Breeze from the Hudson
We had a second-floor room with southern exposure. The play of light and shadows through our windows was relaxing, although the absence of color was unusual—granite stone barracks, dark gray courtyard, and an outcropping of black rocks beyond the building to the south. No plants, yard, or trees. One flagpole. The design of the barracks dated from about 1820. Cadets entered from the ground floor and used a flight of stairs, originally cast iron, extending from the basement with toilets and showers up four or five floors. Each floor housed two cadets in each of four identical living areas.
Floyd Spencer and I were assigned to the 24th Division’s dormitory chamber as roommates during our Yearling (Sophomore) year at the U.S. Military Academy. Our quarters with two sleeping areas and a large study launched some memorable adventures and proved to be extraordinary as cadet barracks go.
Cadets were assigned to companies based on height. Not only were Floyd and I the same height, size, and weight, our tailored uniforms were interchangeable. Our fathers were army officers, making us “army brats.” Floyd was a redhead from Texas, and I was a blond from Kentucky. Both baby-faced Southern Baptists, we were unusually competitive, particularly at athletics.
Cadets were permitted to be away from campus only rarely and under restrictive conditions, but upperclassmen had the privilege of roaming on some of the several thousand acres of the military reservation. Of course, Floyd and I shared a southern upbringing that gave great measure to outdoor activities. As we enjoyed our expeditions in the ice-bound Yankee weather, we learned more about serious winters through a harrowing incident on a frozen lake that was worth the good story we could tell later. We were always quick to take every chance to escape the gray monotony of our rockbound highland home to the wilderness that nestled from the back side of Bear Mountain along the Hudson River to the jutting peninsula of the aptly named West Point.
Among indoor sports we enjoyed were squash on the gymnasium courts and wrestling in our quarters. Floyd generally bested me on the squash court. Although I went all out to win when we wrestled, he may have had a slight edge on the mats, too.
Experienced Army “Officers of the Day” (ODs) inspected the barracks after dinner through taps. Under the right conditions, one could hear the fearful sounds of an OD inspector on his way to your room. By tradition, small steel wedges in their heels made a distinctive noise that served to alert cadets up the stairs and on the floors. First Classmen (Seniors), who had first choice of rooms, seldom selected first-floor rooms that afforded little warning and risked the discovery of infractions.
Floyd and I knew these risks, and wrestling in our small living space involved additional challenges. We were forced to begin our ex-officio matches with one or the other down in standard wrestling position. One nighttime match we were seriously straining, each searching for an advantage. We fought in our swim suits, not exactly the prescribed uniform for that period of the day. We had rolled under the double desk, red-faced, sweating, muscles tensed, breathing hard, locked in combat.
A bang on the door brought us back to the real world. The Officer of the Day was in our room! In our scuffling we had not heard his approach.
"Men, where are you?” boomed the stentorian voice of the most feared of all tactical officers—Captain George S. Patton, Jr., son of the famous General Patton of World War II fame. He did a splendid job at emulating the unpredictable and rash behavior of his notorious father.
“We are here, Sir,” Floyd and I announced almost simultaneously. We imagined that we were in a world of trouble. How many demerits for wrestling during study hours in an improper uniform? There was no telling what “Blood and Guts, Jr.” might mete out. Before we could scramble from beneath the desks, a red face came down nearly to our level. Supine and as motionless as prey mesmerized by a predator, Floyd and I made eye contact.
The Captain appeared to be returning from some fancy function as he was dressed in his formal blues. Noted for his exquisitely tailored uniforms, this fateful evening he was bedecked with a cape lined with the yellow color assigned to cavalry, now the armored branch of service. His saber clanked on our wooden floor. Up close, his face looked even redder than I imagined ours to be.
“At ease, men,” he said, squatting. We lay there, breathless. “A little wrestling exercise, I see. What are your names?” “Cadet May, Sir.” “Cadet Spencer, Sir.” “Which of you generally prevails?” asked this god of war. “It is about even, Sir,” said Floyd. “Damn fine exercise. Good for the body, good for the spirit, good for a soldier.”
He stood, moved back to the door, clicked his heels, and left us with, “Carry on,” which is the military way of saying to keep on doing what you were doing before I interrupted. No demerits, no reprimand, just approval! Wow, what a great officer! Captain Patton did not forget us either. And wisely or not, we did not fear him on another surprise encounter.
