A large part of the Plebe Summer experience is about being disoriented. No watches were allowed during Plebe Summer and the clocks were covered up. As part of this disorientation, they didn’t even let us see where we were going on the bus when we were being driven away from Alumni Hall. Since I knew the Academy so well that didn’t exactly disorient me, but they tried. The bus ride dropped you off at Bancroft Hall, where you met your first company Cadre. “Cadre” is the term for the 1/C Midshipmen that are running Plebe Summer. Three years later, when that was my role, we were called “Detailers,” but since I had the last real Plebe Summer they were called Cadre. The Cadre escorted you up to your room where you stowed your stuff and waited until the rest of your company arrived.
I was lucky because in my room waiting was my new friend and current security question answer for “First College Roommate,” Wes. Wes was a great boon because he had gone to NAPS, the Naval Academy Preparatory School, so he knew a great many of the ropes and was the first ally I had met on an already long hard day. He showed me how I was supposed to store my stuff and we chit-chatted for the next few hours while we waited and our other two roommates, Matt and Jester, showed up.
The next event on I-Day was our swearing in. After everyone had arrived in company area, the Cadre collected us and he proceeded down to T-Court. That bag that I had tossed on the truck earlier with all of my underwear that I had just been issued? On this trip to T-Court I spotted it in one of the hallways. I wasn’t going to see it again for three days, so for the next three days I did everything, including PT, in the same pair of underwear I showed up in that day.
In T-Court, we were directed to our seats. There are 30 companies in the Brigade of Midshipmen, and I was in 26th Company. It was an excellent company, but as I found out on I-Day and as I would experience for the next four years, we always wind up in the back and we never have any idea what is going on. So in a confused state and blinded by the sea of white uniforms in front of me, I suppose I was sworn in to the US Navy. I don’t really remember.
The rest of I-Day couldn’t have been much. We went to dinner, came back to company area, and sat down to write our first Thought of the Day. The Thought of the Day was a letter you were required to write every night to your squad leader. Its purpose was to keep tabs on the mental state of each Plebe. When I was a Plebe Summer Detailer, we would all go through each Thought of the Day and flag any as “yellow” or “red” if the Plebes were having suicidal thoughts or anything that needed addressing. The only Thought of the Day I remember was the one time I tried to make a joke – and was swiftly rebuked for it (as an extended explanatory parenthesis, later in the summer we were taking muster and our Squad Leader Assistant, who’s job it was to take muster, didn’t know where one of us was. Our squad leader yelled at us and commented, sarcastically, “did he just disappear into the ether?!” Since it was at the Academy that Michelson disproved the existence of ether, I found this ironic and reported it in my thought of the day. Result: squad leader in my face hissing “that was very witty and insightful and don’t you ever fucking write anything like that again.” Such is Plebe Summer). We came together as a group and, as we were to do every night for our entire Plebe Year, sang “Blue and Gold,” finishing with a resounding “BEAT ARMY.”
Then it was lights out. On our first night, Jester was caught not quite all the way in the covers at lights out. Our Company Commander told an incredulous Jester to burrow all the way to the bottom of his rack and then back to the top. The rest of us tried not to laugh. And that was day 1 of Plebe Summer.
After graduating from high school, I had only a fairly short summer to enjoy before I-Day. The highlight was probably a week-long trip to Quebec organized by my former French teacher. During the trip my girlfriend and I made out in a variety of exotic Canadian locations and I mispronounced “poutine.” Then, on June 27th, it was I-Day.
I-Day stands for “Induction Day” and it is the first day at the Academy. I woke up in the morning a civilian, put on a pair of cargo shorts and my favorite Hawaiian shirt, and dad dropped me off in front of Alumni Hall at my designated time. On the way there I made sure to listen to something memorable because we would not be allowed to listen to music for the summer. I forget what song it was. When we arrived at the drop-off point, dad turned to me, shook my hand, and said “worst case, we’ll always take you back.” Thanks dad.
There are some things that happen right off the bat when you walk in for I-Day. I-Day is run by Midshipman, and as you walk in the doors there is a table with a few of them. These guys make sure you’re supposed to be there, hand you a copy of Reef Points, and tell you from then on everything you say will begin and end with “sir” or “ma’am.” They also tell you to tuck in your shirt, which I failed to do and thus that managed to be the very first thing I was yelled at for. I felt sort of special actually because, as a local, I was supposed to get interviewed by the local newspaper. That plan got derailed when, in my confusion and nervousness and embarrassment of a hastily tucked-in Hawaiian shirt I just proceeded up the stairs to begin the first day of the rest of my life.
