Early Lessons Learned at a Chicago Military Academy

Dad-naval-officer-photo-story-Our-Picture-of-the-Month-USS-George-F.-Elliot

(Dad was a naval academy graduate '32, and gunnery officer in WWII, and retired after 30 years as a senior Navy Captain)

The Morgan Park Military Academy developed character, demanded military discipline, and molded young men for war. After we moved to Chicago in the fall of 1954 with our home two houses away from M.P.M.A., Dad asked Chip and me, “How would you like to attend the Academy?” He and his brother, Uncle Paul, were graduates and Dad knew the Commandant, Captain Gray. “The Academy requires discipline, has an honor code, excellent scholastics, and sports. Their tuition is steep, but their reputation will help when you apply for Annapolis.”

Chip, Uncle Paul, and Dan, MPMA father's day football game 1954

Dan, Uncle Paul, and Chip, M.P.M.A. father's day football game 1954

 

Both of us wanted to visit, see the uniforms, and meet someone who knew its features so we could compare it to Morgan Park High School where our cousins attended. We walked across the extensive athletic fields to the four-story stone ivy-covered building where Dad introduced us to Captain Gray. He was immaculate in his starched Army uniform with numerous medals and ribbons that decorated and added to his military stature. Advanced mathematics was the subject he drilled students on for years with intensity. His eyes spoke of battles and steel discipline that had regimented his life and complimented granite features: hard, firm, and durable. That frightened me. It made him seem unapproachable. Strutting back and forth in his office with hands clenched behind his back, his chest full, he peered down upon us with wrinkled brow, pompous, and self-important. We exited at the earliest glad to breathe fresh air outside.

 

“Be careful when near Captain Gray,” said a cadet in a grey uniform in response to a question about the icon.  “He slaps students with a ruler on the back of their hands who doze in class and launches into tirades against any cadet not reading during study hall. Despite his temper, everyone respects him.” Chip and I both felt an attraction to the academy routine, impressive uniformed cadets, academics, marching band, and sports. We both decided we wanted to follow Dad’s example and advice.

 

Dad scheduled a tailor to measure us for uniforms in an inventory room where we tried on the gray jacket connected by gold buttons, black belt with burnished brass buckle, gray slacks that had a black stripe down the side, and cap whose black visor glistened with M.P.M.A. gold insignia. “You can pick up da uniforms in tree days,” said the Germanic wrinkled tailor.

Alumni Hall MPMA

(Alumni Hall Morgan Park Military Academy)

Dad took us to a department store for white shirts, black ties, and black shoes. He led us down to the basement of our three story house one-half block from the Academy for a lesson on how to put an Annapolis “spit-shine” on new shoes. His shoes were dazzling every time he wore them. With a shoeshine kit, smooth rags, polish, water, he placed the index finger on a rag, twisted it tightly, dipped it into a jar of water, and applied it to the shoes by a tedious process. In an hour after making a series of circles with a rag tee-shirt, our shoes looked like glossy mirrors.

 

M.P.M.A. assigned us to different companies in the brigade of cadets. An entering freshman begins as a “plebe,” the lowest Academy status. Plebes had to memorize songs, cheers, M.P.M.A. history, military trivia, and address upperclassmen as “sir.” My first day I reported to my company commander, a well-groomed and rigid statue.  “Cadet Dan Lavery reporting, sir,” I said when I marched to him, stopped, saluted, and clicked my heels.

“Plebe, you’ll report to this company every formation in the last row in alphabetical order with the other plebes. Form up now.”

 “Yes, sir.” After an about face I marched to the rear of the platoon, noticed the name-tags to determine where to stand, and passed young cadets whose eyes remained staring straight ahead. Plebes like us met with their companies two times a day as commuting cadets for the morning and noon formations. Boarding cadets had an additional formation at evening meal. The platoon leader inspected the cadets every morning formation after breakfast and at roll call.

 The first week in Military Studies they showed a movie, "The Lost Patrol". Twelve British cavalrymen had lost their bearings in an Arabian desert suffering from thirst and scorching heat. An Arab had killed the only commissioned officer leaving a sergeant in charge of eleven men. They wandered until at an oasis they filled their canteens and rested in the shade. The sergeant wanted them to leave after only one day, but they argued, “Why should we leave paradise?” While they slept, Arabs killed their sentry, took their horses, and snipers killed eight more leaving the sergeant, another soldier, and Boris Karlof, who played a religious lunatic.

