The Farm Boy Vs. the Language Department
Or, Cross Ernie D. at your peril
During my days at the Naval Academy between July 1959 and June 1963 each Midshipman was required to take classes in foreign language during Plebe (freshman) and Youngster (sophomore) years. As I recall the languages offered were Spanish, German, French, Russian, Portuguese and Italian. Choosing which language you wanted to study was the only choice you had during Plebe year. Literally everything else was dictated to you. And if you disagreed with any of the dictates, you were either put on report or sent packing back home with your tail between your legs.
I chose Italian because someone had said it was “the easiest”. What did I know? In my small town Kansas high school language classes were not offered. In fact if you spoke a foreign language in central Kansas in the 1950s other than German, you were eyed with suspicion. Why German? Because the majority of folks who settled in that part of the world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were German immigrants. It was said that if the German Army marched through any central Kansas town, that most of the inhabitants would finds relatives in the ranks.
My choice of Italian was provident because my Plebe year roommates were Tony DeSantis of Irvington, New Jersey, and Joe Fosella of Brockton, Massachusetts…both of Italian ancestry. In fact Tony had grown up in Naples, Italy, coming to the U.S. at age 12, and was fluent in Italian. Having a roommate like that was music to the ears of a tone deaf farm boy with absolutely no aptitude for languages. Tony saved my language bacon on many an occasion Plebe year.
In the days before political correctness infected the land, we referred to the Naval Academy Language Department as the “Dago” department, and called our language instruction “Dago” regardless of which language you studied. Ethnic sensitivity was not a priority at USNA in those days. Jary Lewis, a company mate, one time asked Tony what it sounded like when the shit hit the fan. When Tony couldn’t answer Lew replied with…”WOP…Guinea guinea guinea guinea.”
During my two years of Italian our class section had only two instructors. We called them “Profs”. I don’t know if they were actually professors. One was an easy going gentleman named Paul Beadle. He was much beloved by the Midshipmen. One incident I recall explains the kind of guy he was. There was a map of Italy hanging above the blackboard behind the Prof’s desk which rolled up like a window shade. When the Prof wanted to make a point by using the map, he pulled it down. One time Paul pulled it down and taped to the map was a Playboy centerfold in all her naked splendor. One of my classmates had gotten into the room surreptitiously and had put it there. Beadle just laughed. He thought it was great.
The other Prof was something else. His name was Ernest DeRosa and he was the prototypical Italian. He looked like one of the Italian characters from the Looney Tunes cartoons. He was slightly overweight, had sagging jowls, black slicked back hair, piercing dark eyes and a gigolo mustache. He always looked like he was ready to break into a sweat immediately after taking a shower. He was a firebrand who often cussed us out and called us names when we didn’t meet his strict standards in the study of the Italian language. I don’t know if there were any other Italian Profs in the department. Probably so, but our section never had any but these two.
During the second semester of Plebe year I had a monumental run in with Ernie DeRosa that I will never forget. A number of my classmates from our language section haven’t forgotten it either. The incident is remembered at our five year interval reunions by members of my Naval Academy Company, the Sixth, who were in that class section. In fact I write this tale at the urging of one of my classmates fifty years after the fact.
Each academic department at the Naval Academy was headed by a Navy Captain or very senior civilian during my days as a Midshipman. Although I can’t remember his name, the Language Department was led by a Navy Captain. One day he came into our classroom to monitor the goings on. He was seated in the back of the room. I was reciting something at Prof DeRosa’s direction and got all tongue tied and confused, so I just quit and muttered…”To hell with it.” Things proceeded on and nothing seemed remiss to me. The Captain finally got up and left maybe ten minutes later.
After the Captain had safely left the room DeRosa stood up reached into the air with our text book, which was fairly thin tome, and slammed it down hard onto his desk top. It wasn’t really a desk, but a table, and the book hit it squarely resulting in a loud bang. Steam was coming out of DeRosa’s ears as he glared at me and said, “Praeger, you f**kin’ prick. You embarrassed me in front of the Captain! I’m going to Class A you over this!”
I was thunderstruck. There were two types of violations of the USNA Regulations; a Class B offense was analogous to a misdemeanor, but a Class A was a felony. The great majority of offenses that Mids were placed on report for were Class B’s…unshined shoes, uncut hair, seconds late for meal formations, messy rooms…things like that. Class A’s were for the biggies…unauthorized liberty, drinking in Bancroft Hall, hours late returning from leave. And the numbers of demerits awarded and the punishments meted out for Class A’s were severe. We all feared being written up for a Class A offense. In the spirit of earning a letter for athletic achievement at Navy, being charged with a Class A offense was referred to as earning a black “N”.
I spent the rest of the day sweating bullets because DeRosa was going to write me up for a Class A offense. It wasn’t enough that the upperclassmen didn’t like me because of my status as a Plebe. Now the academic instructors didn’t like me as well. I didn’t know what to do or where to turn. It didn’t seem right that I should be so severely punished for muttering four words under my breath. I was still sweating bullets during the next Italian class, which I think was two days later. After the class DeRosa told me to remain and told me that he wouldn’t write me up if I apologized to the Captain. I readily agreed and made an appointment to see the Captain later that afternoon.
I knocked on the department head’s door. He told me to enter and I marched in, centered myself on his desk and barked, “Midshipman Praeger, Fourth Class, reporting to the Captain as ordered!” He asked me what I wanted and I told him I was sorry for my conduct when he monitored our Italian class two days before. He stared at me quizzically and asked what I was talking about. I tried to explain what I had done, but he had no recollection of me saying anything untoward in his presence. I am reasonably sure that after a long career at sea being around Navy Chiefs and Bluejackets he had heard much worse than had emanated from my young Plebe mouth. He dismissed me and I returned to Bancroft Hall much relieved. Ernie DeRosa never said another word about the incident again.
As I look back on this several things occur to me. What would happen to a Naval Academy prof today if he called a Midshipman a “F**kin’ prick” in a white knuckled rage? Ernie used colorful language in dressing us down for poor pronunciation and conjugation of verbs, but he was never in a rage when he did this. Did uttering the words “To hell with it” rise to the level of deserving a Class A? Class B maybe, but Class A? I doubt it. To his credit, I think Ernie realized that he had backed himself into a corner and took what he considered to be the best course of action to get himself out of it. If the Captain had been offended by what I had said I suspect he would have jumped on me right then and there. Some of the most profane Naval officers I have known wore four gold stripes on their sleeves. Maybe Ernie just didn’t know enough about the real Navy to realize this. Maybe Ernie could have stopped me and told me to apologize to the Captain on the spot, but then there wouldn’t be this story to tell. It is all good for a laugh now, 50 years later, but at the time I was a very frightened young Plebe for a couple of days. I don’t think anything that happened during the remainder of Plebe year scared me like the threat of this Class A offense did. Upon seeing the first draft of this story, Lew Lewis remarked that my run-in with DeRosa was the one exciting thing that happened during two years of Italian instruction. One thing I know for sure. Life and times at the Old Boat School were never boring, with or without Ernie DeRosa…that f**kin’ prick.
Dirck Praeger sends