Finish this phrase…..”All I really need to know in life, I learned…….”
Sound familiar? Hopefully, you completed it correctly by saying….”All I really need to know in life, I learned in kindergarten”. Pretty famous poem that came out years ago. The high points for me from that passage remain things like:
“Say you’re sorry when you hurt someone”
And, one that I’m constantly trying to teach my two sons…..”Clean up your own mess….”
For me, however, my own personal lessons in life came much later in my academic learning. In fact, most of the events that have shaped my life, happened my “cow year” of college.
“Cow year….” you might be asking….! What the heck is that?
Well to explain that one, I have to take you back to the early days of the United States Military Academy (“West Point”) where the rising juniors would come off the trains near the banks of the Hudson River, returning to classes after a long break, were often described as looking like a heard of cows coming up the hill. Like many traditions at West Point, this one stuck and for over a hundred years, the junior class of cadets are simply referred to as “cows”.
The other fact about the “Cow” class is that they are expected to be in a bad mood all the time. Your third year at West Point is just not a happy place. Sophomores, called “yearlings”, are fresh from finishing up their freshman year, called “plebes”. Yearlings are happy because they no longer are at the bottom of the class system. Plebes, well they’re not happy either, but their heads are spinning so much that they have forgotten the difference between happy and unhappy anyway. And the seniors, called “Firsties” since they are first class cadets, they’re in great spirits counting down the days until graduation.
So, the Cows are stuck. No longer happy just being a step up from the bottom. And not happy to be ever so close to graduation.
So, to deal with the unhappiness, Cows were often expected to be the enforcers. The disciplinarians. The ones that the plebes had to go “visit” when they did something wrong. Cows were often times the yellers and screamers.
I tried that role for a few weeks at the start of my Cow year at West Point. True to form, I wasn’t happy for all the reasons mentioned above. I’d go out to the mandatory formations a couple minutes early, and would inspect over the plebes standing at attention, picking out every little bit of discrepancy in their uniforms, unpolished shoes or failures to know the basic “knowledge” that was expected of the freshman class. There was always are plebe who was a misfit and always a reason to unload a barrage of screams and yelling.
And that worked well for me….for about 3 weeks.
I don’t recall anyone yelling at me in Kindergarten. And I sorta remember putting my winter coat away in the cubby holes in the back side of the classroom. Aside from that, nothing from Kindergarten stands out.
But I do remember how yelling and screaming my junior year at West Point never really got me anywhere, especially when I was expected to be a leader.
You see, those lessons from my cow year at school, came back again and again as a second lieutenant in the Army.
When I did graduate in May of 1990, I eventually got to my first duty assignment at Fort Polk, Louisiana. I picked up a platoon of mechanized infantrymen, who, ironically enough, had just returned a few months back from our country’s brief skirmish in Panama. Truthfully, my platoon was more closely the Bad News Bears of the Army, but they were now legitimate “war heroes”, no matter if I believed them or not. I was faced with not only the stigma of being a brand new second lieutenant, but was faced with nearly a year of hearing “Sir, that’s not how we did it in the war…..”.
“War….what war,” I would ask.
“Sir, the war to take out General Noriega….the dictator of Panama….”.
It was a tough few months leading these misfits.
But we had a job to do, and I had to lead them. I could have yelled and screamed, like I had tried my Cow year. But that strategy didn’t work for the plebes under my watch and it wasn’t about to work for my platoon either.
One night, the entire battalion of soldiers was out in the woods having spent a few days and nights playing “GI Joe”, but this time without our mechanized vehicles. It was all “dismounted training”, meaning the officers and senior enlisted sergeants were tasked with teaching the basic small unit skills to our soldiers without the comforts of the tracked vehicles.
A weather front was forecasted to be moving in. Any infantryman knows there’s an old saying, “If it ain’t raining, we ain’t training”. But this particular storm was churning up to bring hurricane type weather. The battalion commander sent the call out to all the units that we would be packing it up early since any training in the dangerous weather wouldn’t be safe. Things could get very bad, very quickly.
My platoon was out at one of the more remote sites of the training area. The weather was turning nastier by the minute and I had my men fairly spread out. I instructed my four squad leaders to bring in their men from their training areas, take a head count and make sure we weren’t missing anyone.
“First squad…..how are you looking”, I would ask.
“All present and accounted for, sir!”
“Second squad…you got all your guys?”
“All present, sir!”
“Sir, we can’t find PFC Hernandez”.
PFC Hernandez was one of the newest members of the platoon. Spoke broken English. Came from a very poor family, I suppose. The Army was his ticket out of his neighborhood and was beginning to put him on a successful career track.
But Hernandez this night, in the storm, was missing.
Quick thinking, I remembered that Hernandez was the Listening Post / Observation Post (commonly called the “LP/OP”) for our training….and I guessed that he might still be out several hundred meters outside of our patrol base. I had a good idea where he might be, told my platoon sergeant to keep the rest of the men together, while I ran ahead with two other privates to find Hernandez.
As if it happened last week, I remember the next few events vividly. The other two soldiers and I were yelling “Hernandez….Hernandez….where are you?”. Nothing. The rain was really coming down now.
I circled back one more time. “I know he’s here somewhere”. Even I was beginning to worry. Darkness was now falling and the rain made visibility nearly impossible.
“LT…..LT….over here….I’m over here!”
There was his voice. Faint but recognizable. That’s Hernandez, I told the others.
We ran to the location in the darkness and found a somewhat trembling young private hunkered down in a foxhole nearly filled with water.
“LT…..I thought you had left me.”
Wow. Punch in the gut.
Screaming and yelling doesn’t give you that feeling. Taking care of people gives you that lesson.
I earned some creditability with my entire platoon that night. They knew I would take care of them. After that night, I no longer carried the “new, non-combat lieutenant” badge anymore. I carried the title of “platoon LEADER”….with all caps in the “leader” part of the role.
This past week, I was reminded of what Jesus says about all this stuff too. The parts about taking care of others. Micah, Chapter 6, verse 8 says the following:
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8 NIV)
God doesn’t say….”yell at others.”
He doesn’t say….”scream at others….”
And He doesn’t say … “only take care of the good ones”….you know, the ones who aren’t lost, scared and hunkered down in the storm
We are called as Christians, to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly. Simple stuff. Easy to follow….but easily forgotten.
Let’s all pray this week to act a little more justly with our neighbors. Love with a little more mercy to those we don’t particularly like that much. And to be humble in all that we do, not looking for specific praise or recognition.
Just doing the right things for the right reasons…..always at the right time.
Oh yeah..and all that kindergarten learning stuff? Well, there is a part of that poem that does tie in nicely to God’s message from the book of Micah:
“And it is still true, no matter how old you are – when you go out into the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together.”