MPMA

(Morgan Park Military Academy)

 A friendly airplane discovered them and landed. The pilot was nailed by a sniper as he exited the plane. With glazed eyes, Karlof made a suicidal charge holding a large wooden cross. After the other soldier died, only the sergeant survived who dispatched the remaining Arabs with a machine gun from the airplane. Our Army instructor emphasized how soldiers must prepare diligently for any emergency and not make the foolish mistakes the film displayed: the patrol had no compass, the officer didn’t communicate the plan, and the men acted irresponsibly. In all the war films I had seen, our troops had vanquished the enemy. This film made me realize war could easily put me in a helpless situation on the battlefield. Dad advised if we chose the Navy, even in war, we would always have a warm bed, meal, and movie on a ship.

Blake Hall MPMA

(Blake Hall MPMA)

 A handsome Army Captain in his pressed officer’s green jacket and khaki uniform taught us English Composition and began with Stephen Crane’s, The Red Badge of Courage. During a battle 19-year-old Private Henry Fleming survived what he considered a lost cause by escaping into a forest and deserted his battalion. He joined a group of injured men. “Where did the enemy wound you?”A “Tattered Soldier” asked.

Embarrassed that he had no wounds, Henry left the scene. After deciding to run, he joined a part of the army still fighting and felt responsible for saving himself. When he learned his battalion won the battle and had not fought a suicide mission as he had thought, his guilt sprouted like a cactus stabbing him. When he returned to his battalion, a soldier hit him on the head and injured him with the butt of a gun.

The other soldiers believed an enemy bullet had grazed him when Henry returned to camp that restored his confidence. The next morning he went into battle. While looking for water, he learned from the commanding officer his regiment had a snail’s reputation. The officer spoke casually about sacrificing the “mule drivers.” With no regiment to spare, the general ordered his men forward. Henry became an aggressive fighter and flag bearer, finally proving he did have courage.

 Our instructor cautioned against finding an easy answer to the theme, “Some military critics contend the book glorified cowardice when desertion merited execution, not praise. Write about cowardice from what this story meant to you.”

 Henry impulsively ran for safety in a helpless fight to an inexperienced soldier, but had matured during the later battle when he brawled with the enemy. Fate saved him from execution for cowardice when he risked his life with his new unit.

Crane also wrote an anti-war poem that showed the military supported their heroes and glorified them in rituals. The reaction from a mother when she wept over her son’s corpse showed another view with the ironic title, “War is Kind.” Under stress, anyone who acted with cowardice reduced each soldier’s likelihood of survival. The military usually executed anyone who acted that way on the spot,” our Captain said.

Anti-Vietnam Protests, Kent State, and Nixon’s Cambodian Invasion 1970

 
Dan Embree, a West Point graduate, joined me and other Academy graduates to form a peace organization opposed to the genocide in Vietnam called Concerned Academy Graduates. He resembled Abe Lincoln, at six feet three, penetrating eyes, and chiseled chin. Twenty members founded the group that included Ed Fox, an Annapolis classmate, and Hastings’ law student. We held a press conferences voicing our opposition to the Vietnam debacle. Embree, studying for a PhD in English, gladly wrote position papers. We decided upon the wording on our petition to Congress to remove our troops from Vietnam.
Berkeley campus helo spraying gas 1960's
At one of our meetings on the University of California Berkeley campus, a group of loud disrupters suddenly entered and shouted, “We’re the gay liberation army and demand to be heard!” They made so much noise we could not hold our own meeting. We had already decided on our purpose before the interference, so we disbanded. Long afterwards we learned that this incident appeared as one of many Republican Party dirty tricks in a Freedom of Information request filed by the ACLU.
As I drove home I saw a man with a sign in the back window of his truck where he had a rifle mounted with a peace sign that called it “Footprint of the American Chicken.” I zoomed up in front of him with my convertible containing “Vets for Peace,” a peace sign, and “Vietnam Vets Against the War” bumper stickers.  He jumped out and confronted me.  Face to face with an angry old man with gray hair, a white tee shirt with an American Flag, and faded jeans. He screamed, “I lost my son in Vietnam! You peacenik punks deserve to die.”
Sign of the footprint of the American Chicken
Thinking he might do something crazy I quickly said in a measured tone, “I am a Vietnam vet. I’m sorry you lost your son.”
Tears streamed from his face, “I want the protestors to know my son’s life was worth something.”
“Everyone’s life is precious, mister.”
He turned around and slowly walked back to his truck shaking his head. I knew he had a rifle and was distraught. Stunned by such emotion, I raced to my car, jumped in, and sped off leaving one of the endless confrontations Americans had about Vietnam. How ugly that could have been had he led with his weapon without hearing my words.

