I didn’t know any of this at the time, but this idea of sending me off to Miami Military Academy (MMA) was a pretty sweet deal for my mother. It got me out of the house, which was the main thing for her. Also, as a part of the divorce decree, my father had to pay for my education (college), which she reinterpreted to mean “education that cost something.” So my father paid the $1750 for the year at school and he also paid child support. This arrangement was never discussed during my father’s lifetime. I’ve often wondered why he was so easy with these interpretations and re-arrangements but the time for that discovery has now passed.
When we had moved to Florida I had begun to relax a little. The days of being scared every day at everything that happened seemed to be over for me. I was a little older, I wasn’t living in the big city, and I had developed my own little world that I could use as a shelter. Those days of fear returned when I walked through those gates on Biscayne Boulevard in North Miami. When we visited over the summer to look at the situation, this place was referred to as a school. There were kids from grade 4-12 there and there were standard classrooms and facilities everywhere. I was soon to find out that this place was anything but a school.
Orientation consisted of getting uniforms and learning the basic rules. Everything was set up as though it was the US Army. The instructors were mostly retired Army officers and the housing was a barracks that held a Company of boys, about 60 in all. There was a retired Army officer in charge of each barracks but every officer and non-commissioned officer in charge of daily operations were kids. The rank and file slept in steel bunk beds and everyone had a wooden locker for everything that was issued. The officers and the 1st Sargent had single bunk beds.
I was pretty lucky growing up in that I had always had my own room. The idea of trying to go to sleep with someone else in the room was a foreign concept to me. Now, at the age of 13 I had 60 other people in a giant room. This was only my first day and it wasn’t looking very good.
For the first time in my life, every minute of every day was regulated. Everyone did the same thing at the same time. In the first 3 months I had learned how to march, dress, and speak in the military way. I could strip, clean, and assemble an M1 Garand rifle with ease. I stood guard duty, I worked in the kitchen (KP), and I got demerits for every infraction. But most of my time was spent in the classroom in the usual subjects you would expect for 9th grade classes. Only there were no trained professional teachers, only retired Army personnel who were occupying the classrooms. Somehow I managed to get Bs and Cs on my report card, but I had learned nothing in the classroom. Everything I learned was military in nature.
I found out much later that this was the point of a military school. It wasn’t supposed to be an educational facility. This was a reform school for troubled kids. The fact that I attended MMA, by definition meant that I was a troubled kid. I didn’t feel like I had done anything wrong and I had never been in any trouble in school before, but now I was labeled as one of “those” kids. The whole concept of assigning disciplinary responsibility to a troubled reform school kid provided a wonderful opportunity for these kids to inflict physical and mental cruelty on anyone and everyone in their charge. We call it bullying today, but this was organized, supported, and rewarded cruelty at a much higher level. There were inspections to pass, close order drill to practice, and each small infraction provided the excuse needed for cruelty exercises until 2 am. Sleep was always a highly prized commodity.
I survived largely because the only thing I had to concentrate on was surviving. I had no homework to do, no reports to write, no facts to memorize. I needed only to make sure my shoes and brass were polished and I would generally be left alone. I was nearing the “end of my sentence” as we all called it, and that meant that I would be able to go on vacation to Cape Cod in a few weeks and try to shake off this constant daily fear of everything. When I arrived back in Ft. Lauderdale my mother almost immediately announced that she had signed me up for a second year. The money had been paid and it was a done deal. I couldn’t believe it and I was really upset. What ensued was one of the very few shouting matches I ever had with my mother. The bottom line was that if she ever signed me up again I would run away and not be seen again. Would I have done it? I don’t know, probably not. But when I visited my father I told him the same thing. Both of them believed me and that was when the discussions began.
There is a very fine college preparatory private school in the town where I was born. It was called Tabor Academy. The agreement that the three of us reached was that I would finish my second year at MMA and then transfer to Tabor Academy the following year. And so I began another year of fear and survival. But I had made one friend along the way and the similarities in our situations made it easy for us to talk. His name was Rick Wardrobe, he was also from Ft. Lauderdale, his parents were divorced and I think if we had not become friends, my two years at MMA might have been significantly worse. He was two years older but we formed our own little support system that worked well. As the end of the school year drew closer I began to think more and more about my new life and becoming a ‘preppie’. I never gave a thought about what this would do to Rick. It was terrible neglect on my part, but I had been through too much and I needed to get out no matter the cost.
During the year Rick turned 18 and in the spring of 1967 he joined the US Marine Corps. He had talked about joining up and there was nothing I could say to dissuade him of this little mission of his. I’m sure they were happy to have him because he would be a terrific Marine. There were no psychiatrists available to us, just our own deep conversations about life and what it meant to us. Rick was older, bigger, and tougher than I was and he always had my back. It was Rick’s encouragement and help that kept my mind together for the previous two years. It was Rick who kept me from running away from everything. It was Rick that first taught me the true meaning of the word, friend. It was Rick’s house that we went to when we had a weekend pass. It was Rick, who more than anyone else, saved my life.
The school year ended and I spent a little time in Ft. Lauderdale before going home permanently. During the summer I had to take an entrance exam in order to determine my placement. Wow, an academic placement exam! This place was going to be cool! To no one’s surprise I had to repeat my sophomore year in order to get in. I wasn’t upset. I would have done anything at all to go to that school. I had made it. I had survived.
On September 10, 1967, PFC Richard Alfred Wardrobe, USMC was killed in action at Quang Tri Province, South Vietnam. When I visit the Vietnam Memorial and touch his name the tears still come for my long-lost friend. Semper Fi Marine.
© J T Weaver