Authors: Amy Efaw
He snickered, then roared, “SIGN IN, SMACKHEAD! Name. Date. Time. Class.”
“Yes, sir.” I staggered up to his desk and took his pen.
“Left-handed, huh? That’s just another strike against you, Smack.”
My hand shook as I began my name.
D, a, scratch, scratch.
I gulped. The pen wouldn’t write.
“Get your nasty elbow off my desk, Grub Ball! I don’t want your arm hairs touching my desk again!”
I tried again.
Scratch, scratch, scratch.
“WHAT’S YOUR MAJOR MALFUNCTION, BONEHEAD? YOU TRYING TO GROW A BRAIN?”
“Sir, I ... this ... this p-p-pen is, um—” I looked up at him.
His hand shot down, grabbed the pen out of my hand, and threw it against the wall. “YOU ARE TRYING MY PATIENCE,
!” He slammed another pen down on the desk. “WRITE!”
My shaking fingers formed the correct letters.
Davis, Andrea. June 28, 2004.
I looked at my watch.
I could feel his eyes drilling into my head. Class—
The First Sergeant spun the book around. Then his head sprang up, fire dancing behind the wire-framed glasses, spreading to his cheeks, his ears, down his neck. “WHAT?” I had never heard anyone yell so loud in my life. “WHAT IS THAT,
?” He cursed, making my mother’s angry words sound like the sentimental mush on Hallmark cards. He jabbed his finger up and down onto the book until I thought only a hole would remain where my “2004” was written.
He leaned over the desk until his wire-framed face was so close to mine that I could smell his breakfast—eggs and coffee—as he hissed, “Six weeks ago one thousand men and women sat in Michie Stadium, ending four long years of sleepless nights, grueling days, area tours, Cow English, baked scrod, CORs, the IOC, and Juice PRs!”
I bit my lip.
What in the world is he talking about?
“They gave their sweat, blood, and tears to earn the right to be called the Class of 2004. DO YOU DARE EQUATE YOURSELF TO THEM?”
“N-n-n-no, sir,” I croaked, clutching at the fabric of my shorts.
He snatched the pen from off his desk where I had left it and with bold strokes crossed out the “2004” and scrawled “2008” in its place. Then he turned his eyes onto a pile of papers on his desk. “New Cadet Davis, you are in Third Squad, Third Platoon. Room 305. Your squad leader is Cadet Daily.”
My body went cold. I remembered Cadet Daily. And he said he’d remember me, too.
The First Sergeant looked at me again and yelled, “WHAT SQUAD, MAGGOT?”
Somehow my vocal cords defrosted enough for me to shout, “Sir, I am in Third Squad, Third Platoon.”
Whatever that is.
The whites of his eyes became my whole world. “Are you scared
, New Cadet?” he whispered.
“NO, SIR!” I shouted, my voice shaking like I had been injected with fifty shots of espresso.
“Only fools don’t fear the enemy, New Cadet,” he said. “And
the enemy.” My eyes followed his finger to his name tag. The white letters S-T-O-C-K-E-L, etched into the black plastic, seemed to mock me. Cadet Stockel opened his mouth and bellowed, “POST!”
I flew out the door, where the next victim was already waiting.
“Report to your room, New Cadet,” I heard some other upperclass cadet say to me, “and deposit your gear. Then report back to the Cadet in the Red Sash. And no gazing around! Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir!” I said. I sped along the bare wall, away from the growing throng of new cadets mouthing the words on the sign. I tried to catch the room numbers out of the corner of my eye as I passed door after closed door on the opposite side of the hall. Random thoughts whipped through my mind.
Sir, I am in Third Squad, Third Platoon. Room 305. The First Sergeant is my enemy. Cadet Daily is my squad leader. The Cadet in the Red Sash winked at me, and I look like I’m scared. I am a dirtbag, a bonehead, a stupid, pea-brained, stinking-carcassed knucklehead. I dared to equate myself to the Class of 2004. I have Four Responses. My name is Davis. I slither like a snake.
