Few know that I spent four years behind bars. No, I wasn’t a bartender, nor was I a criminal. I was a Citadel cadet, attending the military college of South Carolina, where they locked us up at night.
Ground floor room windows had bars, and each barracks’ iron gates safely secured five hundred men each night. We never figured out whether those bars were protecting the corps of cadets or the citizens of Charleston.
We lived Spartan lives in cell-sized rooms with bunk beds and without air conditioning. Televisions and coffee makers were forbidden. Air-conditioned rooms and computers have spoiled today’s cadets, but things get cushy over time.
Pets were unauthorized, though cadets broke rules. It was rumored that one hid a snake in his room. A classmate once showed me his pet alligator.
A Fox in the next barracks — my friend Larry Fox — urged me to get a female hamster to mate with Sam, his hamster. Hamsters, though rodents, are warm-blooded and more fun than reptiles.
Larry told us about a flying hamster in his barracks. Cadets had made a parachute, secured a hamster to it, and tossed the hapless pet from the top floor to its death. Falling four floors to the cement quadrangle earned that hamster its heavenly reward. Cadets who witnessed this event, some of whom would parachute when they entered the military, learned a lesson that day. I’m not sure what the lesson was, because I wasn’t invited. Maybe hamsters were not meant to fly.
Upperclassmen had choreographed this parachuting extravaganza, enjoying a privilege that they’d crucify a freshman for. Afterwards, freshmen performed a burial ceremony for the hamster. Chris McClure in the Regimental Band played bagpipes at the funeral.
I got a Charleston Pass one Saturday and went to a pet store, where the salesperson checked carefully and assured me that I was buying a female. I couldn’t tell. I didn’t know much about sex at that time. I named her Juanita and smuggled her into the barracks. During the day when roommate Dick Evans and I were in class or at drill, we’d hide Juanita inside our wooden shoebox. That box, about as big as a cardboard box that new shoes come in, was for shining rags and polish.
Saturday Morning Inspections required the shoebox to be open, so I designed a hiding place for those few minutes. After carefully emptying and enjoying the contents of a Whitman’s Candy box, I covered it with a book cover, put black tape on the top to cover the yellow, and punched holes in the sides so Juanita wouldn’t suffocate. When we heard the room next door come to attention, we’d shove Juanita into her hiding place on the bookshelf and hope she wouldn’t make noise.
We took Juanita to Larry’s room one day, and left her. He put her in the metal trash bucket with Sam. Instead of breeding, they fought. Seems both were females. Larry apologized for not knowing Sam’s sex and renamed her Samantha.
We’d play with Juanita, letting her run on the bed while we lay studying. We fed her milk and veggies from the mess hall. We got her a wheel to keep fit. She’d run while Dick and I wrestled on the floor. Everyone exercised!
One day I heard a snap, like a toothpick breaking. Dick had rolled over on his bunk and broken Juanita’s leg. We consulted our medically inclined classmates. One suggested that we buy ether and reset the leg, fastening wooden matchsticks as a splint. I opined that we flush Juanita down the toilet. Ether was expensive, so in the end, we did nothing. Juanita shuffled for a few weeks. Across the top bunk she’d hobble and then fall to the floor. We didn’t let her on the bed after that. Over time, she stopped limping as her leg healed. Then it was back to her treadmill.
One evening, when everyone was out frolicking in Charleston (except for Dick and me, who were under restriction for three months for bad behavior), Bill Daniels staggered in to ask why we weren’t out. He was intoxicated. As he was slurring about what a great time he’d had, he saw Juanita dash from behind one bookcase to the other.
“A rat!” he hollered. “I swear. It was a rat! It went behind this bookcase.” Bill walked to the bookcase, where he saw and pointed to Dick’s ashtray on the floor, filled with milk, and a small dish of lettuce. With horror in his glazed eyes, Bill concluded, “My God! You’re feeding it.”
We’d lost his trust. To Bill, it was as though we’d been caught nourishing the enemy. We ushered him to the door telling him he’d had too much to drink, which was true, and that he was seeing things, which also was true.
We bade him goodnight as he lurched to his room. He never mentioned the incident.
One morning we awoke but Juanita didn’t. We buried her without fanfare in an unmarked grave on The Citadel campus. Future archaeologists may wonder when exhuming her bones exactly what cadets of the old corps used for food.
–Ronald Allan Charles ’65