30 Years Since I-Day

30 years ago this weekend was Induction Day (a.k.a. I-Day) for the Naval Academy’s Class of 1986. On the day, I and over 1,400 other classmates raised our hands in Tecumseh Court at the heart of the Academy’s Annapolis campus (which we soon learned to call “The Yard”), and swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and to bear true faith and allegiance to the same.

In my half-century-ish on this planet, I’d only place my wedding date and the day my daughter was born as more important days than I-Day in shaping the course that my life has taken. It was that significant.

Practicing manual of arms in my room, wearing regulation P.E. gear, on the Fourth Floor of Sixth Wing, Bancroft Hall, July 1982.

I had just barely turned 17 when I took the oath, having skipped a grade in elementary school, and owning a late May birthday. I graduated from White Oak High School in Jacksonville, North Carolina in June 1982, then had just a few weeks of down-time before having to report to Annapolis right after the Fourth of July holiday for Plebe Summer, the Academy’s version of boot camp. My father, who had sworn the same oath I did many years before me, missed both my high school graduation and my I-Day, because he was well and faithfully serving his nation as the Executive Officer of the 32nd Marine Amphibious Unit in and around Beirut, Lebanon, at the time. I missed him.

Because of the escalating hostilities in Lebanon circa 1982-1983, I spent most of my Plebe Year at the Naval Academy getting up early each morning and quickly checking the newspapers to make sure that my Dad was still alive. A lot of people he went over there with did not make it through the course of that year. It made a tough experience in Annapolis even more stressful, needless to say.

I did well the first set of Plebe Summer, because I had a huge jump on most of my classmates in terms of my knowledge of military arts and protocol, having spent most of my life on or near Marine Corps bases. By the second set of Plebe Summer, though, my innate difficulty with authority apparently kicked in, and my fitness reports quickly tumbled, putting me at the bottom, performance-wise, of Hotel Company’s 23rd Platoon.

When the full Brigade of Midshipmen returned that fall, 23rd Platoon became the Plebe Class of 23rd Company, and I quickly cemented my status as a “shit screen” for my cohort, meaning that I caught the trouble that otherwise might have flowed downstream and gotten stuck on other people. My academic performance was generally sound, sure, but my military performance left a lot to be desired. And this did not change much over the ensuing four years, as I spent huge swaths of time standing in restriction musters, or marching area tours, or serving room tours, or otherwise being punished for my chronic inability to comply with the rules that had been set before us.

A lot of my room-mates, friends and company mates left the Academy along the way, either deciding that it wasn’t worth being there anymore, or falling victim to academic boards, or performance boards, or honor boards. Somehow, though — amazingly enough — I scraped by, one day at a time. And then, one day before my 21st birthday (May 21, 1986), I officially became a Naval Academy alumnus, graduating alongside theĀ  approximately 70% of our I-Day cohort who made it all the way through. Go figure!

Midshipman Fourth Class John E. Smith, Annapolis, Fall of 1982.

As rotten of a midshipman as I was, though, I can state categorically that I would never have finished college in four years had I gone anywhere besides Annapolis. And as much as I fought authority there, I still managed to develop an incredible collection of life skills that serve me well, to this day, every day, in both my personal and professional lives, three decades later.

About 10 years after we graduated from the Academy, largely on a whim, I reached out to our then Class President and offered to help him develop a website and e-mail list for the class, since I had those skills from work, and I figured that if I used them on behalf of the class, it would make it easier for me to get and stay in touch with the folks I wanted to communicate with.

But somehow that selfish act on my part actually blossomed into something legitimately charitable and powerful for me, especially after we lost two I-Day classmates on September 11, 2001, right before what should have been a joyful 15th reunion, in which I played a major planning role. I went on to serve as the Class of ’86’s Secretary, then President for five years, and now Treasurer, devoting and donating thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours over the years to helping maintain the relationships that were first forged between us on I-Day, 30 years ago this weekend.