Room 305. I crossed the hall and opened a solid oak door. No locks, no keys. I shut out the clamor of the hallway, dropped my bag, and leaned against the door. I squeezed my eyes shut and took deep breath after deep breath until I finally stopped shaking.
MONDAY, JUNE 28 11:13 A.M.
War is hell.
—GENERAL WILLIAM T. SHERMAN, WEST POINT CLASS OF 1840
If General Sherman’s definition be right,
West Point is war.
—GENERAL GEORGE S. PATTON, JR.,
WEST POINT CLASS OF 1909 (IN A LETTER WRITTEN
HOME WHILE HE WAS A PLEBE AT WEST POINT)
OPENED MY EYES to four windows and a window ledge over a radiator. Two desks, two vinyl armchairs, and two single beds, completely covered with Army equipment, mirrored each other on opposite sides of the room. A waist-high dresser, two wooden closets, and a sink with two mirrored medicine cabinets above it completed the room.
The name tag DAVIS, stuck on the corner of one desk, drew me to the left-hand side of the room. A piece of paper on the desk told me to take ten minutes to relax and get a drink of water before heading out again. It was signed by Cadet William F. Haywood, H Company Commander. It wasn’t exactly a “We hope you enjoy your stay” card with a red-and-white peppermint candy beside it, but it was the only West Point welcome I had gotten today.
The tag on the other desk read QUINN. New Cadet Quinn. My roommate. She hadn’t arrived yet. I wondered what she looked like, where she was from. What her first name was. Would she want to talk to me as much as I wanted to talk to her?
I leaned against the window ledge above the radiator and peered out one of the half-open windows. A green field of closely cropped grass spread before me. Granite buildings bordered the field, their long shadows stretching over the grass like cool fingers. And beyond the buildings, I could make out a faint outline of tree-covered ridges gently curving in the distance—a beautiful contrast to the bright-blue sky. It made me feel better.
I walked over to my bed and stared at all the equipment covering it. Orange pegs, folded canvas, a scratchy dark-green wool blanket, green pouches and straps of all shapes and sizes.
My mouth was parched. I walked over to the sink and slurped out of the faucet, just like I used to do in the bathroom at home in the middle of the night.
My watch said that I had been there nine minutes. I couldn’t wait any longer for my roommate to show up. I just knew that somebody was watching my door, hoping that I’d stay a second longer than ten minutes so he’d have an excuse to throw a temper tantrum.
I took a deep breath, grabbed the doorknob, and slithered along the wall to the stairwell.
The stairwell emptied out into the sally port containing the Cadet in the Red Sash. He greeted me with a scowl and said with disgust, “Pretty weak salute, New Cadet. Your next station is Drill.” Then he had me join a row of about ten new cadets standing in North Area.
A black cadet faced us. “The position of attention,” he announced as if he were introducing the President. “Keep your head straight, roll your shoulders back. Arms to your side, elbows in, hands loosely cupped.”
I squinted, trying to protect my eyes from his white shirt and hat, which reflected the blinding sun pounding down on us.
“Heels together, feet at forty-five degrees. Now assume the position.” We rearranged our bodies until we somewhat resembled our teacher.
“For those of you who just joined us,” he said, looking right at me, “I am Cadet Black. No pun intended.” His lips twitched. “I am going to teach you sorry smacks how to march. When I’m through with you, you will look, act, and perform like soldiers. Got that?”
“You’ll be standing tall and looking good, marching for your mommas and daddies later on today.” Cadet Black grinned. “Let’s play follow the leader. LEFT FACE!”
When we had all turned left, he yelled, “FORWARD,
With every beat of that drum, your left foot hits the ground, Knuckleheads!”
Now in single file, each of us frantically tried to keep in sync with the persistent
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
of the bass drum coming from some corner of North Area—some corner where we weren’t allowed to “gaze.”
