Angel of Light

Angel Of Light

The first beating began several hours after Taps. I was the youngest cadet at Culver Military Academy and absolutely friendless at the age of twelve. Band Barracks was said to be the best dorm at the Academy and I had pretended to play a clarinet in order to live there.

The Culver campus wraps around Lake Maxinkuckee, it’s stately ancient halls lending an air of elegance to the rural small-town feel of Culver, Indiana. On Saturdays and Sundays, tightly formed regiments of blue and grey uniforms move in unison across the Academy

parade grounds. Weekdays, small knots of students drift past ivy covered classrooms, while others fill the castle-like library, preparing themselves to be leaders in medicine, law and politics. The sons of Japanese prime ministers, Mexican generals and Hollywood movie stars study shoulder to shoulder. But amidst this treasure trove of humanity lies something dark and unsettling. Something unexpected.

Plebes were required to snap to attention in the presence of senior cadets, to request permission to eat, to use the restroom or even to speak. In the bowels of the dorms, students were also required to remove their shirts and hang by their wrists as child officers beat them with wet towels.  It was, in the midst of such darkness, that some students arose, in response to an inner calling, and brought civility and kindness to a community of madness that was  led by a Lord of the flies.

Two days after my parents helped me stow my gear, I sat in the first band practice of the year, as Colonel Payton, the Band Director, evaluated the proficiency of each cadet. One after another, the students volunteered some well rehearsed rendition of their favorite tune. I watched fearfully as the Colonel worked his way around the semi-circle. Inevitably, his eyes fell on me. I sat rigidly in the hard backed chair, wishing I could melt within it, but there was no escape.

After an awkward minute, the irritated Colonel barked, “Well, play something!”

I shifted in my seat. Every eye was on me. A muffled giggle arose from within the ranks as I remained motionless; like a rabbit hoping the predator before him would grow bored and move on.

“Then play middle C.”

Payton’s mocking request stirred up two or three muted snickers. Silence. A few more snickers and a barely supressed laugh. More silence.

“I can’t.” The whisper was almost inaudible.

“What did you say?” The Colonel’s voice rose and changed pitch. Like the shrill cry of a hawk,  he repeated, “What did you say?”

“I can’t,” The words barely left my lips.

The entire room exploded with laughter and expletives. Amidst the  snickering chorus, I heard a voice or two rise above the noise. “What an idiot!” Can you believe this fool?”

I stared straight ahead, gripping my useless clarinet, tears starting to form. Across the semi-circle, one of the older cadets sat quietly in his chair, his eyes silently running over the crowd of heckling students. He was almost motionless, and his eyes settled on mine. Ever so slightly, he nodded his head in my direction.

After class, Colonel Payton called me aside. His voice boomed across the practice hall.

“You’ll never play an instrument, Karl. You’re hopeless.”

It shouldn’t have been surprising when four First Class officers burst to my room that night, pulling me off the top bunk. I awoke to a rain of fists and curses, with a few hard kicks thrown in for good measure. It was almost two in the morning and the beating was the first of many.

That fall, I continued with the band, marching out of step, my shirt tail perpetually hanging from my trousers, my fingers running uselessly over the holes of my instrument. My lips never blew a single note and my eyes looked straight ahead as I paraded across the field, my heart and mind filled with beating drums and blaring trumpets. Worse, I claimed I suffered from photophobia. On Sundays,  we marched across the parade grounds, our parents watching proudly from the stands. My father always said I was easy to spot among the sea of grey uniforms. I was the only kid with sunglasses.

Everyone was smart at Culver, even the bullies. Most were from fine families and every cadet seemed to be destined to rule the world. Over time, my fellow band members became multimillionaire businessmen, important players in the National Security Agency and international financiers. But beneath the veneer of intelligence and education brewed dark currents of anger, manipulation and sadism.

The bullies chose their victims intuitively. Two of the most feared cadets in the school were Martinez and Timberlake. They took special glee in seeking out the meek and awkward, pulling them out of the crowd to endure their humiliation. Martinez was especially artful in his cruelty. He was an accomplished kick boxer and offered his victims the opportunity of future immunity if they could touch his leg before it landed squarely in the center of their chest. No one ever won that prize. Timberlake would force the weak to strip down to their underwear and then bind their hands over their head and hoist them up against the side of the giant eight foot wardrobes that were assigned to each cadet. He would then flail them with wet towels. To breathe a word to the adults on campus would bring certain destruction at the hands of savages’ friends.

