I received my acceptance to USNA via a yellow telegram on 16 June 1970 at 11:55am. “pleased to announce that you are fully qualified for my principal appointment to the Naval Academy.” Russell B. Long US Senator. Quite the achievement considering it was nearly the height of avoiding the draft where nearly no one volunteered for a billet in the military.
I informed my supervisor at the Pelican Ice House that I would no longer be the carpenter’s helper, thinking to myself that some other fool desperate for $50 a week could go up and down those ladders in the haze of ammonia vapors from 730am to 4pm. Of course, 50 simoleons weekly seemed large when my first year pay as a midshipman reduced my walking-around cabbage to $50 per month. The carpenter, a retired Army sergeant, was incredulous upon hearing my story of an appointment to an Academy, thinking that I was ducking-out of hard work. I brought him my telegram to prove my assertion. There were a few times that I considered immediate alternatives to the likes of tyrannical upperclassmen, YP training, P-rades, EE anything and Brigade Seats when I would then consider the worse of the two evils beingthe heat, tedium and bone-tired exhaustion of those few weeks in the Pelican Ice House. Of course, until I qualified as EOOW.
After my Western Union missive, my first thought was “how should I pack?” How much underwear does one need for four years away from home?! Fortunately, I went to camp for a few weeks one summer to learn that two pair is all that one needs for a journey of every duration. Steve Frick’s brother was home from West Point and advised me that you will need nothing as they “issue it all to you.” Issue seemed like a weird description, but I figured it had something to do with being in the Army. So, I packed a small suitcase.
My less than two weeks remaining at home were carefree (home of record for 18 years; dissolved in less than two weeks). Don’t get me wrong. I never believed that I’d last more than 6 months at the United States Naval Academy, home of scholars, athletes, future war heroes and Roger Staubach. I did figure that a few months there was better than my immediate prospects of no other college acceptance (my plan was to enroll at LSU later in the summer, although Tulane University offered me an NROTC scholarship……in late August of plebe summer (college began after Labor Day in those days). I was sort of getting the drift that I being invited to join things after every other possible candidate had either said ‘no, thanks’ or had died unexpectedly. The only other tales that compare to mine are Jimmy Schreiber who had a four year NROTC scholarship to Stanford, then the hippies burned-down the NROTC building in protest over Vietnam which suspended the ROTC program and retracted Jimmy’s offer. He graduated 56th in our class, P-3 NFO, Harvard Law School and now a senior IBM patent attorney. A level headed chap, for sure, unless he dives into that second martini where tales of opportunity missed and what could have been a la Stanford surface to the level of that olive. The other late to the party mid was Robert McCabe who joined our plebe class in late August after enough had mustered out to make room for him. He became commanding officer of at least 3 ships.
My high school friends had a surprise party for me. The ruse was that we were off to see the Woodstock movie but forgot the tickets. We returned to my home to be greeted by more than I imagined who I suppose were curious what a future dead person would look like (Vietnam, right?!). My girlfriend’s father was even more nice to me and eased-up on the curfew and the instant greeting at her front door after a date. I still want to see that Woodstock movie.
On Sunday 28 June, we had an afternoon dinner at my girlfriend’s home; they were Italian and this is what they did after church every Sunday. I tried to find this house about 8 years ago. Gone due to Hurricane Katrina. After dinner, we drove around, bemoaning our impending separation and promising to write every day. Letters, remember those!?
We picked up my mother and drove to Moisant Airport in New Orleans. Two memories are vivid: my mother gave Gerry and I a few minutes alone, then misunderstood the actual departure time of the flight. We never said goodbye in a traditional way, which was fine, and maybe lots of deep-seated meaning could be assigned to this twist of fate and my resultant shortcomings as an adult. The other memory is that I had $20 in my wallet.
Arrived at Friendship Airport around 2200. Me and my suitcase packed with underwear; soon to be replaced by a B-4 bag. I find a Blue Diamond cab at the curb. Ask for the fare. Am told $20. I say that all I have is $20. He agrees to $12.
We get to USNA at the old main gate. Mr. Jimmy Legs directs me to the Field House as I am in search of my overnight accommodations. I was supposed to find a rack in Rickets Hall I later learned. I never saw Rickets Hall except through the eyes of a sleep deprived plebe-to-be. Here’s why. No one, and there was only one or two people around the Field House, knew what to do with me. There were no rooms, no racks, no reception area, no sign-in; just me asking where to go to join the Naval Academy. Others had passed through earlier in the day, yet this gent had no idea what became of them. Somehow, somewhere he found a room or a waiting area where I was welcomed to stay for the night. Seemed odd to me, but then again, I was from New Orleans. Odd is normal there. So, I slept on a two person couch as best as I could.
In the morning, very early, I was roused by an official looking guy in a kakhi uniform who checked my name on some list on his clipboard, commenting that ‘they had been wondering about me.” This was to be the theme of the day.
I recall the breakfast in the mess hall. Lots of chatter and talking and camaraderie, even with this guy who was a senior or first-class as he put it. Cracked me up. 1st class. Like some cabin on an ocean liner.
I’m not sure of the order of the day but the (mis)adventure began for me at the issue of our gear in the serpentine corridor below Bancroft Hall outside the Midshipman Store. Two moments of that afternoon are emblazoned in my mind’s autobiographical movie. One, I stood in line behind a future Federal prison inmate who regaled me with stories of his impending success due to his family’s military heritage (his dad was a commander, as if I knew what that was). He enjoyed a sterling career from beginning at USNA until his crash-landing as commanding officer 20 years later for falsifying travel documents and misspending ship’s funds in order to routinely visit his GS-15 paramour.
The second vivid memory of that day, and it had to be a living dream, was that I could not find my way from the Midshipman Store along the tunnel, up a ladder to our rooms in the 6th Wing. I dragged my issue up and down that tunnel for several hours. I kept getting referred to a ladder up to the a placed called the Rotunda (RowTundra?) which would lead me through a series of passageways, to a wing and up a ladder to my deck. I was bewildered. I transversed the same ground dozens of times, dragging my seabag and laundry bag of issue, sweating in discomfort, strung-out from the near all-nighter at the Field House and delirious with frustration that no matter how many times different people told me a different way to get from here to there, I couldn’t figure it out. I’m sure that I spent, at minimum, 2 hours trying to just get where I was supposed to be. Irony Alert, indeed!
Maybe the universe was trying to tell me something? Somehow, I found the rabbit hole or the Stargate to the 6th Wing. I believe that someone led a couple of us there. Upon arrival, many members of Hotel Company were in the ‘passageway’ standing outside of the doors to their rooms. I and we were greeted, actually reamed-out, for being late and making my new classmates suffer due to our /my tardiness on station.
I am not clear about how I got into my new white-works uniform; when was the oath-taking ceremony; or much else beyond finding room 6332. The Pelican Ice house, Gerry Rotonti, Woodstock all seemed so very, very far away.