By the time you’ve packed up all of your worldly possessions and moved 10 or 12 times, you get used to it. A year in one place is pretty much like a year anyplace else, and so is being a new kid on the first day of school. You ride the bus, you find your homeroom, you find your locker, you find your morning classes and the lunch room and the gym, you find your afternoon classes, and you ride the bus home. You adjust your wardrobe to include or jettison Weejuns, white socks, fence-climber loafers, blue jeans, chinos, and madras shirts; you meet some kids and make some friends; you try-out for track and run the 440 and finish 2nd or 3rd a few times; you go out with one of the cool girls just long enough to miss her badly when your dad gets reassigned…and then you’re gone.
That’s the way it went year after year after year with few changes in the routine until senior year, when the stakes went up and the landscape shifted precipitously. Seniors reeked of history. They were the institutional memory of a school, steeped in the traditions and secret codes of student life. They were the keepers of grudges and settlers of scores against rival schools. They set the example in the all-important areas of music, dress, hairstyle, sex and popularity. When seniors strode the halls, the linoleum trembled and lockers shook and freshmen were felled by knee-level wind.
Becoming a senior was supposed to pay-off the psychic debts you acquired during 12 long years of being lorded-over by insufferable assholes who were older, bigger, and stronger than you. For some reason, during all those years of moving from place to place, you never thought about what would happen if you transferred into a school as a senior, with none of the authority and gravitas conveyed by a history at the school.
When dad was assigned to the Pentagon and we moved to Northern Virginia from Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, I enrolled in the third high school I had attended in three years in three different states. I was in my 18th year of being an army brat, and moving to a new school and making new friends had grown as old as I was. By the fall of 1964, I had long since concluded that showing up at a new school as a senior meant that I would stand practically no chance of breaking into one of the well-established cliques in the senior class, and all I wanted to do was get the year over with. But 17 year old boys are ruled by hormones, not reason, and I soon laid plans to crack the codes of conduct, dress, and social standing of Mount VernonHigh School, located just south of Mount Vernon itself on Route 1 in FairfaxCounty.
You’ve got to picture the scene: I arrived in Northern Virginia with enough credits to graduate a year early, so mom and I met with the vice principal to discuss my status as a student. The vice principal couldn’t suppress a smile of satisfaction as he explained that if you hadn’t taken Virginia State history, the state law didn’t care about the number of credits you had. This was a course ordinarily taken as a junior, but because I had been busy fulfilling the Pennsylvania’s state history requirement the previous year, I would be required to take Virginia history as a senior. Virginia state law also didn’t permit coming to school for a single class, so I would have to take enough make-work courses and study halls to fill the regular class schedule.
Somehow mom got a copy of the state school regulations and determined that I could go to school for a half-day if I enrolled in Distributive Education, a program intended for vocational students. As seniors, they took morning classes and were released at noon to go to work in a job that provided career-related training. I quickly secured a job selling clothes at Cohen’s Quality Shop, a men’s store in downtown Alexandria, and I put in for the DE program. The vice principal realized we had figured a way around the rules, so he threw in Senior English along with two study halls and Virginia History. I took the deal. In my final year of high school, I became a biz-ed student.
It took me about a week to determine that spending only a half-day in school reduced at least by half my chances of climbing into the upper bleachers of the senior social stratum. So I decided to make the vocational thing work for me, instead of against me. Years of experience had taught me that being a new kid in school presented the opportunity to act aloof and mysterious. If you appeared hard to approach and acted like you didn’t give a shit if doors were closed to you, in time those doors would open, if only to satisfy the prying eyes and abject curiosity of those on the inside.
Creating an air of mystery in Northern Virginia in 1964 wasn’t very hard. I decided to join the school’s debate team, a place of perpetual exile for losers, and because I had to wear a coat and tie to work every day anyway, I decided I would dress up for school, as if being a debater and a DE student was a mark of honor. When it got cold, I wore a black London Fog overcoat and carried a tightly rolled black umbrella over my left forearm, a point of personal style I had picked up from Commodore Williams, a gang leader I had been friends with in Leavenworth, Kansas. The sum of these affectations raised my profile as a Man of Mystery and at least doubled the curiosity quotient in those inhabiting the inner-sanctums of the clique-elite.