Our physical education grades included scores on various tests of athletic prowess. The most feared test was the obstacle course run as a two-cadet competition. Continuing our intense athletic competition, Floyd and I practiced together until it was conceivable that either of us could break the Academy record.
On the day of official testing, we began at peak speed: front rollover horse . . . fly over high hurdle . . . climb up on 8-foot platform . . . speed across monkey bars . . . Whether side by side or mirror-facing each other, we were always able to see and judge each other’s position. In the most treacherous part of the course, we came toward each other, running along the monkey bars (pipes about 1.5 inches in diameter) about 9-10 feet above the gym floor. Balance was critical because we had to take several steps to cross a 10-foot pipe without anything to hold!
Done properly, we would jump like monkeys, catching a bar with our hands and swinging to the gym floor. Now Floyd and I simultaneously jumped for the bar from opposite directions. From much practice together, we each went to our right, passing like circus trapeze artists. At this point, making eye contact, we knew that one of us was certain to break the Academy record.
When I hit the floor, my foot landed between mats placed to soften the impact, now askew. My left knee gave way, and I went down like being shot. Rather than continue alone at his record-setting pace, Floyd stopped to see how I was—despite my protestations.
Then Floyd managed to continue: swing down to floor . . . hand vault over horse . . . climb up and down ladder . . . ascend on rope to track . . . race one-and-a-half laps around the track to the finish. I went to the hospital. Had I not been injured, Floyd probably would have beaten me as he was a trifle faster on the final run. By stopping to help me, Floyd gave up his opportunity to hold the Academy record for the obstacle course. I was on crutches for weeks, and the knee bothers me to this day. Floyd’s choice was considerate.
The best time on a cadet’s schedule to explore the USMA post was the weekends—after Saturday inspection and parade until Sunday evening call to quarters at 1800 hours. Jeeps, camping gear, and food from the mess hall were available.
After several weekends of reconnaissance through the huge military reservation, Floyd and I found a sacred place, shaded by forests that seemed to have never been sullied by man. Civilization had not yet tarred this bit of wilderness.
During the season, we were invited to hunt the plentiful white-tailed deer with bow and arrow. Bow in hand, I had come on a fat doe, pawing apples from the frozen ground of a long-abandoned orchard. My arrow entered from behind the rib cage and sliced through the lungs into the heart. The doe took a few reflexive steps and fell.
We spent many pleasant evenings in the Adirondack lean-to we constructed from saplings. In front of our rock-bordered fire pit we shared thick steaks from the mess hall (and venison once) with other nature-loving cadets. Since alcohol was forbidden, we made do well with pots of black coffee and plentiful cigars. Discussions—many about our futures in the Army—continued to the wee hours.
Our regular camping spot was on a bluff overlooking a lake. One winter Saturday, Floyd and I arrived in a jeep loaded with down sleeping bags, food, and cigars and were astonished to find the lake frozen solid. Puffs of wind scudded piles of powdery snow across the luminous blue surface of the tree-bordered lake. Our closer investigation showed that the ice was very thick—thick enough to support a jeep, we calculated.
Certainly, Floyd and I had no conscious wishes to terminate our careers as cadets and officers! Anyhow, off we went in U.S Army property. We were in a military jeep, sliding around the frozen surface like drunken ice skaters, laughing and thoroughly enjoying ourselves. Nothing to it, we agreed, and even did it several more times.
On Sunday just before we had to depart to make our check-in time, Floyd and I decided to take one last blast on the ice. Driving off the ice back onto the shore, we tried a new exit point. As the front wheels of the jeep went onto the snow and dirt of the lake bank, the rear wheels broke through the ice with a resounding explosive crack. The back of the jeep sank to about the top of the rear wheels. Neither prayers nor four-wheel drive nor pushing would budge the machine. Time was flying, and our complexions matched the olive drab of the mired-down army vehicle. While my mind rapidly reviewed our options, I snapped a photo of Floyd with the stranded vehicle.
The urgency of our predicament seemed to make the long shadows of afternoon winter streak across the frozen lake. Floyd and I agreed that help from others was our only possible salvation. Friends less determined to be completely at the perils of nature had camped the night before at a shack about a mile away. Floyd had a slight knee sprain so we decided I should take off cross county at a run, hoping to catch the other cadets before they started back to the main post.
“Jack, maybe you’d better catch a ride with the other guys,” Floyd said, “There is no use in both of us suffering the consequences of this disaster. Hell, I drove the jeep into the lake!” I said, “Buddy, let’s not give up. United we stand, divided we fall.” The words no sooner out of my mouth, drifting in the cold breeze like cigar smoke, and I was off at a full run in the snow.
