The North Carolina boy was a mess. At 200 pounds, he not only was fat when he arrived at the U.s. nAval Academy to start his career as a midshipman, but he also had this boyishly chubby face and sad sensitive eyes that sought truth more than manly respect.
David Walter Robinson was a problem plebe and the upperclassmen, whose job it was to make him a Leader of Men, let him know it often. Day after day they made him rig eight-pound rifles in his outstretched arms, forced him to dash through the hallways of Bancroft Hall with a mattress atop his back, and demanded that he don three suits of sweatgear, face a wall with his back straight and press a penny to it with his forehead until the coin stuck there on its own by the sweat and salt streaming from his pores.
Yes, Robinson had a very hard time.
But something miraculous happened to this quintessential lost cause that summer of 1961. Gradually he lost weight, a total of 40 pounds by the end. He learned to stand straight, to square his hat and to drill.
But most important Robinson had a remarkable brain and, much to his rulers' chagrin, he knew how to use it. When they ordered him to find out the name of Hannibal's lead elephant, Robinson scurried to Admiral Mahan Hall Library, his true element, and returned in record time with the answer. "Surus, sir!"
When they told him to find out the color of llama feces, he wrote to the Bronx Zoo, and several days later came back with the answer, "Dark brown, bordering on black, sir!"
For years, the standard response to that strange academy inquiry had been pink, and Robinson's clever written proof from the zoo only further infuriated his tormentors. So livid were they that this time they told him to memorize Rudyard Kipling's poem "Gunga Din" and to be ready to recite its 85 lines by dinner, two hours later.
When chow time came, and the 24 companies of midshipmen, 3,500 in all, marched into the Mess Hall, word spread of poor Robinson's latest and greatest impossible task. Nearly everyone there had one eye on Robinson's table as he braced-up on the edge of his seat. Then, arms flailing and face contorting, he began the recital in a strong and confident tone that dropped his listeners' chins and forced their eyes wide.
"Yes Din! Din! Din!" he concluded in a rousing crescendo minutes later.
"You Lazaurshian-leather Gunga Din!
"Though I've belted you an' flayed you,
"By the livin' Gawd that made you,
"You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din!"
The upperclassmen at Robinson's table were beside themselves in wonder, for not only had this creature recited the whole poem perfectly, but shock of all shocks, he had recited it in cockney! throughout the hall, meanwhile, the 900 plebes, downtrodden sharers of rank and misery, smiled to themselves, for once, and winked, for Robinson's triumph was truly their own as well.
And to this day, 20 years later, when members of the class of 1965 talk about plebe year, most of them will mention Robinson's extraordinary performance, for that was the day they all began to come into their own -- with honor and a dash of dignity.
To be 18 years old and a future officer in the United States Navy seemed a heady prospect then for the boys who left their homes in the summer of 1961 to become midshipmen at Annapolis. But, in the years that followed, much was to happen that would change these young men, and the experiences of plebe year would be only memories, with little bearing on the lives they would eventually lead.
There was no way to foresee it, but the Class of 1965 was to become part of the Naval Academy's lost generation, members of a military elite who left the Navy at a rate that ranks among the highest in Annapolis history.
The war in Vietnam, changing attitudes towards the military, a new awareness of personal desires and the needs of their families all had their impact on men whose courses had once seemed so predictable and so set.
For certain of these men -- the top 50 graduates of the class -- the disillusionment and loss of faith were particularly significant, for they were the ones of whom the most was expected. Today, 16 remain on active duty, while David Walter Robinson and 33 other members of the top 50 have abandoned their dreams and returned to civilian life.
Annapolis left its mark on all 50 of these men, drawing out surprising strengths and weaknesses in them, the academy and the nation. While many debate the military's role and readiness, the experiences of these men in war and peace illustrate the uncertain place of professional officers in a nation whose values and convictions have undergone two decades of tumultuous change since that plebe summer long ago.
"There was something military in me that had to play itself out," said Bill Fries, a member of the Class of 1965 who eventually left the Navy. "I was a patriot at a time when it wasn't embarrassing to be one."
That time, 20 years ago, seems hard to imagine now. It was 1961, before the race riots, war and affronts to national dignity that lay ahead. The American military was the mightiest on earth, and to serve as a soldier or sailor was as admirable a calling as medicine or law.
A new American president, himself a Navy man, had only recently urged the people to sacrifice, to ask themselves what they could do for their country, and it was men like these, the top 50, who answered the call.
There were other colleges and military academies they could have gone to, for these were bright and ambitious boys. Most were also accepted at schools such as MIT and Yale, and they could also have marched to West Point. But Yale and MIT were rather soft -- they weren't schools for leaders and defenders of the faith, after all -- while West Point was symbolic of the old Army grind: foot patrols, rain, deserts and jungles.
