They still called me SIR!

Today (June 2) is a big day for me.  It was 44 years ago today that I graduated from West Point, along with well over 800 other classmates who comprised the “Spirit of ‘76”. Every West Point graduate knows that he or she graduated from the best class ever to come out of the Academy, except that the Class of ’76 actually is the best class!

Truth be told, the Spirit of ’76 produced over 33 generals last I checked. Just sayin’. Oh, and I was roommate with two of them (Helmick and Swan) …I like to say I “mentored” these men…. just sayin’ again!

Those of you who know me well know that there is never just one story in these blog posts.  Today’s stories all deal with my West Point experience, and mostly about my senior (called firstie) year.

If you have been following me here you will recall a common theme amongst a few of my posts. One of my stories, entitled “Silver Linings often turn gold! Or “Charlie 234 where are you?” talks about good things that happen to me after falling upon bad luck. Another post was entitled, “Leadership Rivalries – Woody Hayes and the “State Up North”. It was another example of getting lucky after being unlucky. So, I start today’s story with something embarrassing.

Flash back to firstie year at the Academy…I was in Company H2, then one of 36 cadet companies ranging from A-1 through I-4 (do the math… A1 through I1 =9, A2 through I2 =9, etc. (hey eye, you look like shit!) (we used to yell at the I2 cadets who passed in front of us at parades, a good rivalry). 

Doing the Math!

We were called the “Happy Company”, a general reference to being a civilized group of men (the ladies weren’t at West Point till a month after we graduated) as opposed to the poor (but very tough) guys that survived life in First Regiment (A1 through I1).

Check out our mug:

Clearly SATCH, not SNATCH!

It is time to clear my name right now for those of you who think I was a troublemaker or a lady’s man. I was neither! I was just unlucky.  As a matter of fact, my senior photo, which appears in the Class of ’76 yearbook even refers to my lack of luck. By the way, see that I am referred to as “Satch” on my H2 mug, a name I got playing basketball in high school.  It was a reference to Satch Sanders, a great former Boston Celtics star. Back to the yearbook…every firstie has a friend write his tribute which eventually appears in our yearbook.  I entrusted my roommate, Mike Kelley, one of the straightest, smartest, stay-out-of-troublist cadets EVER to write my “tribute”. Well, that was a HUGE mistake. I have taken a photo of what Mike wrote in the yearbook copy that I had given to my Grandma Stella Sanders as a gift. You will see that I whited out the second letter in what was written as “Snatch”, and obvious misspelling on Mike’s part. SOB. Touché Mike…Well done!

Mike Kelley’s Mistake

Now that you know that I was a good cadet and a great leader that mentored two future general officers, let me whine a little bit with some facts about my lack of luck. Again, drinking was involved. You recall my Woody Hayes story which started while I sat room confinement my plebe (freshman) year. Well, here is the “rest of the story…

As a cadet, I signed up for what is called “Cadet Public Relations Council (CPRC). In short, I would be allowed to leave the Academy a few days before the rest of the cadet corps to go and recruit, in uniform, at high schools in the Detroit area.  For example, if the Corps was released on December 22 for winter break, I would get to leave on the 19th or 20th. It was a great deal, as was any opportunity to get off of the academy grounds.

In December of 1975 (another future post will tell the “saw Elvis life on Dec 31, 1975” story), I was scheduled to depart West Point on the afternoon of Monday, December 22 for Detroit. I basically had to forfeit my prior weekend to study as I had to make-up work that I would be missing in class on Dec 22-23.

In addition to studying, I had to deliver the keys to a car I was selling to another cadet. The car was being stored in Highland Falls as it was against the rules for me to own a car at that point. It was a decent car (it started), a yellow Opel 1900. (picture is not the exact car, but you get the picture)

Opel 1900, with trunk large enough for a bottle of Southern Comfort

My problems began when I realized that in the trunk of my car, the keys of which were about to be turned over to its new owner, had an unopened bottle of Southern Comfort whiskey in the back. This bottle clearly added to the value of the car and I had no intention of letting it go!. So, I confiscated the bottle out of the car and brought it back to my cadet room for storage until I left for CPRC. I figured I would tuck it neatly away in the bottom drawer for a few days under our clothes closet and then take it with me home for winter break. The best (or worst) laid plans.

