I didn't bask for long in the glow of high-school graduation. Within a few weeks, I reported (voluntarily!) to the US Military Academy at West Point, where I would spend the next four years getting a degree and earning a commission in the Army. And this while several of my friends enjoyed a summer before heading off to a life that I could only assume was like the fraternity existence in 'Animal House'.
The first year (called 'Plebe Year') at West Point is always quite a tough one, and 1984/85 was no exception. We couldn't talk, except in the classroom or our own room, unless we were instructed to do so by an upperclassman. We had to ask permission to ask a question - inefficient, I know. We had to walk at a ridiculously rapid rate, with our eyes straight ahead and our elbows locked. When in the barracks (military equivalent to 'dorms'), we had to walk right up against the inner wall of the hallway to be out of the way of the upperclassmen.
The academic load was quite heavy, with 50% greater credits per term than at normal universities. In addition, we had to memorise volumes of data that had nothing to do with our studies. Examples included: the breakfast, lunch and dinner menus for the day, the number of days until Army played Navy in football, the number of days until graduation for that year's senior class, the number of lights in one of the halls, the number of gallons in the reservoir, a special definition of leather, the proper response to the question, "How's the cow?" There were endless others, with the intent probably to make the task impossible and then see how we handled it. We also had to be conversant in every article from the front page and main sports page of the NY Times - our only contact with the outside world.
We picked up and delivered the upperclassmen's mail, newpapers and laundry. We counted down the final 10 minutes for them before every formation. We presented ourselves early for every formation to have our appearance and knowledge subjected to rigorous scrutiny. We took mandatory lessons, with graded bouts, in boxing.
But I'm jumping ahead of myself. Before moving into that relaxed existence in the academic year, we had to endure 'Beast Barracks' - basic training - for 2-1/2 months in our first summer. This was, I imagine, much like the basic training of new privates in the Army, but always with a special twist owing to the particular traditions of the Academy.
My parents drove me to West Point on that first day and attended a briefing with me in the football stadium. At the end of the briefing, parents were packed off to worry and fret about how their little babies were doing, and their little babies were thrown into the crucible. Amid constant shouting and confusion, I was shown to my room, where I had about six nanoseconds to change from my scumbag civilian clothes into my uniform. In a daze, I saw a small black bottle on my desk, sat down, turned it over to examine it, and unscrewed the cap.
Out poured the ink intended for my stamp pad, with which I was meant to mark all my clothes. In this case, I marked them rather differently than I was meant to, as the ink splattered over my white shirt and grey trousers. No time to change - screaming in hallway suggested I needed to move rapidly back out into the big world of training and hazing.
You won't be surprised to hear that I became something of a focus for the upperclassmen for the next few hours, especially for those most keen to hone their abuse and humiliation techniques for the upcoming weeks. The bookies that day wouldn't have given me good odds for making it through the evening's parade for the parents, let alone through Plebe year or the four-year course. I'll tell you now that I did, and I'll look forward to sharing a few more stories in posts to come.