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My Week at West Point

By Sarah Pride
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #36, 2000.

Workouts and workshops, spirit missions and challenge exercises: here's an inside view of a military academy.
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Sarah Pride

West Point aerial photo

Sometime in April I stared at the paper in front of me. "Army Invitational Academic Workshop," it read across the top. I had just brought in the mail for the day and sorted out my five or so college brochures. And the strange letter, the one from the United States Military Academy at West Point. The educational workshops looked great - solder and keep your own digital clock, play around with real lasers, conduct a mock trial, build web pages, and much more. The only problem was, wouldn't this be only for students who absolutely wanted to attend West Point, as I was sure I did not? Then my eyes hit the magical words: "Many students who attend the IAW do not actually intend to apply to the United States Military Academy." That very minute, I filled out my preliminary questionnaire for application to the camp and posted it.

Almost immediately - only one week later in fact - I received back the actual application forms. These ones took a while longer to fill out, as they required information such as leadership positions I had filled and sports I had played. Thankfully for me I was about to start my second year on summer swim team and had been studying Tae Kwon Do for almost half a year, plus had been the president of an online Latin club for a year. However, I still felt woefully inadequate in that section. Since I was convinced that this level of fitness would be enough for any academic camp, even one at the USMA, I filled out this application too. "Don't worry," I told my mom, "it's just an academic camp. There is no possible way I would ever want to go to West Point."

Saturday, June 10: About twenty of us sat in the bus on the way to West Point from Stewart International Airport. Each double seat, all the way to the back of the bus, held exactly one person, sitting very quietly and staring ahead like a zombie. It was too still - I scrunched up my nerve and reached forward to tap the shoulder of the solemn Asian girl in front of me. "Hi!" I announced (she looked so much more friendly when she smiled), "My name is Sarah Pride." I discovered her name was Elizabeth, my middle name, then conversation flagged and we went back to being zombies. However, the air seemed much clearer. Before I knew it, we were driving past a guard station and straight into West Point.

Along the way I snuck glances right and left at everyone in the group. Every person seemed at least middling athletic, like myself, and there was not a single ugly person. Everyone had the heads-up, bright-eyed look of intelligence. Another fact I found interesting was that there seemed about five guys for every girl there. Anyway, we shortly walked up to the cadet barracks and unloaded our luggage from the waiting van. We stood in line a bit, and received lanyards to wear around our necks all week that proclaimed to the world who we were and what our four workshops of the week would be. I also found my room was #217, and I was to be in Platoon 2, Squad 4. Whatever that meant.

I soon found we girls had floor 2 all to ourselves. We all poured upstairs and spread out to our rooms, dragging our luggage with us. I found I would have two roommates, one of whom, Catherine Koveal, was actually in the room already. I left my bags in the middle of the floor as I went around and introduced myself to everyone. Then, in the non-air-conditioned (hot!) rooms, we began to make our beds. This in itself was an interesting experience, as it seemed the beds had little bags for the mattresses which we were supposed to drag over the entire things and tie at the ends. None of the sheets were quite the right size either, but another girl showed me how to crawl underneath the bed and pull on the sheets to tighten them. Finally, a green itchy blanket topped the whole thing off. I knew, in that heat, there was no way I was actually going to sleep under any of the sheets that night.

Pushups on the lawn Almost immediately it seemed, it was time to head down for dinner formation, our first of the camp. With no idea what to expect, my roommate and I descended. Everyone was walking across the huge courtyard and through the sally port again, towards the parade grounds, so we directed our steps there as well. Here we all split up by platoons and stumbled all over each other trying to line up evenly. I didn't even know how to stand at attention, with my heels together and toes pointing outward, but they showed us. They also showed us how to stand at ease, dress right, turn in either direction, and how to begin marching (left foot first). Then we were called to attention and marched into Washington Hall to eat dinner.

Dinner was an experience. We followed our squad leader, Cadet Robert Beale, to a table near the far end of the huge mess hall. He sat at the head of the table, where, he said, the "first-year" cadets (seniors) would normally sit. The "plebes," or freshmen, would sit at the far other end and went through many fascinating rituals throughout the year. For example, they were occasionally called upon to eat without looking at their plates. If they happened to spill food on themselves, they would need to shout loudly, "I'm hit!" All others at the table would then stand up and scream, "Call a medic!" The plebes also handed out all the drinks, and received all food last. We experimented with the latter part, as the one of our number who sat in the "plebe" spot passed out all our drinks.

