40 years ago today, I stood sweating in a historic courtyard in Annapolis, Maryland, with a freshly shaven head and dressed in itchy new government-issue clothes, raising my right hand, and speaking these words aloud:
I, John Eric Smith, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.
~1,400 other young men and women stood there with me, taking their own oaths, as the Class of 1986 began its joint journey on our Induction Day (“I-Day”) at the United States Naval Academy. I had graduated from White Oak High School in Jacksonville, North Carolina two weeks earlier, that previous milestone coming just four weeks after my 17th birthday. (I had skipped a grade in elementary school, so was always among the very youngest members of my academic cohorts). My mother and my sister were there to see me take the oath, but my father missed it: he was in Lebanon as the Executive Officer of the 32nd Marine Amphibious Unit, where he would remain throughout my entire Plebe (Freshman) Year.
My mom, sister and I had driven over to Annapolis that morning from Alexandria, Virginia, where we’d stayed with a family we’d known since I was in third grade, the eldest son of which was going for his own I-Day at the Virginia Military Institute later that same week. The first few hours after we arrived at the Academy were a busy blur, as we were registered, issued uniforms and books and other military sundries, given haircuts, organized into little training groups (I was put in the 23rd Platoon of Hotel Company), and guided to our rooms in “Mother B” (Bancroft Hall, the immense dormitory where all midshipman live). The Academy’s officers and First Class (Senior) Midshipmen tasked with our training were brisk, but polite, and despite the hustle and bustle of the day, a sense of excitement grew, along with a feeling of confidence that, yeah, I can do this.
After the oath, we were given a short time to say goodbye to our families, along with instructions to be in our rooms by a set time soon thereafter. When those instructions were given, it seemed like the time granted to complete those steps would be more than adequate, so I dawdled a bit, giving my teary mother and too-cool teen sister time to fawn over their beloved son and brother before he set off to be a big boy with the other big girls and boys. Then my family left, I stepped back into Bancroft Hall . . . and all hell broke lose.
First off, I thought I had remembered how to get from Tecumseh Court (where the oath had been issued) back to my room on the Fourth Deck (e.g. fifth floor, with the ground as “Deck Zero”) of the Sixth Wing of Mother B, but, jeez, the place was rats’ nest maze, and there were certain stairs we Plebes could use, and some we could not, and all elevators were out of the question. Complicating the journey was the fact that Plebes had specific instructions on how we were to move about Bancroft Hall: we “pinged” (essentially a stiff-legged race-walk) at all times, we could only move down the center of Bancroft Hall’s corridors, and we could only turn corners on silver plates embedded in the floors of those corridors at various key junction points, shouting “Go Navy!” with each pivot and turn.
Even more dramatically complicating the journey was the fact that those formerly brisk and polite Officers and First Class Midshipmen had suddenly transformed into a pack of howling, raging, frothing-at-the-mouth monsters, seemingly hell-bent on thwarting our progress, questioning our intelligence, scrambling our brains, and crushing our souls. My sense of “I can do this” lasted about three minutes after I stepped back into Mother B, replaced immediately by a deeper sense of “Oh my God, what have I done?!?”
I eventually made it to my room, late I think, and found my new room-mate already there, along with a few sheets of paper on my assigned desk. I flopped down on my bed, ready to take a load off and rest and recover for a bit, but my room-mate (who was a former enlisted man, and who had been given “good gouge” on what was to come) told me that we needed to read those sheets of paper on the desk as quickly as we could, because our little respite was not going to last long. Sigh.
The required reading was a short essay called “A Message to Garcia,” which I later learned was written by Elbert Hubbard in 1899. I started to skim it quickly: some guy named Rowan had to find some guy named Garcia, who was in some jungle somewhere, because President McKinley needed to get him some message, and Rowan didn’t know where Garcia was, but he set out anyway and . . .
. . . BLAAAMM!!!! The door to our room was kicked open, and some howling First Class Midshipman demanded we and our fellow victims assemble into our squads and platoons in the sweltering main corridor of our company area. Like some macroscopic example of Brownian motion, the Plebe members of Hotel Company careened about and ricocheted off each other trying to assemble ourselves into our proper molecular structures, all while pinging, and turning corners on the damned metal plates, and bracing up (e.g. keeping the chin pulled back to the neck as tightly possible), and trying to answer the barrage of questions and demands being fired at us from all sides.
