In the middle of winter .. in the dead of night ... A single cadet emerged from the Normandy sally port and silently crossed the concrete apron, stopping inches from the snow which still covered the Plain. He stared northward into the frigid blackness, past Battle Monument and on up the Hudson Valley. He stood at Parade Rest, bracing himself against the biting wind that bore down the river, picked up speed through the narrow weir formed by Storm King Mountain and Constitution Island, slowing as it crested Trophy Point, and finally picking up speed again as it raced across the Plain.
A few seconds later, another cadet stepped forth from the Corridor sally port to the West, crossed the apron and took up on eastward vigil. Soon others, from plebes to First Captain, followed by ones and twos. The numbers of cadets staring out over the Plain began to accumulate gradually, like snowflakes during the first minutes of a storm, until they were standing more than ten deep from MacArthur Monument at one end of the barracks to Eisenhower Monument at the other.
Except for the few who were away on leave or official business, virtually the entire Corps of Cadets were present, and, despite the bitter cold, they were dressed in Dress Gray, the most traditional of cadet daily wear. There were no overcoats or parkas to keep them warm. They were not here to be comfortable. They were here to pay tribute to two of their own, Spencer Dodge and Curt Sansoucie, recent graduates who had themselves succumbed to the cold while in training for the profession of arms which these cadets would enter in the near future.
I stood with a small group of alumni in the shadows by the main door of Washington Hall. The First Captain had invited us to attend this special remembrance. We had no idea just how deeply each of us would be touched.
The outpouring of gray from the sally ports stopped as if on command. There was no rush of stragglers trying to beat the sound of Assembly, as there might be for a parade. This was a strictly voluntary formation, and they were not about to be late.
At precisely 2330 hours, the first crisp note of "Taps" cut through the darkness from a trumpet somewhere to the east. The cadets came to Attention and Present Arms without sound or signal, yet with a precision equal to the daytime crispness of a full dress parade. As the first three notes began to fade, a second trumpet, farther away, sounded the echo known as "Silver Taps." As the last notes rose into the night sky, the cadets returned to Order Arms with the same silent precision as before.
A group of about thirty cadets stood apart from the rest at the foot of the steps of Washington Hall. From their midst, there arose a soft hum that grew into the full, rich harmonies of the Alma Mater. In a single motion, all heads were bared in homage. At the third verse the volume rose with the phrase, "And when our work is done, our course on earth is run, may it be said, 'WELL DONE!' " The last two words were clipped off abruptly, sending another echo into the night sky before concluding softly, "Be though at peace." The final strains drifted over the Hudson.
Once again, silence fell over the apron for a brief moment until yet another sound came out of the darkness at the center of the Plain. A shrill, discordant wail rose as the drones of a bagpipe were pumped into action. The moment and the melody matched perfectly as the plaintive cry of "Amazing Grace" rang out through the night, first by just a single piper, then again with four pipes, as if to underscore the loss that was felt by all those assembled. The refrain was repeated one last time by a solitary piper as a universal air to bear two souls to heaven.
The silence returned, and the gray clad figures seemingly evaporated back through the sally ports. A few lingered, standing with heads bowed. One cadet knelt in prayer for his departed brothers. Finally, they too drifted away, and, as the scene returned to total stillness, we were awestruck by what had just taken place: a simple stark ceremony that spoke volumes about the bond among West Pointers and the sense of loss when members of the Long Gray Line are taken before their time. The cadet farewell is surely one of the most poignant, meaningful ceremonies held at West Point. I felt immensely privileged to have been there for it. Thank God it isn't repeated often.
Frederick C. Rice '60
(May 1995, Assembly)
Through the eyes of a cadet:
The vigil went tonight at 2330 hours. Silence fell over the Corps, we all walked to the apron, where we got there first, still while the rest of the Corps arrived, you couldn't hear them, but you could feel the presence of every last person standing along the apron. We were all in grey, so no silhouettes or anything could be seen. 21 gun salute, followed by taps, followed by Amazing Grace, followed by the Alma Mater. Where else would the whole "student body" gather at once to reflect on the life of a classmate? It was an awesome feeling, made you feel like a part of something really special. for 30 minutes straight we stood at attention, not making one sound, one motion. No one even dared to cough or make any noise what so ever. You can't imagine the feeling...There was a presence there more than just the Corps, you could feel that, too.
Also at lunch today we had a moment of silence in the mess hall for him. I just can't imagine going to school somewhere else, where if a classmate dies most people don't know him and furthermore don't really find out about it. It was a time that we could each just think about things in our lives. You can't imagine...I don't know what else to say about it. I am glad and thankful to be a part of this very select and special group of people. Praise God for the blessings in life. I love you and miss you. Good Night.
