MASTER SGT. JOHN “JACK” STEELE, ADJUNCT PROFESSOR OF LAW
(Continued from March 7, 2003)
Third Installment: Sergeant Steele Introduces Torts
It was Tuesday morning, approximately 8:20 a.m. Just about everyone enrolled in the class was already in the lecture hall. Although few of the students would admit it, their uncharacteristic punctuality resulted from having been put through the wringer the previous Friday by Sgt. Steele and having been warned about arriving to class on time.
Steele was the subject of virtually all the separate classroom conversations taking place that morning. In fact, the students had talked about little else since last Friday’s class. Even in the “Five to Four,” the local pub frequented by haggard law students, the weekend’s topic of discussion had been Sgt. Steele, or “General Patton,” as he was angrily referred to by some of the students, but only after being fortified by a half dozen Coronas and a peek over the shoulder just to rule out the one in a million chance that Steele would be in the bar.
The consensus that had formed over the weekend was that Dean Maxwell’s decision to hire Steele to boost the school’s lagging performance on the torts portion of the bar exam was a horrible mistake. Surely the Dean would not tolerate Steele’s running the class as if it were a basic training company. The students reasoned that this is, after all, a law school and they are law students; this is not an Army base and they damned sure had not enlisted in the Army. This problem had to be nipped in the bud. To that end, several students vowed to complain to the Dean about Steele first thing Monday morning.
“I tried to see the Dean yesterday,” Tod Barringer said, “but his secretary said that he was away and would not return until tomorrow. Look, the guy is a maniac, and none of us have to put up with that crap. ‘Stand at attention, at ease, sound off, stow your gear’…It’s all bullshit! I’m here to learn to be a lawyer, not to learn to be a damned grunt.”
Loretta Kelly, who was seated two seats away from Barringer, said, “I spent the whole weekend worrying about this class. I had a difficult time sleeping. The guy scares the hell out of me. I read the assignment twice, and I’m still not sure I get it all. And, if he calls on me, I think I might just puke.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Barringer said, I’ll talk to the Dean. Once he learns what is going on in this class, he’ll get Steele out of here in a New York minute.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” Loretta replied. “Steele said that he was in service with the Dean. Maybe they’re good friends.”
“Come on, Loretta. Dean Maxwell is a smart and classy guy. You think he would be friends with an Army blowhard asshole like Steele?”
It was exactly 8:30, and Steele walked through the door to the lecture hall. “Attenn-HUTT!” he roared. All the students immediately stood and assumed the position of attention – even Barringer.
Steele, again wearing his perfectly pressed Class A uniform, strode across the front of the room, and stood behind the lectern. The brass insignia on the front of his Drill Sergeant’s cap seemed to be even more highly polished than it had been last Friday. On his left sleeve, near his shoulder he wore the insignia of the 101st Airborne Division, a black patch on which was the white eagle’s head, and over which was the word “Airborne.” The patch on his other sleeve was a red and yellow shield, with a sword in the center, signifying that Steele had served in the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam.
Steele set the torts casebook on the lectern and carefully removed his hat, placing it on the desk next to the lectern. He looked over the class, all standing silently at attention, and said, “Well, well, people. You look a little better than you did on Friday, but that is not saying much. Concentrate, people. Chest out, gut sucked in, and line up your damned thumbs with your trouser seams.”
“You. Second row, fourth seat in from the end. What’s your name?”
“My name is Stanley Kozloski, Sergeant.”
“Well, Kozloski, you must think I’m pretty, staring at me like that. Maybe you think we should pick out furniture together? Why else would you be looking at me?” Kozloski was speechless.
“Get your gott-damned, greezy eyeballs off me, Kozloski!!! You are supposed to be at attention, and your gott-damned greezy eyeballs are supposed to be looking straight ahead.”
Steele looked at the class, “Does everyone understand where your greezy eyeballs should be when you’re at attention?”
About ten students answered, “Yes, Sergeant.” Instantly, the remaining students realized their mistake. Steele’s reaction was instantaneous and loud.
