Sunday, 1 July 2001
After a half-day drive through terrible summer thunderstorms, we arrived at West Point Sunday afternoon about 4:00PM. As we drove past Camp Buckner, we could see the equipment of the 10th Mountain Division (Light Inf) from Ft. Drum, NY, ready for training the Yearlings at Camp Buckner and the soon-to-be New Cadets during their field training. First stop was the Post Exchange to return boots that didn't fit - all part of the trials and tribulations of getting ready for this new adventure. This time was quite a bit different though, as our son, a member of the Class of 2002, was with us to share in his sister's West Point beginnings. The PX was full of "Poopsters" from the USMA Prep School who apparently had arrived early, wandering around in their green uniforms stripped of any rank or other insignia. Next stop was the McDonald's in Highland Falls to check on its opening time for breakfast Monday morning. As we drove through West Point and past Michie Stadium, we understood why the in-processing activities wouldn't be there. Construction of new athletic facilities and replacement of the Blaik Field turf had turned the stadium into quite a mess.
We had the good fortune to be staying overnight on Post with Father (MAJ) Jerry Deponai, a classmate and now one of the Catholic Chaplains assigned to the Corps of Cadets. He joined us for a wonderful dinner at Gasho Steak House in Central Valley - a fun and relaxing way to spend the evening before Monday's excitement. Unlike our previous R-Day's eve dinner three years earlier when we ate at Schade's in Highlands Falls, this restaurant was not obviously full of families in the same situation we were. This let us focus more on the moment and not on what lay ahead in the next twenty-four hours.
Because our daughter had a 7:00 AM in-processing time, bedtime came early. Evening prayers included Father Jerry's blessing for strength for all of us in the coming days and weeks. From there it was off to bed for a somewhat fitful night's sleep.
Monday, 2 July 2001
Despite the previous day's rain showers, we awoke early to one of the most beautiful West Point days I can remember. A cold front had pushed through overnight, and brought with it clear blue skies, and relief from the previous week's high temperatures and humidity. We later learned that it had set a record low temperature for July 2nd. This was a blessing for parents, cadre, and New Cadets alike throughout the day.
We arrived at McDonald's about 6:20 AM, and they were already in high gear. It was obvious that many others had the same idea we did. After a reasonably quick meal, it was off to Eisenhower Hall. We joined a long procession of families headed in the same direction. Cadet cadre members, all looking very serious, directed us to be quiet and to take our place in line. After taking a few pictures, we found ourselves in one of the first groups to enter the amphitheater.
We knew from prior experience the importance of saying our good-byes ahead of time. From the time we entered Ike Hall until we left the auditorium less than 20 minutes later, everything was structured. We were seated in the lower left front of the auditorium. As we entered, we could see the one group ahead of us already filing out. As soon as our group of about forty young men and women and their families were seated, COL Maureen LeBoeuf, head of the Office of Physical Education and "Master of the Sword," began speaking. She explained a number of things that would happen during the day, the most humorous (to us at least) being instructions on how to, "Step up to the line. Don't step over the line, don't step on the line. Step up to the line." Her guidance to her young audience included three things: "First, listen and do as you are told (followed by the 'step up to the line' speech); second, maintain a sense of humor, and third, remember you are not alone. Every member of the Long Gray Line has experienced this day." She was followed by a member of the Cadet cadre who then told the candidates how to proceed to the busses, followed by the most emotional part of the presentation, "New Cadet Candidates, you have 90 seconds to say your good-byes." I still get choked up when I think about it. The 90 seconds passed too quickly with hugs, kisses and tears for family and friends. Then the candidates proceeded quietly in single file out the front of the auditorium and on to the busses which transported them to Thayer Hall. From that point on, we were in different worlds.
It was hard enough saying our good-byes that morning. I can't imagine what it was like for those parents who left their kids at airports and train stations to make the trip alone, nor for the kids themselves. Perhaps that's an easier way to begin the great adventure, although there is nothing like being there if at all possible. When we finally look back on these four years, I suspect that we will still remember those moments vividly, and hopefully by that point, with fond recollection.
From here, the parents and other family members were directed out the back of the auditorium into the ballroom, where a number of displays had been arranged. From a convenience standpoint, this was a much better arrangement than in other years when you had to get from Michie Stadium to somewhere else for these displays. We had the opportunity to pick up our daughter's company assignment and address, a schedule of the day's events, and to speak with representatives from many of the parents' clubs, support organizations, and memorabilia vendors. Although we felt somewhat "old hat" at all of this, we enjoyed reminiscing about what it was like on our son's R-Day, and my wife pointed out (on several occasions) that this was her third time dropping someone off at USMA. The first-time parents and visitors were stocking up on West Point and Class of 2005 souvenirs, the most popular of which seemed to be t-shirts and tote bags with the names of all of the Class of 2005 members on them. Even the Postal Service was present with a booth selling post cards and stamps, and accepting those important first letters to New Cadets.
