Tag Archives: military

Summer Camp Taps Tradition

Main Piece:

BO, a junior at USC, shared this story from a Musician Summer Camp he attended. He says, “Like at 10PM everynight we would all have to be in bed in our cabins while they play a military trumpet song called Taps. Everyone was supposed to be extremely quiet and if you made any noise you’d get in trouble. The idea was it was supposed to give everyone in the whole camp a few minutes of silence to reflect on their day.”


BO is a junior at USC. He attended this music summer camp from ages 12 to 18 and was familiar with lots of its traditions. This piece was taken during a text chat with BO.


This tradition seems to reflect the discipline that they would teach at the camp. BO explained how they would train a lot during this musician camp, and discipline is a big part of this training. Playing Taps, a military song which is typically played during solemn times, shows how this moment at the end of their day is a time for them to reflect. The formal nature of it also shows how they are training their musicians to be disciplined, and self reflection is important to that.

Army Movie Star Game

Main Piece:

Here is a transcription of my (CB) interview with my informant (GK).

CB: “Okay so, do you play any games”

GK: “There are a lot of different games that people in the armed services play to keep themselves entertained during long extended hours of boredom. So one is like you name a movie star, and then you would go back and forth naming someone they were in a movie with. So like if I said Angelina Joli, you could say Brad Pitt, and I would have to say Angelina Joli and someone else. And you just go back and forth until someone loses the game, for hours.”

CB: “Where did you hear about this game?”

GK: “We played it at basic.”

CB: “What do you think is the point of this game?”

GK: “To stay awake”

CB: “What does the game mean to you?”

GK: “That life can be very dull and that you should never take for granted the entertainments provided to you by modern technology.” 


My informant just graduated from basic training, and is now at a military base waiting to start further training and specialization. He grew up with an older brother in the army and has learned a lot about army culture from him, and then from his superiors at basic training. A lot of basic training is about preparing the soldiers for any possible situation. This calls for staying awake for hours on end while engaging in mind-numbing tasks. It was in these situations that games such as the one described would be played.


I called my informant to interview him over the phone, and recorded the interview on my laptop. I had often asked him about his experiences since enlisting, and so my questions were fairly normal for him. It was a casual comfortable conversation with the occasional input from his roommate.


My first thought when I heard this game was that it sounded incredibly boring. But I guess that is also a part of the appeal. The game is meant to be just enough to keep the players awake and engaged, without being mentally or physically tiring. In the military, your fellow soldiers can come from all over the country with different life experiences and cultures. The game provides a way for the players to engage with one another without calling for too specific of cultural knowledge. Celebrities and pop culture is accepted to be known by nearly everyone, and so it acts as a way to bridge the cultural gaps between two people.

Fort Ord Suicide Ghost Story

Main Piece:

Here is a transcription of my (CB) interview with my informant (HH).

CB: “Can you tell me about Fort Ord?”

HH: “Okay so i heard this story about the old Fort Ord barracks and how they got abandoned because there was this soldier who… um… was apparently was like ignored and really unhappy for a long time and he would like talk about seeing ghosts and a couple people thought that he was like maybe schizophrenic. But he…uh… he ended up hanging himself in the barracks in front of a bunch of his fellow soldiers. And then, after he died, a bunch of people would say that they could like still hear his warnings and like his stories of seeing things. And hear his footsteps. Its really simple and kinda stupid, but that’s what I heard about the old Fort Ord barraks. And thats why they had to shut everything down because it was like affecting their life and the government was getting backlash for it”

CB: “So, where did you hear this story?”

HH: “Um, it was from someone I knew in high school.”

CB: “What do you think is the meaning behind the story?”

HH: “Um, I think it was that um… the government doesn’t really care about our soldiers and their mental health”

CB: “Why do you think people tell the story”

HH: “I think that it’s still very much a problem. Like for soldiers who come back from active duty and they suffer from PTSD, they just don’t really have a lot of resources or outreach. Like they do now a little more that mental health is on the front line of peoples worries, but even now i still think soldiers are kinda shamed for having it.”


My informat grew up in Salinas, California, which is just minutes from Fort Ord. The fort was abandoned in the 90’s, and there have been all sorts of mysterious stories about the abandonment. The community had a very close relationship with the The old barracks of the fort are a known hangout spot for teens, and with that comes all sorts of ghost stories.


