On the day of the open house, Shakespeare call signs seemed appropriate:
SHAKESPEARE 3, THIS IS SHAKESPEARE 6, HAVE YOU SECURED THE PERIMETER?OVER
SHAKESPEARE 3, THIS IS SHAKESPEARE 6, DO YOU NEED RELIEF AT YOUR POST?OVER
Relief? No way. Refusing to surrender my post, I processed legions of parents
with dispatch. In they pressed, fathers carrying video cameras, mothers wearing
black parkas with gold letters indicating their children's class, usma 05. These
parkas are standard issue for cadets, who often buy extra ones for their
mothers, girlfriends, and, occasionally, fathers.
In the "gray days" of winter, when the castellated stone buildings blend with
the sky and the wind rips off the Hudson, these parkas and the winter caps that
go with them are the emblems of shared misery. There is a profound sense in
which an eighteen-year-old plebe needs to feel that he has suffered, and
suffered cruelly. Reporting to West Point sometimes only days after high school
graduation, the "new cadet" spends the summer trudging through the humid woods
of the Hudson Valley in face paint and camouflage imagining her friends sleeping
late or going to the beach. In the fall, when he has exchanged his Army combat
uniform (ACU) for a more businesslike as-for-class uniform and plunged into a
heavy load of required courses, the shorn plebe's friends instant-message him
with tales of growing beards, rushing fraternities, and signing up for (but not
necessarily attending) whatever classes strike their fancy. Surrendering a great
deal, plebes cultivate a compensatory aura of martyrdom.
On their parents, the parkas seemed a strange show of solidarity. For
identification purposes, the mothers and fathers had been issued personalized
pins in the shapes of their home states. It was almost impossible to decipher
the surnames, but I thought that if I could identify the states, I would be able
to gain the upper hand with my dazzlingly thorough knowledge of capitals. Texas
was easy, so was California, but the nondescript square states proved a
challenge, and I found myself staring a bit too long and hard at the chests of
parents from Wyoming and Colorado. Who but a native can tell the difference
between the isolated silhouettes of North and South Dakota?
As the day wore on, an entire nation assembled before me. They say every fourth
cadet is from Texas, but in fact all fifty states are represented. A West Point
class is not the gung-ho, red-state monolith an outsider might expect. I've
known of cadets who grew up on Manhattan's Upper East Side and cadets who spent
part of their childhood on the streets; cadets who were Eagle Scouts and cadets
who played in garage bands; cadets whose fathers are ministers and cadets whose
fathers have long ago disappeared; cadets from families with a tradition of
military service dating back to the nineteenth century and cadets whose parents
protested the Vietnam War. Ironically, for a young man or woman in this last
category, joining the military proved to be the ultimate act of defiance.
One officer told me he went to West Point in the late 1960s, perversely, to
avoid being sent to Vietnam (but ended up being sent after graduation anyway),
and more than one has made a career out of the Army largely because their
fathers were convinced that they weren't quite "man enough" to do it. Some of my
colleagues are zealots; others have come back from Iraq in profound distress. A
few haven't come back at all. What everyone who graduates from West Point
shares, no matter the personal history, is a willingness to devote their
twenties to military servicea minimum of five years on active duty and three
more in the Reservesin exchange for a free undergraduate education.
Like the identical gray uniforms worn by the cadets, the black parkas tended to
mask the abundant parental variety. Their individuality was eclipsed as well by
a sense of communal predicament. They were all eager mothers and fathers whose
concern about their children's progress in composition hid a deeper anxiety
about what distant corner of the world they might be deployed to in a few years.
Some of them must have wondered what all of their ambitions had wrought, to what
violent end their enthusiasm had potentially consigned those beings whose safety
had been for eighteen years their chief object.
Kenn Nesbitt is new Children's Poet Laureate(Jun 12 2013) Kenn Nesbitt has been named the new Children's Poet Laureate: Consultant in Children's Poetry to the Poetry Foundation, which noted that the two-year position...