Once assembled, we were interrogated about “A Message to Garcia,” and I was happy to have had my room-mate’s advise and counsel, since most of my company-mates had done what I had planned to do when I got to my room, flopping on the bed and resting, with no idea what anybody was supposed to be talking about. Eventually, I figured out that the message were supposed to learn from “Garcia” was that when given an order, we were just to execute it to the best of our abilities, without pestering our senior officers for information on why were to do what we were told, or how, or when, or where. Or something. It was a bit of a blur.
The rest of I-Day was more of the same. And then we finally slept. Or at least we laid in our beds and tossed and turned in the sweltering Annapolis summer heat, as Bancroft Hall was a vast non-air-conditioned space, and my room on “6-4” was as close to the building’s broiling copper-topped roof as it was possible to be. And then we got up early the next day for some fairly heinous morning calisthenics and sprints and gymnastics called “PEP,” overseen by a ridiculously spry and highly caffeinated septuagenarian named Heinz Lenz, who truly looked and sounded like somebody sent from Central Casting for a “World War II German Prisoner of War Camp Commandant” movie role. And then we marched, and ran, and studied from a little book called “Reef Points,” which contained a massive volume of “rates” (e.g. arcane and detailed Navy factoids) that we were required to spout upon command, and then we got yelled at because we didn’t know our rates, and then we ran, and swam, and marched, and shot things, and sailed things, and climbed things, and crawled under things, and ran, and swam, and studied, and got yelled at, over and over and over again.
(I first saw the gnomic phrase “IHTFP” scrawled on a blackboard somewhere within that first week or so, though it took some time before I discovered that it meant “I Hate This F*cking Place.”)
’86’s Plebe Summer program lasted until Labor Day, with one tiny little reprieve for Parents Weekend, when the howling dervishes got brisk and polite again for a couple of days while outside witnesses were around and about. We had a set deadline to be back to our rooms again after our little break, and, well, I won’t get into the whys, but I didn’t make it back by the appointed time, which was seemingly a heinous hanging-level offense. I’d actually done okay, all things considered, through Plebe Summer’s First Set (the period before Parents Weekend) and had gotten surprisingly decent performance reviews, but that late arrival clearly re-branded me as “Trouble!” By the end of Plebe Summer’s Second Set, I’d dropped down to the bottom ranking in my Company, beginning my long and illustrious career as a Naval Academy “shit screen,” the lowest of the lowest dregs of the Class of 1986, upon which all of the filth eventually settled that better-performing midshipmen were able to evade.
While the end of Plebe Summer seemed like it should have brought some relief and reprieve from our various travails, what it actually meant was that the entire Brigade of Midshipmen returned (dramatically increasing the number of people available to shout at us), and that our academic year started, putting 20+ credit hours of exceedingly difficult college level studies atop the loads of physical and military training that we were already undergoing. And on top of that, my own experience of Plebe Year was even more emotionally challenging that it might have been otherwise or for others, because I got up most every morning to check the newspapers to make sure my father hadn’t been killed or injured or otherwise put in harm’s way as things went south in Lebanon, and he and his fellow Marines were in and around Beirut at a particularly fraught period in that nation’s already and always tumultuous history. It was a lot.
That phase lasted until the latter part of May 1983, nine more months of relentless slog and grind, only and finally culminating when the Class of 1986 collectively completed our “Herndon Climb,” which is the Academy’s historic and annual “No More Plebes” ceremony. Many years later, one of our ’86 classmates, Rear Admiral Jim McNeal, went on to co-author (with Scott Tomasheski) the definitive history of the Herndon Climb, and I wrote more about that at this link, if you’d like some deeper insight on what that event looked like, and what it felt like, and why. And as a teaser, Jim has another book coming out later this year, for which yours truly is actually the co-author: I’ll let you know when and how you can order our Side by Side in Eternity: The Lives Behind Adjacent American Military Graves (McFarland Book, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2022) as soon as it’s available for sale. Because of course I will.
