“Captain Palm, whatever possessed you to compare being a Marine officer to being an unemployed Ph.D. driving a cab?”
That was the unlikely start of what turned out to be one of the most enduring and supportive friendships of my life—my friendship with Charles (“Chuck”) Armstrong, who passed away on Sunday, August 14, after a short but valiant struggle with brain cancer.
It was early in March, 1985, when then Major Armstrong, USMC, had occasion to pose that decidedly unmusical question. I was serving at the time as the Marine Officer Instructor with the Naval ROTC unit at the University of California Berkeley, and an arsonist had burned down our building over the President’s Day weekend in February. The following week, as we were waiting for the police to allow us into the ruins to reclaim what we could, a passerby—a very young, cherubic-looking woman—exclaimed, “I’m glad it burned!”
Later that same day, in the heat of the moment (pardon the pun), I penned an op-ed for the San Francisco Chronicle entitled “Book Burning at Berkeley.” I pointed out that the building had housed an extensive library of naval literature and lore, including the personal papers of Berkeley’s first professor of naval science, Admiral Chester Nimitz. But my main theme was how little that young women, and so many students like her, knew about the military profession and those of us who had chosen to pursue it. My op-ed was generally well-received among the closet conservatives in the Bay Area, and it would have been applauded by my fellow officers and military authorities alike had I been just a bit more guarded about my own mixed motives. “All things considered,” I had written, “I would rather be a Marine officer than another under-employed Ph.D. driving a taxi.”
Someone in the Bay Area (I think I know whom), complained to Headquarters Marine Corps, and I found myself accused of not displaying the proper enthusiasm for my Marine Corps career. While I was nominally under the control of the professor of Naval Science at Berkekey, a Navy captain, Chuck was the Corps’ program sponsor and my real boss. The head of Manpower, Lieutenant General William Maloney, had tasked Chuck with investigating the complaint. I still remember how Chuck closed that initial phone call: “I wonder, Ed, if you appreciate how serious this is.”
Chuck, I later learned, had recommended that I merely be reprimanded, but General Maloney was having none of it. He was quoted as saying he wanted “a high and tight at Berkeley.” I was to be “short-toured”—transferred to Camp Pendleton after only one year of what was to have been a three-year tour of duty.
My wife and I resolved not to go quietly. To make a long story short, with the support of the editor of the Chronicle, we threatened to go public with my plight. Much to our surprise, it worked. I received a call from Headquarters Marine Corps telling me, in effect, that it had all been a mistake and that I was not going to be short-toured at Berkeley. Still, I was not surprised when the promotion list to major came out that spring and I was not on it.
(A word about the significance of that promotion is in order. It is the make-or-break promotion, the tenure point. Only by making major can an officer stay for 20 years and qualify for a pension.)
With nothing to lose, I appealed to the Board for Correction of Naval Records, arguing that I had been passed over as the result of my refusal to go quietly. The Board must have agreed. My passover was set aside, and I was promoted to major in July of 1986.
What I will always remember, though, is how I found out that I had made major after all.
Chuck called me. He seemed almost as happy about it as I was. Unfortunately, his call came at a particularly awkward time. Andrea told him to hold on, that she had to get me out of the shower. Chuck, putting two-and-two together about my being in the shower in the middle of the day, seemed to get the biggest kick out of that phone call. It was a good day all the way around.
I understand now why so many Marines took such offense at what I had written. The profession others had embraced as a calling and a special trust, I had dismissed as a mere job—worse yet, a job of last resort. I also understand what it says about Chuck that he would still befriend me. The military in general is rife with people I like to call military spiritualists. These are generally humorless people who take themselves far too seriously and who believe that the military profession demands a uniformity of attitudes, values, and aspirations. Chuck, I came to realize, was the real thing: a true military professional with an enlightened and well-informed commitment to his profession. He was also a student of history who believed that what set the Marine Corps apart was its willingness to capitalize on the talents of some decidedly eccentric characters, a few of whom loom large in the popular legend and lore of the Corps. The Marine Corps is indeed a unique fraternity. But to Chuck it was also a big tent, with a place for a frustrated, would-be professor of literature like me.
My problem is that I never could leave well enough alone. Despite having nearly lost my Marine Corps career over intemperate, and possibly disloyal, public statements, I had to have the last word. I went on to publish “Winning Hearts and Minds at Berkeley” in our professional journal, The Marine Corps Gazette.
