Posted by: Dave | January 30, 2008

To Byron


I saw Byron shortly after starting the first semester of my freshman year at the small southern college I was attending. I saw him, but didn’t want to know him, or especially, to be associated with him.

I had always dreamed of becoming an Army officer and had enrolled in ROTC as the first step in that dream.  I saw this as an exclusive and almost elite pursuit, and looked forward to joining a brotherhood of men who were tested and hardened by the rigors of military training, garnering the respect of all who knew us, not only for our patriotism, but also our physical prowess. I knew that not everyone was suited for this challenge, but I was ready.  I had dreamed of joining ROTC and training for military service for many years, and now I had my chance.

 It was our first day in ROTC and my first opportunity to stand in formation.  I had prepared for hours by shining brass and polishing my shoes to a bright, high gloss. I was proud and eager to line up with the others as we donned our uniforms for the first time in great anticipation of the challenges that lay ahead. To my surprise, I noticed a ridiculously out of place figure in same formation as me. He stood less than five feet six inches tall, but his short stature was the kindest of his physical shortcomings. His chest was awkwardly caved in, producing a rounded back and a posture resembling that of an old woman. He had spindly legs and arms that were slightly more bent than necessary, even when supposedly straight. When at the position of attention, he looked stooped and frail, his posture crying out for repair, inviting derision, but not pity.  What was he doing here?

I wanted nothing to do with him. Surely the selective brotherhood I desired could not include him. But there he stood, still and proud as the rest of us. As he marched, his inability to straighten his legs caused him to lift his knees unnaturally, giving the appearance that he was perpetually ascending shallow stairs, and the front of his impeccable uniform waved like a limp curtain over his sunken chest. 

I saw him again a few days later. To my horror, he was in attendance at my first Ranger class. The ROTC Department held optional, highly demanding weekly training sessions for those cadets who aspired to attend the elite Army Ranger School.  The first day of Rangers of any semester always included a large group of tryouts, usually 40 to 50 or so. Therefore, it was necessary to weed out those who didn’t have the desire or the physical ability for the demands of Ranger training. The Ranger Cadre were not about to start the semester easy. After marathon calisthenics, pushups, low crawls, and the horizontal ladder, we went on what must have been a five-mile formation run at a screaming pace. Many tryouts dropped out of the formation, and I saw Byron, in the field behind the ROTC building, humped over with his sunken chest heaving as he panted for more air. He didn’t return the next week or the rest of the semester. I was happy that he didn’t.

To me, and I’m sure to many of the others, we secretly didn’t want him to make it. If Byron made it, the bar was set too low. It would appear that what we were doing wasn’t all that difficult or exclusive. Therefore, he was tolerated at best, but from what I witnessed, never accepted.

Why he chose to pursue a military career will always be a mystery to me.  He had the intellectual talent to be welcomed into any other group: mathematicians, historians, artists, where his physical shortcomings would not be a hindrance. But he chose us, an institution that thrives on testosterone and whose very existence is about one’s dominance over another in conflict. Maybe it was to run from the demons, the taunts of the jocks and the beauties in high school. If we were tough on him in college, high school must have been merciless. But it was ROTC he chose and wouldn’t give up. He was in all the formations, and all the classes, except Rangers. But I have not one memory of Byron in a social setting. Not one. His demeanor, surely developed over a lifetime of taunting, was difficult and bull headed. During conversation, his thick glasses would constantly fall down over the bridge of his nose. He simply wasn’t pleasurable to associate with, and he did nothing to make himself so.

During my sophomore year I received my invitation to try out for National Honor Society of Scabbard and Blade, the ROTC fraternity. I knew the initiation was extremely difficult, but because the proceedings were secret, I knew none of the details.  I followed all of the preparatory instructions. I made my twelve foot long “Saber” out of two-by-fours from the local hardware store, measuring it to the one hundredths of an inch, as instructed. And, wearing the helmet without the helmet liner just to make it “comfortable,” I presented myself as a “neophyte” ready for initiation 1300 hours on a Friday afternoon in November of 1977 on the front lawn of the ROTC Building. I do not remember all who reported, but I do remember that among the neophytes stood, to my great disdain, Byron York. His invitation was most certainly based on academic performance, not stamina nor stature. I knew that before the end of the initiation, at least one of us wasn’t going to make it, and that it wouldn’t be me.

The physical demands began immediately, with orders to do pushups and situps, low crawls and deep knee bends, all while carrying our heavy twelve foot long sabers – never letting them rest on the ground. Like every Scabbard and Blade initiation, we were greeted with rain and cold. The physical torture continued late into the night, and was aided by pejoratives and the most humiliating of insults. In that situation, one’s shortcomings become fodder for the sadistic taunts of the ruling class. Byron’s stature, and his last name, provided limitless ammunition for that purpose, and helped deflect attention away from me.

