MORE HARMON STORIES
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It has been said that there are as many stories about General Ernest N. Harmon as there are stars in the sky. Norwich University certainly has amassed an impressive collection of tales out of school. But that comes as no surprise, as for the cadets who attended Norwich under his tenure, General Harmon was a towering figure who didn’t mince his four-letter words. We are delighted to bring you this online companion to the spring 2017 Record account, “Major General Ernest N. Harmon: the ‘Cross’ Disciplinarian.”
I was news editor of The Guidon in my junior year, and editor in chief in my senior year. General Harmon was my most caustic critic. Deep in my archives, I have at least one colorful letter from him describing his detailed evaluation of my content. He disagreed with my news writing style. More importantly, he was not enamored of the opinions as expressed in my editorials. I was often critical of the administration and the way in which discipline was administered within the Cadet Corps. “Old Gravel Voice” used unique methods to control the press. Were they employed in these days, they would be shouted to the rooftops as unconstitutional, oppressive, and manipulative. The ACLU might consider getting involved. The concept of “Freedom of the Press” was neither a philosophy nor a policy on university property. He delegated his most severe methods of persuading me to accede to his point of view to the commandant, Major General Erie Cauldwell, USMC. They were draconian. On the other hand, the general was a warm and generous person. My fondest memory was of a time when just he and I were in his office. It as in my junior year. We were discussing the Guidon at the time. General Harmon told me he had something for me. He reached back on his credenza and took an 8 1/2 x 10 color photograph of the Hill and gave it to me. He autographed the color photo to me. As I recall, he misspelled my name. The photograph is in my collection somewhere. One of these days I will send it to the university library for their archives. —Ben Reid ’53
As I remember him, he enjoyed shocking the faculty wives. One morning at chapel—when the general spoke the faculty brought their wives—he was telling a story about being in the relief force at the Battle of the Bulge. He mentioned tanks running over people and making popping sounds, but the climax was his comment “I’d rather be on the inside pissing out than on the outside pissing in.” Almost to a woman, the faculty wives got up and walked out. I guess they never learned that he planned this type of comment for just that reason. —George Thayer ’55
A Rude Awakening
It was a snowy Sunday morning in 1956, when even as a senior buck I was assigned to be the officer of the day. I had spent the previous evening partying at Lambda Chi, and there wasn’t anything happening on the Hill that morning so I decided I needed to take a short nap. The guard room happened to be in the vicinity of General Harmon’s office, which I knew to have a couch. Since the door to his office was open, I proceeded to nap in his office. I was rudely awakened by a barrage of four-letter words and a red-faced General Harmon towering over me. Not thinking of anything else to say I managed to blurt out, “General, why aren’t you in church?” That annoyed him further. He consequently chased me around the first floor of Dewey Hall, threatening to kill me and continuing to use the same choice words to tell me what he thought of me. Needless to say, I spent the rest of my senior year walking tours. Several years later, while serving as president of the NU Club of New York, I had the honor of welcoming to him to our dinner event. Upon seeing me, the first thing he said was, “You’re the son of a bitch who slept on my couch” and then he slapped me on the back while letting out a loud laugh. I had a few more opportunities to meet the general thereafter, and each time he greeted me the same way. General Harmon was rough and gruff at times but he was always fair. —Hank Gudrian ’56
“No goddamned swearing in the PX!”
I was the cadet colonel in 1958 and led the Corps into Plumley Armory for the Friday semi-religious assembly. It always began with a prayer led by a local pastor. On this particular occasion, General Harmon was upset with a report that cadets were using bad language in the PX, where there were women employees (it was an all-male university at the time). I saluted General Harmon and reported the Corps was formed. General Harmon almost pushed the local minister out of the way as he took the microphone and said “You’ve got to cut out the goddamned swearing in the PX!” Nobody dared to laugh until we were back in the barracks.
On another occasion a cadet, wearing a Davy Crockett coonskin cap instead of his service cap, was walking past the old administration building when General Harmon spotted him from his third-floor corner office. Up went the window and General Harmon ordered the cadet up to his office with a series of expletives—the cadet was still shaking hours later.
