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By DAVID LIPSKY
I came to love, really love,
road marching. It's called a suck or a haze at West Point,
but I think the cadets aren't being fair to it. There's something wonderful
about being in a column of marching people: the gravel popping under soles, the
leather flexing in boots, the kind of saddle-top sounds as the ruck (what a
backpack gets called in the Army) frames settle. Occasionally someone, out of
sheer misery, sighing Oooh, or just blowing out air, which in the general
silence is like a whale breaching and then slipping back under the surface. You
can watch a leaf float down from a tree or stare at the guy's rifle in front of
you. The boiling down of life to its basic questions: Can you do this? What
kind of person are you, and what can you make yourself finish? Can you hang
with the rest of us? Those questions don't get asked much, in the civilian
One night I got stuck with a West Point company that was spending the entire evening
on patrol in the woods. They had brought ponchos in their rucks and I hadn't.
It was about two in the morning when the rain started. A nice earth-smelling
drizzle at first. Then it became a pretty hard, thundery storm. I'd never
noticed that rain makes different noises on different articles of clothing: a
kind of spreading, sinking hiss into a shirt, a loud spattery ploink! on jeans.
One of the cadets offered me his poncho, but of course you couldn't accept it.
In the dark, I found my way to two trees that had grown so close together that
their upper branches formed a canopy. I obviously wasn't going to sleep, so I
marched back and forth all night under this umbrella, rain dripping into my
ears and down over my lips. Then, in the morning, at five, everyone shook
themselves off and we marched again.
I never liked the military at
all as a kid. My father told us it was the one profession we couldn't pursue:
if my brother or I joined up, he promised to hire strong guys to come break our
legs. In his eyes, compared to the military, hired leg-breaking was an act of
kindness. So when Rolling Stone magazine first assigned me to write about the United States Military Academy,
I fought it. And I mean fought hard, as hard as you can fight Rolling Stone's
publisher, Jann Wenner, who can be firm and cajoling in a kind of (at least to
a writer) irresistible way. When I gave in, and traveled to West
Point, I was followed by members of the Academy's Public Affairs
Office. They chose the people I could speak with, they sat in on the
interviews. I saw my way out; I was thrilled and relieved. I said I could not
do the story under those circumstances, and I left. A few days later the
colonel who oversees the daily management of West Point-Joe Adamczyk, a thin,
steely man the cadets nicknamed Skeletor-called back to say it was fine. There
would be no one picking out ideal cadets for me to interview, no one escorting
me, no doors closed. I could have the run of the place. "We have nothing
of which we should be ashamed," he said.
So that was the first step
toward my love of road marching. Very different from my original idea of the
Army. And there was no avoiding the story anymore.
It had all seemed so foreign,
a kind of dense green forest. Slowly, the trees parted a little, enough for me
to step inside, and then I could feel the basic goodness of the place. As I
listened to the cadets and understood how they were living, I had a strange,
funny thought. Not only was the Army not the awful thing my father had
imagined, it was the sort of America
he always pictured when he explained (this would happen every four years,
during an election cycle) his best hopes for the country. A place where
everyone tried their hardest. A place where everybody-or at least most
people-looked out for each other. A place where people-intelligent, talented
people-said honestly that money wasn't what drove them. A place where people
spoke openly about their feelings and about trying to make themselves better.
One reason Rolling Stone
wanted me on the story was that I'd become a kind of young-person specialist.
You specialize at a magazine. On news stories, I mainly covered universities
and students. I must have traveled to about thirty-five colleges in the five
years before I first went to West Point. From
tiny places like Wisconsin's obscure, homemade- feeling Beloit to a
thirty-thousand-student factory like the University of Georgia at Athens to
places like Harvard and Yale that made me feel like maybe I wasn't changing my
socks often enough. I'd also written about young TV actors and the young rich
and young media executives, people who had every reason to be consistently delighted.
And of all the young people I'd met, the West Point
cadets-although they are grand, epic complainers-were the happiest. That was
probably step two on the path toward my love of road marching.