I knew I had cracked the code when a note was passed to me one morning in study hall informing me that one of the prettiest girls in the senior class liked me and would say yes if I asked her out on a date. I spent a day or so investigating the reliability of the note and the veracity of the girl who passed it to me. Satisfied that the note was legit, I approached the girl in question – her name was Connie – and asked her out for date on Friday night, and she accepted. I reasoned that if Friday night went okay, we could continue to march right into Saturday night. I had to work until 9:00 p.m. on Fridays, but when I told my boss at Cohen’s that I would volunteer for the hot, dirty task of dusting every hanger, shirt box, suit-rack, hat box and square inch of shelf space in the attic storeroom, a job he knew would take me the better part of a week, he gave me the night off.
I didn’t know much about Connie, and even less about her family, but I wasn’t surprised when I showed up on Friday evening and her father answered the door still in uniform, having just gotten home from a hard day at the Pentagon. He was a big, thick-necked man with a crew-cut and a perpetual five o’clock shadow, and he was a full colonel with a chest full of combat ribbons. The subdivision we lived in was packed with officers just like him, most of them full colonels, my father the lieutenant colonel being a rare exception. The colonel invited me in and said Connie was upstairs getting ready and would be down shortly. He walked over to a wet bar and asked if I wanted a drink, and I said, yes sir, a Coke. He emitted an offended grunt and growled something like, I didn’t ask if you wanted a Coke! I asked if you wanted a goddamned drink. With that, he poured two large bourbons on the rocks and handed me one. He sat down and indicated with a nod that I should take the chair across from him. He studied me for a moment, and then he smiled. I knew what he was going to say before he opened his mouth: you’re General Truscott’s grandson, aren’t you? I answered, yes sir. He raised his glass in a jaunty toast and said, well, Lucian, I’m proud to have you as a guest in my home, and I’m pleased as hell that you’re going out with my daughter. He took a deep drink, leaned back in his chair and stared wistfully out the window.
He meant every word he had said. I knew it, because I had seen that wistful look before, on the faces of other girls’ fathers. Now, as he took another swig of bourbon, there it was again: a softening around the eyes, a lowering of the chin, as if he couldn’t hold back a rush of unexpected yet not unwelcome emotion. There was a vulnerability about these big, powerful men when they talked about grandpa. Perhaps a clock ticked inside them, letting them know their moment was passing, and they knew there was nothing they could do about it. Or maybe they sensed that the greatness of men like grandpa had eluded them. Maybe it wasn’t their fault that Korea had been their war, and it had come at a time when they were lieutenants instead of generals, and they never got the opportunity to command great armies in great battles and win great victories. Or maybe they knew that another war was just around the corner, and it would turn out to be the wrong war, and greatness would elude not only the colonels and the generals, but a generation and a nation and break not only their hearts but ours as well.
With Connie’s father, it seemed like although he knew greatness would never be his, at least he had seen it up close. He took another deep drink and turned from the window and said, you know what, Lucian? Your grandfather was a great general. And General Truscott was the finest officer I ever had the honor to serve under. I didn’t respond, because I couldn’t. He didn’t mean for his comment to lay down a challenge to me, but he had done it nevertheless, and I was tired of it. I was tired of it because I was a kid of 17 and I didn’t want to be bothered with thoughts of living up to grandpa, and I was tired of these men pontificating about my grandfather, because they didn’t know him. Connie’s father thought he knew everything there was to know about the general, but he didn’t have a clue about the man.
I had the same feeling about Connie’s father that I had about the other fathers of girls I had dated. He wasn’t talking about my grandfather. He was reciting a kind of worshipful ode to a military ideal that he had been trained to idolize, but which he sensed was in decline. It was evident from his age and rank that Connie’s father had been too far down the chain of command during World War II to have known grandpa as anyone other than the distant figure he was to the subscribers of LIFE magazine who saw his photo on the cover.
