Monday, July 2, 2012

In Honor of R-Day

"Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end." - Seneca

"A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step." - Lao Tzu

"The beginnings and endings of all human undertakings are untidy." - John Galsworthy

Today is West Point's new class's R-Day.


There I was.  I remember it like it was yesterday.  Which it was--yesterday, that is--July 1st, only way back in 1985. 

R-Day.  The first R-Day we experienced, anyway.  There are other R-Days at West Point; after all, with our proclivity toward shortening each and every term we faced, every important day that began with an R became R-Day.

This R-Day, though, was special.  The R in this one stood for "Reception," which was precisely what we got when we arrived.  A Reception, indeed.  And boy, was it special.

Reception Day is the first day that every future West Pointer general (yes, we were all future generals back then, or so we thought) officially arrives for the first time at the United States Military Academy in order to begin the journey.

It's definitely a beginning. 

It's also an ending.  I mean, I'd been on vacation with my aunt and uncle before, but this was really the end of my time living under the protective (and restrictive, or so I thought) roof that my parents provided.  The end of high school.  I'd worked long and hard in high school to build a reputation, and it was over, poof, gone.  On top of that, public secondary school is predictable once you get into it.  By senior year, you're pretty settled in and know what to expect.  R-Day was the first end of knowing what was to come.

Of course, I'd had some guidance.  I, like (I hope) every New Cadet, had been accompanied through the fairly involved process of applying for and then preparing for appointment to the nation's oldest military academy by a military officer and grad called a liaison officer.  It's not like regular school, I was told--quite correctly, I must add.  My liaison officer described in some fairly specific detail what I could expect on R-Day and subsequently through "Beast Barracks," officially known as CBT (Cadet Basic Training, but of course we didn't say the whole thing). 

Didn't matter.  Have you ever read any of Neil Armstrong's accounts of what it's like to stand on the moon?  No matter how wonderfully his words paint a picture in our minds, I'm willing to bet the reality is different.

So anyway, there we were.  Now, I'd been accepted fairly late in the year (about a week and a half prior to R-Day, in fact, thanks to certain factors like me telling West Point "no" initially, but that's a whole different story) and so the "normal" route to getting New Cadets to the appropriate spot on post was already fully booked.  No seats for me.  Luckily there was a backup plan (are you kidding?  This is West Point, for God's sake.  Of course there's a backup plan).  So instead of spending the night prior to R-Day (theoretically; I never did find out what actually happened on the path I didn't take) and then a bus ride to West Point with a bunch of fellow soon-to-be cadets telling stories and commiserating, I took a shuttle to a different hotel to be picked up by one of the employees from admissions on his way to work the next morning.

Like I said, I never found out if it was a different experience than most had, but my path worked fine regardless.  There were actually three of us arriving at the new beginning like that; I was joined by two young ladies, one of whom (if my memory serves accurately) ended up being a dear, dear friend of mine.  Who, I should add, wasn't there that night.  It turned out that her flight was delayed, so the night before R-Day was spent with me proving how incompetent I was (still am) in pool to a fellow soon-to-be New Cadet.  Robin, or something--I unfortunately never heard from her again.  It did, at least, give me an opportunity to learn that I wasn't the only one who was absolutely terrified of the day to come.

I think I slept.  I honestly don't remember.

The guy who picked us up (at oh-my-God-there's-not-enough-coffee-in-the-world-early-thirty in the morning) wasn't a West Point grad himself, so he really didn't have a whole lot to tell us about what we were to face.  The result, though, of a long, dark, quiet, somber drive, was that we were in the very first group to arrive at Michie Stadium and go through the process.

(Yes, looking through the pictures on West Point's Facebook page I see that they're doing it in Ike Hall now.  Was different back then, I guess--maybe too many dinosaurs wandering around near Ike?)

There's something very symbolic about the way they do that first briefing.  Same could be said for much of what they do at West Point, but that one is touching in a I'll-never-forget-this way.  Specifically, there was a person who welcomed us and said something-something about something-something (yeah, unless there's a bayonet left sticking in the stage I tend to forget speeches awfully quickly) and then invited us "New Cadets," as we were to be officially known, to head one direction, and all of our lovely parents and siblings to head the other.  Shouldn't have meant much to me, as I'd already had that moment of separation the day before, but the air was thick with meaning nonetheless.

So we got onto buses after being told not to speak unless spoken to and went to the gymnasium for the biggest set of lines I've ever seen.  Have you ever considered what it takes to take 1400-ish people through all the legal and logistic hurdles of not just going to school, but actually living together in specific uniforms, all in one day?  Boy, was it intense.  I remember that, at least.  And I remember getting vaccinations shot into both shoulders from both directions at the same time.  Also remember sending my civilian clothing away to be collected later--wouldn't be needing it for a while, we were informed.

They dressed us in black shorts with gold pinstriping, white t-shirts with the black USMA logo printed on the left breast, black socks, and black leather shoes.  Then they made us hang little tags off of our shorts to be checked off at each station, issued us the ugliest eyeglasses on the face of the planet to wear (I think--can't recall the challenging logistics of this one, but I vividly remember the ugly-as-hell glasses), and issued us two large heavy bags full of stuff to carry around.  Ugly we were, indeed, and all cut from the same bolt of ugly.

