My First 4th of July in Uniform

Posted on: July 4th, 2015 by Will Rodriguez 9 Comments

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!

Be Respectful, Candid and Pertinent. No Posers, No Trolls…
  • LauraKinCA

    Heck of an introduction to Army and National history you had there.

  • toril

    Great article, what a way to celebrate Independence Day and be introduced to all that history and the Army.  Happy Independence Day to you and your family.

  • SEAN SPOONTS(MAFIA)

    Very nice.  What a great memory to keep.  Happy 4th to you and yours Will.

  • SEAN SPOONTS(MAFIA) 
    Back at ya!

  • Txazz

    Thanks for sharing that life changing day, a very special 4th.  Most amazing it happened on that special day beginning your long Army career.  God Bless America and all future cadets.

    ps: did she get sent home?
    “The St. Petersburg resident spent six years in the Navy, served in the
    color guard and has strong feelings about vexillology, the scientific
    study of the history, symbolism and usage of flags.”  Reminded me of you!   http://tinyurl.com/q4l2xnl

  • Txazz 
    I have no idea and sure wasn’t going to ask.  I had enough of a challenge trying to be a “gray man”.
    A little over a decade later I was the senior Tac (three Army officers are assigned to each cadet basic training company to supervise behind the scenes).  Quitting the Academy isn’t like the SEALs, ring the bell and you’re gone.  A new cadet’s request goes up the chain of command with each leader asking and exploring the reasons a New Cadet wants to turn down the appointment.  When it got to the officer level the new cadet was pretty intent.
    Strangest case I ever had was a young woman who said she discovered she was gay when taking a shower with the other women.  I suggested that stress can skewer one’s thought process especially since she had never experienced that before.  Everything she was telling me didn’t sound like homosexuality as much as a deep affection for strangers that were helping her overcome a new and challenging situation.  I shared my suspicions and said I would approve her request but I thought she would regret her decision.  She sent me a letter a month later confirming my suspicions.  FWIW, she still chose another path.

  • YankeePapa

    .
    …Will…  You are an atavism… Concepts such as Duty, Honor, Country.  A willingness to put up with four years of hard work and strict discipline.  And for what?  To possibly be sent to strange exotic countries, meet strange exotic people… some of whom want very much to kill you? 
    .
    …Worse… you are no longer just responsible for yourself… but for increasing numbers of lads… any one of whom can bring the thunders down on you.  Unlike a civilian, you can’t decide that you like a boss at a company and go to work for him.  No, you will have a revolving selection of seniors over the years.  While some will be good… others will stress your responsibility while attempting to restrict your authority.  Only a good Christian upbringing will keep you from acting on your darkest thoughts…

    .
    …Will your countrymen show their gratitude in your later years?  (Hear that hollow sound…?)  Some will… but many could care less… and some will just shake their heads and consider you a sucker… a dinosaur…  In later decades you can add, “Warmonger, militarist, and chauvinist…”  
    .
    …People like you are no longer required by this country.  George Marshall and Robert E. Lee… Matt Ridgway and all the rest.  Who the hell were they and why do they matter?  How many gold records did they have?  Not even any cool tats.  Old news… and not relevant… Nothing about Justin Bieber and his puppy or Lady Gaga and her latest tour.  You didn’t even get rich.  
    …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….
    .
    …That’s ok Will…  Don’t feel too bad about people who have an attitude like the one above.  Maybe their grandchildren will learn discipline… and learn how to speak Chinese…
    .
    -Yankee Papa-

  • Txazz

    majrod Txazz Yes, I’ll bet you can tell some stories . . . and, I hope you do, Sheldon.

  • YankeePapa

    majrod Txazz ,
    .
    …Comment about “confused” female cadet.  I have never viewed straight/gay as a “choice…”  (What day did all of you *choose* to be whatever?)  But if there *were* such a day… I know when it would have been.  
    .
    …At Marine Corps Recruit Depot 47 years ago a recruit was first exposed to the building with showers, urinals, and toilets.  Long line of toilets on one side of the building facing a long line of toilets on the other side of the building… no doors… in fact, no dividers… just toilets.  
    .
    …The view (such as it was) was hardly inspiring, (knobby knees, etc)   In fact, it is a wonder that even women are able to put up with us.  
    .
    -YP-