BRIAN LAMB, HOST: David Lipsky, whose idea was it for the title "Absolutely American"?
DAVID LIPSKY, AUTHOR, "ABSOLUTELY AMERICAN:" FOUR YEARS AT WEST POINT: Well, it was Theodore Roosevelt`s idea. He came to address the West Point centennial in 1902, and he congratulated the cadets on having what he thought was the most absolutely American institution. And the reason for that was that he said that here was the one place in America where people cared nothing for a cadet`s background, for their racial background, for their religious affiliation, and where kind of effort would be rewarded equally. And to him, that`s what made a place American, and that`s still how West Point is now. So when I read that quote in one of the old histories of the academy, I thought, That`s what I`ve got to call the book.
LAMB: Where is West Point?
LIPSKY: West Point is about 50 miles north of New York City. It`s right on the banks of the Hudson, very beautiful. George Washington had one of his first posts there, and it`s actually the oldest and longest-maintained military post in America. Washington called it the key to the country.
LAMB: You say in your book that you`ve been to 35 campuses. First, why have you been to 35 campuses? And how would you compare the West Point campus?
LIPSKY: Well, you know, I actually like campuses because there`s this thing of people becoming, do you know what I mean? You know, when you`re a -- when you`re out in the real world or in the finished (ph) world, people are basically sort of there. And so the kind of narrative of excitement is all what they`re doing or how they`re adjusting to what happened to them. Whereas when you`re at a campus, what you`re seeing is people kind of seeing what`s going to happen and kind of pushing in different directions.
So that was one reason why I liked reporting on campuses, but I was reporting on them for "Rolling Stone" magazine, where I`m a contributing editor. And I -- there`s a funny story about how I began, but -- but after four or five years that I`d been there, when West Point came to "Rolling Stone" and said, We`d like you to do an article about West Point, Jan Wenner, who`s our owner, turned to me and said, OK, Dave. You know you`re drafted for this one.
LAMB: How did you first get -- what was the first time you ever went to West Point?
LIPSKY: Well, it was not fun (ph). It`s funny. The reason they came to -- the reason they came to "Rolling Stone" was that, you know, the cold war, you know, for about 50 years, we were fighting or getting ready to fight one enemy. And then that ended kind of beautifully. And there was this fear , this kind of wondering began wondering, What do we need this big a military for? And that was kind of 10 years after that, by 1998, which is when I first went up. And people I think -- the Army was afraid people were thinking, Do we have a military? I mean, and, What does the military do?
And what made that really crystal (ph) to the guys who run West Point, the two generals, is they were driving to a conference, and they stopped at, like, one of those roadside Denny`s, and they were all in their full -- what`s called a Class B uniform, the kind of main green uniform with ties and with what`s called "fruit salad," all the medals and stuff like that. And they sat down, and the hostess there gave them a really huge grin and said, Listen, I want to thank all of you for the great work you do on behalf of the Parks Department. And so they said -- their feeling was that they`d just gotten kind of too separated from the civilian culture, and they came to us and said, Look, please send a reporter up there to remind Americans that there`s a place called West Point, where cadets are doing kind of cool and extraordinary things.
LAMB: What`s the difference between your book and Rick Atkinson`s (ph) book, "The Long Gray Line"?
LIPSKY: Well, there`s a lot of similarities. And actually, I picked -- I picked the publisher that I worked with. One of the reasons I picked them was that they had done "Long Gray Line," which was a book that I really, really admired. He really caught the spirit of the `60s at West Point.
One difference is that in Mr. Atkinson`s book, he gets a chance to follow the cadets through their military careers, whereas my book ends with the cadets on the verge. But in a sense -- in a sense, you could have called this book "Long Gray Line II."
LAMB: So what kind of access did they give you?
LIPSKY: Well, it was the first time -- that`s a great question. It was the first time in West Point`s history when they said, You can do whatever you want. You can -- you can go anywhere. You can talk to anybody. You can go to any training. You can go to any class. And the training was great fun. The -- when you go around West Point, there are these kind of rope signs, those kind of chain signs with little -- little placards hanging. And they said, No unauthorized personnel beyond this point. And of course, beyond that point is where everything that`s really about training cadets at West Point takes place. And right after I got that kind of access, I could just cross those things all the time. You know, civilians are only allowed in barracks, what they call dorms at West Point, one day a year. But you know, I was -- you know, that`s where I was. I was in the barracks with those guys.
LAMB: Now, there`s a lot of dialogue in here. All -- did it all have to be agreed to by the cadets?
LIPSKY: No. No, the -- the -- after they agreed to give me that access, you know, the idea was that everyone -- I mean, it`s a very small place. The cadets call it the "Fishbowl" because you see everybody -- you know, everyone is seeing everybody in the same classes every day. So everyone knew who I was. They knew who I was. And I always had this little tape recorder on me, so they knew that if I was walking and talking to them, it was going to be siphoned down a chute, right onto -- right onto the page.
LAMB: How did you dress?
LIPSKY: Great question! When I first went up there -- I grew up in New York City. And I dressed the way I would dress to hang out with friends of mine in the city, and that did not go over at all because I think a lot of -- I dressed like a member -- like a journalist, you know, which is either kind of messy chic or it`s really messy chic, but it`s kind of sloppy and it looks kind of urban. And that -- that isn`t how the cadets see themself, and so they wouldn`t talk to me. So I was actually careful during the first few months that I was there to see kind of how they were wearing because even -- even your civilian clothes become a kind of uniform up there. So I began wearing just jeans and kind of Abercrombie and Fitch-type shirts.
LAMB: Where did you live?
LIPSKY: I took a house about three blocks from the main gate, and that`s where I was for four years.
LAMB: Literally living there.
LIPSKY: Yes. Yes. I mean, I would go home a couple weekends every couple months.
LAMB: Whitey Herzog (ph). Somebody my age remembers that name.
LIPSKY: Me, too.
LAMB: Why do you start off a chapter with his name?
LIPSKY: Well, because, for me, Whitey in the book really kind of crystallizes one of the things about West Point, kind of how West Point is facing being part of the modern world, because Whitey is someone -- and again, the reason why Whitey Herzog is called Whitey Herzog is that during your first year at West Point, you don`t have a first name. You`re not allowed to use your first name. So everyone gets a nickname. So if your last name is Ignacio, you`re name is going to be Iggy. If you grew up riding motorcycles, your name`s going to become Harley. If you`re a Southerner whose last name is Finn from Baton Rouge, you`re going to become Huck. And Whitey Herzog was still, you know, a well-known sports figure, so they gave Don Herzog the name Whitey.
But Whitey always wanted to be in the military because he wanted to do service to the country. He also grew up around kids who were kind of Dead-heads, like, Allman Brothers fans, just kind of music-heads, concert-heads. And the reason he wanted to be in the military was that he wanted to protect the right of his friends to be so unmilitary. I thought that was great, and I wanted to write about someone like that.
LAMB: You`ve got a picture of him in here from Kosovo.
LIPSKY: That`s right.
LAMB: How did that work out?
