The Cows Came Home
Cadet First Lieutenant Phil Boydon sat on the top step leading to the Officer of the Day’s office, looking east. He saw Leesboro’s buildings, the quarry wall, and the Blue Ridge Mountains beyond, even the white motel in the gap where the highway led towards home and girlfriend. Some of his classmates had plans that involved that motel. He’d like to; El would like to, but both knew that would not happen.
In eight days his parents and El would drive over that gap for Graduation and on Sunday he’d be a graduate of Newberry Military School, not a cadet. Briefly, very briefly, he felt regret for both. If he and El had not been so eager four years ago he knew he probably wouldn’t be at Newberry, and a motel room at graduation might be possible.
He turned and saw spit shined shoes, black striped gray uniform trousers, a maroon tassel brushing the shoes, and the shined brass tip of a sword sheath. He glanced up to his room mate of three years, Denny Zimmerman, on his last tour as Officer of the Day.
“It’s been real, Denny.”
“Yeah, Phil. Almost over. Glad you’re not still mad at me.”
“Over Anne Marie? No. I’m the strange one, not you. Glad you’re happy with her.” Phil was; he’d been stupid last year and lucky El had taken him back after his fling with the shapely town girl. Then he saw a stiffening of Denny’s legs, and looking up he saw the commandant looking at them from his office door. Phil jumped up. “Good afternoon, Sir,” he said.
“Well, Zimmerman, Boydon. You two talking to one another again?”
“Yes, sir. Phil, er Mr. Boydon, and I can’t stay mad too long.” The general grinned at them. Denny pointed at the wall thermometer next to the general. “Sir. That gives me reveille uniform. When can we stop having it, sir?”
The commandant laughed briefly. “When the cows come home, Mr. Zimmerman.”
Phil punched his room mate. “Dumb question, Denny. Day after graduation, no reveille. Not before.” The commandant nodded and went into his office.
“Hear that, Phil? When the cows come home. How about that.”
“Sure, Denny. So what? Graduation’s almost here. Long before any cows. Now I have things to do.” Phil stood up and walked away with a casual wave, and cut through the open Square to his room. His other room mate, Steve, wasn’t there. Phil turned on the radio, hauled out his typewriter, put it on his desk, and sat down to type out a letter to the girl whose senior portrait and snapshots filled his desk to the regulation limit. More were under his blotter, stretching the regs. He began to write.
He finished long before mail pick up. After mailing it he polished his shoes and shined his brass for evening formation.
Later, as he got ready for bed he thought it had been a good day, made better by being one day closer to graduation. Even Steve’s rambling North Carolina drawl didn’t totally pierce his thoughts. He hardly noticed when Steve went out to do bed check.
In fact he was almost asleep when Denny came in about thirty minutes after “Taps”. Denny turned on Phil’s desk lamp and said, “Steve. Phil. You guys up for fun?”
“What?” Steve said, sitting up.
“Uh,” Phil said, continuing to lie on the bottom bunk. He opened his eyes and saw that Denny had removed his sword and was unwinding the wrap from around his waist.
“Come on, Phil. Remember what the commandant said? Reveille until the cows come home? Well, tonight the cows are coming home.”
Phil woke up on that. “How?”
“Simple. I talked to the Townie Twins. You know they actually live in the country. Bob is gonna pick me up and we’re getting some cows from a friend of theirs, paint NMS on them, and stake them on the parade field.”
Steve began to chuckle. “Let me get dressed. Sounds like fun.”
“Well?” Denny asked.
Phil thought for a moment. “Good idea. Of course the commandant will know who did it.” He sat up, careful not to hit his head on Denny’s upper bunk.
“Probably. But he can’t prove anything. And I made sure I told at least ten guys what he said. Bet you did too.”
“Well. A couple. But one was Cory Hudson, and who’d believe old Straight Arrow would do something like that?”
“True. But I mentioned it to some good candidates for blame: McAdams, Nail Duncan and Joe for example.”
Phil grinned. “You might have a whole herd out there with those three.” He climbed out of his bunk and reached for fatigue pants. Then, even with his eyes open, he could see El and him in class. Phil wasn’t sure what he was wearing, but it wasn’t a uniform. El looked at him, but sadness and shame masked the love projected from her thin face. Phil sat back down on his blanket. “No. I can’t. I’d like to. But it’s just too dangerous for me. They catch you and you maybe get ten demerits. They catch me and I’m out.”
“Yes, Denny. When I got caught coming back from Anne Marie’s after “Taps” last year the Commandant said I’d be expelled I were ever caught AWOL again. When he let me off easy last month, he warned me to think next time, especially between ‘Taps’ and ‘Reveille.’ You guys go. Have fun. Don’t get caught. I know nothing.”
“You still ticked about me dating Ann Marie?”
Phil shook his head. “No, Denny. But El wants me to graduate from here. I was going to risk being late after her prom. She told me she’d put up with me being here all this time, she was coming to graduation.” He raised his right hand. “I swear it, Denny.”
