In case of Sudden and Temporary Immersion,
the Important Thing is to keep the Head Above Water.
A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
"Get off my bus!" screamed the cadet in charge. "You're not moving fast enough. Move it. Move it. Move it!
" We stampeded from the bus like a startled herd of wildebeest, clutching our small gym bags with white-knuckled grips. As we poured into the hot July sunlight, chiseled senior cadet cadre aligned our crooked ranks.
Forty eighteen-year-olds turned at different speeds toward another white-starched cadet cadre. We must have looked ridiculous-a ragtag collection of shorts, untucked T-shirts, and long hair.
"Drop your bags."
They landed on the pavement with a thud.
"You will now begin the administrative portion of your processing. Follow all instructions both quickly and quietly. During this process you will pass water fountains. You are authorized and encouraged to use them. Do you understand?"
I nodded my head with the others.
"Pick up your bags."
July 1, 1996 was stamped on my military record like a wine's vintage-my "date of initial entry into military service." As my high school classmates alternated between summer jobs, afternoons at the beach, and summer reading lists, I headed off to West Point, New York. R-Day, short for "Reception Day," was the first day of a six-week period of basic training. There was absolutely nothing hospitable about this first day of military indoctrination, beginning with an exercise in severing family bonds. After standing in a straggling line of twelve hundred would-be freshmen and their parents, I was herded into the basketball arena with another thirty "cadet candidates." I had ninety seconds to say good-bye to my parents.
After obeying my first military order, I marched up the stairs and through a set of double doors. Even before the door shut behind me, it became clear what my first year at West Point was going to be like.
"What are you looking at, candidate?" shouted a five-foot-five cadet. The volume of his voice was inconsistent with his height.
"Aren't you going to call me sir?"
"Sir, yes, sir."
"Are you at the Naval Academy?"
"Sir, no, sir."
"Then stop making sir sandwiches, candidate. It's 'yes, sir' or 'no, sir.'" He lowered his voice to a vicious whisper. "What's your name, candidate?"
"Is that your first name?" His eyes widened.
"Do you think I care what your first name is? Do you think I want to be your friend?"
"Just get out of my hallway. Move over to that table and fill out your tag."
I hurried over and wrote my last name in big bold letters. The tag had a dozen boxes to check off as we were "processed" from civilians into military recruits. I hung it around my neck as instructed and boarded the school bus. I sat down on the crowded bus but was too cowed by my scolding to strike up any conversation. What am I doing here?
"Step up to my line. Do not step on my line. Do not step over my line. Step up to my line." A cadet glared at me under the black brim of a white service cap and swung his hand in front of his face, signaling that I should advance precisely to the line of demarcation pasted on the pavement in green tape. This was the first lesson in literal obedience.
He was the "Cadet in the Red Sash"-the first cadre member I needed to report to in order to join my company. I stood before him in a ludicrous uniform of newly issued cadet gym shorts, knee-high black socks, and Oxford low-quarter dress shoes. My head had been shorn of its five-inch locks, revealing a topography of old scars and virgin white scalp.
"Re-port," he bellowed at me from a distance of eighteen inches.
"New Cadet Mullaney reports to the…the…"
"Are you stuttering while you report?" His hot breath dried the sweat on my face.
"Did I give you permission to stutter?"
I began again: "New Cadet Mullaney…"
"Stop. What did you do wrong?" My newly bald scalp burned under the midday sun.
"Sir, I don't know."
"I don't know. I don't know," he repeated. "Is 'I don't know' one of your four responses?"
"What are your four responses?" he asked, testing whether I remembered another cadet's instructions on answering questions.
"Yes, sir. No, Sir. No excuse, sir. Sir, I do not understand."
"That's right, New Cadet. Why did you stutter? Did you not have sufficient time to practice?"
"I forgot, sir." I could almost see smoke billow out of his ears.
" 'I forgot' is not one of your four responses. Try again."
"No excuse, sir," I responded correctly. I must have replied "No excuse, sir" a thousand times that first year, hammering into my head an acknowledgment of personal responsibility that eventually became second nature.
"Try again, New Cadet."
"Sir, New Cadet --"
"Aren't you going to ask to make a correction?"
"Yes, sir. Sir, may I make a correction?"
"Sir, New Cadet Mullaney reports to the Cadet in the Red Sash for the first time as ordered."
"Are you going to salute when you report?"
"Yes, sir. Sir, may I make a correction?"
I raised my fingertips to my eyebrow as I saluted and repeated my report.
"New Cadet, that is the sorriest salute I have seen today." I couldn't believe how many mistakes I was making. I am better than this, I told myself.
The red-sashed, barrel-chested cadet manipulated my arm into a better approximation of a West Point salute: fingers closed and extended in a straight line to my elbow, arm parallel to the ground, palm canted toward my eyes.
"Move out, New Cadet. I haven't got all day."
A line extended behind me, other sheep waiting for the slaughter. I picked up my laundry bag of new clothing items, ran up six flights of stairs, and walked briskly down the hall toward the room indicated on my tag. Inside the room were a coat closet, several dresser drawers, three bare desks and bookshelves, and three mattresses on metal frames. The linoleum floor, dull and drab, smelled of Lysol. For that matter, everything in the barracks smelled of Lysol. Outside the window a green parade field stretched to a copse of trees and a steep drop to the Hudson River, a half mile across. It wouldn't be such a long swim, I thought. Before I could introduce myself to my roommates, two knocks at the door preceded the entrance of a cadre member.
"Call the room to attention, dammit." I looked at his name tag. "You," he pointed at my chest, "the one eye-balling me."
