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A Place that I Love

Sam Morton, '85

It may sound strange that I, a self-proclaimed mama’s boy, have chosen the Citadel campus as my place of eternal bliss—a place of refuge, a place of contentment, a place to recharge my batteries when life has sapped me of all my strength. This was the place where lean and tall young men—whose shoes were spit-shined and whose brass belt buckles could blind you—screamed at me, the “fat load” as I ran or did pushups. They swore I’d never finish, but in the end, I graduated a Citadel man.

I chose the Citadel because she chose me as one of her sons. I selected her not because of who I was, but rather because of who I was not. In high school, I was not an athlete, nor was I a particularly good scholar. I, like many, floated along in that forgettable plane of average.

I chose the Citadel in order to light a fire and burn away my husk of nothingness; to become a man; to set my own gauges of commitment and courage; and to establish the sovereignty of self. Ironically, I found that to do that, I had to erase all boundaries of me and work as part of a larger whole. As you enter the bleak dark forests of its plebe year, you discover with disturbing alacrity that the Citadel journey is not one that can be made alone.

I reported for my freshman year in the fall of 1981. I had just completed my third year as a counselor at the Citadel Summer Camp for Boys and had only left Charleston three weeks before. Now I was returning for an entirely different experience.

Mama drove me down from Rock Hill with my footlocker packed. I had to audition for Regimental Band, but conventional wisdom said if you had even been near a musical instrument in your life, you got put in Band Company. I auditioned and was made bass drummer. Mama and I ate together in the mess hall. After lunch, we said goodbye. It was the second time in my life I ever saw her cry.

I cried too.

I took solace in the fact that I was in familiar territory, having been on the Citadel campus for camp each summer since I was twelve. I felt it to be an intimate and friendly place. Then I met my first sergeant and found out how terribly wrong I was. That first night, I unpacked my belongings. Then at midnight, the cadre forced us to change rooms, repacking and unpacking again. As I settled in with my second roommate the door burst open at nearly 2 in the morning and the upper-classmen forced us to move yet again. Thus the tone was set.

For most of my teenage years, I went to church regularly. That is to say twice a year: Christmas and Easter. My orthodoxy changed quite significantly the day I entered my freshman year at the Citadel.

August 19, 1981 was a Wednesday. It was also Hell Night for 650 matriculating freshman cadet recruits at The Military College of South Carolina. Night had fallen, but we were summoned en masse to assemble on the quadrangle of our barracks.

We stood at rigid attention as “Home Sweet Home” rang out tinny and sweet over the PA system. Squeaky iron gates clanged shut, ending our days as civilians—our years as happy, carefree boys—with an inarguable, defeated, and metallic finality. The disembodied voice of our regimental commander intoned over the PA with all the seriousness of an undertaker: “Gentleman of the Class of 1985, the fourth class system is now in effect.”

Then out of the shadows marched phalanx after phalanx of screaming cadre men with hot breath and the fierceness of banshee warriors. They vowed to run us all out. They vowed to exercise us until we vomited or passed out. The devil holds a special place for frightened, nervous, fat mama’s boys who test their metal in the crucible of the Citadel.

“You’re never gonna make it!” The voice came from behind me. It was the drum major, a senior with whom I’d spent the last six weeks as a counselor at camp. Then we had been friends. Then we had been equals. That night, everything changed.

After Hell Night, I joined the Baptist Student Union, though in all honesty, I would have donned a yarmulke or built a shrine to Buddha if I thought it would have helped me escape the wrath of the cadre. I remember many a Wednesday night after evening mess, sitting around with a group of young men and a guitar-playing youth minister in blue jeans singing “Amazing Grace.” I look back on those times and think the only thing separating us from some beatnik band of Jesus freaks on any other college campus in the fall of 1981 was our shaved heads and gray uniforms. We all believed fervently in salvation. We all needed to believe in it because that was what we were desperately seeking.

From Hell Night through Recognition Day, fear, uncertainty, insecurity, and terror governed our every thought, our every action. By the end of the first week, a third of our freshmen class had quit. By year’s end, our original numbers were down by half. They sound harsh, these descriptions of yelling young men, but the Citadel stands by its belief that in order to be rebranded as one of its graduates, one must first be rent asunder. In a world of rough seas and hurricane winds, it takes a mighty captain to right and steer the ship. While my high school classmates at USC, Winthrop, or Clemson were going to frat parties and sorority mixers, I was attending parades, scrubbing the barracks’ floors, and standing at attention for a Saturday morning inspection. Ours was a Spartan existence. For those of us who gutted it out, the Citadel’s greatest blessing is that we are friends, blood brothers, soul mates all.

The Citadel can be a place of seeming incongruity. The most beautiful place on campus is Summerall Chapel, a safe harbor for weary spirits and a place to give thanks for blessings.

