The Sergeants were the most colorful members of the Xavier High School faculty and this is where I will introduce them, but please bear with me as I also continue the narrative.
Where We Left Off
I left off my account of the Xavier Regiment in the late sixties toward the end of my Freshman year. As I indicated that colorful as our role as subway commandos might have been, the military experience was pretty superficial. I had my first intimations of issues about American involvement in Vietnam as Martin Luther King came out against the war, throwing confusion into a 15 year old mind that wanted the forces of good to be well aligned.
Not Super Mil
It was the spring of 1967 soon to become the Summer of Love. Maintaining proper military appearance had become a tiresome chore that I knew I would never be good at. A brief attempt at cross country ruled out athletics. I was in the Chess club starting to go to tournaments in one of the most competitive parts of the country without benefit of much in the way of instruction. Ultimately we would form a Catholic High School Chess League to have some hope of winning. "Hi, my name is Ira. I go to Abraham Lincoln High School" was usually a bad sign at the tournament table.
More significant to my character was a growing sense of irreverence and disrespect for authority. Probably a natural part of being fifteen, but also being fed by the times. And here we have a bit of a literary diversion.
Not Your Classic Prep School
One of the peculiarities of literature about teenagers is that it seems to disproportionately involve teenage boys who attend prep schools. I think there are two reasons for this. One is that is that novelist is not a typical career goal for working class kids, but more a choice for those who have been part of the elite for three or more generations. The other is that dramatically the prep school constitutes a sealed world with all the characters subject to the same environment.
At any rate Xavier was a prep school in the sense that we were almost all college bound a large number of us to the best Catholic colleges in the country, a few to the Ivy league, a couple to the service academics and the less academically gifted to the infamous AFC (Any Fucking College). And with the uniforms and the history had some of the other attributes of the classic prep school attended by the likes of Holden Caufield or featured in A Separate Peace.
The big difference though was that we did not live there, but commuted, many of us from a considerable distance. As we arrived home in our uniforms we were likely sui generis. There was another Xavier student a few houses down from me. As I noted Dave Gallagher had been my inspiration to go to Xavier, but I can think of no others in Fairview and but three in Cliffside, only one of whom Eddie Kulesza was in my year. Kids who were closer in, like the ones who lived in Stuyvesant Town, the Irish ghetto, might have some overlap between their school and neighborhood friends, but not the likes of me.
So we did not exist inside a prep school bubble but were home with our families and hanging with our neighborhood friends and that influence remained quite strong Freshman year as I was less integrated into Xavier than I would become.
And the seeds of anti-Establishment thinking were scattered on the fertile ground of the boy who had been developing problems with authority for a while. I would get together with my grammar school buddies Bobby Einhorn and Denny Kondrat in Einhorn's cellar to listen to songs that they could not play on the radio like those of the Mothers of Invention. My brother had acquainted me with songs of Irish rebellion, something unfamiliar to many of my associates and there were the folk songs.
1967 was the Summer of Love and Einhorn and Denny and I were planning to go to San Francisco the following summer. Well, planning is probably too strong a word. The most memorable moment of that summer though was a sign of things to come. My mother arranged for me to work at Estabrook & Company, a brokerage house that would ultimately be absorbed by Dean Witter. My father spent his whole career there as a "senior order clerk" and there was just a bit of paternalism in the firm.
Standing in the open space with a view of New York harbor at 80 Pine Street among the desks where the reps sat, I heard one of them cry out in shock. The Dow Jones news feed was telling us that tanks were on the streets in Newark - the beginning of six days of riots that would leave over 20 dead. Summer of Love, my ass.
The most subversive influence came by way of Einhorn. Thanks to him I began listening to Jean Shepherd, of Christmas Story fame, who at the time was on the radio at night with monologues that you can get a taste of, but just a taste, from the voice-over in Christmas Story. Shepherd developed a fairly fanatical devotion among slightly nerdy adolescents who would follow his odd commands. The most well known was writing "Flick Lives !" on any available surface. If caught or captured rather than name, rank and serial number the Flick scribbler was to say "You wouldn't understand".