But General Harmon’s ability to strike terror was not limited to cadets. I was in the commandant’s office when the commandant, a colonel and decorated combat veteran of the 101st Airborne in WWII, was told that General Harmon was on the line. The colonel’s hands were shaking as he picked up the phone and the only thing he repeatedly replied to the series of shouts that I could also hear, was “Yes, sir.” The colonel forgot why I was there, and so did I. —Fred Bertrand ’58
A Fine Pep Talk
When I was a sophomore in October 1955, a guest speaker addressed the Corps of Cadets and faculty in the Armory. Following the talk, General Harmon thanked the speaker and turned to the audience. He urged the cadets to support the football team the next day in their game with UVM, which had beaten us the previous year by a score of 41 to 0, so expectations of a Norwich victory were not high. He closed his message by saying, “Let’s beat those pimperly-faced bastards this year.” The audience roared their approval and the team went on to tie UVM 20 to 20. It was the finest pep talk I ever heard. —Bob Blandy ’58
Slow Elevator Saves the Day
As Regimental sergeant major, I had an office in Dewey Hall. One morning the general stuck his head in the door and said, “Some son of a bitch better have died or the flag better be up to the top of the flagpole before I get to my office.” Needless to say I got word to the OD and he went scurrying out to take care of the flag. As he was walking back, he glanced up to the top floor and there was the general standing in the window with his arms folded and a big grin on his face. Thank goodness for the slow elevator. —Allen Potter ’58
“Now it’s not stuck.”
This story was told to me many times by my cousin Fred E. (Doc) Steele III who was a student at Norwich in the early 30s when Ernie Harmon was the commandant. Seems that Cadet Steele and roommates were standing inspection one Saturday morning. It was customary to have the window cracked six inches for this occasion but the window was stuck and wouldn’t budge. Harmon entered the room and instantly asked why the window wasn’t up the prescribed half foot and was told that it was stuck. Harmon went to the window and with one heave the window shot to the top, shattering the glass all over the floor. “Now it’s not stuck,” he growled and walked out. —William W. Steele ’59
At our Junior Ring Weekend in 1958, General Harmon was speaking with my fiancée, Carol (who is now my wife) and picked up my ring off her cleavage. He kept up a conversation as he examined it on the ribbon around her neck. Then as he moved on, he dropped the ring which swung back and hit her front. She had that bruise for several weeks! —Robert S. Bidwell ’60
In my junior year, myself and two other classmates, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, ventured south on the railroad tracks with the intent of entering the Northfield Fairgrounds stock-car races without paying. We were approached in the woods by a uniformed Northfield police officer, with a drawn gun, who took us at gunpoint to the fairgrounds and turned us over to the chief of police, where we were made to pay the entrance fee. The next day I reported the incident to my government professor, Dr. Eber Spencer, telling him I thought my constitutional rights had been violated. He agreed, and immediately following class went to see General Harmon about the situation. That afternoon the Northfield chief of police car was in front of Dewey Hall, where Harmon’s office was. That particular police officer that drew the gun was never seen on the police force again. —Charlie Crosby ’63
“What are you afraid of?”
My first encounter with General Harmon took place in the fall of 1959. I was a senior in a Vermont high school trying to get an appointment to a service academy from one of Vermont’s senators or Representative to Congress. The Vermont congressional delegation at the time had established an initial interview/recommendation committee for service-academy appointments headed by General Harmon. Quite apprehensively I presented myself for the interview as scheduled at Norwich University. Seated before the interviewers, who perhaps numbered some six men, I fielded the questions from them as intelligently as I could. About halfway through the interview, General Harmon caught me off guard by asking if I was married. “Fraid not, Sir” I answered. “What are you afraid of?” he asked. “Nothing, sir, but it’s just not the time for me to be married,” I replied. He responded something to the effect that marriage was a good institution and nothing to be afraid of, but a disqualifying factor for selection for a service academy.
As it turned out, nearsightedness kept me from receiving a viable nomination, and I ultimately became a member of the NU Class of 1964. I had further encounters with General Harmon on The Hill to include receiving my diploma from him in 1964, but my interview as a high school senior was my most memorable encounter with him. —Donald E. Bigelow ’64
When I was a sophomore, classmate Jim Tatko and I were headed to Montpelier one night and came upon General Harmon on the side of the road near the top of the hill. We stopped and asked him if he needed help, he said the g*******d car was out of gas, so we pushed him to the top, and down the hill he went and coasted into a gas station. We stopped and primed the carburetor and got his car running. He asked me my name, and thanked us for the help. My senior year I needed an extra days leave to attend my sister’s wedding in Pittsburgh. After the usual cruise through the chain of command, with no luck, I decided to see if General Harmon really did have an “open-door” policy. I explained the problem and assured him I was academically proficient (not always the case). He picked up his phone, called the commandant of cadets and said,” I don’t see any reason why Cadet Egolf shouldn’t get an extra day of leave for his sister’s wedding. Do you?” The leave was approved the next day. —Joe Egolf II ’64
A Memorable Visit to Mess
I can remember when I was a rook, one day General Harmon came to talk to us from the Crow’s Nest. He was not a frequent visitor to the dining hall but occasionally he had to address the Corps and give guidance. You all have probably heard this several times but it is always good to remember. The general wanted us to stay focused on getting a good education and emphasized the discipline of the military schooling. He told the story of a dog crossing the railroad track. While crossing, a train rapidly approached and the dog was not quite fast enough to make it across. In trying to clear the track, the locomotive cut off part of the dog’ s tail. The dog looked around and the next car cut off his head and killed the dog. The moral of the story was “Don’t lose your head over a piece of tail.” —Marshall Ferris ’64
“Get the h*ll out of here!”