LIPSKY: I think it really -- when a -- at the time that Whitey goes to Kosovo, I think he`d been a graduate, at that point, for about two-and-a-half years. And I think he was facing some of the sacrifices you make not just to be a cadet but to be an officer. And I think that going and deploying to Kosovo and seeing what the Army does really kind of reconfirmed him in staying in the military.
LAMB: Now, the classes you -- did you follow just one class or classes?
LIPSKY: I followed one -- I followed the class of 2002 from when they arrived to when they graduated last June. But there`s a lot -- there`s a lot of inter-class contact, and Whitey had been -- you know, Whitey was a "firstie," what they call a senior there, during my first year up there. And so I also wanted to show readers -- I wanted to give readers the experience of what it feels like to graduate and then to go out into those first couple of years. I guess I was trying to get some of that Atkinson stuff in the book, as well.
LAMB: You used numbers. You say that it all started with 50,000 kids, down to 1,200.
LIPSKY: That`s right.
LAMB: Explain the -- how that works. Where do -- who are the 50,000?
LIPSKY: Well, it`s a great war of attrition, right? It`s -- 50,000 high school juniors will send what`s called their request for information to the West Point admissions office. And then of those -- of those 50,000, let`s say about between 12,000 and 14,000 will actually complete the application. Then from that group, 4,000 will qualify for what are called senatorial or congressional nominations. And that means they have to go to the congressman`s office, both senators` office, and make the case for why they deserve to get this honor of going to West Point.
And one thing that makes West Point so incredibly American is that this same distribution of -- that you have of House seats, congressional seats, you get for how many -- how many people each state can send to West Point. And they come from the districts. You`re competing -- when you`re competing for those 4,000 nominations, if you`re, like, the No. 1 guy at Churchill High School in Maryland, you`re competing with the No. 1 guy from Gaithersburg High School, et cetera, et cetera.
So then from that group, about 2,000 are given physical fitness tests, where they see if they can -- you know, how far they can jump, how quickly they can run, how many kind of pull-ups they can do. And this is -- only the military academies test this -- how far they can through a basketball from a kneeling position.
From that group, you get the last 1,200. So it`s an amazing kind of war of attrition to get into West Point.
LAMB: And of the 1,200 in each class, how many make it?
LIPSKY: About 1,000, 950 will make it all the way through and become 2nd lieutenants in the U.S. Army.
LAMB: What`s it cost a cadet?
LIPSKY: It costs -- there are -- the basic thing they`ll say at West Point because I think the number`s gotten a little higher, but it costs about a quarter million to train each cadet. And some of the cadets who become more cynical, what they`ll say is that it`s a quarter-million-dollar education that`s kind of shoved up your butt a nickel at a time.
LAMB: So are they paid while they`re there?
LIPSKY: Yes, they`re paid about $600 a month.
LIPSKY: Well, because they`re in the military. I mean, when you -- you know, when you go to college, you`re a freshman, and it`s the first time that you are not in some organization, in a sense you and your family, and you`re going to have a job afterwards. But kind of you`re free for those four years. Whereas when you go to West Point, you have joined the military, and so you get pay as a member of the military.
LAMB: You have a picture in here -- let`s see if I can find it -- of a couple of cadets. And the reason I want to show it is because I want to ask what it -- if this -- if an old-timer came back and hadn`t paid any attention, and all of a sudden found out that these two were not only cadets but are boyfriend and girlfriend, what would their reaction be?
LIPSKY: Their reaction would be that the Army is the place they thought it was. And that was one of the reasons why I stayed, also, that the -- I didn`t really want to do the story at all. I mean, and the way I tried to get out of it was by saying, you know, when a reporter goes to West Point, generally, you know, they`re chaperoned by a -- one way you know you`re in the military is because everything has different names. It`s like Canada, in a sense. It`s English, but it`s slightly different English. And what public relations get called everywhere else is called public affairs in the Army. And so if you`re a journalist going to West Point, public affairs will kind of chaperone you. They`ll pick the cadets you can talk to, and then they`ll sit in on the interviews to make sure that there are no surprises in the interviews.
And because my family had always kind of not trusted the military -- my father had once told me that I could do any job I could do, but if I ever joined the military, he would hire some guys to come find me and break my legs -- I just didn`t have good feelings about having to spent any time at all at West Point. So I got up there, you know, went through a thing with public affairs. They were chaperoning me. They were picking people.
And so I thought, OK, now how can I get out of doing this story? And I said, Look, you know, I really would love to do a story about West Point, but I have to do it with complete access. I have to be able to go past those chains, and I have to be able to talk to any cadet and go into any barracks. And I was really sure that they would send me home. You know, I could go back to doing colleges and celebrities.
And about a week later, the colonel who runs the -- who has the most direct contact with the cadets called and said, yes, you can have complete access. And they said this thing -- because the officers speak in this way that`s kind of both gallant and kind of super-grammatical. He said, We have nothing of which we should be ashamed. And I thought that was such a great thing to say. And actually, the four years I was there proved that that was a correct assumption on his part.
LAMB: But go back to these two.
LAMB: Ryan Sutherland (ph) and...
LIPSKY: I was taking -- I was taking a long march back...
LAMB: ... and Betty
LIPSKY: Ryan -- one thing that really amazed me about the Army and was kind of one of the ways that my father was wrong is that kind of what he wanted to see in the country was a place where there was no -- there was no gender or -- no gender or racial prejudice, where people were trying really hard all the time and where people were kind of looking out for each other. And one of the first things that struck me about West Point was how kind of racially cool, for want of -- for want of a better word -- it was. I mean, you had people -- I mean, Betty, for example, was from an inner-city high school in Miami, and she came into West Point through JRTC (ph), which is sort of Junior ROTC. And she`d never dated-- there were no white guys actually in her school. And Ryan was from Norman, Oklahoma, and never even thought about dating a black girl. But the atmosphere at West Point now is kind of so much more progressive than at any college I`ve been to that that kind of thing happens all the time.
LAMB: Now, where are they today, the two of them? Are they still boyfriend-girlfriend?
LIPSKY: Well, no. They broke up because -- a lot of people will marry right in -- sort of right after West Point. They`ll get engaged senior year. But Ryan, I think, wanted -- he knew that he was facing deploying and stuff like that, and he wanted to not be romantically connected to anybody while he was making those decisions.
LAMB: How many women are there in the class?
LIPSKY: Sixteen percent of each class. So you`ve got to figure about 150, 160.
LAMB: Is that on purpose, that figure?
LIPSKY: Yes. The Army likes to have the number of -- of female cadets match the proportion of women in the armed forces.
LAMB: When did women first go there?
LIPSKY: In `76.
LAMB: And how`s it working out?
LIPSKY: Well, it`s actually -- it was nice to see. When I -- the first decade was rocky. A lot of the -- a lot of what West Point celebrates are classic kind of male values. And that`s changed, but if you pick that place because you want to celebrate the kind of -- the kind of way that men can kind of get together and polish things off and – the sort of locker-room looseness that you get when it`s just guys around, you`d be unhappy to see women there. And then the people who -- the people who felt that way most strongly, they would -- they would disguise that feeling sometimes by saying, you know, They can`t do combat roles, and we should be about producing combat officers.