I had actually called my informant’s mother to interview her about folklore, but my informant overheard the conversation and told me this story. My informant and her mom were in the car, and they told me this story while driving around Salinas. The conversation was fun and casual.


I think that ghost stories naturally present themselves whenever there is an abandoned structure. I think that ghost stories are particularly common when dealing with american teen culture.  However, I think that it’s really interesting what the stories reveal about what that culture values at that time. Most of the ghost stories that I’ve heard place little emphasis on who the ghost used to be, just on the death and the haunting. But this story explains a history of untreated mental illness as the reason for the death, and possibly even the haunting. It places a clear blame on the US government for neglecting their soldiers. A lot of the more recent movements for mental health awareness and help have been led by young people, and so it makes sense that the folklore that young people tell would begin to incorporate their values.

My Girlfriend’s A Vegetable; An Army Cadence

Main Piece:

Here is a transcription of my (CB) interview with my informant (GK).

GK: “My girlfriend’s a vegetable, (and then everyone would answer you back, so like each time you say something they say it again). So it goes:

My girl’s a vegetable

She lives in the hospital

And I would do anything to keep her alive

She has a green TV

It’s called an EKG

I would do anything to keep her alive

She has no arms or legs

That’s why we call her Peg

I would do anything to keep her alive

Sometimes I play a joke, pull a plug and watch her choke

But I would do anything to keep her alive

“So yeah there’s a lot of just nonsense ones like that, that are very strange” 

CB: [laughs] “Thats great, so what does it mean to you?”

GK: “Well that one in particular doesn’t really mean anything to me”

CB: “So what context would they sing them in?”

GK: “Oh, you just sing them to pass the time. And too, they’re also like morale raisers. Like when morale is really low you’d just sing a cadence. Because like they actually sound pretty musical when everyone sings them together, and like you don’t need any instruments and everyone knows them.”

. . .

“A lot of them are about dying, to like make dying seem not so bad. A lot of them are about really horrible things too. There’s like napalm 66, and there’s one about shooting up a playground. There’s just all sorts of shit”

CB: “And so why do you think they’re so horrible?”

GK: “Well like war is a horrible thing, and so a lot of cadences are started by infantrymen, and it prepares people for the horrible things that they’re going to see for one. And two, singing them, it makes things seem not so bad. Like they sing about the worst things that can happen to you. And just thinking about it is so awful it can make you freeze up, and when you sing about it and make it not so bad, so then when you think about it, it makes it more of like a joke so you’re not going to freeze up.”


My informant just graduated from basic training, and is now at a military base waiting to start further training and specialization. He grew up with an older brother in the army and has learned a lot about army culture from him, and then from his superiors at basic training. He described cadences as very similar to a sort of summer camp song that bonds and amuses those engaging in it. The main difference is the content. Despite this example being relatively mild, my informant assured me that many cadences engage in very dark humor and describe horrific events.

I called my informant to interview him over the phone, and recorded the interview on my laptop. I had often asked him about his experiences since enlisting, and so my questions were fairly normal for him. It was a casual comfortable conversation with the occasional input from his roommate.


The cadences portray horrible situations as humorous. The song describes a loved one on life support humorously, while also portraying a commitment to her. It encourages the singers and the listeners to interact with a horrific reality, that they might not have been prepared for otherwise. My informant talked about how the cadences are spread by infantrymen who are likely engaging in some of the worst situations that war has to offer. The cadences are then taught to the incoming trainees as a way to desensitize them and prepare them for the horrors ahead. It’s interesting that they also act as such a strong morale booster. I think that by singing them with others it acts as a reminder that you’re not alone. Yes, you may be forced into some horrific situations, but you will never be alone.

For another version of this song see entry titled “My Girls A Vegetable” in the online Army Study Guide. https://www.armystudyguide.com/content/cadence/marching_cadence/my-girls-a-vegetable.shtml


Original Script: 짬타이거

Phonetic (Roman) Script: Zzam tiger

Transliteration: Leftover tiger

Translation: Leftover cat

Main Piece:

The following conversation was translated from its original language Korean.