Next stop - the pay phones to make reservations at the Thayer Hotel for Graduation, 28 May 2005. Talk about proper prior planning! Starting at 8:00, the phone bank at Ike Hall was filled with other parents doing the same thing. Despite reminders from the reservation clerks of sizeable deposits, and that all deposits were non-refundable, there seemed to be no lack of people willing to take that risk.
Because we were in one of the first groups, we had plenty of time to spare, so we relaxed with a cup of coffee in "Benny's Lounge" at Ike Hall. Breakfast was also being served downstairs. It was fun to sit back for a few moments at this point, and listen to our son's reflections on this day from his vantage point, now as a First Class Cadet having had his R-Day only three years earlier. As we left Ike Hall, the line of families awaiting to enter the building snaked back and forth for several hundred feet. I am sure that this waiting only heightened the anxiety for all those in line, and I was grateful that my daughter had started early in the day.
From there we headed up to the Cadet Area to see what was happening, and to see if we might catch any glimpse of our daughter (which we did not). In the North Area behind MacArthur barracks we could see New Cadets from E-F-G-H companies already changed into their black low quarter shoes, black knee socks, white t-shirts and black shorts. They were all carrying large blue bags full of just-issued equipment, and each was wearing a canteen. Periodically we saw groups lifting the canteens to their lips in unison. Despite the cool temperatures, the Cadre was apparently taking no chances with dehydration. The Cadre members, including numerous "Cadet in the Red Sash" models, were directing their charges from one station to another. It was amusing to compare the men sporting new buzz cuts with those who had not yet had their visit to the cadet barber shop. Although the shouts of upperclass cadets that I recalled from my Beast Barracks were missing, you could still easily hear the New Cadets shouting their newly-learned four responses, "Yes Sir, No Sir, No Excuse Sir! and Sir, I do not understand!" across the area. I spoke for several minutes with parents from Houston, Texas, who had brought their son to R-Day. Even though his Dad was an Aggie, and he had been accepted at Texas A&M himself, he had made the decision to come to West Point - there's real desire!
Shortly before 10:00 AM, we headed to the special Mass at Holy Trinity Chapel in honor of the New Cadets and their families. The chapel was filled with several hundred people, in sharp contrast with the 40-50 people at a similar Mass on my son's R-Day. We attributed this to a flyer sent to our home a week or so earlier inviting us to Holy Trinity that morning. The Mass was concelebrated by Father Burns, the Pastor, and Father Deponai, with special prayers for the New Cadets and the emotions which all of us were experiencing. Puffy red eyes were evident on many of the moms and dads present, but it was reassuring to know we were all in this together. At the conclusion of the Mass, Father Deponai asked all of us to keep our sons' and daughters' Cadet Squad Leaders in our prayers, as they have the toughest job of all. [Throughout the day we were reminded by several cadets and fellow grads that "everything I am and ever hope to be in life I owe to my first Beast Squad Leader!" While the extent to which that is true may vary, I can vouch for the fact that we all remember the sentiment!] Mass was followed by a nice punch and cookies reception in the Church basement, and the chance to meet with the Parish chaplains and staff, who reassured us that they were there at any time to help our new cadets.
Lunch time...The West Point Club (formerly the Officers Club) hosted a very nice, reasonably-priced buffet luncheon. Overlooking the Hudson River in their main dining room, we had the chance to sit at tables with other parents and friends sharing our experience. We met parents from Alaska, and South Carolina, along with a mother and girl friend who had made the trip from Kansas. I would bet that at that moment, her son was realizing that "Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore!" They all helped us realize that being only three hours away by car is a real benefit.
With time to spare before having to be back at Ike Hall for the Parents Briefing, we took the opportunity to walk through the Cadet Area. Thayer Road between the Academic buildings and barracks has been under construction for several years while the Academy prepares for its Bicentennial celebrations. The work in this area is nearly complete, and it was a pleasure to walk up and down the former main thoroughfare through Post now unobstructed by vehicles or construction barriers. This also gave us the chance to peek over the heads of parents lined 3-deep watching the New Cadets learning to march in Central Area behind Eisenhower Barracks. Every so often a file of New Cadets would march off in one direction while one lone member would head the other way - only to correct the mistake quickly and earning the close attention of at least one Upper Classman, and chuckles from the crowd of parents.