And even when I got there in the late `90s, there were still a number of those cadets around, who wouldn`t talk to the female cadets and certainly wouldn`t date them. And then kind of every year, as they`re bringing in new cadets who came from a much kind of looser civilian world, they were just happier and happier to see girls there. So they began talking to them. You know, by `99, 2000, by 2001, they were happy to date them. By 2002, they were competing very hard to date them.
LAMB: What are the rules?
LIPSKY: Basically rules, no sex in the barracks, you know? No physical contact, really, in barracks because they`re barracks, they`re not dorms. So that -- that can often pose some problems for cadets.
LAMB: But you say that there`s also rules, like you`re not allowed to sit on the same piece of furniture.
LIPSKY: Oh, yes. That -- that`s a euphemism for the fact that you -- because obviously, to have a really successful sexual encounter, you have to be on the same piece of furniture. So the way to prohibit that is just by saying you can`t share, you know … furniture You can’t share a bed. You can`t be sitting on a bed at the same time.
LAMB: Doors closed?
LIPSKY: Doors have to be open a book length, same as in the `50s.
LAMB: How many of them room in the same -- I mean, how many do they room together with?
LIPSKY: You have one roommate. Sometimes, if there`s an odd number of females or an odd number of any kind of group. you`ll get a three-man or three-woman room. But generally, it`s the same as college, two people to a barrack.
LAMB: What`s a "tac(ph)"?
LIPSKY: A tac is a -- is an adult officer who lives with a company. There are 32 companies at West Point, and they`re composed of about 130 cadets each. And they run the companies themselves because West Point is, in a lot of ways, one long dress rehearsal for being an officer in the Army. And the tacs are the kind of to model -- the tacs are adult captains or majors who are there to model how to be a commander.
LAMB: What`s it stand for?
LIPSKY: It stands for Tactical (ph) Officer. Excellent question.
LAMB: And you profile at least three over the period of time that they`re there.
LAMB: Is it -- is it -- is each -- like, you -- your company is G-4.
LIPSKY: That`s right.
LAMB: What does that mean?
LIPSKY: That stands for Company G, Company Gulf (ph), 4th Regiment. There are four regiments at West Point. Each one has eight companies. So when you say G-4, you`re saying Company G, 4th Regiment. They all get mascots, kind of a company name, and G-4 got a really military name. They`re called the Guppies. And they`re sometimes called the "Fighting Guppies."
LAMB: And who`s Jim -- Jim DeMoss (ph)?
LIPSKY: Jim DeMoss was the tac during my first year there. He was -- he was in the infantry. In the Army, infantry -- you know, you wear -- you`ll see, if you`re -- if you`re in the Army, you`ll notice it, of course, but when you`re watching movies or TV shows about the military, people always wear a little insignia here, and it tells you what branch they`re from. It`s sort of like everyone sort of wears their resume in the Army right here. Infantry has two crossed rifles, which, because the work is very hazardous, the cadets call "idiot sticks." And Jim DeMoss was, like, a classic infantry idiot sticks guy. He was a great, really admirable and respectworthy officer.
LAMB: And who is this fellow?
LIPSKY: That`s a captain, and then becoming a major in that photograph. That`s Major John Vermeesh (ph). He was another infantry guy, also called "Mud Crawlers." And he -- he`s the person I spent the most time with, the tac I spent the most time with, and did a -- really an extraordinary job with the kids in G-4.
LAMB: What`s he like?
LIPSKY: He`s tough. And one of the great moments in the book -- the book is stories. I mean, the book -- you know, I had read a lot of histories -- aside from -- one reason I loved Rick Atkinson`s book was that it was a story. I mean, you learned about West Point, but it was -- it was a way of giving you the cadet experience, as well. And I thought the best way to give people a chance to know what the cadets were doing was to show stories.
And two of the stories I tell about G-4 really involve Vermeesh quite closely. And there`s one cadet, a cadet named George Rash (ph), who nobody thought could ever get through West Point. And the tacs -- that`s George with his tuba. The tacs were always trying to get George to quit.
And if you -- West Point`s a kind of a sudden-death, high-stakes place. And if you go through your first two years and you either get kicked out or withdraw before junior year, what`s called "cow (ph) year" there, starts, you can just walk away clean, don`t pay any money, don`t owe any time to the Army as a soldier. If you go to your -- if you go to your first class first day of junior year and get kicked out or decide to leave any time afterwards, you have to pay back the Army for all the money they`ve put in and go serve in the Army -- and/or.
But at the end of his third year, Major Vermeesh and the sergeant he worked with went to George and said, George, it really hasn`t worked out so well here, has it. And you know, it -- you might want to think about leaving. And in fact, even though, as they -- as a junior now, at the end of your junior year, you`d have to pay back about $175,000 to leave, we`re going to make a special exception, unconditional withdrawal, don`t pay us any money, don`t go serve in the Army, no-fault divorce, we all walk away and agree it was a mistake.
And the reason he was saying that was that George was having a very hard time passing the Army physical fitness tests, and he was about to pass -- and he was about to either fail or pass another, which if he failed, he would have to pay all that stuff back to the Army. And they said, George, please think this over because if you fail two days from now, you`re going to be in real trouble. So why not just leave? Leave clean. And George said no because he was -- he had learned about the West Point code, which is dead or bleeding, you don`t quit.
And then he went to take the test, and Vermeesh came down and was watching him, and Vermeesh pulled him aside before the test began and said, Here`s how you pass this thing. And that was an amazing thing to me. So I love writing about Major Vermeesh.
LAMB: You say that there are three drugs at West Point: porn, sleep and nicotine.
LIPSKY: That`s right.
LAMB: And not necessarily in that order. I think you said sleep is first.
LIPSKY: And sleep is the drug of choice, right. Actually, it`s very funny. During -- during -- West Point`s always kind of evolving and shifting. And during my years there, nicotine has actually fallen off that list. It`s been replaced by coffee, and I`d say Gatorade has -- Gatorade No. 4 with a bullet. And...
LAMB: Does Gatorade have a kick to it?
LIPSKY: Well, it kind of perks you up, right? It doesn`t really have a kick, but it kind of makes you feel smooth, gives you a -- it gives you a nice, late-afternoon bump, I guess. I mean, those guys drink it like they have an endorsement deal.
And then porn, which actually was, you know, joked about pretty freely and all that when I first came up -- in 2001, there was a decision made that it was not in great taste to use what were, essentially, Department of Defense computer systems to log onto porn sites, so that became illegal. So if you downloaded porn over the -- the West Point web, you`d get punished by things that are called "hours." So there`s actually much less porn at West Point now.
LAMB: Well, the sleep thing, though. I mean, what -- how much sleep did most cadets get a night?
LIPSKY: Excellent question. Cadets will go about four or five a night. And since most things at West Point are preparation for challenges that you`ll face in the Army, the idea was get these kids used to not having enough sleep. Give them too much work, so they`ll have to even work past official lights-out, make them wake up at 6:00 so that they`ll learn how to make up the regular -- the other sleep hours with their bodies at odd times during the day.
