In Consolation Twenty-One, I narrated my first year of military service as a civilian teacher at Annapolis. I'll conclude the saga of my war with the Navy there by chronicling my second and final year, which made the first year seem like a stroll in the park.
After my 1965 summer of six-day work weeks at the Library of Congress, during which I began expanding my dissertation into what I hoped would be a publishable book, I returned to fall classes at the Academy in no mood to tolerate sleeping mids and rotten classwork. I yelled, threw chalk-filled erasers, ordered pushups, gave F's like they were going out of style, and made life miserable for my already miserable plebes. Like all short-timers, I was counting the days till my hitch was up.
The grade fixing of the past spring had slithered off into administrative tall grass. Having juiced grades enough to get past its immediate problem, the Navy now seemed to be holding grade-fixing in reserve against inconveniently low grading in the future. The almost honest grades I'd given spring semester had been swallowed up in the generally adhered-to grade quotas like a drop of chlorine in a sewer.
In October, I submitted a second article, this time to Journal of American History. Knowing I'd scarred what little academic sex appeal I'd had when I left Stanford by my antics at Rochester and Annapolis, I also sent out scores of job applications to the kind of school I'd disdained at Stanford -- state universities between the coasts.
Although half the places I wrote offered me job interviews at the upcoming MLA convention in December (academia was booming back then), for months I'd had my eye on Maryland at College Park. My wife and I liked the Washington-Annapolis area, where we'd met several congenial College Park teachers and graduate students. A week after they got my application, Maryland invited me to an on-campus interview and a week after that offered me a job. I accepted on the spot.
Within a day of the Maryland offer, I was the star of Bull (midshipman slang for the English, History department, aka EH&G). Outside offers, however modest, were the stuff dreams were made of in the Bullpen. Now that they knew I wouldn't be around to rock the boat anymore, even the senior Bull professors who'd supported the grade quotas began lamenting to me about all the other promising civilians they'd seen pass through Bull to greener academic pastures.
After relatively smooth sailing (compared to the year before) with my plebe sleepers during the fall, I found an official-looking envelope waiting for me in my Bullpen mailbox at the end of Christmas break. The letter inside, dated December 29, 1965, was a From - To - Subj notification of "Non-renewal of appointment to U.S. Naval Academy Faculty," as the Subj rubrick put it. They'd fired me.
My first impulse was to laugh. Getting fired struck me as a fitting climax to the Punch and Judy show I'd been starring in for almost a year. Because of my protest to the dean last spring, the letter said, in which I'd threatened to resign if grade quotas weren't disavowed, Bull was asking the dean not to rehire me. "This decision," it continued, "will give you even greater freedom in pursuing employment elsewhere and will allow this Department to seek a replacement for you." The letter acknowledged my excellent ratings but added, "your own decision to leave the Naval Academy indicates that you will be far more satisfied in a position elsewhere." It ended with good wishes.
It was signed by a new Captain of Bull who'd replaced the Rhodes Scholar over the summer. But the true authors were the members of a "committee on promotions and reappointments" alluded to in the letter, a committee consisting of the half-dozen civilian full professors really in charge of running Bull. Since they'd all known for a month I'd accepted the Maryland job, why hadn't they just asked me to resign? Everyone in academia knows from day one what the protocol for changing jobs is: you submit a letter of resignation to accept a new job, as I'd done at Rochester, and you're instantly released from your existing contract. No one resigning to take another job gets fired.
The only sense I could make of the letter, as I read and reread it in baffled outrage, was that it was deliberately meant to damage my career by booting me from a civil service job involving FBI clearance. And it did so in face of work ratings a notch below extraordinary (one of my three performance areas was rated outstanding; two of three would have qualified me for special raises, bonuses, and promotions.) Canning me like this apparently satisfied two aims. It punished my boat-rocking disloyalty, and it affirmed the military chain of command.
I immediately vowed to do whatever it took to expunge the letter from my record. Within the hour I was in Captain Bull's office, demanding to be allowed to resign. Fresh from commanding a cruiser and of course ignorant of academic niceties, he called in Bull's senior senior professor to listen. My parting shot was to tell them both I was going straight to AAUP (American Association of University Professors) for redress.