Next stop was the barbershop where I swear they paid the workers based on pounds of hair removed.  Now, I'd cut most of my hair off already, I thought, based on my liaison officer's prompting that I really didn't want to be stigmatized as the long-haired hippy surfer California dude when I arrived.  Walking out of the barbershop was a whole new sensation, though.  It was like every nerve ending on my scalp was newly-activated, waggling and firing free of any hair-based impediments in the breeze that, till then, I hadn't realized was quietly blowing.

Wow, I thought.

Honestly, it was more like holy crap.  But I was there, and my parents hadn't purchased a ticket home.

Then came reporting to the Cadet in the Red Sash, something that every West Pointer I've ever spoken with remembers somewhat less than fondly.  It's literally that--several stations where lanes have been set up, at the end of which stands a formidable-looking upper-class cadet wearing a sparkly grey and white uniform and a red sash around his or her middle.

I tell you, I've never felt as much trepidation toward a single item of attire as I did that day.  Those damn red sashes turned people mean, man.

Okay, mean isn't right.  We were entering a whole new world, one where discipline was a must, and it was the CRS's duty to teach us that, specifically by making sure we learned our "Four Responses" and other rules of West Point life.

To wit:
  1. Yes, Sir
  2. No, Sir
  3. No Excuse, Sir
  4. Sir, I do not understand.

Yeppers.  That's it.  That's all you're allowed to say at first.  Well, that and some of the cadences they taught us later, but you get the idea.  Remember that discipline thing?  It helps to start out on a single, simple path, where if the answer is yes, then say yes.  If it's no, say no.  If neither applies, then there's really, ultimately, no excuse.

There's a very important lesson underlying that moment there, one I wish we could teach everybody, but they'd never let me line my current student body up in the hallway and teach them the four responses.

But that wasn't even the first lesson the CRS taught us.  Nope, first lesson was follow instructions, dumbass.  Okay, I honestly don't think he said the word dumbass, but it was pretty clear in what he was saying.

"Step up and do exactly what I tell you to do," is more along the lines of what I recall him saying.  I watched the guy in front of me have a hard time with that; he stepped up and set his (did I mention heavy?) bags full of issued uniforms and equipment down onto the nice pavement they'd so pleasantly provided for our use.

"New Cadet, did I tell you to set those bags down?"

"No, Sir," the guy ahead of me said, and he picked them back up.

"New Cadet, did I tell you to pick those bags up?"

"No, Sir," the guy ahead of me said, and he put them back down.

"New Cadet, did I tell you to set those bags down?"  By this point, I was doing a very good job not snickering at the unfortunate but obviously somewhat dense guy ahead of me.  After all, I didn't know exactly what the CRS would do if he heard a snicker from the line, but I was absolutely certain that I really didn't want to find out.

Anyway, finally the guy ahead of me got it right.  He learned the Four Responses and was sent off, relief clearly not showing in his face, toward what could only be a friendlier station.

I stepped up and set my bags down.


Now, the disadvantage of being there so early was that I was done with all the inprocessing very, very early in the day.  I was thus assigned to my company (Charlie, whatever that meant) and my room early, and was told to go stay there.  My room, that is.

By the way--the barracks at West Point have the rooms along the outside of the building and the latrines (and don't you dare call 'em restrooms or *gasp* potties) along the middle, separated by a hallway that starts that first day at about a mile wide and shrinks to just a few feet wide by the end of the first summer.  There was absolutely no way I was walking out into that hallway once I was safely parked in my room.  No way in hell.  I've never not gone to the bathroom so intently in my life.

My roommates eventually showed up.  Yay me.  Since high school, when I had played water polo and thus been the antithesis of a football player, I hadn't really been all that fond of big burly guys whose self-identity was tied to a position whose title contained the word "line," "end," or "back."

Guess what?

One roommate was a big guy whose father was an important military dude somewhere in the Pentagon.  He played football and was going to do something-something for the team.  The other roommate was an even bigger guy who had come specifically to play football for the Black Knights (and who ended up being on the squad for all four years; he was actually quite a good player). 


It wasn't that bad, all things considered.  By that, I mean we didn't kill each other as we learned to talk the same language, and we ended up being pretty good friends four years later.  But Mayer, Svoboda, and I were quite the roomie-team at first.

It was kinda quiet after that.  We were taken out for marching drills, and at some point we all got to march out and swear an oath as New Cadets.  I suspect it was hot and muggy--every day from April through September was hot and muggy at West Point--but I honestly have no memories of the weather.  I was freaked out.  Whole new world, meet me, a southern boy exiled to southern California in high school who's never been out of his (non-military) parents' home for long.

That night, our squad leader brought us all together and gave us the first non-structured, non-discipline-centered, time of the summer that we came to know as Beast.  He taught us how to shine our shoes.  Nicely, sort of.  It was a new thing to me; hell, when my liaison officer had told me to buy and get used to wearing black leather shoes, I thought he meant the patent leather ones that were shiny already.  But I learned, as did everybody else, the intricacies of layering on black shoe polish to turn dull black leather into shiny black leather. 

Did I sleep that night?  Probably.  I'm sure I was exhausted.  I don't recall much of it, though.  I had no idea how much was ahead of me, either.  At the time, we were a bunch of civilian kids in better or worse shape than we needed to be who knew how to shine shoes and march in a reasonably straight line without tripping each other.  That summer we had military, bearing, tactics, shooting, and heck, even etiquette classes ahead of us.  Not to mention a speech that ended with a bayonet stuck quivering in the stage.

It was definitely a beginning to remember.


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