Three cadets were driving off in their jeep when I panted up to the cabin. In a trice, we were speeding toward the semi-submerged jeep. In haste we succeeded in pushing the jeep out of its icy hole. Soon we were all barreling in tandem toward our barracks, the deadline of making dinner formation almost glowing ahead in the now-winter-black sky. A miss is as good as a mile, but a minute early was all we needed and all we got. That teamwork can avert catastrophe on occasion was a good lesson for warriors in training. Time’s protracted passage has not dimmed my memory of that dash. I reflect now on my pace and marvel at the energy a well-conditioned, 19-year-old man pumped full of adrenaline can sustain. Soldiering is for boys, young men, and no others.
Recalling that sometimes just one minute, sixty seconds, can make a great difference is sobering. Know your enemy, know yourself. When I reflect on the good luck that averted such calamitous misfortune, I break out in a cold sweat. I’ve never forgotten Floyd’s offer to sacrifice his well-being for mine. Every day we each make hundreds of little choices that comprise our entire life and define us as a person. Floyd’s choices were consistent.
Some enterprising cadet with cabinetry skills, a previous tenant in our room, had taken down the mantle over our no-longer-used fireplace, hollowed it out, and hinged it, creating a splendid hiding place for all sorts of contraband. For us, this was an electric popcorn popper.
It was a spring evening in early May with our windows open to the balmy breeze from the Hudson River when we next encountered our great officer. The electric popcorn machine was out of the hiding place and popping away when down the hall came the distinctive click of officer heels. I hurriedly unplugged the still-popping pot and stuffed it into our shoe shine box.
Our door was sharply rapped and in strode the infamous Patton, again a handsome sartorial specimen as befitted a dollar-a-year man. (As a serious gesture of support for the U.S. government, neither father nor son Patton ever drew but one dollar of their annual pay, returning the rest to the Treasury. A substantial independent fortune allowed this noblesse oblige.)
“Good evening, Gentlemen. I perceive you are less actively engaged than at the last visit.” The smell of illicit popcorn filled the air. From the shoe box came a muffled but clearly audible “Pop!” Sniffing the telltale odor, Patton smiled, “Do I smell popcorn?” I answered, “Sir, I have noticed it myself.”
“Don’t give up the exercise.” Then, in a solicitation for us to consider his branch of the combat army, Patton said, “I’d like to have you both in the Armor. Good night.” He spun on his heels and strode out of our little green cell.
Still holding our salutes, Floyd and I looked each other in the eyes. We were in the same fraternity as this departing soldier. Like us, he had marched on the same parade grounds, worn the same uniform, spent the same bleak winter evenings in a green barracks room—perhaps this very one. We smiled and said together, “Great officer.”
After the school year ended, we moved out of Division 24, each with a reassignment for our summer duties. Floyd and I did not room together again in our two remaining years at the Academy, but our friendship and athletic rivalry continued.
Floyd’s citation for his posthumous Silver Star Award sums up his life. “Major Spencer distinguished himself by gallantry in action on 31 January 1968 while serving as District Senior Advisor, Cu Chi District, Hau Nghia Province, Republic of Vietnam. On that date, Major Spencer was accompanying a force of one platoon of Regional Forces commanded by the Vietnamese District Chief in an operation to engage and destroy a small enemy force near the village of Tan Phu Prung. As the unit approached the village, it came under withering automatic weapons fire from well-placed and camouflaged ambush positions. Seeing his radio operator felled by the enemy fire and left helpless on an open field, Major Spencer dashed through intense enemy fire to the aid of the injured man. Though the focal point of enemy gunners, Major Spencer attempted to pick up the man and move him to safety. While doing so under the concentrated fire of the enemy guns, he was mortally wounded. Major Spencer’s conspicuous gallantry in action was in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Army and reflected great credit upon himself and the military service.”
Going back to help his buddy, Floyd gave up his life. Major Spencer did his Duty and paid the ultimate price. Floyd’s choices were consonant with the highest ideals of humanity and his God.
A classmate telephoned me with the news of Floyd’s death. My mind dusted off the memories recounted here, and for a brief but illuminating moment I was integrated into his experience. Floyd was a hero because he was willing to take great risks to serve others. He is seamlessly connected to the other heroes who have served America. My red-headed buddy died as he had lived—not for himself, but for others.
With his sacrifice, Floyd was no more, and I became less than I had been.