Among the many things I remember is how nice the “digs” were: we were on the second floor of a well-appointed office building in the South Park area of Charlotte—a tony, upscale area with a beautiful, expansive shopping center, numerous boutiques, top-flight restaurants, coffeehouses before coffeehouses became chic. You get the idea: the high rent district.

A local real estate mogul had donated his offices for this third Saturday in January to our local congressman. The congressman had, in turn, enlisted the support of 15 or so of us to interview prospective candidates for the service academies. One panel of seven of us was to interview young men and women who wanted to attend West Point and Colorado Springs; the other group dealt with the Naval, Merchant Marine, and Coast Guard academies.

A young congressional aide met us and handed out packets which contained summaries of each candidate’s accomplishments (high school transcripts, letters of recommendation, various awards, the usual stuff) and a list of questions we might want to ask the candidates should we find ourselves at a loss for words. As a graduate of West Point, I wondered why I or any of the other panel members would need this list of questions. It became clear to me later when I learned that, of the seven men and women on the Army/Air Force panel, I was the only academy graduate; for the Navy/Merchant Marine/Coast Guard panel, there were two academy graduates, a gentleman from Annapolis (’67) and one from the Merchant Marine Academy (’68).

The chairman of my panel was a retired Air Force officer, a Citadel graduate, and a seven-year veteran of a North Vietnamese POW camp who had also taught at the Air Force Academy in its early years. The other panel members were a retired president of the University of North Carolina affiliate in Charlotte; a tax accountant, who was also a reserve Captain in the Army and a Civil War enthusiast; a district court judge; a housewife with no apparent links to the military, even through her husband or other relatives; and a large, bustling woman in her 40’s whose aggressively gregarious manner reminded me of a used car salesman. It turned out that she was in sales, real estate sales. Several years before, she had visited the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs and was forever smitten. She claimed to be a lifelong Democrat, and I wondered how she got on this panel given the congressman’s eternal membership in the Republican Party. Noting her last name, I asked her if she was any kin to the owner of a large Buick dealership in town. “Oh yes,” she replied, “that’s Daddy.” Enough said. Daddy was probably a generous donor to the congressman’s campaign. Ah, politics.

There was a slight knock on the door and the smiling face of one of the secretaries swung into view. “Are you ready for Mr. Compton?”

Young Compton was about five foot nine, very thin, with glasses. He smiled lamely as the chairman told him to take a seat, his SATs were fair, with the Math and Verbal total just over 1200, and his CPA was a 3.67. He was a senior (as were all the kids) at a local public high school where there had been a recent shooting, and his mother was a part-time nurse; his dad worked for the local power company. The chairman started things off. “Tell us about yourself, Ted.”

“Well,” he began, looking at his folded hands in his lap, “I was born and raised here. My dad was in the Army as an enlisted man and said it was OK but if I ever wanted to go into the service I should be an officer and the best way to be an officer is to go to a service academy.” Sound enough advice, and I noticed that he had selected Air Force as his first academy choice, followed by Navy. No West Point.

“Why do you want to be in the Air Force?” said our realtor lady.

“I want to be in the Air Force and go to the Air Force Academy because it represents the best of all the services to me. The Air Force is where it’s at, so to speak and I think—”

“Have you ever been out to the Academy?” she interrupted.

“No, but I visited my cousin once at West Point. He was a cadet there but quit after his first year.”

“You should really try to get out there,” she plowed ahead, “it’s just so beautiful, and believe me I can understand why you want to go there.”

The district judge, a man of no military experience, asked what would have been an intelligent question some years ago: “I see that your grades in English, History, and French are all very strong, but you seem to have had trouble in Algebra and Chemistry. Are you aware that all the academies place strong emphasis on math and science? You’ll chiefly be studying engineering, and to do well at academics, indeed to graduate, you’re going to have to pass these courses. Can you handle that?”

Ted frowned a bit and said that he thought he had the desire and could overcome difficult courses by “burning the midnight oil.” The judge obviously did not know that since the admission of women to the academies in 1976, the curriculum has eroded to the point that engineering courses are now largely optional and cadets and midshipmen can graduate with degrees in subjects such as American History or English. Experience with the first few classes of women showed officials at all three academies that women tend not to do well in hard science and engineering, at least not as well as the men, and consequently experience a higher dropout rate. Hence the movement away from engineering and toward a more liberal arts curriculum.

More questions followed, and the atmosphere turned a little friendlier. Ted was praised for holding down a job after school and still lettering in cross country and track.

“Do you have a girlfriend?” the realtor lady asked, jangling what appeared to be about three dozen shiny brass bracelets on her right wrist as she scribbled away.

“Well, sort of,” he smiled.

“Does she know that if you go out to Colorado Springs you won’t be able to see her until Christmas leave? You know that, don’t you? They only let you go home once during your first year. Isn’t that going to be tough on her? On you? On both of you?”

