If I live to be a hundred, I'm sure I'll still remember my first day at West Point, Reception Day, and reporting to the Cadet in the Red Sash.
"Candidates, you have 90 seconds to say goodbye to your loved ones, then you will file up the steps to the top of the gym." The First Captain, the highest ranking Cadet at the academy, announced, after a rousing welcoming speech to the over two thousand attendees seated in the bleachers.
His final words rang in my ears as the realization crept in. This was it. Mom and dad didn't make the trip to NY, as it was the start of summer, and warm, sunny days on a working farm are days that can't be wasted. I watched my future classmates hugging friends and family, with tearful exchanges, and saw that same realization slowly build in their eyes, as our last seconds of freedom ticked down. Growing up in the South, you know this look well, as nearly everyone's had a run-in with a spooked deer while driving down a dark, country road. Deer in the headlights. I turned and began my ascent, up the steps toward a row of upper class cadre whose eyes held an altogether different look. One I'd seen on the Discovery Channel. Hungry sharks closing in on a school of fish.
"Candidates, line up against my wall, let's go, let's go! Move with a purpose, candidates! Don't look back, mommy and daddy can't help you now! Candidates, line up against my wall..." We rushed to comply, trying to escape the shouting Firsties(seniors), finding a free spot on the brick wall and slamming our backs to it.
"Candidate, are you eye-balling me? What, do you think I'm cute? You want to date me?! Eyes forward candidate, no looking around!!" yelled a female Cadet to a young man a few feet to my left.
"I want to see butts and backs against those walls! Stand up straight! Hands at your sides, move it, move it!" barked a bull of a Cadet, an angry looking dude who reminded me of Gomer Pyle's Drill Sergeant. Only meaner. I stood stiff and tried looking straight ahead, but couldn't help risking the occasional glance at my comrades, to see how they were affected. Most seemed focused, having mentally prepared themselves for the mind games that were coming, but a couple seemed genuinely afraid; one girl was even shaking with fear. Over the years, I've noticed some people are unable to cope with stressful situations, which they may not realize until presented with such a situation. Far down the wall, I saw a male candidate break rank and begin walking down the row of candidates. Immediately, three cadre swarmed him and screamed at him to get back on the wall. His body movements were stiff as he continued to shuffle forward, not looking at the Cadets flanking him. Before an upperclassmen caught some of us watching and snapped us back to attention, I saw a Captain in his Class A's, one of the many officers scattered around campus that day, wave the Cadets away and put an arm around the kid, leading him back down into the gym, out of our sight. I don't think he lasted five minutes. Before the end of that incredibly long first day, we'd lose over 20 more classmates.
The next few hours were a blur. Herded from place to place like cattle, we were poked and prodded by civilian staff administering immunizations or measuring us for uniforms and boots, some of them treating us worse than the cadre! Then came the barbers--a bunch of big Italian men with accents nearly too thick for my Southern ears to decipher--chatting and laughing to each other as hair fell away from their clippers in multi-colored flurries. Between getting issued all the gear we'd need for the summer, which we carried around in our big blue laundry bags that kept getting heavier as the day progressed, the cadre taught us to march, prepping us for the Pass in Review(parade)later that evening that would signify our graduation from Candidate to New Cadet.
By midday, with the hot sun beating down on us, I felt we'd marched at least ten miles. Our civvies(civilian clothes)stuffed deep in our bags, we adorned the pseudo-PT uniform seen above. I'm not sure if wearing the dress shoes and socks was to make us physically uncomfortable, to break the shoes in, or to demoralize us. Either way, it sucked. Whenever we stopped at a location, whether for medical tests or to obtain yet more gear to stuff in our ever-expanding bags, we stood in formation, feet apart in a "parade rest" stance, struggling not to move while clutching our possessions to our chests. As we stood there, I looked around, with furtive glances, and noticed some of my more fair skinned classmates developing sunburns. I noticed a few others, some a little overweight or maybe just out of shape, sweating profusely. I was definitely hurting, but my father's advice came to me in some of those long moments standing in formation, legs shaking and back hurting from marching on concrete in new dress shoes and toting that stupid blue bag everywhere. He told me that when I was hurting, maybe even felt like quitting, to look to my left or look to my right, and I would see someone hurting more than me. He was right, because I thought of that phrase the many times quitting entered my mind that day.
Washington Hall is central to the Plain--the parade grounds--and houses the mess hall, some staff offices and classrooms, and acts as the bridge between Eisenhower and MacArthur barracks, which run the length of the plain. While marching to the mess hall, somewhat in a daze like everyone else, but adapting, I tried to process all the history around me. From the statues and monuments, some older than the Civil War, to the monstrous, gray Gothic looking buildings, to the many high ranking officers and dignitaries strolling around, monitoring the training of future leaders, all made Alabama seem farther away than Dorothy was from Kansas. So much tradition, so many great men and women, throughout history, who'd tread the same ground I was treading!
After arriving at the mess hall, we were instructed to put our bags down(thank God!)and pull out our Bugle Notes, which we'd just been issued to study. The Bugle Notes is a 'book of knowledge' that contains military data, famous speeches from history, rank and insignia for all branches, and general West Point facts--all which must be memorized by the end of CBT. Amazingly, nearly 20 years later I can rattle off close to half the information from that book, that's how ingrained it became in us, as the upperclassmen quizzed us nearly our entire year, until the day of Recognition, which was a looong way away from this day. After a few minutes of reading, the cadre passed out box lunches and allowed us to sit in the grass. Bliss! The first time I'd sat, other than the thirty seconds in the barber chair, since the gym! The cadre told us we had five minutes to eat, so I wasted no time inhaling the sandwich, chips, and orange in the box. I looked around at my classmates, seeing their relief at being able to rest and eat a moment. Feeling better, I doubled my resolve as the cadre yelled at us to get on our feet and come to attention. Of course, the day wasn't close to being over; I'd yet to report to the Cadet in the Red Sash...
to be continued...