***

Vietnam Veterans Against the War and Veterans for Peace both held rallies, press conferences against the War, and marched at every peace demonstration. It surprised me to find my name mentioned by KCET after the camera caught me saying at a press conference, “The United States has unleashed its military monster on the Vietnamese people killing over two million Vietnamese men, women, children, and babies while we have lost nearly 50,000 Americans in a civil war. Please support our effort to bring the troops home and stop this destruction.” The announcer added, “Dan Lavery will be speaking at the demonstration and hopes a large number of the public will join the Concerned Academy Graduates, Vets For Peace, and Vietnam Vets Against the War this Saturday at noon.” How quickly my name became associated with peace marches marveled me having just arrived in Berkeley in August 1969. Media power amazed me that I had a public identity in such a short time.
Berkeley People's Park
Berkeley Campus had many demonstrations that caught the attention of progressive crowds. “People’s Park” was a small plot of land used for speeches, planting vegetables, and protesting. It became a line in the sand for demonstrators and the establishment. Police in riot gear had blinded a student there, injured many others, and brutalized the crowd with their nightsticks and tear gas. Mario Savio, an eloquent spokesman dating back to the “Free Speech Movement” a few years before, urged the crowd to stop the madness of the “odious machinery of the state,” in Vietnam or on campus. Peace advocates in the hundreds shouted, “One, Two, Three, Four. We don’t want your fucking war.”
On April 30, 1970, President Richard Nixon demonstrated his dishonesty in telling America he was the peace candidate for the 1968 presidential election when he ordered the invasion of neutral Cambodia. Students, peace groups, and the growing outraged public joined in massive demonstrations to protest this blatant abuse of military power, rejection of the mood of the public, and world opinion. Protests dominated the news. Hastings College of Law, many colleges, and high schools marched and shouted disapproval of the escalating American war machine Nixon led.
Kent State Four Dead
On May 4, 1970, the shooting of unarmed college students by members of the Ohio National Guard left four students dead. Seventy-seven National Guard troops from A Company and Troop G, with bayonets fixed on their rifles fired 67 rounds killing four students aged 19 and 20, wounded nine others--one suffered permanent paralysis. Four million students waged a student strike. Hastings faculty responded by making exams optional and allowed us to make speeches, join peace rallies, and do draft counseling. We led detailed presentations to the students, answered questions, and gave them information how to claim conscientious objection. Some were patriotic and equated that emotion with a requirement to support the President no matter what he ordered. We knew this from first-hand experience, challenged blind patriotism, and showed them how military officers opposed the Vietnam War.
 
At a televised peace rally for VVAW in San Francisco behind hundreds of protesting vets, I marched to honor former member of the House of Representatives, George Brown, opponent of the Vietnam War, read my anti-war statement, and threw my Vietnam medals into a coffin. We believed our protests were the most patriotic actions we could take against the Nixon Administration’s abuse of international law.
Dan speaking at nationwide protest of Nixon's Cambodian invasion 1970 with other Vietnam Vets who threw their medals in a coffin at the San Francisco Federal Building

Dan speaking at nationwide protest of Nixon's Cambodian invasion 1970 with other Vietnam Vets who threw their medals in a coffin at the San Francisco Federal Building

 Dan at Peace Rally SanFrancisco Medals to coffin
Dan speaking at Peace Protest 1970 at the Federal Building in San Francisco as Former House of Representatives, George Brown, outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, looks on.
 

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