“You can’t let your roomies down,” Steve said as he punched one hand with the other. “Not for some girl.”
“You could help. Think about us and not El for a change,” Denny said. Then he and Steve were gone.
Phil lay back down. He’d really like to go. It sounded great and room mates deserved help. If only he could. But he turned off his desk lamp, arranged his pillow, and whispered for the second time, “Good night, El Goodman. I love you.”
In his mind he heard “Sleep well, sweetheart. I love you, too. Thanks.”
Some time later he woke. The room was silent. He could see that Steve’s bed was empty and there was no low bulge in the springs above him. He heard an engine; it had to be a truck. Steve was right, so was Denny. El might be his girl, but his roomies were important too. He got out of bed, slipped on fatigue pants and tennis shoes and left his room.
Phil slipped out the South Porch exit, walked along the path and noted that the commandant’s quarters were dark. Good. He could see a truck parked next to the curb.
“Hi, Denny,” Phil said, “Need help?” He could see they could. Four boys and several cows were not quite an even match, especially if two were city boys.
“Thought you could get kicked out,” Denny said.
“I’m on school grounds. I’m out of room, not AWOL.” In the dark Phil could see Denny’s grin.
“Here. Take this rope and get Bossy out of the truck,” Denny said.
It seemed only minutes later that he heard the last notes of “Reveille” and he drug himself from his bunk and pawed for clean underwear. Steve, not in character, lay in his bunk.
“Steve. Reveille. Get up,” Phil looked at Denny’s top bunk, but it was empty, though not made. Steve groaned and began to climb out to tower over Phil.
Phil’s oversleeping caused him to be almost late, but he fell into his position just as the bugle’s last notes rang over the macadam East Parade and the parade field below them. As he did so, he noticed that stragglers were coming from the direction of the parade field, not the barracks.
“Fall In” was answered by a “Moo” and then several more. Phil took advantage of his rank and moved from behind the formation so he could see their handiwork; seven cows, six in one group and then another by herself. The class of ‘61, he thought, grinning. And each had painted on her flank, in dark red and gold, the letters “NMS”. He glanced along the rank of cadets he was next to and saw on each face a grin. There were a couple of laughs.
Phil bit his lip and ordered, “C Company, at ease,” even before the company commander could.
The closest platoon leader whirled around and snapped, “You’re at attention. Quiet in the ranks.” When the battalion commander gave the dismissal the cadets went, not back into the barracks, but to stand along the hill crest and look at the strangers with widespread pointing and laughing.
The commandant and Denny came out, and moments later the battalion commander ordered, “Everybody back to the barracks. Everybody.”
Phil, still grinning, turned to go and walked past the commandant, saluting as he did.
“Wait a moment, Mr. Boydon.”
Phil stopped. Was there some evidence? Not good. The commandant held his famous poker face. “Yes, sir,” Phil said. He tried a smile. “Well, I guess the cows came home, sir.”
“Yes. I suppose they have. Or will. Mr. Zimmerman. You will insure that any parting gift the cows leave will be removed.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll have the guard take care of it.”
“No, Mr. Zimmerman. By you. After guard duty and before drill. And anybody else you might want to ask. The Alexander twins, for example. And that’s all I’m going to say about it.”
Denny nodded. “But the cows came home.”
“No. They’re going home, Mr. Zimmerman. And then we’ll see if we can maintain discipline in the Corps with no reveille for the last ten days of school. Now attend your duties, Mr. Zimmerman.” With a quick glance at Phil, Denny saluted and walked back towards the ‘Port. The commandant turned to face Phil, who wondered if his unease was showing.
“I’m glad to see that you are finally weighing options, Mr. Boydon,” and a faint smile appeared on the commandant’s lips.
“What do you mean, sir?”
“I mean I’m very certain that you weren’t one of the cowboys last night.” The weight of seven M-1’s fell from his shoulders.
“Last time I was off campus was Sunday, sir. And that’s an official statement.”
“Accepted as such. But your room mates were seen earlier. Must have been very tempting, Mr. Boydon.”
“Sir. I remembered what you said. I knew what El would think if I got kicked out now. Mom would cry and Dad would be furious.” Phil bit his lip. “I’m not saying I know who did it, sir.”
“And I’m not asking.” Phil felt the commandant’s eyes boring into him. “Records say you came here because you didn’t consider the consequences once. Had to do with a certain girl, I believe.”
There it was again. Their stupidity and getting caught on his bed by his mom. “Yes, sir. That’s why I came here.” “You still aren’t perfect, Boydon, but somehow I don’t think you’ll make that mistake again. I’m glad you’ll graduate from Newberry, no matter how you got here. Dismissed, Mr. Boydon.”
Phil snapped a salute, spun on his heel and headed for his room. As he passed the OD’s office he called, “I’ll make your bunk, Denny. I’ll find some help with the cow pies.” Denny tossed him a salute. Good. Denny was satisfied and El would see him graduate. No more reveille for the Corps made it almost perfect.
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