that centered our dormitory barracks – I had an emergency meeting with me, myself and I … and we all agreed to keep our mouth shut. At least, as best as we could.
Morning inspection was the first indicator that abject stupidity is no stranger to any institution. Shocked out of deep slumber by a scratchy, skipping record playing Revelie, we were lined up outside – hey, it’s dark at 5:30 a.m., by the way – and made to stand at attention while our rooms were ransacked in an apparent attempt to find contraband. What contraband a bunch of 11-13 year-old kids in 1965 would possess remains a mystery to me, but they tore up our rooms nonetheless. Any beds not properly made – and as I mentioned last issue, military sticklers really have a thing about that quarter-sheeted bed – were demolished and re-made (sometimes four or five times) before anyone took the first marching-in-formation step towards the chow hall for breakfast.
When we finally did make it to breakfast, I have to admit that these folks had a handle on preparing food for masses of hungry youngins. Boy Scout Camp and Camp St. Christopher had their good points over El Cid in most areas, but the men and women of this kitchen put them to shame. And this one, lonely little nicety gave many the will to endure the day that followed.
Once I became a bit more adapted to avoiding the butt-chewings, things settled in to make life tolerable. My roommate, Greg, was from Savannah; a slight wisp of a boy with a great sense of humor, we made a good “Mutt & Jeff” pairing, as I was in my celebrated “Husky” stage of life. Now, I was not obese, mind you, but chubby – and waddling my way through prepubescence was proving to become a bit of a drag.
We quickly bonded and began our plan to avoid the daily drills that offered the best chance of landing one on the “quad” for a variety of infractions. We decided to just fall in line as far as all the reindeer games went – make our room spotless, keep our uniforms clean and fresh, and tried to stay in the back of the squad as much as possible.
After being briefed on the multitude of recreational options that awaited us, the counselors began scheduling our daily itineraries to match up with our personal interests. There was a ton of stuff to do – swimming, diving, sailing, marksmanship, crafts, bowling, archery, handball, basketball, baseball, flag football (nothing like unprotected contact sports overseen by blood-thirsty counselors, who repeatedly barked out “I don’t feel a thing” whenever someone limped over to the sidelines to show their dislocated finger or exposed, broken leg bone), and a plethora of para-military endeavors. I stood at the sign-up table, mulling over my choices for the afternoon agenda.
“Can I sign up for skeet shooting at 2:00 p.m.?” I politely asked, making sure not to make eye contact with anyone over 13.
“Love to help you out, kid”, was the dry response from the counselor as be checked over my pre-planned itinerary – which I didn’t know about, “but you’ve got tutoring every afternoon for two weeks – from 2 to 5”.
Tutoring? Wow, talk about your true definition of a military snafu.
“No, no, no, sir”, I sternly replied, determined that I was going to straighten this all out right here and now, repercussions be damned, “I didn’t sign up for any tutoring. I came to have fun.”
There … couldn’t get any plainer than that. Now we would start the fun stuff as soon as ….
“No, no mistake, bud”, came the that’s-final-so-don’tbother-me-about-it-anymore retort. “Your mother signed you up for math and science”.
I love my mother, I really do. But at that moment, for some reason, I wanted to know the location of the armory, with all of its high-powered rifles.
Yep, mom had gone and ruined my camp right out of the gate. The counselor gave me four or five textbooks, and an assortment of workbooks and ledgers. Then he waved me off in the direction of my impending class.
On the way to the math class, I made some life-changing decisions. By my reasoning, if I didn’t get math during the nine months of my last grade – which I passed – then two weeks of this wasn’t going to result in anyone shouting “Eureaka! By George, I think he’s got it!”
And I also reasoned that – like looking the instructor who ordered me to “drop and give him twenty” (pushups were the immediate means of extracting unwavering obedience from anyone) in the eye and calmly replying, “Twenty” – even these people weren’t going to start wailing on a kid. So I took a huge leap of faith, and entered the classroom.
I never opened the first book. Instead, I took the ledgers that came with the gig and made drawings for three hours (a skill which I had already honed in school), until the instructor gave us the “dismissed” order at 5:00 p.m. After a couple of days of not turning in homework, we had another little “meeting of the minds”, and I spent another couple of nights sitting in the lone chair in the middle of the quad, counting the alternating squares a thousand times over.
But after two days, my afternoon schedule was once again wide open. I was excused from any further waste of time with the tutorer.
And except for that one last obstacle, from there on out it became easier to adjust to this new lifestyle. I was hyper, and having 10-14 hours of non-stop activity was what I really needed. As long as I was busy, I was fine.
Or as long as no one tried to hang the mantle of responsibility on me.
After about five days of morning inspections, Greg and I made the big grade – our room was judged the most perfectly arranged of all those in our squad. As a reward, inspection winners were given the honor of leading our squad for the entire day – to breakfast, to activities, to lunch, to parade practice, to supper, and to whatever nightly entertainment was scheduled for the day. So they called our names, and we fell out of formation to take command of the squad.
About halfway to the mess hall, as we marched and sang our little marching songs, we were passed – very slowly – by a carload of young ladies in a cute, little white Mustang convertible. There to see Citadel students, they addressed us with that “come hither” vocabulary that seemed to – in my mind – invite us to become, um, better acquainted. Keep in mind, they were 18-22; years old; we were all of 11-13.
But, after all, folks around there did like to say that the military way of life made men out of boys.
So, I turned to face my squad as we marched, and gave the order to fall out and become better acquainted.
We swarmed the Mustang, much to the dismay and surprise of the young women, literally falling in their laps and begging for kisses. They squealed in typical girl reaction, and hurriedly asked us to exit the vehicle.
Only as we vacated the car and began to reassemble for our march, did I notice a lone figure, standing at the entrance of the nearest building. In full dress uniform, he was much older, very rugged looking, and not at all amused, and he glowered at us without saying a word. Then he spotted a counselor in the distance, and called to him. They convened as we continued on our way, and I felt a disturbing vibe as they leaned over the rail, whispering to each other, trying to make out our destination.
After we readied our next activity, I forgot about the incident and went about having fun. The rest of the day was good, and supper was particularly delightful that night. After we led our squad back to the barracks, a counselor knocked on our door and asked us to step out for a minute.
When we did, we froze. There, standing in the night shadows, was the silhouette of the officer who had observed our “Charge of the Lightheatered Brigade” on the Mustang.
Oh, we could have done it in front of a Corporal, or a Sargeant, or a Lieutenant, or even a Major or Colonel. But that would have been too easy.
No, instead, ol’ Greg and I had put our squad in dire circumstances by launching our little foray on the gals in front of the president of the Citadel.
– Next Issue –
How I Came To Absolutely Loathe Potatoes
The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, August 15, 2002.