Later we visited the static equipment display by the 10th Infantry Division on Clinton Field adjacent to the Plain. This included an Abrams tank, a Blackhawk helicopter, and numerous other pieces of Army hardware. The troops all did a great job of bragging about their equipment. My wife was a good sport and donned a "Ghillie Suit" designed to totally camouflage a soldier in the field. For some reason her straw sun hat with the blue ribbon clashed with the rest of the outfit, but I'm sure that the photo of her laying in the grass with a machine gun will look great! Our son, hoping to be a future tanker, was in his element showing us around the Abrams tank.
Back to Ike Hall...The Parents Briefing began sharply at 3:00 PM, and the first floor of the hall was nearly filled. This included a series of presentations by the Brigade Tactical Officer, COL Joseph Adamczyk (USMA '72); the new Superintendent, LTG William Lennox (USMA '71); the Commandant, BG Eric Olson (USMA '72); the Vice Dean, COL Barney Forsythe (USMA '70); and the Cadet Regimental Commander (First Class Cadet Andrew Blickhahn), otherwise known as the "King of Beast". Everyone was well-prepared and well-spoken - particularly Cadet Blickhahn. They were forthright about what was happening to our sons and daughters that day and throughout the remainder of Beast Barracks. They did their best to reassure us that our New Cadets were going to be well taken care of, and that we would hear from them soon.
The Com emphasized that the primary reason for Cadet Basic Training was not intended to reflect the "tear them down and build them back up" philosophy that existed in the past and that many assumed still remained. In fact, it is to provide practical experience for the First and Second Class Cadets with the leadership skills they will need in a year or two as they move into the Regular Army. The Supe showed photos taken earlier in the day of our sons and daughters as they went through the various steps of in-processing and drill training (along with a fairly humorous running commentary). We also heard about the special nature of this class, as its Acceptance Day ceremony in August will officially kick-off the Academy's Bicentennial Year celebrations. The Officer in charge of CBT concluded the briefing by telling us how the Oath Ceremony would be conducted and where to best position ourselves to view the affair.
Just as I felt three years earlier, I think that everyone must have come away feeling that the New Cadets and the Academy as a whole are in good hands. This had to be particularly true for those parents who were experiencing West Point for the first time. I don't think I realize how disconcerting and overwhelming it must be for first-time parents, let alone the New Cadets, especially those from a distance. Yet I couldn't help wondering how many parents sending their kids to other colleges and universities have the opportunity to enjoy the undivided attention of the College President, Dean of Student Affairs, Dean of Academics, etc., right from the beginning.
From there it was back to Trophy Point for the Oath Ceremony. Over the years this ceremony has been conducted as a Retreat Review on the Plain, as well as at Battle Monument on Trophy Point. Although it was not even 5:00 and the ceremony was not for an hour, the sidewalks in front of the Supe's quarters and along Washington Road filled quickly. We had been advised earlier regarding the order of march of each company, so we had an idea where to sit to be well-positioned. Shortly before 6:00 PM, preceded by the USMA Band, the New Cadets began marching out of the barracks area. A-B-C-D companies marched through a sally port in Eisenhower Barracks, and along the apron in front of Washington Hall and MacArthur Barracks to the road in front of the Supe's quarters. They were followed by the Cadet Color Guard and E-F-G-H companies, which marched out from behind MacArthur Barracks two platoons abreast, past the Supe's quarters, and along Washington Road, taking positions immediately in front of Battle Monument.
Each unit was led by Upperclass Cadets in starched Dress Whites - the "India" uniform. The civilian youngsters we had left earlier in the day were now in a uniform of white shirt over gray trousers, without headgear, and wearing a white glove on their left hand while carrying the right glove. As New Cadet Candidates they were not yet entitled to wear the headgear - this would follow the swearing-in. The right hand was bare, ready to be raised as the Oath was administered. The day's beautiful weather allowed for a magnificent ceremony, and it was obvious that the Cadet Cadre had done an excellent job throughout the day preparing for this event.
I was not alone in running back and forth looking for our daughter (having been told which company and platoon she was in), snapping photos vigorously and shouting encouragement (without identifying her directly, of course!)
The Oath was administered by BG Olson, Commandant of Cadets, the National Anthem was played and Retreat was sounded, and the New Cadets - no longer "New Cadet Candidates" - marched south along Clinton Road toward the barracks area with the Band playing the Army Song in the background. We caught one last glance of our daughter as she marched away, barely an arm's length beyond our reach. Before we knew it, the New Cadets had marched out of our sight into Washington Hall for dinner. The ceremony capped an emotional roller-coaster of a day which was filled with anxiety, pride, awe, admiration and uncertainty for what the future holds.
For us, and the thousands of parents and friends around us, R-Day for the Class of 2005 was over.
Martin Joyce '74 (Dad '02, '05)