Don't try to tell this class it was easy ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY

PLEBE SUMMER: OVER AT LAST

August 14, 1993|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Staff Writer

They all were dreaming of the same thing -- a normal, quiet meal.

Not the type of meal these plebes had been used to for the past seven weeks, poised inside King Hall like grim marionettes: a sit-at-attention, eyes-front, harsh-questions-from-upperclassmen meal.

"I would like to have a normal meal and sit back in a chair and look around," said Summer Jones, an 18-year-old freshman from Huntingtown, Md., standing with her parents, Eugene and Donna. "I just want to relax."

Plebe summer, that grueling indoctrination into military life at the U.S. Naval Academy, had finally come to an end.

"The first thing we're going to do is get a meal where I can sit with my back touching the back of the chair," said Michael James, 21, of Mansfield, Ohio.

For Andrea Johnson of Vienna, Va., one of her worst experiences during the summer occurred at a plebe lunch. She was asked by upperclassmen to name the main dish. "I got chewed out," she said, smiling now. "I forgot corned beef."

Now she just wants to get outside the academy walls and eat an Italian sub -- "without a brace," she quickly added, referring to the chin-pulled-in-tight stance she has endured since July 1.

Dean Driskill, 19, of Dallas, who's thinking of McDonald's, recalled that some meals were so stressful that he just wanted to go to his room and say, "I'll go hungry."

Throughout the academy yesterday, ram-rod plebes and parents armed with video cameras swarmed together in tearful embraces and backslaps. Many parents poked the midsections of their lean offspring, asking if they'd lost weight.

"He seems taller and I know he's not," said Bonnie Hartley of Uniontown, Pa., looking at her son, Matthew, whose speech is now peppered with "sirs."

Despite a seven-week struggle that started with P.T. (physical training) at 5:45 a.m. and continued with marching, memorizing and drill until 10 p.m., they were told by upperclassmen that they had it easy.

Plebe summer has mellowed over the past several years. There's less yelling and more "positive leadership," with upper classmen serving as mentors rather than tormentors.

"They'd say they had it tougher than we did. We didn't have a real plebe summer," recalled Howard Bryant Jr., from Atlanta.

"They said it's such a joke," added Ms. Jones. "They called it 'Camp Tecumseh,' " a reference to the bronze Indian figurehead that sits outside Bancroft Hall, the academy's massive dormitory.

Nearby a sheet hung on rope strung between two trees with crude and hurried lettering: "This Is Not Camp Tecumseh . . . Thunder and Lightning."

Another read: "Hi Mom . . . Welcome to Camp Tecumseh!!! Your Boys from the night."

This year, for the first time, plebes entering their academic year will no longer have to endure the harsh questioning of the upperclassmen at meals. Now that plebe summer has ended, the dining hall will be similar to a wardroom on a ship, a relaxed atmosphere with upperclassmen leading a discussion.

Even with the changes, some found that the academy was not to their liking. Of the 1,181 plebes admitted, 60 dropped out -- 51 men and nine women -- before the end of plebe summer, according to academy officials. That is consistent with the past several years, officials said.

At the end of the month, plebes will join their upperclassmen for the beginning of the academic year.

Christina Goodwin, 19, of Agoura Hills, Calif, will start studying political science, and she hopes for a career in Navy law. Her father, William, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel, is a 1967 academy graduate.

Mr. Goodwin recalled that his plebe class was the last one to employ "The Clamp," another dining hall device where freshmen were required to brace their knees and elbows to the table -- like a clamp.

But Mr. Goodwin said, with a glint in his eye, that was a time when they had "a real plebe year."

"Awwwwwww!" said his daughter and Summer Jones, her roommate.

Nearby, Mr. Driskill happily practiced his about-face marching skills as his mother, Marie, looked on. The 19-year-old plebe hopes to follow in the footsteps of his father and become a Marine aviator.

1st Lt. Steve Driskill was killed on a routine training mission in the Philippines when his son was 2 years old. "His dad was a good pilot," said Mrs. Driskill, gesturing to her son. "He'll be a good pilot."

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