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Food fight became combat training?

My adult children complain that I spend too much time on Facebook. But with children grown and flown and a professional life that occurs mostly online and by phone, Facebook is my front porch, a neighborhood bar, a veritable Times Square scrolling through my day.

Although junior high marked the most wretched span of my first 18 years, many of my Facebook friends are from that era. And one, Jimmy, a childhood friend on whom I nursed a crush for years, remains a friend. We went to middle school and high school together and attended the same church and religious education classes.

Ours was the first four-year science and tech class at the then-brand-new Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, Md. We were sent there because we scored high on a standardized test and did well in class. At Roosevelt, we were the first in an experiment to see if smart kids could be encouraged to stick with science and math.

Something worked. Many of us went on to successful careers in medicine and science. Even I wound up with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. Jimmy had been in the Marines since spring 1980, when he skipped our high school graduation to report to Parris Island.

He was gone all summer; one night, just before college began, he stopped by to say hello to my sisters and me. We didn’t recognize him. That summer at boot camp had stripped the boy away, leaving a hard shell of a good-looking man. For the next four years, we were each other’s best pen pals and, whenever we were home, we’d have lunch or a drink together.

Jimmy went to Virginia Military Institute while I attended a small Quaker college in North Carolina. I was a loyal correspondent and still have several of Jimmy’s letters stashed in a box in my attic. We were such unlikely pen pals.

I remember the odd turns in our sensibilities, especially the year he asked me if I’d ever read anything by Abbie Hoffman or Jerry Rubin. For reasons I no longer remember, our nickname for Jimmy was “Uncle Jim the Unc of Funk”; I was bemused at this turn in his literary taste. No doubt, I advised that he look into Baba Ram Dass.

Jim excelled academically, eventually becoming the student leader at VMI. I was busy protesting about the contras; he was learning about the Sandinistas and naval engineering.

One letter included news that he had done something that enraged the VMI commandant. He was not stripped of his position of first captain, regimental commander of VMI’s cadets, but I sensed from his letter that he had been stripped of his pride. He mentioned “Viking Night,” but I never knew what that meant.

This year, 30 years out of college and having retired from the Marine Reserve after nearly 34 years of service, Jimmy posted an image to Facebook, an old, typewritten “Letter of Reprimand” dated September 1983. The commandant wrote:

“[Y]ou have acknowledged that on or about 1915 hours, 2 September 1983, in Crozet Hall, Virginia Military Institute, as ranking cadet leader, you authorized a disorder which resulted in misbehavior of the Corps of Cadets.”

He catalogued a list of demerits and lost privileges, including confiscation of Jimmy’s car keys. The commandant wrote: “It is incomprehensible that a cadet officer in the highest leadership position in the Corps would demonstrate such a lack of judgment and moral courage by countenancing such a demonstration of ungentlemanly behavior.”

On Facebook, many of Jimmy’s classmates and friends commented, “Viking Night,” along with smiley faces, exclamation points and happy notes. Finally, I asked what, exactly, that meant. Oh, Jimmy replied, I ordered the cadets to eat without utensils.

Apparently, the ensuing food fight among more than a thousand testosterone-driven young men went wild, destroyed the mess hall and created a clash between the students and administrators.

Intrigued, I found Jimmy’s letter about that legendary night. He thought the event had been great fun, positive and morale-boosting and not, he noted, in the least degrading to “the Rats.” Asked about it now, he emailed that he thought then, and thinks now, that a better punishment would have been to remove him from command. Instead, he said, the experience taught him leadership lessons that, I imagine, served him during his long career as an officer.

What strikes me most about the incident is the intensity of the commandant’s outrage and the severity of the consequences. The revocation of privileges was to last indefinitely. The cadets, Jimmy wrote then, thought it so unjust that they threatened to refuse to march in the school’s weekly dress parade.

To me, it seemed like little more than a high school prank gone awry. But from the commandant’s perspective of preparing young men (there were no women at VMI in those days) for war, he needed to prepare them for a life-and-death career, where playing games and leadership lapses could cost lives and safety.

A month after that September letter, nearly 250 Marines were killed in their barracks in Lebanon. In the high-stakes world Jimmy and his peers were about to march into, there was no time for childish games.

Janice Lynch Schuster is a coauthor of “Handbook for Mortals: Guidance for People Facing Serious Illness.” This column first appeared in The Washington Post.

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