Acceptance Day: Classes
of ‘77/’07 – An Old Grad's Perspective On Acceptance
Day, Then and
Three old grads sat on the front steps of a candle-lit house overlooking the Hudson River until 0300 Saturday morning, 16 August 2003, in the remaining neighborhood at West Point still experiencing a blackout from the power failure that gripped much of the northeast that week. We imagined that we passed the hours much as our predecessors might have 150 years earlier, and considered that our obligation was to finish off the beer before it became too warm. As the wee hours arrived and we waxed more wise, we solved the world’s problems as well as those of the graduate association, and developed concrete ways to make our Rockbound Highland Home a more meaningful experience for generations to come. We recounted stories, embellished glories, laughed ourselves hoarse, reminisced, commented on the quality of the new class, and otherwise did what old grads often do … relish in the humbling splendor of being part of the Long Gray Line. Then as sleep overcame wisdom, we wound our way up the dark stairs by candlelight to our respective rooms and rested our bleary heads.
At 0630, I woke up with a single thought: this is the first time in many years that I have spent the night and met the morning at West Point. Little more than a mile away was my son – I pictured his face, and my chest swelled. Today, I thought, he becomes a West Point Cadet.
I thought back to my own experience of having slain the Beast so many years ago. I remembered the early morning runs with the sun streaking red in the eastern sky. The deep throated chant of a thousand classmates running up the hill, down the hill, over the hill, through the hill… For moments, memory swept back to the feel of the cold morning dew against my back, the quick, involuntary gulp of air as we did sit-ups. My arms felt again the heat of exertion from remaining in the front-leaning-rest position until our cadre deemed our efforts at push-ups worthy of respite. Then the hard run back to barracks, the fast showers, rapid change of uniform, completion of duties, anticipation of breakfast - chagrin at not getting much of it.
Then the march up the ski slope, then to Lake Frederick – the sheer enjoyment of land navigation and orienteering because, for a short while, I was left alone with my own thoughts in God’s great outdoors. All I had to do was get from Point A to Points B, C, D and X in the middle of a wilderness within a time that met or exceeded standard. Then the march back to garrison. That tortuous, feet-killing march during which we gathered experiences worthy of fables to be recounted, memories to be cherished, class distinctions to be revered… I know that is the case because over the years, I have heard so much about having done exactly that. However, in those wee hours of this particular morning, I confessed to my compatriots that I really did not remember much about all of that… and they laughed and confessed that we were in the same boat… along with many of our classmates and fellow graduates.
What I really remembered was fatigue, immense fatigue, and hunger, and a desire to stop walking and sit down and lay down. In the dimmest recesses of my mind, I was conscious of people along the road waving banners and cheering us on. But I smelled, my back ached, and I felt almost everything other than heroic.
But our long-ago Acceptance Day, was special. We knew that too, for the same reason…we had been told such so many times over the years, and indeed, here we were, all these years later making a special celebration of that very event for our own sons and daughters. On that day of yore, we had strained in place while a smattering of the public looked on. We had paraded nervously if not proudly, knowing that the Beast was slain, but the Dean still lived to exact his due. We knew not to lock our knees for fear of passing out, to curl our fingers, and pray not to be noticed… somewhere, also in the dimmest recesses of our minds, we knew an honor was about to be bestowed upon us for which we had striven valiantly. We knew, because we had been told. And of course, we had told our own sons and daughters.
On this morning, I got out of bed, showered, dressed, and headed for the Plain. The water was glassy smooth on the Hudson that morning, and I felt the awe that always rises when viewing the vast expanse of river and mountains from Trophy Point. In that early morning half-light, the quiet is profound, and with nearby cannons, and chain-links, and monuments, it is impossible not to “feel the grip of that far off hold…”
And then I heard that deep, throaty chant that only comes from four thousand voices calling in cadence, with muffled footfalls that attend. Through the slight mist appeared a single flag, a guidon, followed by wave upon wave of well-toned athletes, moving as a united force toward me and then passing in front of me. The full body of the Corps of Cadets was exercising its combined muscle.
In vain, I looked for my son. I knew the company he was in, and how to determine which one it was, but among the slim-waisted, broad-shouldered, muscular set of magnificent runners moving past me en masse, the uniformity of appearance masked sufficient individuality to pick him out. But I was reminded of something a mother had written last week: that they are all our sons and daughters.
I made my way over to Cullum Hall, met other parents and graduates, and viewed the cheerful expanse of blue and green and orange canopies, and others of all shades and colors; and cars, and pickups, and vehicles of all makes and models; and people bustling about. They were all far below us along the river, spread across the field where the tennis courts had once been. The people were moving generally en masse, albeit without the organization of the Corps; but their destination was already clear. They were headed for the Plain.
Shortly thereafter, I too made my way with the gathering crowd to the reviewing stand in front of the Plain. There I found a seat. People from places near and far sat all about me. They introduced themselves – they told jokes – they laughed – and they spoke with pride and respect of the accomplishments of those they had come to see – their New Cadets.
Then the Rrrrr – tut-tut of the drums sounded. The band marched. The crowd grew quiet. The band ceased. Bugles called. The band struck-up again, with brass and drums playing marching music of sentimental days and patriotic feeling. And from across the Plain, in the shadows of the sallyports, movement was visible. A single figure appeared – the First Captain - in magnificent white over gray regalia, sabre flashing in his hand. He was followed by a line-abreast of his staff. And from the full breadth of Gothic-style barracks, whole companies moved in unison across the field. Then, from the far left and the far right, marching separately, the Class of 2007 surged to our immediate front and took up positions facing the companies they would soon join.
