My oldest daughter, Elowyn, is a Sophomore this year at Buchanan High School. I had the joy this past summer of starting the journey with her deciding where she will eventually choose go to college. If you follow me on Facebook, you know I’m quite proud of Elowyn as she is an incredibly gifted artist. I view it as important that she explore where she might best thrive with this and her other God given talents. To this end, in August, we visited California College of the Arts in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, a beautiful school nestled in the hills north of Oakland. This past week, we also attended a Christian College fair at her high school, and because of her passion for the Arts, we narrowed the choices to those schools whose Art programs are a clear emphasis. We now plan to visit each of these and other campuses where art is also an emphasis in the coming year so she will know and thus own the choice of school she will ultimately go to.
My own journey in selecting a college began in 1983. My father encouraged me while I was a Junior in high school to apply to the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. Up to that point, I frankly hadn’t put much thought as to where I might go upon graduation. First, let me say, I consider it a great privilege and honor to represent my home town of Fresno, California in having attended Annapolis. Just this month, many of my classmates got together for our 25 year graduation reunion. Although I was not able to attend this reunion, I am proud to call myself a fellow ’88 Classmate and consider many of them amongst the finest people I have ever gotten the privilege to study and later serve alongside in the US Navy as commissioned officers. It is fond memories of my classmates who have been quite active on Facebook this past reunion weekend that inspired me to make my second story to be about the events that led up to and got me through my first year at Annapolis.
I received my appointment to the US Naval Academy as a member of the Class of 1988 while completing my senior year at Bullard High School in 1984. I first learned of my appointment in February when I got a call from the USNA Admissions office. Though quite excited (and anxious) about being selected, I was also quite quite surprised. I did have the Academics, SAT Scores, and other community activity involvement to qualify for admission, but I was absent any Varsity Sports participation, which 9 of 10 appointees have. Because of the quality of the Academics and the fully funded nature of the Education, Annapolis is amongst the most competitive and selective schools in the nation. Each applicant must get a congressional nomination and less than 10% of applicants are ultimately appointed each year. Given this, I just presumed that being passed over for appointment was probably very likely (and deep down, at least at the time, I would not have minded that outcome).
So… when the person from the admissions office called to tell me I had been selected for appointment, I was floored. I just hadn’t planned on this happening and was more counting on other colleges that I was awaiting to hear from. In fact, I later received an acceptance letter from UC Berkeley, a Navy ROTC scholarship option to USC, and acceptance to the local university, Fresno State. Of the options I was considering, UC Berkeley was my preferred choice. As you learned from my first story, living in the San Francisco Bay Area, was a highly desirable outcome for me. Interestingly, living in the Bay Area is now my daughter Elowyn’s first preference after visiting CCA. In my case, I had the dilemma of having an appointment to the Naval Academy, a place I had not visited to compete with Berkeley, a place that I had. There had been the opportunity to visit Annapolis the summer of my junior year in High School, but because of a scheduled open heart surgery for my Dad, we couldn’t afford me to go. This made the choice to go to Annapolis one I would have to make based on faith alone without any meaningful experience with the place. Because of this personal experience, I’m being much more purposeful today in helping Elowyn’s choice of college be HERS and not mine.
To best understand why I made the choice I did, I need to describe a bit of my Dad’s history. Dad was from Carthage, Tennessee. He had quit school in the 8th grade and joined the Navy in 1956 at the age of 17 because he wanted to get out of his hometown to see the world. He was a Navy sailor through and through and rose to the rank of Senior Chief Petty Officer before a heart attack forced him to retire. I respect my Dad a great deal. He was a self-made man that I truly admired for what he was able to accomplish even though he never finished high school. [Nov. 18, 2018 Addendum: I shared the rest of my Dad’s story in Ode to GMCS Robert A. Dickerson, USN] My Dad, conversely, had a lot of respect for those who graduated from Annapolis and so strongly encouraged my application there. When the choice came to the Annapolis or Berkeley, the capital of the liberal world that my politically conservative father so disdained, my Dad made it pretty clear if I chose the latter, I’d be on my own. Even if I put his influence aside, it would have been pretty hard to turn down a fully funded four year top-notch college education like Annapolis particularly knowing we were of limited means to afford me to go to UC Berkeley without a scholarship. For those reasons, despite my anxiety of not knowing fully what I was getting myself into, I made the decision to accept the appointment to the Naval Academy.