The man I met two days later at AAUP headquarters in Washington was interested because AAUP, never having dealt with any of the service academies, would, as he smilingly put it, welcome the opportunity. He was even more interested when I mentioned the grade quotas. Within a couple of weeks I got a copy of a letter he'd sent Captain Bull. It wondered innocently whether the Captain had had a chance to confer with me about the firing letter, which it described as a "problem that can be so easily remedied that we hope it might be handled without undue delay." It offered to send someone to the Academy to "facilitate arrangements" and ended by assuring the Captain that AAUP was "quite willing to extend its good offices for such a constructive purpose."
Ouch. To a Navy man such a letter, coming from mysterious realms of civilian academic power, would seem as "constructive" as a torpedo about to hit his ship. Almost as I was reading my copy of the AAUP letter, I got an anguished call from Captain Bull, who prostrated himself over the phone. He said he'd been waiting for me to call, afraid of offending me by calling first. What should he do?
I spelled out my demands. All copies of the original letter were to be removed from the files and destroyed. In their place, I'd send him a letter of resignation, backdated to before the date of the firing. He not only agreed but sweetened the deal by offering to give me all the copies of the firing letter so I could destroy them myself. Within a week, the exchange was made like something out of a spy thriller. I sent him a letter of resignation, dated December 15, to take the Maryland job. He then sent me a letter dated December 17 praising my "effective teaching, research, and publication," saying my services at the Academy had been "deeply appreciated" and offering me "best wishes" at Maryland. Finally I sent him my copy of the December 29 firing letter, whereupon he sent me the original and three copes with an initialled note of the back of the original: "All copies for your personal destruction -- if you wish."
All the while, grade quotas never came up. Then, early in March, an investigative reporter for the Washington Post set the Yard abuzz by initiating a series on the Academy. At first his articles were unfocussed, questioning in a general way whether taxpayers were getting their money's worth at Annapolis. He made no mention of the grade-fixing, and I concluded the Academy had probably closed ranks and decided to try to keep its worst potential scandal in years hidden from him.
Then in late March he quoted an assistant professor in Dago (midshipman slang for Foreign Languages), who said that in his field, Spanish, quotas were still in effect and that he'd been fired at the end of fall semester for protesting it to his civilian chairman. He also claimed he'd been ordered to change a failing grade he'd given the son of a former Academy superintendent to pass. Till I read the article, I thought I'd been the only member of the faculty to protest grade-fixing to the point of getting canned. Discovering the Spanish teacher's plight, and confirming it by meeting with him and seeing his evidence, rekindled my own outrage at the whole business and convinced me to join him against the Navy, especially since I'd managed to clear my own record.
The Navy countered the Spanish teacher by flatly denying his grade-fixing charges and by painting him as an incompetent being fired for weak teaching and credentials. By the first week in April, it looked like the Navy was succeeding in isolating him and halting the momentun of the Post series. So on Friday, April 8, I called the reporter and arranged to meet him in the Jefferson Annex of the Library of Congress next day. At ten a.m. I carried a folder full of documents down to a snack bar in the building below ground level. With its dim lighting and windowless walls, the place looked and felt conspiratorial.
The reporter was an unsmiling man about thirty years old. At a table in a secluded corner, he interviewed me for an hour, listening non-committally and occasionally asking questions. At the end he said, "You say you have supporting documents. May I see them, please?" Thumbing through the folder, he paused at points to read more carefully. While the rest of his face remained expressionless, his eyes widened and narrowed, widened and narrowed. Feeling parental affection for my stuff, I wanted him to like it, but when he finished he simply said, "I have your permission to use everything?"
"Whatever you like."
He thought a moment. "Would you wait while I call my editor? It won't take long."
Five minutes stretched to ten, ten to fifteen, fifteen to twenty. When he finally reappeared, he apologized for taking so long and held out his hand. "Thanks for coming forward," he said. "I'll get this back to you as soon as I can." Then he left. I was disappointed at his lack of enthusiasm.
Next day, my wife and I scoured the Sunday Post. Nothing. Chagrined, we concluded the editor had decided against me. In our eyes, the Sunday paper would have been the ideal place to reach the most readers. So sure was I they weren't going to use my material that next morning I didn't even look at the paper when I brought it in before breakfast, merely glancing after breakfast at the front page headlines to see what was going on in the world.
