214 Years ago today, Thomas Jefferson . . .
founded my Rockbound Highland Home. Also known as Hudson High. Also known as West Point. Officially known as the United States Military Academy.
I spent four years there and was barely aware that it was Jefferson who did that, not George Washington. After all, it was George on a horse who stood in the center of the Plain, in front of the main entrance to the Mess Hall. (I went in a back, side door. Seriously. Lots of doors.) We also occasionally had Martha Washington Sheet Cake for desert (an important thing to memorize as a plebe).
I have a Cullum Hall number: 38,265. That means I was the 38,265 graduate from the Academy. Considering I was in the 179th class to graduate (dated myself there, eh?), it means we averaged 213.7 graduates a year up until my class, 1981. I was part of the Old Corps, where we chewed rocks for meals (along with Martha Washington sheet cake), slept hanging upside down in our closets, and I was two years after the class that inscribed their rings with LCWB– the class of 1979. What does that mean? It will be said: Loyalty, Courage, Wisdom and Bravery but it could also be Last Class With Balls. 1980 was the first year women came to the Academy, which meant there was a hullabaloo (hmm, must be a word as WordPress didn’t spell check it). We don’t have frats or sororities at the Academy. We have companies. Four regiments (1 thru 4), nine companies in each (A thru I). I was in G-1 in the fearsome first reg. I heard fourth regiment was where all the parties were. I think they scramble classes now after your second (yearling) year, but I was in G-1 all four years. Anywho, back then, there were so few women, they would only have 4 or 5 per company, every other year.
One of the keys to surviving plebe year was to be a ghost. Not get noticed. But when you’re of a different gender, it aint easy. There are some interesting books by female graduates that I’ve read in the past year. One was by Gail O’Sullivan who I ran with on the marathon team. Tough As Nails: One Woman’s Journey Through West Point. It’s a good accounting of what it was like. This is nonfiction. A novel by a graduate, a mystery by Susan Spieth, was Gray Girl: Honor Isn’t Always Black and White, which is a long, but good title.
My take, for what it’s worth, was that most guys were too focused on making it through themselves to care; some guys were very pro-women there; and then there were the assholes; they would claim that women shouldn’t be there, yada yada, but also be pissed if they couldn’t get a date. They’d claim since women (back then) couldn’t go combat arms, then why were they at at the Academy and then they, themselves, would go quartermaster as branch choice. I’ve always found most angry men are scared men. Like someone is going to take their balls and they won’t get to play with them any more. Despite not being in the LCWB class, I believe I still have, unlike Cool Gus, who is snoring under my desk, yep, just checked, all okay.
Back to Jefferson. They didn’t really push the fact it was Jefferson, who feared a standing army, who founded the Academy. But he did a smart thing by starting West Point. He insured that the officer corps would be drawn from across the entire country, from all walks of life. I believe West Point has served the United States very well over the years. Not just in war, but graduates have made numerous other contributions in various aspects of society.
On the flip side, I think the Civil War was so long and bloody because West Pointers commanded both sides in 55 of the 60 battles. They knew each other. They’d sat in the same classes, learned the same tactics. I delve into a question that causes consternation but is honor or loyalty more important in my Civil War trilogy. The very first law, the very first Congress enacted, was the oath of office for a military officer. We swear loyalty to the Constitution, not the President (it is different than the oath for enlisted!).
This oath is important and we’re seeing some kerfuffle now regarding it. Let’s be glad we have it. I got into a little bit of trouble with the Association of Graduates when I wrote The Line, about a group of West Pointers planning a coup. It was my homage to Seven Days in May (just re-watched that the other night).
But let me leave you with some words by a grad, words we had to memorize. While there were some things about MacArthur not to like, he also showed great bravery in World War I (he was no Dugout Doug then) and his Pacific Campaign saved a tremendous number of lives with brilliant strategy. Plus, Inchon was ingenious and daring. But then . . . The limits of power.
This is from a speech he gave to the Corps:
As I was leaving the hotel this morning, a doorman asked me, “Where are you bound for, General?” and when I replied, “West Point,” he remarked, “Beautiful place, have you ever been there before?”
Duty, Honor, Country: Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be. They are your rallying points: to build courage when courage seems to fail; to regain faith when there seems to be little cause for faith; to create hope when hope becomes forlorn.
The unbelievers will say they are but words, but a slogan, but a flamboyant phrase.
But these are some of the things they do. They build your basic character. They mold you for your future roles as the custodians of the nation’s defense. They make you strong enough to know when you are weak, and brave enough to face yourself when you are afraid.
They teach you to be proud and unbending in honest failure, but humble and gentle in success; not to substitute words for action; not to seek the path of comfort, but to face the stress and spur of difficulty and challenge; to learn to stand up in the storm, but to have compassion on those who fall; to master yourself before you seek to master others; to have a heart that is clean, a goal that is high; to learn to laugh, yet never forget how to weep; to reach into the future, yet never neglect the past; to be serious, yet never take yourself too seriously; to be modest so that you will remember the simplicity of true greatness; the open mind of true wisdom, the meekness of true strength.
They give you a temperate will, a quality of imagination, a vigor of the emotions, a freshness of the deep springs of life, a temperamental predominance of courage over timidity, an appetite for adventure over love of ease. They create in your heart the sense of wonder, the unfailing hope of what next, and the joy and inspiration of life. They teach you in this way to be an officer and a gentleman.
And what sort of soldiers are those you are to lead? Are they reliable? Are they brave? Are they capable of victory?
Their story is known to all of you. It is the story of the American man at arms. My estimate of him was formed on the battlefields many, many years ago, and has never changed. I regarded him then, as I regard him now, as one of the world’s noblest figures; not only as one of the finest military characters, but also as one of the most stainless.
His name and fame are the birthright of every American citizen. In his youth and strength, his love and loyalty, he gave all that mortality can give. He needs no eulogy from me, or from any other man. He has written his own history and written it in red on his enemy’s breast.
But when I think of his patience under adversity, of his courage under fire, and of his modesty in victory, I am filled with an emotion of admiration I cannot put into words. He belongs to history as furnishing one of the greatest examples of successful patriotism. He belongs to posterity as the instructor of future generations in the principles of liberty and freedom. He belongs to the present, to us, by his virtues and by his achievements.
Originally published at writeitforward.wordpress.com on March 16, 2016.