"If the fresh skin of an animal, cleaned and divested of all hair, fat, and other extraneous matter, be immersed in a dilute solution of tannic acid, a chemical combination ensues; the gelatinous tissue of the skin is converted into a non-putrescible substance, impervious to and insoluble in water; this, sir, is leather."
― Plebe Knowledge, “The Definition of Leather”22
I met my friends Amber and Rose outside the auditorium on Reception Day. The three of us had met during our recruiting trip back in March, and Amber and I had hit it off particularly well. We were three swimmers with no idea what lay ahead of us, save that all three had gotten a pair of black leather low-quarter shoes and started breaking them in per West Point’s instructions to cadet candidates. I’d tried to talk to my dad a little about what it was going to be like to join the military, but he had brushed off most of my questions, save to push me to keep running and doing pushups by way of being ready for Beast. Beyond that, Dad seemed content to let me enjoy my last weeks of freedom. He did try to teach me to shine my shoes, but that particular lesson was one I chose to ignore.
|Army Swim Team recruits at the annual Pre-R-Day picnic, 1991.|
I felt supremely confident. I did not think that Beast was going to be fun, but I also didn’t think that West Point was going to throw anything at me that I couldn’t handle. Whatever I was to face, I firmly believed that I would be a match for it—easily. Having been through the most uplifting college admittance process of all time, I simply could not conceive of any circumstance in which I would be anything less than wholly outstanding.
Alas, West Point was unlike anything I had ever faced.
A more complete sense of history might have led me to a better, more-productive mindset. The United States Military Academy had been dealing with cocky, ambitious, successful young athletes for almost two centuries on the day that I personally arrived. Young George S. Patton, Jr. exemplified the archetype. Before he led the Third Army in Europe during World War II, Patton competed with great success in a variety of sports, mostly equestrian but also track and field. Of particular note, he finished an outstanding fifth in the Modern Pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics, utterly scandalizing what was then a decidedly Eurocentric field. In his day, Patton would have been a four-star, two-sport athletic recruit. Similarly, General Douglas MacArthur played left field for Army Baseball long before going on to serve as the Chairman of the United States Olympic Committee in 1928. Amongst his many notable accomplishments, MacArthur saved the American Olympic movement, almost single-handedly. More recently, swimmer Paul “Buddy” Bucha earned the Medal of Honor in Vietnam following his own storied, All-American Army Swimming career. General Wesley Clark got his professional start swimming for Army, too.
As they say, “Every cadet is an athlete.”
As a cadet candidate, I had no idea the quality of the company I was about to join, nor did I appreciate the significance of the Academy’s familiarity with cocky headstrong teenagers, no matter how athletically or academically accomplished. What I knew was that every college in the country had wanted me. Deep down, I thought that maybe West Point had been lucky to get me.
The line of cadet candidates snaked slowly into the auditorium. We took our seats, and after a few minutes of quiet talking, an Army lieutenant colonel got up and gave a short talk about R-Day and Beast Barracks.
“Take it one day at a time,” he said. “Get through each moment on its own and just try to do the best you can.”
This was good advice. Unfortunately, I was too wrapped in my own sense of destiny to listen.
“At this time, you have sixty seconds to say your goodbyes and make your way up the stairs and through the double doors behind you.”
I stood, hugged my parents, and headed up the stairs without looking back. A typical overachiever, I wanted to be first through those doors. I was not quite first, though, nor was I the only one amongst that cohort who tried to be.
* * *
Some moments are a bright line. One moment you’re a civilian, free and ignorant. The next, you step through those double-doors and everything changes.
I looked around, saw huge men in brilliantly white uniforms over grey trousers. “What are you lookin’ at?!” one yelled. “Get down this hall! Hurry up! Let’s go! MOVE!”
I turned, shell-shocked, and followed my classmates mutely down the hall. We soon found ourselves on a bus. No one spoke. An upperclassman in white glared at the group of us, and I did my best not to catch his eye. We got off the bus a few minutes later and lined up, preternaturally aware of the upperclassmen prowling the area around us. We processed into a building where we got poked and prodded for an hour or more, various elements of the Academy staff double-checking our medical paperwork. I stood numb through long moments of sudden change, did sixteen pull-ups on command as part of an initial physical fitness screening, and eventually put on a white t-shirt with an Academy crest stencilled on the breast along with a pair of ludicrously tight black nylon running shorts. Tags were pinned to my shorts, and I was issued black socks and black leather low-quarter shoes. A barber shaved my head, and then a female upperclassman took me and a few other new cadets to lunch.
“You’d better eat now,” she said when we sat down to cold cuts. “This is liable to be the last meal you’ll get in peace for quite some time.”
I tried to force myself to eat but couldn’t imagine how anyone could be hungry.
The next hours passed in a wash of misery and confusion. Everywhere I went, I was wrong. I stood at attention—wrong—and was told that I was wrong and then corrected for my wrongness. I was given simple tasks without context, and it threw me. I had trouble letting go of the need to understand. I found it incredibly hard to just follow orders unquestioningly, but asking questions was wrong. When I eventually arrived at E Company, I reported to the Cadet in the Red Sash and then to our company’s First Sergeant. Both required simple verbal reports that would have been relatively straightforward without the intense, constant pressure of being surrounded by upperclassmen on R-Day. As it was, I reported to the Cadet in the Red Sash—wrong—was corrected, and then felt like I’d finally accomplished something when I got through the report to the First Sergeant correctly on my first time through. But then I smiled for having finally done something correctly, and that was worse than getting the report wrong!
I felt like I was yelled at constantly, but it’s probably fairer to say that I was corrected firmly and precisely by people who didn’t give a shit whether or not they hurt my feelings. Civilians are not typically corrected for mere sloppiness or bad attitude, nor do corrections in the civilian world tend to come from authority figures whose sole desire is to make it clear that you’ve yet to earn their respect. Where the civilian world cares about feelings and relationships, the Military Academy is ultimately concerned only with performance to an objective standard. At West Point, they set this standard high enough to make it challenging even for straight-A students who’ve earned multiple varsity letters. I was used to being the best at everything; this was the first time I’d ever been around people who could all do what I could do.
It was a tough adjustment. In the past, I’d often succeeded by walking into a room like I owned the place. At West Point, though, that attitude was particularly counter-productive. But without that swagger, I didn’t know how to approach my new circumstances. Everything about R-Day was outside of my experience. After a while, I was happy just to stare at a wall or at the back of another new cadet’s head. The safety of anonymity was the only defense I had against an overwhelming onslaught of military discipline.
They taught us to march and to salute. We learned our facing movements. We were issued gear, carried it in massive laundry bags up to our rooms, and changed into our new white-over-grey uniforms. The upperclassmen nursed us through our first parade, where we swore our oaths before God and our onlooking parents.
In one amazing day, we were transformed. We’d gone through those double doors as civilians. By day’s end, we were new cadets, body and soul.
With a sinking heart, I wondered if I’d made an incredible mistake.
22. As a New Cadet, I thought this the most esoteric piece of “plebe knowledge” imaginable. It was only as an adult--while picking out the quotes for these next few chapters--that I realized this particular definition is an obvious metaphor for the process of Beast Barracks itself.