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.

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