Memory is a tricky thing. Time has softened my memory (and my waistline, lol). One thing I remember is my buddy Julio pulling me through my freshman year at Kemper.
I met Julio my first day at Kemper Military Junior College. At 6’1, 160 pounds Julio was the ideal cadet. He looked like a young Gregory Peck with dark hair and an easy smile.
Phase One at Kemper
To become a warrior, you have to be warred upon. This ancient tradition is a process found in Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages. During the first eight weeks of at Kemper, new cadets endured “Phase One” training. Phase One was the initiation into the secret cult of being a Kemper cadet.
Phase One turned civilians into cadets. Phase One was Kemper’s eight-week equivalent to boot camp. For some New Boys, the transformation took days, others weeks.
“New Boys” is what all new cadets at Kemper were called in their first year in both high school and college. To become an “Old Boy” first you had to be a “New Boy” and endure Phase One. As New Boys, we were practice dummies for the Old Boys to learn leadership. For the crueler Old Boys, it was a practice of inhumanity and sadism.
In the Barracks
In the barracks, there were big red lines on both sides of the hallway. New Boys had to “walk the line” right next to the wall. The center hallway was reserved for Old Boys.
Some upperclassmen got steel wedges on their black dress shoes. The wedges made a loose “clack” when they walked. The clacking sound was a solid resonating tone. It let the New Boys know an Old Boy was coming down the hall. It was a symbol of power.
In Phase One haircuts were short, trousers were pressed, shirts were ironed, and shoes were shined. During Phase One New Boys made all movements at right angles with their bodies straight and their eyes forward.
No contact with the outside world was permitted. New Boys couldn’t use the pay phones in the basement of the barracks until out of Phase One.
In the mess hall line, an Old Boy could slip into line ahead of New Boys. During their first year, New Boys are not allowed to touch the tables at meal times.
While eating you were not allowed to look at your plate. You had to “mirror” the cadet across from you. This was called “eating a square meal.” At any moment an Old Boy of higher rank would scream a command that New Boys had to obey.
Nothing prepared me for Phase One. I thought I was the victim of a sick joke or some unimaginable crime. Nothing in the Kemper catalog or stories from the cadet recruiter prepared me for this insanity.
I thought the first two months would never end. Moments clicked by like hours. Days were weeks that never ended. I rushed from one place to another on endless missions, each one greater than the last.
Like Basic Training, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was slow-moving, dim-witted and out-of-place. My saving grace was my roommate Julio Acosta.
Julio in Phase One
Julio sailed through Phase One. He was organized and never lost track of anything included time. Julio was skilled in the thousand little details of cadet life. No one shined shoes better than him, his uniform looked custom-tailored, he knew all the endless New Boy knowledge, and he was always on time.
Julio could do more pushups, more sit-ups than most of the other cadets. Julio made mistakes, but was quick to own them and correct them.
I fumbled my way through the day like I was blindfolded. My uniform looked like I slept it and I was always late. I was a horrible cadet. Halfway through the first week, Julio began to help me.
Julio was the first cadet in our squad ready. He was last to formation because he stayed behind to help other cadets. When other New Boys were dropped for pushups, Julio would yell, “Pushup time!” We all dropped with him.
Julio made jokes all the time. He made us laugh instead of cry when the going got rough. He took the blows of Phase One and came back for more. None of the hazing or yelling in Phase One seemed to bother him. Julio bore the insults with his head held high.
Julio knew that helping others was a matter of morale. Julio would rally the squad in our room ten minutes before taps to give a pep talk. Julio gave me a special knowledge about leadership. Julio showed me a leader cared about his soldiers. You need to lead by physical and personal example.
The secret to Julio’s leadership was his integrity. Julio did not preach or sermonize. He led by example. I admired his composure. Julio was always a gentleman. He was quiet instead of brash. He had supreme self-possession. There was an almost a naïve innocence to his integrity. Julio’s leadership was in the choices he made. Julio understood a man’s integrity is the foundation of how much people trust you. It made him a force for good.
Julio’s quiet dignity came through in his humility. Julio’s empathy came through in how he treated people. He saw the best in folks. He was able to figure out why people did the things they did.
Julio inspired cadets to follow him. Julio’s integrity made him keep commitments and keep confidences. Julio wrote to his girlfriend Odalys every night, no matter how tired he was.
In every army, there are initiation rites. Phase One brought the surviving New Boys together in our misery. Slowly we became a family. Our trust and knowledge of each other became total. We got to know one another’s life stories, where they came from, and why we came to Kemper.
After eight weeks of Phase One, a cadet got the chance to graduate and be recognized. You had to be able to march, max a room and uniform inspection, and pass a written test on the history of Kemper. This procedure was called “testing out.” If you passed, you were “recognized” by the Old Boys and made a Cadet Private.
The junior college’s academic program was grounded in the liberal arts. The class was a refuge from the severe military environment.
Julio was smart. He was the only person I ever met who grasped higher math and the intricacies of the written English language. Julio read books, magazines, and newspapers all the time. His mind was a data disposal unit. He used those brains to help his fellow cadets.
Julio tutored me in Algebra and Calculus. I passed freshman math because of him.
Standard of Honor
In May, at the end of our first year, we were invited to sign the “Standard of Honor.” Once you signed, you had earned the title of “Old Boy.”
We survived our initial immersion and were now cadets. After “testing out” most of the petty stuff stopped. We still had “smoke sessions”, pushups, squat jumps and running stairs. Our bodies got hard and tempered.
We survived the long march of our freshman year. A quarter of our freshman class quit during Phase One. We, the survivors, considered the quitters our inferiors.
The last time I saw Julio, he was pushing forty. Gray flecked his dark hair. He moved a little slower. Julio had a storied career as an Infantry Officer.
His army dress uniform had no more room for medals. Julio had medals for valor and a handful of service medals, including- the Combat Infantryman’s badge, Parachutist Badge, Air Assault Badge, Pathfinder Badge, and Ranger Tab.
Even twenty years later he still looked like the model cadet. We were brothers-in-arms because of Phase One at Kemper.