Me? Yeah, I was there, and yes, it really did happen, pretty much the way you heard. Believe me, that night didn't start out good for any of us!
Why? Well, after all, we had lost the game, and to Navy, no less. You really want me to talk about it?
Ok then. You see, losing to Navy wasn't even the worst part. Even losing the football game 34 to 6 wasn't the worst part. No, the worst part was that a challenge had been thrown down for us, by our Commander in Chief, of all people, and we'd failed to meet it, all while he was watching.
That night, we were about to accept the consequences – Cold MREs in tents set up right smack in the middle of our football field – at night and in the snow. And seeing our buddies studiously trying not to look sorry for us over the past couple of days was kind of hard to take. Josh Grady, our fullback, muttered to me, "Cold MREs? Marty, I think I'd really rather eat crow – literally!"
As we walked down towards the Stadium from the Field House, someone else grumbled, "What kind of man would set us up for this?"
Egon, our team Captain, didn't let that pass. "Can it! This is part of being a soldier. Politicians make bets with our sorry butts as collateral, and we get to pay up. It happens all the time in the military, so get used to it!"
Someone else said, "Hey Barney! You roomed once with Roscoe Buckminster, and his dad was a good friend of the President, did he ever talk about him?"
"Barney" Barnes looked thoughtful for a minute, and then replied.
"Yeah he did. It was kind of funny; no one even suspected Roscoe knew the President at all until after 9-11 when his dad died at the Pentagon. During one of our bull sessions later that spring, he talked about it some.
"He said in a way, he was just following President Buckman's example about not talking about things that might get you points for the wrong reasons. He said one thing about the President was he was already worth about $50 million by the time he got out of the army as a Captain, and no one, not even his wife, thought he had anything other than Captain's pay to live on before that. He said 'Uncle Carl' was just a regular guy. He'd drink beer with Roscoe's dad (who was black as the Ace of Spades, by the way), play with the kids some, crack jokes, and take a load off his feet when they visited. One thing though – Roscoe said his dad told him not only was the President scary smart, as in the smartest man he'd ever met, he was also the most unpretentious and plainest speaking man he ever knew. His dad told him the President wasn't just 'test' smart, but he was also people smart and a situational genius, and as tough as nails when he had to be. What's more, Roscoe said his dad told him that waaaaay before the man ever became President!"
The rest of us kind of grunted at that, but we kept walking. As a distraction from what we were about to face, those thoughts only worked for a few moments.
The tent loomed up in front of us. One of us held the tent flap open while the rest of us lined inside.
Inside, the gloom of the early darkness was only somewhat relieved by several field lanterns strung up on the tent poles. A long table was lined up on one side, flanked by a couple of Sergeants, and on the tables were stacks of MREs, with cartons of cold milk at the end. Even though it was a bit warmer in the tent, our breaths were still fogging the air in front of us. Yeah, it was just a bit colder than it is today, but back then I mainly thought it was pretty surreal – and still pretty miserable.
The line started moving along the side table to pick up our MREs, but it moved slowly and pretty much quietly. I don't think any of us really were very hungry at all.
As I approached the table, I heard a voice just outside the tent, with a slight southern accent, say, "No, General, I'd like to do this alone. I set them up for this all by myself; I'll take the fall the same way."
I looked up in confusion, as did Bill Tanner, next to me, as a man dressed in fatigues with Captain's insignia got in line next to him, saying, "Mind if I join you?" Then Bill's eyes got wide, and he popped to attention, shouting "ATTEN- HUT! COMMANDER IN CHIEF IN THE TENT!"
You'd better believe we all popped to! But even as we did, he raised his voice and said, "As you were, as you were, everyone! I'm just here to take my lumps with the rest of you." Then he looked down at the MRE in his hands with a grimace, and said, almost to himself, "These have gotta be better than '70s field rations, right?"
Needless to say, the buzz around the tables was pretty loud, and it quieted only a bit when he sat down in the middle of our table with us, opened his MRE, and started digging in. With a mouth half full of food, he looked up at me and said, "Hello son, what's your name?" I stammered a reply, and he went around the table getting names, and at the end, said with a wry grin, "You know I won't remember all these names, but I'll try."
He made short work of his MRE, chewing around the questions I'd guess any politician would ask, like our home towns, what position we played, things like that. Then he raised his voice a bit and said, "Those of you at other tables, whenever you're finished, gather round. Sit on tables if you can't see, I won't mind. This'll be our best chance ever just to talk, and we can talk about anything you want."
And that's just what we did! There were about 90 guys gathered around a bare dining table in a tent lit by field lanterns, talking with this man sitting there in a captain's fatigues with an 82nd Airborne patch on the shoulder and the name plaque "BUCKMAN" over the right pocket. It was still cold, and our breaths were still fogging, but somehow we didn't care anymore. And we did talk with him about anything and everything.