My parents brought me to NU to begin my first year in 1961. After morning in-processing, we went to lunch in the mess hall and General Harmon addressed the new rooks and their parents. He explained, in his gravel voice, that the rooks were going to be very busy during the next few weeks and to not expect many letters and certainly no phone calls. He told the parent that, “We are going to take good care of your boys and make men out of them, so why don’t you pack up and get the hell out of here.” My poor mother’s jaw nearly bounced off the table. My father said that as they drove away, she was in tears and was sure that a great mistake was made when I chose Norwich. —Roy Bair ’65
Editor’s note: On his first trip home. Roy Bair told his mother he wanted out of Norwich. She leveled a gaze on him and said, “Quitter.” He returned to the Hill sufficiently shamed, and not only did he finish out at Norwich, but years later he returned as a professor. See the upcoming summer issue of the Record for an excerpt of Roy Bair’s last letter to President Schneider, penned days before Roy passed away in early 2017.
Another Memorable Mess
Freshman year, lunch in the mess hall the day we get off campus for Thanksgiving. General Harmon addresses the Corps from the “Crow’s Nest.”
It goes something like this: You rooks are getting off the Hill for a few days. I have a story for you. A cat was crossing the railroad tracks. Just as he got past the second rail, a train came by and cut off his tail. He turned to see what happened and the next car cut off his head. The moral of this story is, don’t lose your head over a piece of tail. Enjoy your Thanksgiving holiday.
During my second year I was walking past the “head shed” when the general drove up in his car. I saluted as usual and continued walking. He stopped the car and yelled to me to come over to him. Thinking I must have done something wrong, I was a bit nervous as I approached the general. He asked me if I was on duty or going to a class. I replied no, and he handed me his car keys saying, please take my car down to the car dealer just off campus (think it was a Ford dealer, can’t remember for sure) for service. I promptly got in the car and enjoyed quite a few salutes as I drove off the Hill. —Ed Verock ’65
The “Tail” of the Dog
One day before a holiday break he addressed the Corps from the Crow’s Nest in the Mess Hall, and concluded his remarks with the statement, “Just remember the dog sleeping beside the railroad tracks!” A murmur went through the Corps, and it was evident that not many knew what he was referring to, so Cadet Colonel Andrews, ’64, called him back to the microphone to tell the story. “There was a dog sleeping beside the tracks with his tail hanging over the rail. Along came the train and cut of the dog’s tail. The dog woke up and turned to see what happened and the back wheels took his head off. The moral to the story is to not lose your head over a little piece of tail.” —Paul A Cigal ’65
I was fortunate to win the Patton Pistol in 1967 and have it presented by General Harmon. Instead of the expected congratulations, he put the pistol in my hand and said “get a few … for me.” A combat commander to the last! —Gerald McDonald ’67
A Trilogy of “Ernie” Stories
I was a rook in the academic year 1964-65 (we didn’t shed rook status until Junior Week in those times).
In the fall the Coast Guard football game was in Northfield. Their freshmen showed up with a torpedo that they paraded around as some sort of symbol of whatever. We rooks stormed the field and took the torpedo away. It apparently got hidden in Wilson Hall or someplace at the end of the UP. Harmon summoned the alleged new “owners” of the torpedo and asked if they had it. Of course they allowed to “Ernie” that they did have it. Harmon turned to one of his aides and said “Good, fill the son of a bitch with sand and send it back to ‘em COD.”