"Room, atten-hut." We sprang to attention.
"You sound like a goddam Marine." He looked down at the tag still hanging around my neck. "Mullaney, do you think this is the goddam Marine Corps? There is no 'hut' in the Army."
"I'm Cadet Bellinger, as Mullaney here found out by investigation, and I am your squad leader. I am not your friend, your counselor, or your coach. Do you understand?"
"Yes, sir," we answered in unison.
"Say it like soldiers, goddam it."
"Much better," he said, satisfied for the moment. "I want you down there" -- he pointed from the window down to the concrete pavement between our barracks and the parade field -- "in five minutes. You will be wearing the uniform I am in right now. Do you see how I am wearing my uniform?"
He strode out the door and slammed the door behind him as we dove into our bags and assembled our uniforms in a flurry of brass buckles, black nylon socks, and gray trousers so abrasive that hair didn't grow on my thighs for the next four years.
We stood in a row under the shade of an elm tree in front of MacArthur Barracks. This was what the Army meant by a formation:
any number of soldiers standing at attention and prepared for training, marching, or, more typically, waiting. We were being formed. The ten of us, sweating into new leather low-quarter shoes, would cohere over time into a more competent squad. I would soon learn the Rule of Four, a trick for remembering this strange new hierarchy. Sergeants with at least four years of experience lead squads in the Army. Four squads comprised a platoon, the smallest unit in the Army commanded by a commissioned officer. The focus of military training at West Point was to prepare the new lieutenants it graduated for just this role, to be platoon leaders. With seasoning, officers commanded at higher levels. Four platoons made a company, with around 150 soldiers and sergeants, which was led by a company commander, a captain. For most officers this was the highest level at which they would command before finishing their service. For officers who chose a career in the Army and earned promotions to colonel, they competed to command battalions (four companies) and brigades (four battalions). Only generals got the opportunity to lead entire divisions, such as the famed 82nd Airborne or 10th Mountain.
West Point was organized like a brigade. Cadets played the roles of sergeants and officers in order to give every cadet the opportunity to hone his or her leadership abilities. As new cadets, we were the privates. Our purpose was to follow, to obey, and to be formed
in the image of our leaders. We had begun our transformation, reduced to a common denominator, at the barbershop. Now, dressed identically, it was time for us to learn how to walk again.
"I have two hours to teach you how to march like soldiers. Marching is what we do here. Every day. To breakfast. To lunch. After school. On Saturday mornings. Understood?"
"Good," he continued. "Right, face
We turned to the right to form a column. Bellinger looked down at the ground in dismay, "We'll have to work on that. All right now, keeping your fists tight and your arms straight at your side, move your left arm forward and step forward with your right foot."
We moved forward with a lurch, frozen in mid-stride.
"Excellent. Now move your right arm and left foot."
Bellinger led us through twenty iterations of this choreographed awkward motion. I had always assumed marching was not much different from walking. I had never worried, for instance, about a bouncy step or gave much thought to swinging my arms exactly nine inches forward and six to the rear. I wondered how many cadre were laughing at us as we robo-walked across the Apron, looking like Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks.
"Not bad for starters. Let's add a beat." Bellinger began chanting: "Dum-dum-DUM-DUM-DUM, dum-dum-DUM-DUM-DUM."
Within fifty feet we were completely out of rhythm.
"Focus on the man in front of you. Do what he does."
This worked better, but I still walked like a marionette doll with no control over my own limbs. In the distance a bass drum beat a steady thump, perhaps alerted that over a thousand novices were trying to will their natural strides into an unfamiliar gait. The tallest had to walk at funeral pace and the shortest legs overreached comically. Around and around we marched-column left, march,
column left, march,
mark time, march,
The sun began to sink behind the barracks as our newly constituted platoon streamed onto the parade field. Our families, having completed their own daylong indoctrination into military parenting, awaited us with cameras and binoculars. Our black shoes, peppered with fresh grass clippings, rooted us as firmly to the ground as the guidon flags planted in front of each company. We snapped to attention as the cadet commander introduced our class to the Superintendent, Lieutenant General Daniel Christman, Class of 1965. In an address that was meant more for our families than us, he recounted the accomplishments of the nearly two hundred West Point classes that had preceded us. With hard work and perseverance, we too might join this Long Gray Line of distinguished alumni. The crowd applauded, and we raised our right hands at the command of our cadre. After swearing an oath to support the Constitution and obey the legal orders of superior officers, the band played the national anthem. A hum from our ranks grew louder as we sang along. In front of us, beyond the crowd, the American flag beat against the wind whipping between Storm King Mountain and Breakneck Ridge, down the Hudson River, and up the bluff where we stood -- anxious, exhausted, and terrified. At the moment, joining the Long Gray Line seemed less important than surviving the first day.
With identical uniforms and shaved heads, we were virtually indistinguishable from one another. The transformation was a testament to the efficiency of military indoctrination. As the parade concluded, we marched past proud and nervous parents. At the command of eyes right, I searched for my own parents in vain. We turned our backs to the stands as the wind whistled past Trophy Point's cannons and drove us forward. We headed toward arched passageways marked with the names of hallowed battlefields. LEYTE GULF. CORREGIDOR. NORMANDY. The letters faded into shadow. The ranks of white in front of me merged into gray stone, and a hail of terrifying commands grew louder with each perfectly measured step. The barracks, backlit by the setting sun, jutted out like boulders carved from the hill beyond. At the crest of the hill, two hundred feet above our uniforms of white and gray, stood the chapel -- a mass of granite blocks soaring to a crenellated bell tower. It was impossible to imagine West Point built of anything other than granite and steel.