Sunday, October 24, 2010

Three and a butt days....

I write fiction. And I write non-fiction.

Sometimes it is hard to separate the two.

Like when you are writing something that is based on memory.

Memories can seem so real, so strong, yet they can be… deceptive.

And often just plain wrong.

I have been hung up on the VMI cadet-hazing-me-in-the- sallyport story. And I feel the need to address this feeling.

I mean, the event really happened. I was a plebe. I was walking through a sally port. It was night, and it was dark. And I got stopped and asked what was for dinner by what I thought was an upperclassman, but who subsequently revealed himself as a VMI cadet.

What confuses me is the timing.

I have this nagging feeling that the event in question happened on Friday night, not Saturday. Which makes no sense. As I would have been supposed to know what was for dinner. And it would probably have been something like pizza and Go Army cake. Not hard to remember. And why was it so dark if it was before dinner?

Maybe it was Friday night, after dinner, and the guy was asking me what was for dinner the NEXT night.

And why was I out and about in the dark? Where was I coming from? Where was I going?

And I am actually not sure the cadet was wearing Dress Gray either. I mean, he was definitely wearing a gray cadet uniform, but it may have been his hat or the insignia on his hat that he pointed out to signify that he was not a West Point cadet.

I just don’t remember.

What I remember is being pissed that this guy was having fun hazing me, and he wasn’t even a West Point cadet. Now, personally, I have nothing against VMI or VMI cadets. I am sure I probably know a few VMI grads. And Lord knows there were plenty of West Point cadets who were assholes. Yes, it is true, a certain percentage of that “cream of the crop” they were always telling us about were just plain jerk wads. I don’t care how creamy they were!

Heading back to West Point in less than a week now, I find all sorts of memories rise to the top.

All sorts of feelings.

Mixed emotions.

I am excited to see old friends. At the same time, I am a bit leery of it all.
It is true: I didn’t want to go to my last reunion, five years ago (the first reunion I EVER attended and the first time I had been back to West Point since 1986), but my friends threatened to do a drive by kidnapping and take me to West Point in the trunk of their car. I figured a more comfortable, civilized arrival was in order.

And, even though it poured down buckets and buckets of rain the entire weekend of the reunion, I really enjoyed myself. I enjoyed seeing old friends, old classmates, and I enjoyed seeing West Point again. As hard as that is for me to say. Because, truly, I was one of those people who watched West Point in my rear view mirror as I drove off post after graduation and vowed never to return.

Most West Pointers I know have a real love/hate relationship with West Point. I myself find it very difficult to put the word “enjoy” and “West Point” in the same sentence together, especially if I am talking about my four years spent there between 1981 and 1985.

At the time, I thought I was going be at West Point… FOREVER.

I thought it was never going to end, never be over.

I made some really amazing friends, some of whom I am still very close friends with today, and I did have some fun times, but overall it was an oppressive, demanding, difficult experience. I am very proud that I graduated from West Point, and I have very strong feelings about West Point. But I also am very ambivalent. There were a lot of negatives.

I did well at West Point. In fact, I excelled at West Point, in almost every area except athletics, where I struggled to be average. There were a few athletic things I was good at: swimming, gymnastics, pitching in mass athletic softball, and the indoor obstacle course (because I could do the shelf and climb a rope with relative ease – two things most women found very difficult). I cannot explain to you why I was any good at any of these things; I just was. I was terrible at running. And I had a huge complex about running. Even though I would usually go out running almost every day on my own or with a friend. I was just not a very fast runner. But I also had a mental hang up about running. One that I would never lose until after I graduated.

When I took my first PT test at OBC, I had the best running time of my life. And that gave me confidence. As a first lieutenant I volunteered to run remedial PT for my unit at Fort Hood, Texas and was dedicated to helping soldiers improve their pushups, sit-ups, and two mile run times. My lackluster athletic prowess at West Point and shame at not being a good runner there made me want to excel and help others be physically fit out in the real Army. I guess that is a good thing.

It was hard to be a woman at West Point. We were in the sixth class at West Point to have women, so by no means did we experience what the women of the Class of 1980 -- or any of the other very early years –went through, but women were still somewhat of a novelty. And there was considerable misogyny, sexual harassment, sexual assault, and antagonism towards us simply because we were women.