With tales of such stories coupled with our limitless respect for him as a WWII general and commander of the famed 2nd Armored Division, we listened intently whenever he came to the mess hall. (We actually ate together in those years as an entire Corps three times a day.) On one particular occasion he addressed us at second mess and referenced UVM. It was during a time when UVM was our biggest rival in sports and morale in the Corps was keenly focused on anything having to do with beating UVM. In his announcement relating to something now long forgotten, Ernie recounted that at one point in Norwich history the state legislature had proposed that NU being the Military College of Vermont would become part of UVM. Having reached that point in his remarks he paused to reflect and said “What a hell of a mistake THAT would have been.” That brought down the house and 1,200 hundred cadets sprang to their feet in applause. Ernie had that kind of charismatic effect on all of us.
Later that year in the spring it was announced that General Harmon would be inspecting the Corps at SMI: Saturday Morning Inspection. I don’t know if this tradition still exists but in my years, we were subjected to a stringent and full inspection of our rooms every single Saturday morning; that included waxed floors and completely washed windows inside and out. I recall that hearing Harmon would be the inspecting officer truly inspired us to make the inspection as successful as possible out of respect for him. As I look back I only now realize this was undoubtedly his last inspection as President of Norwich, which is a charming thought, but we were so much in the present we didn’t think of it as nostalgic. We thought if it only as important to please a leader we fully respected. With this as the backdrop my roommate and I went over and over the room meticulously. His arrival was delayed by unexplained circumstances; probably having to do with the General’s lingering satisfaction of seeing his cadets in their best form for one last time. As we waited, we fussed over and over and one of the tricks was to very lightly spray our tightly made beds with the water bottles we used for pressing our trousers. This mist would keep down the dust when the inspecting officers hit the bed with their swagger stick. As the anxious moments passed and we pressed for perfection I must have sprayed my bed numerous times just to be busy and to make sure we were in the best shape possible. Finally, the door swung open. We snapped to attention and in came the commandant of cadets, Colonel Hugh R. O’Farrell, leading General Harmon. Our eyes remained riveted to the front at attention, so we could only glimpse the presence of both men when I heard O’Farrel’s swagger stick hit my blanket with a loud “squish.” The spray bottle and the delayed time of arrival had betrayed me, for instead of dust I had made mud out of my blanket. We always took our blankets outside and snapped them as cleanly as we could but the year’s worth of dust was just too much. Colonel O’Farrell leaned into my ear from an angle that only allowed me to hear him and not see him and he said in his southern drawl… “You sleep in this mess, Mr. Briggs?” It took all I could do to respond in a cadet-like manner, and say, “Yes, sir,” out of concern that I had botched the most important inspection of my rook year. Then they were gone. When I turned around I could see the muddy outline of O’Farrel’s swagger stick still visibly imprinted in my soggy blanket.
One thing Norwich teaches is the vital importance of a sense of humor, and we had to chuckle over the sight of that swagger stick tattoo on my bed. I’m absolutely sure “Ernie” left that room smiling too, although we never saw that and he never saw us smile either. Sometimes the subtleties of life produce the richest moments. Norwich teaches that too but I’ll always cherish having come of age at NU on General Harmon’s watch, which was typically direct and far less than subtle. —David Briggs ’68
Coffee with the General
As a kid growing up next door to the Harmons, I delivered the Burlington Free Press every morning. I started my route around 5 a.m. because I had over 100 customers and it took a while to make the rounds. On cold winter mornings, Ernie would be in the kitchen already getting ready for another day on the Hill and he would often invite me in for a cup of hot chocolate to warm me up. He was full of stories about Norwich and about life in general. I never really realized what a treat it was for me to be able to share that time with him until I was older and knew more about what a hero and leader he truly was. By then he had moved north to the house on Lake Champlain but I still fondly recall those dark winter mornings and his generosity to a boy just getting started in life. —Shawn W. Bryan ’70
A Brother in Arms
Just after General Harmon’s book had come out I went to the PX to get a copy for my dad’s best friend from the Army: Lieutenant Colonel William Howes USAR (Ret.), who served under the general in WWII. They had already run out of signed copies. I asked when they would be getting more in and was told if I turned around and asked very nicely I might get one. As I turned around, General Harmon was standing right behind me, having heard the whole change. Needless to say, I was going to give “Uncle Bill” a copy that said, “To William Howes, a brother in arms” for his birthday a few weeks later. Unfortunately, before I was able to present him the book, Uncle Bill died of a heart attack while skiing at Haystack Mountain in Wilmington, Vt. Instead I gave it to my dad, also a retired Lieutenant Colonel, who served in the South Pacific in WWII. They served together for over 25 years as reserve officers in the 78th Division. —Rick Ege ’73