News From The Woods.34


By Bob Ketchum

Originally Published October 11, 1999

"Life In A Military School"

This month my wife and I will be taking a quickie trip to St. Petersburg, Florida, home of my alma mater, Admiral Farragut Academy. The occasion is my 35th class reunion, to be held over Homecoming weekend. Festivities include a dress parade in our honor and and official "sit down dinner" with all attending alumni. I have produced a video project (an hour long) especially for the event, which includes offical school photos, many personal pictures from several sources, and some 8mm home movie films taken by my grandparents who lived nearby and attended parade and school functions. I also included a trivia section and another segment I call "Life In A Military School", which is the subject of this article.

To this day it's still difficult to pinpoint the impact that attending Admiral Farragut Academy has had on me. It has taught me discipline, given me the strength and conviction to follow through on my dreams, and forged many life long friendships that neither time nor distance has diminished. As a five-year cadet, I feel that I have absorbed enough of the Farragut experience to qualify me to describe what the Academy meant to an "average student".

My first year, 1959, began with me entering the 8th Grade. The "Old Timers".... "Red" Mayer, Bill Seibel and Jack Parker, had already spent a year in Junior School. I spent most of my first year dealing with culture shock. Here I was, the toe-haired boy from the hills of Arkansas. My nearest chum back home lived more than a mile away. Now I was sharing dorm life with three other cadets who each hailed from large metropolitan areas. None of those three made it through the Academy for one reason or another, but fellow cadets Larry Schneider, Greg Ecenia, Rick Helms, Nate Porter, and Kent Withington did survive the ordeal all the way through to graduation.

Memories of Junior School include Bill Seibel's sideline as the unofficial Junior School Loan Officer who supplemented our meager allowance . . . for a small percentage, of course! I remember Commander Banks, our Junior School Headmaster and his Open Door Policy. He was always there for us and we knew we would get a fair trial if we were in trouble. The fine craft of spit shining shoes was bestowed upon me by Greg Ecenia. Ahhhh….. the smell of Cordovans, KIWI polish, and AquaVelva!

Academically I barely held my own. The differences in the two educational systems between public school in Arkansas and a naval preparatory school in Florida were far and wide. My parents were informed that unless I received private tutoring during the coming summer months I would not be allowed to attend the Academy in 1960. Another contributing factor to my poor grades was poor eyesight. It wasn't discovered until late in the school year when I began complaining about frequent headaches that I was nearsighted and needed glasses. The Academy took this into consideration and allowed me another year to prove myself.

Passage into my freshman year and Senior School was rough. I discovered what the term "hazing" meant first-hand, as several of my new roommates were tough city kids and saw me as easy prey - which I probably was. Commander Banks wasn't around and I had to learn to tough it out. I was ordered to the Commandant's Office many times during the year, which began a long and personal relationship with Frank T. Steele, Commandant of Cadets. He was fair but stern. This was no Orie T. Banks! Senior School expected more from its student body. I learned all about "E.D.", or Extra Duty. I was on the receiving end of many demerits and became intimate with Saturday Grinder Sessions, where you worked off extra demerits by marching back and forth with a 9-pound Springfield rifle. This increases your shoe repair expenses dramatically.

Kent Withington and I shared the "Tower Room" with two other cadets. This was both a blessing and a curse. Our room was around the corner from the main hallway and located at the stairway connecting decks, so we were somewhat removed from the "rank and file" of the other rooms. However, it was also a curse because for some unknown reason every cockroach residing at the Academy would congregate each night after Taps in our room, prompting many a late night cockroach hunt. Armed with magazines and shoes, we would crawl around on all fours swatting with wild abandon on our bug safari in mute silence lest we attract the attention of the Officer of the Deck. I also joined the marching band during my freshman year, and remained in Headquarters Company for the rest of my stay at the Academy.

During the summer of 1961 I was learning to drive, but without much success. In July I was driving Dad's WWII surplus jeep along the back roads of Arkansas and lost control of the vehicle while attempting to miss a deer which was crossing the road, which resulted in my driving the jeep over a 40-foot embankment. It was amazing enough that I lived through the accident, but while in the hospital I received a personal letter from Commander Steele himself! He was actually human after all! I'll always remember his closing remarks: "If there is anything I can do for you, please let me know. If you haven't broken your arm and can write, I would appreciate a note advising of your progress. Good luck, Bob - Keep hanging in there, keep fighting, as I know you will." I was called on the carpet more times in the next three years, but it was different somehow, standing at attention in front of his desk. When he dispensed advice I actually found myself listening to him. It was a turning point in my life in a way. I continued to push the envelope but was determined to decrease the frequency of our official visits.

1961. My sophomore year. Life was getting better. I asked for and received written permission from my parents to smoke, and so began many hours of puffing away and swapping stories with my Canteen Deck pals like Tom Birmingham and Phil Gilbert. I was included on beach parties and started attending school sponsored social parties, which meant gatherings at local residences and meeting "proper girls" under the watchful eyes of Chaperones. We played records and parlor games. Still, I attended most Cotillion Club dances stag. I had enough extra duty to keep me on campus much of the time so my dating habits were minimal, and I also liked to just stand and watch the Buccaneers play. I was really getting into music at that time. I remember taking liberty with Larry Schneider and Bill Seibel often. We would ride the bus downtown and the first thing we'd do is accompany Bill to Maas Brothers Department Store where we would buy some of the latest fashions . . .. Madras shirts with button collar! Then we'd go with Larry to his favorite hangout, the magic store. He would buy enough pranks to last a week back at the dorm. Finally we would make the trek to Webb City - The Worlds Largest Drug Store - and spend the rest of the afternoon wandering the premises, culminating at the record department where we would listen to the latest 45 RPM releases and buy our favorites. At the end of the year I put in a request for Bill Seibel for my roommate in 11th Grade.