And so you`ll get -- your blanket there is kind of called a "green girl" because that`s who you spend the most time with, if you`re a male cadet. That`s the girl you know best. But you have cadets walking around post kind of bragging about this great nap they`d had, as if they`d met some great girl on post and had a wonderful afternoon.
LAMB: Go back to the commitment.
LAMB: When you sign up, what are you signing up for?
LIPSKY: Well, you`re signing up to get this great quarter-million-dollar deal, which is you`ll get this great education that -- that also -- you know, you`ll get -- you`ll get a ring and a line on your resume that is tremendously effective. But you`re also signing up for five years of active service in the military right afterwards.
LAMB: No -- there`s no ifs, ands or buts. So you need -- you give them five full years.
LIPSKY: No question about it.
LAMB: And what`s the routine? When you -- you know, how much time do you spend during the four years that you`re there on campus at West Point?
LIPSKY: You spend about 47 full months. I mean, you don`t get -- you don`t get summer vacation. You get -- you get a week at Christmas and you get -- you get a week at Easter. But you`re training the whole time.
LAMB: What`s "beast (ph)"?
LIPSKY: Beast is a -- beast is the scary name for cadet basic training, which is, like, if you`ve seen "Full Metal Jacket" or really any war movie, it`s the first seven weeks when you come in as a plebe, and you learn how to be -- the word they use is "soldierizing." You get a lot of cool verbs in the Army. And you`re taken from being a civilian over these seven weeks, and you`re soldierized. So at the end -- and throughout those seven weeks, you`re not even called a cadet, you`re called a "new cadet."
And they have this great ceremony at the last day of beast. The plebe class that`s gone through beast marches over to a field, and the other three classes join. And as they meet, that "new" part falls off "new cadet," and they`re just -- and they`re real cadets in the corps of cadets after that.
LAMB: What happens sometimes during beast? I mean, what are the kind of things that -- you know, every year, X number leave?
LIPSKY: The -- yes, the drop-off -- one of the things that changed a lot about West Point in the `90s was the system at West Point used to be failure-based. And this is -- this is an issue that a lot of the old graduates kind of have questions about, was that the basic thing at West Point was just making it tough. And if you got through it, everyone knew you were tough enough to lead men in combat or in garrison. So the old wash-out rate was about 40 percent. By the `90s, the wash-out rate was about 20 percent, and you`d lose about 10 percent of those during the first couple weeks of beast or throughout the seven weeks of beast.
LAMB: What -- what`s the reason that they leave during beast?
LIPSKY: Well, there`s so many reasons that the tacs -- there`s guys like Major Vermeesh and DeMoss will just say, Life goals not compatible with military. I mean, people miss -- people miss television. They miss going to Burger King. And what they really miss is being a civilian.
I mean, it`s a great honor to get into West Point, and then you show up there to act out this great honor, and the first day -- I mean, a lot of the -- a lot of the real soldiering happens just in that first day, which is called "R day," when you give up your civilian life kind of in stages. I mean, you say good-bye to your parents quite publicly, they say. You know, you`re there listening to a speech, and suddenly, the officers say, You have 90 seconds to prepare your final good-byes. You march down with your bag. Then you give -- you give over all your old clothes. You give over any money you brought.
Then you go -- then you change out of those clothes, and then you -- and then you kind of -- you actually have to show your -- I followed the guys---I didn`t follow the girls` R day, but the guys actually have to present their skin, if they have tattoos, to get every bit of their skin kind of recorded, right, because the Army has -- has your skin, as well. Then you give over your hair. Then you`re dressed suddenly identically, and then you begin marching.
And that`s -- a lot of that soldiering is very bewildering and a shock to people who`ve never lived -- it would have been a great shock to me. I`m not sure I would have made it through that day, either. So you get a lot of drops right in those first couple weeks.
LAMB: How many of the cadets today, versus years ago, have tattoos?
LIPSKY: Goes up every year. You know, I think that you probably would have had -- when guys -- you know, there were some people who came back, soldiers who had done really well -- you call an enlisted soldier a "Joe" in the Army because of World War II. Joes who came back from World War II and were given spots at West Point, obviously, would have had tattoos of their -- of their divisions and companies. That kind of fell out of fashion for a while. And then I`ve noticed a kind of -- every year, you have more guys with tattoos. But you cannot, while you`re at West Point, get a new tattoo. All you can do is kind of keep looking at the old ones.
LAMB: Is there still hazing?
LIPSKY: No, actually. I mean...
LAMB: When was there hazing?
LIPSKY: There was hazing for about 150 years. And there were some good and some bad reasons for it. But the time that I went to West Point, another reason why I stayed, was that West Point made a decision in the mid-`90s to kind of rejoin the rest of the modern world all at once. And one of the old ideas they`d had at West Point was the best way to train people to be leaders and to be ready to make certain kinds of sacrifices and to be what some West Point writers (ph) call a kind of superior being is by separating them from the -- the civilian culture.
And there was a decision made in the middle `90s that maybe that wasn`t producing officers who could actually make contact with the Joes who were coming right from civilian culture. And so they tried to make things at West Point less different. And one of the things they began taking out was hazing. And there`d always been kind of a loose no-hazing rule on -- on post, but General Abizaid, who`s now taking over General Tommy Franks`s job as head of CENTCOM -- he arrived in, I think, `97 and began to enforce the no-hazing policy. And now you can`t haze.
LAMB: What was your day like every day? I mean, you lived in the village there.
LIPSKY: Yes. Yes, yes. My day was like a cadet variety show every day, and it was great.
LAMB: Did you walk over to campus?
LIPSKY: No, I biked, actually, because, you know, the Army prizes efficiency, and I started out by driving, but it would take too long to get in my car, start it up, drive and park. So I found the quickest was, actually, was just hop on my bike and go over.
LAMB: How big is the town, by the way, Highland Park?
LIPSKY: The two is -- however big it is, it`s kind of too big for -- it`s not a -- it`s actually not a great town. It`s probably about 10,000 people. It`s small enough so that everyone has the same phone exchange. It`s all 446 there, so...
LAMB: ... right there at the gate.
LIPSKY: Yes, it`s literally right there. It looks like an old `50s football town. It`s the kind of place that people actually tend to leave to go into the Army, so I think it gives people sort of nice stage set for that -- for that reason.
I`d get up about 5:00 or 6:00, hop on my bike, shoot over to West Point, get off my bike, cough, think about how nice it would be to have a cigarette, but of course, you can`t really smoke there, and then just, you know, go to morning formation. And then I had a list of people who were doing things that I thought would be good for the reader to read about and just followed them during the day.
LAMB: Did you go in the classes?
LIPSKY: Some classes I went to. Yes, I went -- I mean, I -- I could go to classes. I went to classes that were interesting. But I -- I went to four years of college classes myself and, you know, was not so eager to repeat the experience. I went to -- I went to military classes.
LAMB: But four years. Did you ever get tired of this?
