Do Tell: The Early Years by Don B. Dale

Chapter VI

Life at the Ranch

The Cadet Years

     I'd prefer not dwelling too much on this period in my life from 1961 though 1964. The memories aren't very pleasant, the lessons probably have little relevancy to life, and I was at the right place at the wrong time.

     The experience, although I have no first hand knowledge, was probably not unlike that in which a young man finds himself when he unknowingly goes into the Jesuit priesthood. We didn't wear hairshirts, but the cardboard collars and uniforms were darn uncomfortable.

     To complain or even open your mouth was puny bellyaching, strongly discouraged, and if you had the good fortune to be brought up believing everyone carries his own load no matter what, well the suffering could get to be mentally and physically debilitating.

     There were, at least for me, no outlets, no one to talk to without admitting failure. My brother was even there and I never remember talking or confiding in him, although I imagine we did talk. As I said earlier, most of those years have been blocked out.

     There were a few funny moments, like the first day after having our heads shaved, and the loud speaker announces, all doolies report immediately to the marching area with white gloves under arms. My future roommate, Lou, showed up with his white gloves under his armpits. Everyone else had their white gloves on with their M-1 rifle at port-arms. It took the heat off everyone else for a few minutes while the drill instructors tried to come up with a million new ways to call someone an idiot.

     That was really one of the things wrong with the system at the time, the belief that you had to break a person down and build him back up again in the image some misguided genius laid out for all cadets. Some of the problem was my reaction to regimentation, to orders, and to a narrow view of what is proper action. The education, such as it was, was first rate. The grading system was out of control and easily circumvented, which caused my downfall, but you did learn teamwork. Unfortunately (another one of those) almost everyone in my class and squadron later became a pilot and, with 1 or 2 exceptions, died in Vietnam. Andy Anderson, a good friend whom I remember because he was a musical genius - played the banjo which he'd learned on his own in the hills of Tennessee - didn't make it to the war, he crashed his F-104 on a training flight.

     By my first Christmas at the Ranch, I was failing in 4 subjects. They had taken my two year old high school SAT scores and put me in advanced calculus, and the other courses were accelerated. After six weeks I had to transfer into basic calc, make up the lost study time, and get and A on a four hour final in order to get a C for the course. I somehow got all C's. I was restricted to my room or the library seven days a week after supper, so there wasn't much else to do but study.

     Fun, no it wasn't fun and by midyear I had my first bout with back pain and for two months couldn't sit down or stand up in class without using my arms. A Dr. Cotton, the orthopedic surgeon at the Ranch, said it was a degenerative disc problem, try explaining that to some upper class cadet who's so full of himself he probably smiles when he shaves each morning.

     The medical problems continued the second year when I was admitted to the hospital for surgery on both ankles. They'd been damaged so bad in football that I was wearing tape casts on both ankles for several weeks.

     After being admitted to the hospital, I learned the surgeon was a little crazy, he'd operated on 8-10 knees in one day. Wow! A new surgical record and, in addition, a basketball player I knew was walking the hospital floors with both arms in casts because they'd gotten the wrong arm the first time in surgery.

     I checked myself out of the hospital and reported my concerns to the AOC, air officer commander, or Air Force captain in charge of the squadron. He took care of the doctor, and no one ever asked me to go back to the hospital.

     Things picked up a little bit later on that year. JFK died, and I was selected to go to Washington, D.C. and march 20 miles in the funeral. With the humidity and heat we lost a cadet on the way to Arlington National Cemetery, but we did better than the army grunts who were dropping like flies.

     My best friend on the freshman football team was brain damaged in a game. After the first hit to the head he never knew who had the ball or what the score was. I tried to tell the coach how bad the guy was hurt but he'd just ask Rusty, you okay? There could only be one answer to that question with our training, so back in the game he'd go. When his parents tried to put him on the train after Christmas for his return to the Ranch, he wouldn't go. They insisted and as the train pulled out he took a gun from his duffel bag and blew his brains across the train car.

     I always wonder if I could have done something after that first time he was hurt, maybe the damage had already been done, maybe not. I quit the football team after that year, I didn't need or want it anymore, and the fun was gone. There was still intermural football and I caught a pass from Mike Richey to help our Squadron win the intramural football championship game the next year.

The Summers

     That first summer at the Ranch I decided to go to jump school at Fort Benning, Georgia during my summer leave. All you had to do was get up each morning at 4 AM, double time to chow, go through the exercises, the tower jumps, and the last week jump out of an airplane five times. It was a kick floating down from a plane.

