Columbian Prep School

When I arrived home from quitting Duke at the end of my first semester of sophomore year, I spilled my guts out to Dad: “I’m sorry for wasting your money and have decided to seek an appointment to the Naval Academy.” His face lit up with enthusiasm, “I’ll call Columbian Prep School tomorrow. They prepare young men for the SAT and have a high success rate for appointments to the Academy.” Having talked myself into a drudgery of returning to college preparatory courses I had previously studied nonchalantly, my chance for success was high with proven teachers at Columbian who taught how to achieve high scores on the SAT. If this plan worked, I would earn an appointment to Annapolis and enter in five months. Dad decided I should live with grandmother, Gammie, in a nearby suburb, sleep and eat meals in her basement where she had a desk, and furiously study Columbian’s courses. On my first day of class, a group of students talked about their expectations. One said, “I hope to have Duke accept me.” “I just quit Duke to study for an appointment to Annapolis,” I said to him. “Why would you ever quit Duke?” he implored with a curious expression. “It’s a long story.” “I would never want to go to a military academy,” he said. Other students indicated they wanted to enter West Point, the Air Force Academy, Annapolis, or other military colleges. The instructors taught how to analyze previous SAT test questions, approach them with a disciplined strategy, and  answer all questions we understood first, since each counted the same. They discussed trick questions, how to eliminate the wrong answer, and make an intelligent guess. We studied grammar and vocabulary lists from hundreds of sheets of printed information and took complete SAT's daily in a large auditorium under exam conditions. Instructors informed us Engineering Drawing was the most hazardous Academy course and taught us for an hour daily on professional drafting tables. Dad agreed saying he almost flunked it at the Academy. When SAT results arrived, I ranked number one for a presidential appointment to the Air Force Academy, and number two for the Naval Academy. That earned me a three hundred dollar scholarship from Columbian Prep towards my tuition. After contemplating attending the modern Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, I chose the Naval Academy as Dad and Chip had. Soon my presidential appointment to Annapolis came in the mail from the Commandant of Midshipmen announcing the Naval Academy had accepted me for the class of 1964 subject to a physical exam. President Dwight Eisenhower made seventy-five appointments to children of military officers depending on SAT scores, high school grades, and extra-curricular activities like sports. My hard work and sacrifice had paid off. I would fulfill my father’s greatest desire for me to pursue a naval career, finally earn his approval, and would follow a long tradition of patriotic family members. Dad took me to see "The Gallant Hours" about Vice-Admiral Bull Halsey and his team of decision-makers  fighting  Japanese forces descending upon Guadalcanal. James Cagney played Bull. Dad reminded me his ship, the George F. Elliot, a light transport, was sunk at a battle near Guadalcanal by a Japanese Kamikaze plane when he was the gunnery officer. His guns had destroyed the plane but its mass flew into the starboard side and erupted in flames on August 8, 1942. My commitment to the Navy was further solidified as was my relationship with my father. Although atomic bomb protests were prevalent, they didn’t interest me as I anticipated entering the world of military discipline where such ideas appeared as weakness. Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Peter Paul and Mary, Johnny Cash, The Kingston Trio, and Harry Belafonte, were some of my favorite musicians. When they sang protest songs to end racial discrimination and nuclear bomb production, I sympathized with their causes, but did not march with their supporters.                       At a party where a college woman talked about the need to mobilize against America’s war machine, an attractive coed asked, “Where are you going to college?” “I just received my appointment to Annapolis,” I proudly responded. She wrinkled her nose like she smelled a dead rat, pursed her lips, and said, “Why would anyone want a military career now?” She was a politically motivated liberal and believed as strongly in her causes as I had in fundamental Christianity when sixteen. Her tone reminded me of how I had spoken with passion on religious matters to non-believers when the opportunity arose. A strange feeling like a twinge of conscience hit me from her question. Was I turning my back on a movement that would interest me if I engaged her in a discussion? Was I afraid to learn what this female activist believed? Having made up my mind to pursue a naval career for the next eight years, there was no time for me to waste with a peacenik. Instead, as my feet briskly strutted away from her influence, I imagined myself marching in a parade at Annapolis in full dress uniform in support of America’s role as protector of the world from threats to freedom everywhere. Convinced Dad would be proud of me by achieving success at Annapolis, my interest in the party evaporated.Enthusiastic about the change in my life’s purpose, believing America’s military forces demonstrated the best protection against tyranny in the world, serving my country was the most honorable thing for me to do, whether, or not, protesters agreed. The Naval Academy presented a worthy challenge for Dad and Chip and seemed a tremendous step forward for me after my experiences at Duke. Putting intellectual pursuits aside, I began memorizing Reef Points, a two hundred-page handbook that contained information each Annapolis plebe had to know: If a plebe were asked, “How’s the cow?” he would have to answer, “She walks, she talks, she’s full of chalk. The lacteal fluid extracted from the female of the bovine