VFMA Thirty-five Years Later
In 1986 at May’s end, I left Valley Forge Military Academy never to return, and in departure’s rush, I left a box on my small, old, wooden desk in my barracks’ room. I also left my nickname, “Troll,” scrawled on the desk’s bottom in the uncertainty of returning the following year. Cadets left their marks in various ways, signing desk bottoms or the more obvious graduate’s shoes hurled in the trees, making strange decorations that marked their attendance. Signing the desk and leaving a box of belongings would do in place of throwing shoes at graduation since I did not return. Weeks passed before realizing I forgot the box, and I never said anything to my parents for fearing a return trip to claim the bad poetry, letters, and other forgotten items might resume imprisonment. That box haunted thoughts throughout the years ahead, and now at fifty-one, a Facebook discussion about an article concerning abuse of cadets at Valley Forge sparked curiosity again for that box.
By July of 1985, when I started my sentence at Valley Forge by attending VMFA’s new Step program that acclimated students for imprisonment, I felt calloused to names, having endured far worse name-calling than “Troll.” No one could pronounce Triola, so they shortened my name to Troll, which amused me since many students' names had far more taxing enunciations. Still, the moniker highlighted my bad luck streak of turning sixteen just before leaving my girlfriend and home for a hellish, lonely summer learning to march and salute.
The Step program’s small plebe membership shared the campus with a group of international students learning VFMA's complex, three-response language, “Yes, sir; no, sir; and no excuse, sir.” Vague memories of taking a few classes splinter between military orientation, physical training (PT), and chow, but mostly I remember cathartically dipping a bandana in water to swirl Kiwi black on shoe leather. We crowded in rooms, shining shoes, bullshitting, and chewing tobacco we weren’t supposed to have. Smoking cigarettes, my preferred poison, satisfied nicotine's urge if you possessed an official Smoking Card issued by a Tactical officer with your parents’ permission. Still, smoking had the downside of requiring butt area attendance, necessitating chewing tobacco during hours restricted to barracks. Nicotine held vast importance as the only thing making VFMA bearable.
The summer routinized in class, PT, chow, or smoking, chewing, and shining shoes, except when the Step Program's jocks unwisely challenged the international students to a game of football. The international students arrived at the field with a soccer ball, unaware the jocks meant American football, but undaunted by the miscommunication, we agreed to soccer and enjoyed much humiliation.
The school year routine held more of the summer activities, less being Peléd to death, as the campus filled with over seven hundred students, mostly “Old Men,” who were students with a year or more attendance. They formed the jailhouse seniority adding stress to the plebe training year because Old Men had the right to make plebes do things like rack their chins, which meant lowering your chin to your chest and dragging it to your neck to form creases of flesh. Several folds of skin under the jawline denoted a good rack. Cadet officers conveniently forgot to inform us of this practice during the summer as well as the existence of the demonic Old Men who had many privileges like walking in straight lines. Old Men walked while Plebes marched, and there were many paths to places inaccessible to the plebe for having to walk a longer distance to be sure not to use the Old Men’s paths. One Old Man path contained a large stone bearing a sword that provided luck if you touched the hilt. I hated Old Men and cursed them for wanting to use the time-saving path or perhaps to touch the Golden Sword.
The morning march to chow or PT formed a hellish daily routine worsened every Sunday when the Corp miserably held a parade, whether people sat in the bleachers or not. Unlike other marching, parades required the stifling full-dress uniform, including the shako built for torture with brass buttons, fitted to dig into your temples worsened by cold or hot days. Though painfully endless, sometimes I enjoyed that thunderous clap when seven hundred heels struck the deck in a single “right face!” The tall, black, powerful field commander sharply and precisely directed the marching band’s boom, keeping the diverse Corp in step. Those moments showed achievement possibilities when all peoples worked with a singular purpose.
The school year’s hell marched into the freezing winter, aptly named the Dark Ages, and I discovered new ways to occupy the little free time I had from cleaning and other duties. I wrote more intensively, probably due to studying history and literature more effectively than in public school. Though I dislike most teachers for good reasons, I admit two teachers at VFMA impacted me positively. While most students thought the Colonel who taught history boring, I considered him a fascinating, ancient soldier who fought in every war, giving Vietnam and WWII context. My literature Captain equally entertained with discussions of Beowulf and Homer that intrigued me while lulling others to sleep. Their teachings helped inspire the poetry I piled into the box left at VFMA, but not all inspiration was lost.
