Moderator: Hank Nuwer. Even as a boy I was a sucker for any well-written memoir carried in magazines with names like True, Country Gentleman and Collier’s. My mother was pretty overprotective, but her one nod to my liberty was to allow me to walk about 15 minutes west on Walden Avenue to Novak’s Drugstore, which straddled the line between Cheektowaga and Buffalo, NY. Somehow I developed a friendship with Mr. Novak that led to his permitting me to gently read through all of his magazines on the visible rack, although forbidding me from reading the enticing ones behind the counter that displayed only their titles. Anyway, today I get similar pleasure from reading first-person accounts in magazines, book memoirs and in blogs. One entry that caught my attention today in Warsaw where I am spending the summer was the store of a “plebe sneak” at West Point.
Here is the author’s bio: After starting a job with IBM as a System z Client Architect, Sean P. McBride founded Millennial Mainframer as a platform for young IT professionals to express thought leadership around the mainframe space while networking and sharing lessons learned. Sean is a former Army Officer and West Point graduate interested in history and technology.
I’ll start you off with a brief excerpt and furnish a link so you can finish the piece. Great job, Mr. McBride, SIR!
Today is December 1, 2013. Today I turn twenty-eight years old. Today is also approximately the ten year anniversary of the most interesting “birthday party” I’ve ever been to. . . .
Ten years ago, I was a first-year cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point. First-year cadets at West Point are called “plebes,” which is a Latin term that denotes the underclass. Much like the barbarism of antiquity, plebes at a military academy are treated like crap. They clean the barracks, deliver the newspapers, pick up the trash or recyclables, march not walk, and salute all of their superiors with a chipper attitude. They also are expected to memorize the meals of the day, the football schedule, the main articles of the New York Times, West Point lore, and errata about the heroes of the American Empire. Failure of any of these tasks is never pretty.
The corps of cadets is organized into companies of around 120 cadets each, and each company has a slightly different culture. To my misfortune, I was a plebe in company A-2, known as the Spartans. Due to the historical legacy of Spartan military discipline and oppression of the enslaved Helot underclass, company A-2 was well known for their thorough and systematic hazing their Plebes.
At West point, there is one socially sanctioned avenue for plebes to exact revenge on especially brutal upperclassmen: the “Birthday Party.” In such a birthday party, the plebes break into the upperclassman’s room, tie them up, and demean them in some way. Often this might be tying them up, placing them in the communal open shower, and spraying they with ketchup, mustard, etc. stolen from the mess hall. Of course, the specific recipe of revenge would always slightly vary from upperclassman to upperclassman.
So there was one Spartan upperclassman that was considered especially mean and vindictive towards the plebes. He loved to ask obscure and seemingly impossible-to-memorize trivia in the hope of being able to scream at and bully a plebe. Considering that his grades weren’t great, his physical fitness was poor, and other aspects of his life likely sucked, bullying seventeen and eighteen year old plebes was likely the high point of his life. Given his general asshole-ish-ness, it was guaranteed that this guy was going to get one hell of a “birthday party.”
So the Spartan plebes geared up as if for the battle of Thermopylae. We put on football equipment used by the intramural football team. We drew battle plans and planned to stay in formation to be able to overwhelm the upperclassman and subdue him quickly and painlessly. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out to plan.