35 years ago I celebrated my first 4th of July in uniform. My memory might be a bit hazy but I remember it as follows. Three days after arriving at West Point and surviving R-Day I found myself on the “Plain” participating in the Cadet Basic Training Regiment 4th of July Review. R-Day stands for Reception Day and is your first day at the Academy. It starts with hourly 30 minute induction presentations to the cadet (and his family if they are present) describing the journey one is about to embark upon. “Look to the left, look to your right. One of you won’t be here on graduation day 1985.” The candidate and family were then given 30 seconds to say goodbye. Families are offered a leisurely tour of the Academy and invited to the 4:00 PM parade where candidates become “New Cadets” taking the Oath of Enlistment on the “Plain”, West Point’s 40 acre parade field in front of Eisenhower and MacArthur barracks flanking the gigantic main entrance to the mess hall.
Candidates are whisked into the bowels of Michie Stadium and meet a stern red sashed cadet who instructs them to line up and look straight ahead. Those few not familiar with following orders succinctly or quickly receive a cursory introduction to the “FURY” one expects to emanate from someone charged with conducting basic training of America’s youth. Over the next several hours a civilian strips naked, surrenders his belongings, gets one’s head shaved, is fitted for a uniform (sans hat), taught to march, stand at attention/parade rest and salute. One is assigned a company and reports for the first time to the “Man in the Red Sash”. I later learned that to the nearby residents of Highland Falls the noise equals that of a football weekend except it’s constant.
Our Oath of Enlistment “parade” was largely uneventful. I’m sure the parents and family in attendance in the stands were mystified by the transformation of individual civilian to another name in the “Long Gray Line”. Families smiled and pointed trying to pick out “little Johnny”. Little did they know as we stood in formation we were being corrected/threatened in whispers by the cadre to “lock up” (stand at rigid attention/parade rest) , “keep your beady little bubbles on the bald head in front of you” and reminded that “Your soul may belong to God but your ass belongs to me.” Hope God strikes you dead if you faint from the day and standing in formation.” Besides taking the oath which in my mind’s eye is fuzzy I do remember a short lived classmate breaking formation and running into the stands when she saw her parents, begging them to take her home and save her from her insane decision. Before the ceremony was over we were also treated to a sunshower that soaked our only uniform. Overall, a very auspicious beginning to the class of “85.
Three days later, mandatory letter written home, 30 second phone call home completed, we stood again on the Plain. We had been PT’d, drilled, tested, issued an additional uniform (we would eventually draw well over two dozen different uniforms), issued an M14, taught to set up our room, given a book the size of a small bible the contents of which we had to learn or memorize and taught the only five responses allowed to a question by a superior:
Yes Sir (the best answer)
No Sir (prepare for ass chewing)
Sir, I do not understand (prepare for descriptive assessments of your intelligence)
Sir, May I make a statement (or) ask a question (begging for an ass chewing)
No Excuse Sir (2nd best answer)
(Besides sounding eerily like marriage here’s a suggested practical exercise. After warning the party you are trying an experiment, use these answers alone in a 30-60 minute conversation. You’ll have a new outlook on personal responsibility.)
I digress, it was a beautiful sunny day at West Point. We marched out on to the Plain to a cheering crowd there to celebrate the nation’s 204th birthday. I thought just how cool it was to be part of this until later in the ceremony when I had to go somewhere else mentally to ignore the pain of presenting arms with an M14 through the duration of a 50 gun salute. “The Yellowhammer State, Alabama!” “BOOM”… “The Sunshine State, Florida!” “BOOM”… “The Equality State, Wyoming!” “BOOM”
That same day we got to watch some Revolutionary Way reenactors replay a battle o the parade field and the chat with them as they educated us about warfare and the soldier’s life in 1776. Our squad leaders then took us on a tour of the numerous historical artifacts that encircle the Plain. At each point we recited the information we had studied in our Plebe bibles. After a dinner meal consumed while sitting at attention we were treated to a 4th of July concert by the West Point band. The highlight of the concert was a rendition of the 1812 overture played with artillery accompaniment. If you ever have the opportunity, don’t pass it up. The aroma of cordite, inspiring arrangement of music and the rockets’ red glare of fireworks will frame the 4th of July in one’s consciousness like few other things will.
In retrospect, the day was a series of physical and emotional highs and lows but it was undoubtedly a singular patriotism inculcating event as I relay it to you 35 years later. Happy Fourth of July!