All Korean men have to serve in the military, so there’s a lot of military specific stuff and language that most men know. One thing that I remember is the zzam-tiger. “Zzam” is a shortened word for “zzanban” which means leftover food. Zzam tigers are cats that roam around army bases and eat leftover food. They are called tigers because I think it’s a cuter nickname, and Koreans just love anything that have to do with tigers. Most zzam-tigers are stray cats, but quite often there are upper ranking officers who bring their own pet cats to their bases, so it’s a mixed bag. But either way, no soldier is supposed to harm or even remotely be rude to the cat. Besides risking insulting your officer’s pet, why would you just be a dick to a cat? That’s mean. Most soldiers are really nice to these cats, because they’re cute. Most zzam-tigers are treated as mascots of those bases, and all bases have at least one zzam-tiger. It’s like having a communal pet. And it’s really therapeutic to have a cat around, because these cats are really friendly. They can also get rid of rats, if your base has any. Similarly, if your base has a dog, they are called zzam-wolf, and seagulls near navy ships are called zzam-phoenix. The part of the joke is to call them stronger than they really are. It’s part of the fun.


My informant is a Korean man in his mid 20s, who had just been discharged from his mandatory service about a year ago. His base also had a stray cat that was beloved by him and his fellow soldiers. Military jargon and tales are very a large part of Korean culture, especially for Korean men, as mandatory military service is an almost-universal experience for them. It is a unifying thing that most Korean men share, and a frequent conversation starter.


The conversation took place over the phone. My informant was at his house in Seoul, Korea, and he was alone in a comfortable setting.

My thoughts:

It is common to find stories of animals living amongst soldiers all around the world. Most U.S. bases in foreign countries allow soldiers to have pets, and historically most navy ships and submarines had cats on board to get rid of rats. Animals are known for providing therapeutic presence, and for soldiers who have high stress occupations, having these animals around seem like an effective way to help them.

Charge Books – A Navy Chief Initiation Tradition


T: The older chiefs will pass on the knowledge and the expertise to the new chiefs with the charge book, right? So then when you- before people in the old days, when you want to be chief you have to carry around a charge book to see all other chiefs to get the- collect the knowledge and experience from them.  But through the years, they use the charge books, they do all kinds of stuff with that charge book, yenno, they- they destroy the charge book, yenno, you’re supposed to protect that charge book, you cannot let the charge book go and some of the chiefs they’re destroying it and burning it so, it just doesn’t mean much anymore so they changed it new way, they changed it a lot, they put a lot of that restriction to them.  Some of the guys ruin it for other guys. So yeah.

T: So the new way is, inside your chief’s mess, depending on how big it is – some mess got really small number of people, some people got a big – but you list all the chiefs in your mess and you go to see each one of them.. to get the knowledge to pass down.  That’s what you’re supposed to do during the transition period.

Q: So you’re not considered an actual chief until you finish that process?

T: Well, that’s the tradition, but the new- I mean, the way, once you got selected for chief, you gonna become a chief either yes or no but, yenno, if you go through the transition, you go through the training, you become a chief.  If you don’t you decide not to do that, other chiefs they’re gonna call you an E7 not a chief.  So in the Navy, you call someone an E7, that’s in-insulting.

Q: So does that mean you still have yours then?

T: Have what?

Q: Your charge book?

T: You’re always supposed to have it with you. You carry that through your life, that’s your memory.



I collected this piece in a conversation about the informant’s experiences in the U.S. Navy.  He joined in 1990 and served 26 years before retiring as a Senior Chief Petty Officer in 2017.  He recalled the charge book tradition while discussing some of the Navy Chief culture.  He also mentioned how the Navy Chief’s Mess is the largest association in the world.  He has a lot of pride in being a retired Navy chief, saying how “The Chiefs are the backbone of the Navy, the Chiefs make the Navy run.”  The informant remembers his own initiation in which he also completed a charge book as a significant moment in his life, especially considering how he asserts that you carry your charge book through your life.  He briefly joked about how when you ask a Navy Chief their birthday, they’ll ask back which one in regards to their actual birthday or the day they became pinned as a Chief.  In addition, the informant talked about why there may be such significant traditions around becoming a Navy Chief.  He says that in other branches, moving from to an E7 ranking is nothing particularly special.  For the US Navy, though, becoming a Chief (the equivalent title for an E7) holds a higher significance and as such has an initiation “just like joining a fraternity”.