     A major in the 11th Air Assault Group was involved; somehow, I really don't remember the circumstances, I occasionally found myself at his house when not in jump school, that was seven days a week. His wife, a golf nut, adopted me and her daughter let me into their summer group.

Jerri     One Sunday I played bridge with Miss University of North Carolina, Miss runner-up for the State of North Carolina, and my friend, the major's daughter, Jerri. Not a bad foursome for my first time ever playing bridge. Another weekend the family went on a picnic at a lakeside park. Calloway Gardens, and asked me to join them.

     Not terribly exciting events, although my interest in bridge did pick up, but they were light moments that softened the drudgery of the year.

     There were only a few more highlights, one of which was a few weeks at West Point as a sophomore exchange student. Their classes weren't much different and my grades actually improved slightly, for reasons that would become apparent a year later.

     The summer before when we toured the U.S., I'd met a young lady who was the daughter of a Master Sergeant and had sung with Dick Dale (no relation) and the Surfers in California. Her father had been transferred to Boston, and she came down with her mother for a game at West Point when I was there.

     After the game the beetle crunchers got together in a large banquet room to dance and party. They had a band and she volunteered to sing. It was a heart stopping love song dedicated to a Air Force cadet. My Stars - I wondered for a second if they would let me leave West Point alive.

     Every Point man in the place wanted a dance after that, but preferring a "Zoomie", as we were called, she just brushed them off. There were daggers thrown with every glance after that, and I took some satisfaction in setting back Air Force and Army relations another 10 years. If either of my daughters ever go there, they're well advised to stay away from the campus path known as flirtation walk, I've heard it's dangerous.

     That summer tour when the encounter with the aforementioned singer took place, also included a zero-G gravity ride aboard a modified C-130. They subsequently ungraded to a C-135; but the C130 was enough for me. The astronauts practiced weightless training on this plane before going into space. It started as a lark, the idea of playing superman and actually flying. The walls were all padded and I was told most of what to expect. It's kind of like a great roller-coaster ride in the sky. You pull negative or positive G's depending an whether you're on the up leg or down leg of the hump, and when you go over the top - you're weightless. It didn't last long, and at first I flew. It's a bird, no a plane, no it's Superdale. Unfortunately, once I'd flown around a couple of times, and pushed off the ceiling and walls, I was really to quit.

     I found out later that all but one of the original astronauts, who were seasoned pilots, had gotten sick the first time up. There wasn't one aspect of the ride in which I wasn't sick. I got sick when pulling up and the pressure was so great I couldn't throw-up and out, when diving and everything was forced into my nose, and when weightless and it would just hang there in the air while I tried to catch it in a barf bag. The sickness lasted for an hour after landing even though there was nothing to throw up but bloody bile. So much for weightlessness.

     The following summer was educational as well. We left Texas in a C-124 bound for Panama where we toured the Canal Zone, visited the casinos in Panama City, and spent a day at the jungle survival school. The 3-step snake lecture was memorable, that's the one which bites you and you take two steps forward and one backward before you die. Apparently there is no cure or antidote, yet I really wanted to take that course the following summer.

     Mexico City came next and I spent half my time walking the streets all night long just to see the people, smell the smells, and find out how these millions of Mexicans lived. There are some back streets (one lane wide) in that City, where the beef and pork is hung on hooks beside the street; the flies swarm when a slab is cut for a starving peasant; trash and fetid water crowd the gutters; and I would advise anyone to avoid late night strolls down these lanes.

     A party was held at the Admiral of the Fleet's house or villa I should say. Admiral Vargas and his wife had a private band, tons of food, and the mothers and relatives were very much in attendance. The reason being that the previous year a cadet had kissed some government official's daughter, a despicable act which was observed by the maid. When the cadets returned to Colorado, one in particular was greeted with a Mexico City newspaper article announcing his engagement to the seņorita whose honor had been brought into question. An assistant Secretary of State had to make amends. A year later we had all been warned repeatedly before leaving the states, so were generally on good behavior.

     The President of Alcoa of Mexico had a daughter named Leticia, she was at the Admiral's party, and I went by her house to say goodbye before leaving for Colombia. It was as much curiosity as anything else, and an appointment was required. The house, like most in that part of Mexico City was surrounded by an 8-10 foot brick fence topped with broken glass and barbed wire. We talked with her hermanas y hermanos (all 5 of them) watching. After a cup of tea she walked me to the corner where a cab picked me up; her brother of 15 was 3 paces behind at all times. This should put to rest any story you ever heard about Letti from your trouble making aunts.

