So, twenty-five years ago yesterday, I and almost 1400 people showed up at Annapolis to begin our Plebe Summer. We raised our right hands and swore an oath to defend, not a Leader or even a Congress Assembled, but a Constitution. A pretty high ideal, especially back then.
This was 1987, after all…President Reagan had been in the White House for 6 1/2 years and the country was riding high. The Bear was still out there, nuclear war was still a daily possibility, but the writing was on the wall. America was unchallenged in the world, small conflicts in Grenada & Panama notwithstanding. China was still a backwater, a sleeping dragon yet to awaken. And, on Wall Street, Gordon Gecko proclaimed that greed was good.
So what were we doing there, about to start four grueling years so we could become cogs in the big Navy machine? OK…we were becoming Ensigns…shiny cogs, then. As they kept telling us, USNA was even more selective than the Ivy League schools, turning away more than 85% of those who applied. Most of us could’ve gone to those Ivy League schools if we’d wanted, gone on to Wall Street or whatever, made LOTS of money…it would’ve been a much easier life, I can assure you.
Instead, we chose to endure four years by the Severn…no air conditioning during hot & humid summers, ancient radiator heat during bitter wet winters. While our friends studied abroad or went on Spring Break, we sat through interminable extra study programs and spent most of our summers sailing onboard 1960s-era Navy ships only just then being replaced by the Reagan buildup. It was a hard life…and many didn’t make it all the way through.
I was one of those who didn’t make it, slipping up just before a graduation that saw a scant 900-plus become Ensigns out of the 1400-plus that swore the oath on I-Day ’87. Now, I’ve had a great life since then…a better life, I think, than if I’d graduated. Lucky me!
But, contrary to what some people think, I don’t regret my choice to go to Annapolis in the first place. I did it for my own reasons…and still count myself lucky to have been there. Looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing.
So why were we all there, taking the hard road? I’m not sure…none of us were particularly patriotic, not compared to the post-9/11 world. Some went because it was a family thing, some went because of the challenge, some because of their ambitions. I can only speak to why I went there…and, dragging my paltry reasons into the light after a quarter-century, I cant imagine how I was motivated to finish even Plebe Summer, much less almost four years.
I wanted to fly F-14s…not because of “Top Gun” (although a lot of my classmates were there because of that movie); I’d wanted to fly them before that, simply because they seemed ‘cool.’ And I didn’t necessarily have to be the pilot–I’d’ve been just as happy to ride in the back (“Goose” from the movie). I professed to a desire to become an astronaut…but even during senior year of high school, I knew I’d never have the drive or real smarts to pull that off.
Other than that…I wanted to travel and see the world. And not have to pay for it. I figured I could fly F-14s, tool around on carriers, see foreign ports galore, all on the cheap. Plus free healthcare!
Somewhere in those four years, I came to realize a few things (I guess it’s possible I may have grown up, a little):
- That oath means something. It’s important. Those who have never seen the outer world have no clue how lucky we are to be in America, with its ideals and traditions of fairness to all. We may not be perfect all of the time…heck, MOST of the time…but we try, which is a hell of a lot more than 90% of the rest of the humans on this planet.
- The danger is real. During my senior year, Desert Shield became Desert Storm…and some of my friends were on the front line. Sobering.
- We all were big fishes back in our little ponds but, when you get to the Big Pond, there are always going to be people better than you…and they make it look effortless. You have two choices at that point: accept it and move on, doing your best anyways because that’s all you can do…or be bitter and petty, nursing your inner child’s pain the rest of your life. I really really hope I achieved the former, because that’s what I was shooting for after meeting real freakin’ geniuses.
- Old charts from Navigation class make for pretty good wrapping paper for Christmas presents.
So, it’s been twenty-five years. I finally went and finished that degree…but, more importantly, I went and had myself a pretty good life in the meantime. Here’s to the next twenty-five…and many more after that!