Of the ~1,400 members of the Class of 1986 who took the Oath of Office together 40 years ago, just over 1,000 of us actually graduated on May 21, 1986, the day before my 21st birthday. I was commissioned as a Naval Supply Corps Officer, headed off to Supply School in Athens, Georgia (a truly great time to be there for a music geek!), then was selected to serve in the Naval Reactors Headquarters Directorate in Washington, DC (where I met and married Marcia, a fellow, though higher ranking, Supply Corps Officer), then transitioned to civilian positions with Naval Reactors in Idaho and New York, then finally left Federal service in 1996. It was a good run.
That being said, I’d absolutely be lying if I said that the four years in Annapolis between I-Day and Graduation weren’t absurdly hard, and I’d equally totally be lying if I said that I enjoyed the experience much at all on a day-to-day basis. My Second Class (Junior) year was particularly miserable, since I spent most of it on restriction for a variety of offenses, unable to leave “The Yard” (as we refer to the Naval Academy campus). But, in the end, I got it done, and I often say that I finished the program primarily out of spite, since there were a good number of people in my chain of command who seemed to consider me as unworthy of being at Annapolis, and unworthy to become an alumnus of the Academy. They were probably right, but I did it anyway. Take that.
On the upside, I formed some of the best friendships of my life during those four years by the Severn River. (Looking at you: Junior, Jacket as Fly, Adam, Bob M, Aldo, Matthew, Thomas, Jim M, among others). Also, there’s no question in my mind that I never would have finished college in four years (or maybe ever) without the controls and constraints imposed upon me by the Academy. And the lessons learned at Annapolis in how to take initiative, how to manage time, how to function under stress, how to work efficiently and effectively, how to direct teams, how to be directed as a team member, how to prioritize, and so many other aspects of leadership and management, were truly transformative for me. Those lessons fundamentally shaped everything I did through my government service time, and in the nonprofit, educational, and writing careers that followed. I wasn’t grateful while being taught those lessons, but I’m forever grateful that I learned them.
In an unexpected turn of events in the years that followed our graduation, and because I was a weird web nerd before too many other weird web nerds had emerged, I ended up building the platform for the Class of 1986’s first online community presence in the early 1990s. I did so less out of sense of duty, and more out of a selfish “I wish we had this, and nobody’s doing it, so I will handle it myself” motivation. After serving the class as “Web Drone” (as I dubbed myself) for some years, I then went on to serve as the scribe for ’86’s monthly column in Shipmate, the Naval Academy Alumni Association magazine. And then I became the Class Secretary because of that. And then I got heavily involved in reunion planning because of that. And then, somehow, I was elected ’86’s Class President for a five year term, culminating with our 25th Class Reunion in 2011, and then I served another five-year term as Class Treasurer, I guess just to touch all of the alumni officer positions for our cohort.
I got a lot of joy and satisfaction from those experiences, even though they were a lot of hard work. I also experienced a lot of sadness from those experiences, as we have lost many classmates along the way, some giving their lives in service to their Nation, some who lost their lives as victims of terrorism on September 11th, 2001, some who fell to illness, or in training accidents, or to the bodily travails that ail us as we all get older. In my role as a class officer, I was often tasked with disseminating those sad news items among the class at large, and as there were (and are) fewer and fewer of us, the bonds that bound and bind us seemed to grow tighter, and to mean more, with each of those losses.
During my time in Annapolis, I never would have foreseen myself holding those later leadership roles, nor would anybody else who knew me closely then, and who was sober and non-delusional when questioned on the subject. I also never would have expected that I would put in so much time and money and effort giving back to an institution that had seemed most determined to make me miserable while I was there. But that’s sort of the beauty of the Naval Academy experience: it takes you as come, it fires you hard through a challenging crucible, and it sends you out as you will be, and maybe, hopefully, as you should be. The Academy experience also inculcates in you a desire to be a part of something bigger than yourself, a “link in the chain,” bound together by history, by shared experience, and by a desire to see those who follow undergo the same transformations, and build the same senses of community, that we once experienced together, beginning on I-Day ’82, all those years, all those haircuts, all those miles, all those stories, and all those lives ago . . .