Bruce was returning to his room from his afternoon classes. He looked up and saw, on the third floor of Pershing Barracks, a classmate standing at the window in his daily academic uniform. Beside Eric at the window stood a figure Bruce couldn’t identify, decked out in a cadet’s full-dress uniform with crossbelts, shined brass breastplate, plumed tar bucket, the works. Knowing we did not have a parade that day, Bruce went straight to the room, where he found Eric at his desk, alone. Bruce asked, and Eric answered: There wasn’t anybody else here .
In my four years at West Point, although I never saw a ghost, I heard a number of ghost stories. We all did. The place is ripe with spirits. “The Long Gray Line has never failed us,” Gen. Douglas MacArthur once cautioned the Corps of Cadets. “Were you to do so, a million ghosts in olive drab, in brown khaki, in blue and gray, would rise from their white crosses thundering those magic words: Duty. Honor. Country.” Statues, memorials, building names, street names, and gravestones constantly remind us of those who have gone before, the successes and the failures, the famous and the forgotten. Walking around the grounds at night, you could feel the energy of the place, generated as much from its history as from the urgent present. The place pulses with the past.
It haunts. And cannot be exorcised. Former cadets hate it, love it, or both; they cannot forget it. I know of the devotion in alumni inspired by other schools—Duke, Kansas State, Arkansas—but I cannot believe that the hold those institutions have on their own approaches that of West Point’s on its own. A fine football team, some great parties, and the site of lost virginity are not enough to seize the soul.
The Naval and Coast Guard Academies, true to their East Coast seafaring heritage, feature the red bricks and white gables of colonial architecture. The Air Force Academy, built in the 1950s and 1960s, looked forward in its design in the spirit of the newly hatched, forwardlooking Air Force itself. Unfortunately, its flat, sleek halls look today exactly like a failed 50year-old effort to anticipate the future and, but for the chapel, do not do justice to their setting at the base of the Rocky Mountains.
But the Military Academy—its massive gray granite buildings seem to bear the whole of American history on their backs. Studying Washington Hall and the flanking barracks from across the parade-field Plain, you wonder that it all hadn’t long ago sunk into the earth under its own weight and disappeared. You wonder if the chapel on the hill above suspends the rest on invisible chains. And in the hills beyond the chapel, visible from the Plain only to those who know to look, Fort Putnam peeks through the branches. One of the original and primary fortifications and the true spirit of the grounds, it commands everything below. Putnam is singular in function and form, bare, sparse, the soldier’s habitat.
Sunken into the earth and disappeared, like its graduates killed and buried in trenches, foxholes, mass graves. It pulses. It seizes the soul.
My wife says it has taken her the entire eight years we have been together to heal the damage West Point did to me, and she says no children of ours will go there even as she loves the man who went and came through. West Point made me and unmade me.
Imagine spending the four most crucial years of adult social development, 18 to 22, segregated from your culture and peers. Instead of learning how to get along with others according to American norms, you learn the rules and regulations for how to behave at this particular institution. All interactions between people at West Point are official, public, regulated. Your roommate and best friend is also your platoon leader or company commander, and even if he isn’t, he is still another cadet, and his ultimate allegiance belongs to the Academy. Every act you do with him, every outing and adventure and braggadocio and confession, he subjects to his evaluation of compliance to rules and codes.
You learn responsibility; you have it thrust upon you. You frequently serve representing some body of cadets to an officer, and your words and actions will influence the larger situation. You often accept the blame and consequences for a crime or oversight committed by another. You might sit on an honor board with several other cadets to decide if an accused cadet did in fact violate the Honor Code, the board’s collective decision determining whether the young person’s cadet career will end. I sat on a board the week prior to an accused’s graduation; we “found” him, to use the proper parlance, and the last four years of his life went to waste. A classmate of mine, once a good friend, spent his senior year selfdestructing. Having survived two investigations of Honor Code violations, he flagrantly broke other rules as if trying his damnedest to get kicked out. Which he was. Such self-destruction occurs more often than you might think. The opposite sort of self-destruction also happens: cadets who don’t belong at the Academy or in the Army but who drive on and graduate despite themselves.
West Point inspires an amazing amount of fellowship and an equally amazing amount of loneliness.
January and February are the loneliest months. You have returned from the Christmas break, full of your friends’ stories from civilian campuses and hometown life. Those colorful stories and the colors of the holiday season left behind become distant memories as soon as you return. Cadet uniforms are gray, all the buildings are gray, the concrete areas between the buildings are gray, the sky and slush and river are gray. The food, the mood: gray. West Point in winter is the grayest place on earth. You curl up with your studies, and wait.
Things brighten in spring and summer with the greens and whites of nature and our uniforms, with the anticipation of summer training’s adventures. In the fall, with the hills ablaze in Catskill oranges and yellows and reds, the new plèbes have arrived eager for torment, and in a few short months we’ll beat the hell out of Navy.
The fall of my senior year my art history class took a trip to New York City. We visited the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where we went up an exterior scaffolding lift and walked on planks around the tower, meeting gargoyles eye to eye. We toured the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where each cadet gave a presentation on a particular painting, statue, or artifact. We saw illuminated manuscripts at the Pierpont Morgan Library.
We ended the day at the Cloisters. There, the mess of us following the colonel in charge were trailed by a group of elementary school children on a field trip. One of them caught up to us and tugged my sleeve. “What rank is he?” the boy asked, pointing to the colonel. When I told him, his face broke out in awe, his eyes and mouth opened as wide as lids and jaw could stretch. It surprised me; at West Point colonels are not such rare birds. They flock there, and upper-class cadets enjoy a familiarity with them they won’t have again until they become colonels themselves.
“A real colonel?” he asked.
“The real thing,” I said.
He and his friend skipped away, glancing back at the colonel to confirm their sighting, to refresh their awe.
That was the moment I understood the rarity of the privilege for those of us who have donned cadet gray on our way to army green, headed simultaneously into the country’s future and its history.