“Jesus, you people are real dumbshits. We went over this a couple times last class. I just asked the class a gott-damned question that calls for a yes or no answer. Does that mean anything to you muttonheads? Let me try it again, so that I can determine whether there is something wrong with your memory, something wrong with your ears or some gott-damned thing wrong with your voices. Listen closely.” Raising his voice even more, Steele repeated, “Does everyone understand where your greezy eyeballs belong while you’re at attention?”
“Yes Sergeant” the class responded loudly, in almost perfect unison.
“You people had better get your heads out of your asses. How do you expect to learn torts if you’re too gott-damned stupid to learn to properly stand at attention?”
He stared at them. He had a way of making each student feel as he or she was the one being glared at. Without warning, he hollered, “Seats!”
The students all sat down at the same time. Every one of them looked nervous as hell. It was obvious to Steele that he had made exactly the impression during Friday’s class that he had intended. He most definitely had their complete attention.
Barringer silently fumed.
“All right, people. Here’s what I want you to do. When I give the command, ‘Move!’ I want you to fill in all the empty seats in the first five rows. I want a tight formation in the center of the classroom. There will be NO empty seats between students.” He focused his attention on the back row and said, “I want you five knuckleheads in the back row to make sure that you take seats in the center of the formation where I can really keep my eye on you. There will be no back-bench bullshit in this class.”
The students scrambled to gather up their belongings from the desks and under their chairs so they could change seats. There was more than a little confusion, as students bumped into one another as they tried to work their way to new seats while carrying all their things.
Steele did not let up. “Move it! Move it! Move it, people. We don’t have all gott damned day. How hard is this? Let’s go. Let’s go. Let’s go!!” Steele could see clear signs of anger on some of the faces. For him, that meant that everything was going just fine.
In a few minutes, the chaos ended and everyone was seated as Steele had ordered.
“These will be your assigned seats for this semester. He walked to the student in the front row in the end seat and handed her a piece of paper. People, this is a seating chart. When it comes to you, you will print your last name first, then your first name, then your middle initial.”
“Are there any questions from last class?”
Barringer thought, Yeah, you miserable bastard. I have a question. What are you going to do when the Dean fires your ass?
“OK, so there are no questions. Fine. Let’s begin.”
“Before we get into the cases, we’ll spend a little time talking about torts in general.”
Kozloski immediately stood at attention and this time made sure that he stared directly forward. “At ease, Kozloski.” Kozloski, remembering from Friday, moved his left foot to the side and placed his hands behind his back.
“What the hell is a tort, Kozloski?”
Virtually every other person in the class viewed Kozloski as the first combat casualty and thought, Thank Christ it’s not me.
Kozloski was momentarily speechless with fear. At that very moment, he would have had a difficult time spelling his name, let alone answering Steele’s question. His mind raced as he thought, I don’t remember a definition in the reading assignment; the damned book was not like a regular textbook; it only contained those confusing cases.
“Cat got your gott-damned tongue, Kozloski? The name of this gott-damned course is ‘Torts,’ so I think it’s a helluva good idea to know what a tort is. I’m waiting for an answer, Kozloski.”
Kozloski’s voice shook as he timidly responded, “Well, … it’s like…uh….negligence.”
“That’s your answer, Kozloski? ‘It’s like negligence’?”
“I’m not really sure, Sergeant. I read the assignment, but I don’t remember seeing a definition.”
“This is a gott-damned law school, Kozloski, not an eighth grade social studies class, where the text books contain little definition sections and pictures of the friggin’ Lincoln Memorial.”
“You read the assignment, didn’t you, Kozloski?”
“Yes, sergeant, but I just don’t remember seeing a any of the cases giving a definition of a tort.”
“There’s a lesson for all you blockheads. You can’t just read the cases. You actually have to think about them. I sense that may be hard for some of you lemons, but to make it in this class and to make it as a lawyer, there is no substitute for gott-damned thinking.”