The squad After dinner we formed up again, and marched over to the cadets' own personal movie theater where we watched the movie U-571. The real activities would start the following day, because we were there a day early. After the movie, we all marched back to the barracks and showered our sticky selves. Much to my horror, they had open showers, but I had thankfully brought my swimsuit. Once I was clean, I looked through the materials we had been given. I discovered three interesting things: 1. I had a schedule which told where to be when. There would be a Protestant service I could go to on Sunday. Throughout the week, we would be getting up at 5:30 AM for Physical Training (sounded ominous!), and we had an hour and a half set aside each day for Intramurals (that sounded ominous too)! 2. We had five pieces of "knowledge" to memorize throughout the week - the Mission of USMA, MacArthur's Message, MacArthur's Opinion of Athletics, Duty-Honor-Country and a real biggie: Schofield's Definition of Discipline. 3. Our rooms would be examined each day to see whose was the best! I went to sleep thinking about all these things, and wondering what the next day would be like.

Resolution of the Day: Memorize all five pieces of knowledge before anybody else in my platoon.

Sunday, June 11: Breakfast, otherwise known as the Optional Brunch, had passed without unusual incident. Then we had marched what seemed like a mile uphill, walked up five flights of stairs, and were finally sitting in a relatively cool building - the Protestant Chapel.

After the long walk back to the barracks, the thing I most wanted to do was flop down somewhere out of the heat and relax for a while, but I stayed in the hallway with another girl and learned the first three pieces of knowledge - a medium one and two shorties. Before I knew it, everyone was back and it was time for the required tour of West Point.

The parade grounds were huge! Across them you could see bleachers with large letters on them spelling ARMY BEAT NAVY. Heh. On the side of the parade grounds closer to the barracks and mess hall was a large statue of George Washington on a horse, looking out across the field. Soon, however, everyone else showed up and we had to fall in.

Optics and superconductivity class Our platoon sergeant ordered our platoon to call off. "Squad 1 all present." announced that squad's cadet leader. "REGULATORS!!!" shouted the leader of squad 2. "Beat 'em, bust 'em, that's our custom... Hit 'em in the face with a brick - HOOAH!" shouted squad two. All the rest of our squads stirred in envy.

We marched over to where the buses were waiting, then since they were late we split up by squad. Immediately everyone joined into little huddles and began thinking of names and mottos to announce at next formation.

After dinner it became time for the "mixer." After the dance, everyone headed back to the barracks and hurried to various places throughout the building for squad meetings. At ours, we decided we were the Interns and our motto was "Best by far! Smoke the rest like a cheap cigar!" "Ohkaaaaay," I thought. Also, we gave our first, second and third choices for intramural sports throughout the week. Apparently the platoons would choose people from their members to be on their sports teams and compete with the other three platoons. I chose Ultimate Frisbee first, volleyball second and basketball third, really hoping I would get frisbee since I actually knew how to catch and throw one of those from practicing with my brother.

Resolution of the Day: Be nice to everyone if possible.

Monday, June 12: It was raining out, and I thanked God. This meant our first day of physical training would be indoors, in the hallways, and thus we would not go running. Cadet leaders and IAW students spread out on every floor, and we were given a rundown on how cadet PT actually works. The person in charge would call out a command, and, shouting with our arms out straight, we were supposed to spread left as fast as we could until our fingers barely stopped touching. Then, when he announced an exercise, we were supposed to repeat its name as loudly as we could. Depending on the exercise, he would also announce, "In cadence!" and we would repeat that too. The "in cadence" part meant he would be counting, "One, two, three..." then we would shout "One!" "One, two three..." "Two!" Etc. So basically, depending on the exercise, we actually did two-four reps for each "one" army rep. We did a lot of pushups, situps, jumping jacks ("Side-straddle hops"), and squats, then were free to go.

After breakfast and a briefing, we split up again and attended the first half of our first workshop on our schedule. Mine was Digital Integrated Circuit Electronics, which meant after a briefing I got to go into a lab and learn to solder, then put together and keep my own digital clock! This was too much fun, since I already had a very basic knowledge of transistors and resistors and all that stuff. Plus I very much wanted to be the first person to finish mine. They made me go to lunch anyway. I finished mine shortly after lunch however, first of everyone, and thus had a half-hour break or so while about five other people finished. Then we six were given a tour of an ultra-cool phototronics (laser-light) lab. After that, they didn't know what to do with us so we were ushered into a large room of networked Unix computers and told to play Quake. Basically, this was the best workshop of the entire week.

