Imagination is memory.
Nightfall at West Point, a lengthening November evening, a Saturday, just before six. Veils of mist drift in from the abiding river. Boulevard lamps cast smudged halos of light into the heavy, gray air. A drizzle has fallen all afternoon, an afternoon Cadet Dolan has spent asleep in his room. Today the weather was perfect for sleeping. No required nonstop cheering at the stadium on the hill; the football team played Michigan, in Michigan. And since weekends are the only times that plebes can “rack-out,” Cadet Dolan seized this day fully. In the real world, Daniel Dolan would be called a freshman. Here, he is a plebe, as in “plebeian,” as in “lowly,” as in “servile.”
* * *
It is suppertime at the United States Military Academy. Meals, as everything else here, have protocols. All cadets march in formation to the cathedral of a mess hall. There await acres of rectangular tables for ten fully laid with linen and china, all precisely ranked and filed as serenely as the graves at Arlington. Standing behind his pushed-in chair, Dolan will join twenty-four-hundred other cadets who bow heads in prayer, reflection, or, in Dolan’s case, anxiety. Upon one bellowed command to TAKE SEATS! chairs scrape and all sit, promptly extracting napkins from sterling-silver rings, names elegantly engraved in curlicued script, the “U-S-M-A” embossed. Waiters charge through opening doors, trays deftly balanced on upturned hands. Thus dining, conversation, and the harassment of plebes will commence in a fury of togetherness.
At the head of every table sits a ranking cadet as table commandant. At the opposite end sit three lowly plebes. Tonight Cadet Dolan will be the “gunner.” He controls the flow of food. He accepts the various dishes from the waiter and passes platters forward, always with an announcement such as, “Sir, the roast beef is on the table. Roast beef to the head of the table, sir!” The gunner also has the responsibility to equitably slice pies and cakes. At times, this requires the brain of a surveyor and the hand-eye coordination of a surgeon. Upperclassmen are unfailingly scrupulous on matters of dessert equity.
Two other plebes will flank Dolan. To his left, the “coffee corporal.” To his right, the “water corporal.” They have hot-and-cold-beverage responsibility and pour from pewter pitchers. The three plebes provide full logistical support for the care and feeding of the seven cadet upperclassmen who sit above them. The plebes must dine while assuming the position of attention. Sitting on the front half of their chairs, shoulders back, spines straight, guts sucked up, chins in, eyes straight ahead, they will eat, bite by individual bite, laying cutlery beside their plates before commencing to chew.
* * *
But before all this, the Corps of Cadets assembles outside barracks to march to supper. Plebes report to ranks ten minutes early and remain at attention throughout. They receive an immediate welcome of reproaching shouts from second-year cadets who have drawn what is called “plebe chaser” duty. Six months liberated from being plebes themselves, plebe chasers have the fanaticism to their newfound responsibilities of reformed drunks. There is precious little chasing, since plebes mostly move in straight lines like automatons, or stand at attention as stolid as tree stumps. The plebe chasers eye their prey as living examples of profound human failure. Like skittish collies with recalcitrant sheep, they yip and snap with unyielding suspicions of imperfection. The yammer of correction is deafening.
* * *
Cadet Dolan now stands at attention in the gathering mist, chin shoved in, his thoughts mixed, his feelings likewise. Was it roast beef or pot roast for tonight? He struggles to remember. He has no trouble remembering the letter from his neighborhood friend, Frank, now at Boston College on a basketball scholarship. Party time up there. And the schoolyard games, now all gone. Gone, too, taking the Number 4 bus to Fordham Road and the movies at the Paradise. The Cuban family above the German bakery on Katonah Avenue, the daughters, both beautiful. The aroma of… Wait… Yes! Tonight it’s meatloaf! And the…
“DO YOU WANT TO BUY THIS PLACE, MISTER DOLAN?”
The snarl kills his reverie. “No, sir!”
“Then stop gawking!”
“Keep those slimy eyeballs straight ahead!”
“Yes, sir!” agrees Dolan.
“What’s for supper tonight, Smack? And shove your chin in another notch!” barks the plebe chaser.
Shoved-in chins enhance posture. It’s been so for centuries. No doubt of the same disciplinary aesthetic as Chinese foot binding.
“Sir, for supper this evening, we are having…”
“LOUDER, SMACKHEAD, I CAN’T HEAR YOU!”
Dolan knows about sounding off. It’s called “having balls.” According to West Point mythology, well-developed genitalia is the mother lode of a deep, resonant “command voice,” a voice that can reverberate across a parade ground, snapping long lines of gray-clad cadets to attention. Dolan does not yet resonate. Tonight his voice seems to originate immediately behind his front teeth.