Here's three: My friends had
reached the phase, in their early thirties, when things slow down and you can
relax and look around yourself again for maybe the first time since college.
Before that, life is like sticking your head out the window of a fast-moving
car: everything is rushing at you, flattening back your skin, your eyes are
blinking and you can barely overhear your own thoughts. Most of those thoughts
are "Will I find a job?" and "Can I find a partner?" and
"What kind of life am I going to have?" By the early thirties, this
stuff had quieted down, and my friends were thinking, "OK, I've found a
life." And then the second part hit: "Is this the life I want? Does
the job I'm doing matter to anyone else?" It was right at this time that
the Army and the Academy dawned on me, and I saw what it meant to live as a
group, to share experiences, and to have that sense that other people were
honestly looking out for you. And I have to say, that looked pretty good to me
And so, a road march.
Everyone dressed the same. Everyone with a clear assignment: You will depart
from this first point and you will arrive at this second point, and it will be
clear to you when you have accomplished this. It will be difficult (in the
Army, they say challenging). In place of the anxiety that comes from jobs that
involve only the brain, the pleasure of a task that would engage the entire
body. When cadets faltered, other cadets would softly encourage them.
"Come on. You can do this. I know you can do this." The sound of the
boots and the smell of the road and the sun on the leaves and this soft,
encouraging undertone. When cadets fell, other cadets would move forward, lift
them up. I remember, during my first road marches, feeling simply blessed.
The magazine originally treated
the assignment, when it began in 1998, as a journalistic public service. That
summer, the West Point superintendent, a
three-star general, had parked with some other military leaders at the sort of
big roadside welcome center that features a TCBY and a Great American Pretzel
Company (so that even rest stops offer the channel-surfing pleasures of a mall)
and where there is usually one restaurant with sit-down service. The
superintendent was wearing his green class-B uniform, and so were the hungry officers
in his party. The hostess looked him up and down, from polished shoes to
epaulets, then she smiled and thanked him for the selfless work he was doing as
a member of the Parks Department. The superintendent wondered if maybe the gap
between the civilian and military worlds hadn't become too large. A few weeks
later, the superintendent and the commandant arrived at the Rolling Stone
offices in their full uniforms, marching past black-and-white photographs of
Eric Clapton and framed guitars. The initial idea was for me to spend a few
weeks on post, follow around a bunch of plebes, write something short. I ended
up staying most of the year.
When that time was over, I
didn't believe the story was fully told. I decided to rent a house in Highland Falls, and stayed until the plebe class
graduated four years later-the only time West Point
has let a writer in for such an extended tour of hanging out. I saw cadets in
combat with themselves, unlearning many of the skills and instincts that had
brought them to West Point; I saw some cadets
thriving; I saw lots of suffering (academic, physical, homesickness); I saw
spot meanness and acts of great generosity. My friends were full of questions:
What kinds of people still wanted such a regimented life? Why would cadets
willingly put themselves through it? Didn't they realize the way they were
living was out-of-date? Those were questions I set out to answer. But I mostly
wanted to give people the experience of spending forty-seven months at the United States Military Academy,
an experience that only around sixty thousand people have had since the place
got up and running two centuries ago. I learned how to read a uniform and how
to tie many types of knots. I learned that soldiers are people-that when I flip
on the news and there's some officer in a helmet standing before a tank, I'm
looking at someone a lot like myself, who's lived through most of the same
events I have, eats the same drive-through, can trace the same internal map of
favorite movie dialogue and TV scenes, but who has made the decision to put on
a uniform and serve in the nation's military.
I've changed the names of
several cadets, mostly at their request, including people involved in an honor
hearing and three cadets who endured various hardships-a consuming
relationship, loss of rank, separation from the Academy. Scott Mellon, Kim
Wilkins, Loryn Winter, Nick Calabanos, Mrs. Como, Virginia Whistler and James
Edgar are fictitious names-real people under a verbal false nose and
eyeglasses. Otherwise, the names and nicknames in this book are the cadets'
real ones. I followed the men and women of one company, G-4, from the months
they arrived at West Point until the day they
graduated; this is their story.