Next after workshops came our first day of intramurals. We frisbee people would get to play in Michie (pronounced Mikey) Stadium, where the cadets play their football games. If you want to know what Ultimate Frisbee is like, think of it as football. Only you can't run up the field holding the frisbee, and there's no tackling. Supposedly. Basically, whenever the frisbee touches the ground it goes to the other team.

The first day was pretty fun, though nobody really passed to me. I did my best to mess up the opponents by guarding them and knocking down the frisbee. We won the first game, but then were told it was 2 out of 3 and lost the next two in a row. Oh well, we'd get them tomorrow.

After dinner, each platoon went off to a different activity - a boat ride, museum tour and the Physical Aptitude Exam - with 4th platoon splitting up to go with the other three platoons. These activities went on a rotating basis, with each platoon doing each one eventually. Monday was our night for the museum tour, so we headed off to the buses again. This time while we were waiting, Cadet Beale our squad leader told us all about "spirit missions." Apparently, at nighttime various groups of cadets would occasionally sneak out and do interesting practical jokes. This sounded like great fun to all of us, but before we had time to think of anything the buses showed up.

The museum tour was fairly interesting in a guns sort of way, but everyone agreed the highlight was the gift shop where you could buy West Point t-shirts, exercise shorts and caps, among many other items. All in all, I was relieved when the buses again made their appearance and we were back at the barracks for two hours of freedom. I used that time for a bit of socializing, then memorized the Duty-Honor-Country piece of knowledge. Lights out at 11:00 PM, or 2300 hours.

Resolution of the Day: Make all the guys pass to me in Ultimate Frisbee.

Tuesday, June 13: Interesting: Many beds sat in the courtyard outside the barracks, sheets and all. During the night, Platoon 1 had dragged out all the beds from the first floor - and slept in them, in the drizzle! They had to bring them back in before PT at 5:30.

We did PT outside in the wet grass and mud, which was especially fun during situps and pushups. During the last ten minutes, however, we did something new - we ran half a mile around the entire parade grounds, during which I discovered how out of shape I really was.

My workshop of the day was called Computer-Assisted Language Learning. We had separate teachers for the morning and evening sessions, and went through crash courses on German and Arabic. For several hours, we spoke nothing but the languages we were being introduced to.

Lunch was uneventful, except for a small incident where someone from Platoon 3 stole our platoon's flag from our guidon bearer and dashed off through the mess hall with him in hot pursuit. They both had to do pushups at formation, along with several people who had left their canteens and notebooks in various places. Since the guidon bearer came from our squad, all of Squad 4 did pushups to show support.

Today we frisbee players merely marched to where the buses were waiting, and headed off to Michie Stadium once more. "OK," I told my teammates, "you'd better pass to me! I can catch, I can throw, and they never bother to cover me." It worked; they passed to me and I did not fumble. :) This time we played Platoon 1, who either had not been briefed on the rules of the game or did not care. We won the first game, then lost the next two in a row just like the day before. Everyone got a little hot under the collar, but I still felt happy because of giving my team some actual help. Afterwards, exhausted, everyone was bawled out. Then we all lay down on our backs and executed 100 "up-and-down" scissors and 25 "side-to-side" ones.

That evening, it was Platoon 2's turn for the boat ride. So in the chilly mist, we set off somewhere in a boat. I went belowdecks where it was warm, sat at the edge of the boat, and used the time for much-needed sleep.

After the boat ride, our squad leader and that of Squad 3 sprung for a pizza party in the basement social room type of place with a TV. Also, we were able to pass off our knowledge. I passed off pieces one through four. Before we knew it, 2300 hours had snuck up on us.

Resolution of the Day: Finish memorizing Schofield's Definition of Discipline.

Wednesday, June 14: Today we were told we would do a 2.5-mile run. Sure enough, I only made it about a third of the way before I fell all the way to the back of the formation and practically collapsed, legs burning. They told me to get in the van which was following along behind for just such people as myself. I felt a little better when I noticed it was full already, and five guys sat inside as well. All in all, I had kept going longer than I thought I could, though I knew I would have to do much better than this if I expected to come to West Point.

Come to West Point? When had my thoughts changed so radically? I didn't know, but I did know that something about being pushed farther than I'd ever pushed myself before appealed to me.

