The eight summer weeks before my first academic year at West Point were pretty tough. They were designed to be. This cadet basic training, called Beast Barracks, existed (as far as I can tell) to do two things. First it steeped incoming freshmen, called Plebes, in the history, culture and mentality of the West Point and, to a lesser extent, of the Army. Second, it weeded out those whose applications to join were based on an incorrect perception of what West Point was like or whose acceptance was based on an overestimation of their ability to meet the Academy's demands - particularly its psychological (as opposed to intellectual) ones. This second objective called for Beast to be an exaggeration or even caricature of the balance of the West Point experience.
Much was made of the need to be physically fit, and I quite enjoyed the group runs in formation. This was mainly because we all had to sing out 'cadence calls' and run in step with them. This appealed to my love of music and rhythm, helped regulate my breathing and generally took my mind off the fact that most of my body hurt quite badly! Push-ups and sit-ups were also staples of the daily regime, as were assault courses, bayonet drills and team sports.
I was a very skinny lad, and it was easy for people to underestimate my ability to 'hang' with the physical demands. I remember my squad leader - an upperclassman who was our equivalent to a drill sergeant - preparing us for a volleyball match against another squad: 'Smith, you play up front and look for opportunities to spike. Jones, play back center to dig out the tough serves. Johnson......' You get the picture. When he got to me, he just said, 'Fraley, uh, don't hurt yourself.' Luckily, my skin was thicker then than it is now, so I took no great offense. I did, however, redouble my efforts (waking up with muscle cramp most nights from my exertions) to ensure I held my own in the physical fitness tests.
We also had to bring ourselves to much higher standards of personal appearance than the standard college freshman. Our shirts always needed to be tucked in so tightly that they fit snugly to our bodies, with no loose fabric. This was called a 'dress-off', and being caught with a poor one meant getting into trouble. Our shoes and boots needed to be stereotypically shiny as well. Beyond that, the instructions for exactly what to wear for a given activity were complex and subtle. Should I wear my utility belt with suspenders or without? Do I carry a canteen on the belt? One or two? Normal brown t-shirt under camouflage jacket, or a white 'PT' one? Soft cap or helmet?
We were drilled on the importance of properly securing and maintaining our weapons - in this case old M-14 rifles with the firing pins removed. Leave it out of reach, get into big trouble. Get caught with a dusty one, get into big trouble. Lose it (and believe it or not, some did), get into BIG trouble.
You may have picked up by now that there were lots of ways to get into trouble. The fundamental characteristic of the entire 8 weeks was to learn that you could never get everything right. There was always something you could be caught short on. We were all yelled at constantly, made to feel we were on the verge of expulsion, lower than dog dirt. We were only permitted 4 responses when asked a question: 1) Yes Sir (or Ma'am), 2) No Sir, 3) No excuse, Sir, and 4) Sir, I do not understand. Not much wiggle room for getting out of trouble. The summer taught us how to handle overload. It taught us life was not fair. It made us question what the hell we were thinking when we signed up for this!
Yet the richness of West Point's traditions, the physical impressiveness of the place, and the quality of the people we saw around us made us stay. Many wrote home expressing a wish to drop out. I personally proposed an alternative career in the clergy! Seeing the statues of memorials to alumni - Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Jack Pershing, Douglas MacArthur, Dwight Eisenhower among them - made one feel a part of something big, something worth striving for. The imposing granite buildings, seemingly carved into the hillside over the Hudson River, echoed the reputation that the Academy's alumni had for dependability in the most difficult of times. Even if we said the summer sucked day-to-day, we saw it as a right of passage into something worthy of our efforts.
At the end of Beast Barracks we celebrated during a long weekend for which many of our parents made the trip. We could see them during the day, show them around, brag to them of all we'd done. It was great to see my family, but when they left, I cried my eyes out. I knew that I had a long and tough few months as a Plebe (still sub-human) in the autumn academic term before seeing them again for Thanksgiving.