N

ew Cadet, get up against my wall!”

“You get up against my wall New Cadet!”

One voice. Then another.

The moment I was through the doorway, the tempo changed and the world sped from black and white to a blaze of color and activity. The first class cadets assigned to run and command Cadet Basic Training, or “Beast Barracks” were gathered like wolves at the door. Their voices filled the hallway, echoing back and forth, commands bouncing off the walls. The voices were rough and no-nonsense and the image of my mother and father waving goodbye in the hockey arena instantly disappeared.

“New Cadet,[1] get up against that wall. Line up behind your sorry classmates. Look straight ahead! Don’t look at me! Look ahead. Stand up straight and look ahead. That’s right. Look ahead. Your mommy and daddy can’t help you now.”

I looked straight ahead, not daring to take my eyes off the neck of the classmate in front of me. The din in the hallway was deafening. The sharp commands were bullets, staccato and fierce, strafing the long line of kids standing against the wall.

“New Cadet, what are you looking at? Did I tell you to look around?” another voice yelled. His voice seemed to shake the hallway.

Or perhaps I was simply shaking.

“New Cadets, pick up your gear, pick up your gear New Cadets!”

We grabbed our bags and lifted them, still looking ahead. Mine was heavy and the framed photo of my family, tucked carefully inside, banged its corner against my leg.

“What are you looking at New Cadets?” yelled another voice, “Get down that hallway. Go, Go, Go, GO, GO!”

We scurried down the hall like little mice, each hoping not to be noticed or singled out, hot on the heels of the new cadet in front of us.

So it began.

I was ten years old the first time I laid eyes on a West Point cadet. It was the late 1970’s, the time in which West Point admitted women. The decision to open the world’s most prestigious military academy to female cadets was the subject of hot debate. Some members of the “Long Grey Line” fought vehemently against the change to a co-ed environment. Arguing that the effectiveness of the Army would be compromised, they railed that women would be a distraction to fighting men, that there would now be sex in foxholes. West Point graduates of centuries past were turning in their graves at the mere thought of a female contingent.

Amidst the heated exchange were valid concerns. Integrating women into a traditionally male environment, a training ground for the consummate soldier scholar, was no small task. How would their physical needs be attended to? How would discipline be maintained? Dear God, what if one of them got their period? But with the objections finally outvoted, overturned and otherwise squelched, the Army took its orders to make the integration a success. As women marched the Plain for the first time, the dissent among grads and many in the Corps itself lay in seething submission just below the surface. What those first female cadets must have endured as they broke the mold I cannot imagine. As a bright and precocious ten year old, all of this was a distant, faraway world of debate to which I was oblivious.

It had been a lovely day. Autumn at West Point is incredibly beautiful and on that day the sun was bright and the air crisp, the foliage made brighter by the grey of the granite buildings.

“You know Jenny, your dad took me here for our second date,” my mother said. The football game was over and we were standing on the road next to Lusk Reservoir, right near the stadium, starting to make our way back down the hill toward the car. She told this story often. The words were all familiar.

“Aunt Barb made a picnic with enough fried chicken for ten people. I don’t know how she ever thought we’d eat all that chicken,” she mused, “but we sat on Trophy Point and had our lunch and I just knew that your dad was the one.”

I smiled. It is a wonderful thing when a child knows for sure that her parents truly love each other.

As we walked past the Field House, just ahead of us were two cadets walking at a brisk pace. I looked at their backs and the neat crease in their slacks, the way their jackets tapered at the center topped by the black collar. One of the cadets was a woman. She looked perfect - like a grand, fantastic paper-doll soldier. I watched her with amazement and wondered what her life was like. Her dress grey uniform was flawless, pressed and sharp.

She was also very thin.

She seemed … amazing. To be a West Point cadet was clearly no small thing. To be a woman and a cadet, truly extraordinary.

“Wouldn’t it be something if that was me one day,” I thought.

And I reached for my father’s hand.

Memories of that day and my first impression of the Corps were drowned in a sea of activities and studies. I was a typical girl growing up in an average American family. A committed and bright student, I was urged by my parents to study hard. By the age of fifteen I was painting masterful portraits and landscapes, had published my first poem, was achieving high marks in school and, frankly, wanted my own apartment. My life was an odd concoction of achievement balanced with a growing desire to build and make my own life. In the midst of it all, a rather unexpected seed was planted -- and in an unexpected way.

We were visiting relatives in St. Louis, my father and I, and I spent the week reading Tiger Beat magazine, which never in a million years would have been found in my home. My aunt and uncle also kept food in the pantry that in my house would have been considered contraband. Reveling in the freedom that typified those few days, I feasted on grilled cheese sandwiches made with Wonder bread, Chips Ahoy cookies and orange soda. My mother would have been horrified. Now, in a car with no air conditioning in the middle of July, my father and I were about to make the long drive back to New Jersey, where my diet would return to fruits and vegetables.