I arrived in Annapolis on July 5th 1984, a day before Induction Day. When I stepped off the plane at Baltimore Washington International, it was a hot humid summer that day in Maryland. The terribly oppressive humidity had me second guessing immediately if I was going to be able to handle the climate change. I had not been on the East Coast since I was first born in Portsmouth Virginia at the Naval Hospital and so was use the very “dry heat” I had grown accustomed to in the California Central Valley. And it got worse… when we arrived, we were given a pre-Induction briefing about the campus and what to expect. The person briefing us, a First Class Midshipman, shared some bad news. “Sorry, but the Air Conditioning is not working here today… “, he explained then paused for that to sink in. He continued, “…actually it hasn’t been working for about 140 years since they opened the place.” The subtle biting humor was a clear hint of the mind games to be played on us later that were yet to come. On top of the climate change, the anxiety of the hazing that would follow induction made it difficult for me to sleep that first night in Annapolis. The next morning, I woke up with eyes bloodshot. This being noticed by those checking in the incoming Plebes, I was escorted over to the Brigade clinic for a check-up. I remember hoping that the problem was in fact an incurable medical problem, and thus would disqualify me from attending. I guess I was looking for an honorable way out of a decision I wasn’t all too sure about, but it turns out it was just what it seemed, a young nervous Plebe that didn’t get enough sleep. I wasn’t going to get out that easily…
Sure enough my anxiety was well founded… After swearing the Midshipman’s Oath of Service to the US Navy along with my other 1350+ classmates, we all said our good byes to our loved ones (well the rest of my classmates did, I came to Annapolis alone actually). We then hurried back to our assigned rooms knowing the hazing by the “Firsties” (First Class Midshipman or Seniors at the Naval Academy) on Plebe Summer detail would begin as soon as we got there. As a newly appointed Plebe, we had completely given up all the things one would normally call rights only to receive them back one at a time as privileges over the next four years as midshipmen. We are called “Plebes” as freshmen as a reference to a “Plebian”, or the ancient Roman term for a person of low rank. The yelling began even before we could get back to our rooms. No one was immune. Every Plebe was a target and there was no where to hide. The first several days was a blur. I remember not being able to do anything except urinate when I went to the bathroom for nearly a week. Leaving your room made you target of opportunity and so you learned to remain unnoticed whenever possible.
Wherever you went as a Plebe, you spent every spare moment memorizing your rates from “Reef Points”, the collection of all the Navy trivia/facts you had to know verbatim and be ready to rattle off to a Firstie whenever they might ask you them. If you didn’t do so successfully, it was an invitation to be singled out and yelled out all the more. Every meal, we were also required to do “chow calls” where we had to stand outside our room or at the end of the hallway to remind the other midshipmen that it was nearly time for formation (essentially a time to check in and be accounted for) prior to every meal. We had to rattle off the menu for that meal else face the wrath of those listening carefully to ensure we got it right.
Every morning that first summer would begin at 5:30am with an hour of PEP or Physical Training (PT). I was probably less prepared for this then most of the other Midshipman. This was because in addition to not being much of an athlete prior to arriving at Annapolis, I had developed a bad habit of smoking clove cigarettes my senior year in high school, a habit that switched to regular cigarettes later. This made me all the less physically prepared for the rigorous PT that all Plebes were required to endure. For the first week, because I struggled to keep up, I was put on the ‘sub-squad’ and forced to wear my PT shirt inside out until I could get in good enough shape to keep up with the others, something I became highly motivated to do. It is amazing what a week of being singled out in such a way can do to make you work toward getting in shape.
Much of the summer indoctrination focused on making us disciplined in preparation for becoming officers in the US Navy or Marine Corps. We learned to march, sail, prepare our rooms and our uniforms for inspection and many other things one that separate you from being a civilian. Though we could “drop on request” at any point, one thing they made clear was that quitting during the first six weeks of Plebe Summer, that it would still require that you stay on the campus “mowing lawns” and other busy work while you watch the classmates you left behind continue to strive on. In the end, most Plebes decide to hang on. I had one roommate that first week of Plebe Summer, however, who decided it wasn’t worth it and so rather than simply quit, he indicated to the Firsties in charge of us that he was planned to kill himself with his bayonet. We were issued these dulled blades as part of our summer parade gear which included an old World War 2 vintage M-1 rifle that had the firing pin removed. Both these weapons were meant purely for show and had no military value whatsoever, though my roommate thought differently about his bayonet that day. He just wanted out and felt that was the quickest way to go about it. It worked, we never saw him again. I’ve heard they stopped issuing these bayonets in recent years. I am guessing other Plebes have threatened themselves over the years similarly…
One thing you learn when you lose all your rights to as a civilian, is to depend on your classmates who are all persevering through the same hazing with you. There were roughly 36 other Plebes in my company and we were all getting yelled at collectively. We learned to look out and when possible defend one another as the only ones you can count on which is exactly one of the primary purposes of Plebe Year. With exception of my one roommate, the balance of my classmates and I made it through the rest of that first summer, the toughest 6 weeks of the first and toughest year at the Academy. One of those classmates in my Plebe company, Al Perpuse, who survived this year with me, later become one of my best friends once we graduated from the Navy, a story I’ll share in a future story.