LIPSKY: There`s a cycle that they say people go through, cadets go through at West Point, that your first year`s your enthusiasm year because you`re just so thrilled that you`re -- that you got there and you`re kind of hoping they`ll let you stay. Then your second year of -- you know, because you -- when you`re a plebe, you keep thinking, Next year`s going to be great. I won`t be a plebe anymore. I won`t be at the bottom. And so your second -- you keep thinking second year`s going to be incredible. And then second year is the same, except there`s no -- you know, there`s some other class below you. And so that`s your bitterness year, when you realize that.
And then your third year, you`re either becoming cynical, which is a term of art there, or you become "hoo-ah (ph)," which is a military term that means …it`s too hard to explain in the context of this answer, but it just means that you love the military. And then your last year, basically, all you`re hoping is they`ll let you leave.
And the people I got to know kept joking, Dave, you`re going through the cycle. So yes, there were times when I was, like, you know, I`m -- I`m here with these guys and, you know, I`m stuck.
LAMB: How many hours of tape do you have?
LIPSKY: Four hundred tapes, maybe a little bit more than four hundred, ninety minutes each, so about six hundred, six hundred and fifty, seven hundred hours of tape.
LAMB: And as you went through the four years, did you write at -- you know, like, you`ve broken this down in four year sections. Did you do -- did you write as you went?
LIPSKY: I took very careful notes when I went, but we were -- when I was doing that, I was keeping lists of cadets that were telling stories that were going to work as stories, but also weren`t duplicate of other cadets. And so finally -- when it was finally done, I could look at that list and say, OK, here`s a story that I have to tell. Here`s a story that will be told by parts of the other -- per George`s story or Huck`s story. And so it seemed like it would be not useful to begin writing while I was there. So, while there were some scenes, I wrote the stuff about 9/11 while I was there, because I wanted to get that really fresh.
No, I -- I was going to say, we graduated -- the class graduated on 2002, June 1, and June 2 I sat down and began writing.
LANB: And how long did it take you to write it?
LIPSKY: It took me about right until the end of April. You know, it was just one long day. I`m sure that you have worked on projects where it became consuming and I didn`t want to get anything wrong. I wanted to do justice to the cadets, because I knew they were doing justice to me and my neighbors.
LAMB: Where did you write it?
LIPSKY: I wrote it -- I wrote for the summer, because there were some things that I kind of wanted to keep an eye on, so the first summer, I stayed up at West Point until about September. And I came back and just holed up in the workroom of my apartment and didn`t come out until I think April 27.
LAMB: Now, have you gotten reaction from the people you have written about?
LIPSKY: Yes. Yes, the e-mails have begun. The book will be officially published on July 4, and I don`t know when it`s going to air, but today I think is July 2.
LAMB: This won`t air for four or five weeks.
LIPSKY: OK. But somehow the cadets found ways of getting kind of bootleg copies, gullies, and so I started getting e-mails from people. But you know, the -- one of the things that`s great about the Army is that you kind of are enrolled into a secret housing society. And so cadets who were floating -- people who graduated who were floating back and forth up and down the East Coast would just crash at my apartment, you know, throughout the fall and winter. And they knew me as someone who was clean-cut, because I was on post and they had not seen me as a working writer.
And so, you know, I wouldn`t have shaved for a couple of days. And I remember one time the guys -- two of the guys, Ryan and his friend, Carter Smith (ph), came back from Ranger school, and they just pulled up their digital cameras and they said, I cannot believe you look like this. And they said, don`t shave it, you know, don`t cut your hair, don`t shave it. This is incredible. I have heard from those guys, and they were thrilled. They said that -- they said that I got it right. And with people in the Army, you know, the less they say, the kind the more they like it.
LAMB: Have you talked to George Rash (ph)?
LIPSKY: George is in Korea, so he`s hard to reach. I talked to his parents and told them when the book was coming out. But I know I have not spoken to George.
LAMB: Here is another picture of him, his athletic prowess was all part of this whole thing, and explain that again.
LIPSKY: Well, George...
LAMB: He`s the fellow on the left.
LIPSKY: Every year prompted this one cadet who people think -- just everyone looks at him and says, he is not going to make it. And George was the person who was picked. I mean, a lot of people leave obviously, but he was pegged for that from his first year. And he`s a very smart kid. He was from Centerville, Georgia and he has a slightly negative streak. So when he said where he was from, he said, Centerville, Georgia, quote, "it`s not even on the map." He had a terrible team at Beast (ph), which is that first seven week period. And so most people, the first years, they were just waiting for George to get kicked out, because every term you have to pass what`s called the APFT, the Army physical fitness test, and George just had tremendous trouble with his feet and with his legs, and was just not -- not a great runner. You have to run that event in 15:54, which isn`t that fast, although it is...
LAMB: How many miles are there?
LIPSKY: Two miles. And George would get a 16.8, or 16:30, or 16:40. So by the second term I was there, he had gotten about a 17:01 on the test that he failed, so everyone was sure he wasn`t going to make it, and he was going to be out in the few weeks. And so, the other plebes start shying away from him, and a lot of people teased him, and as they walked by him, they would say, Rash (ph), Rash (ph) -- just his name -- his last name would become a way of insulting him.
And my heart went out to him, because I saw that he wasn`t folding. And I thought that I would have folded going through a year like that. And he passed that test and he stayed on. And then every year, I mean, he had about as challenging, that`s the word that you say for difficult in the Army and in the West Point. He had about as challenging a four-year experience as you could have. And one -- one thing that really kept me going at West Point or that made me want to come back after the first year I was there was I wanted to see what would happen to George. I wanted to see if he could make it out. I mean, he kept failing road marches. You know, when he -- when he was training cadets at Beast (ph), the juniors come back and train the cadets at Beast (ph), he would -- they would complete the road marches and he would fail out.
LAMB: What`s a road march?
LIPSKY: Road march is in a sense when they get the civilians in, they want to teach them how to be hard. And so, they take them on these marches that are kind of escalating in length, they take them on a three-mile march and then a few days later they take them on a six-mile march. That`s like what you see in the movies, in "Saving Private Ryan."
LAMB: Did you go?
LIPSKY: Yeah, they were great. It was one of the things I loved. To my surprise, one of the things I loved the most about being at West Point.
So you do a three-mile, five-mile, then an eight-mile, 10-mile, 120mile and 15-mile. And George as a plebe couldn`t finish those, and then he came back as a cow (ph), which is the word for junior, and was training his own plebes. They were finishing the marches and George started falling out.
And then -- because of a problem with someone else`s feet, he got brought up on honor charges, when everyone was really sure he`d be gone, and then he beat that, too. He beat it by being, even though he found out just how much people at the academy hated him when he saw the testimony at the honor hearing, he faced up to that and got through that, and he got through everything. It became clear to me by that third year that even though George couldn`t finish a literal road march, or he could finish some, but he couldn`t finish a long one. He was going on the longest road march at West Point of anybody in his class. West Point had become one long road march for him. And by the end when everyone saw that he had survived, he has become a kind of a legend to the other cadets, because he was the person that could survive anything, which is what a soldier has to be too.
LAMB: You said he was brought up on an honors charge. First of all, what`s the honor code?
LIPSKY: Honor code is very simple, and it`s -- it`s kind of a model. Again, that Army simplicity. A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal or tolerate those who do.