For the first part of I-Day, you follow a path through Alumni Hall, reporting to various tables and stations. Early on you are told that your basic responses are “Sir yes sir,” “Sir no sir,” “Sir aye aye sir,” “Sir no excuse sir,” and “Sir I’ll find out sir.” Unless asked a question that required some other information, like “what is your name?,” you were to respond with one of those five things. My second major mistake on I-Day after the shirt thing was deciding that, to avoid messing that my basic responses, I would just respond to everything by nodding or shaking my head. That didn’t last long.
As you snake through Alumni Hall, you wonder more and more what you had gotten yourself into. One station was an amnesty booth with a bin where you could dump any contraband you still had on you. I didn’t get a good look into the bin, but I still can’t figure out who would show up on day one with fake IDs or drugs. That seems like a bad idea, right? I also remember hastily signing a wide variety of legal documents. I didn’t have any time to review any of them but the one that stuck out was the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” sheet; not that it mattered much to me but it was the only one I noted.
It is in Alumni Hall in a temporary barber shop that they give you your military buzzcut. This only annoyed me because I had, just days before, already shaved off the long flowing locks that I had been growing out for over a year. So I walked in with a buzzcut and was flabbergasted to receive an even shorter buzzcut. They don’t joke around; they cut everyone’s hair. You also spend a large chunk of your time in Alumni Hall getting issued your uniforms. This is probably the most important part of I-Day, because ill-fitting underwear or shoes will ruin your whole Plebe Summer experience, not that it is that great to begin with. During this process you change out of your civilian attire and into a set of the Plebe Summer uniform while the rest of your newly-issued underwear and socks and t-shirts goes into a large bag which you then put on a truck.
The best part of I-Day was when they drew your blood and gave you any shots you needed. This was nice because you were allowed to sit there and relax for as long as you needed, and there were cookies. This was all done for medical reasons, but still I thought it was funny that the only relaxing part of I-Day was the bit where they literally sucked the blood out of you. The last part in Alumni Hall was when they taught you how to salute. This was a quick and dirty lesson, but then, having entered Alumni Hall as a civilian, and having been given a haircut, put into your brand-new uniform, issued a copy of Reef Points, and taught to salute, you are loaded onto a bus and driven away.
I got my acceptance letter to the Academy one afternoon after school. I came home and mom handed me an envelope I had gotten in the mail. It from the Academy and was one of those 9×11” envelopes and I figured it was way too thick to contain a rejection letter. I tore it open and the first page told me congratulations, I had been accepted. It also came with a thicker sort of certificate-looking thing congratulating you in nicer font on your acceptance. About three seconds after coming in the house and two seconds after mom handed me the envelope, I exclaimed “mom, I have a future!” and darted out with the certificate. I drove up to my girlfriend’s house and caught her in her car as she was pulling up after dropping off a friend at home. I opened my door and just showed her the certificate, which I knew she would recognize as identical as her own. I swear it was one smooth motion how she leapt out of her car and into mine and it was one of the happiest moments of my life.
The next day at school I dropped off a copy of my acceptance letter with my guidance counselor. She was busy so I just dropped the letter off and walked away. No one at the school, except for my girlfriend and the people who wrote recommendation letters for me, knew I was applying. I don’t like people to see me work and I don’t like people to see my failures so I tend to keep projects under wrap until I can see them through. So it was a huge surprise to everyone when they made the announcement over the loud speaker that I had been accepted. It also helped the surprise that at this point I had shoulder-length hair and a huge beard and looked like a total hippy and had never told anyone I had any military aspirations at all, but still. Going from having no future (except for boat thievery) to a Naval Academy future was a huge relief and I had the rest of the school year and a brief bit of summer to make the most of.
If anyone is trying to get into the Academy, here is where I would like to offer my unsolicited advice. The Academy is looking for three major things in potential candidates: physical fitness, academic chops, and leadership potential. They are looking for people who balance all three, so you can’t just rely on one of the pillars, but strengths in one area may make up for weaknesses in others. Make sure you join a school sport or athletic club of some sort. Work hard in school and get good grades, but take challenging classes; easy As will not go as far as hard-earned Bs. The biggest thing I think is proving that leadership potential. When I was doing some recruiting work for the Academy, what I told people is that you don’t have to do anything extra. It is not necessary to join a club for the sole reason of looking good, but in whatever organization you are in, try to get a leadership role. If you are on the soccer team try to be a team captain, or if you are in the chess club try to be the secretary of the chess club. That leadership potential can really set you apart from someone who is smart & athletic but who has never had to lead anybody. The Academy is, at its core, a leadership school.
I am going to slowly trickle out my Navy Life Story. Although this blog is about reminding myself to go out and have new adventures, I figure writing down what I’ve already done is pretty important at least for my own sake and maybe for my future biographer’s when I’m rich and famous. The story starts, as most do, at the beginning, with me joining the Navy.