The first 6 weeks took a toll on me physically and mentally. By the time Parent’s Weekend came around in mid-August, I had lost roughly 15 pounds. I was already quite slim to begin with so by the end of Plebe Summer, I looked somewhat like I had endured a trial in a concentration camp. When my parents came to visit, I think it must have been frightening for them to see how pale and thin I looked. I think about my Mom seeing this dramatic change and how much she must have been brokenhearted for me, I being her youngest son. [Addendum – 5/14/2014] On the occasion of Mother’s Day 2014, I thought I would amend this story to include my Mom’s perspective on what I went through this Plebe Summer. She wrote a poem I titled, “An Ode from Mother to Son” and shared it with NHK, a Japanese TV station that broadcast this poem and my Mom’s feelings about what I was going through. It was touching and so I thought I would share it with her and now you all so you can see what a mother goes through when her son goes off to ‘Military School’…
Her heartbreak, in turn must have taken a toll on my Dad as well. By that weekend in August, after enduring many a call home from me about how rough this place was, he offered that I could come home indicating there would be ‘no shame’ if I did. I had thought about quitting every day that Plebe summer and I must have made that clear to him on those phone calls. Between the fact they wouldn’t just let you leave those first six weeks, and watching my roommate try to leave in the way he did, somehow by the grace of God, I was able to endure that challenging first six weeks.. Now that my Dad gave me that option, however, the irony was that was the day in their hotel room, I somehow found the courage to commit tearfully to them that I was going to make it NO MATTER WHAT they would do to me. I rationalized that if I had made it this far, and that was supposedly the hardest part, I can certainly make it to at least Christmas. Besides I didn’t want the decision to have quit haunt me the rest of my life.
I think I earned a lot of respect from my Dad that day. They hugged me and said goodbye at the end of that weekend knowing the next time they would see me was that Christmas. Some particularly cruel upperclassman on campus during the summer played “… I’m dreaming of a White Christmas” by Bing Crosby on their stereos with their speakers blaring out into the courtyard for all of us sobbing Plebes to hear as our parents dropped us off. It’s kind of hilarious recollecting now that they did that although I’m sure it seemed much less funny at that moment.
Thus, by the end of Plebe Summer, I had hit the bottom point mentally and emotionally, and from that day forward it was all a slow steady climb persevering through the rest of my Plebe Year. The rest of the Brigade returned shortly thereafter for the start of the Fall Semester. Instead of having only a few Firsties on Summer Detail to yell at you, you now had the all the Seniors and Juniors (aka Midshipman Second classman) to haze you as well. The Sophomore Class, also known as ‘Youngsters’ are assigned to help you through that first year having just recently been Plebes themselves. The Juniors were called “flamers” and were particularly charged to carry on the hazing on the Plebes through the Academic year. I lost another roommate that Fall semester as he concluded it wasn’t worth it and dropped out. Offsetting the intensity of the first 6 weeks of Plebe summer was the rigorous course work during the academic year. The upperclass were required to leave the Plebes alone after 7pm when study hour would begin and end at 10pm when it was lights out for us. This is one of the few times in life when I could remember actually looking forward to homework and studies at night.
Despite the stressful first year challenges of Plebe year, there were certainly highlights worth noting. We were assigned “sponsors” in the Annapolis area as many of us being from all parts of the country did not have any relatives nearby. My original sponsors were from Severna Park, Maryland and they would come by on Saturday to pick me up so I could get a respite form the yelling and stressful environment in the dorms. They were truly a blessing that first year as they did a good job being proxy parents/guardians to us in that vulnerable first year at Annapolis. I am grateful that the Academy offers such a program.
Then there was Navy football. One VERY memorable game that semester was played in Annapolis in mid November pitted Navy versus South Carolina, at the time the #2 ranked team in the nation. As usual, our upperclassman insisted we bet on Navy and give them ridiculous points spread. In my case, I gave the second class “flamer” in my squad South Carolina and 14 points. If he won, I would have to do chow-calls outside his room for the following week. If I won, he would have to do the same for me. Of course, with South Carolina being 9-0 and on track to go to the Orange Bowl for the National Title game, the chance of my winning were the same as a snowball’s chance in hell. But somehow that ‘snowball’ made it through and Navy won that game 38-21 upsetting the Gamecocks chance at a national title something that they remember us for to this day. I made the most of the week of payback to the second class being able to yell at him for the week outside my room. I believe my ‘chutzpah’ actually earned their respect from the upper class for rubbing it in that week. Though that ended up costing me a lot of his own payback in the weeks that followed, it was well worth it.