"If you had dash, a bit of brains and some class," said Judd Halenza, who went on to become a Navy fighter pilot, "you went Navy."
"So Annapolis was, well, Annapolis , the cream and class of the military, romance, travel, and high seas -- true mobility for the upwardly mobile, overseas adventure for the adventuresome, and inspiration for the keenest of patriots who wanted simply to lead .
"In serving the American people you represent the American people and the best of the ideals of this free society," John F. Kennedy said in June 1961 in an address to the Brigade of Mishipmen at Annapolis. "Your posture and your performance will provide many people far beyond our shores . . . the only evidence they will ever see as to whether American is truly dedicated to the cause of freedom and justice."
That was the duty and that was Navy, and in the summer of 1961 hundreds of boys, brimming with innocent dreams and patriotic fervor, came to this place by the mouth of the Severn River. Several had parades on Main Street to see them off, and most had their photographs in the local papers when it was announced that one of the town's own, a true-blue, home-grown boy, had received an appointment to the academy.
They were sons of electricians, farmers, pharmacists and pipe fitters, as middle class as they come, and predominantly white.
There was Ed Linz, stocky son of a Kentucky bar owner . . . Wayne (Monk) Warnken, the somber Nebraska farmboy . . . Don Bonsper, the strapping New York kid who wanted to be a Marine . . . John Markowicz, son of a Poland-born Boston machinist, whose father had never heard of Annapolis but celebrated with proud gusto anyway when he learned his boy was going to be a middie . . . Tom (Humph) Humphreys, who was determined to fly . . . Joseph (Jette) Browne, the Georgian, who had "a bee in my bonnet from Day One to command a destroyer," like John Wayne and Kirk Douglas had in the pictures . . . All Siebe, the gangly star high school quarterback from Cincinnati who came to Annapolis hoping to lead the blue and gold on the gridiron, but had to take a back seat, way back, to another plebe named Roger Staubach.
And Dennis Spurgeon, son of a Minnesota meatpacker, the first member of four generations of American Spurgeons to attend college.
They came, along with 1,200 others, and on the first day of plebe summer, 1961, they exchanged their civilian clothes for the uniforms of service.
Their hair was cut to the skin. They learned to square their hats and to stand straight as flagpoles, to salute and to march and to drill. And at the end of that first day they formed ranks in Memorial Hall, there beneath Commodore Perry's famous falg bearing the words "Don't Give Up the Ship," and recited the oath of office. "I will support and defend . . ."
Then they had to master the academy mystique.
While childhood friends went to civilian schools, dated and partied on Friday nights, the mystique meant an insular world of orders, guns and books, a boy/man world devoid of women where inhabitants marched to classes and chow in formation, woke up to reveille at 6 a.m. and went to sleep at taps. It was a vacuum where it was illegal to drink and to leave campus without being granted written permission, a place where you could consider yourself very brave for drinking beer in the cemetery after dark or hopping the fence after midnight and watching girls drive past on State Circle.
"You could go there and never know what the real world was like," said Hugh (Reeves) Adair, a submariner now. "The academy was a closed kind of place with its own set of rules and bounds."
Within those bounds were spotless uniforms and dust-free quarters in Bancroft Hall, constant orders to push up, curl up and run. In strict military terms there was a pentagon of requirements imbedded in the indoctrination grind.Each plebe was expected to "exercise self-discipline," "organize time and effort effectively," "perform efficiently under stress," "think and react quickly with good judgment" and "exhibit an exemplary military bearing and appearance."
In human terms these rites of passage were somewhat more intense.
It meant being able to answer whatever esoteric questions the upperclassmen might ask, at any given time, and memorizing naval history and the laws of the Navy, as well as every sundry tidbit contained in "Reef Points," an old book of sayings from the sea and naval lore, also known as the "Annual Handbook of the Brigade of Midshipmen."
"How's the cow, Warnken?" the firstclassman demanded of the plebe, wanting to know how much milk was left in the pitcher on the table .
"Sir! She walks, she talks, she's full of chalk. The lacteal fluid extracted from the female of the bovine species is prolific to the third degree ."
"How long have you been in the Navy, you scum ?"
"Sir! All me bloomin life, sor! Me mother was a mermaid, me father was King Neptune. I was born on the crest of a wave and rocked in the cradle of the deep. Seeweed and barnacles are me clothes. Every tooth in me head is a marlinspike; the hair on me head is hemp. Every bone in me body is a spar and when I spits, I spits tar. I'm hard, I is, I am, I are, sir !"
It was, as Jette Browne put it, "a world nobody remembers anymore, a very stressful, very phsyical, very emotional place."
The academy was a school for leaders whose mission, since 1845, has been "to prepare midshipmen morally, mentally and physically to be professional officers in the naval service."
