Monday, March 30, 2015

Growing Up 'Military' at VFMA Helped Write Novel

As many of you know from reading my memoir Again in a Heartbeat, I grew up at Valley Forge Military Academy in Wayne, Pennsylvania. Living across the street from an all-boys military academy was not your normal experience. I woke up to the brisk bugle call of Reveille and fell asleep to Taps, mournfully echoing across the academy’s main area to my bedroom window.

Platoons of white trousered cadets passing in review “eyes right” in front of this gawky teenager attending parades are unforgettable images.

Cadets my own age saluting me and nodding "Morning, ma'am" are indelibly imprinted in my memory. While most girls my age headed to high school dances, I donned formal evening gowns and elbow-length white gloves. I attended – Mounted Battalion and Infantry Battalion balls.

Understanding why we’re writing what we are leads to understanding the messages of our books  . . . which helps the writer offer something of value to the reader.

For the last month or so I've been blogging about themes in A Portrait of Love and Honor; that meant going back over old yearbooks and memorabilia from those years at Valley Forge.

The rituals, the mysteries and the myths of West Point. . . a theme in the book, is something I feel I know a little about firsthand. VFMA was patterned after West Point; in fact, some claimed attending high school there a necessary first step to applying to the United States Military Academy.

When I met my husband, John M. Cavalieri, he was chairman of the English Department at Valley Forge, a position my father, Andrew F. Weidener had once held. My husband graduated, USMA Class of 1971. My father felt graduating West Point was a prestigious and distinguished honor, as indeed it is. He and my husband got along famously not just because they both taught literature, but because they had experienced the military life.

Dad never served in World War II, but by the time he left VFMA in the mid-1970s, he had the honorary title "Brigadier General" bestowed on him by the Pennsylvania National Guard.

My father always claimed that his brightest student had been H. Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr.  . . . aka Stormin’ Norman. 

Schwarzkopf graduated from West Point; later, he went on to lead the forces in the Persian Gulf War. Dad was proud that he had a hand in mentoring Schwarzkopf's ascent to West Point and the Long Gray Line. Like my husband, Schwarzkopf is buried in the West Point cemetery.

I remember, too, when other distinguished graduates of West Point came to VFMA. Among them, General William C. Westmoreland, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Although I was ten or eleven at the time, I vividly recall how thrilled my parents were to have met President Eisenhower; my parents got to talk for a few moments to the "great man,” although what they spoke about, I have no recollection. Eisenhower was at VFMA for the dedication of Eisenhower Hall on campus.

One of the high points of my first reporting job was meeting (and briefly interviewing) Bob Hope at Eisenhower Hall.

Hope was a regular visitor to the academy for the Bob Hope Five-Star Award ceremony; an award to recognize distinguished service. Among the recipients: Walter Cronkite, Alexander Haig and Schwarzkopf.

Hope was an ardent supporter of  VFMA. Like West Point, the school held a certain mystique, not just for war heroes, but for the rich and famous. (Photo of Bob Hope courtesy of

Working with John’s West Point memoir as I crafted my novel  offered an opportunity to delve into the many facets of the Long Gray Line and the military that had so influenced me growing up.

So maybe those trips down memory lane helped me write this novel. I like to think they do. I 'speak' of things I know and experienced. That helps. So thanks for the memories, VFMA.

A Portrait of Love and Honor: Based on a true story, A Portrait of Love and Honor takes the reader from the halls of the United States Military Academy at West Point during the Vietnam War to a moving love story between two people destined to meet.

It has been described by New York Times bestselling author, West Point graduate, and former Green Beret Bob Mayer as: “A revealing and authentic look into a cadet's life at West Point against the backdrop of America's social upheaval of the late 60s and early 70s . . . and an inspiring love story about two people who help make each other's dreams come true.”

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