T.K. Foss never existed. He was a figment of the imagination of generations of sailors at the Naval Academy Prep School at Bainbridge Naval Station Training Center near Baltimore, Maryland. The details of his origin are lost in antiquity–probably sometime in the mid-20th century.
At any rate, by 1961 he was established as one of the would-be midshipmen at the prep school, and somehow was found on every duty roster and attendance sheet at the beginning of each term.
Records would show that he stood a mid-watch somewhere, or an officer would call his name at roll call, and someone would call, “Present.” Eventually, staff would figure out there was no such person and strike his name from the roster, but he continued to be a ghostly presence, as pervasive as John Galt in “Atlas Shrugged.”
Paper trails indicated that Foss stood watches, was granted weekend liberty, filled out official requests for emergency equipment and specialized work tools, and was even cited for violating Navy regulations.
T.K. Foss was a harmless legendary spoof. My friend and roommate T.J. Pollack changed all that. Pollack was the most squared away sailor anyone had ever seen. His white uniforms were always immaculate, his shoes mirror shined. He looked like Keir Dullea, and his Naval deportment was impeccable.
Yet with all that he was incredibly modest—not that smarmy, Uriah Heep kind of modesty that makes you want to gag, but so truly modest that you wouldn’t even notice it. Having known him for half an hour, one would inevitably think of Richard Cory:
“He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean-favored and imperially slim.
And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good Morning!” and he glittered when he walked.”
I heard him lose his temper only once. I had been referring to the (probably apocryphal) story of Columbus trying to get money from the Spanish court to sail west to reach Cathay. Supposedly when they told him it couldn’t be done, he passed around an egg and asked each of the court advisors to stand it on its end.
When none of them could do it, Columbus cracked one end slightly and easily stood the egg on its end. Pollack looked at me deadpan and said, “But you don’t have to crack it, you can just balance it.” I argued with him, of course, and as it happened they served boiled eggs in the mess hall the very next morning. When I returned to our compartment, I found an egg balanced on end on the second shelf of my desk.
Not to be unduly impressed, I pointed out that he had balanced it with the large end down, and thus it was easier, being bottom-heavy. I saw his countenance grow dark for the first and only time. “You SOB!” he yelled, not so much in emotional heat as in moral outrage at being tacitly accused of cheating.
The next time I came into our compartment, the egg was balanced in the same location, but a different position: small end down, so that it would have been top-heavy. I never challenged him again.
We were stationed at Bainbridge for only the summer of 1961, but while we were there we had to stand a base-wide inspection. Fifteen thousand sailors—both men and women—prepared for days to stand at attention in our best, cleanest, newest uniforms. Our company, the NROTC candidates and would-be midshipmen, earned the award for “Company of the base,” because we were the most squared away. Our platoon earned “Platoon of the company.” Our squad earned “Squad of the platoon,” and my roommate Pollack earned “Man of the squad.”
Let me recap: of 15,000 sailors inspected, Pollack was chosen the most outstanding example of a worthy seaman, and nobody was surprised. Pollack never mentioned it. It was as though he never heard the news. He was the talk of the barracks, and not a single man was jealous. He was that kind of guy.
There is a kind of humility which nobody can stand. It’s the kind about which one says, “Butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth.” Pollack did not have that kind. Pollack just did not do anything wrong, ever.
One of the reasons we had been sent to the Naval Prep School was to wash out half of us. We were all fleet candidates, having been chosen from the entire Navy around the world. Of 3,000 applicants, 211 had made it through the tests and interviews and physicals to be sent to Bainbridge to prepare for a college education at the Navy’s expense, in exchange for which we had promised six years each as officers after we would graduate.
But not all of us made it through the summer. By the time we had been sifted and sorted, only 109 of us were left. Naturally, Pollack was one of them. On our last day, before being sent out to our new duty posts—52 universities and colleges all across the U.S.—we stood once more in our best uniforms at our graduation ceremony, while Captain Greene, commander of the entire base, made a little speech of congratulation, and then went around and shook each of us by the hand.
Now, the captain had never met any of us, and had no idea who we were, individually. As he moved through the ranks, he would look each man in the eye, the midshipman would state his name, and the captain would shake his hand and say resolutely, “Congratulations, Smith!” Or Jones, or Kowalski, or whatever.
When he came to me, I spoke in what I hoped was a firm, officer-like tone, “Bosserman, sir,” and he replied, “Congratulations, Bosserman.” He moved on to the next man. Pollack was standing right behind me, so the captain congratulated about 15 more men before he came to Pollack. I couldn’t see them, but I could just make out what they said.
The captain’s heels snapped as he side-stepped to position in front of Pollack, and I heard Pollack murmur, “Foss, Sir. T. K. Foss.” Captain Greene said warmly, “Congratulations, Foss!” The sound of 108 American sailors choking and trying to mask it with coughs and sneezes must have puzzled the captain, but he finished making his congratulatory rounds. In the short time we had left before shipping out to various institutions of learning, Pollack never acknowledged the incident. Oh, but the rest of us did.
My five children grew up hearing that story over and over, till I’m sure they were sick of it, but they never said so.
Fifty years later I flew from Portland, Oregon, to Chicago, Illinois, to watch my youngest daughter graduate from boot camp at Great Lakes Naval Training Center. I met her fiancé, who had flown from San Luis Obispo, and we drove a rented car to the base to observe the ceremony.
We had to check in at the gate with the guard, who pulled out a massive register containing all the names of people the recruits had authorized to be there. Each recruit had been allowed up to four visitors. We gave him our names, and he asked if we knew about a third guest on the list. We looked at each other, puzzled, and then at the sentry, who asked, “Do you know anyone named Foss—T.K. Foss?”