Halfway down the page, my eyes hit the words, "PROFESSOR LEAVING NAVAL ACADEMY IN DISILLUSIONMENT OVER GRADE QUOTAS." Omigod. The lead sentence: "An assistant professor of English who is praised by his superiors as a fine teacher is leaving the U.S. Naval Academy in disillusionment." Holy shit. It didn't sound like me, but there was my name in black and white. On and on it went, making me sound like Socrates himself and the Academy like a gang of psychopaths. It quoted liberally from the memo I wrote to myself after my first semester at Annapolis, which was full of the kind of inflammatory rhetoric the Post reporter put near the end of the article: "One comes to prize what other schools call mediocrity, for at Annapolis mediocrity is excellence, incompetence is mediocrity, and mindlessness is worth a D."
I had no idea what to expect at the Yard. Imagining mids throwing rocks at me, I was relieved when I arrived that no one in the sea of blue uniforms scurrying to 8 o'clock class even noticed me. My own eight o'clock was a plebe elective called The Literature of Democracy that I was teaching for the first time. Stomach tightening as I neared the classroom, I stopped ten feet from the door, took a deep breath, and stepped in. To my astonishment, I was greeted with a standing ovation.
Heartened, I confronted my colleagues after class in the Bullpen. Predictably, most of the officers and younger civilians who'd seen the article liked it, warmly shaking my hand and razzing me. The bitter comedian, who'd become one of my best friends at Annapolis, gave me a long, benevolent look.
"Well, young man," he said, "you've really done it this time. Our lords and masters will not be pleased." On the other hand, many of the senior civilians shunned me. One turned on his heel and stalked off when he was sure I'd seen him.
The air was humming with excitement. On my desk lay a pile of memos already hand-delivered by the department secretaries. CBS and NBC wanted television interviews. Half a dozen newspapers, including the New York Times, asked me to get in touch ASAP. A television crew from the CBS affiliate in Washington owned by the Post had already arrived, obviously to scoop the story, and was waiting to interview me at the Academy administration building.
Clearly, national and even international notoriety was mine for the taking. I could have extended my fifteen minutes of fame for some time if I'd wanted. But as I walked the hundred yards to the administration building, I decided to give no interviews at all. I'd gotten everything I wanted and needed from the Post article, and making myself a pseudo-celebrity would only have made my life at the Academy, where I had to finish the year, and maybe later on at Maryland more difficult.
So even though the television reporter was furious with me, I stuck to my guns then and throughout the following week, when phone calls from TV networks, newspapers, and magazines like Time and Newsweek never stopped pouring in. The Spanish teacher did a fine job filling the interview vacuum caused by my refusal. Interviewed by the Post TV station in my place, he did so well that network TV had him on the next day. AP and UP picked up the story. Though coverage subsided in a few days, he'd already knocked the Academy reeling. Several Congressmen were calling for an investigation.
The hullabaloo ended as quickly as it began. As soon as the media saw I wouldn't cooperate, they dropped me cold. I got back to my humdrum duties, and most of the senior civilians stopped snubbing me when they saw I wasn't chasing the spotlight. But I will never forget the reaction of the senior midshipmen in my first-class English course (the one requiring Homer, Virgil, Dante, et al) on April 11, 1966, the day the Post article appeared.
The plebes in my elective course may have applauded me, but the seniors in World Lit did no such thing. I've never felt such hatred as I did in that room, a hatred etched in the scowling, white-lipped faces glaring at me from the rows of classroom chairs. I had the oddly calm sense that, if they could, those men would have killed me on the spot. They had closed ranks in true military fashion, shutting their minds unalterably against me for having rocked the boat they'd spent four years learning to sail unquestioningly. What I saw in those homicidal glares was the real goal of a Naval Academy education: to obliterate all challenges to military tradition and the chain of command.
This unwillingness to tolerate skepticism toward or deviation from orthodoxy is the main source of the fraudulence I found at Annapolis and continue to find in all military, academic, and religious organizations. By inculcating blind faith among their followers in the rightness and needfulness of the institution's viewpoint, they not only continually distort and deny reality but often, as in the Annapolis grade quotas, academia's publish-or-perish dogmas, and Islamic terrorism, pursue vicious, stupid, and ultimately self-destructive ends. In other words, their fraudulence stems as much from self-deception as from efforts to deceive others. Academia is arguably less prone, for many reasons, to this kind of fraudulence than is religion or the military. But forty years as a professional academician convinced me plenty of it exists there too. After all, the Naval Academy is both a military and an academic institution.