I need to clear my thoughts. Today is one of those marathon writing days where a few cases require long, uninterrupted writing binges. It happens.
But, before I delve into the world of professional writing where I am encouraged to not start sentences with “but,” I need to clear my thoughts.
So, I give you an anecdote that reminds us that the purpose of today is to provide us with an opportunity to reflect on how much of an idiot we were yesterday.
The year was 1993-ish. The scene was the mess hall (military cafeteria) at West Point. I was 19 and a sophomore. I knew just enough about the world to say stupid shit to anyone willing to listen.
Unfortunately, some things never change.
Anywho, breakfast and lunch meals were served family style, with 10 cadets per table. There was, of course, a pecking order, and I was seated just beyond the lowly freshmen, but decidedly below the juniors and seniors. Most meals were overwhelmingly mundane, with the usual classes and activities before and after.
This day was different. Special guests were being honored by West Point. Prior to the ceremony and official recognition, the guests ate lunch with cadets. This day, the two guests would be seated randomly with the Corps.
The guests were writer and Vietnam-era reporter Joe Galloway and his good friend Lieutenant General (Retired) Hal Moore. They gained notoriety for actions in the Ia Drang valley where Moore’s battalion overcame extreme odds, and Galloway wrote about it from his perspective as an embedded UPI reporter. They collaborated on a book, We Were Soldiers Once… And Young. Many Army officers/cadets read this book by choice. The rest are forced. Either way, we all read it, and these two individuals are big stars in military literature and history.
As luck would have it, my table (out of 420) was selected to host one of these giants–Mr. Galloway. Nearby tables were abuzz with excitement and envy as we prepared for his arrival. Soon, an older gentleman arrived at our table escorted by a couple of officers. He quietly introduced himself, shaking the hands of the upperclassmen. At that point, we sat and began the meal ritual.
For most of the meal, our guest’s attention was monopolized by the officers and upperclass cadets. They asked sugary questions about his career and how it felt to earn the Bronze Star (for Valor)(he assisted in evacuating injured soldiers from the battlefield (clearly not up to New York Post standards)).
Near the end, he turned to the low end of the table and asked us how we were and if we had any questions.
My peers remained relatively quiet, but not me. Oh no, I couldn’t keep my goddamned mouth shut.
In the months prior to this lunch, US forces entered Somalia, and much was made about how members of the press were present at the beach to greet them, despite the supposedly secret mission. Their aggressive coverage of US military activities was a point of lively discussion in military communities.
I thought “I’m going to ask him a question about the press in Somalia.” Upon thinking this, I opened my mouth.
I honestly don’t know the exact wording of my question. However, with each passing year, my memory of it becomes more and more negative. You know how some thoughts become better and softer with time? Not this. It becomes worse.
Here’s what I remember:
I asked a question that was prefaced with a comment.
I mentioned the Somalia thing.
It focused on the role of press on the battlefield.
And, I think I somehow strongly implied that the press were worthless meatbags taking up space on a battlefield and contributing to the eventual downfall of democracy. I’m sure that, in some languages, my comment might be translated as “Torture and kill all members of the press, the ruddy jackasses.”
My peers looked at me as to say “Dude, WTF?”
Upperclass cadets stared at me with drooped jaws.
The officer escorting our guest gazed at me with “you little, fucking shit” eyes.
Mr. Galloway answered my question curtly, but very diplomatically, through gritted teeth. Then, he looked at his plate for a moment, still gritting, and excused himself. He never returned.
The question gained a bit of buzz among the surrounding tables, but it eventually dissipated as we returned to business as usual. The older I get, though, the more horrified I am at my past ignorance and misdirected boldness.
Thankfully, I was not court-martialed for my oral stupidity.
So, with that, I’d like to say, for the first time, “Mr. Galloway, I’m really sorry for being an idiot.”
I hope he doesn’t remember.