by John H. Price III
You probably know someone who was destined to serve in the military. A person like my older son, Tim, who as a child enjoyed playing with toy guns, sword fighting with sticks in the back yard and carefully arranging his army of plastic soldiers into complex battle formations. I remember him as a twelve-year old asking about my experiences as an MP in the early 1970s. After retrieving the dusty, yellowed box of my service stuff from the attic, I let him look through. He slipped the lanyard of the nickel-plated whistle over his neck and pulled on the oversized, now dirty, white gloves I had worn nearly twenty years before. He fingered my old PFC and SPC4 patches and West Point insignia and asked again what I had done as a soldier. He sat alongside me, rapt, as I told him about basic, AIT, and hit the high points of my time as an MP at West Point. My heart swelled as I realized how proud he was of his Dad, how much we loved each other. It was one of those special moments I have fondly relived many times.
Toward the end of his junior year of high school, Tim’s mother and I began compiling a list of colleges with highly rated engineering programs which also offered ROTC. We whittled down the list based on distance from home and tuition cost.
Tim was an athlete, a sprinter and football player, although his lack of size cut short his gridiron career before he made varsity. His grades placed him in the top fifth of his graduating class, and we figured he would have his choice of colleges. He and I traveled to NC State, Delaware, Maryland, UVA and William and Mary the summer before his senior year. When it came time to apply, his guidance counselor suggested he consider four schools. Since most colleges charged an application fee of as much as $100, I suggested he only apply to schools he really wanted to attend. The final list included Penn State, NC State, Delaware and VA Tech. Acceptance letters arrived in the mail toward the end of the year, and Tim was offered spots in the freshman class of all four schools. His mother and I were both Penn State grads, but the cost of out-of-state tuition was beyond our means, so Tim wrote to them to say he would not be attending. The more we heard about Tech, the better it looked, and NC State and Delaware bit the dust when Tim opted to be a Hokie and join the Corps of Cadets.
With my military experience, I was familiar with the physical demands of basic training and told Tim what to expect. He had all summer to prepare himself for what was likely to be a difficult eight weeks as a new cadet. My son was nicknamed “the master of disaster” by some of his friends, due to his habit of waiting until the last minute, but still managing to get things done well and on time. He spent the summer working a part-time job, smoking cigarettes, drinking beer and sleeping-in after nights out with his friends on weekends—not the training regimen I had envisioned. After reminding him several times of what lay in store, I gave up. This kid was going to have one hell of a wake-up call in a matter of weeks, and would be unlikely to master this looming disaster.
We packed his things per the list provided by the Corps of Cadets, and made the four-hour drive to Blacksburg on a sweltering, humid Saturday in late August, 1997. After stowing his gear in his second floor dorm room, we met with other new cadet families in the Corps dining facility where we were addressed by the Commandant of Cadets. The only contact allowed with our cadets for the next two weeks would be written correspondence. No phone calls, no visits. If Tim decided to leave the program prior to “decision day,” eight weeks into the fall semester, he would be charged $1,200 for the cost of his uniforms and would have to withdraw from classes until the start of spring semester, forfeiting the cost of tuition for the fall semester. The Corps was not going to make it either cheap or easy for a cadet to quit the first time he or she had a bad day. This wasn’t their first rodeo. We left Tim in the capable hands of his cadre, already missing him on the long and strangely silent trip home.
His mother wrote loving letters to her first-born son every day for the first two weeks. I warned her he would not have time to write back, so she should not be concerned when she didn’t hear from him. When she asked me what he would be doing every day, I downplayed the fact that Tim would be getting little sleep with constant physical training, interrupted only by periods of drill and ceremony practice to prepare the cadets for their first parade when families arrived for the initial visit.
We left Richmond well before daybreak that Saturday morning in early September. The weather fair and mild; it was a pleasant day to make the trip. The sun inexorably chased away the fading shadows of night as the world gently awoke. It was quiet in the car, each of us lost in our own thoughts. Even Tommy, our younger son, had missed his big brother, though while they were together at home, all they seemed to do was bicker.
