West Point Magic
by Charles B. Pettis
One summer many years ago, our good friends Lois and Ben, accompanied by their teen-aged daughters Amy and Megan, visited us in New Jersey. We took a ride up the Hudson River to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The boat was crowded, and everyone wanted to sit by the rail to get a better view of the Hudson Valley.
Once at West Point, we walked the steep hill to the campus. On the boat, we had been only aware vaguely of the heat. After walking up that hill, we were keenly aware of the heat. The seven of us nosed around, taking in the stately, gray stone buildings and basking in the vapors of Pershing, Eisenhower and MacArthur.
A few cadets walked briskly by, out of one building, into another. They saluted one another-underclassmen showing due respect for their superiors. Occasionally, a commissioned officer came by and all the cadets saluted sharply, each gray arm trying to beat the others to salute first.
We stepped through an archway into a small, tree-lined quadrangle to get a look at the bronze statue of MacArthur. We were confronted by the General keeping watch over “The Corps.”
Lois stepped aside to get a better angle for a picture. A young family - mom, dad, sister and brother - moved politely out of the way. An older couple walked together. Clearly the man had been a cadet in the 1920s. “Just after we beat the Kaiser,” he said.
An approaching throng of young children from a local day camp were bumping each other, as children do. They all seemed to be talking at once but in uncharacteristically hushed tones. They wore identical T-shirts with a slogan about pride, while two camp counselors tried their best to keep order.
In all, there were perhaps fifty people in the yard. Despite the crowd, the tone was quiet and peaceful. But more than that, it was expectant. There was something in the air, like the feeling when you fit in the last piece of the puzzle.
* * *
I imagined the approach of a young Cadet, of 18 or 19, but with the bearing of a much older man. Although a bit under six feet, he appeared taller in his tailored, gray uniform and shiny, black-billed cap. He walked in the confident manner of a second-year cadet, one who has progressed from the lowly status of Plebe to become a respected member of The Corps.
He stopped to say hello to the young family. The daughter - she was about 12 - giggled nervously and blushed. Her six-year old brother shook his hand, then stepped back and saluted. The young Cadet returned the salute and tousled the boy's hair. Mom and Dad stood by, proud smiles beaming.
The boys and girls from the day camp stopped talking and pushing. They waved and he tipped his cap. A small girl with long, red hair gazed starry-eyed and clutched at the locket and chain around her neck. He smiled. The young girl could only stare, speechless.
The older couple stepped up to meet him. The Cadet removed his cap and bowed ever so slightly to the woman as they were introduced. He addressed the man as “sir.” The old man placed his hands on the Cadet's shoulders and wished him well.
The Cadet moved on, continuing in our direction. When he entered the yard, the ambient noise became a hum. The day's heat became gentle, pleasant. A friendly breeze rustled in the bushes and high in the overarching trees.
The Cadet looked at Megan and smiled. He held out his right arm and she took it. They strolled slowly away from us in the direction of the overlook, which affords a magnificent view of the mighty Hudson River. The crowd of people gladly moved back to give the Cadet and the young lady the privacy they sought.
When Megan and the Cadet walked to the river, I noticed the husband and his young wife squeezing hands. Their 12-year old daughter placed her arm around her brother's shoulders affectionately. The boy saluted once more, holding his salute until the couple disappeared from view.
The day campers stood by quietly. The red-haired girl to whom the Cadet had tipped his cap was still clutching her locket. She held hands with her best friend, a girl her own age with ebony skin and large brown eyes. Two boys - both campers - looked at the two girls, wondering what was happening and wanting desperately to share in the moment. It would be years before they would begin to understand.
The elderly veteran and his wife never did get to see MacArthur's statue up close, although they started in that direction and had every intention of looking at the bronze General. When the Cadet first stopped to speak to Megan, the woman turned around abruptly, almost losing her balance. She didn't know why, but she had to watch this compelling scene. He was not too different, she thought, from another young Cadet she had known years before.
When his wife faltered, the veteran helped her regain her balance. He put his left arm around her waist and placed his right hand under her right elbow. When the Cadet and Megan walked next to them, the woman closed her eyes and leaned her head against her husband. He gave her arm a gentle squeeze. The feeling of joy and peace was so intense, so absolute; it was palpable.
* * *
Many people insist that West Point is a magical place. They will tell you that wonderful, unexplained things happen amid the gray, Gothic buildings and the ancient, spreading oaks. I, for one, believe them.
Copyright © 2016 by Charles B. Pettis