Initiation rites and traditions are a means of legitimizing or introducing an individual’s membership in a group to those who are already members, especially beyond any official announcement.  Particularly in the charge book tradition described above, even though becoming a Chief is an official designation in the Navy, the informant mentions how the other Chiefs will not acknowledge an individual as such unless they have completed the initiation tradition.  The alienation of those who choose not to participate is further emphasized by their insulting address as an E7, as also mentioned by the informant.  The process of the initiation is quite literally gaining a body of knowledge and experience from the existing members of the Chief’s Mess that otherwise would have taken years of experience to learn.  Especially considering how disparities in knowledge or experience are the basis of distinguishing a certain identity, as the Chief candidates complete their charge books, they slowly close the gap between themselves and the Chiefs already in the.  Thus, they slowly become part of the association.  The pieces of advice given are like stepping stones as the candidates complete their transition; once they have completed all of them, they have earned the right to be called Chief and a part of the Navy Chief’s Mess.  Initiation traditions, like completing a charge book to become a Navy Chief, not only legitimize an individual’s membership in a group, they also provide the means to earn an identity that cannot merely be given.

Challenge Coins – A Navy Chief Tradition


T: Well, the challenge coin, it started during the war.  So.. the guys would go to the war, they come back, they bring stuff back like their.. their.. kind of their achievements, their, yenno, their bragging rights, right?

Q: Mhmm.

T: People bring in guns, ammo, explosive stuff so it’s kind of get danger, right? So that’s why they start doin’ the – that’s the kind of challenging each other, so that’s.. they start the, using coins instead, so they’re challenge coins.

Q: Mhmm.

T: Right. So for the Chiefs, the Navy Chiefs, the challenge coin, you’re supposed to have it with you all the time, so every time you go in the bar, you go and sit and talk, somebody can pull out the coin and start tapping, right?  If they’re tapping on the bar and.. whoever doesn’t have a coin in them, they have to buy drinks for everybody else.  But, if they’re tapping and everybody got a coin, the guy that’s tapping the guy gonna buy the drinks for everybody else.

T: So with the Chiefs, the coin is more.. every chief gonna walk around with a coin.  Sometime they personalize their own coin or sometime they have, like, their command coin. So.. but the Chief coin a lot different than just a command coin.  It’s just the Chief coin got an anchor on it; every Chief coin got an anchor on it.  It’s for the Chief’s Mess, Chief Association.

Q: Did you ever get stuck on the end of the stick where you had to buy drinks?

T: Never.  Friends that cover me too. Some carry multiple coins with them, they just slip it through under the table.



I collected this piece in a conversation with a retired U.S. Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer about his experiences during active duty.  I had actually heard about this piece before and inquired about it directly.  The informant told me about challenge coins and other traditions in the conversation following the exchange above.  He talked about how he learned this piece while completing a charge book as part of his Chief’s initiation, and took pride in never having had to pay for drinks for the Mess in his 13 years as a Chief.  For my understanding, the informant explained that the Chief’s Mess is essentially the Chief’s association.  Inside the Mess, they can address any and all problems conflicts, including personal ones, but outside of the Mess, the Navy Chiefs are one operational unit that “makes the Navy run.”



The informant mentioned how Navy Chiefs are expected to have challenge coins on them at all times, but this expectation is never specified. Rather, it is something that is passed from person to person in between Chiefs.  Like how the informant learned about challenge coins through his charge book, a Chief would hope someone else tells him or helps him out before he has to buy drinks.  Carrying a challenge coin, then, becomes a way of proving one’s identity as a Chief.  It may also be a material reminder to uphold the expectations of a Navy Chief and fulfill those duties because it needs to be on you constantly.  It is less of an initiation though, I would say, rather than a game or a test of sorts.  The Navy Chief’s initiation is completing a charge book, and those who do not go through with this are called E7 instead of Chief.  In the case of the challenge coin, the repercussions are significantly less insulting, albeit still undesirable.  Also, as opposed to an initiation process, this tradition continues throughout the entirety of one’s service as a Chief rather than just at the start.  The possibility of being tested for a challenge coin can happen at any time, so individuals must be constantly prepared for it.  In addition, the informant mentions how he has had friends help him out when he did not have a challenge coin.  This is an interesting point because the challenge coin tradition, as a whole, asserts the group identity as the Navy Chief’s Mess and their relationship as an operational unit.  Since this tradition happens in the Mess, where they are able to set aside their responsibility of acting as a cohesive unit, individual interpersonal relationships can be revealed.  The possibility of helping each other out is an example.  Just as how only certain people may be friends within a larger group of people, potentially only certain Chiefs will be friends within a certain Mess, whether it be because of shared backgrounds or experiences, etc.  These friendships work to prevent each other from punishments and potential embarrassment from being caught without a challenge coin.  All in all, the challenge coin tradition of U.S. Navy Chiefs is a symbol of Chiefhood, through constantly having one on you as a material reminder of your duties and being prepared to present it as proof of your identity.