LAMB: The tolerate those who do came in 1970s?
LIPSKY: Yeah. It came in the 1970`s, because they wanted to -- there was a slight problem with cheating two times in the two decades, time between when the honor code was first formalized and when it was changed. And so that was a way of saying, look, if you know your roommate is copying a homework assignment or copying a test, you know, it`s up to you to turn them in.
LAMB: Give that honor code again.
LIPSKY: A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal or tolerate those who do.
LAMB: How often is it used to bring a cadet up in front of a group?
LIPSKY: They had about 100 cases a year.
LAMB: Almost always?
LIPSKY: Yeah, generally it`s a good -- that`s a good, solid average.
LAMB: How was it worked and if you -- what was George Rash`s (ph) charge?
LIPSKY: Well, George -- well, the way it works is that you get -- it`s like "Law and Order," but it`s people in cadet uniforms. Investigators come and take statements, and then you move towards a trial. George had -- one of George`s responsibilities when he was leading Beast (ph) was that he was supposed to check the plebes, the new cadets` feet, because there`s a great word in the Army, ate-up. It`s A-T-E up. It`s short for ate up like a soup sandwich, because a soup sandwich -- it is a terribly -- you can`t make that sandwich and it would be very difficult to eat.
And cadets are seen -- new cadets, plebes are seen as so ate-up they have to even have -- you have to check their feet to make sure their boots fit, because if you don`t, they will get hobble blisters from the road marches, which then become trench foot. One of George`s plebes -- his boots didn`t fit, and he developed trench foot. And they said to George, you know, when did you last check feet? And he said, I checked them Friday. It was a Saturday when he saw, you know, that he developed the trench foot, and then George said, oh, no, it was Thursday. And they brought him up for honor on that.
LAMB: What happened?
LIPSKY: Well, he -- you know, they again -- people thought that he should resign before the hearing. And when you are doing honor code, when you do an honor hearing, two investigators will come and take your statement and then they will go talk to other people who witnessed, they`ll take their statements, they`ll come back and get more information from you. You`ll get a preliminary hearing. It`s just like being on trial in the civilian world, except what`s on trial is your character.
And then you talk to a Jaguar (ph), if you want, but you can`t bring a lawyer into the courtroom, you have to be your own lawyer. So every cadet ends up being the attorney who has a fool for a client. But the idea is there is no one who knows your character better than you, so you should be defending your honor.
And George mounted a great defense and actually proved that -- that although he -- it was a legitimate mistake that he had made about what day he had checked it, he had been checking feet pretty regularly, and even the kid who had the trench foot said, yeah, George was great about checking the feet, and they let him stay on.
LAMB: In the preface of your book, you name a bunch of people, including a woman who was involved in this particular case, Mrs. Como (ph).
LAMB: Who is not really a person. I mean, that`s not the real name?
LIPSKY: No, she has a name that I didn`t -- I thought that it wasn`t fair to give the names of the people involved in the hearing, because I certainly -- the real woman who is Mrs. Como (ph), many people in the hearing felt had been unfair to George. And in fact, one of the things that helped George to beat that rap was that she began saying, everyone knew who George was by the third year, but when Mrs. Como (ph) gave her evidence at the hearing, she said George Rash (ph) is an aloof, distant, remorseless task master who scares people and he marched his plebe to exhaustion. And if...
LAMB: How did she get involved in the first place?
LIPSKY: She was a Red Cross worker. And she was at the table when Cadet Calabanos (ph), as he`s called in the book -- every other name is real, except for the names of the people in that honor hearing.
LAMB: And then Calabanos (ph) is not a real name?
LIPSKY: No. Again, the people involved in the honor hearing, I thought it was fair to hide their identities. But when Cadet Calabanos (ph) brought his feet over for a trench foot diagnosis, she was there when people asked George, hey, what day did you check feet last, and when he said Friday instead of Thursday. When she said that George was a remorseless task master, everyone realized, hey, George Rash (ph) has never scared anybody, and this may be kind of a frame-up.
LAMB: Other names that are not the real names are James Edgar (ph). Who was he, and why didn`t you want to -- why didn`t he want to give his real name?
LIPSKY: Well, it was kind of fun to pick that name, because I picked for his name the names of two famous ex-cadets who hadn`t graduated, James McNeill Whistler, and Edgar Allen Poe, although actually the cadet who is James Edgar (ph) graduated.
We were talking earlier about the no sex in the barracks policy. Another great concept that made me love West Point and see the ways that it runs better than the civilian world is this concept called living standard. And the idea is that if you are going to be telling (ph) people, that they should keep their rooms clean or that if they have girlfriends they shouldn`t be having sex on post. The only way to do that effectively is not just by saying it, but by living by the standards yourself.
Jim Edgar (ph) was company commander of G-4, for the second term of sophomore year. That would be `98 to `99, `99 to 2000. And he was having a relationship with the other changed name. The last one...
LAMB: Lauren Winner (ph)?
LIPSKY: No, that`s Virginia Whistler.
LAMB: Virginia Whistler, yes. Before you go any farther, why did you name her Virginia Whistler?
LIPSKY: Well, because Virginia was a ground post cousin, and that`s the woman that he married, and then Whistler was getting Whistler`s name back in, so you`ve got like the whole James McNeill Whistler name in the book.
But he was having -- when he became company commander, which puts you in charge of the other 124 cadets in your company, he had to live to standard or he couldn`t be an effective leader. And everyone knew that he was spending a lot of time in barracks with the door not one book length open but actually quite closed, and with pretty clear evidence that they were maybe sharing any number of pieces of furniture, and Major Vermish (ph), at that time Captain Vermish (ph), asked James Edgar (ph) to stop doing it. And he couldn`t stop. I mean, his roommate kept saying, look, I was going to -- I`m just going to glue his butt to his chair, because something is not working right in his head about this. He has never been in love before and he can`t control himself.
And he still couldn`t do it. And so Major Vermish (ph) said, look, you cannot lead these people if you can`t live by the rules, and he removed him as company commander, and actually made one of the people who loved the rules the least in that company company commander for the rest of that year.
LAMB: Who is Scott Melon (ph), again not the real name?
LIPSKY: Last -- that`s the last changed name. Scott Melon (ph) was George`s roommate for George`s senior year and...
LAMB: By the way, where did you get the name?
LIPSKY: That one was -- that was personal. Actually, I picked the names of -- because there weren`t -- there weren`t more fun -- they weren`t more fun or spectacular failouts in my opinion than Whistler and Edgar Poe, so I just took two different friends of mine who had some trouble in college and put the names together.
LAMB: And the story about Scott Melon (ph)?
LIPSKY: Scott was George`s roommate, and when George was -- there`s a great phrase at West Point, which is "cooperate and graduate." Which is that you really can`t get through West Point alone because it`s too hard, so you will have to cooperate with everybody around you, and then you will graduate.
And Scott was kind of a genius, the smartest cadet in G-4. And so he had helped one of the fellow on the cover of the book, Huck Finn (ph), who`s a football player, was as you can maybe see from this photo maybe not much of a student, and Scott had tutored him, cooperate and graduate with him throughout freshman year when they were roommates.