Cadet Black continued to shout in a singsong voice, “LEFT! LEFT! LEFT, RIGHT, LEFT! ON YOUR LEFT!” He marched along to the left of us, shouting out new commands while maneuvering us around other new cadets who were charging through North Area with bulging bags in their arms or marching like we were. He taught us how to mark time, halt, present arms, order arms, and stand at parade rest. He also taught us to “ping”—West Point’s version of speed-walking with stiff legs and hands cupped at our sides.
“Learn to love it, Smacks,” he said. “That’s how you’ll get around this place for a year. Pinging
When we were finished, Cadet Black marked our tags and marched us through another sally port, up some wide granite steps, and into a high-ceilinged, medieval-fortress-like building, which he called Washington Hall. He led us into a huge, dimly lit hall filled with long tables where miserable-looking new cadets were choking down sandwiches and guzzling water.
He finally stopped at the head of an empty table, set like a table in a classy restaurant with its white linen tablecloth and carefully positioned place settings, and commanded us to sit.
“You see this place, Smacks?” Cadet Black asked. “It’s called the mess hall. The place where you’ll get to come three times a day to watch the
eat.” He gestured to the plates before us, laid bottoms up, and ordered, “Flip your plates over and pass the food around.” He leaned forward and looked at each of us around the table. “You will all drain at least two glasses of water before leaving here. Do I make myself absolutely clear?”
“Good. Eat up, Smacks. And take a good gaze around this place. Eat and gaze.” A smile crept over his face. “This will be the last time you will get to do much of either for a long, long time.”
I looked around. I had never eaten in a castle before. Never even been in one, except those I’d imagined while reading Shakespeare in English class. That’s exactly what this place looked like—a huge, cavernous castle, complete with exquisite murals and stained-glass windows, gargoyles and statues, flags and banners, stone pillars and balconies, a ceiling at least two stories high, and heavy wooden double doors.
That’s what Cadet Black had said this place was called—the “mess hall.” The name just didn’t fit. Now, if he had walked into my house and said, “This place is called the mess hall,” I would have understood. Anybody would. But this incredible place?
I passed the wheat bread and a heaping plate of ham to the new cadet next to me, not bothering to drop any on my plate. My stomach was already full of jumpy intestines. I sipped water and watched my lunch companions eat in silence. I wondered if any of their mothers had taught them how to chew with their mouths closed. I smiled to myself. Mine hadn’t.
After lunch Cadet Black marked our tags and sent each of us on a mad shopping spree with two dark-green cloth bags, which looked sort of like Santa sacks minus the toys. We entered building after building and were funneled into line after line, where my bags grew heavy with sheets and towels, uniforms and boots, brown and white undershirts, socks, razors, bars of Dial soap, and Johnson’s baby shampoo.
I hauled my bags back to my room and dumped them just inside the doorway, shutting the door with relief. My roommate still hadn’t arrived, but I didn’t have time to think about it. I wiped my sweaty face on my white T-shirt, slurped out of the sink, and left again to report back to the Cadet in the Red Sash. He snatched my tags and glared at me. His good humor from earlier had disappeared completely.
“Did you get lost between here and the haircut line, Miss?”
I resisted the impulse to touch my head.
But I just got it cut last week!
I had wanted it short, easier to deal with. “Sir, I—”
“No excuse, right?” he growled. “Report to the haircut line. POST!”
Before I made it to the short line formed at the edge of the sally port, I heard a cadet with a familiar voice say behind me, “You made it through half a day at West Point walking around in those?”
I turned around. I tried to place him. Tan face. Green eyes. Dark hair, cut real short.
The First Sergeant? No
The cadet pointed to my shoes with disgust. “Where do you think you are, Miss? Prancing around in some fashion magazine? Preppy and West Point don’t go together. This is not the Ivy League. This is the
I looked down at my shoes. I had been so careful to follow the instructions in the admissions packet. It said if you didn’t have a pair of black shoes, you could dye a pair black. I had sacrificed my favorite pair that I got from American Eagle—brown boat shoes—meticulously placing masking tape over the shoes’ white soles to keep the dye from turning them black, too. They looked practically brand-new. What did I do wrong?
“I’m not having one of
smacks be the biggest joke on R-Day.”