Winter’s freezing days brought another discovery when a knock on a friend's door revealed cadets huddled about Dungeons and Dragons books and the radiator. Rolling up my first character and passing many hours gaming began a fascination with role play that gave life to fantasy books I escaped into often. That fascination with games continues to this day.
VFMA memories evoke much nostalgia for those first experiences making the negative elements difficult to recall. Perhaps my limited experience with VFMA blinds me to the school’s abusive aspects couched in character building that youth and inexperience often confuse. Once my roommate and I went AWOL after older cadets tormented him: a situation so bad I can no longer remember the details. My roommate called his parents, who promptly called the school, and the next day our Tactical Officer called us into his office.
The strict, emotionless Colonel, a bit of a legend during his command of B company, the cadets named "Tron," not to his face, of course. Facing him held much fear of suffering some hideous punishment he doubtless learned while interrogating a combatant during some secret Cold War skirmish. The Colonel asked why I went AWOL, and I told him I didn't want to be at VFMA. The Colonel, so sure of himself, pointed to his phone and said, “Call your parents. Tell them you want to leave, and if that is your reason, don't mention anything about the incident last night. Give them only your reasons for wanting to leave.”
I called and mustered every reason I could to get them to let me come home, but the words fell dead as I spoke, conveying no meaning even to me. I uncontrollably resorted to telling them about the incident, to which they refused to allow my return, and the Colonel issued tours for going AWOL. During my twenty tours (one tour equaling one hour of marching or work), my thoughts frustrated over that phone call and why I couldn’t explain myself without using the negative situation that no longer seemed so horrible. In time, the lesson to be true to yourself and not be blinded by the moment would clarify. His other lessons, like needing to finish commitments, would eventually cement in understanding as time tempered experiences from calamity to adolescent insignificance.
Still, abuses happened, and a tooth pasting incident like the one discussed on Facebook occurred in 1986. Another even more brutal incident ended with a cadet hospitalized, leading to the expulsion of the cadets involved. Many less severe cases occurred during my attendance, mostly mindless torment like unwarranted ridicule, name-calling, or physical exertion. These acts happened often enough to frustrate cadets to tears and always during times lacking adult supervision. Absent of adults, strong adolescent personalities formed bullying groups observable in every incident. While the goal is to make cadets responsible adults, they are still kids and prone to many pressures. Had an adult officer been present in the barracks, none of those incidents would have escalated to the severity they did.
Perhaps again showing my limited experience, I suffered no abuse at VFMA comparable with the bullying I received in public school. Not meaning to argue one form of abuse over another but going to VFMA ended years of bullying endured in public and private schools. While that one tooth-pasting incident, beating, and other infractions presented serious abuses, so too were the continuous physical assaults and daily fear I felt walking home or riding the school bus while in public school. If there is an argument to make with abuse and bullying, I would say hazing occurred far less within VFMA’s walls than in the public sphere. More importantly, not one teacher at VFMA ever ignored or participated in the bullying the way shitty public-school teachers often did. Had my parents given me the ultimatum of public-school attendance or returning to VFMA, I would have chosen military school.
At sixteen, the decision to return home to a Catholic school appeared less punitive, and that lack of wisdom exited me from VFMA, leaving more than a box of bad poetry and my name scrawled under a desktop. I left my friend across the hall, who understood everything about weed and hated my roommate with the same passion I did for playing the Scorpions’ “Rock you like a Hurricane” multiple times every day, inspiring many fun conversations while shining shoes. I left the Dungeon Master, who led my chaotic evil assassin through great adventures in the Dark Ages, rolling the D20 while wrapped in a wool blanket. I left something unfinished that can be understood only by the person who knows the aggravation and beauty of stopping everything, facing the flag, and saluting when Taps plays at the day’s end.
Leaving VFMA formed a regret, deepening across time, starting in my new school filled with guys unrelatable and childish. All my friends ironically went to public school, and they heard VFMA stories more times than desired, but over time, those stories faded from the conversation, stolen by a feeling of loss. After high school, I decided to become a writer, and that box of bad poetry again haunted me with a desire to read something from the frightened, bullied kid who entered VFMA. I knew then I abandoned a significant life-changing force that impacted me in ways few people and no other school ever did.
Many times I envisioned the fate of the box containing my first poetry and letters to the girlfriend, who I should mention cheated a lot and dismissed me from boyfriend duty. I imagine that box fell into the hands of the returning cadets who had a good laugh at Troll’s bad poetry. I hope so, and even more so, I hope they saw beyond the moment, finished what needed finishing, and threw their shoes in the trees, unlike me when I left that box behind.