A question I dislike is “why do you want to join the Navy?” When applying to someplace like the Naval Academy, the question comes up a lot. The most classic answer is “I want to serve my country.” That always sounds corny to me and is so clichéd that I wonder if anyone believes you when you say it. I was very afraid not to, though. It is sort of like presidential candidates wearing a flag lapel pin: a meaningless gesture if you do it, but judged if you don’t. But what do you say that isn’t selfish? “I want a free education and a guaranteed job for five years after college that includes excellent routes for advancement, great benefits, and opportunities for travel.” That would be a pretty valid answer anywhere else but here it sounds too self-centered. The best option must lie somewhere in the middle. Neither was me though.
I went to the Naval Academy mostly out of instinct. Both my parents were in the Navy. Dad graduated from the Naval Academy in 1978 and became a Nuke SWO. He served on aircraft carriers and submarine tenders in his nuclear role, and on cruisers in his surface warfare role. His last job in the Navy and the first I actually remember was teaching at the Naval Academy. While he was stationed there we lived in the Navy apartments across the street. Mom was a dirty dirty ROTC grad, but that wasn’t her fault. Mom initially served as a conventional SWO and was the second woman to earn her warfare designation. Due to limited career opportunities as a female SWO in the 80s, she transferred to the intelligence community and then transitioned in the reserves after she had kids. Mom’s career outlasted dad’s and she finally retired while I was at the Academy. Mom and dad met when she was teaching his celestial navigation class at Surface Warfare Officer School in San Diego.
Despite the star-crossed nature of my parent’s Navy romance, I didn’t have all that much direct Navy influence growing up. Dad retired before I entered elementary school, and since mom was in the reserves that experience was her going off to drill once a month. So while technically a “Navy brat,” I spent all but the first three years of my life in Maryland and to me mom and dad were only ever a tax preparer and school teacher. Looking back, I do note some early influences, like the picture of Halsey in the hallway or the giant SWO pin mom displayed in her office. We lived near the Naval Academy and sponsored Midshipmen, so the Naval Academy always had a presence in my life, but more along the lines of “location of a convenient ATM” than “lifelong destiny.”
All of that to say that senior year in high school found me pretty directionless. The concept of a directionless 18-year-old who doesn’t know what he wants to do in his life isn’t all that original, but still. The prospect of college didn’t particularly interest me. Even though I am good at education, I am not a particularly big fan of it. At 18, however, I thought of myself as a pretty big nerd, so I applied to MIT. They rejected me. I also applied to some weird liberal arts farm commune college out west. They also rejected me. One morning though I woke up and it struck me: going to the Naval Academy might be a good idea. Instead of “real” college, I could go to (what I thought was) happy fun-time boat school for four years. So like salmon returning to the river they spawned from, I joined the Navy out of instinct.
Applying to the Naval Academy has two major steps: getting a nomination and actually applying to the Academy. To ensure an even distribution of people from the country (in the least cynical explanation), everybody at the Academy is required to get a nomination before applying. The most common source of nominations are from members of Congress. Each member of Congress has a certain number of nominations they can hand out each year to people they see fit from their district. This ensures Midshipmen come from all over. Every member of Congress has their own process for granting nominations, and for Maryland, my three options all required an application and an interview. I tried hard; I even got a haircut. My efforts, however, were all for naught, and I did not secure a congressional nomination. I can make myself feel better by pointing out that Maryland has some pretty stiff competition. People from Maryland have actually heard of the Naval Academy. States like Montana, while they have the same number of senators, also have a lower population of people who have ever heard of the Naval Academy, which can improve your chances of getting nominated. I instead got a Presidential nomination (there are also Vice Presidential nominations), which is less impressive than it sounds. To secure a Presidential nomination you have to submit a form letter detailing one of your parent’s military service. Apparently mom’s record was good enough to get me in.
Nomination in hand, the next step is actually applying. There are brands of people for whom going to the Naval Academy is a lifelong dream. I knew one of these guys. Out of my class in my high school three of us wound up going to the Naval Academy that year. The guy I’m talking about is the guy you think about when you imagine people applying to the Naval Academy, I think. Football team, popular kid, also smart, did all sorts of extra-curriculars. I watched him make friendly with anybody he thought might give him a leg up in applying. These efforts can be worth it, and he did it with the sincerity of a person with a goal who is willing to fight for it and I don’t knock him for his efforts. However, I was not that kind of person. I wound up joining the track team senior year in order to give myself some athletic credentials, but the concept of “networking” was and remains very uncomfortable for me.