Its pastors claim that this masterpiece of stone, stained glass, and pine wood is nonsectarian, belonging to no religion, which makes it at the same time belong to every religion. It is built in the shape of a cross, with clay-red roof tiles contrasting with the white stone exterior. When its thick wooden doors close behind you and your eyes adjust to the light, you are transformed. The flags of fifty states hang from the walls and the light dances with purples, greens, and blues from sun filtering through the windows. It looks perfectly medieval, with its floor of wide flagstones that seem freshly hewn from a mountainside. Iron chandeliers hang from a ceiling of exposed beams and light the path to the altar flanked by choir lofts. I went there often to pray.

My sophomore year I had particular reason to visit the chapel and give thanks. Some friends and I were driving to the Citadel beach house on the Isle of Palms for a party. We shifted lanes and accidently cut off a car filled with other college-aged boys. They honked the horn, cursed us, and shook their fists. We weren’t looking for a fight, so we let them pass. It wasn’t a good-enough gesture. They pulled in front of us, slammed on brakes, and forced us from the road. My classmate, Jimmy Bowen, was driving our car and he gunned it, driving around them in the grass. They hit the gas and followed. Jimmy drove into the beach house parking lot slinging gravel and dust. The boys followed us and jumped out with a tire iron, clenched fists, and obscenities.

Now, there is a fair amount of rivalry between the companies at the Citadel, and band guys took a lot of flack. We carried musical instruments, not rifles. Because we had all been musicians rather than athletes in high school, we tended to place toward the bottom in intramural sports. At that beach house, I didn’t expect what happened next.

Somebody saw the commotion and went around to the beachside of the house to raise the alarm. I’m certain less than ten seconds had gone by. I was tensing my body, raising my forearms up to my face getting prepared to get punched.

First I heard them. Then I saw them—three hundred cadets from every class, every battalion, and every company pouring around each side of the beach house like a rainstorm in full fury. Fellow cadets were in danger and they weren’t going to have it. I’ve never seen such a beautiful sight or heard such a wonderful roar. I’ve also never seen eyes so wide and full of fear as those of the boys who ran back to their car and barely escaped the wrath of the South Carolina Corps of Cadets.

It was at that particular moment, that one second in time that I realized I was as much a part of the Citadel as she was a part of me. When I returned to campus, I went straight to its heart, Summerall Chapel, and gave thanks with a bowed head.

The chapel has etched itself into my character, so much so that often I dream I have returned to the Citadel. Just opposite Summerall Chapel, across the parade ground, sits the iconic 2nd battalion tower of Padgett Thomas barracks, where I lived as a cadet. When you step outside onto Summerall’s stone steps, the tower, flying a huge American flag, overtakes your view. This is where my dream begins every time I have it, because each time I left the chapel’s magnificent refuge, I emerged prepared, confident, and recharged—ready to take on the seas of troubles life sent my way. It’s merely a dream, some would say. I’m quite convinced, though, that it’s the Citadel’s way of reassuring me, of saying, “You’re one of mine, and you can conquer your challenge.”

By entering the Citadel, you swear off everything that’s status quo at a “normal college.” It is a sacred place sanctified by sweat and tears and history. Ghosts of thousands of my footsteps litter the parade ground in front of the chapel. More times than I can remember, I’ve done pushups, squat thrusts, and have run, forever running, on that piece of lawn. I have watered its blades of grass with my own sweat and tears. And I have stood at attention watching history as a member of the band that played dirges at the burial of one of World War II’s greatest generals, Lt. General Mark W. Clark, Allied Commander in Italy and later, president of the college.

The Citadel—in its barracks, on its parade field, and in its classrooms—taught me the great philosophies of life. Some consider the military college that sits on thirteen acres on the Ashley River in Charleston to be the greatest institution of higher education on earth. In truth, the vast majority of those who believe that are her graduates.

Stalwart universities—Harvard, Princeton, Yale—most certainly offer status. The Citadel offers character. And it offers a world rarely seen any more, an atmosphere of noblesse oblige in which one’s honor is the “immediate jewel” of one’s soul.

I go there now and listen to the echoes of my past, the cadence called by our commanders, the cannon as they fired at Friday afternoon parades. I drink in the smell of the freshly mown grass on the parade ground crisp with the scent of wild onion. I even breathe in the musky scent of the pluff mud off the marsh and smile. It is here, in this place, that God answered Jim Heritage’s Prayer of the Citadel: God gave the Citadel a boy, and he returned to the world a Citadel man.

Excerpted with publisher permission from State of the Heart: South Carolina Writers on the Places They Love, edited by Aïda Rogers and published by the University of South Carolina Press. © 2013 University of South Carolina.