When I was a Plebe…

36 years ago, on July 6, 1977, I reported to Annapolis for induction into the U.S. Naval Academy Class of 1981. The transition from a leisurely lifestyle and the flashy smiles in recruiting uniforms to the rigors and reality of military indoctrination was shocking. For many of us, years of propaganda and seduction leading up to the “swearing in” ceremony evaporated immediately upon taking the Oath of Office for Midshipman Candidates. More to the point, once we recited the final line, “So help me God”, all hell broke loose.

With the unfamiliar heat and humidity of the east coast, the physical regimen was certainly challenging. (I can’t believe I’m going to write this, but, “When I was a Plebe, we didn’t have air conditioning!”). The real challenge for me, however, was both learning the Navy jargon and as well developing an understanding of the context to which it applied. All incoming freshman are required to memorize, and recite on demand, a miscellany of historical and nautical history, quotes, and terminology provided in the handbook, “Reef Points”. On top of all this new “stuff”, I was getting to know the 30 or so classmates that made up the 15th Company. We were complete strangers to one another on that very morning. Today we remained linked together like family.

There is that “thing” of military service that allows complete strangers to form bonds that last a lifetime.

Earlier this week, I had the distinct honor to have dinner with two of those classmates I met on Induction Day in 1977; Noreen Leahy and Guy Williams. I have been reminded of my deep love for my Naval Academy experience and the priceless treasure of friendships that were formed so long ago and have endured the 36 years since we met. As we laughed ourselves to tears, I am also reminded of how fortunate and blessed I am to have had that experience.

dinner pic
Dinner with Guy and Noreen

Our class was only the second class that allowed women to attend the Naval Academy. (I actually shudder as I write this. It is hard to fathom my daughter not able to pursue a career choice simply because she is a woman.) Noreen, along with all of our female classmates, was a modern-day Magellan, navigating unchartered seas with very choppy waters and stiffly opposing winds. As I imagine it is for any equal rights pioneer, this was not a task for lightweights. Of the three women who started with the 15th Company, Noreen is the only one who graduated; and she did so with style, class and professionalism. Senior Year she was selected as our 15th Company Commander; a distinction that both Guy and I would reflexively acknowledge during dinner. Let me be clear, no matter what laws Congress may enact, it takes a very special type of leader to lead a 120-person company consisting of primarily alpha-male mentalities; very special – and Noreen was one of the best.

noreen
Noreen – 1981

Guy, on the other hand, was my Plebe Summer roommate. Although we both were proud, and honored, to have received appointments to Naval Academy, we had some ‘adjustment issues’. Our acclimation to the military regimen was not characterized as “above average”. Although we had some great ideas on improving the indoctrination process, nobody was asking for our opinions. In fact our personalities, individually and collectively, seemed to be a lightning rod for the “Firsties” responsible for our indoctrination. Although we would spend hours working towards acquiring the requisite knowledge (recognizing semaphore flags, tapping Morse code, and memorizing pieces such as the “Qualifications of a Naval Officer” and the “Basic Steam Cycle”), we seemed to be just a half step (or so) behind most of our classmates. Unfortunately, we found new and creative ways to gain unwanted attention. In Guy’s words, “Basically, we were the 15th Company shit-screen!”

guy
Guy – 1981

Somehow Guy and I were fortunate to have Noreen as our leader and we are certain on more than one occasion, she vouched for us when we know others would not have. After graduation in May of 1981, Guy was a groomsman and Noreen caught the bouquet at our wedding (Quite frankly, I don’t think there was a civilian present that even had a chance at getting that bouquet!).

Guy and his daughter Kate, 28, were visiting Gettysburg for the 150th anniversary of the historic battle. He altered his plans for our dinner date and Jim and Noreen who drove down from Long Island. It had been 26 years since Leigh and I had seen Guy and his wife Susan, and over 32 years since Noreen had seen him. By watching and listening to the tone and familiarity of our conversation, you would have thought the time of separation could be measured in months, not years.

Of course, like any good reunion, we talked about people who weren’t there. (That’s always fun! – Particularly about classmate Mooch who couldn’t make it this time.) Most of all we laughed at the stories of our past and excitement for the future. We laughed at ourselves and we laughed at each other. It was a great night.

While Jim and Leigh both have well over 30 years of experience in learning and following the nuances and jargon of “Navy talk”, Guy’s daughter Kate clearly had not. A perfect example occurred when Noreen asked Guy how he and his wife met. With Susan home in Scottsdale and not present to tell her side of the story, Guy began;

“Well, it’s an interesting story” he starts out. “Do you remember Bob Schulze? We were roommates in San Diego, and Susan lived in the apartment downstairs. Bob had his eye on her and was working it, when I swooped in and took her. Essentially I snaked Susan.”

Kate’s eyes opened like silver dollars and then turned her head away. Clearly, she was stunned at the use of the verb “snake” as t related to her parent’s courtship. Leigh saw the reaction and jumped to her emotional rescue.

“It’s not what you’re thinking, Kate! Snaking means you steal somebody else’s date.”

While the rest of us got a laugh, Kate got her breath back. I’m pretty sure Guy will be giving Susan a lesson or two in Navy jargon before our next gathering.

All in all it was a tremendous reunion filled with laughs and memories that seem as real and alive today as if they had just happened. I am reminded the hallmark of good friendship is simply timelessness.

As we parted ways, making plans for another dinner in December, Guy looked at me and said, “I’m signing up for your blog, but be careful McBride, you’re in danger of becoming a good man!”

We’ll see about that.

When I was a Plebe, I made some really, really great friends.

36 years: It’s hard to believe. Fair Winds and following seas Guy and Noreen. We’ll see you soon.

And Mooch – you’re on the clock!

Qualifications of a Naval Officer

It is by no means enough that an officer of the Navy should be a capable mariner. He must be that, of course, but also a great deal more. He should be as well a gentleman of liberal education, refined manners, punctilious courtesy, and the nicest sense of personal honor.

He should be the soul of tact, patience, justice, firmness, kindness, and charity. No meritorious act of a subordinate should escape his attention or be left to pass without its reward, even if the reward is only a word of approval. Conversely, he should not be blind to a single fault in any subordinate, though at the same time, he should be quick and unfailing to distinguish error from malice, thoughtfulness from incompetency, and well-meant shortcomings from heedless or stupid blunder.