We were dismissed in the wee hours of Saturday morning, and had to return, if we could stand it, only a few hours later, at 0600 for continued initiation rights. Only three of us returned:  Stan Carpenter, me, and, and to my astonishment, Byron York stood, his frail posture defiantly holding his position in the rank. The torture and humiliation continued through Saturday, to the point where we all began to experience muscle failure. Having done so many pushups, I was unable to even hold my body in a parallel position, and was ordered to do deep knee bends instead. Byron’s body had given out before mine, and the initiators were left to come up with creative ways to heap punishment, such as having him do the “dying cockroach” until he was no longer able to raise his knees. At one point, he was forced to wear a dress and perform like a cheerleader for the Blade members.

We continued late into Saturday night and by now had marched miles off campus, carrying our sabers through a cold rain into dense woods and to the base of a nearby mountain. I was exhausted. Every step was measured by the pain of blisters in wet boots, every arm movement accompanied with sore muscles. Then, standing in the darkness and the rain, the Blade member said we had to carry ourselves up the mountain. This was an absurd proposition. It was insane. But miles away from campus, and too weak to resist, Stan Carpenter, Byron York and I started up the mountain bearing our twelve-foot long sabers on our shoulders. It had rained so hard the lower areas were experiencing flash flooding. In the darkness, one of us would step off into a swollen creek and sink up to our waist in cold, rushing water. We had to pull each other along to make forward progress, helping each other – now a team of three, determined to overcome whatever nature and the Blade members could throw at us.

We proceeded up the mountain and it began to get steeper. We slipped in loose leaves and mud as we tried to climb. The sabers, now rubbing on raw shoulders, got caught between trees and in vines, and intensified the difficulty of movement in the dark underbrush. Finally, Byron’s body gave out. His short steps became a near crawl upwards, and Stan and I began to help him. The team of three struggled onward. Finally, exhausted, we were no longer crawling up the mountain, but were locked arm in arm. Stan, the largest and strongest, leading, with me in the middle and Byron third. Our arms were locked at the elbows, and we progressed, one lunge at a time, up the mountain, Stan doing most of the work, me pulling on Byron, and Byron pushing with whatever strength he had remaining in his legs and feet.  Our sabers required a separate effort, as we were now dragging them beside us.

A strange thing had occurred and I didn’t even realize it.  Byron was helping me.  Not with his arms and legs, because they had long since given out, but with his eyes, and the mere fact that he was still there.  We were a team.  A team of mismatched strength, but a team of shared determination and will, feeding off of each other, and all of us were going to make it.

Near the top, and now well into Sunday morning, we were finally permitted to stop and rest. There, the Blade members told the story about why we carried the sabers; about the neophyte mutiny that occurred in the 1950s and about why we should never give up. They told us how others, weaker than us, had rebelled, breaking their sabers on the mountainside, escaping down the mountain. Had they only known that at the top of the mountain less than one hundred yards away, was a bonfire for them to throw their sabers into, and a great party of Blade members, waiting to bring them into the fold. Then we noticed, littering the landscape around us, the remnants of dozens of broken sabers, now soaked and glistening in the moonlight, the secret sacrament of the initiation right. The lesson has never left me, and I hope it never does. We were then permitted to break up our sabers. The problem was, we barely had enough strength to do it.  Breaking the heavy two-by-fours was only accomplished by putting them between trees and leaning on them with our full body weight. Byron was so exhausted, he simply got to hold his while Stan and I delivered the final blows. Our initiation was over. We walked the remaining steps to the top of the mountain where warmth and ample supplies of food and beer and pats on the back awaited us.

Byron York made it. He persevered against the worst of odds, the bitterest humiliation and the unfairness of his frail body, and he made it. I knew that the soreness and fatigue I was experiencing had to be measured ten fold on Byron.

I have always wondered about Byron and how he was received in adulthood. I only knew that he entered into the Military Intelligence Corps, which was very fitting for him, and that his first tour was in Korea. I doubt that he was warmly received in his unit, his physical appearance again overwhelming his attempts to gain acceptance in units that brag of their stature and toughness; after all, that was, and still is, the Army. I wondered if he found acceptance, if he knew the love of a wife, a family, and any kind of success. But I didn’t miss him at any of our reunions. His existence was rarely even noted, except for maybe a chuckle about his appearance in a dress. No one had any idea what happened to him, or seemed to care.

Last summer our alumni group was notified that Byron York had recently passed away from leukemia.  The bad hand that he was dealt in life had now followed him to an early death.

We also learned that his military career was a short one, and that he returned home and lived alone.  He never married.  

For me then, Byron will always represent the unfairness of life, unfairness that I will never understand, unfairness culminating in a premature and cruel death.

But I will always remember that on that cold, wet weekend in November 1977, whether I wanted to admit it or not, Byron York didn’t give up – Byron was on my team, and Byron made it up the mountain.

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Responses

  1. What a post. I think all of us have had a Bryon in our lives. Brought back memories of “my Bryon” and a tear to my eye. Sign me up to receive updates on the blog.

  2. Speechless.

  3. Wow. Pass the kleenex, please. However sad, I’m glad you were able to learn of his fate. Surely now he is enjoying warmth and a feast beyond our wildest imagination and with that, the acceptance he always deserved. Thanks for sharing 😉


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