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My Disastrous Life In ROTC

Written/Narrated By Florida Writer Sidney Homan

 Morale in Princeton’s ROTC was at an all-time low in the 1950w.  Fifteen weeks now of 5-AM classes and nothing but Air Force training films.  We were given lectures on how to lead men, but there was no one to lead. 

 In point of fact, it was we who were led, the program’s single officer being a Major Hankins, an oddly shaped man, with a bald head across which two strands of long black hair were crossed, bushy eyebrows rivaling those of the coal miners’ John Lewis and protruding above eyes sunk in the forehead like tunnels leading to the anthracite cache of his little black pupils.  A little man, a waif, curiously he had around his middle a huge tire of fat, distorting his regulation blue Air Force shirt and cascading over a black belt whose buckle, against service rules, was a silver longhorn steer with “Texas” branded across its nostrils.  Below the belt, he boasted a tight bottom, a firm, peach-shaped affair some teenage girl would have been glad to call her own, and thin legs, slightly bowed, that, although missing hooves. could have been those of a diminutive satyr.  This was the leader who paraded before us Princeton “boys” dressed alike in the cadet’s uniform, the sole reason, I suspect, why my mother, with visions of my returning in triumph to our Philly neighborhood, insisted I enroll in the AFROTC.

 Each morning at one minute to five we reported to class–one did not “go to” class but rather “reported.”  At precisely five, Major Hankins marched in, and clicking our heels to his “Attention!” we saluted sharply.  His “at ease” was the signal to sit, not casually but stiffly.  A snap of the fingers and one of the cadets, whose father was an executive with Boeing and had won the coveted position of squadron projectionist, turned on the morning’s film.  Less than thirty minutes ago, our pupils had been mere dots, the brain casting images of Vassar girls with bare bosoms on the back of the retina and then processing it, imagining the upside down image had come from the outside world.  Now, as the Air Force insignia flickered on the screen, those pupils were stretched to the breaking point as we watched Planes, Men, and That Wild Blue Wonder or Pressing and Folding the Regulation Uniform or–our favorite–Don’t Get Cocky in the Cockpit: Ten Steps for a Successful Take-Off.

 The film over, we were give an instant quiz, fifty true-or-false questions phrased so clumsily that they invariably gave the clues to the right answers.  “Though it would be highly unusual, the plane’s fuselage is sometimes located in front of the cockpit–True or False.”  Or, “The successful commander has mastered the basics of command–True or False.”

 It was my answer to a question on an anti-Communist propaganda film that put me in Hankins’s doghouse.  In the spirit of McCarthy and the witch-hunting 1950s, the Air Force had ordered all ROTC units to show ‘We Will Bury You!’: The Red Menace.  Normally silent during the films, this morning Hankins provided his own voice-overs to images of Lenin or Stalin with “He’s a bastard, boys, a real bastard!” or “Catch the sneer on that Commie’s face.”  Russian troops parading down Red Square were met with, “They’re tough, boys, they’re tough–but don’t worry, we’re tougher.”  When the lights went back on, the Major was, as they say, visibly moved.  He thrust the quiz forms into our hands, expecting that no cadet would produce less than a perfect score on “Hankins’s Fifty,” as we fondly called them.

 This day, however, one of those fifty questions puzzled me.  “All filthy Communists are bad–True or False.”  The “filthy,” of course, was the give-away.  But, I speculated: did it refer to “all Communists,” including the ones who were not filthy?  Or were all Communists “filthy” by nature?  Could one be a Communist and not be filthy?  And, given this possibility, could there be a non-filthy Communist who, something of a black sheep, was still “bad?”  At eleven I would go to Philosophy 101 with the brilliant Professor Speucher, and I could just imagine his asking, “What, boys, do we mean by ‘bad’?”  And, “Could ‘bad’ be relative to the perceiver?”  In good conscience, beckoned by “True” yet seduced by “False,” trying to preserve what little sense of integrity I had in a squadron where Air-Force-blue uniformity was the rule, I circled “False.”

            The next day, after the opening salute Major Hankins summoned me to the front of the class.


            “Yes, Sir!” I said sharply.

            “You know what you did?”

            “Begging your pardon, sir, I don’t know what I did.”


            Taking that “what” as a command for clarification, rather than censure, I replied, “Sir, I cannot know what I did if, to the best of my knowledge, I do not believe I have done anything.”

            “You’ve been hanging around that mother’s-boy Speucher, that philosophy guy, haven’t you?”

            Silence.  Then, with great deliberation, struggling but at length failing to hide his contempt, he screamed, “You know what you did!  You circled ‘False’ for question number 36.”

            “Question 36, sir?”

            “‘All filthy Communists are bad.’  And you circled ‘False’.”

            “Yes, sir.”

            “Are you aware that the official Air Force answer is ‘True’?”

            “No, sir.”

            “Do you actually think there could be a good Communist?” Not waiting for a reply, he signaled to the other twenty-five cadets, who on cue laughed derisively.

            “I’m not sure what to think.  You, see, sir, not knowing all Communists . . . and so not knowing if all Communists are filthy, I thought–”

            “You thought?  You don’t think!  The Air Force does the thinking for you!  Dismissed!”

