DUTY, HONOR, COUNTRY
VMI and the Citadel are the only two state-run, male-only schools in the country today. As I write these lines the Supreme Court of the United States has at last put an end to this unconstitutional practice. They were the last of a kind: building discipline and loyalty through the "adversative" method, which relies on arduous physical routines and constant humiliation. West Point was the model for both of them. I was a cadet at West Point before the change. I was there when all cadets had them and could be heard knocking them together, if you know what I mean, at the command of some dumb upper-classman. I will come back to this later.
My going to West Point was really a fluke. It was not supposed to happen. Sister Maura was Superintendent of Schools at Peñasco when I graduated in 1941 but by 1946, i.e. after the Dixon case decision which ordered all religious folk from public schools she no longer occupied an official position with Peñasco Schools. However, Georgia L. Lusk who was Superintendent of Schools for the State of New Mexico was now running for Congress. She contacted Sister Maura about political support and casually mentioned that she would take her recommendation in making nominations for the Military and Naval Academies at West Point and at Annapolis. I happened to be home from the School Of Mines and Sister Maura called me to come to see her. She asked, "How would you like to compete for an appointment to West Point?" I agreed to it and shortly thereafter I was named a third alternate to the single vacancy that Congresswoman Lusk had. Her nephew Ralph E. Craig from Tucumcari was the Principal and two other people, one from Las Cruces and some one from Albuquerque were the first and second alternates. All were Anglos, I was the only Hispanic. The rules were, if the Principal passes all the physical and mental exams he got the appointment. If he fails, then the first alternate gets a crack at the appointment, and so on. Hardly ever does a third alternate get the appointment. In my case the principal, the first and second alternates failed one or the other of the exams. We had all traveled to Fitzsimons Hospital in Denver to take the West Point aptitude tests in March of 1947.
Well, I got the appointment and after conferring with Isabel, we decided that I would go and that she would wait for me. We would get married after graduation. As Isabel would say many years later we became "somewhat" engaged. I did buy a ring at Duran's Drug Store in Albuquerque.
So on to the big city I went. I must have gone by train, I have no recollection of the trip. When I got to New York City I checked into the YMCA as it was the day before I was to report to West Point.
On July 1, 1947 I got off the train at West Point and was met by Army enlisted personnel who delivered me to the Central Area. My whole life changed from then on. Believe me it took an abrupt change immediately. Two First Classmen in neat Dress Gray over white made sure of that. I was a real country kid with no prior knowledge of the West Point system. They had fun with me. In contrast, Dave Phillips, the first classmate I met, was a graduate of Bullis or maybe Sully's. (Be careful how you pronounce the first.) He already had memorized the Plebe Bible. His father was a graduate and his older brother had been with the class of '50 and joined us as a turn-back in the class of '51. The upper classmen could ask anything out of the Plebe Bible and Dave knew it. I did not even know that the little book was called a Bible, much less that I would have to memorize it. This poor little country boy from northern New Mexico would have a hell of a lot to learn. My cultural handicaps began to cause me problems. At meal time Plebes sit on a third of their chair, with their eyes lowered, you do not gaze around and you speak only when spoken to. When an upperclassman asks, "Dumbsquat, how is the Cow?", you are supposed to respond with, "Sir, she walks, she talks, she is full of chalk, the lacteal fluid extracted from the female of the bovine species is prolific to the nth degree." The nth was the number of glasses that you estimated still left in the milk pitcher. For some reason it got into my head that the word "bovine" was like boxom and that it referred to the part of the cow's anatomy that stores the milk, "el hubre" in my lingo. So my response would be, "Sir, She walks, she talks, she is full of chalk, the lacteal fluid extracted from the bovine of the female species is prolific to the nth degree." Every upperclassmen would burst out laughing, I had no idea why, and of course, I got driven around. To be "driven around" meant you had to report to your squad leader before every formation. There he gave you a special inspection. My squad leader was Ed Kritzer, an expert. He had an opportunity to find lint on brow, lint on rifle, or your shoes un-shined!. Each one of these infractions cost you a demerit. If you had more than 13 in one month you walked the area on Wednesday and Sunday afternoons. You walked off one demerit per hour. Yes, I walked a few beginning in September of '47 on completion of Beast Barracks, which is the period between July 1st., when you first report in and the start of the academic year after Labor Day week-end.
Needless to say Beast Barracks was indeed hell, and a particularly tough hell for me. To my knowledge I am the first Chicano to graduate from West Point. Louis Mendez from Colorado had graduated in '47, however, he did not consider himself a Chicano. Bob Garcia from Texas had been with the Class of '50 but was found during cow year. Any other Hispanic name you encounter in the Register of Graduates, for those early years, was either a Filipino or a South American usually the son of a President such as the son of Anastacio Somoza of Nicaragua, who graduated in 1947. Those people hardly qualify as Chicano. They were all extremely rich and pampered throughout their lives and at West Point as well. Most graduated at the bottom of their class, except for the Filipino cadets who usually graduated at the top of their class. Fidel Ramos, President of the Philippines is an example, he was a star man in the class of '50. Florencio Magsino was a star man in my class. A star man is someone who is in the top 10% of his class in every subject. I graduated close enough to the top to make the engineer football team. The top third of the class (the Engineers) plays the bottom third, (the Goats) on Thanksgiving day of cow year. The middle third cheers.