A New Beginning
Good grades and the advice of my homeroom and (Latin) teacher Mr. Lux SJ (i.e. a scholastic) landed me in the classics honors program. Homeroom 2-G. No science, Greek, Latin and German, Mr. Hands SJ taught us Greek marching us through Xenophon's Anabasis an interesting story for kids wearing uniforms - an army unable to accomplish its mission that must fight its way home.
One of the principles of Catholic secondary education in that era was that just about anybody could teach Latin or history and since you needed your coaches to teach something that might as well be it. That principle did not apply to 2-G when it came to Latin. We got John Scott (to distinguish from his brother Jim an English teacher) who was chair of the classics department. We did get a coach for American history though and having a history teacher who was less interested in history than I was had me a bit stirred up. We went through Turner's frontier theory and he asked if Turner had missed anything and brought up that he did not give enough consideration to the Indians (hey that was the term then). It was a little akin to the neo-abolitionism I stumbled on in the last post.
We also got top of the line when it came to English - Mr. Moroney a young guy but not one of the transients getting some other career underway. He would teach at Xavier for something like 40 years, but we knew him when. He was in his own way a subversive influence. Catcher In The Rye and Huckleberry Finn. And he required us to get the Sunday New York Times read the literary section the magazine and Russel Baker. My father had introduced me to Art Buchwald. Satire is another subversive force.
And that was the year that I formed lifetime friendships. Mike Oleske also in 2-G picked up on my Shepherd obsession - probably saw me writing Flick Lives! on a blackboard and introduced me to his fellow band member Tom Burns. Later Tom Burns would add John Sabini to our Unclique. We had a lot of adventures outside the school and by the time we were juniors would also drink a bit too much together.
Back To The Military
Having Dave Gallagher two years ahead of me clued me into a few things. One of the things he told me about was a special unit, that Freshmen were not eligible for that his friend Mike Lawson was in. The Regimental Supply Corps. The special units which made up the Third Battalion generally required something special. The band required musical talent. The color guard and the precision drill team the X-Squad required superior military appearance. The X-Squad further required a degree of insanity in my mind as people tossed around M-1s with fixed bayonets.
I don't want you to think that just anybody could get into the Regimental Supply Corps. First of all, you had to have heard about it. It was not really all that visible. And you had to pass a test. And I passed. I stood there in the arms room with outstretched arms while Dave's friend, Mike Lawson, now the commander of the Supply Corps (which also meant he was a Regimental Staff Officer - S-4) laid ten M-1s on my arms. An unloaded M-1 weighs about 10 pounds.
I don't know what else attracted me to it, but the big incentive was that the Supply Corps did not march. On review and parade days we showed up early and stayed late loading and unloading a truck on loan from the Army with band instruments and drill team rifles. We took turns staffing the arms room issuing drill weapons to the X-Squad and doing an inventory of everything even though most things never left the arms room. Tom and Mike mercilessly mocked the Supply Corps, but I defended it fiercely.
The Supply Corps had zero overlap with the rest of my Xavier life. I did not run into other Supply Corps guys in AP and honors classes. They did not play chess. The military model was something of a cross between Sgt Bilko and Hogan's Heroes. We got a patch (crossed M14s, a rather odd choice, a weapon just gone obsolete, but never to be venerable) and could wear a Kelly Green cord on our left shoulders. One of the few sartorial choices you had at Xavier was wearing a special unit cord on your left shoulder or an honor cord on your right shoulder (You could not wear both). It was very rare for a member of the Supply Corps to be faced with that dilemma. I always chose my unit over my academic standing.
We had two domains that were ideal for adolescents - windowless rooms with only one way out or in. The arms room at the end of the long corridor from the 16th St entrance, which was something of a boy wonder room. It is just a slight exaggeration to say that it could have outfitted the heavy weapons platoon of a WW II rife company a mortar, a bazooka, lots of M-1s, some M-1 carbines, BARs and M1911 .45s which were still the issue sidearm of the military,
The supply room where all the Army issue uniforms were. Less interesting stuff but more room for goofing around. The real joy of being part of the Supply Corps was its leadership, which finally brings us to one of the sergeants.
