Silver linings often turn gold! or “Charlie 234 where are you?”

OK, if you read my last post about meeting legendary Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes you know that the only reason that this very exciting event happened for me was that I had endured a very bad event that had a silver lining! Remember, I, as a West Point cadet who had been in trouble, was “confined to quarters” for three months. This enabled me to read some books owned by my Ohio room mate, which triggered me writing Woody Hayes a letter, which he responded to, which led me to call his office to set up an appointment, which occured after I graduated from West Point.

Well, I happen to be a believer in silver linings. (See my earlier post entitled “Leadership – You Gotta BELIEVE!) To survive West Point, you need to believe that there are better days ahead as the system is designed to make you break, just to see how you perform under pressure. The mental pressure is constant. One mental challenge was the requirement to recite “The Days” from your first week as a plebe (freshman). The Days changed daily, and it is the plebe’s job to know, every day, the mess hall breakfast, lunch, and dinner menu for that day, the dates and times of motion pictures the upperclassmen could see that week, the number of days till each home sporting event that week, followed by the number of days till each home football game, ending with “There are 121 and a butt (a “butt” was a partial day, like a cigarette butt was a partial cigarette) days until Army beats the hell out of Navy at John Fitzterald Kennedy Memorial Stadium in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in Football!” If you made it that far you were in pretty good shape as all that remained in “The Days” was the number of days till Christmas break, ring weekend for the junior class, spring break for the upperclassmen, and finally, graduation day for the senior class. And, every day that number was decreased by one, making memorization a challenge for any plebe. A side note, I’ll never forget popping off with “Sir, there are “insert correct number” of days until Army beats Nebraska at Michie Stadium in football!” We said that line every day for 82 days from July 3, 1972 till September 23, 1972 when Nebraska squeaked by us 77-7. The silver lining with the Nebraska game was that 1) we scored a touchdown against the previous year’s National Champs, and 2) we didn’t have to play Nebraska again! (we went on to beat Texas A @ M the next week IN Texas!).

Back to the bigger silver lining story here..and Charlie two-thirty-four…you may recall from my Woody Hayes story (go back and read my previous post entitled “Leadership Rivalries – Woody Hayes and the State Up North”) is that I stated I drank alcohol 4 times as a cadet, and got caught twice. In other words, if you equate “winning” with “getting away with drinking and not getting caught” and ” losing” with “getting caught”, my win-loss record was 2-2. However, the penalty for losing was great, lasted many months, where the reward for winning lasted a few hours (till the buzz was gone), So, in essence, going 2-2 wasn’t worth it, except for the opportunity for a silver lining that would turn gold!

So, while the Woody Hayes silver lining story actually was enabled by my getting caught drinking as a firstie (senior) as a West Point cadet, an earlier significant silver lining turned gold story was actually triggered three years earlier when I got caught drinking alcohol as a plebe at West Point. BTW, I never do things half-assed, I got caught plebe year by the senior ranking cadet in the Corps, a Mr. Joe Tallman. He was the big striper dog! (I am convinced to this day that I was entrapped by an “improper question” (same as not having probable cause), but that’s the topic of another post). Without elaborating, my punishment for this offense (one swallow of vodka) (are you reading this Chuck Lehman!?) was 66 hours of walking the area (punishment tours), 25 demerits, and 3 months of “room confinement”. Since my offense occured near the end of my plebe year, my room confinement was served by having to stay in the Camp Buckner training barracks during the summer training months after serving on “work details” picking up trash in the area while other cadets could go swimming with their girlfriends at the nearby lake. I remember taking other guys’ “guard shifts” just to get out of the barracks on Saturday nights. The barracks were very hot, and the lights remained on at all times till 1am on Saturday nights. Since I was on the top bunk, my life was torture with that hot, bright light not allowing me any sleep until my classmates came back all refreshed and happy after seeing their babes. HOWEVER…the summer of 1973 prepared me for a silver lining turned gold in 1974! Read on…

After completing my sophomore year (called “yearling” year), I had a great summer to look forward to. My summer began by attending the US Army Infantry School for three weeks of airborne training. I was looking forward to getting my “wings” (meaning I could successfully jump out of a perfectly good airplane and land using a parachute without killing myself). I then had four weeks of leave and had big plans back at my home in Michigan, and then 5 weeks in Europe (a week of vacation in Paris, followed by 4 weeks in Vicenza, Italy, serving as the equivalent of an officer in a real US army unit).

So, first stop, Fort Benning, Georgia for “C-130 rolling down the strip, airborne daddy gonna take a little trip. My new name was “Charlie 234” the “charlie actually standing for the letter “C” in “Cadet”. Ft Benning training was similar to the previous summer’s training (when I was required to stay in the barracks when other could leave for fun time) in that it was as hot as hell, most people could leave the barrackes at night, and we were doing great “army training sir”. There was one exception, which actually created another silver lining for me!

