By the time you’ve packed up all of your worldly possessions and moved 10 or 12 times, you get used to it. A year in one place is pretty much like a year anyplace else, and so is being a new kid in school. You ride the bus, you find your homeroom, you find your locker, you find your morning classes and the lunch room and the gym, you find your afternoon classes, and you ride the bus home. You adjust your wardrobe: toss your winklepicker loafers and Levis and white socks, put on the Weejuns, chinos, and madras shirt. You meet a few kids, make a few friends. You get a date with one of the cool girls and go out with her just long enough to miss her badly when your dad gets reassigned to a new post in a new state. And you’re gone.
That’s the way it went year after year after year with few changes in the routine, until senior year, when the stakes went up precipitously. Seniors reeked of history. They were the institutional memory of a school, steeped in the traditions and secret codes of student life, the keepers of grudges and settlers of scores against rival schools. When seniors strode the halls, linoleum tiles trembled and lockers shook and freshmen were felled by knee-level wind.
Becoming a senior was supposed to pay-off the psychic debts you acquired during 12 long years of being lorded-over by insufferable assholes who were older, bigger and stronger than you. For some reason, during all those years of moving from place to place, you never thought about what would happen if you transferred into a school as a senior, with none of the authority and gravitas conveyed by a history at the school.
But that’s what happened when we moved to Northern Virginia from Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, and I enrolled in the third high school I had attended in three years in three different states. I was in my 18th year of being an army brat.
You’ve got to picture the scene: I arrived at Mount Vernon High School with enough credits to graduate a year early, but Virginia law required that I had to take a year of Virginia history in order to graduate, so the principal ruled that I could take the class in the morning and a couple of study halls and get out of school at noon if I joined Distributive Education, a program intended for vocational and business education students. I quickly secured a job selling clothes at Cohen’s Quality Shop, a men’s store in downtown Alexandria, and made the deal. In my final year of high school, I became a biz-ed student.
It took me about a week to determine that spending only a half-day in school reduced at least by half my chances of climbing into the upper bleachers of the senior social stratum. But years of experience had taught me that being a new kid in school presented an opportunity: if you appeared aloof and mysterious and acted like you didn’t give a shit if doors were closed to you, in time those doors would open, if only to satisfy the prying eyes and abject curiosity of those on the inside.
Creating an air of mystery in Northern Virginia in 1964 wasn’t very hard. I joined the school’s debate team, a place of perpetual exile for nerds and losers. I had to wear a coat and tie to work after school anyway, so I decided to carry off the illusion that being a debater and a DE student was a mark of honor and terribly, terribly cool.
I knew I had cracked the code when a note was passed to me one morning in study hall informing me that one of the prettiest girls in the senior class liked me and would say yes if I asked her out on a date. I got her number — her name was Connie — and asked her out for a date on Friday night, and she accepted. I had to work until 9:00 p.m. on Fridays, but when I told my boss at Cohen’s that I would volunteer for the hot, dirty task of dusting every hanger, shirt box, suit-rack, hat box and square inch of shelf space in the attic storeroom, a job he knew would take me the better part of a week, he gave me the night off.
I didn’t know much about Connie, but I wasn’t surprised when I showed up on Friday evening and her father answered the door still in uniform, having just gotten home from a hard day at the Pentagon. He was a big, thick-necked man with a crew-cut and a perpetual five o’clock shadow, and he was a full colonel with a chest full of combat ribbons. He invited me in and said Connie was upstairs getting ready and would be down shortly. He walked over to a wet bar and asked if I wanted a drink, and I said, yes sir, thinking he’d make me a Coke. When he returned from the bar, he was carrying two large bourbons on the rocks and handed me one. He sat down and indicated with a nod that I should take the chair across from him. He studied me for a moment, and then he smiled. I knew what he was going to say before he opened his mouth, and sure enough, he said it. “You’re General Truscott’s grandson, aren’t you?” I answered, yes sir. He raised his glass in a jaunty toast and said, “Well, Lucian, I’m pleased as hell that you’re going out with my daughter.” He took a deep drink, leaned back in his chair and looked at me and said, “Your grandfather was a great general. Let me tell you why I believe that.”