species is highly prolific to the nth degree.” (The number of glasses of milk left in the carton). If one forgot to say "sir" after addressing an upperclassman, they would ask, “Why didn’t you say sir?” A plebe was required to answer: “Sir, sir is a subservient word surviving from the surly days of old Serbia, when certain serfs, too ignorant to remember their lord’s name, yet too servile to blaspheme them, circumvented the situation by which I now belatedly address a certain senior cirriped who correctly surmised that I was syrupy enough to say sir after every word I said, sir.” The tedious memorizing of nonsense for a few hours bothered me. My mind returned to my Duke English professor who inspired me with the words of Walt Whitman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, William Wordsworth, D. H. Lawrence, Earnest Hemingway, and others but my decision was fixed on a military goal no matter how difficult. (Click on image to expand) Chip invited me to an Academy meal during the week before his graduation to introduce me to some of his friends and to acquaint me to the Annapolis environment. He wanted me to observe the rituals that occur during meals for the brigade of midshipmen and see how the plebes responded. At this festive time, the upper classmen had completed final exams and looked forward to June celebrations. Plebes sat only on three inches of the chair during meals, braced their chin rigged in to their chest, and fixed their eyes straight ahead ("eyes in the boat"). They recited requested information such as the menu and activities scheduled for the day. Announcements boomed over the loud speaker and a number of times the entire brigade cheered or sang in unison. Chills ran down my spine anticipating the day I would join a real fraternity of dedicated and patriotic men serving our country. I was surrounded by the best collection of hard working, intelligent young men in the world. My brother made me proud that he had endured the ordeals of the Academy education and indoctrination. I didn’t notice anything derogatory in his development. He seemed happy and fulfilled in his dream to achieve the most he could at twenty-two. His marriage was scheduled during “June Week” to his high school sweetheart who studied at a nursing school. We entered Bancroft Hall and climbed the massive tile and stone stairway, called a ladder, to his third floor room. Chip introduced me, “Kenny, meet my brother Dan.” “Congratulations on your appointment to boat school.” A tall midshipman with a blond crew-cut, in an immaculate Navy blue dress uniform with gold buttons and pressed Navy blue slacks, loosened his collar and took off his white formal cap. He threw it on a well-made bunk bed behind two desks with green tops pushed together in the center of the room. “Thanks. I’m looking forward to plebe summer.” “Now that’s a real vacation. We loved it,” he laughed bitterly. “Yeah, Chip told me you guys had a ball learning Reef Points.” Ken and Chip wore gold stars on both sides of their Navy blue jacket collar. Underneath was a separate stiff white collar an inch higher that pressed their necks. “What do the stars signify?” I asked Ken pointing to the gold. “Anyone with a grade point above 3.4 may wear them. Let’s go,” he said. "Blackie invited us on a boat trip. We’ll meet Mom at the dock in a half-hour,” Chip said.” A distant relation, Blackie took Chip out fishing from his motorboat whenever they could arrange it since he’d never turn down an opportunity to enjoy his favorite hobby. “Sounds like fun," I said. We bolted out the door, down the ladder to the parking lot, stowed our change of clothes in the trunk, and sped for the dock in Chip’s new Chevrolet four door blue sedan to meet Mom. They convinced me they had a bright future. And so would I. A short, rotund man about seventy years of age, walked towards us smiling, “Hi, I’m Blackie. Please come aboard my boat, but watch your step.” Chip, Pat, Mom, Ken, and I walked over a wooden dock to his boat and climbed down an old ladder. Blackie impressed me at once as a knowledgeable sea captain and avid angler. He told us he navigated all over the area searching for fish in his white aged boat with a small cabin and room for him and five passengers. He came alive when speaking of the different species of fish in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. “If we have some luck we’ll find a striped bass. The record here is sixty-seven and a half pounds and more than five feet long. Look out for the bluefish known in these parts as the Marine Piranha because of its aggressive feeding habits. We also have a strange one, the Menhaden, called the Bug fish because of a large parasite that lives in its mouth.” He drove us around the area, pointed out landmarks, and gave us a fresh view of the beautiful arteries to the Bay and back to his pier near Annapolis. (Click on image to expand)                                                                        For Chip’s wedding to Pat in June 1960, the large ornate Annapolis Chapel was over-flowing.  A reception followed the marriage service where Valerie Lee and Paige were among the bride’s grooms. Ken was the best man, who gave a rousing speech at the wedding celebration honoring Chip and his choice of Pat and submarines for his future. Inspired by their camaraderie, the Academy appeared to be a fraternity of dedicated men on a lifetime mission. Mom hugged and kissed Chip as he met us from the ceremony, “I am so proud of you Chip for graduating from the Academy; this is where I met your Dad when I lived in Severna Park across the Severne River." Mom seldom talked about her relationship with Dad as after their three divorces and custody battles, no meaningful communications occurred between them. Nor did she dwell on the failure of that marriage. In her white bonnet with yellow flowered blue dress and dark blue high heels, her smile lit up the day like a rainbow after a summer shower.

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