The bullies ruled the campus like SS. Their victims quickly scurried out of sight, hiding in whatever refuge could be found in the moment. At times, we would see some poor cadet standing behind Company B’s barracks, crying and waiting for Martinez to practice his art on the boy’s chest and belly.

At night they would come for me. Not every night, but often enough that I never knew when I would find myself flung off the bunk onto the concrete floor, to be kicked and beaten. At other times, Timberlake would come and slug me in the face with his fist as I stood at attention, motionless, in company formation. I was not allowed to move. So life went on, day after day, week after week.

Then there emerged a different sort of cadet. With an air of absolute confidence, he moved through the campus as if he owned it. He spoke quickly and comfortably about a thousand different topics, as if he had already lived a hundred lifetimes. Even the bullies magically parted before him, giving him wide berth and due respect. His tone was invariably mild, never wavering. Every facet of his being was charismatic and charming, and he carried himself with power, as if he were beyond human, moving like an angel of light through the crowd of other cadets. It was Doug, the cadet who had silently nodded to me at the first Band practice.

One night I woke to the familiar sound of the bullies charging through the door. As their arms reached out to grab hold of me I heard Doug’s even, steady voice.

“Hold on there. What do you guys think you’re doing?”

The other voices immediately fell silent. As I turned toward the door, I could see Doug standing beneath its frame, in full uniform, hat on head, his eyes staring straight through the ruffians.

“I think I’ve had enough. Leave him alone. No more. Ever.”

Not another word was spoken. As if someone had flipped a switch, all four hoodlums turned quietly around and walked out of the room, never to return. Doug’s eyes then turned to me. Once again, he made the slightest of nods, looked away, and walked out.

The rest of the year dragged slowly on. Although the bullies never again visited me in the night, there were plenty of other sadistic students to endure. I noticed the way they all gave deference to Doug. He had a mysterious persuasive manner about him. It seemed he had little to say and yet the bullies seemed to understand him and always stepped aside to let him pass. As my last year at Culver came to an end, close to twenty of the bullied students banded together and walked in unison to the Commandant’s office to report what was going on. The school tried to make some needed changes but it was too late for me. I left, never to return, at the close of the semester.

I always considered myself a good judge of character. I understood that a veneer of education, culture and wealth can hide something monstrous in the hearts of human beings. Those who dehumanize others often reveal their own lack of humanity.

Martinez went on to become an accomplished entertainment attorney in New York City.  I recently connected with him on Linked-In. I doubt he remembered who I was.

Timberlake attended medical school and opened a pediatric clinic for impoverished families in Denver.

As for Doug, he moved to California, where I imagined he settled down and raised a family. I figured he probably became a high level executive in the insurance industry or some other boring endeavor.

It is odd how life works out. We imagine that the present gives us a clue to the future. And yet, what we see is often only the tip of a larger iceberg, whose unseen dimensions wait beneath the surface to snare the unwary.  What we never see may be far more important than the things we observe.

Not long ago, as I walked past the TV in my living room, a true crime show was blaring out the details of some far away crime.

“Doug Clark was the well-heeled son of a successful financier. He grew up in Switzerland before being sent to

Culver Military academy, where he graduated in 1965.”

I stopped in mid-stride. What had Doug done? Embezzled millions of dollars from his company or swept a few beautiful women off their feet and took their money?

“Known as the Sunset Strip Killer, Douglas Clark hunted and killed prostitutes on the streets of Los Angeles with his girlfriend, Carol Bundy. In at least one case, he decapitated his victim and took a shower with her head.”

I watched as images of my friend appeared and disappeared on the screen. I thought of Culver, of Doug’s slight nod, of the way the bullies avoided him.

What flowed thru his mind that never rose to the surface as we lived together in the Band barracks?  An underground stream of visions, thoughts and lusts that moved unseen in the darkness, fed by an ocean of hatred and anger. Out of control, he seemed on the surface to be in complete self-control, able to project power through confidence and charm. Doug, like an angel of light, provided me relief and favor with the same equanimity and self assurance that he used to end the lives of so many others.

Doug was convicted of four murders, although homicide detectives suspect he has killed over twenty women. Today, he is spending his days on death row in San Quentin. For several years, Douglas Clark spent his life spreading death through the streets of Los Angeles, but when I was a young boy at Culver Academy, it was the Sunset Strip Killer who lent me a hand.

“…for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light.” 2Corinthians 11:14j