A Fortress of Duty
Freshman Chadd Smith knows why he's hanging from his closet shelf by his fingers at three in the morning, with his legs bent and spread. It has to do with football. The Citadel hadn't lost the Wofford game since 1958. In fact, it had never lost the Wofford game at home. But tonight it did. As usual, somebody has to pay. As usual, it's the freshmen. That part he understands. What Smith wants to know is, What is it? What is that coldness I feel now and again down between my thighs?
Smith is hanging because of football and duty. At The Citadel it is the sophomores' duty to run out any freshman who does not measure up to the Citadel man—to break him down, humiliate him, run him until he cannot feel his toes, drill him until the arm with which he holds his rifle is numb, yell at him until his cerebellum turns to Jell-O, rack him until he either does things the Citadel way or goes home blubbering to his mommy. It's a point of pride among the 17 companies at The Citadel to see who can chase out the most knobs, as freshmen are called; a usual figure is 15% of the class. This tradition is called the Fourth Class System, and if you survive it you are, say Citadel men, "nine feet tall and bulletproof."
Smith knew knob year would suck, but he knew what to do. You talk to no one and salute everyone. You run when you are inside the barracks. You ask permission to eat, leave, pass, cough, sneeze and scratch your nose. You serve everybody at mess and hope you can stuff in a forkful before mealtime has elapsed. You polish your shoes and your brass until midnight and then your French and chemistry until two, and you hope the guy who blows reveille dies in his sleep.
You do not put a picture of your girlfriend on your desktop. You do not watch TV, because you are not allowed a TV. You do not get Cokes out of the barracks Coke machine. You do not walk on any grass, which means you must walk around the football-field-wide quadrangle in the middle of campus. You do not have any answers besides Sir, yes, sir! and Sir, no, sir! and Sir, no excuse, sir! And you do not complain unless you want 13 weekends of being stuck in your room.
You try to make nice and be invisible, because any sophomore half your size can drop you for 15 push-ups on a lark. For the first week you smell like three-day-old sweat socks, because all you get are 10-second showers—unless, of course, some joker decides to throw you a shower party. This is another Citadel tradition, in which the upperclassmen turn the showers up all the way on hot, dress you in full rain gear and make you exercise until you throw up. Could be worse. There was once an upperclassman, it is said, who would hold a pistol to freshmen's heads, asking them things they should have memorized from the school guidebook. He found that a pistol is a great aid to concentration.
But if things are bad for freshmen, they are doubly bad for freshman athletes. The Citadel may be the only college where the freshman athlete is LMOC, low man on campus. "In high school," says one former knob jock, "you're a big deal. Here you're dirt." In season, athletes get out of the daily marching and Saturday-morning room inspections, which means they're resented by the other cadets, and that means when an athlete returns to the barracks, he must make amends. It doesn't matter that the jock must practice his sport four hours every day instead of marching. It doesn't matter that hazing can be, officially at least, grounds for immediate expulsion from The Citadel—not to mention a misdemeanor according to South Carolina law. What matters is that the jock has found a loophole in Citadel discipline, and no Citadel man with a pocketful of duty will stand for that.
Right now Smith, a member of the school's cycling team, is wondering how much more duty he can take.
"Smith!" one of the upperclassmen roars into his ear. "Whatever you do, don't drop! Don't drop, Smith!" Smith is not sure who exactly is trying to shatter his tympanum. He hadn't had time to see. The door flew open and the lights were off.
Cadet Smith always wanted to be a Citadel man. He wanted it so devoutly that he and his single mom took out $13,000 in loans to make first-year tuition. You wear the Citadel ring, you get a good job, because Citadel men look out for each other. You could spray a bucket of birdseed in any restaurant right here in Charleston and hit a dozen of them.