The Grog Bowl – An Air Force Tradition


G: It’s pretty standard across the Air Force, I’m not sure about the other branches but- So we have “dining-ins” or “dining-outs” so..  “Dining-in” is like a dinner event amongst everyone in the unit, so it’s just pure, like, military.  And then “dining-out” is when you can invite your family, you can have dates and stuff.  And depending on the circumstance, there’s something called a grog bowl.  It’s the worst thing in the world!  So like, if you ever look at what a “dining-in” or “dining-out” is, there’s a president and a vice president.  It’s like role-playing, it’s really funny, it’s so dumb.  So it’s like, let’s say the president hasn’t been seated yet, to eat dinner, like.. and everybody else sits down to eat, everyone has to go to the grog bowl.  The grog bowl is like a punch bowl with like, the nastiest stuff inside like, they throw like, cranberry juice and like, chocolate and like- They just mix everything like hot sauce.  And last time, they threw a slice of pizza, so they started involving solids.  And it was the worst experience ever because it’s like, nobody wants to go to the grog bowl, but that’s like, it’s- it’s tradition that you have to have a grog bowl at one of these events, at least if you’re making it a formal one, like by the books.  Like the grog bowl, if somebody makes a mistake, they have- they have to be sent to the grog bowl.  They have to get a little shot- like plastic shot glass or whatever, serve themselves, drink the whole thing, and then lift the cup and like, flip it upside down on their heads.  So if they don’t drink it, they just spill the freakin’ all th- all the liquids on top of their heads.  Or they drink it all and they don’t have anything, right?  And it’s just like, it’s so funny.  So it’s like, there’s so many little tedious things so if like, somebody makes a mistake: Oh! You’re goin’ to the grog! You spoke before being told to speak? You’re goin’ to the grog!  It’s such a funny experience.



I collected this piece in a conversation with one of my friends over lunch about military traditions and customs since he is an Air Force ROTC Cadet at the University of Southern California and my dad served 26 years in the U.S. Navy.  The informant is a sophomore studying astronautical engineering and a cadet in the USC Air Force ROTC.  He described having a grog bowl at dining-ins and dining-outs as “by far a terrible, but super fun experience,” also telling me about how one of the worse ones he had experienced was when they included solids into the mixture.  He could not recall what he did wrong immediately, but he then remembered that he had started eating before the president did.  The informant also explained additional information, like how the roles are typically determined by the highest-ranking officers, and that they have the authority to “do whatever the hell they want” with the grog bowl, as long as there was not any alcohol.  When asked about the origin though, the informant said that he only knew of it as an Air Force tradition for dining-ins and dining-outs.



The Air Force grog bowl is an interesting piece of military folklore because it is essentially a type of hazing that is not really associated with assuming a new identity or an initiation tradition, and it also juxtaposes a single element of chaos that has been allowed to remain with an otherwise highly regulated and disciplined environment.  With other humorous or more casual traditions, there is a time and place where it is acceptable for a large group to engage with it as once, thus creating an overall environment of humor or chaos.  Yet, the grog bowl sits in the middle of a formal event.  It seems as if it is meant for enforcing discipline and proper behavior at dining-ins or dining-outs since those who make any type of mistake are sent to the grog bowl.  In the case of the informant I spoke to, though, he could not readily recall what he was sent to the grog for, which somewhat decreases the effectiveness of the grog bowl as a means of discipline.  His strongest memories on the grog bowl are how funny the whole concept is and how nasty the mixture was when he got punished at one of his first dining-ins.  Everyone is equally susceptible to being sent to the grog bowl and as such, is held to the same expectation of conduct and discipline – two very important ideas in any branch of the military – regardless of ranking or status.  Regardless of its purpose, whether for entertainment or punishment for those who make mistakes in conduct or both, it is clear that the tradition is expected as a part of formal events.  With each new concoction that is created and each member that is sent to suffer with it, the U.S. Air Force tradition lives on.