In this piece, while I led off with the tragic loss of Berkeley’s ROTC building, I took a much more balanced approach to the problems of officer accession on the liberal college campus. Unfortunately, not all the Gazette’s readers saw it in that light. I had been heretic enough to argue for deemphasizing uniforms and close order drill and for emphasizing academics. Predictably, that piece earned me the disapproval, and even the ire, of many of my fellow officers—but not Chuck’s.
I’m sure that Chuck didn’t agree with all my assertions in "Winning Hearts and Minds at Berkeley," but he very much approved of the effort. He encouraged me to keep writing for Marine Corps Gazette. He felt it was vitally important to have a professional forum for the frank and open exchange of views. He went on to tell me that the Gazette had not always filled that bill, but that it now had a new enlightened editor in Colonel John Greenwood who was determined to bring in new voices and provocative ideas. That was the beginning of a long and fruitful association with Colonel Greenwood. I became a regular contributor to the Gazette, doggedly promoting the liberal arts in general and literature in particular as essential components of a professional military education.
In becoming a regular contributor, I was following Chuck’s lead. Truth be told, Chuck was always a better writer than I am. He had the gift of graceful, succinct expression. His pieces were always well-informed and authoritative, but he also had the knack of keeping it light and lively, with just the right balance of serious commentary with colorful colloquial expression and humor. But what really made the difference was Chuck’s credibility as a warrior. He wrote with firsthand authority about the central business of the Corps, and he had the liberal education to be able to establish that authority within the geo-political context in which the Corps must operate. I am sure that many a reader must have disagreed with Chuck over the years, but I never saw him savaged in angry letters to the editor. Everyone respected him.
Chuck, in short, was the closest thing to an actual renaissance man that I have ever known. In addition to being a legitimate warrior and a gifted writer and speaker, he was a world-class athlete. When the Marine Corps began to emphasize physical fitness and weight control in the mid-seventies, Chuck made it his business to lead the way. He went on to set a world record for the greatest number of pull-ups performed in a single day.
It was the late, great balladeer Harry Chapin who, in one of his songs, observes that “it’s sometimes better not to touch your dreams.” For better or worse, I began to touch mine in 1990. With the help of a couple of sympathetic colonels, I managed to get assigned to teach English at the U.S. Naval Academy. This was to be my twilight tour. I had wanted it, and I embraced it, as my halfway house back to civilian academia. It worked, after a fashion. I retired from the Naval Academy in 1993 and went on to a job as the chair of the English Department at Glenville State College, in West Virginia. Still, that Naval Academy experience left a bad taste in my mouth. Ironically, I now look back on my time at Berkeley as the best three years I spent as a Marine officer and my time at Annapolis as the worst. My reasons for feeling that way are complicated, and I went on to air them in opinion piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
To say that that piece was not well-received among my former English Department colleagues and academy alums would be an understatement. Even retired Lieutenant General John Sheehan, then head of the academy’s alumni association, sent me a personal letter denouncing me and my piece as an embarrassment. But Chuck and Colonel Greenwood, himself a Naval Academy alum, stood by me, and I stand by my views. Recently, in fact, I expanded and refined that Chronicle piece into the lead chapter of a book on the intersections of military and academic culture.
One thing that always bothered me was my apparent inability to validate the faith that Chuck always seemed to have in me. There were several reasons why I wanted to move on from that small college in West Virginia. Not the least of those reasons was the thought that Chuck, who never lacked for self-confidence, believed me to be capable of doing much better. He and Colonel Greenwood both encouraged me to apply to schools such as VMI, where my unusual blend of military and academic experiences might finally be fully appreciated. I tried that route early on, but my deliverance from West Virginia finally came in 2001 in the form a deanship at Maryville University of St. Louis.
It was, frankly, a job I never should have taken. Maryville at the time was a house bitterly divided between an administration intent on reorienting the university toward professional programs and a faculty unwilling to let go of their traditional commitment to the liberal arts. I ended up siding with the faculty, a fatal mistake for a dean who served at the will and pleasure of the president.