John Paul Jones, the American Navy's oldest hero and the academy's patron saint, put it this way: "It is by no means enough that an officer of the Navy should be a capable mariner," he wrote long ago. "He must be that, of course, but also a great deal more. He should be as well a gentleman of liberal education, refined manners, punctilious courtesy, and the nicest sense of honor."
That was the mystique, a word defined by Webster's as "the special esoteric skill essential in a calling or activity." In the peculiar world of Annapolis the academy mystique was poise, determination and performance under stress. For to be an officer, you had to be better and stronger than ordinary mortals and to know and accept your place in rank. And in the academy there was nothing lower than a plebe.
"In fact, the indoctrination system held us all in a state of suspended adolescence," said Adair. "Here were 21-year-old guys who never got beyond the glee of screaming at boys."
"Halenza!" the firstclassman shouted at the plebe, who stood trembling in sweatgear before him. "Swim to Baltimore, now !"
So the plebe dashed to a corner of the firstclassman's quarters, climbed up into a tiny opening in the wall between the ceiling and the top of a closet. Balancing himself uncertainly, lying on his stomach, the plebe performed a dogpaddle for over an hour there, while the firstclassman roared with glee .
Then the ruler, three years his senior, ordered him to hang from a sharp-edged transom above the doorway. Fifteen minutes later he dropped to the floor, his fingers cut in several places .
At meals you sat at a table, headed by nine upperclassmen, with two other plebes. You sat braced up on the edge of your wooden chair, your back erect, and ate the meal square -- literally picking up the fork or glass vertically like an automaton, then bringing it inward to your mouth on a perfect horizontal line as if it were sacrament.
Cockily, the firstclassmen would ask you professional questions at the table, types and destructive power of missiles, destroyers, carriers and jets.
Nonprofessional questions they would ask, how many panes of glass are in the skylight at Memorial Hall, who led the National Football League in touchdowns last year, who played Tom in the "Grapes of Wrath," and if you didn't know, you didn't say you didn't know, you said "Beat Army! I'll find out, sir!"
So you scurried to the library or asked another plebe for help, and you had the answer in time for the next chow. Because if you didn't you would be doing push-ups in your sleep and; pressing penny after penny to the bulkhead.
"Who holds the major league record for lifetime home runs?" the firstclassman asked the pitiful plebe from Montana who knew little of sports except for skiing and mountain climbing. The plebe thought a moment, looking quickly around the dinner table for help he knew would never come. He decided to take a chance .
"Sir! Mickey Mantle, sir, holds the record for home runs." The firstclassman loved it. He leaned forward a bit with a devilish smile, and said, "Are you sure plebie-poo ?"
The plebe was panicking now, for he knew there was only one thing worse than not being able to answer a question and that was giving a wrong answer to a superior. "Sir! Yes, Sir!" he finally replied .
The Babe Ruth question was just about the easiest that could be asked, but the poor plebe had blown it. To his superiors' glee, he spent the entire semester confined to quarters, under orders to memorize the names of home-run leaders in the baseball register. Few people saw the Montana boy, but the plebes flinched whenever his name came up, for they could just see him in a catatonic state, confined to quarters, surrounded by sports manuals that collected dust as well as tears .
On a whim, an upperclassmen would order you to clamp on, and you would brace yourself at the table by clamping elbows on the edge, holding yourself up without the aid of a chair. That was a more rigorous version of shoving out, in which you perched your body in a sitting position at the table without a chair, with nothing between your behind and the floor except for air and the bottom of your trousers.
You looked like an idiot and you felt like an idiot, and everyone knew you were just a good-for-nothing plebe.
"It was," said John Charles Allen, in a classic military understatement, "a humbling experience."
And if you had the misfortune to be assigned to the fearsome "Savage 16th Company, you ran harder than all the other plebes, and clamped down longer and so often that in the mess hall you and your compatriots looked like human house plants dangling from table's edge.
Not only did you rig rifles in your outstretched arms longer, you did deep knee bends to boot. Not only did you race around the hallways more often, like dogs unleased, but sometimes you were made to race blindfolded. "It was not only punishment," said Thomas Kinder, "there was a degree of sadism."
"By the time we were seniors, many of the physical aspects that had been routinely a part of plebe year were gone, shoving out, clamping on, sweating pennies to the bulkhead, they'd all become illegal," said Jette Browne. "The academy was becoming a much more academic place. The Navy was becoming more technically oriented. The indoctrination system was toned down so that the midshipmen could concentrate on studying. We were just about the last class to go through plebe year as it was traditionally intended."
The intent was assimilation, poise under pressure and the development of esprit de corps among plebes. All for one and one for all, the misery was shared.
If you had to have an answer about radio or television trivia, and you had to have it fast, you went to Humph Humphreys, who was the kind of media nut who knew, for instance, that Supersuds sponsored the Blondie radio show.
If you had to know the hull number of the Kitty Hawk, you went to George Kent, the computer-brained Mr. Spock of the class who finished first.
