I’m in New York State this morning for R Day–Reception Day–at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Today our oldest son joins the Long Gray Line as a member of the Class of 2016.
In a few minutes–at five a.m.–we’ll leave the motel. At six, he reports for four years at West Point, followed by eight years in the Army. First, he, his father and I will go, with several hundred other new cadets and their families, to a short briefing. At the end, we’ll have 90 seconds to say goodbye.
Then he’ll go to another room, where he’ll receive and quickly change into Army-issue PT clothes under the critical eye and drill-sergeant bark of a Firstie (senior) or Cow (junior). He’ll hand over the clothes he came in, along with almost everything he has with him, to the Army for the duration of Beast, West Point’s version of basic training.
He’ll put the few things he’s allowed to keep–boots, shoes, extra socks, small Bible, 550 cord, razor, shaving cream, pen, pencil and steno notebook–in his backpack and stand in formation, waiting to report to the Cadet in the Red Sash. When instructed to do so, he’ll report in the following words:
Sir [or Ma'am, as appropriate], New Cadet Schultz-Rathbun reports to the Cadet in the Red Sash for the first time as ordered. [Insert company slogan here], Sir [Ma'am]!
The next ten hours will be full: in-processing, being issued uniforms, not speaking unless spoken to, learning to salute, and learning to march–first in squads, then in platoons and finally in full companies. He’ll also receive a small plebe (freshman) knowledge book and start furiously memorizing, word for word, the first bits of the reams of “required knowledge” on which upperclassmen quiz plebes, including West Point’s alma mater, the National Anthem, military rank and insignia and Major General John Schofield’s 1879 definition of discipline:
The discipline which makes the soldiers of a free country reliable in battle is not to be gained by harsh or tyrannical treatment. On the contrary, such treatment is far more likely to destroy than to make an army. It is possible to impart instruction and to give commands in such a manner and such a tone of voice to inspire in the soldier no feeling but an intense desire to obey, while the opposite manner and tone of voice cannot fail to excite strong resentment and a desire to disobey. The one mode or the other of dealing with subordinates springs from a corresponding spirit in the breast of the commander. He who feels the respect which is due to others cannot fail to inspire in them regard for himself, while he who feels, and hence manifests, disrespect toward others, especially his inferiors, cannot fail to inspire hatred against himself.
While he’s doing that, his father and I will be taking the parent tour, meeting other plebe parents, listening to the 195-year-old Hellcat Bugles. We’ll be remembering the last 18 years. Wondering about the next 12.
Finally, at 6:30 tomorrow evening, he and 1,182 other new cadets will march out onto the parade grounds and swear an oath of allegiance in front of hundreds of watching family and friends.
Then the new cadets will march off to the next thing. And, on a hot and muggy July evening on the banks of the Hudson River, it will be time for all of us parents to move on to the next thing as well.
Duty, honor, country: Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be. They are your rallying point to build courage when courage seems to fail, to regain faith when there seems to be little cause for faith, to create hope when hope becomes forlorn.
–General Douglas MacArthur (1962)