The cornfields flew by us as we chatted about amusing and unimportant things, and then my father made the single comment that would change my life.

“I noticed this morning that your pants look a little tight.”

My father’s voice suddenly seemed to fill the car. With my brow furrowed first in confusion, then in embarrassment, I looked at him and replied.

“Yes, they’re a little small.”

“I think if you could lose even five pounds, it would help. If you just cut back a little bit, your pants will fit a little bit better.”

Now in fairness to my father, he only meant the best for me. He had struggled with his own weight all his life. With farm breakfasts of eggs cooked in bacon grease, my father’s weight had always been a problem, even as a young boy. The pain of that reality, being heavy as a young kid, stayed with him. He remembered what it was like to be ridiculed, and I imagine he wished a different experience for his daughter.

Years passed and when my mother first met my father through the church where my father was a vicar, he weighed in at 240 pounds -- hefty for his five foot eleven frame. Despite his size, my mother fell in love with him and a year later they were married. With my father newly graduated from the seminary, they headed to Canada as missionaries to start a new church. Money wasn’t just tight, it was nonexistent. Cutting portion size got much easier. It wasn’t just the money, however, that precipitated my father’s weight loss. My mother, who had an iron will, told him that if he ate only what she put in front of him, he’d lose weight. Sure enough, sixty-five pounds later, my father looked and felt terrific. To his credit, and my mother’s, he kept the weight off for the rest of his life.

There was a history, therefore, in my father’s comment to me in the car that late afternoon in July. He meant well. He couldn’t possibly have suspected the instantaneous transformation that would take place in my perception of myself. It had never occurred to me that my shape and size wasn’t acceptable.

And I was not heavy. I was an average, healthy young girl.

Had my father been able to see the course of events a simple comment would cause, he would have burned his own hands rather than lay the groundwork for the set of repercussions that would follow.

But he didn’t.

As with so many adults in a culture where thinness is celebrated, he had no idea that a single word would put wheels in motion that I would feel for decades. With no concept of the enormous turn of events that had just occurred in his daughter’s life, he changed the subject to fishing and watched the road. Where I was sitting, however, the world had just flipped on its head. I resolved to eat less and wondered at the sudden loss of my father’s approval. What would become an ever-present battle with my waistline began to follow me through my every day and for years to come.

It was now a primary focus even on R Day.[2]

I followed my classmates as we practically pushed each other down the stairs in our hurry to get out of the hockey arena and onto the waiting buses. The firsties were already aboard, lying in wait.

“All the way to the back, all the way to the back!” one yelled, “Fill every seat New Cadets!”

Every seat filled, maximum efficiency. This is the Army way, a way that I knew shockingly little about, but was soon to learn intimately.

We all changed into a hideous uniform -- black athletic shorts and a white t-shirt with black trim and an image of the Academy crest. Shirt tucked in, no sloppiness permitted. We sported black socks pulled up to the knees finished by black low quarters. Finally, a series of mysterious tags hung by strings and a safety pin from our shorts.

The machinery that is West Point was thoroughly ready for the arrival, in-processing and training of fourteen hundred new cadets. This cadre, and every group of cadet leaders before them, was completely prepared. For several weeks prior to our arrival they had practiced the process and movement of the new cadets through each in-processing station. R Day moved like clockwork, just as it had for decades.

Each “station” had a specific purpose. There was a saluting station, where we learned to salute. There was another where we learned to execute certain military marching movements and another for the proper wear of our uniform. There were drink stations along the way so that we didn’t get dehydrated. There were papers where we signed our lives away. At every station, every issue point, every rite of passage during that day, an upper class cadet made a simple mark on one of the tags pinned to our shorts. Each cadet was a cog in a massive wheel, and over the hours, I became a cog.

“Follow the green tape to the next station New Cadet,” an upperclassman said tersely. Spotting the green tape stuck to the concrete, off I went, scurrying down the tape to some unknown destination. If I had dared to look up from where my eyes focused straight ahead, I would have seen the meticulous order of it all, the new cadets following colored tapes along the ground, moving systematically from station to station, trotting along like terrified, disoriented mice in an endless maze.

It was a different planet, a different world.

And I knew I was in for the fight of my life.



[1] During the first summer, cadets are referred to as “new cadets,” an inference that the new initiates are not even worthy to be called “cadet.” Once the new cadets complete Beast Barracks in mid August, they join the Corps as a fourth class cadet or “plebe.”

[2] “R Day,” or Report Day, is the first day for an incoming class of new cadets.

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