That first parade was wonderful to watch, all three of us so proud to see Tim in his immaculate blue uniform and white gloves, marching in tight formation as if he had been doing it for years. After the parade, the cadets returned to the upper quad, formed up, and were finally dismissed to seek out their families. As their first opportunity to leave campus, they were permitted to change into civilian clothes for the afternoon. Tim showed us his room, much neater than when we left two weeks before, and introduced us to his roommate.
He had lost some weight and looked exhausted. Relieved to see us, Tim gave us an overview of the prior two weeks, though I know he toned it down for his mother’s benefit. Later, when he and I were alone, he whispered, “Dad, you have to get me out of here.” He went on to say that this was not at all what he had expected, and that he was tired of constantly being yelled at and harassed.
I reflected back on my own experience at basic training over twenty-five years earlier, and the phone call I made to my parents. When I complained, just a little, my Dad’s voice turned cold and hard-edged as he told me to quit whining and suck it up. Gut-check time, man up. I was angry with myself for having disappointed my Dad, a WWII vet. I never complained to him again after that. Any hopes I had of getting some sympathy went up in smoke.
I reminded Tim that he had done absolutely nothing to prepare himself for this experience, even after my frequent warnings. We could not afford to pull him out of school, but when “decision day” came at mid-semester, if he still felt the same, we would talk. He desperately wanted some sympathy, just as I had, years ago, but this experience was a rite of passage, part of becoming a man, a trip he had to make on his own.
We corresponded infrequently over the ensuing weeks. He was allowed to use email, and there was the occasional phone call, mainly to his mother, but the topic of his leaving the Corps was never again discussed. The next time we saw Tim was for the mid-semester parade in October. The weather was much cooler, sunny and breezy, the leaves changing color and fall in its full splendor.
The cadets were impressive in showing their close-order drill skills with several more weeks of practice under their belts. There is a visceral reaction evoked by watching a military parade, complete with martial music from a top-flight band. It is difficult to convey the enormous sense of pride you feel, realizing that your son or daughter is part of this well-trained unit passing in front of you. It was a challenge to pick Tim out of the ranks of cadets, all with closely cropped hair and freshly pressed uniforms.
The tension ramped up as he was dismissed after the parade and we walked toward him. He stopped fifty feet away, calling Tommy over first. When his younger brother tentatively embraced him, Tim boomed out, “You call that a hug? I’ll show you a hug!” He wrapped Tommy in a bear-hug that reminded us how much he loved his brother and had missed him. Mom, nearly in tears, was next. I gave them some privacy before walking over to shake Tim’s hand and embrace him myself. He was stronger and seemed more confident. As I hugged him tightly he grinned and whispered, “Dad, I can do this, I have it figured out now.” The tension was broken. Pride and relief flooded in. He had finally cracked the code, and realized that all of the yelling and harassment served a purpose. The upper-class cadets were simply trying to weed out the weaklings, to make the Corps a team where the individual was never as important as the group. We saw other families whose sons and daughters had opted out, and were moving to civilian dormitories.
As we ate lunch, Tim shared stories of some of the cadets who were leaving the program. Many of these kids had joined the program for the wrong reasons, frequently because their fathers, not the cadets themselves, thought it was a good idea to be in the Corps. I thought back to that day Tim and I spent rummaging through my dusty box of Army mementos and knew this had been his decision, not mine. The last eight weeks had confirmed it. He could do this.
We didn’t visit as often after that watershed moment, but on the trip home, Tommy told us how relieved he had been when Tim locked him in that crushing bear hug. He had been worried that Tim would forget about him now that he was away, that Tim wouldn’t want to see him. I had spent a lot of time explaining to my two boys that they always had to be there for each other. Apparently, they had been listening.