This past weekend, my father celebrated his 60th college reunion at the US Military Academy at West Point.
He attended the long weekend of activities with my older brother who, unlike me, had vivid memories of when we lived on post (I was but a wee toddler, and yet I remain a proud Army brat and always feel an upsurge of emotion when I’m at West Point).
I met up with them on a Sunday morning, after all the official reunion events were over. I met some of my father’s classmates in the lobby of the hotel as they were getting ready to head back to their respective homes. We went into town for a brunch at Andy’s Diner (a place that has been around since 1903 and which many Plebes went to, though my father had never been there. I gave them copies of a short fiction anthology of military sci-fi that includes one of my stories. We toured the West Point Museum.
West Point and the objects in the museum brought memories back to my father. The boxy “tarbucket” hat on display prompted him to share the memory of a jokester classmate who hid an alarm clock under his hat, so that once they were all on the parade grounds and standing in formation, it started ringing.
One of the highlights of the reunion was a presentation by one of my father’s Class of 1954 classmates David Scott, who was the commander of the Apollo 15 mission in 1971. Yes, that’s right, one of my dad’s 633 classmates is one of only 12 people to have ever walked on the moon. The presentation was a timeline of events from West Point to the Air Force to becoming a NASA astronaut in 1963 and then eventually making it up to the moon. Scott even said there was a crater on the moon called Crater 54, named after his West Point Class of ’54.
What stood out for my father and brother, though, was that Scott said, “While I was doing that, you guys (meaning the other West Point grads and former military officers in the room) were doing this …” And then he overlaid his timeline with the timeline of the Vietnam War.
The reality of war – its lethal danger — is never far off at West Point. As we waited for the valet to bring our car to the entrance of the Thayer Hotel, a young man – maybe not yet in his 30s, and with the clean-cut and muscular build of a military man — walked into the hotel on two prosthetic legs, asking a valet if it was OK that he parked in a handicap spot even though he didn’t have a sticker because it was a rental car.
Then there is the entrance to the Lucas Military Heritage Center, which is next to the West Point Museum. The center is named after another of my father’s classmates, Andre Cavaro Lucas, a Medal of Honor recipient who was killed during the Vietnam War. Near the entrance sat another stone engraved with the names of members of the Class of 1954 who were killed in combat. My father pointed to one of the names and said that the deceased classmate had been with him in Vietnam and had asked my father to fly on a mission in a helicopter with him. My father didn’t make it that day, and my father’s classmate’s helicopter was shot down, and my father’s classmate was killed.
That kind of proximity to violent death so intricately tied up with the history of the U.S. sent chills up my spine. And I choked up when I thought of the ultimate sacrifices my father’s classmates had made – that these were the things that my father, my uncle and their father, my grandfather (all of them West Point grads) had put on the line and had led to the life I have today.
As my older brother put it, this West Point reunion wasn’t like a college reunion. It wasn’t like these men graduated and then went off on their own. They worked together as officers in the military. They sacrificed together in war. Or, as one of my father’s classmates said when I met him, “I went to school with you father, and then I taught your uncle!” (My uncle graduated in the Class of 1964.
What I saw in the 80-year-old men around me at the Thayer Hotel was that being in that space – where many of them grew from teens into men – brought out the youthfulness that remains in them.
My father said that when he and his classmates lined up and stood there on the parade grounds (though a few were in wheelchairs) as the cadets marched before them, one of his classmates turned to him and said, “When we were out there, the old guys watching us were veterans of the Spanish-American War!”
Perhaps what I liked most was a moment my older brother relayed to me. The 100-plus West Point grads celebrating their 60th reunion were all in their early 80s. Some were in wheelchairs. Some walked stooped over. Those who could take the stairs, did so with care, holding on the handrails all the way up and down.
Not my father, who has been seeing a trainer every week for about 10 years now. Sometimes he would use the handrails, but sometimes he wouldn’t and he’d walked down the stairs without holding onto anything.
My older brother overhead one of my father’s classmates call out, “Look at Max. There he goes again. Going down the middle!”