Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Reflecting on the Good Times

Seeing all the pictures from R-Day yesterday, it was impossible not to reminisce.

With all of that in my head, it's no surprise that I dreamed about the Academy last night.  It wasn't one of those dreams where I couldn't find my As For Class uniform and was running hopelessly late, for once.  It was a good dream, a dream about heading to dinner after swim practice.  In retrospect, I think these were the best times.  If I miss anything about West Point, it's the simple joy of heading for a meal with the guys after doing something, a hard swim practice or a day of classes or whatever.  I miss the camaraderie of my classmates and my teammates and the Army in general.

With Honor We Strive
Veterans struggle, I think, mostly because they've been a part of something greater than themselves.  Having found a place where they belong, where they had to earn the right just to be there, where they've found a family that they've chosen to join, it's hard to then turn back to the Real World and take that on its own merits.  The Real World feels like a cold, pale reflection of the Army, even if it has entirely less mandatory nonsense as a matter of course.

When people ask about West Point, they invariably ask about plebe year.  The iconic images of new cadets being inducted into the Academy have long since taken hold of the public consciousness, eclipsing everything in their wake.  Folks ask me what it's like to be yelled at or what it's like not to think for myself.  These questions miss the point entirely.  Plebe year is only a part of the Academy experience, and Beast Barracks is like a fever dream.  That dream is a nightmare to be sure, but at the end of it, you still have to get up and go to work.  You still have to be yourself, and you have to be good.

I often thought of the Academy as a kind of military monastery.  We'd unknowingly signed up to be military monks, forsaking hedonistic pleasures for the physical, mental, and emotional pleasures of achievement.  It was a particular lifestyle, and it allowed a focus on academia that I doubt I'd ever have experienced otherwise.

This doesn't mean that there weren't good times, however, even in Beast.  My favorite memory came at the end of the march out to Lake Frederick.  The march itself wasn't difficult.  My class entered the Academy in 1991 when the Army's trucks were all still over in Kuwait.  As a result, we had to march everywhere.  I doubt anyone struggled on the march to Lake Frederick.  But as we came over the hill and down into the camp itself, it started to rain.  Upstate New York in late August can be surprisingly cool, and with rain, the temperatures must have dropped into the 60s.  A few minutes after we stopped, I started shivering.  Maybe my lips turned blue; frankly, I don't remember.  But my friend T.G. looked over at me and said, "Come on, let's go get some coffee."  At this point, I'd never had coffee in my life, but I knew I needed something warm, so we went, and I got my first cup of coffee.

That was the best goddamned coffee I've ever had in my life.  For years afterwards, I would think of that moment and smile every time I had a cup of coffee.

T.G. retired from the Army just this week after twenty years in the Infantry.  It's astonishing to me because I remember sitting with him in Beast and listening to him tell me that he wanted to quit, that he thought he'd made a mistake coming to the Academy.  Somehow, I guess he never got around to quitting.  That's kind of how it goes.

Beast Barracks has its own rhythm and life-cycle.  R-Day is a shock, and it takes a few days for that shock to wear off.  You then hit an emotional nadir about ten days in as the reality of the thing starts to sink in.  This is my life now.  This is how it's going to be.  I personally decided to quit right at the ten-day mark.  I asked for and received permission to call my parents, and I told them that I was going to quit.  They were totally accepting, and truth be told, I think my mother was actually relieved.  Then I went back up to my room and told my roommate John, and he yelled at me.  John had come from the Regular Army through the Prep School, and in his words, "Some of my friends didn't get in because you're here, and now you want to quit?!"

What can I say?  I don't know how much John's words swayed me, but I never told anyone else about my plans.  By the time we got into the second half of Beast, I knew I wasn't actually going to leave.  I wasn't at all sure I was going to be happy, but I wasn't going to leave voluntarily.

Our twentieth reunion is coming up later this year.  We're all excited about going back, and I don't think I'm alone in saying that the thing I'm looking forward to most is sitting down in the Mess Hall again and breaking bread with my classmates in the old style.  Sure, there's football and tailgating, and I like that stuff.  Of course I do.  But the thing I miss most is the simple lunches and dinners with my friends, eating together as a matter of course.

As Coach Monken said after the Army-Navy game, you have to tell your teammates how much they mean to you when you have the chance, because it's gone before you know it, and you never get it back.  Truer words were never spoken.


  1. That was great Dan. I felt like I was right there in beast barracks with you.