Plebes endure summer of sweat, terror, 'rates'

August 20, 1994|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Sun Staff Writer

Hundreds of heads are already bobbing seal-like above this soggy piece of artificial turf, and the sun hasn't even risen over the Naval Academy.

The sweat-soaked midshipmen count and grunt their way through a round of sit-ups, emitting a low, velvety roar that rises like steam to the banks of overhead lights.

The next instant they're on their feet, dashing in long, serpentine lines a hundred yards to the end of the illuminated practice field, only to return for leg lifts, push-ups, jumping jacks and anything else the booming, disembodied voice on the PA system orders.

If he exercised like this at home, said Brian Nagy, a hulking 18-year-old football player from Detroit, "I'd be lying around for an hour."

But there is no such luxury for these freshmen, better known as plebes. And Mr. Nagy knows what he'll hear next: "Be in formation in 20 minutes."

Monday will mark the end of this annual ordeal known as Plebe Summer, a grueling six-week introduction to academy life. It is an unending series of physical and mental gymnastics so vivid that gray-haired military officers recall them years later with a shudder. Some say it helped them survive prisoner-of-war camps.

Each day an alarm clock rang at 5:30 a.m. For the next 16 1/2 hours they learned how to salute, sail, shoot a .45 pistol, put out a fire and make a military bed, all under the exacting tutelage of grim-faced upperclassmen.

They learned the difference between a CVN and an S-3A (one's a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and the other's an anti-submarine warfare aircraft.)

They addressed everyone as "sir" or "ma'am" and double-timed through the "passageways" of Bancroft Hall, squaring corners and shouting, "Beat Army!"

And precisely at 10 p.m. -- after singing the academy's anthem "Navy Blue and Gold" -- they collapsed in their beds in sparse rooms, cooled only by small desk-top fans.

"Every night as soon as you fall down, you fall right asleep, mentally and physically drained," said Kenneth Kerr, 18, of Philadelphia.

Cafeteria drill

Plebes stream into King Hall 40 minutes after leaving the practice field.

Bellowed orders from upperclassmen and a collective plebe response fill this spacious, winged cafeteria.

The plebes have traded their shorts and T-shirts for baggy white pants and shirts, along with a long black neckerchief that seems borrowed from another century.

Seven plebes from Charlie Company stand at attention behind their chairs, eyes straight ahead and chins pulled in tight to their necks. They takes their seats as one. Then they each take a bite of food, place a fork on the plate, put their hands in their laps and chew. Some have the wired eyes of small caged animals.

Plebes are peppered with questions from upperclassmen perched at the end of the tables. They are required to read a daily newspaper and be ready to discuss an article. Or they may be asked a "rate," memorized information ranging from the day's lunch menu, the duty officer or the capabilities of a Navy ship.

They never know what they'll be asked. They're trapped. All they can do is eat. And wait.

Midshipman 1st Class William Day, Charlie Company commander from Pensacola, Fla., likes to use this time to talk about current events. "It gets them thinking," he says.

He fixes his gaze on Plebe Jason Rudrud and asks, "What's going on in the world today?" The discussion finally centers on the possibility of military action in Haiti.

"Sir, I think it's the U.S. role to be a big brother," the nervous plebe sputters.

Should the United States first make sure it has the support of the nation, Midshipman Day wonders.

"Sir, yes sir!" comes the response.

The plebes may think such exercises have little worth, said Midshipmen 1st Class Deborah J. Roberge, regimental executive officer from Doylestown, Pa. But one day, when they are a pilot in a cockpit or an officer aboard ship, memorizing procedures will be vital.

"We keep telling them there's a reason for everything," she says, "whether they believe it or not."

Leadership lesson

It is a small amphitheater in Michelson Hall. Midshipman 1st Class David Maruna is trying to turn it into a Vietnamese jungle for a lesson about leadership and loyalty.

Six volunteers join him in front of the long blackboard.

Midshipmen Maruna has transformed himself into an American commander in Vietnam who has ordered Stephany Merritt of New York to move her company to its destination in five hours. There will be casualties, he tells her.

But the other plebes, portraying scouts and junior officers, suggest a safer route that will add three hours.

Midshipman Merritt must decide whether to obey the order, improvise or ask to be relieved of command.

The 18-year-old struggles with the dilemma and finally decides to follow the order.

Midshipman Maruna, of Cleveland, asks the plebes what they would do. Twenty say they would follow the order, eight would improvise and 11 would ask to be relieved.

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