If you had to know about liquor, brand names and potency, you went to Denny Moritz, the Chicago boy, who knew 40 brand names of dirty straight whiskey, after he asked this old lady in the administration building about it, and she answered with 30 off the top of her head.
History? You grabbled Gary (Granny) Granai, who was latched onto once by an upperclass history nut who made him find out such gems as White Horse, Wis., the sit where Lincoln lost his horse upon returning from the Black Hawk wars.
That's where Robinson comes in, for what he went through was an inspiration to all.
Robinson was the perfect foil. He was not Navy, his superiors shouted at him over and over, as he grunted and groaned and struggled to do 15 of the 60 push-ups they demanded. He'd never make it, never in his wildest dreams would he ever become a Leader of Men.
For 400 other plebes who started with Robinson that summer, the physical and emotional gauntlet was just too much. After a time they figured either their rulers were correct in -- and they dropped their heads in defeat and walked away -- or they realized the sheer madness of the indoctrination grind and marched off in defiance.
But while they were packing their civilian belongings and dropping out, Robinson, the most inept of the inept, for some reason kept at it and survived. He lost over 40 pounds that summer, but managed to impress his overlords as a striver.
Robinson's father graduated from the academy in 1937. He knew what Navy life was like, having lived in dozens of cities from England to Hawaii. He knew, from the start, that there would never really be any question about his attending any other school except at Annapolis, and he knew what he had to do to survive once he got there.
He was overweight and unathletic, but he was a brain known by his mates as the "human computer." He was one of few plebes fluent in Russian, and was more interested in studying chemistry and physics than memorizing Reef Points.
As one of his classmates recalls him, "Dave was basically a s -- magnet. He was tremendously smart in academics, but when it came to the most rudimentary aspects of military indoctrination he was a mess. If they told us to march first with our left feet, by God, Dave was the only one to start off with his right.
"When there is a guy having obvious problems like Dave was having, the firstclassmen jump on him like vultures."
Yes, they jumped on him. Pushups, curl-ups, uniform races and running in the halls. But, as Robinson put it, looking back now with a chuckle in his voice, "I always had this ability to surprise people. Just when they figured they had me on the ropes, ready to go down, I'd come back with a vengeance."
Plebe year was the gauntlet, and the next three, the "Dark Ages" at the "Blue Zoo," were a gray, grueling grind of books, highlighted by football glory and Roger Staubach (a member of the class of '65 but not the top 50), America's first man in orbit and a victory, of sorts, over the Russians in the Cuban Missile Crisis.
But as the years passed in this vacuum of guns, books and drills on the Severn, clouds began appearing in a future that once seemed boundless. November 1963. Kennedy, the inspiration, the Navy man's president, was killed. One hundred of them sang dirges and marched at his funeral.
Two years later, Martin Luther King led a civil rights drive through the South and amid racial strife, while funds and troops were sent to the Dominican Republic, to help put down a revolt, and to Asia, to bolster the South Vietnamese government.
At the academy in 1964, a spry and slightly eccentric French professor, distraught over France's previous role in the turmoil in Southeast Asia, and the increasing involvement of the Americans there, ended many of his lectures with the words, "Je n'envie pas M. Johnson ."
That same year a rough and steely-eyed Marine Corps colonel led a series of lectures on guerilla movements and something known as C-1, counterinsurgency.
"Basically, he told us how important C-1 was going to be in the next few years," remembers Judd Halenza, who was to become a fighter pilot. "But to us it seemed there was no urgency to it. Vietnam hadn't really cranked up, and we were all in our little shell at Annapolis. A lot of us just slept through those lectures."
"There was no great awareness of public events, certainly no great foreboding that we all might go to war," said Wayne Warnken. "Vietnam was well, a little thing on the horizon that didn't seem to concern us. We didn't even know how to pronounce "U Thant." Of course, the fellas who were going Marine kept all the maps of Mekong and Danang on their walls, and studied it really thorough.
"But they were marines," he said. "They were supposed to be more nutty than everyone else."
As Hugh Adair put it, "When we thought about the war at all, everybody's feeling was we were doing the right thing. Those were the 'Ballad of the Green Beret' days."
So in the spring of 1965, only months away from graduation and their commissioning as ensigns, the top 50 of the class marched to Smoke Hall on campus and began selecting billets in the regular Navy from computer sheets tacked to a pale green wall.
A few good men, 7 percent, went Marine, about a third selected Hyman G. Rickover's nuclear submarine service, another third, the most carefree and adventurous among them, selected Navy Air, and the rest donned the black shoes of the destroyer and frigate service.
They didn't know it then, amid the hats tossed high into the air, the merriment, excitement and congratulations on having made it through, but many -- Robinson, Humphreys, Bonsper, Browne and Halenza among them -- were headed for hell and war in Vietnam.