I want to talk a little about an experience I had tonight. Many of you know of my aspirations to go to West Point and become a cadet, and some of you may even have an idea of what the United States Military Academy is and represents for this country we all live in. But I’m not coming tonight to tute my own horn, and march to my own band, like I sometimes get caught up in the spirit of the institution and Army I have come to love so deeply. I just want to talk about a few people I met tonight and the experience I shared for a few hours of my life.
Tonight, I attended a “Black and Gold” Dinner put on by the Alumina and West Point Society of North Texas. Mostly it is a who’s who of West Point graduates ( Or as my friend Tommy Irby (Class of ’91) likes to call them– “West Point Groupies”.) coming together to share their experience and better help candidates and West Point “hopefuls”, like me, make the right decision about whether the Academy, and the future duty to the Army that entails, is or is not for us.
Fittingly enough it was being held at the Las Colinas Country Club and was an invitation-only suit and tie kind of thing. Last year it would have probably made me feel pretty important and all. This year, I know better than to take anything other than a Letter Of Acceptance as a “sure thing”. But you know, there I was, dressed to impress and knowing very well that my every action was being judged– and by that– so was my character and ultimately whether or not I deserve to go to West Point. I’d had been to these things before, and had overcome some of the stage fright I first experienced– unlike some of my peers in the room who were sporting the “deer in the headlights look”, I was the old guy on the block now– the two timer, I know what questions are going to be asked even before someone ask them.
The first man I greet when I walk into the room is a familiar face– LTC Gabriel (ret). “Gabe” Gabriel is Class of ’61 I believe, Airborne, Special Forces, Vietnam Vet– former West Point teacher. Remarkable guy, and I always thought of him as kind of older and well respected. Gabe, I want to say, either founded or help found the original Army Parachute Team back in “the day”. And those are the guys you see jumping into the stadiums from up above before Army football games. Anyway so I greet Gabe, who’s been keeping up with my progress and knows what’s been going on… and I go over to talk to my Dad. And in walks a man, who made Gabe look very young, immediately recognized Mr. Gabriel from across the room and walks over and says:
To which Gabe replied “All the Way!”
I watched this guy for a moment talk to Gabe and when he got done he kind of just dusted off to the back of the crowd for a second then came over to me…He was dressed in a casual suit, I saw his name tag before he got close enough to speak and quickly knew a few important pieces of information: he was a Lieutenant General (retired of course) and he was Infantry, well Airborne Infantry–
“What’s your name son?” He asked..
I replied with a firm handshake, “Ty Stephens”
“LTG Bud Bolling retired”
This man was old– Class of 1943 (according to the name tag)– Class of 1943!! That puts him at 85ish…. this man just got stood over by me and as we began to file into the dining room he wanted to know what table we were sitting at and if it would be ok for him to sit with us. Or course! Over the next few hours I had some of the most interesting and comical discussion with LTG Bolling.
Bolling graduated in 1943 only after 3 years at West Point. They needed Officer for WWII so they rushed him through as quickly as they could. According to him, he road the “Queen Elizabeth across the big pond” and landed on Utah Beach with “the boys”. He was captured by the Germans, “but escaped because he got hungry”. He got his Airborne Training at Benning and taught Airborne tactics for a stint. He then returned to West Point as a German Professor and Lacrosse Coach. From there he worked in the Pentagon (which he hated), until he was offered a brigade with 82nd. Somewhere in here he did two Tours of Duty in Vietnam…
When I stop to think about it… this man is a warrior! He’s been through it all and lived to tell about it.
So I am eating dinner with LTG Bolling, a Brigadier General with the Corp of Engineers (who has an annual budget of 2.5 billion dollars…billion!…10,000 people under his command and is reponsable for all the hydroelectric dams, the lakes, and military institutions within the 7 state area) , my father, an african-american candidate named JJ, his parents + the grandmother. JJ’s grandmother is like the typical protective grandmother who wants the best for baby JJ, and she happen to be sitting by LTG Bolling…
Bolling was quite gracious and polite, in his own way, very hard on hearing, but sharp as a tack, I mean this guy never missed a beat the whole night. We’re talking and JJ’s grandmother is going on and on while we’re talking about Engineering and this what a great eduction West Point is:
“JJ! you hear that? 80% of Cadets go on to do Graduate studies!”
“JJ! You hear that? You have to be smart to be an Engineer”
“JJ! you hear that? They’re going to teach you how to shave, and make your bed”
Bolling interjects about the “Military Experience”, “You get to go to the rifle range..”
To which JJ’s grandmother replies “Rifle range?! What on earth do the need that for!?”
Bolling replies “Well… to learn to shoot!”
“Well I just don’t know if I want my JJ going off to no Rifle Ra–“
“Mam! What are we supposed to do?! Stare our enemy down?!?!”
“No, no I’m just saying that I think he should be spending his time in the classro–“
“Well, I think that would go over about like a flock of concrete ducks!”
I looked over at my Dad who had been listening and was laughing so hard he was about to fall out of his chair. I did my best to keep from grinning… Bolling then turned to JJ…
“So you want to be an Engineer huh?”
“What do you want to do, Ty?”
“Infantry,” I replied…
That old man’s eyes brightened up and he reached across the table and gave me a hug…. I didn’t know what to say…
“You gotta go to jump school, son, you understand?”
“Yes sir” I replied.
“Jump School!” he said again.