Sitting down to a meal was not exactly a relaxing experience as a first year student at West Point. Plebes, as the academy referred to its freshmen, could not talk to one another and had to request permission to speak with anyone else. With this gag order in effect, they needed to perform a number of duties for the table.
Each table sat 10 people. These places were assigned, with the same colleagues sitting together for 3-4 weeks before new table assignments were made. There were four year groups at West Point, and each was represented roughly equally at each rectangular table. So, the top 2-3 seats were for the Firsties (seniors), the next ones for the Cows (juniors), then the Yearlings (sophomores) and finally, at the foot of the table, the Plebes.
The mess hall had waiting staff to bring food and drink to the table, where it was always served 'family style' in serving dishes to be doled out to each person's plate by the table occupants. The plebes' duties were separate from and complementary to the waiters' tasks.
Whenever new table assignments came out, each table's Plebes would have to confer in one of their rooms to divvy up information gathering tasks. They would then each go off to their assigned upper-classmen's rooms to request and record information about each person's beverage and dessert preferences for meals:
- The beverage preference could be as simple as, ' I always want water with ice.' But it could take on considerably greater complexity, as in, 'I'll always have the drink for the meal if it is a fruit drink, and in those cases I will have it with 2 whole ice-cubes - not bits. If the drink is iced tea, I'll have water, with no ice, unless it's at dinner, in which case I'll have the iced tea with 3 whole ice cubes. Never give me a chipped glass, or you'll be sorry you were ever born.'
-Similarly, the dessert preference could range from, 'I'll always have it,' to 'I'll always have cake, unless it has coconut in it. I'll never have pie unless it's apple. If the dessert is a tart, ask me at the table. If you forget, I'll kill you.' You get the picture.
So, among the things a waiter drops off at the table are a pitcher of drink, a bucket of ice and an uncut dessert. The plebes at the table had to serve all of the drinks and cut the dessert before turning to their own meals. Doesn't sound too tough, but there were a couple of complicating factors.
First, the plebes had to have all of the preferences memorised. No notes were allowed at the table. Given all of the other information plebes had to have committed to memory - the three menus for the day, a paraphrasing of every article from the front page and lead sports page of the the day's New York Times, the number of days until various important events in the year's schedule (the Navy football game, Christmas break, Spring break, graduation, etc.) and a small catalog of West Point and Army trivia - the brain became a bit cluttered. And let's not forget that the poor fella might have a calculus or electrical engineering mid-term test immediately after lunch!
Second, the dessert needed to be cut into the correct number of exactly equal pieces and needed to be presented to the 'table commandant' for inspection. Most desserts were circular. The centre of the cuts needed to be at the geometric centre of the dessert, or there was trouble. The cuts needed to be clean, so the plebe doing the cutting would literally wipe off the knife and dip it in water before each new cut. And as I said, the pieces needed to be exactly equal. If all of this was done correctly, but the dessert had the wrong number of pieces (based on incorrect memory of the dessert preferences for the upperclassmen) there was still hell to pay.
Now, a slight cheat was allowed for cutting equal sized pieces. Each plebe was allowed (read required) to bring a template to the meal. This template could not touch the dessert, but could be balanced on crumbs of bread that the Plebe set on the dessert. The template usually had a hole in the centre, to help place it correctly on the dessert. It also had (according to the rigour and comprehensiveness of the plebe's approach) colour-coded notches for a six-piece cut vs. a seven-, eight-, nine- or ten-piece cut. Beads of sweat would form on the forehead as the operation was performed and the plebe awaited the table commandant's judgement after inspecting it.
Let's say it all went fine. Whewww! Now the plebes can eat. They have some catching up to do, as everyone else has been eating happily while these duties were being performed. But they can't catch up very quickly. A plebe can only take so big a mouthful. If asked a question by an upperclassman during the meal, he must be able to respond after no more than three chews and one swallow. We did become adept at handling bigger and bigger loads within the required parameters, and it makes me wonder whether my throat actually expanded at university.
The bite-size limit was superimposed with an effective bite frequency limit as well. The plebe had to cut a bite European style, put the knife down and switch the fork to the right hand, put the bite in his mouth with the fork and place the fork back onto his plate before he was allowed to start chewing. He could not pick up his knife and fork again until he had swallowed the previous bite.
Given all of this, you can guess why 'boodle boxes,' the parcels of food mailed from home for consumption in one's room at night while studying, were so crucial to our lives. Having gone in as a skinny lad, I somehow managed to put on 15 pounds during the first year, even operating in this regime. You can believe I was very happy when my plebe year ended and I could hand over the table duties and other baggage of plebe life to the next class of unfortunates.