“Yeah, I know that, but this girl . . . ” I figured it was my time to say something, even though our chairman hadn’t glanced at me to give the go ahead.

“You indicated the Naval Academy as your second choice,” I said.

“Yeah,” he replied cautiously (it then occurred to me that this kid hadn’t once addressed any of the adults on this panel as “sir” or “ma’am”).

“Are you aware that the nature of duty a Navy ensign is assigned can and most probably will be vastly different from that of an Air Force second lieutenant?” I continued.

“Sure,” he said, “but that’s OK, because what I really want to do is serve my country.” (He is clueless about the nature of work junior officers do in any branch of the service.)

Now our chairman spoke again: “Ted, I want you to follow along with me on this little exercise. I’m on a plane; I’m going out of town on business, and after I get in my seat a young man sits down besides me. We both buckle up and at last the plane takes off. After a while we begin speaking to each other and we find out that we’re both from Charlotte [large grin].”

Ted: “OK.”

Chairman: “Well, then, it appears, after we’ve been chatting for a while, that we have a number of friends in common. And one of them is you! I ask him to tell me about his thoughts on our mutual friend, Ted.”

Ted: “Uh huh.”

Chairman: “Tell me Ted, if I ask him to tell me three good things about you, what would he say ,7”

Ted: “Gee, that I’m a good friend, that I, uh, work hard. That uh, I uh . . . “

Chairman: “Ah! You work hard. Well, what do you mean by that?”

I cringed to think that this sort of questioning might go on all day long. The most inflated, circumlocutions way of asking the kid to list three personal strengths and weaknesses!

Finally, young Ted left and we tallied our score sheets. The maximum score any candidate could get was 100. The points were broken down as follows: 20 points for SAT scores, 20 for high school GPA, and 60 points based on subjective categories such as leadership, poise, personal appearance, self-expression, potential to serve a career in the military. Regarding this last category, how were we to know a young man’s seriousness with respect to a military career? And leadership: that, too, was enormously difficult to judge. Sure, some kids were team captains or class presidents, and one could cite such offices as evidence of leadership; but leadership at the high school level is merely a name given to popularity. Real leadership entails making difficult, unpopular decisions, telling people they have to do unpleasant—sometimes very unpleasant—tasks.

These 60 subjective points were the hardest to award, and sparked the most disagreements. A sample:

Chairman: “He . . . I don’t know . . . didn’t strike me as . . . his look was all wrong.”

Housewife: “He was sweet.”

Realtor lady: “I just don’t know. I liked his tie, but he doesn’t seem to understand that he isn’t going to be seeing his girlfriend at all.”

Accountant: “Hmmmm.”

Former university president: “I just think he’s an outstanding young man. And by God, he’s got my vote!”

Me: “This kid doesn’t have a clue as to what he’ll be getting into.”

We all tallied our results and handed them to the chairman. He added them all and divided to get an average. Ted’s score: 81.

Next came Jack, a young man sporting a mustache and a goatee. I immediately surmised that he was a product of our illustrious public school system. A free spirit, he wore dark slacks and a crew neck sweater. (Ted wore a sport coat and tie.) Jack was different, way different. Our chairman asked him: ‘You say here that your first choice is Air Force, your second West Point. Are you aware, Jack, that at either of those academies facial hair is not permitted?”

Our candidate shrugged his shoulders. “That’s cool.” The accountant then asked why in one semester during his junior year his grade in Spanish went from an A to a D.

“Well, that’s easy,” said Jack. “You see, the teacher there was, well . . . you know, we didn’t see eye to eye. I mean, she was a real bitch.”

I have rarely heard a silence so total, so crushing. Our chairman smiled, as the realtor lady and the housewife gasped, and he said to Jack, ‘Yes, well, that’s fine. Does anyone else have questions for Jack?” No one did.

Our next candidate was Steven, a tall, red-haired young man wearing a suit. Very conservative. Very well spoken. He was a student at Charlotte Country Day (annual tuition: around $10,000), and he lived with his folks in Myers Park, on a street known as Queens Road West. For the uninitiated, Myers Park is pretty much the area of Charlotte in which to live: both old and new money reside there. Rather than worry if this young man knew what he was getting into and what West Point (his first and only choice) was really like, I mentioned that Myers Park and Country Day were evidence of having been raised in rather comfortable circumstances. He nodded quietly. “Are you aware, Steven, that as an Army officer you will literally never make enough money to live in the neighborhood your parents live in now?”

He looked me resolutely in the eye and said, “Yes, sir. And I don’t care.”

His grandfather, we learned, was a classmate of William Westmoreland; attending West Point had been Steven’s goal since early boyhood. He spoke of the desire to serve his country and be part of a tradition that extends back to before the War of 1812.

Realtor lady: “I look at your application, Steven, and I don’t see that you’ve indicated any other academies as alternate choices.”

“No ma’am.”

Judge: “Well, what will you do if you don’t get into West Point?”

“I’ve been accepted to North Carolina State University. I’ll go there, enroll in ROTC, and reapply in another year.”

