Copyright John T. Reed 2014
In June of 1962, I wanted to go to West Point. My mom had a friend who had a friend whose son had just completed plebe (freshman) year at West Point. He agreed to let me visit him at his NJ home and talk to him about getting into West Point.
He was the only person who encouraged me to apply and believe I could get admitted. Everyone else commended my goal but urged me not to get my hopes up. See my YouTube about that at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=acOKOstjaMo.
As I note in my Succeeding book, this actual cadet, was also the first and only person I talked to who had actually gotten into West Point and survived the first year. Lesson: If you want to get an idea of whether you can do something difficult, ask a person who has actually done it, not a bunch of friends and relatives who did not, some of whom may not want you to succeed because it would mean you are leaving them behind in the informal competition of life.
During my visit with that cadet, he told me an odd fact. He said my name—John Reed—was the same as the star fictional cadet in a West Point recruiting film that all then current cadets had seen. He said the guy was very annoying to actual cadets because he was so cheerfully happy about being a cadet, which they knew was nowhere near the picnic he made it out to be. He said my name would attract unwanted attention to me if and when I entered. And one of the big keys to surviving plebe year at West Point is to try to remain anonymous.
Fast forward two years. I got appointed to West Point and entered on July 1, 1964.
One of the phrases that greeted me that day—that did not greet any of my classmates—was upperclassmen seeing my name for the first time when I reported to them and saying to other upper classmen, “He’s here” or “Here he is.”
Once, I had to take a message to another company that first summer. I was wearing one of the few uniforms that had a name tape or name badge with my last name on it. An upperclassman in another company would spot the name “Reed” and ask, “Your first name’s not John is it?”
“Whoa, hey everybody come look! It’s the real Cadet Johnny Reed!”
And I would instantly be surrounded by a half dozen upperclassmen scrutinizing my uniform and shoes and hair for imperfections. The fictional “Johnny Reed” was Mr. Perfect Cadet.
Once, a junior stopped me when I came out of the mess hall after lunch. He covered his name tag with his right hand and asked, “Mister Reed. Do you know who I am?”
Shit. How the hell would I know anyone at West Point, especially an upperclassman? I knew absolutely no one there in any class before I got there.
He laughed and ordered me to walk back to my room yelling at the top of my lungs, “Sir My name is New Cadet Johnny Reed and I love it here!” over and over. That enabled me to meet a bunch of other new “friends” in the upperclass ranks. I later remembered I did know one guy from before West Point—the guy I visited in South Jersey in June of 1962 who told me my name was infamous at West Point. He was the one who made me yell, “My name is New Cadet Johnny Reed!”
In the end, it was okay. Some new cadets lack the DNA to survive West Point, especially if they fail to remain anonymous. I was able to handle it and reacted in ways that caused the upperclassmen to soon move on to other matters. Other plebes reacted in ways that made the upperclassmen enjoy teasing them, which was definitely not the fun you may think if you did not go there. I just sort of handled it professionally which left the upperclassmen looking more immature than I if they continued to bother me about it.
One senior in my New Cadet company asked me if I “sucked much” for that name. That word—suck—referred to catching hell at West Point. At that moment, though, I had not yet learned that meaning. I thought he was accusing me of performing a homosexual act in order to get the name. I responded in a way that I never heard of any other plebe responding to any upperclassman at any time. I just glared at him silently. He slinked away and I never heard another thing about it. Only another West Pointer would recognize how unusual and daring it was for a New Cadet to glare silently at a senior instead of answering his question.
Had I understood the West Point meaning of “suck,” I would have simply said, “Yes, sir!”
When I went to West Point for my 40th reunion, I tried to see that “John Reed” recruiting film. I was unable to get any help to do that.
Tonight, June 19, 2014, almost 50 years to the day after I entered West Point, I finally saw it. One of my classmates read about my experience being the notorious Cadet “John Reed” and searched for it and found it on YouTube. You can see it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lrTD3gofzr4&feature=kp. It is 28 minutes long.
Turns out it was another episode of the weekly TV series The Big Picture which aired its new episodes from 1951 to 1964. It was seen in reruns on TV thereafter. It was titled The Making of a West Pointer. Sure enough, there was this unbelievably chipper “I love everything about this place” “John Reed” guy as the star of the episode.
I was in another recruiting film about West Point made when I was there. The one I was in came out in 1968, the year I graduated. What year was the John Reed episode? I could not find a date anywhere. Perhaps a reader with better research skills can. There is no copyright date because the film was made by the U.S. Army—the government—so it was not copyrighted. It’s public domain.
