Sunday, April 29, 2012

Schadenfreude - A West Point Memory

In 1967 I got my undergraduate degree in general engineering from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. My four years there were an amazing experience. Getting the chance to go there was one of the luckiest things that ever happened to me. 846 of us arrived there in 1963, and at the end 583 classmates graduated and were commission as second lieutenants in the Regular Army. Most of us served in Vietnam, and 30 of us did not return.

The story of our time at West Point and our service in Vietnam is told in a recently released documentary, "In Harm's Way." It's a well-balanced, extremely well-done production, although the DVD isn't available to the public yet. Watching that DVD brought back a lot of old memories - some of them unpleasant.

One bad memory popped into my head for the first time since graduation. It happened in the fall of my freshman (plebe) year. One evening after a parade, an upperclassman in my company stopped me as I was going to my room. His name was Al Randall (not his real name).

"Hey Coates!" he shouted at me.

I immediately came to a halt and stood at attention. I wondered if I had done something wrong. "Yessir!"

"Come here, I want you to meet someone. It's my date."

Alarm bells went off. Why this surly upperclassman would want to introduce me to his date was beyond me. I could think of no good reason and figured I was in for a ton of trouble. But I followed him outside, and I soon found out why he wanted me to meet her. She was Jane Steele, one of my high school classmates. I thought it was amazing that we could leave Ludwigsburg American High School (in Germany) in May and see each other again at West Point in September. It was a nice surprise. Maybe Al Randall wasn't such a bad guy after all.

"Fall out, mister. Relax. You're with friends for now," Al said. This meant I had his permission not to stand at attention. I asked Jane how she was doing and where she was going to school. After some small talk, Al said, "Well, Mr. Coates, I know you've got things to do. Time to say goodbye."

And that was that. I counted that as one of the many surprises that happened to me during that first year. The next surprise happened after supper that night. Al Randall stopped me in the barracks area as I walked back to my room.

"You seemed to be having a good time talking to my girlfriend," he said.

"Yes, sir. I mean, no, sir. I mean it was good to see a high school classmate again."

"I bet. She said a lot of good things about you. Did you ever get it on with her?"

"No, sir. We never dated. We were just acquaintances. I didn't know her very well, sir."

"Are you lying to me?"

"No, sir!"

"It looked to me like you were trying to snake her away from me."

Oh, man, I could see I was in big trouble now. "No, sir."

"Well, I tell you what. I don't think you're being straight with me. I want you to report to my room at nineteen-thirty hours in full dress gray, ready for inspection. Do you understand?"


"Now post!" I did an about face and marched back to my room. I did everything I could to pass his inspection, but of course it wasn't good enough. That night I learned a little more about hazing than I wanted to. I concluded that he was a sadistic person and throughout my first year I did my best to steer clear of him. But our paths crossed a few more times, and each time he made me report to his room. These visits always resulted in humiliation and demerits and I ended up walking punishment tours on more than a few weekends.

After that first year, I forgot about Al Randall. As sophomores, my classmates were accepted as upperclassmen. I was beyond his reach.

But the spring of my junior year, when Al Randall was a senior and only a couple weeks before graduation, I learned that he had been dismissed from the Academy for cheating on an exam.

I never had to get my revenge. He did it to himself, which is what usually happens. Because of his low character he survived four years at West Point only to be kicked out before he could graduate.

At that moment, I experienced a moment of intense joy that I later learned was called schadenfreude, (pronounced SHAW-den-froi-duh) derived from a German word that means "taking pleasure in the misfortune of others." I'm not sure if I ever experienced that unique kind of joy again at any time during the next 45 years. But watching "In Harm's Way" brought that memory back. It was an amazing time to be alive at an amazing place.

I wondered whatever happened to Al. In my fantasy he became a police officer in a small town, where he could use his authority to make life miserable for people who had broken the law or who he suspected were capable of breaking the law. Don't worry, I'm not going to Google him to find out. No doubt there are lots of guys his age named Al Randall, and some of them are probably good, decent people.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2012. Building Personal Strength .

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