At Fort Benning, we would get up VERY early for our morning PT (physical training). The bulk of the 519 students in my airborne class 45 were my classmates from West Point. The difference between most of them and me was that, the previous summer, I had become accustomed to staying in the barracks in the evenings/nights when they were out having fun. This summer, I had the authority to leave the barracks in the evenings, but CHOSE to stay inside and get my rest before the early training that would be beginning at “OH dark thirty” (we used that term before any movie was produced, just say’in). So, in those days, I was one of the few who had had a good night’s rest and was ready to go while many others showed up for morning PT in various stages of intoxication. Mind you, everyone toughed it out, but I was one of the very few trainees that actually repeated the cadences VERY LOUDLY that were led by the “black cap” airborne sergeants. Cadences like:

“C-130 ROLLING DOWN THE STRIP,

AIRBORNE DADDY’S GONNA TAKE A LITTLE TRIP,

STAND UP KOOK UP SHUFFLE TO THE DOOR,

JUMP RIGHT OUT AND COUNT TO FOUR,

IF MY MAIN DON’T OPEN WIDE,

I GOT ANOTHER ONE BY MY SIDE,

IF THAT ONE SHOULD FAIL ME TOO,

LOOK OUT GROUND I’M A COMING THROUGH!”

This chant along with the one that started “UP JUMPED THE MONKEY FROM THE COCONUT GROVE” were two of my favorites, especially at Oh dark thirty!

Some of my hung over classmates didn’t appreciate my volume level, but I didn’t care, I was going back home soon either way!!!!

For a West Point cadet, airborne training was like a walk in the park. The training was condensed from the conventional 4 weeks to just three weeks, with the first week usually designed just for physical training to get trainees in shape. We were already in shape, so running PT after drinking the night before was actually doable, I just chose not to partake.

So, after two weeks of training comes the big test, “Jump Week”. The week prior to jump week is called “tower week” where they would rig your fully opened up parachute up onto this huge metal circle that was attached to a cable that would hoist you up very slowly 250 feet into the air, release the chute, and then the black cap sergeants evaluate you on how well you completed your PLF (parchute landing fall) when you hit the ground. If you didn’t perform well during tower week, you recycled back and were not allowed to jump the next week (This meant losing precious leave time, a dasterdly fate).

At the beginning of jump week, the sergeants gave me a white helmet. They said, “Charlie 234, this is your helmet for the rest of training” It turns out, six of us were given white helmets the first day of jump week. They told us they would be watching us closely as one of us would be crowned “honor graduate”. I didn’t care about making any honor graduate, I wanted to get the hell out of Dodge (Ft Benning). Nobody said a word to me the rest of the week, so I assumed that I wasn’t in the running at the end for this coveted honor.

Jump school graduation was scheduled for a Thursday, June 27, 1974 afternoon at 1:00pm. After that, I had plans on catching the first flight out of Atlanta to Detroit and then it would be Katie bar the doors! I couldn’t wait to see my buddies back home! (My best friend, Bill Sage and I called ourselves “Ranger Joe and Six Pack Bill”)

On Wednesday, the day before the graduation ceremony, after the final bit of traing/jumping was complete, the cadre put out an announcement asking if their were any of us that wanted to catch a “space available” flight to Norfolk, VA THAT DAY!!! HELL YES, I said, and I rapidly packed up and proceeded to catch the army bus to the military aircraft that awaited me and others anxious to head home on leave. As I was about to step on the plane, an officer said “what is your name cadet?” I stated, “Cadet Joseph Sanders, Sir!” He said “Joseph Sanders, were you Charlie 234?” I said “Yes sir!” He said, “You aren’t going anywhere, you are one of our two honor graduates, you have to be at the graduation ceremony tomorrow!” I was totally bummed. The last thing I wanted was to spend another night in Georgia. I wanted the cadre, the next day, to be calling “Charlie 234 where are you?” I wasn’t going to be that lucky! So, I got back on the bus, and went back to the barracks. I immediately put in a collect pay phone call to my parents and told them about my being annointed as honor graduate. THEY were all excited and told me they were “on their way”. They picked up Six Pack Bill, and promptly departed Southfield, Michigan by car for the 20 your straight drive to Ft Benning, Georgia.

At 12:55pm the next day while seated in the auditorium, I saw my weary dad, mom, and my buddy enter the auditorium. They were escorted to their seats and saw me collect my “Iron Mike” trophy as one of the two honor graduates (Truthfully, I was the second best, behind the distinguished honor graduate, but hell, let’s not let perfect be the enemy of good!)

Remember, this was about silver linings, and this silver lining was the punishment I received as a cadet conditioned me to stay in the barracks which enabled be to yell real loud during morning training which impressed the airborne cadre which won me the Iron Mike trophy!

Silver lining turns GOLD! (or actually, Iron Mike looks more like copper, but lets not let perfect be….)

So, Charlie 234 where are you? I’m right here, hoping you will continue to read my stories.

Stay safe everybody! All the best,

LTC(R) Joseph R. Sanders, AKA C234

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