     Another stop included Bogota and the nearby La' Academia de Force de Aire. During the summer months I use to tan a dark brown after several good burns. The Colombian cadets thought I'd make a good substitute center in a basketball game they had planned against a local college; all I had to do was to limit my speech to si and no.

     We won the game and I learned a few new swear words in Spanish. That win endeared me to the Colombian cadets so I was invited out with their Basketball Queen and her friend along with a few of the Colombian cadets. You understand of course that in proper Latin America society you never go anywhere unchaperoned, so the father of the queen came with us and drove.

     On the way off the base he asked where we wanted to go, which was polite, but also a tricky part of their culture. Unknown to me, whoever suggests the place, pays the bill in Bogota. I had started to mention this one night spot the basketball team had said was great, when the Colombian cadet gave me a sharp poke in the ribs. Thank the Lord for his intervention, it cost a hundred dollars U.S. for the evening and I still had several countries to go.

     Our next stop was Quito, Ecuador, a favorite of mine for one of the two memories it gave me. The Embassy entertained us, the local cadets threw a party, we attended their guerrilla warfare school, but mostly I got to know a couple of guys who would come by after curfew, pick me up, and we'd go out all night.

     The forgettable memory was a terrible case of the gaucho wars in my stomach which took a pound of crackers to cure. One night when the cadets were restricted to base, my roommate and I ran into this blond haired industrialist in the Hotel Quito. There was a singer on stage and he was the only customer. He bought us a drink, and preceded to tell us his life story.

     Educated at UCLA, he'd joined the US Army, after discharge he was spending thousands entertaining his buddies in Vegas (he did know how to gamble) when his father died. He came home to Quito to run the family business. Jorge Torselli was a lover of America jazz, and after so many years in the U.S., he'd changed. The average worker in the country (where 82% are illiterate) only works an average of four months a year and earns a few hundred dollars (this was in 1962). Jorge decided to change all that. He tripled the wages, improved his productivity, and tried to help his workers.

     His home had been bombed that year and his car shot at several times. The song the singer was singing was a tragic love story, Jorge said they're all sad songs in Ecuador, just like the people. We got up with Jorge to go into the casino where he wanted to play, and he pointed out a group of businessmen in a private conference room. "See those gentlemen", he asked? "They're most of the group of roughly 30 industrialists who control the country and government."

     He was part of the group but rarely attended meetings anymore. You see, they were behind the bombing of his house, the shooting at his car, and wanted him to return his wage per worker situation to the former status quo. In a little over an hour Jorge had won over $8,000 US at roulette. We had spent the entire time discussing US/USSR relations, and then Jorge decided to leave. I never found out whether he made it home that night, I do remember he left an unhappy man. He'd been glad of our company but in his face was the reflection of the saddest person I'd ever met, a truly troubled soul.

     The thought he left with us was simple. Control of the country and its allegiance to the West or the East is not determined by money from Washington or what's said, because the people don't read. "Give them action, the first man on the moon will do more to strengthen ties with Ecuador than anything else. "Success in space means you're better, you've won, and maybe I'll stay alive a little longer." For my part I hope Jorge is still alive and still bringing democracy and hope and a better way of life to Ecuador. I used this story once before as my essay at the University of Kansas, the head of ROTC was the reader and he liked it, of course he was one of those gung-ho, bleed America types, which at least beats communism all to heck.

     There was a tour of Brasilia, the capitol of Brazil, and a stop in Dutch Surinam on the way home. The President's home in the Brazilian Capitol, where he lives a few months of the year, has a 15 by 40 foot wall inside the front door which is layered with solid gold. I rented a taxi and had the driver drive me around the Capitol. There were tens of thousands of people a few miles away from the presidential palace living in total poverty, many in card board homes.

     It seems that no matter where you go you can find these wide gaps between the haves and have nots. It was visible in Vietnam and Thailand when I was there in 1977-78. While Brazil was interesting, it was and is outside my sphere of influence to do anything about its problems.

Calling It Quits

     The fall of my junior year I actually thought I might make it through the Ranch. The junior year in college is always the hardest, which I didn't know, and so I loaded up with engineering courses in aeronautical, mechanical, and electrical engineering, and nuclear physics.