“Kozloski, for your benefit and the benefit of the rest of the sorry asses in this class, let’s take a couple minutes to see if a tort is ‘like uh…negligence,’ shall we?”
“Yes, sergeant.” Kozloski could feel himself beginning to hyperventilate.
“OK Kozloski, pay attention. Let’s suppose you wasted an entire night in the ‘Five to Four’ saloon drinking and trying to romance one of the young ladies in the joint. You have been to the ‘Five to Four,’ haven’t you Kozloski?”
“Yes, sergeant; I have been there.” Kozloski, fearing the worst, thought, Oh God, could he possibly know that I referred to him as ‘General Patton’ at the ‘Five to Four?’
“You a beer drinker, Kozloski?”
“Well, what do you drink at the ‘Five to Four’?”
“Well, I’ll be damned,” said Steele, “What’s your drink?”
Kozloski, answered, “When I have a little extra money, I drink ‘Maker’s Mark,’ but I also like ‘Jim Beam’ just fine.”
“Maker’s Mark? Jim Beam? Damn, Kozloski, there may be hope for you yet.”
After the class there would be a good deal of discussion over whether Steele had actually smiled at this point in the exchange. Some swore he did, but most were convinced he did not. Kozloski had been too frightened to notice.
“Let’s get back on track, Kozloski. So, let’s pretend that you spent the night at the ‘Five to Four” drinking Maker’s Mark. Is it Maker’s Mark on the rocks, Kozloski?”
“Yes, sergeant, on the rocks.”
“Fine, you come home late, after a night at the ‘Five to Four,’ with a belly full of bourbon and no date. You sit on the bed and take your shoes off. You’re too tired to put them away. You leave them on the floor next to the bed. You toss your clothes in a corner, and you hit the sack.”
“You following me, Kozloski?”
“A couple hours later, you wake up because you need to take a trip to the latrine.”
“The gott-damned bathroom, Kozloski!”
“Yes, sergeant, the bathroom.”
“OK you wake up, not feeling too well, and you walk in the direction of the latrine and you trip over your gott-damned shoes, fall down and break your pretty nose.”
“You getting this, Kozloski?”
“Yes, sergeant. Broken nose.”
“Would it be a smart thing to leave your shoes where you might trip over them in the middle of the night, particularly when you know a long night at the ‘Five to Four’ damned near always requires a middle-of-the-night trip to the latrine?”
“No, sergeant, that would not be a smart thing?”
“Would it be a reasonable thing to do, Kozloski?”
“No, Sergeant. It would not be reasonable.”
“Do you think it would be NEGLIGENT of you to leave your shoes where you could trip over them?”
“Yes, sergeant, I think that would be negligent.”
“So, we agree, Kozloski, as you would say, what we have here is ‘like…uh… negligence,’ isn’t it?”
“Yes, sergeant, we have negligence.”
“BUT DO WE HAVE A GOTT-DAMNED TORT, KOSLOSKI?”
Steele’s sudden outburst, startled virtually everyone in the class, after having been listening to what had become an almost conversational exchange between Kozloski and Steele. As for Kozloski, he later told his friends that, at this point, he almost shit himself.
“I guess that we don’t have a tort, sergeant.”
“You guess?” Well, let me assure you and the rest of you that we absolutely do NOT have a tort here. People, you can find yourself up to your ass in negligence and not have a gott-damned tort. You need other ingredients. Negligence by itself may create a tort waiting to happen, but it is not a gott-damned tort.”
“Does everyone understand that?”
“Yes, sergeant” the class responded together, obviously getting better at this with practice.
“All right. Take your seat, Kozloski.”
Momentarily taking the seating chart from a student as it was being passed around, Steele looked down, then looked up at the class and shouted, “Kelly!”
It was as if someone had punched Loretta Kelly in the chest. She was struck with an instant wave of nausea and dry mouth, as she stood and tried to assume the position of attention.
“OK, Kelly, now it’s your turn. Just what the hell is a tort?”