The Bodhisattva In The Basement
The supply room was the domain of Sergeant First Class McGowan. As a matter of fact one of the nicknames for the Supply Corps was McGowan's Maggots. Unlike the other sergeants he did not teach and did not wear a uniform. He exerted a calm benevolent influence tolerating a bit of mischief but never letting things get out of hand. I wish I had could give you anecdotes but it was something ineffable. We loved the guy. Being in the Supply Corps was like having an extra uncle thanks to Sergeant McGowan.
You'll Shoot Your Foot Off
The main thing that made for more of a military school beginning as Sophomores was Military Science, a regular subject incorporated in our academic program. As Sophomores and Juniors that is where we got to know the rest of the sergeants. For whatever it is worth one of my classmates, who was a career Army officer, wrote here that the instruction was of very high quality. That was my own impression also without any real life experience to back it up. As Xavier teachers the Sergeants were above average, which on reflection is not that surprising, given that the Army, whatever else it might be, is something of a learning organization and that it is likely that a focus in their careers had been teaching young men not much older than us.
Unlike other subjects where there would be one instructor for the year - Mr. Hands SJ for Greek, Mr. Moroney for English, etc - Military Science was divided into "blocks of instruction. Now I imagine in Air Force JROTC they could spend lots of time on aerospace science and in Navy JROTC you could have lots on navigation and why ships float. But this was Army with an infantry focus so after some tame Boy Scout stuff on uniforms and first aid and map reading, there was some hardcore stuff, although it is important to note that with one exception it was all classroom instruction.
Sophomore year we mostly had Staff Sergeant Daley. There were a couple of memorable moments. One was a story he told us about the dangers of blank ammunition, with which you could actually shoot yourself in the foot. That particular lecture about the various types of rifle ammunition was particularly rich in Sergeant Daleyisms. Another special type of round is that one that is used when a grenade launcher is attached to the rifle. If regular ammo is used by mistake the result is "Grenadier here, grenadier there, grenadier all over the place". Then the most disturbing one was when he speculated that a possible use for incendiary rounds might be a thatched hut in which you suspect there might be enemy soldiers. This sent Dave Posteraro, something of a sensitive kid over the top at the thought of burning down people's homes on suspicion.
We also had Sergeant Daley for the block of instruction on marksmanship in the basement rifle range with .22s fired at paper targets from the prone position (just like Boy Scouts). Sergeant Daley looked through a scope and corrected our aim. We learned from him that in the Army, "cunt hair" is a unit of measure.
The Black Irish
So we have had McGowan and Daley, so you might think that McMillen and Carney would then allow for an Irish quarter, but not so much. Sergeant First Class McMillen and Sergeant Major Carney were African-American. When I think of a soldierly soldier, I think of SGM Carney, who had a pretty long career at Xavier, heading up the program once it became optional and did not rate an active duty officer anymore. He was the one who made the "Black Irish" joke.
I could get into a rather complicated discussion of race, class and ethnicity, but I will save that for another post. Having a couple of impressive black men in authority over us could not have been such a bad thing.
There was this sometimes funny interaction between these kids who were being pushed in a liberal arts direction and the Sergeants, One class had a running gag on Sergeant McMilllen, somehow having convinced him that there was an extra kid in the class that never showed up. One time when there was an exam in the Weapons block of instruction, somebody put the answers on the board thinly disguised as mathematical formulae.
Sergeant McMillen was from the deep South and we sometimes had trouble understanding him. One time he was telling us a story about somebody who was a phony putting on a "facade". He pronounced it "fak-a-dee" and it took us forever to figure out what he meant.
Any temptation to mock Sergeant McMillen was gone from me after one of our reviews. As was the fate of the Supply Corps, I was involved in "policing up". Sergeant McMillen had an errand for me of some sort and he said "You see that truck at 75 meters". I looked at the truck and back at Sergeant McMillen with the Combat Infantryman's badge on his chest and something told me that if I were capable of pacing it off that truck would be within a couple of percentage points of 75 meters. There are at least two kinds of education.
Was That The Bell?
