Although I must have been in the same gang shower with him many times, the truth is I never looked. And as far as I know, nobody else did, either.
In fact, as I’ve confessed elsewhere, I have only positive memories of Donald from my school years. Once at military school, when I really needed it, he helped me out of a difficult jam with a brutish barracks commandant who was his role model and whose influence we see in Trump the bullying presidential candidate.
I met Donald when I was 9 or 10 years old. Our families were members of the same Long Island beach club (no blacks, no Jews). Our fathers knew each other and had business connections.
My father was what you would call an enthusiast, and I was often the victim of his enthusiasm. Hired as a fundraiser by a progressive Waldorf school, in which boys and girls learned to knit, bake bread, and sew, my father signed me up. By seventh grade, he had reevaluated anthroposophy and concluded it was namby-pamby educational twaddle and poisonous for his son. Now working for New York Military Academy, he decided I needed a stern corrective. After a positive recommendation from Fred Trump, who had enrolled Donald there a couple of years earlier, I was sentenced to six years up the river, at Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York.
In the summer before I went to NYMA I spent quite a bit of time at the beach with Donald. He had set up a large tent on the beach in front of his family’s cabana. There, along with one of his sisters and his younger brother, Robert, we played cards and gabbed away the days. He told me a little about the military school. The place he described seemed to me dark, violent, and comfortless. He talked as if he loved it.
That fall, as one of what the cadets called “New Guys,” I entered a closed society where ritualistic hazing was the way that conformity was imposed. Typical was a punishment for misconduct or bad grades imposed on newcomers and “Old Guys” alike requiring them to appear in the gang shower where all the taps were turned on to produce a hot fog of steam. Cadets dressed in full, winterized uniforms would be required to stretch out their arms and balance a rifle across them, often an old World War II M-1 weighing 9½ pounds. Cadets were required to hold their positions without moving the rifles for long periods of time, even as the rifle’s weight seemed to increase excruciatingly as the minutes and seconds ticked by. Anyone dropping his rifle was instantly “disciplined,” often with fists.
In addition to the hazing rituals, NYMA’s older boys also punished younger ones for various violations of the rules. Boys being boys, things sometimes got out of hand. During Donald’s senior year, a cadet captain beat his inferior with a heavy metal chain. The victim ran away and eventually wound up in a local hospital. The school’s commandant, head master, and superintendent were forced to resign.
Boys fled the NYMA campus on a regular basis. Some ran away to escape being brutalized by older cadets, many of whom had been sent to NYMA because they were so unruly they couldn’t stay in their schools back home. (This was the reason for Donald’s exile to the academy in the eighth grade.) Others couldn’t handle the way they were treated by the ex-military men who had joined the NYMA staff after seeing combat in World War II. Among them was a barracks commandant named Major Theodore Dobias, whom, as Donald himself recently recalled, “absolutely would rough you up.”
Dobias was a master of psychological hazing, although I doubt that he knew it. One of his efforts to educate us involved posting signs that featured contradictory words of wisdom. One read: “When the Great Scorer comes to write against your name, He writes not whether you’ve won or lost, but how you played the game.” The sign adjacent to it declared: “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing!”
Today Donald offers the same kind of garbled, contradictory communication, which means he can never be held accountable. A case in point was his recent response to Ben Carson’s claim that he recognized “two Donald Trumps.” The candidate said both, “I think there are two Donald Trumps,” and “I don’t think there are two Donald Trumps.”
In addition to his mottos, Dobie tried to turn us into men by making us fight each other. On two afternoons each week he’d set up a boxing ring. The boys he selected to fight were those who had committed violent infractions of the rules and the passive ones whose academic grades were not high enough. I fit into the latter group because of my failure to learn Latin.
“I’m going to teach you how to put up a fight, McIntosh,” said Dobias. “You’re going to learn to take it and give it out.”
For my first fight he paired me with a boy named Scott. He was older than me but much shorter. It seemed an unfair pairing, giving me the advantage. But I learned later that Scott had taken boxing instruction for several weeks from Dobie himself. Before we began, Dobie warned me: “None of your Judo stuff, understand? This is strictly boxing.”
(One of my father’s enthusiasms had been promoting a company called Judo For Boys, Inc. I had studied this art and had been a part of public demonstrations we’d put on in places including the beach club on Long Island, and also at the military school.)
Scott raised his fists, moved in, and began to punch me rapidly all over. I felt I was being stung by a swarm of bees. And it was mortifying to be beaten by this midget. When I couldn’t take anymore, I moved in, reached around his back to snag his trunks, turned my right hip into his stomach and flipped him over. He landed on the mat cursing at me.
