ANNAPOLIS, Md.--With a grin, the plebe candidate approached Station 18, the last one before he'd hand over his freedom.
The good nature wasn't returned. Enjoy that grin, the cadre member's scowl seemed to say. "This is your last chance to smile, big guy."
This was I-Day at the United States Naval Academy: Induction Day. The day that 1,247 brand-new, mostly fresh out of high school wanna-be Navy officers showed up at this august school on the banks of the confluence of Chesapeake Bay and the Severn River. Bright eyed and bushy tailed, as the saying goes, these 984 men and 263 women from 10 countries were about to have their worlds rocked.
I'd come there Thursday as part of Road Trip 2010, my journey around the U.S. Northeast in search of some of the best places to write about I could find. But this was actually a book-end piece of reporting for me. A year ago, on Road Trip 2009, I'd stopped in on I-Day at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., and once I knew I was going to be on the East Coast for this year's project, I knew I had to see how the Navy's methods of breaking in the newbies compared to that of the Air Force. Indeed, my visit to the Naval Academy was the anchor stop of this year's entire trip.
After all, my story and photo gallery from last year's visit had been among the most popular of the whole trip, and I'd had a great time getting up close and watching hundreds of fresh cadets get their heads torn off by senior cadre members eager both to break in the fresh meat the way they're supposed to be broken in and, let's be honest, to get a little pay-it-forward payback for how they were treated on their own I-Day.
My conclusion? I hate to say it, Navy fans, but the Air Force Academy approach is a whole lot fiercer.
There might also have been a little more ferociousness in the academy pride I saw in Colorado Springs than was on display Thursday in Annapolis: finding new cadets doing something wrong and having several cadre members surround him or her and screaming insults at them was par for the course.
I was reminded of this, from last year, as, in the middle of a session of screaming indiscriminately at a bus full of new cadets, a senior member of the cadre began derisively 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," to the Air Force Academy, she had yelled. "We are the service academy for the last superpower on the face of the planet. You have made the right choice."
I didn't hear anything like that at the Naval Academy.
'A rude awakening'
Then again, maybe the Annapolis cadre feel like being a part of the Naval Academy speaks for itself. Speak softly and carry a big stick and all that.
My escort for the day was Jaren Woeppel, a 22-year-old Navy ensign who had just graduated from the academy and who is awaiting his departure for flight school at the Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida. Thinking back to his own I-Day, he recalled that the day provides "a rude awakening" and "a lifestyle change," all at once.
The new plebes get their hair shorn, are handed a spanking white uniform--including, yes, a blouse--and are told in no uncertain terms how to do things.
I-Day is pretty straightforward for the plebes. They arrive early--some as early as 6 a.m.--and they say good-bye to their families. Then they check in and go through a series of 18 stations during which they fill out forms, get their hair cut, get new shoes, get sized for their "cover"--their new hat--get a copy of the "Reef Points"--the official Navy narrative that they must memorize and more. And that's just for starters. Once they pass station 18, the real fun starts.
For the observers, that is. While the Air Force Academy cadre might yell louder, there's no doubt the Naval Academy cadre take their teaching job seriously. The first thing they do is teach the newbies how to hold and put on their covers (see video below), and how to study the Reef Points. Of course, it's not called something normal, like "holding their hats." It's "plebing the covers."
And then it's on to training in how to salute. You wouldn't think this would be the source of much humor, but if you're in a position like mine, watching from the sidelines, you'd be wrong.
But more on that later.
'Already got war wounds'
One of the 18 stations is medical. Apparently, they get blood drawn there--I say it that way because they don't let press in the room for the medical part of the induction. But at one point Thursday, a plebe emerges from medical with three bright pink bandages on his arms. It seems that the corpsman, the medical officer who draws the blood, had a hard time finding the plebe's veins.
Seeing the plebe with the three bandages caused some of the senior members on hand to nearly lose it. As he walked away, one yelled, through his laughter, "He's already got war wounds!"
The plebes soon gather, group by group, in front of members of the cadre, who start administering the lessons. One of the things they have to learn is how to stash their Reef Points in the pocket of their uniforms as quickly as possible. And that's important, because they're meant to be studying the book whenever they can.
"Put away your Reef Points, you have 10 seconds," one of the cadre screamed. "Ten, nine, eight, seven...That is the most time you will have all summer to put away your Reef Points!"
Indeed, moments later, he demanded they do it again, only this time they got just eight seconds. They weren't any better at it, as demonstrated by the fact that after he finished counting down, many were still struggling to stuff the small blue books in the tight-fitting pockets.
Obedience, of course, is a big thing in the military, and the cadre began pounding that message home immediately. And when their orders or questions weren't answered properly, they had no problem letting the plebes know.
"From now on, the first and last words out of your mouth are going to be sir or ma'am," a cadre member told one plebe. "Do you understand?"
"Yes, sir," the plebe shouted.
"No, you don't, try again," the cadre member screamed at him.
"Sir, yes, sir," the plebe finally responded.
"All right, proceed. Good luck."
'You should be light-headed'
I suggested earlier that the Air Force Academy cadre members screamed louder and were a bit fiercer than their Naval Academy counterparts. But that's not to say the cadre in Annapolis didn't shout. They just didn't quite gang up on the newbies and belittle them as much.
Still, throughout the morning I was there, it wasn't hard to find cadre members shouting and yelling, for one reason or another: "Stop smiling," "Keep on going, you think something's funny," "From now on, every word that comes out of your mouths should be screaming, and you should be light-headed," "Are you guys confused? You're all graduates of high school, aren't you?"
At one point, a plebe dropped his cover and the response was swift: "Oh, you're going to have to earn that back," a cadre member yelled.
After getting schooled in how to salute (see video below), the groups of plebes--maybe 25 in each--were marched off. Then, they were taken to their new dorms. The media didn't get to follow them.
Hours later, it was time for their official oaths of office, the standard one where they swear or affirm to uphold the Constitution and do right by their country. And this is one place where the Air Force Academy can't hold a candle to Annapolis. In Colorado Springs, they did the oath group by group in what looked like a conference room. Here, the entire new class did it all together, in front of thousands of friends and family and Naval personnel, with a fly-over by two F/A-18Es. It was far more stirring.
Their oaths taken (see video below), the new plebes will now embark on what Woeppel called "plebe summer," several weeks during which they must go through a daily routine in which they are woken at 5:30 a.m., start exercising at 6 a.m., train from 9 a.m. until noon, and continue on until lights out at 10 p.m. All this time, Woeppel said, the plebes have no idea what time it is. That's for people who have been around longer than they have.
"You're not allowed to have a watch. You just know the sun hasn't risen," Woeppel said. "Watches aren't allowed until the last week. Then (the cadre) will uncover the clocks. They'll gradually give you small privileges. Letting you know what time it is is one of them."
For the next few weeks, Geek Gestalt will be on Road Trip 2010. After driving more than 18,000 miles in the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last four years, I'll be looking for the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more throughout the American Northeast. If you have a suggestion for someplace to visit, drop me a line. In the meantime, you can follow my progress on Twitter @GreeterDan and @RoadTrip and find the project on Facebook. And you can also test your knowledge of the U.S. and try to win a prize in the Road Trip Picture of the Day challenge.