     Unknown to everyone at the time, it would be the last year every cadet would have to have an engineering degree, so my 45 hours of engineering was a decided overkill. It wasn't that I was dumb, after my sophomore year I took the graduate record exam (GRE) for engineers and ranked in the 45th percentile of graduating seniors, but the classes at the Ranch were graded on a curve and I was always at the bottom of the curve.

     After that year I had a 1.97 GPA but a general running the academic program wrote a dismissal letter to the effect that he didn't feel I would be able in my remaining science courses to get the 2.0 necessary to graduate. With nothing left but English and Political Science courses, where I'd always excelled, there wasn't any question about finishing with a 2.5 or better. But I was depressed, stressed out, and unhappy. I left in 24 hours without saying goodbye to anyone. Pat Ryan, the AOC, a friend to this day, told me years later that there was another option, but at the time that wasn't as important as getting out.

     So, if your father seems reluctant to accept today what someone says is the gospel, especially when that someone is making decisions affecting family, there's usually a good reason. Just because a person is a general or an advisor, doesn't mean that they're totally in charge of your life. If there are rules and the rules are being enforced, it helps to have someone in charge to make sure the job gets done correctly, but if the rules aren't uniform or are being applied unevenly, then you have to stand up for yourself.

     You also learn that rules and laws are sometimes used by people in power to control or to survive if they're afraid of losing their job, or in the case of litigators - to make money, not necessarily to promote justice. That doesn't mean if you get a parking ticket you didn't deserve, that you spend hundreds of dollars in time, effort, and money to protest a ten dollar ticket.

     A few months later when I was at KU, I spoke with my old squadron commander (AOC), who has been a life long friend. Pat told me the entire Academy was in turmoil and over 300 cadets, a significant percentage in those days, would be kicked out on honor violations. They actually stopped the terminations at about 155 plus or minus, some general's son had been cut when the Secretary of Defense called a halt to the terminations by the cadets themselves. As the last cadet hadn't been notified yet, he was reinstated, but the code of silence was implemented.

     The story is and was that the two top cadets in my class, with both a wreath and star on their sleeves (that meant big man on campus stuff), had penetrated the locked professors' area three years earlier. Using keys they made, they had systematically stolen tests and exams for three years. They had also been selling certain exams to groups of cadets that had been screened for acceptance and who would keep quiet at all costs. So while I worked my butt off for three years, the leaders of the class had cheated their way through.

     It kind of gets you down deep in the pit of your stomach, added to the pain is the fact that up to a hundred other cadets knew about the injustice, the lying, and held their peace, which was also an honor violation.

     The generals covered up the mess they helped create instead of letting the student body cleanse itself as it was designed to do, and they probably did it not just to protect a few generals' sons. but also to protect themselves. The military leadership ranking, you might remember President Eisenhower finished at the bottom of his class at West Point, doesn't necessarily go with the class ranking.

     The academics had usurped the authority of the acting unit commanders, and decreed a top military cadet also had to have top grades. My AOC had gotten me to West Point because of demonstrated leadership abilities on the field.

     My official ranking was much lower because General McDermott had skewed the final rankings toward grade averages. This as it turned out, was based on lying and cheating, and quickly ending the purge of liars and cheaters was the only way to protect the careers of the top brass. The active duty and junior officers in command of the units, who wanted the system to cleanse itself and run the course as it had at West Point in the early 50's, were reassigned to other duties.

     It's not a sad story, it's just a real story about real life. I was down on myself when I started that last year at KU, in fact I was thinking of not finishing college right away and going to Alaska. Reason won out, while my fortune may still lie in Alaska, I figured the important thing is to finish something you start unless there's a compelling reason not to do so.

     When I learned the story about the scandal at the Academy (most of it never made the press), I felt a little better about myself and what had happened to me. You don't always wind up where you think you might, and sometimes you just need to work a little harder to make the grade. Had I worked just a little harder I'd probably never left the Ranch, but then I have no regrets because without leaving I'd never met Karen and never had two beautiful daughters to love and to watch as they grow up.

     You could say what happened at the Ranch wasn't fair, but let me tell you about one of life's biggest lessons. Life isn't fair! No one is going to hand you the brass ring, it's something you have to ride for each time there's an opportunity to excel. You won't always get the brass ring, but think of the disappointment if you never reach for it. You could have won, could have gone all the way, could have won the race like Jim Ryun did so many years ago, but without trying you may never realize your full potential.

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