Some things never change – a slight reminiscence

In 2003, New York Times bestseller James O. Rigney penned this essay for our inaugural magazine. Rigney, who wrote under the nom de plum Robert Jordon, was a 1974 graduate and the writer behind the acclaimed Wheel of Times series. Sadly, Rigney passed away four years after his essay was published, but his spirit lives on, and a recent gift in his memory supports faculty and students of his beloved alma mater.

In the world of college magazines, the gift of words from a best-selling author and graduate was a coup, especially for a first issue, and we are excited to share the 2003 essay again with our readers.

Some time ago, Pat Conroy put it to me that The Citadel was the only school in the United States that had two alumni who had reached the number one slot on the New York Times bestseller list. Namely, himself and me. He thought I should check this out to confirm his notion. I’m uncertain why he thought he could assign the task to me. Maybe, as someone recently said to me, “The class system never really ends.” But as a wise old man said to me when I was a boy, “Sometimes it don’t, and sometimes it do.

In any case, I decided to take up his challenge. Well, we’re not the only school with two number-one bestsellers. Harvard has Michael Crichton, Peter Benchley, Norman Mailer, John Updike, Eric Segal, and just in the last few weeks, Dan Brown. Several other schools had two or even three writers who had made the list, but none other that had two who had made number one. So, if Pat was wrong, he wasn’t far from wrong, and it puts The Citadel in pretty good company. Harvard and The Citadel. I like the sound of that. The Citadel and Harvard. I like the sound of that even better. I’ve often said that I want The Citadel mentioned in the same breath with Duke and Stanford, and this is certainly a beginning, if a very small one.

I almost didn’t come to The Citadel. Although I read every word I could find on Citadel sports, I didn’t know that the veterans’ program had been reinstated, and after two tours and a bit in Vietnam, with the Armed Forces in disarray, as they were then, the last thing I wanted was to put on a uniform again. I took my discharge and came home in August 1970, and I was staying with my parents before heading off to college on the GI Bill. I won’t say where I was going because it hardly matters now, except that it was somewhere warm. I had grown accustomed to the weather in Southeast Asia, and frankly, I now found August in my native Charleston tolerable, and September decidedly cool. By the beginning of October, I was freezing! That only made me gladder I had picked a school in a place that, supposedly, never had any winter. Col. Bunch changed that.

Col. Bunch, who among other things was the tennis coach at the time, kept calling and leaving messages for me at my parents’ house. I never did find out why he pursued me so assiduously. Maybe, as some people have suggested, he thought I would go out for the football team as a walk-on, but I suspect that he just had a list of men living in Charleston who had recently been discharged. Whatever the reason, I’m very glad he persisted.

At first, I didn’t return his phone calls. As much as I rooted for The Citadel in football and basketball, there was The Uniform. If I had wanted that, I would have taken the offer to re-enlist and go to OCS. Finally, my mother told me that I owed him the courtesy of a return call, and you know that when your mother says something like that in a certain tone of voice, you’re going to do it. Otherwise, life becomes very complicated in very short order. It was Col. Bunch who explained to me about the veterans’ program. I could attend The Citadel without having to put on a uniform again. I leapt at the chance.

 He did mislead me on one point, however. He told me that I could keep my mustache, but when it came time to get the photograph for my ID card, I was told I couldn’t get it without shaving. No ID would have meant all sorts of problems, of course, beginning with no way to get my books from the bookstore. In the end, I simply shaved for the photograph and grew the mustache back afterward. You just have to be flexible now and then. I didn’t keep the mustache the whole way through school, but I wanted to make a point. It did get a few stares, all waxed and curled as it was. At that time, there were three things that a cadet was forbidden to have: a mustache, a wife, and a horse. Sometimes, old rules hang on for a very long time. A horse? Is that rule still in effect?