And when George was brought up on honors, Scott had a very novel idea for how George could cooperate with Scott. He said, look, George, you are not going to get out of honor hearing, why don`t you just withdraw right now and that way I can have a big two-bedroom to myself. And then a year later Scott in fact was kicked out and didn`t -- and didn`t get to graduate, and George was in the room by himself.
Scott, the last TAC (ph) who took over G-4 was in a sense more rule-bound than the first two TAC (ph). That`s captain Rafael Peretis (ph), who is in front of cadets finishing hours in the photo right there.
LAMB: He`s the fellow looking toward the camera?
LIPSKY: Exactly. And a very, very hard-charging, a very, very infantry officer.
LAMB: Regular Army.
LIPSKY: Regular Army. Came in a -- when you come to be a TAC (ph), you have usually served in the Army for about eight, nine years, and then you go back to West Point. Often, the TACs (ph) are graduates, because you want to kind of give your leadership lessons to the cadets.
And so, Captain Peretis (ph) made it kind of his -- he felt -- it`s hard to explain, but the quickest way to explain it is that during his first term as a TAC (ph), two of the cadets got -- two cadets who I don`t really cover in the book have been revealed as thieves. And they were actually being sent to jail. And a colonel who worked with Captain Peretis (ph) took him aside and said, I know this is a drag for you, I`m sorry this is happening. And Captain Peretis (ph) said, no, I`m happy about it, because I came back to West Point to keep bad people out of the Army.
And so when he looked at George Rash (ph) and Scott Melon (ph), who were roommates, and they were roommates because they both were kind of less than ideal cadets, who other cadets didn`t want to room with. He said, maybe these guys don`t deserve to be in the Army. And he said to both of them, show me that you deserve to be here, because you are going to be out there leading men in what we now know as a wartime situation. You have to prove to me that you deserve to be here. And George once again rose to the occasion, and Scott, Scott, who was a genius kind of, had figured out exactly what the minimum requirement was in every situation and would do just that and meet it. And Captain Peretis (ph) really couldn`t bear to have someone come out of West Point and be a leader having done that. And so he kind of in a sense kind of pushed Scott, and then Scott flipped, actually.
LAMB: There is a fellow in here that gets a lot of copy in your book. This man right down here. We`ll get a close-up shot of him. Who is he?
LIPSKY: That`s Lieutenant Colonel Hank Curci (ph). He`s -- I have met -- I have interviewed celebrities and people in government, and he`s the most admirable man I have ever met. And just the person whose respect you naturally want to have, which made him a great leader, but I never -- I never met anyone that I admired more than Colonel Curci (ph).
LAMB: What did he do?
LIPSKY: Well, he was the head of military training at -- the picture is him when he`s in Desert Storm. I guess Desert Storm I, since there was a sequel, but he was in the first Iraq Gulf War. He came back, he was a graduate of West Point, class of `77. He came back to West Point to be head of military training, which is just the military side of -- cadets are trained academically, physically and then militarily. And he was an incredibly kind of huah figure, and he also had this natural leadership gift. I mean, he could make -- he`s one of those people, and this is the best kind of leadership in the military, is when you meet him, you want to live up to his best case impression of what you can do. You want to live to his best idea of what you are capable of.
LAMB: Before you go, you have got to tell those who have never heard the word, huah.
LAMB: Huah, excuse me.
LIPSKY: Fun to say, though, isn`t it?
LAMB: How is it spelled?.
LIPSKY: There`s two spellings. I prefer the shorter, simpler one, which is huah. The other spelling is hooah. It`s the word that Al Pacino keeps saying in "Scent of a Woman," where he won the Oscar, so if you want to do a really quick impersonation of Al Pacino, just go huah, and everyone says, that`s Al Pacino.
It`s an all-purpose military word. And it basically means -- you can use it in a number of ways. It`s actually great word. For example, if you said, hey, Dave, there`s a phone call for you, and I wanted to show you that I heard you, I`d say huah. And if you said -- actually, my assistant is bringing the phone to you, and he -- you know, that part of the building just burned down, and so he had to swim across like a destroyed floor and go through some parts that were still smoking and repaired the phone in the last minute, and that`s an incredible exploit, I would go, man, that was huah. So those are the kind of basic -- it just means really committed to the military.
LAMB: You use it to cheer and...
LAMB: I wanted to go to Colonel Curci (ph) in just a second, though, but before we run out of time, I have got to get in your background for folks. Four years of your life spent there in Highland Park in West Point. Where did you come from?
LIPSKY: I grew up in Manhattan. So I grew up about 50 miles from West Point, without ever really knowing I was 50 miles from West Point.
LAMB: How old are you?
LAMB: And where did you go to school?
LIPSKY: I went to Brown University, and then I took my graduate degree at Johns Hopkins.
LAMB: In what?
LIPSKY: In creative writing. In writing.
LAMB: So, is this the chance of a lifetime, writing?
LIPSKY: Well, it was such a great story, right? I mean, I remember that Melville said when he was writing "The Hawthorn," he said that to write a big book you need a big subject. Give me Vesuvius for an inkwell, and a an ostrich or condor plume for a pen. And when I got up there, I saw these all incredible stories and these people who were being challenged and tested and facing real stakes at all times there. I thought it was a great, great story, so yes.
LAMB: What do your parents do?
LIPSKY: My mother is a painter, and my father is an advertiser. So I grew up in Soho, in the artist section of New York City.
LAMB: And are you permanently attached to "Rolling Stone?"
LIPSKY: Yeah. I mean, you know, it`s a very long umbilical cord. I mean, you know, if I were in California, I might look down and see there was still a "Rolling Stone" that stretched all the way back to New York.
LAMB: Back to Colonel Curci (ph). What`s the story of what happened to him and why he left the military?
LIPSKY: Colonel Curci (ph), his father had also been a military officer who had served with great distinction in World War II, in Korea and then in Vietnam, and he taught Hank Curci (ph) the real values of being a soldier and being a leader. And the main value if you really believe in the Army is a leader is responsible for everything, a follower, a subordinate either does or fails to do.
And in the fall of 1999, one of Colonel Curci`s (ph) subordinates made a kind of unfortunate joke, and he made it on a computer.
LAMB: Dan Dent (ph).
LIPSKY: Dan Dent (ph). Captain Dan Dent (ph). And because he wasn`t great with how kind of interconnected everything is digitally at West Point, he allowed his computer to be shared with every computer on the West Point Web, which meant that every cadet saw this kind of tasteless joke. And part of the new face of the academy that West Point has worked to kind of put forward in the last couple of years meant that you couldn`t tell a joke like that anymore. And so it was clear to every cadet by lunch, one or two cadets found this really funny joke, or it was funny to them, and said, I have got to send it to my friends. Those cadets also had friends. So by the end of lunch, everybody had seen this e-mail, and by dinner, everyone at dinner was talking and saying, man, that guy is out of here, because they all knew what the stakes were.
