My husband and I just returned from the first of hopefully many “empty nest” vacations where we made numerous stops in New York and Canada. Our first destination was to the hallowed grounds of the United States Military Academy at West Point.
My father-in-law graduated from West Point in 1954. He was a career military man and served in the Vietnam War. He passed away in 2003. His two older brothers were also graduates of the academy and career military; the eldest lost his life as a pilot in World War II. To say this visit was poignant would be an understatement.
We arrived in time to take the two-hour tour of the academy and its adjoining cemetery, where notable former cadets of historical significance were laid to rest.
We learned interesting facts about former cadets including General Robert E. Lee, General George Custer and General Benedict Arnold, and the history of the academy. We were told the criteria to be accepted to the institution as well as how cadets spend their time once they arrive. It will be an intense four years for these individuals but when they leave, they will not only have an ivy-league education, military preparation and superior physical fitness, but a level of leadership training that will serve them in whatever vocation they choose.
The tour made a stop at the plain (a grassy open area like a parade field) where we received a brief history of the adjacent Civil War memorial.
When the guide spoke of the West Pointers who became divided when this war began, I really felt it in my gut. When you realize the level of brotherhood that forms between the cadets who attend the academy, the significance of each having to choose a side — and plenty falling on both — is heartbreaking. Seeing this affecting memorial also reminded me just how divided many of us still are today.
All cadets must play a sport and the elite are fortunate to play on the school’s Division I teams. Army’s biggest rival is Navy in the sporting arena, as was evidenced by the many “Go Army, Beat Navy” banners, signs and other visuals throughout the tour. According to my husband, Army could lose every game but beat Navy, and all would be well.
We ended our tour with a visit to the museum and gift shop, where we picked up a hat, sweatshirt and Go Army, Beat Navy banner.
The following morning, we arrived early in town to have breakfast at a local joint before riding a shuttle to the plain in preparation for the Army football game against Wake Forest.
Before every football game, there is the time-honored tradition of the cadet parade. A demonstration by the rifle team and introduction of the marching band was followed by thousands of cadets marching onto the field in full dress uniform. It was truly impressive. Once the companies were in formation, the packed stands rose for the national anthem and I was touched as several voices combined to sing the words softly but clearly. After the ceremonial proceedings were over and the cadets dispersed, we were allowed to walk the grounds, view the various military equipment on site for branch day, visit the mess hall, and view the statues of some iconic figures including legends Patton, MacArthur and Eisenhower.
We hiked up to Michie Stadium for the game and enjoyed the rituals and spectacle of Army football. There is no question in my mind why ESPN ranked it among the top 20 sports venues to visit in one’s lifetime — and one ESPN analyst cited its game day atmosphere as among the most inspirational in the country. No question about that.
To kick things off, members of the parachute team came skydiving out of a helicopter, making a perfect landing before a cheering crowd — the last cadet flying Old Glory. Cannons fired regularly throughout the game. When the Black Knights of Army scored, the cadets went crazy (even those in football uniforms), singing the fight song and moving so energetically, they appeared to be a swarm.
The Black Knights fell to Wake Forest in the last three seconds of the game, but what happened once the game ended was the classiest thing I’ve seen in competitive sports. The opponents lined up behind the Army players, who sang their Alma Mater (followed by the resounding chant Go Army Beat Navy!) then the Black Knights reciprocated.
It was a perfect two days — insightful, inspiring, fulfilling. Maybe the best part was walking where Dad’s footsteps once fell and sharing one tiny bit of his life in this new — yet old and storied — way.
This column appeared in The Journal on Sunday, October 11, 2015.
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