Then there was the annual Army-Navy game in December when the upperclassman laid off the yelling as we all rallied around beating the Army football team in this annual classic. There are many spirit related activities that week to include putting up ‘sheet posters’ with slogans like “Beat Army!”, “Go Navy!”, and having a huge bonfire the Thursday night before the big game. Though we lost that first year I was there to Army, it was still a pretty special experience to be part of the Brigade of Midshipman to include marching onto the field at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, something I would repeat doing all four years I attended Annapolis. Every year, during this one week, we midshipmen all became equals as all of our energy was focused on beating the Army opposition. It’s a fun week to be at Annapolis realizing what a rich tradition you are privileged to be a part of. This is a tradition, that many who know me well, lives on to this day. Every December, I make it known my allegiance to Navy remains as strong as ever as I share a bold “Go Navy! Beat Army!” to all around me the week leading up to the game and generally host a party at my house to watch the game with friends and family.
I received many letters that first year from my friends from Fresno. Their encouraging words went a long way to making that first semester bearable. Another key highlight was coming home for Christmas. It was pretty cool that my best friend from high school, Michael Ringer, insisted I keep on my Service Dress Blue uniform I was required to wear traveling home that first night I got back into town and we went to hang out with our other friends. It was almost like he was as proud of me as much as anyone else. It was both sobering and rewarding to hear from some of my other friends who said they were surprised I made it, as they had thought I would have likely quit at some point. At that point, I knew I still had another semester to back to but more than ever, the worst seemed to be behind me. I really had learned to handle a huge amount of stress albeit I wasn’t really sure that I always had a healthy attitude about it. I had felt I had given up so much and being away from the stress began to make me long for being free of persecution, something that would drive me to work harder than most around me. This work ethic began to shape me in ways that you know from my original story and testimony, would eventually become less than healthy. For the moment, however, I became increasingly self-confident and that was what got me through that first year.
Second semester of Plebe Year seemed to go faster than the first and before I knew it Spring Commissioning Week was here as the Firsties finished up their last classes and qualified for their diplomas and their commissions into the Navy as Ensigns or the Marine Corp as 2nd Lieutenants. The kick off of Commissioning Week starts with the “Ain’t No ‘mo Plebes” ceremony as we as a class take down a “Dixie Cup”, our plebe year blue rimmed hat, off the Herndon Monument and replaced it with our normal midshipman cap. The monument is greased up with Crisco making it all the more difficult to scale. A funny fact is that our class had the worst record for length of time it took to remove the cap (over 3 hours and 12 minutes) until the class of 1995 topped our infamous time by clocking 4 hours to complete their ceremony. Regardless, we finished that task and became that day upperclassman ending for me what was the most physically and mentally demanding year of my life.
Though I would have had harder times emotionally and spiritually as my first story on this blog attests, I will always remember this milestone as a huge challenge that I endured, persevered and ultimately conquered. If you read my first story, you know I have in the past 10 years, recommitted my life to Christ. I made that decision after 20 years of having falling away from my original commitment to our Lord Jesus. That 20 year journey “into the wilderness” began where this story began, my last year in High School. Though I tried unconvincingly to keep my faith in Jesus Christ a priority at Annapolis that first year, I found it difficult to share that faith while being surrounded by those who either had a goal to “break me” or those like me who learned to depend on themselves or one another. It just became easier to skip going to Church and seek out other Believers as I developed a stronger belief in my own abilities. I do NOT account for that decision to anyone but myself as I know there were other Midshipman who did not lose their faith along the way as I did. I share this near the end of this story to explain that falling away from faith at this point was a part of what defined the path I chose to take and I am fully accountable for that decision. But I’ll leave the rest of that story for another future post…
Though finishing up the remaining three years at Annapolis and graduating is a more rewarded and recognized milestone by others, surviving Plebe year I attribute as an accomplishment born more solely of my own self will to NEVER EVER give up. Friedrich Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” and I learned to believe this was true having survived Plebe Year. Though I would learn that there were clear limits to this belief later (Nietzsche was a theologian that lost his faith while I would refound mine…), this commitment to persevere through all hardship set me on a course of increasing self-reliance that would propel me through my remaining 3 years at Annapolis and the following 15 years of my work career and life.
- US Naval Academy visit – Annapolis, MD (travelpod.com)