The Farm Boy Vs. the Language Department
Or, Cross Prof
P. at your peril
During my days at the Naval
Academy between July 1959 and June 1963 each Midshipman was required to take
classes in foreign language during Plebe (freshman) and Youngster (sophomore)
years. As I recall the languages offered were Spanish, German, French, Russian,
Portuguese and Italian. Choosing which language you wanted to study was the
only choice you had during Plebe year. Literally everything else was dictated
to you. And if you disagreed with any of the dictates, you were either put on
report or sent packing back home with your tail between your legs.
I chose Italian because someone
had said it was “the easiest”. What did I know? In my small town Kansas high
school language classes were not offered. In fact if you spoke a foreign
language in central Kansas in the 1950s other than German, you were eyed with
suspicion. Why German? Because the majority of folks who settled in that part
of the world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were
German immigrants. It was said that if the German Army marched through any central
Kansas town, that most of the inhabitants would finds relatives in the ranks.
My choice of Italian was provident
because my Plebe year roommates were Tony DeSantis of Irvington, New Jersey,
and Joe Fosella of Brockton, Massachusetts…both of Italian ancestry. In fact
Tony had grown up in Naples, Italy, coming to the U.S. at age 12, and was fluent
in Italian. Having a roommate like that was music to the ears of a tone deaf
farm boy with absolutely no aptitude for languages. Tony saved my language
bacon on many an occasion Plebe year.
In the days before political
correctness infected the land, we referred to the Naval Academy Language
Department as the “Dago” department, and called our language instruction “Dago”
regardless of which language you studied. Ethnic sensitivity was not a priority
at USNA in those days. Jary Lewis, a company mate, one time asked Tony what it
sounded like when the shit hit the fan. When Tony couldn’t answer Lew replied
with…”WOP…Guinea guinea guinea guinea.”
During my two years of Italian our
class section had only two instructors. We called them “Profs”. I don’t know if
they were actually professors. One was an easy going gentleman named Paul Beadle.
He was much beloved by the Midshipmen. One incident I recall explains the kind
of guy he was. There was a map of Italy hanging above the blackboard behind the
Prof’s desk which rolled up like a window shade. When the Prof wanted to make a
point by using the map, he pulled it down. One time Paul pulled it down and
taped to the map was a Playboy centerfold in all her naked splendor. One of my
classmates had gotten into the room surreptitiously and had put it there.
Beadle just laughed. He thought it was great.
The other Prof was something else.
Let’s call him Prof P. He was the prototypical Italian. He looked like one of
the Italian characters from the Looney Tunes cartoons. He was slightly
overweight, had sagging jowls, black slicked back hair, piercing dark eyes and
a gigolo mustache. He always looked like he was ready to break into a sweat
immediately after taking a shower. He was a firebrand who often cussed us out
and called us names when we didn’t meet his strict standards in the study of
the Italian language. I don’t know if there were any other Italian Profs in the
department. Probably so, but our section never had any but these two.
During the second semester of
Plebe year I had a monumental run in with Prof P. that I will never forget. A
number of my classmates from our language section haven’t forgotten it either.
The incident is remembered at our five year interval reunions by members of my
Naval Academy Company, the Sixth, who were in that class section. In fact I
write this tale at the urging of one of my classmates fifty years after the
Each academic department at the
Naval Academy was headed by a Navy Captain or very senior civilian during my
days as a Midshipman. Although I can’t remember his name, the Language
Department was led by a Navy Captain. One day he came into our classroom to
monitor the goings on. He was seated in the back of the room. I was reciting
something at Prof P.’s direction and got all tongue tied and confused, so I
just quit and muttered…”To hell with it.” Things proceeded on and nothing
seemed remiss to me. The Captain finally got up and left maybe ten minutes
After the Captain had safely left
the room Prof P. stood up reached into the air with our text book, which was
fairly thin tome, and slammed it down hard onto his desk top. It wasn’t really
a desk, but a table, and the book hit it squarely resulting in a loud bang.
Steam was coming out of P.’s ears as he glared at me and said, “Praeger, you
f**kin’ prick. You embarrassed me in front of the Captain! I’m going to Class A
you over this!”
I was thunderstruck. There were
two types of violations of the USNA Regulations; a Class B offense was
analogous to a misdemeanor, but a Class A was a felony. The great majority of
offenses that Mids were placed on report for were Class B’s…unshined shoes,
uncut hair, seconds late for meal formations, messy rooms…things like that.
Class A’s were for the biggies…unauthorized liberty, drinking in Bancroft Hall,
hours late returning from leave. And the numbers of demerits awarded and the
punishments meted out for Class A’s were severe. We all feared being written up
for a Class A offense. In the spirit of earning a letter for athletic
achievement at Navy, being charged with a Class A offense was referred to as
earning a black “N”.
I spent the rest of the day
sweating bullets because Prof P. was going to write me up for a Class A
offense. It wasn’t enough that the upperclassmen didn’t like me because of my
status as a Plebe. Now the academic instructors didn’t like me as well. I
didn’t know what to do or where to turn. It didn’t seem right that I should be
so severely punished for muttering four words under my breath. I was still
sweating bullets during the next Italian class, which I think was two days
later. After the class P. told me to remain and told me that he wouldn’t write
me up if I apologized to the Captain. I readily agreed and made an appointment
to see the Captain later that afternoon.
I knocked on the department head’s
door. He told me to enter and I marched in, centered myself on his desk and
barked, “Midshipman Praeger, Fourth Class, reporting to the Captain as
ordered!” He asked me what I wanted and I told him I was sorry for my conduct
when he monitored our Italian class two days before. He stared at me quizzically
and asked what I was talking about. I tried to explain what I had done, but he
had no recollection of me saying anything untoward in his presence. I am
reasonably sure that after a long career at sea being around Navy Chiefs and Bluejackets
he had heard much worse than had emanated from my young Plebe mouth. He
dismissed me and I returned to Bancroft Hall much relieved. Prof P. never said
another word about the incident again.
As I look back on this several
things occur to me. What would happen to a Naval Academy prof today if he
called a Midshipman a “F**kin’ prick” in a white knuckled rage? Prof P. used
colorful language in dressing us down for poor pronunciation and conjugation of
verbs, but he was never in a rage when he did this. Did uttering the words “To
hell with it” rise to the level of deserving a Class A? Class B maybe, but
Class A? I doubt it. To his credit, I think he realized that he had backed
himself into a corner and took what he considered to be the best course of
action to get himself out of it. If the Captain had been offended by what I had
said I suspect he would have jumped on me right then and there. Some of the
most profane Naval officers I have known wore four gold stripes on their
sleeves. Maybe P. just didn’t know enough about the real Navy to realize this.
Maybe P. could have stopped me and told me to apologize to the Captain on the
spot, but then there wouldn’t be this story to tell. It is all good for a laugh
now, 50 years later, but at the time I was a very frightened young Plebe for a
couple of days. I don’t think anything that happened during the remainder of
Plebe year scared me like the threat of this Class A offense did. Upon seeing
the first draft of this story, Lew Lewis remarked that my run-in with Prof P.
was the one exciting thing that happened during two years of Italian
instruction. One thing I know for sure. Life and times at the Old Boat School
were never boring, with or without Prof P. …that f**kin’ prick.
|Pride & Tradition