Each summer at West Point, new cadets arrive on Reception Day (R-Day) starting their West Point experience. Perhaps a month or so before, a call goes out to the wider West Point community (spouses of faculty and staff, older teens – I was the wife of a professor in the Math Department) saying that they could help when the Firsties (Seniors) and some Cows (Juniors) had a practice run-thru for R-Day. Those who would like to participate in that project would be given instructions about when to come, what to wear and what they might expect as pretend New Cadets. Those of us who wanted to help would be treated just like the new class of cadets. The cadet cadre would be able to practice how the day might go with real people to lead.
I was fascinated with the idea, especially since my (much) younger sister would be visiting and we could both have a unique experience. Wouldn’t she be able to write a wonderful essay when she got back to school in the Fall – “What Did You Do on Your Summer Vacation?” At the time, she was a high school track star (400m, 200m hurdles, and mile relay) so I was confident that she would fit right in and master all the requirements. As a mother of a toddler, I wasn’t so sure of my own ability to do any pull-ups or many push-ups, but I was willing to try. And my sister was excited about the possibility of testing her grit.
We reported at the designated time and place after dropping my two-year-old daughter off at the babysitter. We didn’t know what to expect, though I had heard about the three responses and a few other tiny details having been around West Point graduates for many years by that time. Three responses? New Cadets quickly learned that during that first day, they could only speak when spoken to with these three responses: “Yes, Sir”, “No, Sir.” “No excuse, Sir.” By the time of my New Cadet experience, there were five responses; two had been added since 1969, “Sir, may I ask a question?” “Sir, I do not know.” I was prepared for the three responses, but it was such a scary day, that it was hard to remember the exact words of each of the new responses – I wished there were only three responses; I could remember those! Did not want to get in trouble.
After a greeting from the Superintendent (since it was the practice day, it was some other authority in his place), new cadets were then sent on a sort of obstacle course going from one station to another to get whatever a new cadet would need to get through the next few weeks. In small groups (squad size), we would learn to march in a single file wherever we were led and never speak until spoken to.
My sister and I were separated as soon as we arrived. We were on our own like the real new cadets who wouldn’t know anyone nor what was happening. I went along following the cadet before me one station after the next. Towards noon, we headed towards the gym for a physical test. Oh, no! Just as my squad entered the gym, I heard my name called, “New Cadet Rice, report to your squad leader.” What? (I didn’t say it – not a response.) I did as I was told, “Yes, Sir.” I was handed a slip of paper saying that New Cadet Smith (my sister) had broken her ankle and I should take her home. I was directed to where I could find her. What happened? Nothing! She had been handed a similar note that said she have broken her ankle and she must leave – this was an exercise to see how the cadre would handle such an occurrence on the real R-Day. I was happy that I didn’t have to display my pathetic physical skills, but I was sad that my sister had somehow been chosen to “break her ankle”. She would have loved to try to complete the course.
Years later, our own son would be a new cadet. It was twenty-five years since my own experience, but I clearly remembered the concern I felt when I was a “New Cadet” on the practice day so many years before (I could go home; he could not!). It is hard for any parent to say the last goodbye (a new cadet has ninety seconds to make his goodbyes on that fateful day). Most parents had no idea what lay ahead for their New Cadet; maybe, that is better. Bill and I each knew the pressures that were coming after our family goodbye.
Bill had warned our son to keep his eyes straight ahead, follow the guy before him, don’t call attention to yourself – blend in. On the R-Day of 2006, families were allowed to roam around West Point after their goodbyes. We were to avoid the cadet area but were encouraged to stay for the Oath Ceremony later that afternoon where the New Cadets would make the following promise: I, (name), do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States, and bear true allegiance to the National Government; that I will maintain and defend the sovereignty of the United States, paramount to any and all allegiance, sovereignty, or fealty I may owe to any State or Country whatsoever; and that I will at all times obey the legal orders of my superior officers, and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
At some point in the day, Bill decided to take us to the Cadet Store, which, though we had to walk through the cadet area, was allowed for parents and families on that day. We walked past a squad of New Cadets that was waiting outside the barber shop. Since we all heard the same directions to keep our eyes straight ahead, we intentionally walked as quickly as possible past the squad of newly-shorn new cadets – don’t distract them; don’t look at them. Don’t get close. Don’t smile at them.
About a week later when we had returned to GA, our son was able to make his first phone call home. First words out of his mouth were, “Did you see me?” Of course, we eventually found him at the Oath Ceremony; it had been hard to find him. “No, not then.” When? “You walked right past me! I could have reached out and touched you!” When? How was that possible? Turns out he was one of the newly-shorn cadets outside the barber shop. Even if we had looked closely, we may not have recognized him – no hair and with newly-acquired Army glasses on his nose; contacts were gone. He was transformed into a cadet in only a few hours.
One thing, I was happy about was that we pretend cadets didn’t have to make a trip to the barber shop; not sure how I would have looked with no hair!