“Are you a boy soprano, Dumbwack?”
“NO, SIR,”says Dolan, eyes wide, showing sincerity.
“Then let loose Mister Dolan! Or I’ll have you sing ‘On Brave Old Army Team’ in falsetto.”
Dolan inhales mightily.
“SIR, FOR SUPPER THIS EVENING, WE ARE HAVING MEATLOAF, POTATOES JULIENNE, BRUSSELS SPROUTS, AND CARROTS! AND FOR DESSERT, WE ARE HAVING APPLE CRUMB PIE!”
The plebe chaser cups a hand to his ear, suggesting that Dolan has yet to demonstrate sufficient volume and thus true manhood.
“And the movie, Wack?”
“Do you hear me, Wack-Head? The movie tonight!”
Dolan clears his throat. “SIR, THE MOVIE FOR THIS EVENING IS APRIL LOVESTARRING PAT BOONE AND SHIR…!”
“Halt, Mister!” The plebe chaser seems sorely pained.
The offense? Dolan has no idea. Here, sometimes everything is an offense. Plebes are an offense, their barren haircuts, the disappeared chins, the oppressed eyes…all to build character, they say.
“Are you related to either of those movie personnel?”
Jesus, movie personnel? Dolan almost smirks, a cardinal offense here. He bites his tongue. Is this guy kidding?
“Are they your friends, Mister?”
“Are you on a first-name basis with either of them?”
“Then proceed accordingly.”
“YES, SIR!SIR! THE MOVIE THIS EVENING IS APRIL LOVESTARRING MISTERPAT BOONE AND MISSSHIRLEY JONES!”
“And who do plebes outrank, Mister Dolan?”
“SIR, PLEBES OUTRANK THE SUPERINTENDENT’S DOG, THE COMMANDANT’S CAT, THE WAITERS IN THE MESS HALL, AND ALL THE ADMIRALS IN THE WHOLE DAMNED NAVY!”
“And who outranks you?”
“EVERYONE ELSE, SIR!”
“In your case, Mister Dolan, that is correct. But limit it to the official chain of command. So let’s have that!”
“SIR, MY CHAIN OF COMMAND IS: THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES, DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER; THE SECRETARY OF DEFENSE, THE HONORABLE NEIL McELROY…”And on Dolan declines, through the echelons, all the way to… “…AND MY SQUAD LEADER, MISTER SKINNER, SIR!”
“And do you think your squad leader is proud of you, Mister Dolan?”
“Sir, I do not know!”
“Oh, say, ‘Yes,’ Smack.”
Cadet Dolan has again survived.
* * *
Upperclassmen always join ranks at the last moment. The company is called to attention. Attendanceis taken. All absences must be accounted for. All reports must be truthful. Givingone’s word is amatter of honor. One lie, regardless of insignificance, is cause for expulsion. False statements can be fatal in combat. So all are taught. So all believe, not yet knowing that someday this might seem naïve, and how they will yearn for the clarity of these harried days. Now though, honesty is all, the linchpin of West Point’smotto:Duty, Honor, Country.
Tonight, as on every night, all cadets in Daniel Dolan’s company are, in fact, either present or otherwise accounted for. And so all remains right in the world called West Point.
* * *
This darkly romantic place, so full of secret babble and tradition. From across the parade grounds, the faint beams of headlights slowly track along the road by Trophy Point. The street is a shattered mirror; its random puddles, lustrous and deep as ink, catch the glow from the barracks windows. The mist is thickening—the temperature must be rising.
It is still mild for November in the Hudson Valley. The north wind that will hurtle downriver to purple their faces is yet weeks away. The football team lost this afternoon. Absent a victory, there will be no relaxing of tradition tonight. Thus Cadet Dolan, and others like him, will eat their meals with chins shoved in. A breeze sashays through the street, swirling the heavy air. A command is given.
FORWARD…MARCH!The cadets in Company C-1 step off as one.
Overhead, the maple trees still hold their leaves, yellow-brown and dry, despite the all-day drizzle. They rattle and hiss as they march beneath. Dolan hears maracas shaken far off.
James Ryan is a graduate of West Point, he has published in Shenandoah, Eleven Eleven, Eureka, Inkwell, Op-Ed News, Monthly Review, Who.What.Why, and numerous others. He was a columnist for Aydinlik newspaper in Istanbul, Turkey, one of its few leftist publictions. He has advanced degrees in economics, English literature, and a MFA in writing from Columbia University.