After I put Scott down on the mat some boys sniggered, others seemed to be taken aback. Dobie was furious. “I gave you a direct order not to use Judo. Now I’m going to teach you how to box.” He pulled on his gloves and entered the ring. He threw some punches at my face. These were not smashes; more like smacks meant to humiliate. After a few of these, I backed off.
“Want to try using your Judo on me?” asked Dobie, seeking to further embarrass me. “Go ahead. Let’s see you fight. I’ll put you right on your ass.” I’d had enough and put up my hands.
For the next couple of weeks, Dobie ordered me to his office regularly. He had been speaking with my Latin teacher, asking if I was improving. The answer was no. “You’ll report to boxing this afternoon and keep reporting until you learn. No lying around your room and hiding.” Pointing to one of his signs, he told me to read it aloud: “Luck is always the last refuge of laziness and incompetence.”
“And you know something?” he taunted. “With me you’re out of luck.”
I endured several weeks of lopsided boxing matches until I felt mentally and emotionally numb. At that point, walking from my building to the Main Barracks, I ran into Donald. He smiled and asked how things were going. I told him about Dobias’s persecution. Donald asked offhandedly: “And you want this to stop?” I told him, yes. I wanted it to stop.
“I’ll have a word with him,” said Donald.
I don’t know what Donald said, or if he said anything, but Dobie shelved the boxing matches. Then three things happened:
First, my Latin grades were rising; Dobie left me alone.
Second, I earned a badge of military school manhood. One night after taps, I was lying in bed, furtively smoking a cigarette. From down the hall I heard footsteps and doors opening. This was the approach of the barracks monitor, who opened doors to make sure cadets were asleep and shined his flashlight on our visible hands in order to be sure they were not getting into trouble under the covers. As he approached my door, I flung the cigarette under my bed and pretended to sleep. After a moment in which the swirling light of his flashlight lit up the room, he moved on. When the door closed I leaned over the side of the bed to retrieve my cigarette and smashed my face on the metal rim of my trash can. The next morning, the skin around my right eye was bruised black and blue.
“Hey, look!” bellowed Dobias as we stood at attention before marching to First Mess. “He’s got a shiner! The Judo kid got into a real fight!”
I tried to explain but Dobias wouldn’t listen. Later that morning, as I passed through the Academic Building on the way to class, the Assistant Commandant and the Commandant flashed approving smiles. In this odd way, I seemed to have been lifted from the echelon of rookie losers, to those of the experienced military school fighters, the winners.
The third thing that happened: Dobie called me into his office one afternoon. I assumed that he was going to congratulate me for earning an A in Latin. Instead, what he told me was crushing: “Your father died yesterday. Your family will be here this afternoon to take you home for the funeral.” I felt a sudden anger, as if I wanted to land a punch right in his face. He went on: “Stand tall. I know you’re man enough to take it.”
When I returned from the funeral I found that I’d been transferred to the upper school barracks. I had graduated from Wright Hall and Dobias.
In the years after I left the isolated, hierarchical society of NYMA I had to learn to work in settings that were collaborative and not combative, and where achievement isn’t synonymous with dominance. My schoolmates have reported adapting in the same way.
The exception seems to be Donald, who, thanks to enormous family wealth, could get away with setting his own rules. Today, his bullying style strikes a familiar chord with me and his support for torture reminds me of the (lesser) physical and mental abuse that characterized the culture of the academy.
I never learned what Trump had done to get Dobias off my back. But a story published by Michael E. Miller in The Washington Post seems to shed some light on the matter. Miller had sought an explanation for Trump’s apparent demotion because of a “hazing incident.” In this case, Trump was not the perpetrator but was accused of not paying attention to the conduct of his sergeant.
When Miller asked about the demotion, Trump insisted, “I was promoted. The word is ‘promoted’—mark it down.” Apparently feeling that he needed to underline his contention, Trump later called the reporter back. On the line with them was the 89-year-old Theodore Dobias. Asked by Trump if Dobias would tell the reporter officially that the word is “promoted” not “demoted,” Dobias hesitated.
After 20 minutes, he answered: “Donald Trump wasn’t tough enough on the kids, so he got promoted on the staff.”
Whatever happened, we know that Donald was able, 50 years later, to coerce his old mentor to do his bidding. Perhaps that’s how he sounded when demanding Dobias’s clemency for me.