Master Sergeant Dower did not make quite as much an impression and more serves as an illustration of how mean teenagers can be. Sergeant Dower I had heard was a highly expert marksman. I think it was from him that we learned that the transition from the 1903 Springfield to the M-1 was not a total gain. At any rate, all that time on the rifle range had not been good for his hearing. What created the opportunity for mischief was that the clock in the military science class room was not on the central system but had a nob on the bottom.
When we came into the classroom, one of the kids would push the clock ahead a bit. Then a few minutes before class was to end, somebody would signal to Sergeant Dower that the bell had rung. He would look at the clock and dismiss us. It was pretty pointless as an extra few minutes of milling in the corridor was of no great moment, but you had to admire the evil genius behind it.
As part of the block of instruction on squad tactics, we got to watch two movies - The Squad in Attack and The Squad in Defense. Things were a bit nip and tuck in the Squad in Attack with one of the fire team leaders getting wounded but the generic enemy soldiers, vaguely German, were handily defeated. The Squad in Defense was even more interesting. You could tell that the enemy had seen "The Squad in Attack" as one fire team laid down covering fire as the other advanced in leap frog fashion, but when it came to what we had waiting for them - Holy Shit!. If they had half the stuff blowing up and booby traps and what not that we had ready for them, the Squad in Attack would have not had had such a happy ending.
The Coming Storm
Through Sophomore and Junior year, Military Science did not seem to have much to do with what was happening in the world. More like watching Combat only with more detail and a little hands on as we learned how to strip down the even then already obsolete M-1.
There was one incident in late 1967, that none of us would know anything about for a very long time, but it perhaps perfectly symbolizes the final chapter in the perfect correspondence between the Jesuits and the military. The "man for others" that the Jesuits hoped for and the officer who put the "mission and the men" over his own personal interest.
In 1967, for the first time, over 10,000 American s would die in Vietnam. Among them was one Donald Cook Class of 1952. Medal of Honor citations are marvelous pieces of prose summing up the essence of "above and beyond". More often than not the events described take place over the course of hours, not so that of Donald Cook.
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while interned as a Prisoner of War by the Viet Cong in the Republic of Vietnam during the period 31 December 1964 to 8 December 1967. Despite the fact that by so doing he would bring about harsher treatment for himself, Colonel (then Captain) Cook established himself as the senior prisoner, even though in actuality he was not. Repeatedly assuming more than his share of responsibility for their health, Colonel Cook willingly and unselfishly put the interests of his comrades before that of his own well-being and, eventually, his life. Giving more needy men his medicine and drug allowance while constantly nursing them, he risked infection from contagious diseases while in a rapidly deteriorating state of health. This unselfish and exemplary conduct, coupled with his refusal to stray even the slightest from the Code of Conduct, earned him the deepest respect from not only his fellow prisoners, but his captors as well. Rather than negotiate for his own release or better treatment, he steadfastly frustrated attempts by the Viet Cong to break his indomitable spirit and passed this same resolve on to the men whose well-being he so closely associated himself. Knowing his refusals would prevent his release prior to the end of the war, and also knowing his chances for prolonged survival would be small in the event of continued refusal, he chose nevertheless to adhere to a Code of Conduct far above that which could be expected. His personal valor and exceptional spirit of loyalty in the face of almost certain death reflected the highest credit upon Colonel Cook, the Marine Corps, and the United States Naval Service.
Scalia, of course, mentioned Cook in his speech to the Regiment and was his contemporary at Xavier. In the movie, which I hope will be made some day, one of the scenes will be Thanksgiving Day 1951, with the future Marine out on the field giving his all in the game with Fordham Prep while the future Supreme Court justice helps play a rousing version of the school song. I'm thinking that Sergeant Major Carney, played by Morgan Freeman of course, would make an ideal narrator.
There are some that will view what was coming as a moral decline from the past, but I think there was a lot of idealism going on in what was coming. 1968 would be worse than 1967 on the ground in Vietnam and the antiwar movement would move from the fringe to the center as all the Sons of Xavier kept marching onto what remained to be seen,
Peter J Reilly CPA hopes to finish this story soon as it is pulling him away from tax blogging, but it will take as long as it takes.