basilwhite (basilwhite) wrote,

Basil White's West Point Trip Report

I spent April 17-19 2008 with my son at West Point, as he starts this summer at Marion Military Institute in their West Point prep program. Thanks to a West Point work colleague of mine, I have a useful map. There's multiple guard lanes for civilian versus Government visitors, so I keep driving on autopilot through the Government lane even though I'm not on the job and have no ID with me. So far they've been very forgiving.

Contrary to advance reports, the Hotel Thayer is in fact not a dump, but very nice. Crossed swords and cannons embossed on the elevator doors. The face of Pan carved into the ends of the ceiling beams. Great view of the rugby field. Maybe in the morning it'll be full of cadets being yelled at by a PT sergeant. Breakfast and a show.

We're at Schade's Restaurant just outside the campus waiting for dinner. For New York, West Point is full of barbecue joints, both on and off campus. However, as a Mississippian, my son refuses to eat New York barbecue on general principle.

The next morning, Bill presses his pants and I put on a suit. My Army war hero boss at work has been counseling me on my appearance, so I arrange my necktie down to the beltline in accordance with my training. All the parents and kids sit in the admissions office briefing room quiet and eyes-front, waiting for something to happen. The parents look more nervous than the kids.


Watching the cadet basic training video, "West Point Summers Are Challenging." Shots of Fort Knox and senior cadets helping non-commissioned officers train boot camp recruits, SERE class, Foreign exchange cadet program. The video has two functions. It shows fun things cadets do, and the subtext is that kids might call parents and cry about how challenging West Point summers are, whereupon the parents and children remember that they were warned in the video. I want to teach here in the Federal Liaison Program. If they can whip me in line, they'd have nothing left to fear from the rest of the Executive Branch.

The civilian briefer lady tells us the town's all abuzz with the Pope's arrival. Considering the 3-hour trip yesterday through the Papal Mass traffic to pick up Bill at the airport, I'm ready to confess my sins.

The admissions officer for the southeast region (Maryland down) addresses us. He explains how each Army service is habitually associated with a post, so he's a Fort Benning guy. He talks about his wedding at the 82nd Airborne Chapel after meeting his sweetheart across the street from Ft. Benning at the Palomino Saloon.

After a different cadet takes each one of our kids, the briefer talks to the parents about medical qualifications and disability evaluation. I work on the military disability evaluation system at work and can't stop laughing at the irony.

A mom asks what cadets do for fun. The briefer talks about the Concrete Canoe Club, where cadets make canoes out of concrete.

A junior talks about a day in the life of a cadet - delivering and reading the Wall Street Journal, memorizing the menus for the next three meals, formations and classes. Four classes, lunch, free hour after lunch for briefing and training and naps. 2 afternoon classes. Every cadet is an athlete. Constant fitness checks and remedial fitness programs.

He admits that the cadets don't like to parade but the locals feel disappointed if the cadets don't parade every few months, and locals start pestering the cadets about when's the next parade, and that's their cue to parade.

He also says the plebes and yuks (sophomores) complain that they don't get enough sleep, but it's no one's fault but their own because the plebes and yuks just choose to stay up late until they finally choose sleep and then their grades magically shoot up. He says West Point's one of the largest colleges in the world, as the campus includes artillery ranges and goes out 15 miles in one direction.

They all get clearances, so this 20-year-old has already seen things in DC I'll never hear about. He talked about how experiencing leadership made learning leadership a personal experience for him, because being led taught him to spot good and bad leaders and what he was going to do and not do once he was a leader, and now he's bragging about his subordinates like a proud dad. This is the part of Army leadership that makes me want to steal all these cadets and give them all VA jobs.

He's talking about the Plebe Club dance where the plebes got to wear civvies and dance with girls bussed in from Sarah Lawrence. He explained cad-dating, where you can date other cadets, but only in your own class. Later on the parents walking tour, I wonder aloud to our yuk (sophomore) tour guide about what it must be like to be a guy from a civilian college bussed to West Point to dance with girl plebes. The yuk tells me that they only bus girls in for dances and the girls submit to it to work off court-ordered community service hours. Sometimes you serve because the judge gave you a choice. I think maybe this is a lie they tell cadets and/or they tell tourists.

Plebe rules include keeping your hands cupped, keeping your mouth shut, eyes forward, and serving drinks and cutting the dessert in equal pieces by the number of cadets at the table who want dessert. Even in the mess hall the Army's teaching geometry.

Parting message is that it's all down to the cadets desire and decisions, so he's letting the parents know that it's down to what their kids do and want. Also to send candy and letters.

Our tour-guide yuk leads us through the academic buildings and barracks (NOT dorms, barracks). The strongest selling point I've heard so far about the academics is how phenomenally small the student-teacher ratio is. That matters a lot to me personally, having only failed classes held in auditoriums.

Our Yuk walked us through the library and showed us all the class rings from every year, including the rings of the three five-star alumni, Bradley, MacArthur and Eisenhower.

We walk under the D-Day Arch, topped with a relief of a lightning bolt breaking a swastika. Hell yes. Then we see the parade grounds with the statue of Washington that cadets deface at graduation.

The dining hall is straight out of Harry Potter. Condiments sorted by height. We assemble at the field and wait for cadet formation before they go to the dining hall for lunch. A band plays a march as the cadets file into the dining hall. I don't fault their hooah attitude. A band of noncommissioned officers marching me into lunch every day would convince me that I could single-handedly conquer Asia.

The superintendent's former boss is my current boss. Our yuk says the superintendent is in Morocco supervising deployed cadets. Later my boss tells me that's where he was born. Our yuk says we can eat at the O-Club or Grant Hall but he's never known a single parent to eat at Grant Hall, so I eat at Grant Hall. The parents remuster at 1245 at the Admissions office. I now want to teach here.

I'm sitting in the Admissions building in the Class of '56 room, reading the course catalog under a Life magazine cover of '56 alum Norman Schwarzkopf hugging a female POW. After my tour and reading the course catalog, I get it now. I get how West Point is not the War College or ROTC. The course catalog biases material toward independent thought and political science, using the Thayer Method of less class work and more homework that requires students to prove what they learned by applying it in a context that they didn't learn. My guess is that West Point interviews flag officer alumni like Schwarzkopf and asks them what skills they learned from West Point that they used as flag officers, then West Point alters their curriculum to teach those skills. If I was Douglas MacArthur and I had to rebuild Japan from scratch, the curriculum West Point teaches is what I'd want to know. The curriculum may seem strange to cadets, because it's only now at my current stage in my
career that I would use many of the skills that these kids are learning at half my age, because only now am I giving the occasional order to people who give orders to someone else.

For example, freshman English is a semester of comp and a semester of literature. The entire year of Sophomore English is philosophy: how to build your own personal philosophy, maintain an awareness of your philosophy and how to express it. Your entire junior year is how to infer philosophy from literature. Your senior year is how to communicate your own philosophy in text. That curriculum is exactly what I would want if I needed to rally my senior subordinates so they could rally their subordinates and I needed a literary reference that moved me personally, like Yeats' poem about how the circle doesn't hold. If all you care about is making generals, you can teach English as a tool of philosophy and not worry about how well your second lieutenants can type a report.

Bill briefs me on his tour. He says the barracks are like office space with beds. Bill tells me that he told his tour-guide cadet that Bill was starting at MMI in their West Point prep program, and the tour-guide cadet found an MMI grad who told Bill that MMI is much harder than West Point, which seemed to be exactly what Bill needed to hear. Now that Bill has put his eyes on the prize, the rest is up to him. All I have to do is send letters and candy and stay out of the way.


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