The band marched between opposing lines: Cadets on one side, New Cadets on the other. As in ancient times, this signified acceptance into a standing army those new members who had met the test and were considered worthy. Our sons and daughters had met that test.
The field became quiet again. Commanders called orders sounded up and down the line. The last three ranks of the Corps of Cadets executed an about-face, and on order, marched out a sufficient distance to make room for the phalanx of New Cadets who would momentarily be joining them. They executed another about face. And then, in his sonorous voice, the First Captain commanded: “Receive the Class of 2007!”
Orders sounded again. The Band struck. And in alternating sequence, respective phalanxes of New Cadets marched across the field. The announcer called, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Class of 2007!” The crowd cheered and clapped. Mothers wiped eyes while fathers looked away and cleared throats. And then the Class of 2007 was absorbed into the main body and became indistinguishable. They were now officially an integral part of the Corps of Cadets.
Orders passed again up and down the line, drums rolled, trumpets sounded, and one by one, each of the thirty-six companies in turn executed a right-turn and marched to the end of the Plain. There, they executed a left turn, and bore down on the extreme reaches of the viewing stands. Another left-turn marched each company in its turn past the reviewing stand and down the full length of the Plain where another left turn took them toward the barracks. But so vast is the size of the Corps that the first company to march finished and was dismissed in time for its members to change clothes and watch the last few companies step off.
We watched orchestrated motion. In the mid-field, companies marched toward the river. At the same time, the companies ahead of them had turned north and marched toward the stands. Across our immediate front, those companies of the 2d and 3d Regiments marched toward the west, while at that end of the field the trail elements of the 1st Regiment made their left turn to march past the still standing trail elements of the 4th Regiment. And in the distance next to the barracks, the lead elements of the 1st Regiment was already disappearing through the sally ports from whence they had come.
When the entire Corps of Cadets had marched past the reviewing stands, the First Captain and his staff marched to where the Superintendent and the other members of the reviewing party had stood for the entire parade, saluted, and reported. The Superintendent dismissed the Cadet Officers, and the ceremony ended. Our sons and daughters had become Cadets of West Point.
Later, I met with my Cadet near Patton statue. We visited with other families and cadets in that immediate vicinity. “How did you enjoy the parade?” I asked. He grimaced, “My back hurt, I sweated incredibly, and couldn’t wait till it was over. They told us to be sure not to lock our knees…” I asked him about a picture I had seen of him on the march back from Lake Frederick. I asked him, what had he been thinking? “Oh, I wasn’t thinking about anything,” was the reply. “I was too tired. I don’t remember much about it. I just wanted to sit and eat.”
We strolled over to and down the long flight of stairs and ramps leading to the field by the river that I had viewed with friends earlier at Cullum Hall. The aroma that rose to meet us was of smoked and barbecued beef, and sausage, and beans, and potatoes and pie, and ... Some cadets were already sound asleep. Others ate voraciously. Families had set up their canopies and picnic accessories the full length of this stretch by the river. We ran into classmates and friends, old and new. We saw the contingent of 26 foreign cadets, and an exchange group of Italian officers. Parent groups of different states had organized to be near each other for this celebration. And everywhere, we received invitations (some taken) to stop and enjoy the food.
After awhile, we climbed back up the stairs to the level of the Plain. I marveled at my son’s physical prowess to make the climb so effortlessly – and that I had ever accomplished the same feat in similar condition. We made our way around to Trophy Point where we ran into more friends, and found similar groupings of families enjoying their picnics before the magnificence of the view below.
Later that afternoon, we returned to the house where I had stayed the night before, and where we three old grads had resolved the great questions of the universe. This was to be the location of our own official celebration, and other cadets and families gathered there. Electrical power had been restored. The steaks were thick and juicy, and insufficient for the collective appetites – so an old grad made a run for more. The salads and fruit and potatoes and desserts were in abundance – and barely survived twilight.
As the evening wore on, the cadets gathered in the living room and discussed things of importance to them: how to report to an upperclassman; the best way of surviving duty as cold beverage corporal; strategies for how to memorize required plebe knowledge; disparities of treatment between companies. The feeling of shared experiences drawing these cadets together was palpable.
Meanwhile on the porch, the three old grads now joined by a few others, drank more beer (cold by now), recalled more stories and comrades, and discussed improvements on the solutions derived at 0300 that morning. Between the laughter and the goodwill, occasionally the conversation became serious, even somber. We recognized that these are sober times we live in; that those same young men and women whom we watched so proudly as they marched this morning, might one day be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice. Given the news of this era, that probability seems more real than in times past, and the urgency is certainly not lost on this Class of 2007. At least that was the consensus of that group of wise men. We believe that the members of this class understand that someone must be prepared to fight for the liberties that we enjoy in our wonderful country, or they will be lost. Their class motto conveys precisely that: Always Remember; Never Surrender.
We spoke of values and traditions and ways of life and of what it means to be a citizen of our great country and a graduate of West Point. And ultimately, we decided that we could express the totality of those concepts no better than our own motto from our beloved Alma Mater: Duty, Honor, Country.
To the current Corps of Cadets, we honor you.
To the Class of 2007, we welcome you.
Lee Jackson, ‘77
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