A few decades back, I was a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point, a proud moment in my young career. And I remember having a conversation with another cadet, and we were discussing the inevitable topic of “how did you get into West Point”, and he went first. He told me that his father was a senator, that his father had used those connections to get another senator to nominate him for the academy slot, and that pretty much was how he got in. His father had been a West Pointer before him, and if I remember correctly, there may have been a number of other West Pointers in that family line as well. His father’s wealth and status got him lots of nice perks throughout his schooling, so that he was able to attend the best schools, have the best tutors, and everything you would expect from that type of life.
At the time, I thought, wow, this guy really had it lucky, so he must have just been that anomaly that I happened to come across, but then as that conversation happened with more and more cadets over my time at the Academy, I started to realize that this was more the norm than the exception. Strangely enough, whenever I was asked the same question, the attention in the room changed from “oh yeah, me too!” to “how the hell did you get it?”
There were times where I found myself suppressing my desire to share my story because after telling it a few times, I was kind of ashamed of my upbringing, especially when everyone around me was a senator’s son or daughter, or the child of a general or someone rich and famous. In only a short period of time, I realized that I probably never should have been there in the first place.
But you wouldn’t know that from my early days. Like every other West Pointer, aside from those recruited to play on the football team, I graduated at the top of my class, had those necessary curricular activities, served in student government, and excelled at everything one could excel at. On the surface, it might make sense.
But one of the first differences I immediately perceived was that I was born dirt poor. My mom raised me and my sister alone, having a very limited education. She was sometimes lucky enough to get a job as an assistant bookkeeper for crappy wages. I spent very little time at home because it was infested with cockroaches (they sprayed constantly, and it did nothing), and the neighborhood I grew up in was slowly converting itself from a lower-middle class set of apartments to a crack neighborhood where every other apartment was either a drug den or an hourly prostitution pad. All of my friends lived in the few apartments that weren’t being used for other extracurricular activities. Some of the girls who I knew became future denizens of the “other” apartments that I was often told to “stay away from”. It’s a very interesting process to watch a neighborhood slowly move from somewhat respectable to what that set of apartments became. I haven’t been back there in decades, but I understand that it’s a nice neighborhood today, the rich people of the city having overrun the slums, pushing the poor into other rundown neighborhoods.
The point isn’t to focus on that neighborhood, but just to illustrate how difficult it was for someone to circumvent that sort of life into one that might be upwardly mobile. A few of my friends did not navigate this maze as successfully, which critics would immediately cast blame on them for not pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, not realizing how difficult it was to get out of such an environment.
My one thing working for me was that I loved to read. It was the one refuge I had from a pretty crappy environment. I’d spend hours and hours at the local Boys’ Club where they had a library filled with cheap, water-logged books that you could check out and read to your heart’s desire. It was there that I started to realize that I might one day be a writer, understanding that in fiction I could create a world where the outside forces were controlled by me, not by economic factors out of my control.
Reading and writing leads to education, which ended up being my saving grace. I read everything. And I studied everything. I quickly learned that there were many people before me who spent their entire lives gathering knowledge, and anyone, rich or poor, could access that knowledge. It was just a matter of being able to find it. And this was before the Internet, so the knowledge has always been there for us to find; you just had to want to look for it first.
After my mother died after a series of illnesses that eventually take you when you live in an environment of limited medical coverage, I lived the last few years of high school with my sister in a much nicer part of California. It was right about that time that started the pursuit of seeking where I was going to go to college.
I realized I couldn’t afford college, and I had no real knowledge of scholarships and financial aid, other than a counselor informing me that because my sister’s family’s income was just high enough, I was not going to qualify for pretty much anything financially. There was never any expectation that my sister was going to pay any of my college bills (I was lucky enough that she gave me a place to stay for my last few years of high school), so I started to realize I was going to be on my own at 18, and I was going to probably have to find a job or join the military.
And then I don’t even remember where I latched onto the idea, but I decided I wanted to become a naval officer. I started looking into Annapolis, the United States Naval Academy. But after reading all of the requirements, I learned that you needed not only to be accepted academically, but you didn’t even get to be considered until you had an appointment from a member of Congress or the Vice President. So, I penned a letter to my congressman at the time, requesting an appointment. I figured my chances were slim, but you didn’t succeed unless you tried, right?
At the time, I was working as a student worker at Rockwell International’s Research Center in Southern California, and my supervisor, who was spearheading a project that was being fast-tracked for the next space shuttle launch, included a recommendation in my application to my congressman. I suspect that may have helped at least to get someone’s attention.
Fortunately, my grades and the rest of my application was enough to garner the congressman’s staff’s attention, so I was signed up for an interview with his office. Unfortunately, it was in a city far from my own, and back then, there was no easy way to just get there.
I remember waking up to catch the very first bus in the morning (they ran about 5 am), and I had to take multiple connections so that I was basically traveling over four different bus systems over four different counties and areas, so that I could actually arrive at 4:00 pm that day. But after multiple phone calls to every bus system (without the Internet, there was no simple way to just download a bus map and schedule), I figured out a way to get there and how to do it within the allotted period of time.
When I arrived, in a suit that I had purchased with what little money I had saved, I was brought into a room where there were four other applicants waiting. They were dressed in their nice suits, most with their parents, and everyone looked nervous. We obviously all wanted that nomination. He is only allowed to give just one.
When I finally got into the interview, there were three of the congressman’s staff there for the interview. I was on the other side of this table, like a defendant in an arbitration meeting. And then one of them asked me a question.
I don’t even remember what the question was, but this is where I should tell you a little something about myself. Since I was young, I have always had this really unique ability to be able to walk into a room, and immediately size up exactly what is going to happen next. It’s a sixth sense of completely understanding the direction of a crowd, something that served me in both the military and many years later as a college professor.
Right then and there, I realized that they had no intentions of giving me this nomination, and nothing I did was going to make a difference. I think when I heard the second throwaway question, I just blurted out with a data dump of how pissed I was that I had traveled all of this distance for a formality of an interview that they were only granting because it was probably a requirement. I said: “You’ve already chosen someone and wasted my time.” And then I walked out.
And went home.
When I got home, a few hours later, my sister told me there was a call for me. It was the congressman’s office. When I got on the phone, a woman apologized (without saying why) and then asked me if it was possible for me to return the next day. I was still pissed. And then I could hear another voice in the background on the call. She then said, “We will send a car to pick you up and bring you back home.”
So, I went back.
This time, I was the only one in the waiting room. And when I went into the interview room this time, there was only one person. It was the congressman. He said: “You’re right. I had already chosen someone for the nomination. Would you be interested in West Point?”
I had never though of West Point up until that point. I figured my chances of getting in there were even less than the Naval Academy. Don’t ask me why. It’s not like one is superior to the other.
He told me that after I called their bluff, he realized that’s what the type of person he wanted to nominate. Before that, he hadn’t really considered me.
And that’s how I got into West Point. Strangely enough, when I told other cadets this story, they were fascinated. Maybe because it was so different from the stories they told (which all sounded similar), but even stranger, it wasn’t until long after my military service was over that I started to be somewhat proud of this story. When I used to tell it, I was embarrassed, and I often told it as if I was admitting to some horrible deficiency, like I shouldn’t have been there with the rest of them.
To this day, I still don’t know whether to be proud of it, or guarded about it. But it was certainly a defining moment.