            From that moment on, I was the forgotten cadet.  My “blemishes,” as we called them, were no longer just instances of “not being in the spirit”–another phrase used to indict any action threatening group solidarity.  Now, for Hankins, for the other twenty-five boys with visions of piloting a F-86 through the wild blue yonder, their co-pilot that Vassar girl with the heaving breasts, I was christened “Blemish.”  I could do nothing right. 


Near the end of the semester, I was unexpectedly summoned to Hankins’s quarters at 5 a.m. on a Saturday morning, an unusual request for none of us had ever seen him anywhere but in the classroom or on the parade field.

            “Come in,” he called out in his high pitched voice.

            Hawkins sat in a hideously overstuffed chair in the far corner of the room, dwarfed by a museum of artifacts.  Models of planes covered tabletops and cabinets; fighter jets hung from the ceiling.  The walls provided a pictorial history of Air Force uniforms.  Mugs on the fireplace mantle announced “The Fly-Boys of the 25th Squadron” and “Wright-Patterson Air Force Base–We Were There.”  Blue was the operative color–for the drapes, the tablecloth, even the comforter covering a small bed in the far corner of the room.

            “Sit down, Homan.  At ease.”

            When I sat as we did in class, he laughed at my stiff posture.

            “I really mean ‘at ease’.”

            “Yes, sir.”

            “‘Tom’ will do fine.”

            “Yes, sir . . . I mean, Tom.”


            With that, he rose, walked to a bar just behind the chair, and, without waiting for a reply, poured two large glasses of bourbon–no ice.



            Before I could figure out what was happening here, he launched into a complaint about the dwindling status of all three ROTC programs at the university.  Indeed, a faculty committee, urged on by student activists, had recommended to the university’s President that ROTC be discontinued, that private schools such as Princeton should no longer be in “the arms business.”

            “What with all this talk about doing away with AFROTC, you know I might not be here next year, Homan?”

            “Sid, if you wish, Sir . . . I mean Tom.  No, I didn’t know that.”

            “Sid . . . right.”

 Waving a hand towards some imaginary pinko dean or radical students spying from the other side of the room, he went on.  “Think I’m some sort of dodo bird.  Want me to accommodate . . . accommodate! . . . those Commies.”  His voice was slurred and now I realized he had been drinking long before I arrived.

 I decided not to challenge his anti-Communist posturing but instead nodded in agreement at his railing against unpatriotic Americans who were “selling us down the drain” and at his strangely eloquent praise of pilots and their planes who would be “our last line of defense against the Red menace.”  Somehow I felt content to feed with nods of the head and sympathetic sighs the passions–wonderfully absurd passions–of this little man, with the bulging belly, his eyes glassy with patriotism and drink.

            Then, suddenly straightening up as if reporting for duty, almost sobered by the process, he leaned forward in his chair, clinked glasses, and said, “The reason I called you here today, Sid, was your final paper in the course.”

            My final paper?  Approaching the end of my commission, having given up on a teacher who long ago gave up on me, I had dashed out that paper in a half hour, “A History of the Air Force in the 1930s,” half of whose sources I had invented, its stream-of-consciousness prose never seeing a revision, let alone a check for spelling and grammar.  I had deliberately parodied the genre of the historical essay.

            “My final paper?  Is something wrong, Tom . . . I mean, sir?”

            “Wrong, do you think there’s something wrong?” 

            “I’m not sure, sir.  I’ll admit that I–.”

            Before I could confess to being indifferent about the assignment, he cut me off.  “No, nothing wrong.  Far from it.  It’s that final paragraph I want to talk about.”

            The final paragraph?  Figuring that Hankins had little time for fiction, nor had ever taken a course in creative writing, I had indulged myself in that final paragraph with a metaphor mocking both the Air Force and the concept of metaphor itself. Holding the paper in his hand, he read aloud:

As we say “good flight” to this study of the Air Force in the 1930s, we can see the ghosts of those gallant aviators, those men in blue as blue as the sky above, soaring on the angel wings of their machines, patriots clutching the controls as, below them, grateful husbands and wives wave in awe and thanksgiving at these patriots cutting through the clouds like silver knives, these sons of the Wright Brothers, these brothers of Lucky Lindy, Americans all, with one eye on our beloved country, stretched beneath them in all its verdant majesty, the other eye on the blue heavens above, where God’s eye winks, “That’s the spirit.  Well done, my lads, well done!”


When he finished, tears rolled from his eye, down his cheek, staining the crisp blue color of his regulation uniform.

            “It’s the most stirring thing I’ve ever read.  Stirring.  ‘The angel wings of their machines . . . these brothers of Lindy.’  Stirring!”

            I stood there, dumbfounded, at once ashamed and grateful.

            He held out his hand, “Thanks, cadet . . . thanks.”

            After a heartfelt shake, he barked a “Dismissed.”  But as I turned to leave, he stopped me.  “Any suggestions you have, Homan, for building morale among the boys?”

            I hesitated and then came out with, “I think, sir, it might be a good idea to let us have some actual experience with a real plane.  You know, something we could fly.”





Compiled/Published by LeRoy Chatfield
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