Saying `yes' is first lesson in plebe life

Induction: The Naval Academy's new Mids learn some of the basic rules on their busy first day.

July 01, 2004|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

Rule No. 1 of Induction Day at the U.S. Naval Academy: Do not speak unless spoken to.

Rule No. 2: If you are spoken to, there are only two possible responses: Sir, yes sir! or Ma'am, yes ma'am!

It might sound simple, but for many of the 1,200 freshmen - or plebes - who arrived at the academy yesterday morning for six weeks of physical and mental training, the first, and most important, order of the day proved a challenge.

"Ma'am, yes ma'am!" one plebe stammered to a male upperclassman.

"Yes sir!" shouted another, forgetting the formula for what's called a "plebe sandwich" - two "sirs" or "ma'ams" with a "yes" between.

Neil D'Arco, a rising senior, offered his explanation for their struggles.

"Right when they come in, we tell them that from now on, these will be the first and last words out of their mouths, and it's shocking to them," D'Arco said. "Some of them have trouble picking it up, but by the end of the day, it'll be natural."

Induction Day began at 5:30 a.m., as a stream of new students and their families formed a line outside Alumni Hall - the building where the daylong transition from civilian to military life takes place.

The scene was reminiscent of drop-off day at summer camp. Cameras flashed. Sleepy younger siblings stretched themselves out on piles of bulky duffel bags. Mothers and fathers displayed newly purchased symbols of parental pride: USNA T-shirts, shorts, tote bags and baseball caps with crisp brims.

By the time they reached the doors of Alumni Hall, sentimentality overcame excitement.

One by one, the young men and women broke from tearful embraces, mugged for one final photo and disappeared through the glass doors. Inside, they stumbled up to the check-in desk looking like teenagers on summer vacation: untucked T-shirts, shaggy hair, slumped shoulders and tanned cheeks.

Tuck that shirt in!

Stand up straight!

Do what you're told!

The steady stream of orders began the process aimed at transforming them into plebes: the lowliest students at the academy. Following a line of yellow tape snaking through the halls of the building, the plebes underwent a series of introductory protocol including health exams, uniform issue and one of the more symbolic moments: the haircut.

In a room filled with 14 barbers clipping and buzzing at closely shorn scalps, Aaron Strobler, 18, sat motionless as one of the barbers snipped away his spiky mat of platinum-blond locks. "I liked my hair," he said wistfully, watching clumps of it drift to the floor.

Strobler, who has an older brother who attends the academy, said he knows what to expect and is nothing but "excited" about school.

But other, less-informed plebes confessed to some anxiety about the weeks ahead.

"I think I'm prepared," said Lindsay Parker of Sacramento, Calif. "But I don't think anyone can really prepare for plebe summer."

For Parker and her classmates, the next six weeks will be the antithesis of a rollicking teenage summer. Each day begins at 5:30 a.m. with a wake-up call, followed by 90 minutes of physical training. The remainder of the day is filled with two more training sessions, three meals, room cleanup and an hour of sports. Free time is limited to 45 minutes, just before lights out at 9:45 p.m.

No visitors. No dates. No fun.

"The point is to rebuild them," said Midshipman Andrew Reaves, a rising senior. "It's like we're taking a sledgehammer out and cracking into them."

Reaves was charged with training the plebes in one of the most fundamental military practices: the salute. To their surprise, the salute was much more complex than simply raising a hand to the forehead.

In front of several lines of plebes standing at attention, Reaves belted out the orders for the execution of a salute: Keep your forearm straight and parallel to the ground. Touch your middle finger to your eyebrow, or the rim of your glasses. Straighten your fingers. Turn your wrist slightly forward. Do not cup your hand. Keep you eyes straight ahead, and look at me!

When the lesson concluded, Reaves said the plebes showed the telltale sign of an amateur salute - a cupped, trembling hand.

"A lot of them do that because they're rigid and tense," he said.

The formula for a successful plebe day?

"Don't screw up," said Reaves. "If you can get through the whole day without someone yelling at you, then it's mission accomplished."

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