Streetwise Professor

July 6, 2017

Once Upon a Time in Annapolis

Filed under: History,Military — The Professor @ 7:20 pm

Please indulge me with a trip down memory lane. Forty years ago today I was inducted as a Plebe at the United States Naval Academy. I’m sure all you all* find that hard to believe. No, not that I went to Navy–the 40 years part šŸ˜‰

Plebe Summer was a grind, but I can’t say that it was that difficult. There were in fact some high points. I can still get some yucks (not just from myself, but from others) with stories from that summer. Most related to my battles with authoritah! As I’ve often said–including under oath (when some attorney digging for dirt during a deposition asks why I left the Academy–but that’s getting ahead of the story)–Navy is where I learned that I had issues with authority, and that I was a libertarian rather than a conservative. During Plebe Summer I expectedĀ a lot of Mickey Mouse, and got it. But I was operating under the false belief that after the ritual was over, things would get serious and the Mickey Mouse would end. Wrong!

I soon learned that the BS was 24/7, and that standing out in any way attracted unwanted attention and harassment from some pretty twisted people. And I do mean twisted. Perhaps my experience was an outlier, but the upperclassmanĀ (along with his roommate) who took a special dislike to me was really twisted. How twisted? Killing his entire family in their sleep twisted. I really didn’t want to spend my 20s (and perhaps beyond) having to be subordinate to the likes of them.

During my years at NavyĀ I also became sufficiently confident in my ability that I knew I could make it in many different careers and didn’t need the structure and security of the Navy. My dad was aghast when he learned (from my former high school history teacher, in whom I’d confided) that I was thinking of leaving. He was a classic manager/executive guy, and sat me down for a talk when I was home on spring break leave. In the 21st century, I’m sure he would have prepared a PowerPoint presentation. In that analog age, he instead prepared flip charts laying out the case for staying at Navy. This involved going into nuke power. Unfortunately, he gave this presentation the week after Three Mile Island blew. Really. Talk about your awkward timing!

I told him “Dad, I really appreciate the thought and effort, but that’s just not me.” As a compromise I agreed to attend the summer professional training (PROTRAMID) which involved spending a week at the surface, submarine, air, and Marine training facilities, and to defer making a decision until afterwards. But as soon as I got back to Annapolis, I prepared a resignation letter (a copy of which I found when cleaning out my mom’s house last month).

The usual routine was for a resigning Mid to have an exit interview with the Deputy Commandant. I did, but then I had one with the Commandant, and finally, the Superintendent (which almost never happens). The Supe was a bad-ass: Medal of Honor winner VADM William P. Lawrence. Admiral Lawrence asked me if there was anything heĀ could do to convince me to stay. I cheekily said “guarantee a slot in Naval Intelligence and I will consider it.” (I was really not interested in boats, especially the kind that went underwater, and didn’t have the eyes to fly.) He said that was not legally possible, so I said, “then there is nothing you can do.” We shook hands, then I saluted, did an about face, andĀ left.

Shortly thereafter, I went from alpha (the Academy) to omega (the University of Chicago). Many serendipitous twists and turns and 38 years later, and here I am.

A high point in that saga came about 25 years after I left Navy. My dad said to me one Christmas: “I thought you were making a big mistake, but you made the right choice.” That was good to hear, and I know he was right–the really important thing was that he knew it was right. It was the right choice to go, and it was the right choice to leave. When I look back–which I do seldom, and mainly on days like this–I do so with no regrets, and with pride. Pride at having gone there, but mainly pride at having no reason to regret deciding to leave.

* This is a Texan phrasing that I have adoptedĀ because it is so much more precise than “you”.

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  1. You didn’t complete the story. No juice.

    What explanations did you give during the interviews? What did the brass want to know?

    And shouldn’t the Texas formulation be you-all (hyphenated)? After all, it’s one word.

    Comment by Pat Frank — July 6, 2017 @ 8:53 pm

  2. @Pat-Inquiring mind! Well, since you asked–Interviews with 3 stars tend to be direct and to the point, especially interviews between a Midshipman 3d Class and a VADM. (I remember the sneer on the face of the Chief Petty Officer who admitted me to the Supe’s office. LOL.) He said he was disappointed that I was leaving, and that I was the kind of person they really wanted to retain. (I was 3d in my class.) He asked why I was leaving. I said that I had gone to the Academy believing that a career as a Naval officer was the right one for me, in large part because of my grandfather and uncle (who went to USNA). After being there, and seeing what life in the Navy was really like, I realized that I was not a very good follower and that I was more interested in scholarly pursuits. That’s when he asked what he could do to convince me to stay. (Naval intelligence seemed the most cerebral and analytical slot: most other career paths were engineering oriented even for non-engineering majors, and that had no appeal for me.) The rest of the story is in the post. This lasted minutes.

    I’m still learning Texan šŸ˜‰

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — July 6, 2017 @ 9:10 pm

  3. Fascinating. I have a boy who wants to join the army. There’s no tradition in the family apart from some call up for medics in WW2.
    UK army officer cadets (I’ve looked this up) do a general course and then can choose or be assigned to a specific branch but then can also be relocated to another as they get promoted.
    Is this a better system than the US?

    Comment by james — July 6, 2017 @ 9:55 pm

  4. @james; if your boy enjoys intelligent company he’d probably be best off in the sappers or the artillery. So I’m told.

    “the upperclassman (along with his roommate) who took a special dislike to me was really twisted”: there was an obviously twisted fellow in one of my freshman classes – the sort of fellow the girls steer clear of. Decades later I saw him on national TV news: he’d just been convicted of using his biochemist’s skills in the attempted murder of his wife. Since she survived his skills can’t have been of the highest.