During my three and a half years at The Citadel (I entered school in January, and did summer sessions to catch up), I never attended a class without at least three or four other men in civilian clothes present. Sometimes, half of a class were veteran students, all of us older than our classmates and more intent on doing well than all but a handful of the cadets. Not that the cadets slacked off any more than any other college students, but we veterans were focused like lasers. We had earned our presence there in a very hard way—for me, as a helicopter door gunner—and no one was going to make anything but the best of it that he could.

 A fair number had been in the ’Nam, as we said back then. I never knew exactly how many because once you’ve been in combat, it’s something you talk about willingly only with others who have been there, too, and not always then. Fairly often not even then. My father served in the Army in the South Pacific during World War II. Not long after the invasion of the Philippines, the points system was instituted, based on time in the combat zones and decorations, and he immediately had more than enough points to be sent home, though it took several months for the paperwork to go through. Because of his special skills, however—he had been doing recon behind the Japanese lines—he was given a 30-day leave and transport back to the States, and ordered to report back. Although he wasn’t told so, it was certainly for the invasion of Japan itself. But the only parts of his experience I ever learned from him were that he had been in the Solomons, and later in New Guinea and the Philippines, and that he was in Miami with my mother when he heard that the first A-bomb had been dropped, and realized that he might not have to go to Japan after all. Even those remarks came incidentally to talking about something else. The rest, I learned from men who had served with him, and from relatives who knew what his decorations meant. It just isn’t something you talk about very much. In any case, Citadel men have served in combat in every war since the founding of the school. We veteran students just did it before attending.

I note with sadness that two Citadel men—Marine Capt. Benjamin Sammis and Marine 1st Lt. Shane Childers—have been killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Some things never change, and one that remains certain is that in any future conflict, Citadel men, and now Citadel women, will be there. Another woeful certainty is that we will have the duty of placing new plaques for our Citadel dead. In ’Nam, another sergeant said to me that he liked to think of himself as standing guard like a Roman legionary. “The civilians can sleep quietly,” he said, “because we stand guard on the wall.” But sometimes there is a price to be paid for doing your duty. He intended to go to college on the GI Bill, too, and try for a commission, but he was killed in the Central Highlands. His name was Sandy Peres. He would have made a good Citadel man. I urge you all to give to the memorial funds set up in the names of Shane Childers and Benjamin Sammis.

 Casualties are always a grim thought, yet they are much in my mind of late, though not quite in the way they may be in most minds. Or not entirely the same. In World War I, out of every 15 American men who were sent in to the combat zone, one became a casualty. In World War II, the ratio was one in 15, and in the Korean War, one in 13. In Vietnam, it was back to one in 15. Remarkably constant, given the differing fields of battle, the differing conditions and battlefield technologies. If that ratio had held for Operation Iraqi Freedom, based on the latest figures I’ve seen for how many people we have actually inside Iraq, we would have suffered more than eight thousand casualties. Some things do change, thank God.

We veteran students got a rather varied reception at The Citadel. Most of the faculty and cadets were unfailingly polite, and I formed several friendships with cadets, though time and separation has long since worn those away, as happens with most college friendships. There were exceptions, however, receptions that were less than warm. I won’t go into every one—there were not many—but I can recall an Army officer, a graduate returning to the campus for a visit, who mistook my charcoal gray trousers and Navy blue jacket for a new style of uniform; he was very friendly until he learned that I was a veteran student, whereupon he gave me the cut direct. The very first write-up about one of my books that appeared in The Brigadier said that because I was not a cadet, I “had never really been part of The Citadel.” Boy, were they ever wrong. The fact is, I bleed Citadel blue. I just tell people that I did my knob year(s) in the Mekong Delta and the Parrot’s Beak and around the Black Virgin Mountain.

As far as I know, only one faculty member remains from my time at The Citadel, Joel Berlingheri, who looks no older now than he did then despite the passage of more than 25 years. Some things never change. My connection to The Citadel is as strong in my heart today as it was when then Capt. Berlingheri taught me physics. Pat put it best. “I wear the ring,” he wrote. For as long as I live, that will never change. I wear the ring.