A sweet taste of freedom

Plebes: The Naval Academy freshmen reunite with their families for the first time since Induction Day.

August 10, 2002|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

A vision of steak came to Tristan Gerritsen after dark the other night, as he drifted off to sleep in his freshman bunk at the Naval Academy.

"It's a T-bone, and it's thick, and it's still sizzling because it just came off the grill," he said, his voice falling to a whisper as he described his fantasy. "There's a little bit of vegetables on the side, but not too much."

This is what six weeks of boot camp-style indoctrination can do to a teen-ager.

Cravings for steak, ice cream and movies, banished to the land of dreams over plebe summer, poured into the open yesterday afternoon, as 1,200 freshmen reunited with their parents and tasted freedom for the first time since leaving home in June.

They have three half-days of liberty over parents' weekend, and then the long hot days of plebe summer give way to the rigors of their first academic year.

So they planned to feast on small pleasures made new, humdrum freedoms rediscovered.

"Honestly, sir," said Thomas Murray, 19, of Northeast Baltimore, "I want to go home and sit on the couch and watch TV and eat whatever I can."

During plebe summer, a midshipman can draw a scolding for so much as letting his eyes wander.

And there is no longer an umbilical cord to home and family. Plebes can send and receive letters, but they are allowed just three five-minute phone calls home. Already, 47 members of the Class of 2006 have washed out, unable to take the 5:15 a.m. wakeup calls, the heart-pounding workouts and the unrelenting drumbeat of shouted orders.

Midshipman Lauren Irrgang, 18, of West Chester, Pa., ticked off a wish list yesterday that neither her parents nor boyfriend seemed inclined to deny.

"Eating real ice cream and taking long showers and not smelling quite as nasty," she said. "All the things you always took for granted."

Gerritsen, 18, who grew up in Southwest Baltimore, fantasized about exquisite cuts of steak, medium-rare, in the nights before his family's visit. But he also dreamed of throwing his arms around his mother and father and sister again.

He says that his world has lurched so sharply since he put on a uniform that he views high school now as his "old life."

"I never thought I'd be homesick," said Gerritsen, a lanky 6-footer. "And when I got here, I got a little homesick."

It was hard for his parents, too, not least because they now had no one tall enough to reach those bowls in the top cupboard and no one handy enough to figure out where the wires go on the new VCR.

"I just wanted him there to be able to talk to," said his sister, Alida, 15. He had guided her through algebra homework and had dished out advice on dating and getting things done on time. "Tristan was always right there." His parents, Jeroen Gerritsen and Jingyee Kou, vowed to let Tristan call the shots this weekend. They even rented a hotel room near the academy in case he wanted to steal a nap. His mom said she'd pester him with just a few basic questions, ones she didn't have time to ask in those five-minute phone calls.

"I don't really have any plan at all," she said Thursday night. "Just to have him around -- that's good enough."

At noon yesterday, Jeroen, Jingyee and Alida assembled with hundreds of other families along the campus' central Stribling Walk.

Jingyee craned her neck as the red-brick walkway flooded with plebes in their summer whites, spotless uniforms that gleamed under a cloudless sky.

Tristan broke from the column with a big smile, and laced his long arms around his parents and sister.

"I think you lost some weight," his mom said.

"You got some new muscles," said his dad.

"You got a tan," his sister said.

"All that marching will do that to you," Tristan said, responding, it seemed, to all three.

Jeroen Gerritsen had been tipped off about his son's dream. A steakhouse a few blocks away, he said, was expecting four for dinner.

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