Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Memories -- of West Point Troublemaking

It’s funny, to me, how little things – a sight, an item, a sound – can bring back memories I haven’t had for years.

Recently, ferinstance, I was sitting at breakfast with my lovely bride and daughter, and I started fidgeting because I was done eating and they weren’t.  As luck would have it, I ended up holding my spoon and eyeing the salt shaker for no particular reason.  Suddenly I was transported back to a time when I was much more of a troublemaker than I am today: my years at West Point. 

Yeah, yeah, I know.  West Pointers are supposed to be disciplined automatons, the very antithesis of troublemakers, right?  Wrong.  We were all people, and all quite different once you looked beneath the grey and sparkly of our uniforms.  And hey, we were all college students, too.  Yes, West Point is declared every year to be one of the worst “party” schools in the nation by this poll or by that other one, and we grads are actually quite proud of that when it happens, but that doesn’t mean everybody there is a crispy-clean American version of Dudley Do-Right. 

As a matter of fact, very few of us met that description.  Pranks went on year-round, especially near special football games like the one against our naval brethren-at-arms.  We would regularly “rally,” or show our high level of football-fan spirit, by donning naught but jock straps and running around outdoors in the cold New York air.  Our being the ninth class that accepted girls brought a little hitch to that time-honored tradition, granted, but the girls neatly solved it by wearing black shorts under the jock straps and by putting shirts on over the important parts.  Still naughty, but not illegally so, it was.

Nearly everybody I knew there had at least a little bit of a wicked or wild streak, and some of us had more than a bit.  There was a “Century Man” designation for those who had over a hundred hours of punishment tours, and though I never earned that title I was always suitably awed by those who did. 

So you’re probably wondering what all this has to do with a spoon and a salt shaker, right?

Way back when I was at West Point, when dinosaurs roamed the Plain and when plebes (the freshmen) actually had it rough (sorry, Old Grad phraseology coming out there) we had to go eat breakfast.  We, the plebes, had to, that is.  The upperclassmen could go if they wanted, but none were required to attend so long as enough of them were present to keep us unruly Smacks in line. 

Breakfast, then, would find us sitting eight or nine plebes to a table along with one or two juniors or seniors who were always sleepily and grumpily sipping coffee and reading some sort of academic thing or another, getting ready for the day's more didactic activities.  That was a significant change from the regular meals, which everybody was required to attend and at which we sat two or three of each class to each ten-seat table.  Lunch and dinner were thus generally stressful events in a plebe’s life, while breakfast was more of a free meal overseen by upperclassmen who weren't quite awake and who didn’t really want to be there in the first place.

Two other items of note: the salt shakers were the round plastic restaurant variety, and the ice cubes were round tubes that fit particularly aerodynamically in the tea spoons that each place was set with.

And I was a burgeoning physics major.

It occurred to me one day that by laying the salt shaker over its side it became a smooth fulcrum for a spoon.  The spoon could then be used as a catapult for the ice cubes, whose tubular shape made them ideal for being catapulted.

I was sitting back to back with a girl I liked to pick on.  There was no particular reason for this other than her voice, which had a strange quality to it.  The honest fact was I came to both like and respect her as one of the best people, man or woman, I’ve ever met.  That morning, though, my little internal devil won the battle, and so I sized up the shot I needed to make to interrupt her breakfast.

Hey, man, both upperclassmen, at my table and hers, were doing their best impressions of sleeping in their coffee.  That little red guy convinced me I had a clean opportunity to raise some hell.

I took a trial shot.  The ice cube arced up and over my head and fell just behind its intended victim.  Close, but no cigar.  On the second shot, though, I proved my marksman status when the ice cube sailed over my head, came down just in front of hers, and landed right smack dab in her plate.


That pissed her off, it seemed.  I don’t blame her; I would’ve been angry, too.  Somehow I hadn’t thought quite that far ahead in my planning.  In her anger she took up the ice cube, turned around in her chair, and hurled it at me. 

And no, she didn’t throw like a girl.

Luckily for the contents of my cranial cavity, she missed.  The ice cube smashed against the wall next to my table, the clatter making enough noise to awaken the upperclassmen at the head of each of our tables, and then hoo, wee, the yelling began.  Boy, were we in trouble.  I think each of us got eight demerits and our first four hours of punishment tours.

At the time it was bad.  Years later, it was rather funny.

Oh – and hey, um, kids, don’t do as I did, okay?


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