My third workshop was Optics and Superconductivity. The superconductivity part was a good deal more interesting than the optics part, because the optics part got into a whole ton of physics I didn't yet know. (Note to self: learn physics) However, we also got to make a real laser "lase" and try to make holograms. In the superconductivity part, we played with a whole ton of stuff and learned many interesting things. For example, did you know that substances have something called an index of refraction, and if you put one substance inside another that has the same index, the one you put inside will practically disappear? The teacher demonstrated this by placing a glass beaker inside mineral oil - you could hardly see it!

We also got to experiment with liquid nitrogen by freezing flowers and breaking them, as well as with an electromagnetic setup that made a little top float about four inches above it and a static generator with which we made a chain of people conducting static electricity.

This, I would say, was the most fascinating of all the workshops I did.

Today in frisbee, we were playing for third place with 4th Platoon. I still thought of Ultimate Frisbee as the highlight of each day, even if we were absolute last place in the standings.

At dinner, nobody from our platoon ate much of anything. Immediately after dinner we would be taking the Physical Aptitude Exam, which you have to pass if you expect to get into USMA. Usually you only have one chance to pass, period, but since we were at the camp we were to get a freebie try.

I had no illusions about how well I would do, and I was right. Extremely glad it was over, we marched back to barracks and flopped onto our beds, exhausted. I used my free hour to finish memorizing my last piece of knowledge, which nobody else at all had learned yet.

Thursday, June 15: As I was happy to note, rain was falling again this morning. Squads formed up in the halls once more, and began to run around through the floors for PT. Cadets placed themselves at strategic points throughout, to make sure nobody slacked off. They could also shout out strange commands for us to suddenly switch to, such as the Bear Walk, Crab Walk, carrying people on backs, and wheelbarrow races. This was our most fun PT.

My fourth workshop was Mathematics - Tools to Model the World. Everyone else I had talked to said it was extremely boring, but I found it just the opposite. Rather than discuss advanced Calculus, something I didn't yet know (sorry everyone!), it was about tricky logic concepts, probability and different methods of counting such as Fibonacci numbers, Towers of Hanoi, things like that. This stuff has always been my cup of tea, since our family goes to math contests each year, so I was able to answer most of the questions.

After this, we marched around the parade grounds to the buses again, climbed in and were on our way to the Camp. Sure enough, we had to dismount our rides and march up a long road to some vans, ride some more, dismount these and finally march down a hill to where we would get our MREs (military speak for "Meals Ready to Eat"). Our squad was one of the last to get there, so we had to really hurry to grab our food packs and still have enough time to eat. Cadet Beale showed us how they worked. You removed the package of food to warm, and placed it in the heating unit. Then you poured a little water into the unit, and quickly placed it into a little cardboard box so you would not get burned. After about ten minutes, it would be hot and ready to eat. Everything else you needed for a self-contained meal was in separate packages - including ex-lax gum and some very dry crackers that, according to Beale, served exactly the opposite purpose. We all thought this way of eating was pretty durn cool, but our cadet informed us it became pretty monotonous when that was all you had to eat for many meals.

For the next four hours we walked far distances in Camp Buckner and saw many cool things, like a demonstration of the creation and use of a one-rope bridge and real howitzers being fired (loud!). We also got up close and personal with a howitzer, held its cartridges (they weigh 30 lbs), and were shown how it was aimed, though we couldn't fire it ourselves since they didn't have the kevlar helmets available for us to wear. After the demonstrations, our squad and several others rode over to another section of the camp and prepared for leadership drills, the same that sophomore cadets do. In our squad, our cadet chose a different leader for each one we did.

Our first challenge consisted of a ten-foot wall. In front of this wall was a 12' x 10' red area which we were not allowed to touch. The side of the wall itself was red too, with only one piece of wood about 6" wide running up the middle that we were allowed to touch. We had a ladder, 15' long or so, which we had to take over with us when we were done, and a long rope. We solved it successfully, though I'm not describing exactly how we did it, and beat the record set up by previous squads.

For our next challenge, I was picked to be the leader, because "Candidate Pride had the cleanest room all week." This one had another tall wall, though the troublesome red area was on the other side. On this other side sat what looked like part of a rope bridge. Only we could not touch the sides of it, because they were red, and the rungs (cloth, and swaying) were about 5' apart. We could not touch the ground. I thought our solution of this one was especially ingenious, but I'm not telling what it was either. Suffice it to say we broke another previously-set IAW squad record for that year.