And Colonel Curci (ph) stepped forward and said, you know, it became quite clear that Captain Dent (ph) was going to be relieved from the Army. And he was a young officer. He was married. He had three children. He had a new baby. And Colonel Curci (ph) believed in what leadership is, that you are responsible for what your subordinates do and you take care of them, and so he stepped forward and said, he`s my subordinate, whatever he says is a reflection of me. So I would prefer if you were going to punish someone, I should be the one punished and not Dan Dent (ph).
And so although Colonel Curci (ph) was the most popular figure on the post, when I got to post, the first thing I was told by cadets was, if you talk to one person here, talk to Colonel Curci (ph), because he is what this place is about. There`s no one else you talk to here, no cadet, no officer, just talk to Colonel Curci (ph). Even though he was that person, he resigned. He was relieved of command, relieved of duty and retired from the Army.
LAMB: What year was that?
LIPSKY: That was in the fall of 1999.
LAMB: And what, did he have two sons there at the same time?
LIPSKY: He did.
LAMB: Two sons at the academy?
LIPSKY: Yes, J.D. and Kent. And J.D. is now serving in Iraq, and Kent is beginning his infantry training at Fort Benning.
LAMB: And Colonel Curci (ph) is where now?
LIPSKY: Colonel Curci (ph) was just offered a role actually training the Iraqi army that we`re trying to reinstate, the Iraqi army. But he turned it down, because it`s the last few weeks he`ll get to spend with his son Kent before Kent begins his training in Columbus at Fort Benning, and he wanted to spend that time with him.
LAMB: You -- I don`t know what point in your book, obviously 2001, but you said things changed on September the 11th, 2001. Where were you physically at that -- when the planes hit the towers?
LIPSKY: I was at my computer. And then I went over to West Point.
LAMB: What did you see?
LIPSKY: What I saw was the reverse of what everyone was seeing, I think in their cities or towns, which is that`s the kind of day where you think my job doesn`t matter. What matters are the people I know, my parents, my children, my boyfriend or girlfriend, my husband or wife. What I saw from the cadets was the reverse. They realized it wasn`t their parents that mattered, or their friends or their boyfriends or girlfriends, it was their jobs that mattered, and what they were seeing in those towers coming down, the Pentagon being damaged, was the job they are going to be doing for the next five years.
LAMB: Josh Rizzo (ph)?
LIPSKY: Josh Rizzo (ph) was a kid from Flatbush, Brooklyn. He was a hard partier. He`s a baseball player, but he was basically like just a guy who`s having a great time, you know. And when he saw the landmarks that he watched from across the river from his window go down, it changed everything about the way he saw West Point. And he joined the field artillery.
LAMB: And what did you hear the cadets saying, either on that day or days afterwards about their future?
LIPSKY: Well, they said in the same way, and it was one of the reasons that West Point approached "Rolling Stone" initially. You know, a lot of them when they went to West Point, they were afraid that people from high school would say, you know, you`re going to be a baby killer. That`s the `60s clich . Right? Or why are you in the military? But a lot of their friends were saying, what is West Point? They didn`t know what West Point was, and they didn`t think about the military at all. And he said in his first few weeks, the first time they were getting calls from people he knew in high school, e-mails, people saying thank you for doing this. We now understand why you are there.
And in a sense, I had -- it was one of those weird moments for me as a writer, because my own friends, my journalist friends kept asking me, hey, I know these guys are great, I know you`re seeing people change and become better than they were and that`s terrific. But it`s $250,000 for each cadet. That`s very expensive, and it`s really out of date. We`re never going fight a big war ever again. We`re the only superpower. No one is going to attack us. Why would they? That would be crazy. And don`t those guys know that they`re living in the past.
And I would say to them, you know, they have to be ready, et cetera. And then I went back a few days after the bombings, I went back to New York, and what I saw on the streets were people in New York City, kind of looking at each other, reaching out to each other and trying to take care of each other and talking about the kind of determination and national purpose. And I saw soldiers on the streets. And what was clear to me was that rather than kind of living in the past for four years I`ve been following in West Point, I had been living in the future and that everyone caught up with them.
LAMB: Were you surprised when you wrote this? You said, "like most people of my era, I have little connection with the military. I grew up with the luxury of a volunteer army. Service is something other people did. So I never felt anything like the military brotherhood that took over the Washington Hall 5401 during post-selection. It seemed about as admirable a feeling as a country could produce." And is as admirable a felling that a country could produce.
LIPSKY: Yeah. I mean, I was -- I could have -- you know, when I first went to West Point, I was supposed to be there for two weeks, and I stayed the whole year. And I could have left after that, but that was one of those great surprises. It was a combination of competing, competing hard for yourself, right, and then also rooting for the guy you`re competing against at the same time. The notion that everyone is coming through together. And I had never encountered that anywhere.
LAMB: Has it changed you in any way?
LIPSKY: Well, I find it impossible, as we were talking before, I find it impossible to not say "sir" to people now, or if I`m with an adult in an elevator, I can`t not say "sir," and if I`m outside on a playing field, I can`t not say "buddy." So it`s made me much more polite, and my hair is a lot shorter.
LAMB: What had been your parents` reaction? You said they were `60s radicals?
LIPSKY: Well, my father was particularly anti-military.
LAMB: And what`s his reaction?
LIPSKY: Well, he called me when he read the book and he said that he was wrong. He said that that`s a great place. Which was nice to hear him say.
LAMB: Did you ever get him up there?
LIPSKY: No. He`s in California. But the next time he goes to New York -- you know, I was working, I was there, you know. And so I haven`t seen my father, actually, for about, I guess, `98, right? Because they work in the summers as well, so it was 47 months for them, it was 47 months for me, but when I see him again, when he comes to New York, I`m going to walk him through, which will be a great pleasure.
LAMB: What`s next for you?
LIPSKY: well, I want to do something that`s a total change of pace. So I want to do a four-year book on the Naval Academy. No, I`m teasing.
You know, I don`t know. There are some people who are talking to me about how it would be good if there was a TV series about West Point, because the Navy always has TV shows about flight school, and the Army kind of gets less press than the Navy or the Marines. The Marines get the most press of all the services, and so that`s something I would like to work on. It would be hard not to be involved with the military, because I`ve seen a world I didn`t know existed. And it was very difficult to come back, and it would be very difficult to leave.
LAMB: Anybody irritated about this?
LIPSKY: Yes. Some officers thought there was too much cursing, that there was -- because there`s an image of the cadets, which is a really right-thinking, kind of clean-jawed, you know, wide-shouldered, straight-shooting person who never makes an etiquette mistake and is totally admirable in every way.
And in fact, in this book, you know, kids drink, they curse up a storm. I mean, Huck, who is a great cadet, I just think he can`t go four words without letting some terrible blue, blue sound spill. And that was surprising to some high-ranking military leaders. And there`s some other things in the book that some people would kind of rather not be in there, but the basic thing stays true to what Colonel Domchek (ph) said, which is we have nothing of which to be ashamed. I think that`s the general feeling among people in the Army. They have a lot to be proud of.
LAMB: Our guest has been David Lipsky, and the cover of the book looks like this. The title is "Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point." Thank you very much.
LIPSKY: Thank you very much for having me.
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