I remain humbled by that experience of service to the class of ’86, giving back in a very modest way as a belated way of thanking my friends and peers for the role they played in making me the man that I am today. I certainly remain a flawed and erratic human being, but I know that many of the best facets of my personality and professional ability stem directly from my days in Annapolis, and I am deeply grateful for what the Naval Academy did for me — and to me — between July of 1982 and May of 1986.

As I write this, a thousand or so terrified young people are going through the same process I went through 30 years ago. On one hand, my heart bleeds for them and their families, because it is hard . . . it really is so, so, so very hard, in ways that words can’t do justice. But, on the other hand, I laud and celebrate those brave young people, because I know that they are at the opening phases of an extraordinary life experience, one that only a relatively small number of living human beings have shared. They will be better men and women for their efforts, and our Nation will benefit from their service and their commitment to causes greater than their own well being.

My thoughts and best wishes go out especially profoundly to those in the class of 2016 who swear their oath this summer while their own mothers and fathers are in harm’s way in Iraq or Afghanistan or elsewhere. I know what that feels like . . . though I can’t imagine how much harder that must have felt for my Dad, who wasn’t there on such significant days for me, as much as he would have wanted to be a part of them. That’s the terrifying part of the oath of office: you don’t get to decide when you will be called to fulfill it.

It awes me to be a small link in such an important chain, truly.

Coming In Hot

The Fourth of July was hellaciously hot in Iowa this year (as it was in much of the country, I know), so we decided that if we couldn’t beat the heat, then we might as well really wallow in it.

First, Marcia and I played a round of golf from about noon to 3:30 in 100 degree heat with high humidity readings. The downside: the heat was so enervating that neither of us were swinging the clubs very strongly or accurately. The upside: we pretty much had the course to ourselves, and felt justified in waving the beer cart down anytime it got within four holes of where we were playing.

After golf, we picked up Katelin, and went out to have a nice, long, leisurely dinner in the well air-conditioned Americana, which seemed appropriate from a thematic standpoint, given the day. I had their excellent truffled macaroni and cheese, with some tempura shrimp and a coconut chicken curry soup. Mmm!! Fully sated and hydrated, we then headed over to Principal Park to watch the Iowa Cubs game. It was still in the 90s, and the sun was beating down hard, when we sat down in the bleacher seats on the first base line. Lesson learned: next time, get tickets behind third.

Before the game, we got to watch a tremendously moving and powerful Citizenship Ceremony, watching a couple of dozen folks from around the world officially become new Iowans and Americans. The Honorable Judge Mark Bennett of the Iowa’s Northern District Federal Court made some spectacular remarks about the importance of diversity and immigration to our Nation’s past, present and future. It was great to see the crowd cheer him and our newest citizens, especially in an era when immigrants are most often viewed as job-stealing criminals. Well done, your honor.

And the I-Cubs? Well . . . not quite so well done. The game was pretty much over before the top of the first inning was done, as the Omaha Storm Chasers took a 6-0 lead before cruising to an 11-2 victory. The Chasers are a great team, one of the best in the AAA Pacific League, which is good, because they are the top farm team of the Beloved Royals. So at some point in the future, some of these guys will head up to Kansas City, have a great season, and then immediately be traded to the Red Sox or Yankees. Because that is the Beloved Royals way, world without end, amen.

Katelin bugged out to go hang out with friends indoors by the sixth inning or so, which meant she was spared the mortal embarrassment of having her parents featured on the centerfield scoreboard KissCam after the seventh inning stretch. (I’m thinking the cameraman was more interested in watching Marcia stretch than me, just for the record). We were then rewarded for our heat perseverance and excellent kissing skills with a great fireworks display above the Des Moines skyline, then returned home at around 11-ish or so, with the temperature still in the high 80s. Fortunately, our new house has two kick-ass air conditioning units, so at least sleep was comfortable.

Today is supposed to peak out at 102-degrees, and then we’re forecast to get a small amount of relief when the highs drop back to the low-90s early next week. Of more concern at this point, in a deeply agricultural state, is the lack of rainwater. We’re thankful to have bought a house with a very small lot, since it’s easy and not too wasteful to keep our little patches of grass and flowers going through the drought, but I suspect that if something doesn’t change soon, water restrictions are likely to be put in place in urban areas so that our farmers can be sure to have enough water to get the crops to maturity this year.