By now we were feeling pretty high on success. And then we came to the worst one yet. This one had what looked like pipes, pretty slick and about 5" in diameter, that stuck straight up about ten feet. Between them stretched another pipe of the same type, so in all it looked like a large metallic rectangle. Right in the middle of the horizontal pipe was a smaller vertical one, placed there only to cause us trouble. The top and bottom ends of the smaller pipe were red, as were the end pipes to a height of about 3' from the ground. We had to get ourselves across the length of this thing, as well as two boxes of "ammunition," then hand back one of the boxes empty. Our squad beat the previous IAW record for the year on this one, too. We went back to the barbecue at Barth Hall floating on air and telling everyone we met.

At the barbecue, Cadet Beale informed us that since this was our last night at camp, squads 3 and 4 were teaming together to accomplish a spirit mission that night.

Eventually we headed back "home" to West Point. I was very glad my alarm clock worked so well (it sounded just like a smoke alarm!), so I would actually be able to awaken at the required hour. Sure enough, it jolted me awake instantly, bolt upright in bed and slapping it off within two seconds. I woke up one of the other two girls from our squad, and we snuck down the stairs in our darkest clothes and out the imposing front door, whipping around corners as people strode past. Hearts pounding, we pressed ourselves against the side of the barracks and tried to be invisible as we waited for signs of the two squads. None were apparent.

Abruptly, the disembodied voice of the XO barked, "Hey! It's after curfew! What are you doing?" "Yeah, you! I mean you! Get back inside!" We got, our tails between our legs, deducing he was on one of the higher floors and looking out the window.

The other girl went back to her room, but I wasn't satisfied. I opened my window and sat near it listening hard, determined to figure out where everyone was and not to miss the spirit mission. After ten minutes or so, I was certain I heard strange noises from the direction of the parade grounds. So by myself, I exited the barracks once more and walked directly across the well-lighted courtyard as if I belonged there, through the sally port, and then hesitantly, across the parade grounds. Eventually I was sure they came from the bleachers, so I quietly walked in that direction.

Suddenly a black figure stood up about twenty feet away and walked towards me. Half of everyone was lying on the wet grass very stealthily so as not to be seen, while the other half was using both sides of duct tape to alternately cover parts of letters and make new parts on the middle bleachers. They were changing it from the BEAT in ARMY BEAT NAVY to 2ND PLT, and were almost done. I pitched in to help, then we went roving to find out what the other platoons were up to. We found a whole section of seats in the bleachers had been rearranged to say "1st," so we changed them again to say "2nd." On the way back to the barracks, we discovered 4th platoon had put rather rude comments down about us with duct tape on the pavement. So we fixed their spelling so it said nothing but gibberish, leaving only their signature whole. Feeling satisfied, we flopped into bed at about 3:00.

Resolution of the Day: Maybe I should... ZZZZzzzzzzzzz.

Friday, June 16: This was our last day, and oh-so-thankfully we did not have PT, so we could sleep all the way until 6:00 instead of 5:00. We dragged ourselves down to formation, then perked up as everyone around us discussed our Missions and we discussed how they were done. Overnight, the seats we had moved from saying "1st" to saying "2nd" had been changed back again, but other than that things were as we had left them. Everyone was appropriately envious and admiring.

After breakfast, everyone marched back to the barracks again and swept everywhere, cleaned the windows, emptied trashcans, and unmade the beds.

My last workshop session was the second half of my Mathematics workshop, and it was just as interesting to me as the first half once I remembered to pinch my arm really hard to stay awake.

After the workshop and lunch, it was time for the final Closing Ceremony at the South Auditorium. Awards were given for MVPs of the intramural teams and the ten best participants of the entire camp, not to mention best platoon and best squad per platoon. We did not win best platoon or best squad, but we had a few MVPs, and three of the ten best participants. Finally, recognition was given to the squads holding records in the leadership activities at Camp Buckner. Only one of our records had actually held overall - the one on the horrendous pipe thing.

Eventually the ceremony was over, and the time had come to leave West Point. I took pictures of all of my squad I could muster during the confusion, which wasn't much, then grabbed my luggage and boarded a USMA bus for the final time. I had a lot of work cut out for me if I wished to come here, but I had a feeling it would be worth it. I also had a deep, newfound feeling of respect towards all those currently attending, or who had graduated from, this great institution. Mostly, though, I could hardly wait to sleep in.

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