Cadets-to-be get just a hint of what’s in store at West Point

By Harry Levins, Military Matters, St Louis Post-Dispatch



Phone: 314-340-8144

June 14, 2003


Most of the 18-year-olds who’ll soon head off to college have questions about what they’re getting into. But some of those freshmen- in-waiting have extra anxiety as well as questions. And small wonder.


They’ll set off this month for West Point They’ll show up June 30 for “R-Day” - Reception Day, when they will leave behind their civilian lives, and their civilian hair cuts, too.


At most campuses, the hazing of freshmen has faded away. Likewise, West Point bars hazing. Still, the newcomers will head straight into six weeks of freshman orientation, military-style. At West Point, they call it “Beast Barracks.”


In one way, the transition from civilian teenager to West Point plebe seems to be like sex: People who haven’t experienced it can’t imagine what it feels like, while people who have experienced it can’t describe what it feels like.


Even so, last weekend, the St Louis chapter of the West Point Cadet Parents Club rounded up five cadets who were home on leave. The five sat down with eight young men and two young women who’ll soon be standing in The Long Gray Line.


As the parents conducted business in a motel dining room, the young people moved to a side room. There, the five cadets - four men, one woman, all in summer uniforms of white short-sleeved shirts and gray pants - sat on one side of a ring of chain, with the 10 newcomers across the way.


The cadets opened the session to questions by saying, “This is your last chance to ask anything without consequences.”


At that, one of tile young men in civilian clothes asked hesitantly: “You guys have really shiny shoes. How shiny should mine be when I show up?”


The cadets responded with a unanimous laugh, the gallows humor of Those Who Have Already Been Through It. Then they responded, “Don’t shine ‘em that day. You’ll just get hollered at You’ll spend a lot of time shining shoes.”


No Napster. No napping.


Indeed, at many points, the cadets’ advice seemed to echo Scripture: “Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”


Except the cadets phrased it a bit differently. As one put it, “Live out the rest of your summer. Do everything you can. Party hard. R-Day was the worst day of my life.”

Among the nuggets of advice:

  • “You’ll get enough to eat - but you do so much during the day that you’re always hungry. Pretty soon, your sense of time is, ‘It’s two hours before breakfast. ... Now, it’s four hours before lunch..’
  • “When they make you waddle down the hall, don’t take it personally. Have fun.”
  • “Make sure you’re in really good shape when you get there. Especially running.” The young woman in uniform said, “For females, running is the hardest thing to get over.” The two women in civilian clothes seemed to swallow hard.


Sitting in briefly was a brand new West Point graduate, Steve Hemmann of Des Peres. This month, Hemmann got his diploma and his gold bars as a second lieutenant of infantry. He had some pithy words for the plebes-to-be:


“The next four years are going to be a pain in the butt for you. If I had $1 for every time somebody said, ‘I hate this place,’ I could pay back the $250,000 that the government spent on me. But do you know what? It’s worth it. It’s a life- changing experience.”