And with that, he was off. I had heard the same oration from other girls’ fathers, and I had seen the same look on their faces. As he took another swig of bourbon, there it was: a softening around the eyes, a lowering of the chin, as if he couldn’t hold back a rush of unwelcome emotion. There was a vulnerability about these big, powerful men when they talked about grandpa. Maybe it was because for most of them, Korea had been their war, and it was a war that had been fought to a stalemate instead of victory. Maybe they knew that another war was just around the corner, and it would turn out to be the wrong war, and greatness would elude not only the colonels and the generals, but a generation and a nation and break not only their hearts but ours as well.
He paused and took another deep drink. I didn’t respond, because I couldn’t. I was 17 years old, and I wanted to go out with his daughter, not listen to his theories about what my grandfather did during World War II when he commanded the 3rd Infantry Division in Sicil, and the the 6th Corps and 5th Army in Italy and Eastern France. He wasn’t really talking about my grandfather. He was reciting a kind of worshipful ode to a military ideal that he had been trained to idolize but which he sensed was in decline. Absently, he launched into an elaborate description of a battle at Anzio that grandpa had turned with a crucial maneuver that seemingly came from nowhere, one that I would later study in military history at West Point.
I don’t know how long I listened to him before I looked up and saw Connie watching us from the top of the stairs. She was standing back from the banister in a shadow, obviously reluctant to interrupt her father’s story. I cleared my throat, and when I got his attention, I rose to my feet and looked up. Connie took my signal and came down the stairs. Her father appeared flustered. It was like she had broken a spell, and for me, at least, she had. She had gotten herself up in a way that certain girls could, so that she looked about four years older than she was without a sign that any effort had been taken. But her father was oblivious, lost in a wistful reverie brought on by the mere mention of my name. Connie gave him a kiss on the cheek, and after a gruff warning not to stay out too late, we left.
I had seen other fathers of other girls that I had dated act in the same way. There had been Lucy, another colonel’s daughter who was a couple of years older than me and taught my ballroom dancing class in the 7th Grade. I would serve as a Cadet Escort when she arrived at West Point in 1966 to bury her husband, a lieutenant killed in Vietnam less than a year after he had graduated. There was Wendy at Fort Leavenworth, another colonel’s daughter. She lived in The Rookery, a house set within the two-foot thick stone walls of the old fort, the same house dad had lived in for five years when grandpa was teaching there in the 1930’s, which made the presence of “the general” doubly felt. There was Bethany at Carlisle Barracks, whose father had been in the 3rd Infantry Division when grandpa drove them like a cavalry troop through Sicily. There was Mary Gail, the daughter of a voraciously ambitious brigadier general who saw his daughter dating the grandson of General Truscott as a chance for career advancement. There was Louisa, the daughter of the LIFE correspondent who wrote the cover story on grandpa, whom I met on a ski slope in upstate New York one snowy winter afternoon.
I had been through this thing with their fathers so many times that I had developed a suspicion that the girls were somehow in on it. Connie’s father had talked to me about grandpa. Maybe he talked with his daughter about him as well. I wanted to be someone other than General Truscott’s grandson, but in the world of the Army back then, he was one hell of a hard man to tear yourself away from.
Connie and I were in the car driving down the George Washington Parkway, and I figured, what do I have to lose? So I came right out and asked her: did you go out with me tonight because you wanted to, or because I’m General Truscott’s grandson? She was unhesitating in her response: she didn’t know anything about my grandfather. She didn’t know who I was other than the new guy who came to school every day in a coat and tie and kept to himself and left early to go to work. I believed her because I wanted to believe her. Hell, I needed to believe her.
I looked over at her. She was gorgeous. She’d done something with her hair, so it was poofed up in the back and cascaded over her shoulders in a waterfall of blonde curls. I was 17, and so was she. I asked her if she had her fake ID. Grinning, she took it out of her wallet and showed me. I told her I was taking her to the 1789 Club in Georgetown for drinks. I was in my coat and tie from work at Cohen’s Quality Shop, and she was in something sleek and black. I don’t remember the name on my fake ID, but for that night anyway, I was that guy, not me. It felt good. Hell, looking over at Connie, going down the road at night with the lights of Washington, D.C. in the distance, it felt great.