Recently I happened across a letter my Mom had saved that was dated June 1961. The details of my letter gives a glimpse into the microcosm of dorm life. In it I told of a cadet who had botched a suicide attempt by slashing the tops of his wrists, and was allowed to go out on liberty that evening. Two machine guns had recently been stolen from the Armory and FBI agents were called in to investigate the matter. And "every once in a while we wake up to discover the cannons in front of the main building had been turned around and aimed at someone's room, or worse yet, covered in paint!"

My junior year was a milestone year. I had forged many relationships and was far enough up the food chain by this point that I wasn't being hassled by fellow cadets. Since I spent my entire summer on the lake I was becoming very interested in Naval Science and boat docks. I learned how to sail, tie knots, and rapidly earned my QM-1 (Quartermaster, First Class) all in one year. I was on the swim team, played volleyball and joined the bowling team, which meant going off campus to the local bowling alley. My deportment was better so I enjoyed more liberty with my buddies. Life was good. All in all I was feeling pretty smug towards the end of the year, and then it happened. I got busted! I walked right into a Class "A" offense with only one week left in the school year. The letter on May 28, 1963 from Captain Russell stated: "I regret to inform you that Robert was recently charged with careless use of inflammable material……blah… blah…. blah…" I was placed on Disciplinary Probation, awarded maximum Extra Duty, and restricted to the Academy for the remainder of the year (week). I'll never forget that last day of school, after graduation exercises, when all the cadets left campus. I was all alone with my maximum extra duty, doing various odd jobs, shining all the watch station brass, and doing clean up chores for the rest of the entire day. My parents were furious, of course, but at least I did not get dismissed from the Academy and had a shot at my Senior Year.

When I returned in the fall of 1963 I guess the administration felt sorry for me as I was awarded a CPO rank (Chief Petty Officer) at the start of the year. All of my old Junior School pals outranked me but I was just glad to be there! Besides, my Dad was a CPO in the Navy and I think he and I shared a kinship of sorts. CPO's get most of the privileges of an officer's rank without any of the responsibilities. As Senior Classmen (especially the "old timers") we got away with murder! Bill Seibel, keeper of the coveted Luggage room keys, would open up the luggage room on Friday and we would get a change of "civvies" (civilian clothes) for the weekend. Whenever I could rate an overnight stay or a full weekend pass I would check out, go straight to my grandparents house about 10 miles away in Largo, change into my illegal civvies, borrow their car (also illegal), and usually drive over to Greg Ecenia's house in Tampa to watch films all day in his Dad's personal screening room. Filled with popcorn, soda pop, and with images of a dozen watched movies still in our heads, we would sadly return back to campus in uniform for another week of military madness.

Memories of my senior year include marching in the Festival of States parade in St. Petersburg, weekends spent entirely at St. Pete beach, Cotillion Club dances, the Junior/Senior Prom, and of course "The Cobras". Sometime during the year I wrote a spoof of the Jimmy Dean hit "Big Bad John". I called my song "My Granny". The lyrics were centered on my own escapades in her car, "The Purple Bomb", but since driving was a no-no I wrote in Granny as the lead character. Rick Chyka, Phil Gilbert and I would hang out on the canteen deck, smoking and singing these lyrics and the song just sort of caught on with other cadets. For some unknown reason, my mother thought it was cute and decided to foot the bill for an actual recording session to record "My Granny" and another song I wrote called "Mustang", which glorified the brand new Ford product that was storming the country. And so there we were. In a real recording studio in Tampa called Charles Fuller Productions. And the Buccaneers backed us up with old pals Jim Case and Kent Withington. We had one run through when the band invited us to rehearse the songs with them in the Chapel. I had died and gone to Heaven! We recorded the two songs and Mom had 500 45-RPM records pressed. We must have sold most of them as only two of the records remain in my possession. We even got to perform live on stage during the prom held in the new gym that year. We devised our own "uniforms" and called ourselves "The Cobras". All I remember about the event was that I was scared to death and I am so grateful there is no recording of that performance!

I suppose the most vivid memory I have of all those years at Farragut, and probably even the most cherished memory of my entire childhood was Graduation Day, 1964. That was the day when immediately following the ceremonies and dismissal of the Battalion, a load roar was heard and we all turned to see a brand new, shiny red 1964 Plymouth Barracuda roaring into the parking lot. Out of this gorgeous sports car steps my father, who proceeds to walk right up to me standing in the center of all the grads, and with a mischievous twinkle in his eye and a broad grin on his face he casually drops the keys into my hand. I was absolutely stunned and so was everyone around me! I will never forget that moment for the rest of my life.

The things that I appreciate about learning at Farragut are not so much the academic opportunities that I was offered. I regret that I did not take advantage of my studies more, in retrospect. The things that serve me most now are self-discipline, the power and strength gained through good friendships, enhanced personal habits and hygiene, social graces, and experience in communicating with people. These are life lessons, which will always be there when I need them. And for that I will always cherish my five-year "hitch" at Admiral Farragut Academy.

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