If you don’t like it here, leave. — Brigadier General Freddy McFarren, circa 1995
This is just an anecdote. No punchline. Just a memory for me. I felt compelled to write it down.
We felt pretty proud of ourselves the night before. The entire United States Military Academy Class of 1996 gathered in the south auditorium of Thayer Hall, which was just large enough to hold an entire class. There, Lieutenant General Howard Graves, the Superintendent, gave a briefing about the strategic vision for the academy, upcoming changes, and other academy news. LTG Graves was a tall, barrel-chested, quietly-professional Army officer who, after his graduating from the academy in 1961 spent a few years in England as a Rhodes Scholar. Everyone liked him.
Though we wore pressed wool uniforms, we were still very much traditional college students in the emotional sense, complete with a misunderstanding of the real world. Though, none of us had the wisdom to realize that we lacked the aforementioned understanding. It is important that you realize and acknowledge the shortcomings of a college student’s intellect, else this story will not contain any meaning for you.
LTG Graves’ briefing ended, as it always did, with a question-and-answer period. One of our intrepid classmates stood and asked a very pointed question. It was accusatory, inflammatory, and disrespectful. Being cooped-up Cadets, we found the civil disobedience to be delightful, and we responded to the question with immediate cheers and applause.
LTG Graves answered the question in a stoic manner and abruptly ended the briefing. Our class exited the auditorium with mixed emotions. Some were laughing. Many were quiet.
One of my classmates looked at me. “This isn’t going to end well,” he stated. I didn’t have the maturity to understand what he meant at the time, but I learned quickly.
The next day, at lunch, an announcement was made.
“At 1900, all members of the Class of 1996 have a mandatory briefing in South Auditorium. Uniform is Dress Grey.”
This was curious. We’d never been caused to attend whole-class briefings two nights in a row. They were cutting into our study period. How dare they.
That night, the nearly-1000 of us herded into the auditorium and waited. Shortly after 1900 (7PM), an announcement came from the back of the room.
“The Commandant of Cadets!”
We all sprang to our feet and stood at attention. Behind us, Brigadier General Freddy McFarren started walking down the aisle.
Pause for a second. You need to understand a bit about BG McFarren. Imagine Ross Perot. Now give him a bit more muscle, a more pronounced jaw, but keep the same fiery attitude, Texas accent, and swagger. You now have a thorough, accurate, and complete vision of BG McFarren.
“SIT DOWN!” he commanded.
This was unusual. Most Generals would tell us to “Please take your seats.” This sounded agitated. He was clearly angry.
“Who the hell do the lot of you think you are?” I remember it beginning.
I can’t remember many specific things he said, but he called the briefing to address the prior night’s insubordination directed at LTC Graves. His words were blistering. They were angry. They were hurtful. They were not politically correct. They were certainly not for the faint of heart.
And he was right.
Though I don’t remember exactly what he said throughout his 40 minute rant, I remember his thesis, which he stated explicitly and repeatedly.
“If you don’t like it here, leave.” He substituted various synonyms for “leave” throughout the speech, including, but not limited to, “get the hell out” and “quit.”
He ended the briefing as briskly as it began and walked out. Looking around the room, we all wore ashen expressions of shock and embarrassment.
The popular colloquialism applied. He’d just ripped us a new asshole.
Today, I see the behavior toward LTG Graves as our class’ worst moment. I am still embarrassed. Though, I’m able to find humor in it, when necessary. 20 years does have a way of healing wounds.
In retrospect, BG McFarren’s words can be summarized in one sentence. “To be able to attend one’s college of choice is a privilege.” I lacked the emotional maturity at the time to realize this. His stern words helped us to realize this as a class.
In the wake of this one-sided conversation, nobody quit.
I don’t know if anyone from my class ever apologized to LTG Graves, but I hope someone did. He passed away in 2003.
Prior to graduation, I had the chance to meet him on a couple of occasions–mandatory socials and meet-and-greet type situations. I remember him looking me in the eye. He had an extremely kind expression. I remember him being an extremely active listener. He thrived on intelligent and respectful dialogue.
You see, he really did care about our school. Because he wore the title of Superintendent and 3 stars, we Cadets found it appropriate to view him as a dictator perched atop our college, but we were wrong for doing so. He wanted to do the right things for us and the institution. We lacked the wisdom to see his true intentions, or maybe we just chose to see things otherwise because it made for a more exciting narrative. It doesn’t matter at this point.
Any way you look at it, we were wrong. If he were still alive, I’d probably sit down tonight and hand-write an apology. He deserves that, at the very least.
Because he cannot receive my apology, I write this. Maybe it will cause someone to pause for a second and not respond to anger, emotion, or group pressure. Maybe it will facilitate persuasive, intelligent dialogue. Maybe it can help to encourage respectful discussion and prevent angry exchanges and harmful escalation. Maybe.
Today, I’m not an undergrad. I’m not a minority. I’ve never been marginalized (that I know of). I’m generally happy, but bad/sad things have occasionally happened. So, you can write me off. You can discount my words and say I don’t understand. But, I ask that you remember one thing, at the very least.
These words are written by a man who was once a college student, now older, with regrets.