I went to Kemper for my first two years of college. It was more than twenty years ago, but I remember the place like yesterday. I hope you like it.
In July 1994, I got a ROTC scholarship to Kemper Military Junior College.
I learned how to study at Kemper. Going to class was mandatory. Evening study period was mandatory. We sat at our desks in our rooms for two hours. We did this every Sunday night through Thursday night.
I hated it, but it worked. Study period instilled habits of concentration and study skills. I actually studied. It made me a better student.
Life at Kemper was grim. The barracks look like a Military Gothic experiment – a basement, a stoop, four stories, with sixteen rooms to a floor, and toilets at the end of the halls. The barracks looked like housing project tenements built with red brick.
Like the military, the cadets were divided into squads, platoons, companies, and battalions. Life at Kemper centered on your squad and platoon. They were your family.
We had small two-man rooms. My room barely had enough space for two small desks, a bunk bed, and a shared closet. The rooms were hot in the summer and cold in the winter.
We lived on top of one another. We had to get along with each other. It made us, the cadets, tight. It’s hard to explain this intimacy to outsiders. We got to know each other like brothers.
You and your roommate were almost “married.” You did everything together. Cadet life encompassed everything. We lived in a bubble isolated from the outside world. We shared hardship.
Shining shoes, going to class and studying two hours a night was hard. The structured environment gave me a chance to succeed. Kemper gave a chance at a better life.
A demerit system enforced behavior. To get rid of negative demerits you did a “walking tour.” One demerit was one hour walking around a solid yellow line that boarded the black quadrangle. You marched at attention. At each corner, you halted, you executed, a slow, about-face and continued to the next corner.
I was a bad cadet. I got a lot of demerits. I spent countless weekends walking punishment tours to get rid of my demerits.
At Kemper, breaking the rules was expected of the cadets. It was part of the “playing the game.” It was an eternal struggle between the cadets and the school. It was an artificial give-and-take of the system.
The Tactical Department controlled every part of our life outside of the classroom. The Tactical Duty Officer (TAC) were retired, senior non-commissioned officers. Most of them had been in Vietnam.
Each of the six companies had a TAC officer assigned to it.
Soldiering was a display of individual courage. War was what we lived for at Kemper. We talked about it, read about it and prepared for war. War was an obsession. We lusted after war like sex. It was forbidden and real.
Almost all our tactical officers had served in Vietnam. Most of the students in the military college had fathers who went to Vietnam.
I doubted I would ever go to war. I loved to read about it. I learned nearly every captain had been tested early in their careers: Lee and Grant in Mexican-American War, Pershing and Marshall in the Philippines Islands, Patton and MacArthur in the trenches of World War I.
The implication was clear at Kemper. We should be grateful for our education. We should be thankful for the chance to prove ourselves in combat, like our heroes. War was the final measure of manhood.
Nothing defined a cadet like our military haircuts. We cut our hair into the aggressive “High and Tight.” We shaved the sides of our heads. An inch of hair was left on top. Just enough to plaster it down with water and hair product.
Getting the “high and tight” showed you had embraced Kemper and everything it stood for. More than anything it characterized being a role-model “cadet.”
The haircut was extreme and loud. It screamed “cadet.” The haircut was a symbol of our obsession for perfection as a cadet.
Kemper the Place
Kemper was a military theme park. It was a memory of how things used to be. Kemper was a symbol for the way life should be.
Kemper was frozen in time. It had old, red brick buildings built in the 1920s. Our main building had a low-hanging white porch with white column pillars. The mess hall had floor-to-ceiling windows.
These things were reminders of a “better time,” a more innocent and hopeful time in America. Kemper had the pretensions of a European, Old World atmosphere mixed in with the hopeful idealism of America in the late 1950s.
The physical isolation of Kemper kept the real world outside. We existed inside a bubble of military discipline. Kemper was the best version of America frozen in time with honest, hardworking cadets. Kemper’s dedicated military instructors were busy trying to make America great again through disciplined protégés.
Kemper took every day of your life for two years. Every day was crammed with formations, classes, inspections, physical training and study time. We became “warrior-monks.”
We were shut off from the rest of the world with zero time to think for ourselves. The motto should have been, “Too much individual thinking softens the brain.” We were told to act, not to think.
We were teenage boys and girls on the edge of adulthood. We were trying to discover our true, honest selves. Kemper gave us that self. We acted out the role assigned to us, obedient cadets.
It was a lonely existence. You lived in your own head in a fantasy world. Kemper was closed off from the rest of the world. Kemper seemed like an untouchable place, unreachable by the grubby less deserving world outside.
Something about the place made you believe it by your second semester. Kemper gave you the rules so, you believed them. A cadet at Kemper was better than those fat, undisciplined losers “outside,” everyone who was a civilian or the enemy to this sacred way of life.
Kemper had a feeling of noble stature. Beautiful old, brick buildings were sitting on vast well-trimmed lawns. Brown wooden signs with neat yellowed lettering told you what each building did and was used for.
Oaks and red maples dapple over the perfect lawns. It gave the impression of an old, distinguished way of life, a continuity of things.
The feeling at Kemper was solid. Things were utilitarian, pragmatic and predictable. For 150 years Kemper had stood to provide America with leaders. Kemper was a calm presence that didn’t exist outside the gates of the school.
Inside the gates, we felt like a select group of apprentice warriors being passed special sacred knowledge. Kemper didn’t offer us an education. It offered a “way of life.”
The greater design of Kemper was to give a military education, but also to pass on conservative idealism wrapped up in a warrior ethic to a chosen few. It made you feel privileged and elite.
Kemper was proud of its place in the world. It believed that its system of military order and discipline was superior to the one at work outside its gates. The ideal was a good dream and we did our best to live it out.
Kemper was an inbred, incestuous place. We told each what we needed to hear to survive. No one told us anything different, and if they did, they were wrong and not worthy of being a warrior like us. Kemper changed everything about us. You could see a cadet coming from a mile away.
The “high and tight” haircut, the stiff back, our walk had a quick gait, and we turned corners with crispness. We all had an irresistible urge to say “sir” or “ma’am” when talking to anyone older.
The truth is I loved and hated every minute of it. It was the first big adventure of my life.