I was enthusiastic about it from the start. World War II had ended only three years before, and I had spent my early childhood poring over battle maps in the evening paper, reading comic books with GI heroes, and watching the Marines kick the hell out of the Japanese in the Movietone News.
My stepfather had been killed bombing Hamburg, and I remember being awed as I handled his insignia, the beveled edges of the brass U.S., the delicate etching on the wing and prop insignia of the Army Air Corps. When WWII ended I was astonished. I didn't know the idea was to get it over with; I just thought it was what we did.
I viewed this as my entrance into that world. And it was.
But I don't remember the trip to Ponca City, OK, to the Ponca Military Academy. Maybe Mom borrowed a car. Maybe a friend took us. I don't remember being fitted for my uniforms either, if "fitted" is the term.
The first thing I remember is sitting in my room with my three new roommates. They were 10- and 11-year-old boys, away from home for the first time, and two of them were crying.
This was my eighth grammar school, which meant that every time I'd started to make friends in one school I'd gone to another. For my first 11 years, every time I got to my feet I was cut off at the knees.
My roommates were crying, and I thought it was lame. This was no big deal.
The fifth grade was the first year I spent an entire year in one school, and it had been, for me, a disaster. I made no attempt to play with other kids, only knew the name of one other kid, Jess Kirby, who lived down the street and with whom I traded comic books. I had cut myself badly, early in the year, playing alone, and was instructed to come straight home after school and lock myself in. The year I reached puberty, I spent less time in the sun than an inmate of a maximum-security prison.
In the military school, on the other hand, we were required to vacate the barracks from 3:30 until 5:00 p.m. I still don't recall playing with other kids much. But I was outside, surrounded by green things. There was a horizontal ladder out back of the gym that I liked to play on. Only I got tired of swinging on the ladder and I liked to swing up on top of it and walk the ladder, ten feet off the ground.
The swing set was huge, with six swings. The overhead bar, in my memory, was 20 feet high, although it probably actually wasn't. My game was to swing as high as I could. I wanted to get enough velocity to swing over the bar. I was only able to swing high enough that the swing didn't swing back down; it dropped 4 or 5 feet, caught, and then swung back.
Since I couldn't get over the bar I adopted the habit of getting the swing as high as it could possibly go, almost even with the bar, and then I would get off and fall somewhere between 12 and 15 feet to the ground.
Keeping me inside had not been an act of wanton cruelty. It was a necessity.
Back to the first day. While I was sitting in my room in my new uniform, sneering at my roommates, an older kid came in, maybe in the seventh grade. He told me to come with him, and I went across the hall, where I was presented to an eighth grader, a fat kid named Shep. It was his intention to haze me. His method was to jump on my back and ride me around.
He faced me toward the windows in his room and went all the way back to the door, then ran and jumped toward my back. I was plenty scared but didn't want him there. I heard his feet shuffle on the floor, and I heard them stop. He had jumped. Reflexively, I bent quickly over: he sailed over my back, crashed onto his desk, and slid across it, slamming his head into the radiator. He lay there a minute, dazed, and then got up, blood streaming down his face.
For two years nobody bothered me at that school.
When I went to bed that night I was the lowest of the low, a cadet buck private, a rear-rank rudy in the most nowhere military institution in the known universe. But I had three times as many friends as I'd ever had in my life (three), and I felt as though I owned the place.