I lost that job after three years, and I credit Chuck with playing a major role in pulling me out of the doldrums and restoring my self-confidence. Chuck insisted that I could pursue any number of new opportunities because the Marine Corps had instilled in me an ability the average academic couldn’t match—the ability to get people to do what I wanted them to do. I walked away from Maryville with a reasonable settlement, and within a year, I had another dean appointment at a college in a place where my wife and I had always wanted to live.
One thing I especially appreciated, and will always remember, about Chuck was his sense of humor. When my “Winning Hearts and Minds at Berkeley” came out, Chuck told me he had a theory about who the arsonist was who had claimed our building. According to Chuck, I did it—in order to get bylines and to pad my writing résumé.
On this particular occasion, I felt it incumbent on me to apologize for a mistake I had made in “Winning Hearts and Minds at Berkeley.” In one unfortunate sentence, I had mentioned the “charges that have been levied against the military profession” when I meant “leveled against,” and the editor didn’t catch the mistake. Chuck generously brushed my apology aside, assuring me he had not noticed it because he was just the simple sort of guy who used to “drive his Chevy to the levee.”
And then there was the time I made the mistake of telling Chuck about how I had chided my mother-in-law over her ongoing battle with feral cats that kept using her flower beds as their litter boxes. For Christmas, I gave her “Earl the Dead Cat”—a stuffed animal in the form of a cat, complete with a flattened mid-section, tire-tread marks, and felt Xs for eyes. Chuck insisted on helping me go one better. He sent me a perfectly mummified cat that he and his father had found between the walls of an old house they had torn down in Paris, Texas. Chuck said that it just went to show that, if you keep something long enough, you’ll find a use for it. In honor of Chuck, I did try to give it to my mother-in-law, but ingrate that she is, she declined. Chuck’s mummified cat now resides in a display case in the Science Department of Glenville State College.
I would like to think that on one occasion I somewhat repaid Chuck for his unwavering faith in me. I don’t remember how it came about, but I do remember his confiding in me regarding the one reservation he had about taking a tour of duty with the State Department in Central America. He first had to go through an intensive course in Spanish, and he was concerned about whether he really could become fluent in Spanish—or at least he professed to be concerned. I reassured him that he could do it. By that point, I was certain that Chuck Armstrong could do anything he set out to do.
Along the same lines, I would like to believe that Chuck was legitimately proud of me when “Tiger Papa Three,” my memoir of my Combined Action service in Vietnam, won the Heinl Award in 1989 for the best contribution to Marine Corps history published during the previous year. He was certainly generous in his praise of the piece.
It came as quite a surprise to me—and to a lot of other people, I’m sure—when Chuck announced that he was going to retire from the Marine Corps in 1991 at the rank of lieutenant colonel. I’m sure he could have gone to full colonel, and probably beyond. To fall back on a much-abused phrase, he had the “right stuff.” But he said his priorities had changed now that he was a father. I don’t doubt that he was sincere about that. But I also suspect that his State Department tour had opened other doors for him. Given the timing of Chuck’s Marine Corps retirement and his subsequent trips to and consulting about the Middle East, I’ve long wondered if Chuck actually ended his career with the CIA. If so, I’m sure that it was not ambition or opportunism that motivated his move, but rather the opportunity to do more good than he could as a Marine officer.
During our time in Southern California, my wife Andrea and I got to know Chuck’s wonderful wife Marlys. We met his son Jason shortly after he was born, and we have followed his progress in the annual Armstrong Christmas letters (ostensibly penned by “Ringo” the family dog). Clearly, Chuck and Jason had a marvelous relationship. Chuck took great pride in Jason’s accomplishments, and I know that Jason will continue to make his father proud, wherever he is.
From the Marine Corps’ perspective at least, I spent too much of my wayward youth studying war literature and not enough studying war. But one of the things I learned is that certain peak experiences in life are ineffable—beyond the power of mere words “to add or detract.” Chuck’s untimely death is certainly one of them. But I was moved by the heartfelt epitaph that his good friend Turk McCleskey wrote on the day of Chuck’s death:
If courage could have saved him, his courage alone would have sufficed. If tears could have preserved his life, mine alone would have floated his boat back to this side of the river and made him a centenarian. I never expected to outlive him, and I miss him tremendously.
Speaking of courage, according to Marlys, one of the last things Chuck said was “no man had a better life.” I believe it. It’s just that all of us who knew and admired him wish there had been more of it.
Bremerton, WAAugust 18, 2011