Absently, the colonel launched into an elaborate description of a battle at Anzio that grandpa had turned with a crucial maneuver that seemingly came from nowhere, one that I would later study in military history at West Point. I don’t know how long I listened to him before I looked up and saw Connie watching us from the top of the stairs. She was standing back from the banister in a shadow, obviously reluctant to interrupt her father’s story. Maybe she was even afraid of him. I cleared my throat, and when I got his attention, I rose to my feet and looked up, as one should do when a lady enters the room. Connie took my signal and came down the stairs. Her father appeared flustered. It was like she had broken a spell, and for me, at least, she had. She had gotten herself up in a way that certain girls could, so that she looked about four years older without showing a sign that any effort had been taken. I’m sure that my 17 year old nostrils reddened and flared like a spooked horse, and I’m sure she that she knew it. But her father was oblivious, lost in a wistful reverie brought on by the mere mention of my name. Connie gave him a kiss on the cheek, and after a gruff mock-warning not to stay out too late, we left.
I had seen other fathers of other girls that I had dated act in the same way. There was Wendy at FortLeavenworth, another Colonel’s daughter. She happened to live in “The Rookery,” a house set within the two-foot thick stone walls of the old fort, the same house dad had lived for 5 years when grandpa was teaching there in the 1930’s, which made the presence of “the general” doubly felt. There was Bethany at Carlisle Barracks, whose father had been in the 3rd Infantry Division when grandpa drove them like a Cavalry troop through Sicily. There was Mary Gail, the daughter of a voraciously ambitious brigadier general who saw his daughter dating the grandson of General Truscott as a chance for career advancement. There was Louisa, the daughter of the LIFE correspondent who wrote the cover story on grandpa, whom I met on a ski slope in upstate New York one winter afternoon. And there was Lucy, another Colonel’s daughter who was a couple of years older than me and taught my ballroom dancing class in the 7th Grade, and for whom I would serve as a Cadet Escort when she arrived at West Point in 1966 to bury her husband, a lieutenant killed in Vietnam less than a year after he had graduated. And there were others.
I had kept my mouth shut for years with these girls because I was afraid that I was living inside a bubble of rarified air, and if I opened my mouth, it would burst. But now I was a senior, and still I was a new kid in school, and I had been through this whole thing so many times that I had developed a suspicion that none of it was real, that it was all going to pass like a small town when you drove through at night – blink, and it was gone back there behind you forever.
We were in the car driving down the George Washington Parkway, and I figured, what do I have to lose? So I came right out and asked her: did you go out with me tonight because you wanted to, or because I’m General Truscott’s grandson and you knew your father served under him in Italy, and you knew it would make him happy? She was unhesitating in her response: she didn’t know anything about my grandfather, and tonight was the first time she had ever heard her father talk about the war. She didn’t know who I was other than the cute guy who came to school every day in a coat and tie and kept to himself and left early to go to work. I believed her at least as much because I wanted to believe her as anything else. But because I had heard girls’ fathers talk about my grandfather, I still had a hint of doubt in my mind.
Connie’s father may have raised a toast to grandpa, as did the other fathers, but all I ever heard from them were stories about an iconic figure known as the General. Their stories were stuffed with dates and facts and snatches of the horrors of war and sometimes the dark humor of warriors, but they were stories about the General, not the man. Not once did I ever get a sense of what kind of man he really was, not from the men who had served under him, or even from those who had actually met him.
In all of the years I had spent as my grandfather’s namesake, I had never heard my mother and father talk about grandma and grandpa the way they talked about other people. It was as if grandma and grandpa existed on a plane above normal reference. There was an unwritten rule that you didn’t talk about their foibles, or the things that made them human and sometimes difficult — not because their foibles didn’t exist, but because the family rules said you didn’t.
All I knew about the family rules was this: the people who know you best won’t let you close enough to know them, and if you can’t know them, you can’t know yourself.