Speaking of crops: we had our first taste of locally-grown Iowa sweet corn last night and, wow, was it dynamite. The ears were perfectly formed, with dense, plump white and yellow kernels, which only had to be boiled for about three minutes to perfection. The taste and texture were easily the best I’ve had, with the possible exception of the fresh white shoe-peg corn that my grandparents used to get from prison farms in North Carolina in the early ’70s. I can’t wait to roast some ears now, since I suspect that make them even more perfectly flavorful.

I might not even need a grill to do it, today, come to think of it . . .

Just When You Thought that the Interwebs Couldn’t Get Any Stupider

In a recent e-mail exchange, a friend ended a conversation by noting “Just when you thought that the interwebs couldn’t get any stupider . . . ”

But, of course, we both know that the interwebs will invariably generate something even stupider at some point, and we will invariably spend way too much time looking at it and laughing. I know this for a fact, because having been online since the early ’90s, I’ve watched a lot of entertaining internet stupidity over the years.

My friend’s comment got me to pondering some of my favorites from way back when, before instant indexing and social media and simple blogging software and organized web portals made it relatively easy for things to go viral and gain large, instant audiences. Once upon a time, you had to look to find the stupid online, and it was totally worth it when you found it, since you’d really earned the right to giggle like an idiot.

So here are a dozen of my favorite classic time-wasters, in various flavors and shades of stupid or sublime, from those earlier days of the world wide web:

zombo.com: (Sound required). From around 1999, and still possibly the greatest website ever, because you can do anything there!

Alkulukuja Paskova Karhu : (Sound required, mild language warning). Is there’s a better way to teach kids about this particular aspect of mathematics? I do not believe that there is.

snarg: (Sound required). This goes back to about 1995 or 1996, and it is one of the first things I saw online that made me thing that the internet could actually serve as a platform for creating legitimate art. Click around and explore: there’s a synthesizer so you can adjust the music, lots of cool popups and pretty images, and a hidden message board so you can let folks know you were there.

Frog in a Blender: (Sound required). I’m guessing this is among the most well-known items in my list, since it was one of the first interactive Flash animations that was widely shared online at the time, and it launched the Joe Cartoon brand. Still funny. Still wrong.

Annoy the Little Man: (Sound required). This originally appeared on futile.com, which was an amazing portal of time-wasting internet stupidity back in the day, where the Little Man was joined by other pointless gems, like Squish the Bug. I should probably be embarrassed to admit how many times I annoyed the Little Man and squished the bug. Heh heh. Heh. Heh heh heh.

The Stinky Meat Project : Answers the immortal question: “What happens if I leave some hot dogs, a steak, and some hamburger in my neighbor’s back yard for a couple of weeks?”

hell.com : The original website is no longer online or available, so I’ve linked to the Wikipedia article about it instead. What happened at hell.com? Absolutely nothing, for years and years and years. But there was just enough interactivity, and just enough text about membership and secret stuff, that it made you feel like if only you could find the right combination of clicks, you’d enter some amazing Internet Kingdom of the Damned. But you couldn’t, and it didn’t, though you kept on trying . . . for years and years and years . . .

Superbad : One of the first sites that specialized in massive cross-linking of seemingly unrelated images and texts, creating something of an art statement that was greater than the sum of its parts. I kept trying to get to the end of it, and am not sure I ever did.

Applied Solipsism Campaign : Website banners were a hot thing online for a few years. These were the only ones that I flew on my websites, much to my own amusement.

Flame Warriors : I watched the database of Flame Warriors being compiled in real time, one warrior at a time, many of them suggested by readers. The concept was originally themed around online message boards and forums, but it applies just as well to today’s unmoderated blog comment pages.

Tolkien Sarcasm Page : If you understand why this is hilarious, then you are a dork. Welcome to the club.

We Like the Moon: (Sound required). The Spongmonkeys are terrifying and cute in equal measure, and their little song about some of their favorite things is a weird masterpiece.