    Comment by dearieme — July 7, 2017 @ 1:18 am

  5. dearieme
    I went to the place google advised, which turned out to be the wrong place. However, I met a very helpful staff sergeant in the Signals. He’d joined at 16. Advised me to avoid the infantry. “They tend to be a bit thick”.
    So the army has a class structure based on rank, regiment AND speciality. Must be baffling for the wives at the vets’ reunions.

    Comment by james — July 7, 2017 @ 10:05 am

  6. Holy crap Professor. I have never even known a murderer and you were the college roomie of a mass family killer. No surprise to me you left the Naval Academy. I can’t imagine someone so sick as an officer on a nuclear sub.

    Comment by pahoben — July 7, 2017 @ 11:39 am

  7. @pahoben. I know, right? But he wasn’t my roommate, thank God. He was an upperclassman (2 years ahead of me) who along with his roommate spent two years trying to bust my ass. I emphasize “trying.” Their repeated failures only drove them to greater efforts.

    My roommate (a 6’7″ redhead with a temper to match) once threatened to throw the murderer out the window of our 4th floor room at Bancroft Hall. In retrospect, it’s a tragedy he didn’t.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — July 7, 2017 @ 2:25 pm

  8. Having spent two years 1/2 of a century ago in a “school” for “exceptional children” I sympathize with your plight as an undergraduate! Just be thankful you weren’t in 8th grade when it happened! At least at that joint I expected to run into psycho types, though their methods were shall we say more direct!

    you made a good move and a brave one – congratulations

    Comment by sotosy1 — July 7, 2017 @ 3:00 pm

  9. Your story reminds me of one of mine. I was a pretty good high school athlete growing up in Iowa City and got offers to walk-on in two sports at the University of Iowa coming out of high school. Alas, my family was in the process of moving to Houston at the time as my father was leaving a long career at UI to become the first chairman of the Department of Medicine at the then new University of Texas Medical School in the Med Center. I jumped at the opportunity to leave sleepy Iowa City for the excitement of bustling Houston in 1972.

    I still had aspirations to play college sports, so I went to see UH football coach Bill Yeoman and asked if I could walk on. Coach Yeoman is a classy guy who could not have been nicer. He invited me to watch the team’s summer workout that day, which I happily accepted.

    I was amazed to see in that one workout more big, fast people than I’d seen in my entire life in Iowa.

    After contemplating that experience, I approached my father that evening and said: “Dad, I think I’m going to concentrate on my studies at UH and not go out for football.”

    Not even looking up from reading the evening newspaper, my father replied: “That, my son, is the smartest decision that you’ve made in your young life.”

    BTW, I’ve been reading Mark Bowden’s new book “Hue 1968” about the TET offensive and recommend it highly. One of the themes is the appalling impact of mediocre leadership. My sense is that you chose wisely.

    Comment by Tom Kirkendall — July 7, 2017 @ 5:06 pm

  10. Your experience is one reason there are academies. The academy life is sort of an overheated approximation of the real thing (by design). the NROTC experience is more linear. As a 26+ year naval officer (NROTC), I have no disdain for those that honorably chose another path, either prior to or after commissioning (well, except for the pilot who decamped the night before we sailed for Vietnam). It’s not for everyone.

    Comment by Craig Landon — July 8, 2017 @ 3:28 pm

  11. @Tom–Your body is probably thanking you now! Yes, a wise choice. Bought the Hue book on Kindle just now. I look forward to reading it. Curious to learn about what level of leadership Bowden believes failed most. I know there was failure at the White House, Pentagon, and MACV. Does it extend down further to III MAF, 1st Marine Division, battalion, company & platoons? I was under the impression that the grunts who did the fighting and the small unit commanders did quite well under trying circumstances.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — July 8, 2017 @ 10:20 pm

  12. Craig, Bowden depicts the leadership in the field as heroic. But the confirmation bias that existed in virtually any leadership position out of the field was appalling. It took precious days (and in some cases a couple of weeks) for leadership to understand what the Marines doing the fighting needed. That did not stop leadership outside of the field in giving orders to those in the field that were completely unrealistic and cost many lives.

    Comment by Tom Kirkendall — July 9, 2017 @ 6:20 pm

  13. You left Annapolis, but parts of you are still there. At least that’s what I find with me. I left USAFA a lot sooner than you did. Have a similar memory of BCT being very tough, but manageable. In my case, I was recruited there. I got to the end of BCT and saw the BS wasn’t going to end. I just wanted to go to school and play basketball. I went through a battery of interviews to get out. At the same time, I wasn’t listening. I was a stubborn kid.

    I am still acquainted with classmates. Some did 5 and out. Some did 25. I still like planes and flew in a P51 last year. It would be so fun to get a hop in an F-16.

    I actually liked the military part, and the physical part was fun. I hated the stupid knowledge part. Although, as I reflect back on Schofield’s address to West Point it’s a pretty damn good way to look at leadership.

    Looking back, it’s hard to know if I made the optimum (not right) choice. There are a lot of great things about Academies. But, hard to say how your life would have turned out. I could have gone to Columbia and played hoops too. I might have met Obama who would have been there at the same time.

    Comment by Jeffrey R. Carter — July 18, 2017 @ 5:30 am

  14. I should also add, I remember getting my mortar boards in the acceptance ceremony. It’s one of the few times I shed tears. You had to work hard for those stupid clouds they put on your shoulder but I felt good inside because I knew I had earned them.

    Comment by Jeffrey R. Carter — July 18, 2017 @ 5:32 am

  15. @Jeff-Yes, you can almost never escape a service academy altogether. I had regular Naval Academy dreams for 20-25 years afterwards. Haven’t had one in a while, but periodically something triggers a memory and I have very vivid recollections.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — July 20, 2017 @ 6:12 pm

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