COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo.--"Get off my bus!"
As the door opened, those words exploded out and it seemed that everyone within a few hundred feet must have heard them. But there was no doubt the two or three dozen on board did, as they came scurrying off at high speed.
These were one busload of the 1,376 members of the United States Air Force Academy's class of 2013, and, less glamorously, the brand new basic cadets who had arrived here Thursday, many just weeks out of high school.
Accustomed to being on top of their respective worlds--they had high grades, top SAT scores, and were chosen from among nearly 10,000 applicants to the Academy--these men and women were now reduced to being screamed at by fellow students just two years ahead of them.
As part of Road Trip 2009, I was on hand Thursday for what is known as "in-processing," the initiation of the new class of students and I can tell you that the scenes from all those movies of drill sergeants yelling at new recruits at the top of their lungs, blood vessels bulging out of their necks, are not far from the truth.
But that was later in the day. First, the 1,300-plus new students had shown up, many with parents and brothers and sisters in tow, and as an observer, it was hard to tell any difference between that scene and what you'd see at any college's first day.
Yet there was a sense of nervousness and seriousness palpable in the air. It was clear these new students were aware that they were in for something that would take their lives in a new and extremely difficult direction.
But you have to think it's what they wanted.
"I'm feeling a little, I'd say, anxious, nervous, and excited," said Joel Starkey, 18, of Atlanta. "I wanted to fly since I was in about third grade, and I want to be an officer in the military. I want to commit myself to something bigger."
Nearby, an interesting scene was under way. Twin girls were huddled with their family, and when I approached them, I discovered that the girls, Catherine and Irene Joyce, 18 and from Omaha, Neb., were joining up, as was their first cousin, Molly Bush. It turned out that Bush's father was an Academy graduate, as was her sister.
For Catherine Joyce, her first day at the academy--and whatever indignities it might bring--were clearly stepping stones to a career she seemed very certain she wanted.
"It's exciting and I'm honored, and it's a privilege to be here," Joyce said. "I learned about (the Academy) by visiting and speaking with cadets and officers, and everyone in the Air Force told me the best way to become an officer was to come to the Academy."
On the bus
I was allowed to ride one of the buses away from the intake hall and toward the actual grounds of the Academy. Onboard, the basic cadets looked tight and nervous. One of the more senior cadets had gotten on behind them and immediately began barking out commands to quickly find a seat. He leaned over to me at one point and whispered that "it's about to get loud." And then, without warning to the basic cadets, he began screaming out commands, telling them exactly where to hold their hands, not to speak unless spoken to, that they must recite the seven basic--and only--responses to questions they were now allowed and more.
"Have I made myself clear?" he bellowed.
"Yes, sir," the basic cadets called out.
"Have I made myself clear?" he shouted even louder.
"Yes, sir," they responded.
Soon, a woman cadet in the back of the bus began her own shouting, snidely calling out the names of West Point, Annapolis, and the Officer Candidates School, the officer training grounds of, respectively, the Army, Navy, and Marines. "Nobody even comes close," she yelled. "We are the service academy for the last superpower on the face of the planet. You have made the right choice."
By now, the bus had stopped. We were at our destination. But the door hadn't opened yet.
"If any of you are not a person of absolute integrity, stay on my bus," the first cadet hollered. "If you are not willing to sacrifice for your nation, stay on my bus. If you accept the minimum as your own personal standard, stay on my bus. If you are not ready to give your best...stay on my bus. (And) you'd better be ready to live up to the legacy in front of you...and that begins right now!"
With that, the doors opened, and the veteran cadets screamed some more, now ordering the newbies off the bus at an even higher volume than before (see video below).
The freshmen grabbed their gear and hustled off the bus. They ran to where a cluster of blue-uniformed cadets were waiting in front of a large mat emblazoned with footprints for them to stand on.
A fresh veteran cadet stood in front of the group of newbies and shouted out his commands. That they were to keep their feet each at a 22.5 degree angle from their head, meaning that their feet would be open at a 45 degree angle; that their hands should be held, cupped, at their sides, with their thumbs even with the seams of their pants. And then he ordered his cadre of veteran cadets to "correct" any mistakes they saw in how the new cadets were standing.
This, of course, was their excuse to loudly, energetically, and enthusiastically rush around and berate the newcomers. One by one, it seemed, they would be singled out and screamed at for this or that mistake (see video below). I could tell the veteran cadets were enjoying this, finally their opportunity to shift forward their revenge for when this happened to them two years ago.
It went on for a while, and then, finally and mercifully, it stopped, and the new cadets were ordered to grab their gear and head off up a ramp to begin the next rounds of processing.
For many associated with the Air Force Academy, the most memorable basic cadet of the day--and maybe ever--was a tall brown-haired kid who emerged from the bus lugging a giant box on his shoulders. The scene was absurd, and he was immediately set upon by several of the cadre, who shouted out things like, "Are you kidding me," and, "Did you bring your Xbox and your TV?"
Box Boy, as he quickly began to be called throughout the Academy, had clearly miscalculated, and not only would he likely never live down the shame of having brought this giant box with him, but he'd also have to spend the entire rest of the day carrying the box on his shoulders, as basic cadets have to lug their gear with them the entire first day.
Another basic cadet also had attracted a huge amount of attention from the group. At one point, I counted at least seven cadets circled around him, screaming at him and yelling and belittling him. I asked someone why he'd been singled out, and was told that this particular basic cadet had somehow let it be known that he planned on being the first man on Mars, and that his time at the Academy was little more than a brief stepping stone on his way to glory as an astronaut.
He may be right. But on this day, he was just fresh meat, and a prime target for ridicule.
From there, the new cadets went on through several more procedural steps toward actually joining the Air Force. They got immunized, they got haircuts, and then they had to take their formal oath (see video below) to the service. They gathered in a conference room, stood up, repeated the oath as recited to them by a woman officer who, when finished, said simply, "Congratulations, you're now in the Air Force."
Hard to believe it was three years ago
While waiting in the room where the men were getting their hair cut, I came across Cadet First Class--meaning, a senior--Frank Mercurio. He was talking about the new basic cadets and what they must be feeling.
"I think they're real scared, real worried about how hard it's going to be," Mercurio said. "It's going to be the hardest thing they've ever done in their lives up to this point...The first day is so overwhelming. You just get things thrown at you and you can fold up like a deck of cards, or carry through."
I asked him if any of the new cadets ever backed out, and he said that in fact he'd heard that just today, one had gotten off the bus, made it to the mat with the footprints, and "turned right back around and got back on the bus."
It turns out that a few dozen of the basic cadets will end up dropping out or leaving for one reason or another, but most will stick it out and eventually become Air Force officers.
But all that seems so far away when, for the first time, they're sitting in a barber's chair, having their hair shaved off.
I stood and watched as several of the kids went under the razor, going from shaggy-headed to buzz-cut. And then, as one of them got up to leave, his barber, a cheery, flamboyant woman named Hannah Love, said, "Oh, look at how cute you are. Bye."
Correction at 7:10 a.m. PDT: The name of the Marines officers school has been fixed
For the next several weeks, Geek Gestalt will be on Road Trip 2009. After driving more than 12,000 miles in the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last three years, I'll be writing about and photographing the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation, and more in Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, and South Dakota. If you have a suggestion for someplace to visit, drop me a line. And in the meantime, join the Road Trip 2009 Facebook page and follow my Twitter feed.