Applecheeked housewife: “But Annapolis is also a nice school.”

“Yes ma’am, but it’s not for me.”

Chairman: “You’re certain that you don’t want to indicate a ‘back-up’ academy?”


He left smartly, and we looked over his packet as we filled out his score sheet. His SATs and GPA only netted him a 26; but for the subjective portion, I gave him a 55.

“But I just think he’s too rigid about this West Point thing,” said the realtor lady.

“So, what’s wrong with that?” I asked.

“He’s decisive, he knows what he wants. Why hold that against him?” Steven had generated more discussion than either of our first two candidates, and I couldn’t understand why. He was without a doubt our best prospect. In the end we gave him a collective 82. Just one point ahead of Ted, our nondescript first candidate.

I asked myself, why am I with these fools who know little or nothing of life at any of the academies? With an active alumni organization in town. West Point could have staffed every position on this board with a grad. I got on because the congressman’s local representative was a friend and he offered me a place on the panel. I should have told him that I had a dozen or more fellow alums who would be tickled pink to be part of this process. But I didn’t. My mistake.

Over lunch, I had the opportunity to speak with some of the members of the Navy/Merchant Marine/Coast Guard panel. “So what did you think of young Ted?” I asked.

“Sharp kid,” said one of the Navy panel members. “We gave him, I think, a 92.”

Many of the young men interviewed after lunch also saw no reason to wear a collared shirt and tie or to address their adult questioners formally. I was distressed that, of our six candidates that afternoon, two had come from broken homes. What a chore it must have been for these young men just to concentrate on their studies. Without either a father to coach you or a mother to encourage you, facing a panel such as ours must be a daunting task. But I was struck by what I perceived as a lack of seriousness toward the military. Four of the six candidates, when asked why they wanted to attend a service academy, almost instantly replied: “Because it’s a great education and it doesn’t cost anything.” Well, maybe not to their parents, but it will cost the young graduate a number of years on active duty in the Armed Forces. While their high school classmates who went to state universities or prestigious private colleges were working regular hours and making competitive wages at IBM or DuPont, these young lads would be on destroyers in the North Atlantic or riding around atop tanks in Germany. Away from family, in foreign or even hostile environments, and making mediocre salaries, they would slowly learn that they were now paying the tuition that the United States taxpayer had kindly defrayed for their four years at West Point or Annapolis.

The two best candidates of the afternoon, by far, both scored in the low 90’s. One was salutatorian of his class and had SATs in the 1400’s; the other was ranked fourth, had SATs in the high 1300’s, and was captain of the basketball team. Both had Air Force as their second choice and the Naval Academy as their first. For my money, Steven was still the best of the lot. Steadfast, unswervingly dedicated to achieving his goal of wearing Army gray. Of course, I’m prejudiced in favor of West Point, but the other kids were either less than fully committed or, like our two prime candidates, not interested in the Army. I wrote this off to the fact that Tom Cruise screaming off the deck of the USS America in his F-14 in Top Gun was still fresh in the memories of many of these young men. Who needs (or wants) the infantry, with all its mud slogging, sweating, mosquito-infested stoop labor? Not these guys. In addition to being disappointed, I was honestly surprised. I thought of my time on active duty as an infantry officer at Fort Bragg, merrily jumping out of airplanes, and later in West Germany during the good ol’ days of the Cold War: from my brigade commanders to my battalion commanders, company commanders, and fellow lieutenants. Southerners dominated that branch of the Army. That was some 15 years ago, but had the perception of the Army (especially the infantry) changed that much in so relatively short a time? Maybe I got out while the getting was still good.

Four o’clock came faster than I had expected. We turned in our evaluation of our last candidate. Of the nine we had interviewed, the two thoroughbreds who really wanted Annapolis were at the top of our list. My favorite, Steven, was right in the middle at number five. Jack, he of the “b” remark, was dead last. The chairman took the packets and turned them over to the congressman’s secretary. We shook hands all around and said we would look forward to getting together the next year for the same drill. The secretary thanked us on behalf of the congressman and we walked to our cars. The realtor lady was suddenly at my side.

“I know you were upset about the ranking Steve got, but sometimes even if these kids don’t get what they want, everything turns out OK in the end.” I just smiled as I got into my car and said, “Same time, next year,” and she waved to mc as she walked to her Mercedes. (Wait a minute. Her old man owns a Buick dealership!)

Regarding our candidates, the two Annapolis men went on their way to Maryland. One quit after two weeks, while the other graduated and went into the submarine service. Ted, our first candidate, ended up at the University of North Carolina; upon graduation, he enrolled in the law school. Steven did not get a congressional appointment, but a senatorial one from Jesse Helms. He struggled for his first two years at West Point but hung in there and graduated two years ago. He is now a tank platoon leader in the First Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kansas. I never heard anything further of the rest of the candidates. Not even Jack. Could he possibly have run afoul of another “bitch”?

Let’s hope so.