WHAT THE CITADEL meant to me…
Imagine being an American, but born in a foreign land. Imagine being raised in that foreign land. You know about America, you hear about it. You see it on TV, you read about it, but during your youth you only get there for very brief visits.
Well, for me, replace America with the South.
You see, my family on my mom’s side was from North Carolina, near Charlotte. My kin had been there since around the 1740’s. My heroes as a child were R. E. Lee, and Stonewall. My nanna, who had been raised by her grandfather, a veteran of Lee’s Army had been probably the second most important person in my life. And she told me stories of home.
Even though I rarely got home, I knew Andy Griffith and Billy Graham were from North Carolina, and I was proud of them. When Billy Graham came to New York, and did a service at a filled Shea stadium in the late 1960’s I watched him on a small black and white with my nanna. And I was saved. Imagine a Catholic boy being saved…but I was. I am still Catholic, but I was saved by the words of Billy Graham and the Holy Spirit of that day.
Anyway, I read about the war. That’s all I read. When the teachers would assign us books, In Cold Blood, 1984, Brave New World, and all the rest…I never read them. (Only one exception, Mutiny on the Bounty). I read Bruce Catton, and Douglas Southall Freeman and many others…all of which I still have about the great struggle of the second revolution, and a people who only wanted the Constitution they had sworn to.. The very first book I read cover to cover when just a small lad was a book titled Blue and Gray …a present from my nanna. In that book I met General Lee…and adopted him as my father role model…mine had passed just a year or so before when I was 8.
So for an entire youth, surrounded by Yankees, my fantasy childhood was in the South. Years later, in my 40’s, my best friend from New York asked me: "Mark, ever since I met you, whenever something was happening we would all go in one direction, and you would go in another… why is that?" I could only answer … I see life very different.
Anyway, when I went to an orphanage in Pa, Milton Hershey School, and lived on a dairy farm it was like moving closer South. I was only about fifty miles from the Mason – Dixon Line. And while the Pennsylvania Dutch of the Cumberland Valley are very different from Southerners, still they are closer to the South, than people on Long Island. Their appreciation for the land and for God’s creation through the land is closer to that of a Southerner. The memories in Pa are thick with a carillon calling fifteen hundred orphan boys, kindergarten to high school to church. We walked along lanes surrounded by the beauty of farmland, mostly dairy cattle, but with orchards and cornfields intermixed.
God provided the opportunity to attend THE CITADEL. No one there knew that this kid from NY was in Charleston because of his southern roots. I don’t even think John Andrews knew it. But, it’s why I went. Through my childhood I had read about West Point, and Lee, and Jackson and so many other heroes. In my mind’s eye I had seen cadet life over and over. And when I attended THE CITADEL it reminded me so much of what I had read. It was like being time warped back…from time to time walking the campus, ignoring the few cars to see a place long ago.
And there was the Corps! And my classmates. It was a dream come true. The pride in the South, Dixie and the Confederate battle flag filing the stadium in crimson. The flags surrounding the stadium for blocks. THE CITADEL experience was this kid’s dream come true. I tried to tell administrators of THE CITADEL years later how important their southern heritage was to the school, how important the history of the South is to the quilt that is America. But, they could not stand the pressure against the South. They were not alone.
Now this Yankee boy owns a small ranch in East Texas. And the name of that ranch is Rebel Mountain. I sit here listening to Andy Griffith sing hymns and feel blessed for a life I have lived. It’s been like living a Disney movie…a life few would imagine or believe could happen to a nobody kid. My life is the deepest, richest testament I know to God. It could not have happened except for God. I could not have walked the trail, did not have the means, neither the money nor the brains. But, He gave me the eyes to see great things, and the heart to know great people. And many of those great people were classmates at THE CITADEL. My classmates set the standard for my life of what a man should be.
Later in life I would be disappointed by southern men. My standard was too high. I expected Southern men to be like Lee, Jackson, and cadets of THE CITADEL. That was wrong, unfair I guess. But imagine a life where you expect men to be of the quality of the Corps… high expectations…but oh if man could be like that today. We were once, Americans were once… the home of the free and the brave. Alas, no more.
I served in Germany for three years, and when I came back to the states I literally did get down on my knees and kiss the ground…happy to be back in America. I missed it. Well it was that feeling for the South that THE CITADEL brought to me when life was starting.
God bless the Corps…