What year was the “John Reed” film made? It had to be 1962 or earlier because that cadet I visited in June of 1962 had already seen it. Judging from the uniforms which were occasionally slightly different from ours, and from the plebes having to march to class, which we did not, I would guess it was filmed in the 1957-1961 period. What it depicts was almost identical to our four years at West Point. We did tank training at Fort Knox, not West Point as in the film. Our Navy training was in CT and RI, not VA as in the film. We wore sierra rather than class uniform to our swearing in. Other than that, it was almost identical.
They wore a khaki uniform with long sleeves, a tie, and a khaki dress hat in the film. Our khaki uniform was short sleeves, open collar, and worn with a gray garrison cap. The parade scenes appeared to have flanker and runt companies. That is, the tallest cadets were in companies A-1 and M-2 and the shortest cadets were in M-1 and A-2. This put the tallest cadets on the flank or outside of the parade formation—nearest to the spectators. The shortest cadets were put in the inside of the formation, fatherst from the spectators. I kid you not. It does look better. Not only are they wearing the same uniform and haircut, they are the same size—more uniform. This was ended before we got there because it screwed up competition in the manadtory intramural sports program. The cadets in the “John Reed” film carry M-1 rifles. We had M-14s.
They also did the parades using a formation and turning method called “squads drill” which I believe we were the last class to learn and use. You could see a squads drill turn in every opening credits of the West Point weekly TV series of 1957.
So if you knew the dates of the various charges I just mentioned, you could probably pinpoint the year this episode was filmed.
As with the other films made about West Point, it reveals rather starkly how different we cadets of that era were from now. Cadets since the 1960s think we old grads are exaggerating when we claim to have adhered to higher standards back then. They can watch this video and weep at the passing of the notion that we of the Corps back then were anywhere near as route step as they are now. Lower standards is sort of expect with regard to discipline in the modern world. What is sort of background annoying to us who graduate in 1969 and earlier is that the later cadets are sort of living on the laurels of the “Old Corps.” A layman might say to a curent cadet, “Oh, so you go to that college where you have to be an extremely disciplined, adhere to a strict honor code, brace as plebes, fit, clean-cut, All-American, heterosexual, young male engineering student?”
Uh, no. That place no longer exists. The name is the same but it’s been replaced by a place where the cadets are “diverse,” often overweight, semi-disciplined, often tatooed, honor code violations have gone from one strike and you’re out to some lower standard that I do not understand, never brace, wear a variety of different uniforms around campus at the same time and in parades, and study 45 different majors.
I’ll bet the West Point tailors shop, the rather large operation that keeps 4,400 cadets in snug-fitting dress gray and full-dress gray uniforms, had longitudinal records of the average waist and hip measurements of the cadets over the years. I expect they have been burned to avoid anyone finding out how current cadet averages have ballooned up since the 1960s. The extremely trim waists, hips, and flat stomachs of the cadets in these 1960s films are painful reminders to us old grads that, as my classmate Dave Gerard put it recently, “We were soldiers once…and thin.”
I think my waist was 30 or 32 inches back then, 34 now. And our hips then were barely bigger than our waists. We all got a photo of ourselves taken the first day wearing nothing but a jock strap up against a grid to detect posture imperfections. I will not be putting that on the Internet, but I look like an Olympic swimmer in it with regard to the proportion of my shoulders, waist, and hips. I assume my classmates’s posture photos look similar—we did not spend any time sharing our jock-strap-only posture photos. You see those same proportions in these old West Point films from the 1960s.
I have noted in other articles about West Point that back then the ideal cadet was a six-foot tall, blue-eyed blond.
You would see such guys on all the recruiting materials and the cadet who introduced the West Point TV series was a blue-eyed blond. I was a six-foot tall, blue-eyed blond. So I burst out laughing when future cadet “John Reed” made his first appearance in this Big Picture episode. You guessed it. Another six-foot tall, blue-eyed blond.
Hollywood billionaire David Geffen is a friend of my middle son. In a documentary about his life, David was asked what he wanted to be when he was a teenager. He laughed and said, “A six-foot tall, blue-eyed blond.” He never became any of the three. By going to West Point as one of those, I violated the rule in one of my Succeeding chapters to “Make yourself scarce.” In the early 1960s, West Point was the six-foot-tall, blue-eyed blond capital of the world—not counting Sweden.
Are “John Reed” and I twins? No. He’s better looking, apparently a professional actor. He was probably also about 27 or 28 years old when it was filmed. The cadet host of the West Point TV series was 29 when they filmed that! Jeeez! You cannot be more than 22 when you are admitted. I was 17.