There is alcohol in this bottle 😦

Two days before going home for Christmas my firstie year I had no intention of studying too hard.  I was feeling all excited about getting the hell out of Dodge! It was then, on Saturday night, December 19, 1975 that fate struck.  Here is where I PROVE that I was just UNLUCKY, just like when Tallman caught me drinking as a plebe! And now, the rest of the story…

I was studying along with my roommate, Lance Locklear (see photo of Lance marching in a parade below:

Lance Locklear, H2, ’76 marching in parade

Lance was (is) a great guy and roommate, He was smart and helped me out a lot.  I was a bad influence on him, though.  On this Saturday night, we were in the room studying and drinking RC Cola:

RC Cola (not illegal by itself)

We started getting bored, so we cranked up the music a little and I asked Lance if he wanted to “really drink” He did not know about the Southern Comfort hidden in my bottom drawer. I didn’t tell anybody about that bottle so they wouldn’t be put in an ethical dilemma if they were asked about it (remember the improper question story of my first time getting caught drinking plebe year (See my post entitled “French, Drinking, and Space (Tallman, Borman, and Beyond!)). I pulled the bottle out, opened it, and poured some Southern Comfort into the clear glass that had here-to-fore contained only RC Cola. It looked great, same color as the RC Cola alone.  I was in like Flynn! Lance was a little nervous but joined me. Three other classmates from H-2…Steve Daniel (now a minister), Steve Vernon, and recently departed Bob Cox. Two of those three joined in, with Steve Vernon refraining.

Now, the bad luck fact, and the rest of the rest of the story…remember earlier me saying that there were 36 cadet companies and I was in H2? Well, I was the intramural boxing coach for H2, and our next matches were against our rivals in F2. This was right about the time that Ali had beaten Joe Frazer in the “Thrilla in Manilla”. As a matter of fact, the Sports Illustrated cover from that month appears below:


I had taken that cover, cut out the “ALI” and replaced it with “F2”, and taped it to the outside of our door which faced the hallway. So, as luck would have it, on that Saturday night, within minutes of 4 out of 5 of us in the room taking our sips of alcohol, the OC (officer-in-charge) decided to knock on our door. We all stood at attention when the officer entered the room.  The Southern Comfort bottle had just been secured back into the drawer, but my never-got-in-trouble roommate Lance panicked. I was standing over by the drawer and Lance slowly pivoted as his eyes were focused on me. The OC walked up to me and said, “Mr. Sanders, Mr. Locklear’s eyes are giving you away, what are you drinking?” (I immediately had flashbacks from plebe year with Tallman).  I said, “RC Cola and something else, sir”.  Of course, he then asked, “What else Cadet Sanders?” I replied, “Southern Comfort, SIR”.  He then asked, “Does that have alcohol in it?” I said,” YES, SIR”. He then turned to Lance and asked if he had been drinking? Lance replied “Yes, Sir”. He then turned to Fanny (Steve Daniels), Steve Vernon, and Bob Coxe. He said, “how about you guys?” Bob and Fanny remained silent while Steve Vernon said quite loudly “NO SIR!” I guess the OC thought they all had replied in the negative, but Fanny and Bob got lucky. Only Lance and I would have to pay the price for this crime. As the OC departed, he laughingly stated that it was very unfortunate for me that I had posted the “I want F2 Again” copy of SI on by door because he was the tactical officer for Company F2!!! In other words, there was a 1 in 36 chance that the F2 TAC would be on duty that night and my sign drew his attention, so he decided to pay us a visit.  This action made me an official “Century Man” (over 100 punishment hours walking the area).

Working my way up to becoming a “Century Man”

So, I went home for my CPRC a few days later, enjoyed my couple of weeks off, and got mentally prepared to face the music when I got back.

Thankfully, I was about to graduate from West Point and figured I could do anything for 5 months! Along with my punishment tours, months of room confinement, and many demerits, I was also busted to the lowest rank possible for a cadet in the senior class (a cadet sergeant).

My parents were so disappointed when I arrived home for Christmas break, they always wanted me to be a cadet captain, or “striper dog” as we used to call them.

Stiper Dog Statue

But it wasn’t going to happen for Satch. I graduated from West Point on June 2, 1976, wearing the two measly stripes as a cadet Sergeant.

2LT Joseph R. Sanders, June 2, 1976, YES SIR!

But, guess what, there is a silver lining to this story as well…we as cadets that were in the bottom portion of our class academically had a saying. Our question to anybody that would listen was, “What do they call a West Point graduate that finished near the bottom of the class?”

We very proudly say, “They call us SIR!” We all start over as second lieutenants in the United States army! I have no regrets, for as Frank Sinatra and then Elvis sang, “I did it MY way!!

Proud ’76 Classmates tossing our hats after being given the graduation command “Class of 1976, DISMISSED!”

And, best of all, My Grandma Stella Sanders was very proud of her angelic grandson West Point graduate!, despite Mike Kelley’s efforts to bring discredit upon my stellar reputation!

From left to right: H2 classmates Floyd Bowles, Mike Kelley, Johnny Angell, and me.

God Bless America!

I did it MY WAY!

Stay tuned folks, next week we will delve into my illustrious boxing career as a cadet, you won’t want to miss this one! Remember, “fatigue makes cowards of us all”!

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