As part of the application process you get interviewed by a Blue & Gold officer. A Blue & Gold officer is a Naval Academy graduate who helps guide people applying to the Academy and submits a recommendation based on their interview. My Blue & Gold officer was not very impressed with my efforts. The other two people that got accepted from my high school got phone calls from their Blue & Gold officer when they were accepted and continued to communicate with them after they were at the Academy. I talked to mine all of once, and that was during our interview. He told me the only reason he was talking to me was because I had somehow gotten a nomination. We met on a winter day in Halsey Field House on the Yard. At the time I wanted to be a pilot, and all I really remember from the interview was him asking me if I was really ready to make that kind of commitment.
The rest of my application completed (which was pretty much like any other college application, except there was a physical fitness test), I awaited the results. At this time the girl I was dating was one of those other two people I mentioned that had gotten into the Academy. I don’t know what the internal system is, but people find out in a staggered manner that they have been accepted into the Academy. Having secured congressional nominations, the other two even got phone calls from their congressman’s office with the good news. While that was nice for them, the President never called me to let me know. Winter turned to spring (if I can take a poetic bent) of my senior year and I had no firm plans for the rest of my life. Plan B at this point, if I didn’t get into the Academy, was to hitchhike to Florida, steal a sailboat, and I guess live a life of adventure/starvation in the Caribbean.
Last week (by the time this is posted) was graduation week at the US Naval Academy. Highlights of the week include Midshipmen passing out on the parade field, traffic out the wazoo in downtown Annapolis (DTA to you cool kids), astonishing feats of fast-paced horticulture by the Naval Academy grounds team, and of course the Blue Angels flight demonstration. Ian had the day off and I continue to be unemployed so we went to go see the show.
Earlier that morning I had “business” in Annapolis and when I was driving back over the Naval Academy Bridge at 0930 there were already people in lawn chairs awaiting the 2 o’clock show. But Ian and I were only up to make half a day of it, so we set out at 11 with plans to get lunch. We made it in relatively short order and enjoyed a walk from the Naval Academy Stadium (where we parked) into downtown.
Our destination for lunch was the Naval Academy’s world-famous Drydock Restaurant. Drydock is my favorite pizza place. They also, as their website notes, serve sandwiches, but I’m always there for the pizza. The secret ingredient is nostalgia. I go for two slices of sausage with a soda. I had to fight for them today with the massive crowd and line extending out into the lobby, but it was worth it. Totally worth it.
Fueled up, Ian and I headed out to Hospital Point on the Naval Academy. It was quite crowded. The place had a pretty good party atmosphere, with the Naval Academy Band doing their best covers of 80s rock songs and the multitudes spreading out blankets and lining up at the snow cone trucks. I will take this moment to observe that in front of the eponymous hospital (now a clinic) is a graveyard. While I admire the Navy-like efficiency of putting the graveyard right next to and in front of their hospital, it doesn’t speak volumes to your customer satisfaction, does it?
The show started promptly at two. “Fat Albert” does the first fly-by as the warm-up act. It strikes me that the name “Fat Albert” is a little insensitive, I mean body shaming much? But Fat Albert’s act includes flying from left to right, flying from right to left, starting down low and going up high, and starting up high and going down low. During this part I was preoccupied by taking pictures of the YP that was tooling around the river, and especially trying to take pictures of the YP and Fat Albert together.
Eventually Fat Albert flew off and then the real show began. The Angels started off flying all together in a diamond formation, but then planes #5 and #6 broke off in a dramatic fashion while #1-4 continued to fly close together and do turns and stuff. #5 and #6 then spent most of the rest of the show playing chicken with each other, doing dramatic (and slightly rude, if you had asked my then very surprised self) flybys of the crowd, and at one point doing a slow flight demonstration. This raised several questions for me. First, how do #5 and #6 feel about all this? #1-4 are all like “Hey guys we’re just going to do normal stuff but kind of close together, but we want you guys to fly at each other real fast and turn away and just the last second so you don’t die.” Then after all that is settled #1-4 go “And you know how the most fun part is flying really fast? Well while we’re busy flying fast we want you guys to fly as slow as you possibly can.” Are #5 and #6 in trouble? Did they do anything bad?
But the show was pretty alright. The Blue Angels replayed some of the Fat Albert routine, like flying both low and high and flying from the left and flying from the right. But they also mixed in some loop-de-loops and some fleur-de-lis things and more flying close together and then some flying not so close together. People clapped. Birds flew around somewhat nonplussed. The YP continued to tool around, enjoying the view. After an hour the show was over though it was a little hard to tell when the finale was; I think they should have shot off a whole bunch of planes at once all rapid-fire. Our desire for jet noise satisfied, Ian and I stopped for slurpees on the way home to finish out the day.