Once, during my first month at West Point, a bunch of us plebes were standing at attention in a formation waiting for something along with a bunch of upperclassmen—probably to march in a parade which is always hurry up and wait. One of the upperclassmen asked, “Hey, Reed. After you got appointed to West Point, did you ever think, ‘Lee, Grant, Pershing, Eisenhower, MacArthur, and now me’?”
All the upperclassmen roared with laughter.
That question came from the opening scene of the Big Picture film when prospective New Cadet “John Reed” has that same thought. I was nowhere near as cocky about it as “John Reed.” Truth to tell, the upperclassmen who were laughing at me had that thought as well before they arrived at West Point. Who wouldn’t?
Was I the only John Reed to ever go to West Point? No. In fact I wrote a web article about one of the others—U.S. Senator John “Jack” Reed of Rhode Island who was a new cadet in my platoon when I was a senior.
According to the Register of Graduates, six guys named John Reed graduated from West Point in its first 208 years—maybe another since the date of the Register: 2010. I actually have a classmate whose birth certificate name is Jack Reid. Don’t know him.
Actually, you can see for yourself whether we look the same. He speaks Russian in a Russian class plebe year in his film. My appearance in the 1968 film is also with me speaking Russian in a plebe class. The film crew knew all about the “John Reed” film, talked to me about it, and apparently gave me one of the main spots in the Russian scene in the 1968 film as a sort of tribute to my name and real life John Reed-ness. The star actor in that film is way in the back on the left in that scene.
Another similarity was “John Reed” was a cadet sergeant senior year. I was a cadet lieutenant during the fall of senior year, like the Cadet who introduces each episode of the West Point TV series, but I was a cadet sergeant, the lowest senior rank unless you got into really big trouble, for the rest of senior year. So was fictional “John Reed.” So was another cadet named “Harris” in the film. That surprised me. I figured they would make the film’s stars first captain or battalion commander or some such.
I wrote an article about the various West Point films and TV series of the era at http://www.johntreed.com/West-Point-recruiting-film-from-when-I-was-a-cadet.html.
I also reviewed a couple of such films at: http://www.johntreed.com/review-of-West-Point-TV-series-DVDs.html
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F9tVrM3315Y (1950 Big Picture episode—not the “John Reed” one)
But you know, the film, and Cadet “John Reed,” actually was not that bad. He is too chipper and a bit too self-centered and overly optimistic about what a hot shot he was going to be at West Point, but he gets put in his place. He expects to be a great boxer—we all had to box—and gets slapped around. Ditto playing chess. He basically makes the point that it is harder to be a hot shot at West Point than he thought because the place is full of hot shots, many of them hotter than you. That is quite correct, or was back then. West Point was full of former high school “big men on campus.” For the vast marjority of us who were in the top ten percentile in various categories in high school, we dropped to a much lower percentile in those same categories at West Point. And that happened to “John Reed” in the film as well. Good job by the film makers including that point. I have not seen it in any other West Point film.
They also say his name again and again and again often calling him “Johnny Reed” instead of “John.” Pretty obnoxious. In the other West Point films, they barely even give the star a name at all.
As with most of the other films about West Point, they used an actor—apparently just one in this film—and the other cadets in the background and in some speaking parts, are actual cadets. They referred to West Point as “the Point” a couple of times. That’s a no-no, like calling my home area—San Francisco—“Frisco” or my original home—New Jersey—“Joisey.” Nobody in New Jersey calls it “Joisey” or ever did. That’s the way people from Brooklyn used to pronounce it.
Was this “John Reed” a squared-away cadet. No. When they put him in marching scenes with real cadets, he is the only one looking down at the heels of the guy in front of him. That’s incorrect. Your eyes are level. You figure out where the heels of the guy in front of you are by looking at the back of his head. And in one close-up, face-shot scene, the bill of his hat is too high, a common Hollywood error in depicting all military personnel in all films. He, of course, seems to have the longest hair of any cadet—the actors in these films always do—probably longer than the 3-inch limit.
Other than that, he was pretty squared away. He had the same insanely trim body that we had then. And I do not recall him screwing up any of the other scenes from a cadet, military standpoint.
Another big thing you can see in these old films is a sense of the high esteem the public held the military and West Point in back then. Totally different era. Now, my impression is high school kids think West Point is an odd place like a school of mines and the parents are mostly draft dodgers from the Vietnam era. Totally different.
John T. Reed