“First, call me Mr. Black,” one of the firsties said as he gestured to the other upperclassman. “This is Mr. Red, Mr. Green, and Mr. Pink.” The goofiness of the Reservoir Dogs reference was lost on me; I just thought it was cool. He continued, “And we are fucking sick of the Air Force’s bullshit.” The room erupted in a cheer. We were also sick of the Air Force’s bullshit. Until this moment I hated West Point and all the spit and polish that came along with it. Now, I finally had something that felt like the Army I’d known as a child.
My dad had been a Green Beret, and I had grown up surrounded by hard-charging soldiers who would get off some mission in El Salvador or Peru or Bolivia, hop on Harleys, and go drinking. They would talk about fighting, killing, blowing shit up. This was the Army I had thought I was joining, but in my first year at West Point it seemed like the only things that mattered were tightly made beds and shiny shoes.
It was Army-Air Force week, the week before the two teams would face each other in football, and shenanigans were afoot. The Air Force cadets on exchange to West Point had stolen license plates off the first-class cadets’ cars; they had hung insulting banners across our barracks and dumped buckets of water on us as we’d marched into the chow hall. Bristling at how chickenshit West Point was, I jumped at the chance to participate in a special, retaliatory mission.
A few upperclassman called all of the plebes in my company to meet them in the community room on the ground floor of our barracks. We showed up eager to hear the plan and sat in chairs in front of four upperclassmen who stood before a chalkboard. They were all leaders we looked up to, fit, a little crazy, what we called “good dudes” who took the rules seriously, but not too seriously.
Mr. Black laid out our mission: get back at an Air Force cadet who was the alleged ringleader of the zoomies who’d been running amok during Army-Air Force week. Two teams, he said, would enter the cadet’s room, an assault team and a spirit team. The assault team would go in first with the hot sauce man on point. Hot sauce man would splash a few drops in the Air Force cadet’s face to stun him, then two or three cadets would jump on top of the airman and render him immobile and speechless by duct-taping his arms and legs together and his mouth closed. The assault team would then pick him up, take him outside, and tie him to a laundry rack. Simultaneously, the spirit team would come in and spray all the clothes in his closet with silly string. After our leaders discussed the plan, they asked for volunteers, and I volunteered to be the hot sauce man.
We gathered outside the barracks around two in the morning, wearing balaclavas and our uniform shirts inside out so we couldn’t be identified. I had my bottle of hot sauce from the mess hall: Tabasco, the official hot sauce of the U.S. Army since 1949. We jogged to the airman’s room, arriving without incident, avoiding those still on duty or up studying. We spotted his room and stacked up outside it. I was point man.
We burst in, flipped on the lights, and the plan went out the window. Instead of the standard two people who were supposed to be in the room, the airman target and his roommate, there were six. On the bed to the left were a guy and a girl. Two cots sat to the right of the bed, and on each of them lay another man. On another bed on the far right lay a guy and a girl. I froze in place at seeing this taboo tableau. Women and men were forbidden to share the same horizontal surface, much less have sleepovers. Much less have some kind of orgy. How did the girls get here? I thought, Why haven’t I been getting any girls?
I was prodded into action by the rest of the team streaming into the room. The tangle of bodies seemed to shock them less. I spotted the target airman on one of the cots and dove across him, my body and left arm wrapped over him. With my left hand, I grabbed the end of the cot to keep him down. With my hot sauce hand I started vigorously spraying his face with Tabasco.
He started hollering. I kept up with the hot sauce. Where is the duct tape guy, I thought as the duct tape guy moved into position. He pulled a strip from the roll with a rubbery ripping sound. But when he went to place the tape over the airman’s mouth, it wouldn’t stick. He ripped off another piece. No luck. There was so much hot sauce on the airman’s face that the tape kept sliding off. He kept up with the hollers. Then a meaty hand came out of nowhere and smacked the airman on the side of the head. I raised my head and saw the room in utter chaos. Out of the disorganized mess, our mission commander yelled, “Everyone get the fuck out.”
We aborted the mission and ran from the room, and as I did it occurred to me that I didn’t want to be caught with a half-empty bottle of hot sauce on my person or in my room. I hurled it against the wall, shattering the bottle and leaving a splash of hot sauce on the wall and glass sprinkled on the floor.
We ran to our barracks and I hopped into bed. I lay in bed wide awake and full of exhilaration until the sun came up.
The next day West Point was abuzz with the news.
An Air Force cadet got beat up last night.
Did you hear about the zoomie?
I hear he had to go to the hospital, apparently someone ruptured his eardrum.
I heard he won’t be able to fly.
Uh-oh. We hadn’t wanted to ruin a career; we were just getting them back for dumping water on us and stealing license plates. The rumors flew around all day. Sometime after lunch I went back to my room and found military police waiting for me. They took me down to the station on base where I saw the rest of my band of brothers. Someone had turned us in.
A plainclothes policewoman questioned me. From a young age, however, I had been trained by Green Berets never to speak to a cop without a lawyer and always to ask for forgiveness rather than permission. I refused to answer any questions without an attorney. “I don’t know who told you to say that,” she said, “but that doesn’t work here.” I didn’t talk. I was sent back to the holding room, and a bit later, we were all sent back to our rooms.
The Air Force cadet recovered after some time in the hospital, and we were all punished. I received a regimental board and something like 80 hours of punishment. Later most of these were absolved by a foreign dignitary, the sultan of Brunei. Though that’s a whole other story. Looking back, that midnight mission to the Air Force cadet’s room trained me better for the confusion and chaos of a raid than much of my West Point education.
Cover image: U.S. Military Academy cadets stand during their 2018 graduation ceremony. Courtesy of U.S. Army Sgt. James K. McCann