Naval Academy Wedding Tradition

Main Piece:

Informant: When a newly-married couple is walking out of the chapel for the first time they walk through two columns of Midshipmen holding their sabre’s up high. The lines are made up of members of the wedding party and officers in attendance. It’s four on each side of the two rows. The first two will lower their swords making like a gate. The married has to kiss in order for the each row to raise their swords and let them pass. When the couple gets to the last two Midshipmen with their swords lowered they kiss one more time. When they pass the last two one of the last two will slap the sword against the butt of the civilian spouse and say “Welcome to the Navy!”


Background: The informant is my brother. He is a senior at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. He first learned of this tradition through first-hand experience at the wedding of one of his closest friends at the academy. This interview was recorded over the phone. I asked the informant if he could recall any specific military traditions he has witnessed through informal mediums.

Context: The sabre is given to Midshipmen when they reach first class rank (the college equivalent of a senior). It is a point of pride amongst first class officers and is treated with the utmost care. The sabre arch is done right after the wedding ceremony finishes as the bride and groom leave the chapel. It is a highly-respected tradition and is always performed with punctuality.

Analysis: For most military members, the job can quickly become your life. Although the informant is a student, I have witnessed his transition into a full-fledged officer within the short span of four years. He holds the values and culture in the highest regard, much like his peers. In his words, “When you join the Navy you are making a lifelong commitment”. Well, some would also consider marriage to be a lifelong commitment. As I have experienced first-hand, the spouses of servicemen and women become an equal part of the military community they married into. As such, the tradition of the sabre arch is symbolic of that relationship. The spouse of the officer is committing to joining the military community around them. In return, through the sabre arch, the military community is grants the spouse acceptance. The cry, “Welcome to the Navy”, is confirmation of that acceptance.

Playing the Dozens and Bagging in the Navy

Main Text

Subject: Okay so my, my dad had a bunch of sayings that…felt…both very particular to him, but also of a culture that I don’t quite understand? So…for instance, as, as a child, he would regularly tell me, if ugly were a stop sign, my face would be all over town.

If, uh…again, because they felt quick, and they felt like shit that people said, uh, but they also didn’t…he also had one that, you know, when referring to a con man, or a huckster, you know, that guy’s full of more shit than a Christmas turkey, uh…you know, ‘cuz you stuff turkeys.

Uh…other ones. Uh…similar about my uh…I guess he did fuck with me for being ugly a lot. Uh, looks like you got into a hatchet fight and forgot your hatchet. Uh…was there. And uh…what was some…oh, uh, you know, uh, sort of referring, you know, she looks like she’s been dead for two weeks and nobody told her. So I guess a lot of them, again, were…um. Yeah, visual in their base, and sort of thing.


The subject believes that, despite being white and Italian-American, much of his father’s sayings were rooted in the “playing the dozens” and “bagging” traditions of African American Vernacular (AAVE). “Playing the dozens” and “bagging” are forms of tit for tat expressions of mild hostility among peers, similar to “yo mama” jokes. Though on the surface, “playing the dozens” and “bagging” can look like bullying, it is different from bullying because it is performed among social equals. Rather than the “big kid messing with a little kid,” it is more like “two smart kids going back and forth with each other” while a group eggs them on.


The subject’s father first encountered AAVE when he was serving alongside African Americans in the Navy during 1965. As the sailors formed a community through the commonality of sharing the same military routine and struggles, the subject’s father participated in playing the dozens/bagging to strengthen that social connection. The subject’s father retained the social practice upon returning home.

Interviewer’s Analysis

Though the subject mentions that playing the dozens/bagging were meant to be performed among equals, the majority of the subject’s examples come from his father bagging him as a child. Would that violate the “performed among equals” requirement?

Perhaps post-military, away from the regular company of his fellow sailors, the father’s bagging became less of a form of normalized social bonding, and more of a generalized speech habit. The purpose may have shifted to reaffirming the shared social identity and social bonds built during service, by continuing to perform bagging in the absence of community members.