After beast barracks I joined Company A-2. The Corps of Cadets consisted of
two Regiments of twelve companies each. A-2 means A Company of the Second
Regiment. In those days you were assigned to a company on the basis of size. It was generally understood that the runt companies ran a tougher plebe system. Shortly after joining A-2 in the fall of 1947, a Cow (Junior year cadet) by the name of Irv Hammer came up to me at a meal formation and whispered in my face, "I am going to drive you right out that front gate, do you understand, Doowhistle." Beast Barracks continued for me. I continued to rake in demerits.
Sam Dickens was my roommate all four years at West Point. There were one or two others each year. Cece Nist was my other roommate First Class year and Bud Bacon and Pete Thomas were our roommates either Yearling or Cow year. I do not remember who was our roommate Plebe year but it must have been John Spach however, he resigned at the end of Yearling year.
Sam, Cece and I developed a fair tennis game the last year and it was the only individual sport that I kept up after graduation. Each cadet must take a course in Handball, Squash, Golf, Wrestling, Fencing, and Boxing. I was the A-2 Company Team Softball pitcher Plebe year and was on the Boxing team Yearling year.
As indicated above, assignment to a Cadet Company was on the basis of height. In A-2 there was an exception. An exception that at the time no one seemed to question. Charles Smith and David Carlisle were two black men in A-2. Charles was a Cow and David was a Yearling; Charles was a runt, David was almost six foot. So what gives? They also roomed together. Yes, Jim Crow was still practiced at West Point in the late 1940's. I do not believe there was another case of cadets of different classes sharing a room anywheres in the Corps of Cadets!
Also as indicated earlier I spoke of Cadets having them. This was code for balls. An upperclassman would yell, "Let me hear you knock them together." You were supposed to yell as loud as possible and the loudest is possible if you knock them together! So the theory goes. A large part of the Plebe system was like that. (After West Point became co-ed in the 1970's I suppose that it is knockers that some cadets knock. Does that make sense?) It was supposed to build character. Some of it probably did some of it did not. I am probably one cadet on whom the system had a minimal effect. I did not take it too seriously. The Class of '51 Yearbook, The Howitzer bears this out. It says about me, "If ever is seen a man in a crowd with a smile on his face and a devilish look in his eyes, that'll be Andy. It must have been that wartime south sea life as a TBM gunner on Navy carriers that cured him of an old human trait of worry. Andy made the unification transition with a chest full of "fruit salad," convincing proof of his ability and continued success in the military field."
Cadets go home on leave the first time after completing Plebe Year. I came home the summers of '48, '49, and '50, also for Christmas of '48 and '49. For Christmas of '50 Isabel went to West Point for the first time. She went to a Hop with me. LeRoy was a Plebe that year and Greg was in Prep School at Newburgh. The Santa Fe New Mexican ran a full page story about the Chacón brothers at West Point and used a picture of the three of us with Isabél at one of the Hops at Cullum Hall at West Point.
When Isabel returned to Peñasco she was sick with pneumonia, but she recovered and during Spring break went east to get ready for our wedding. She lived at Highland Falls at 39 Church Street with Mrs. Kurtis who also rented to Marty who became George Reid's wife. George was an A-2 file. We had very little money. On Wednesday afternoons and on weekends, if I did not have to work off demerits we got to see each other for a couple hours. A big treat was a hot dog and an Orange Julius. We were very poor.
Graduation was on June 5, 1951 and we were married at the Catholic Chapel by Father Joseph Moore on the next day. Sam Dickens' father gave the bride away. LeRoy was the best man and Dottie Filippini was the Maid of Honor. Flowers at our wedding ceremony were courtesy of the previous wedding (I believe the Delmar Rings or the Gene Marshes) that day! The total wedding party was less than a dozen people.
Matilda and Gabina Casaus friends of Isabel had gone by bus to be with us for graduation and for our wedding. They had to take the bus back as we had to take a detour in Greenville, Mississippi to locate housing at the site of our first assignment, Basic Flying School. We also did not quite know how we were going to make it to Peñasco without money.
West Point was not all smelling the roses. It was a tough row to hoe even for
this little old Peñasco dirt farmer, with the "sunny" disposition. Like Henry O. Flipper, I was even "silenced" for awhile, not the famous West Point "silence" for an honor violation, but for a "spat" among roommates I learned later.
And when our work is done
E'er may that Line of Gray
(The Plebes of '54 said!!!)
To Mr. Phillips and Mr. Chacon,
We'll start with our table Com,
Though he's just a young Lt.,
And to his left a married man,
Mrs. Chacon, his noble wife,
To the Cows we cast our glance,
One who is lost without his specs,
The other Cow, he eats plenty,
Of the Yearlings, we'll take Baker,
Another of the third estate,
With Mr. Kinney we'll end it all,
Relax we're only kidding.
Plebes of '54.
Free Lance Writer & Ex-Adjunct Professor, UNM
Chicano Motivational Speaker.