It was hard to be at West Point period. The West Point experience is designed to be challenging and tough, transformative. The mission of West Point is to develop officers to lead soldiers in the Army, often in combat.

But at times, there are really juvenile, nonsensical things that go on. Meaningless hazing, silly pranks, even, at times, downright cruelty. I guess this is what happens when you let young people pretty much run their own military show. There are bound to be some immature assholes who don’t “get” what it means to be a leader of men and women. Who don’t get what it means to lead by example. Who find pleasure in being cruel and insensitive and who really believe that they are God’s gift to women and the world.

I have said this before, and I am sure I will say it many times again. One of the best pieces of advice that my father, a West Point Class of 1939 grad who did not believe women should go to West Point, ever gave me was right before I left for West Point. He took me out into our backyard and showed me how to stand at the position of attention, how to do a left face, a right face, and an about face. And then he told me, “Two things: Always keep your sense of humor and remember, there are SOBs wherever you go.”

No greater words of advice were ever spoken to me.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Countdown: Less than a week...

A week from tonight I will be at a Marriott in Park Ridge, New Jersey.

Park Ridge, New Jersey? You may be asking.

It is somewhere off the Garden State Parkway, supposedly “not that far really” from West Point.

The Park Ridge Marriott is the official reunion hotel for my West Point class, the Class of 1985, which will be celebrating our 25th reunion.

We actually changed our reunion date to later in the fall, so that we could get a hotel closer to West Point; at our twentieth reunion (which is the only one I have ever attended) we ended up down by the Tappanzee Bridge. But, apparently, other classes, with more seniority than ours, heard of our brilliant plan, so they changed THEIR reunion weekend, too. So, we still ended up relatively far from our rockbound highland home.

I know, you are thinking: Didn’t you graduate in the spring? Why is your reunion in the fall?

Well, this is West Point we are talking about, and reunions tend to revolve around football games and football weekends.

At my last reunion, five years ago, it poured down rain the entire reunion weekend. It rained so hard they canceled the parade, and the football game, although held, may as well have been a water polo match. I am pretty sure Army lost. I can’t remember who they were playing, but I think it was a team from Michigan.

This year Army is playing VMI. I remember playing VMI my plebe year, and I think we, embarrassingly, lost. That was during the “Walker up the middle, Walker up the middle, Walker up the middle, punt” period of Army football. Before we discovered the wishbone secret that Air Force had mastered and had a stunning football season my firstie year, beating the hell out of both Air Force and Navy and going to a real, live bowl game. In Michigan.

The VMI game, though, was back in plebe year, when the Army team was not doing so well. And there were all these girls running around Michie Stadium in pink and green, groupies from Sweet Briar College, an all-girls school near VMI, there to support their “men.”

I remember getting hazed in a dark sallyport on Saturday night, after the game, by a cadet who emerged from the shadows to ask me what was for dinner. I was startled because Saturday dinner was optional and upperclassmen didn’t usually attend it and hardly ever asked us what was on the menu for that meal. I struggled to remember the menu but somehow managed to get it – or a close proximity thereof – out. I was waiting to get hazed by this upperclassman, as I was not at all sure I had been entirely accurate. Plus, what kind of asshole must he be to haze a poor lowly plebe on a Saturday night, AFTER we had just lost to effing VMI?

To my surprise, the upperclassman did not haze me, nor even question me further. In fact, a smile of intense smugness crept across his face.

Okayyyy… now, this was getting weird!

“Do you know who I am?” he asked.

“No, sir,” I replied.

Uh-oh. This could not possibly be good.

He laughed. “I’m not a West Point cadet,” he said, emerging fully from the shadows to reveal his fake Dress Gray uniform.

OK, now this was getting really bizarre. Was this supposed to be funny?

“I am a VMI cadet,” he said proudly.

I was pissed. It was a Saturday night, I was pinging back to my room, just minding my own business, and I get accosted by a VMI cadet who wants to haze me?????

You are not even a real cadet, I thought to myself. You are from VMI. Where you pay to get hazed. And you have nothing better to do with your time than pretend to be a West Point cadet and accost lone female plebes in a dark sally port after your goddamned football team just beat our sorry ass football team?????

And I just called you “SIR”?????????????????

The cadet laughed again. “I tricked you,” he said. “You thought I was really a West Point upperclassman.”

I looked at him for a brief moment and blinked and said, “Good evening, SIR!” and pinged on my merry way.