Change For Plebes Is 'Like Night And Day'

Induction Day Marks First Day Of Service At Naval Academy

July 02, 2009|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,childs.walker@baltsun.com

Tears rimmed Joseph Hauser's eyes as he watched his daughter, Charlotte, disappear behind the gymnasium door.

Fierce emotions rip at many parents as they drop their children off at college, but more than most, Hauser knew his daughter would not be the same person after a few months away from him. That's the reality for almost all candidates at the U.S. Naval Academy, which welcomed its newest class of 1,230 plebes Wednesday morning.

"It's quite a reality check," said Hauser, a resident of Saratoga Springs, N.Y. "It's different than sending your child to a normal college, where you can see them whenever they allow you to. I'm sure she will be different when I see her again. I know she will."

The academy takes teenagers like Charlotte Hauser - top students, hyper-competitive athletes, driven leaders - and spends a summer teaching them how little they really know about discipline, time management, proper manners and physical duress. They come out looking and behaving differently. So for them and the people who love them, Induction Day is a line of demarcation.

"It's like night and day," said Midshipman 1st Class Carolyn Horiye, a senior who will help hammer the rigid details of academy life into the newcomers.

The candidates arrived as early as 6 a.m., ready to give up their hair and possessions for a summer of grueling 16-hour days. Business is booming at the academy, which received more than 15,000 applications this year and is celebrating the most racially and ethnically diverse entering class in its history - 14 percent Hispanic and 10 percent African-American. No matter the composition of the class, I-Day, as it's known around the academy, brings familiar rituals.

The morning began with families pouring off buses and clustering a few hundred feet from the gymnasium. That's where Hauser shed tears as he watched Charlotte cross the threshold.

Her father acknowledged being "a little slack-jawed" when she said she wanted to attend the academy. Their family carries no military legacy; a neighbor cultivated Charlotte's enchantment with naval pilots. She visited the academy on the neighbor's recommendation and loved it from the start.

"It's hard to explain," Hauser said of his emotions Wednesday. "I know I'm handing my daughter over, and it's a tremendous honor, but there's no going back."

Lynette Miles of Scottsdale, Ariz., had a little longer to prepare. Her son, Marvin "Tres" Gibbs III, has wanted to be a fighter pilot since he was a toddler. He even refused to respond to teachers unless they called him by his chosen pilot name, "Ace."

He showed up Wednesday with the upright posture, taut physique and serious expression of a military man.

"Even before kindergarten, it was, 'I want to fight for my country,' " recalled Miles, an English professor at Arizona State. "I asked him this morning if he was nervous, and he said, 'I can't wait.' "

That kind of confidence was prevalent among candidates as they waited in a long line for check-in. Many have wanted to attend the academy since they were small.

But they're not ready for what they're about to face, upperclassmen said. No one is.

The candidates walked in the door in flip-flops, shorts and brightly colored T-shirts, with snazzy tennis shoes on their feet and cell phones in their pockets. Within minutes, all those vestiges of their former lives were gone, hauled off to storage lockers for the summer.

The plebes emerged from check-in clad in identical uniforms. Men were left with a thin layer of hair, women with neatly trimmed locks well above their shoulders. Even the glasses were standard issue - thick, square rims built for endurance.

The slip-ups started almost immediately.

Some candidates forgot to say "sir" at the beginning of each utterance. Some let their eyes wander or their mouths curl into grins while being addressed by first-classmen. Some failed to hold their elbows straight while reading Reef Points, the academy's pocket guide to procedure and seaman's lingo.

"Do not look around. Do not look at me," said Horiye, addressing a pack of newcomers. "Get out your Reef Points and start studying. Don't stare at me. Turn to page 109 and learn your five basic responses. I assure you you'll need to know them."

As one candidate's arm drooped from the appropriately straight angle, Horiye reached in to push it back up.

"The quicker they learn, the less pain they get over the whole summer," Horiye said, adopting a more casual tone after her group moved to another station. "It's a whole different animal here. I had wanted to come here for a long time, but I remember that on my I-Day, I still thought, 'What have I gotten myself into?' "

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