Another Cadet observation:
What a way to end an evening. I just got back from the taps vigil. Picture this if you can. The plain is pitch black. Several thousand cadets line the edge, all in dress gray and all standing at parade rest. The air is deathly silent and you could hear a pin drop from a mile away. The air is shattered by the sound of the first of three volleys from the drill team rifles. Everyone of the cadets comes to attention. The first bugler starts taps. All of the cadet come to present arms. The second bugler echoes the first in a solemn, almost gut wrenching rendition of taps. After the last notes fades the cadets order arms and the wail of a bagpipe is carried through the air. The first verse of Amazing Grace is played by a lone bagpipe. For the second, the lone bagpipe is joined by several bagpipes. For the last, the lone bagpipe is once again left to pay respect to a fallen comrade. The air once again is still until the glee club begins to sing the Alma Mater. Several thousand cadets uncover and very softly, very solemnly sing along. The air returns to deathly still as the last verse is finished. The cadets slowly recover and return to the barracks.
Good night and I love you, Ben
From a parent:
Death of a Plebe
Eloise Burges) His shoes still rest in straightened rows,
And shoulders squared, aligned his clothes.
The caps he stored in proper place
Await return of their plebe's grace.
Cadets stand tall in soldier
The Plain not strange to warriors' boots;
A somber fog surrounds the crowd
And wraps the men in its gray shroud.
The cannon sounds its last
No soul can stand there resolute:
Hard eyes give way to quiet tears
And mothers' hearts recount their fears.
A comrade falls before his
No battles seen, no medals fine.
As he began, he's put to rest;
His courage known before the test.
The Long Gray Line at West
Will never see this one again,
But in the hallowed halls of God,
He'll stand with heroes, tall and proud.
My heartfelt condolences
to the family.
From a parent:
I was at West Point last week Thursday thru Sunday for the annual West Point Parents Club Presidents meeting. Also had the opportunity to go golfing with my cadet and two of his friends. When dropping him off he said, 'oh, by the way there is a taps vigil tonight for Paul Haggerty. If you are interested it might be the only opportunity you ever have to witness this event.' I said I wouldn't miss it, where should I position myself. Well, he said the event wasn't for the public and that I should stay appropriately removed from the cadets.
Later that night my wife and I walked from the Thayer Hotel to the academic area. At around 2200 I heard an announcement in the barracks that the taps vigil would commence at 2330 and that all lights must be extinguished by 2315.
At about 2300 we saw a few other civilians congregated around the Eisenhower statue, so we joined them. As we gazed at the barracks we saw that lights were starting to be turned off. At about 2310 a few cadets started to trickle out of the sally ports and position themselves with their toes to the grass of the quadrangle.
They were all dressed in grey over white. At first it seemed as though participation would not be very heavy. But by 2320 the cadets lined the grass from the end adjacent to the supe's house, all the way to the end by the Eisenhower monument. By 2330 they were three and four deep.
At about 2325 an officer approached us and whispered that no pictures or videos were allowed.......not that anyone would have desecrated this solemn occasion, but he was just making sure.
At about 2330 all the barracks lights were extinguished and the yellowish 'street-lights' were suddenly turned off. In the darkness the white trousers were slightly visible. A small group of cadets carrying rifles, led by a silent bugler, marched from the Eisenhower area, down the diagonal, and positioned themselves in front of the Washington monument. We could not see them but we could hear some muffled commands.
The first volley of the three-gun salute was rendered. We could hear the bolts opened and the shells expelled, but we could not see the riflemen in the darkness. Then the mournful bugle sounded taps, and another bugle, somewhere off by Doubleday Field, acted as an echo. Taps finished, a bagpipe, somewhere off near the bleachers, began playing Amazing Grace. Then the Alma Mater was sung, led by what must have been the cadet choir or glee club near the mess hall entrance. The haunting words from scripture, "and when our work is done, may it be said 'well done'" were left hanging in the darkness.
Suddenly, silently, it was over. The cadets began disappearing through the sally ports. The entire time not a word was spoken. I had a lump in my throat. My mind was filled with questions. I wondered how and when this moving ceremony came into being. Who makes the decision to hold the vigil. I think the vigil is normally only for cadets, but in this case for a member of the West Point family. How is the decision made. I saw an all-white uniform in the darkness. I wondered if the other service academies had a similar ceremony. I wondered if the visiting student felt what a great honor it was to have had the opportunity to participate in this rare, almost secretive, event. I also wondered what plebes must think the first time they participate. What it must mean to them to be included in this moving ceremony. Talk about handing off the baton. I would imagine that this might be one of the times where a plebe would feel very powerfully his bond with the corps and his recommitment to the course on which he has set out.
So that was my experience. I share it because I know that very few other parents will ever have the opportunity and I want them to appreciate it as much as we did. And I share it to add my condolences to the Paul Haggerty family and let them know that we all shared in their grief very deeply on 17 April 1998 at 2330 hrs.
Ken Cammenga Alex '99