Annapolis Plebe Year Grind 1960

After the Brigade of Midshipmen returned from their summer assignments, the Academy distributed the plebes into twenty-four companies in six battalions. I was assigned to the 20th company. What challenges would confront me? I believed the Academy produced the finest officers the nation offered. Would I prove worthy? When I arrived to my room, I discovered I had four roommates. How could five of us survive plebe year crammed into a small room with one shower, three double bunk beds, and five desks shoved together in the middle of the room? I walked up to the closest roommate, who was taller than I. He flashed a wide smile. “Hi, I’m Denny Lyndon from Topeka, Kansas.” “I’m Dan Lavery. I left Duke University as a sophomore to come here. My Dad and brother went here.” “My Dad did also.” Denny spoke Spanish and French, was an avid sailboat enthusiast, and an excellent student in all areas. Another roommate arrived. “Hi guys. My name is Rich Umfrid from Cape May, New Jersey.” At 6' 3", he played basketball, achieved high marks in all subjects, loved all sports, and had an excellent sense of humor. A shorter stocky plebe chimed in, “I’m John Frazier from Haverford, Pennsylvania and attended prep school in Philadelphia.” Another top scholar in our class, John stood only about 5' 7,” had a muscular physique, and soccer legs. A skinny pale plebe almost my height added, “My name is Mike Pemberton. I’m from Ventura, California.” Mike weighed a mere one hundred and twenty pounds. An excellent cross-country runner, he barely passed the physical exam due to his weight. As scholarly as anyone in our room, Mike embraced Christianity.

For some reason, maybe because of the stress we experienced, I began to give an animal nickname to each roommate. We all joined in this humorous bonding ritual. We used these names to lighten up our load. We sometimes changed the nickname or just added another one. Denny had the unfair nickname I gave him of “The Cow.” Rich earned the name “Hawk,” from a protruding forehead. We also called him, “Freed.” We nicknamed John the “Penguin,” and “Little Man.” I nicknamed Mike “Spider” when I saw his spindly legs hanging from the upper bunk. Some of our instructors and Brigade Officers remarked that by noon, we had completed more activities than our contemporaries at civilian colleges had their entire day. I agreed, but knew it was only because we did so many activities that only applied to the military emphasizing discipline, cleanliness, and teamwork. We spit-shined shoes, folded laundry exactly on the laundry number and name, mopped the floor, and recited naval trivia. This shortened time for the task most universities performed—learning significant ideas in literature, philosophy, history, music, art, and science.

Meals demanded more from us than any other plebe activity. We entered the mess hall at “double time,” (jogging at twice the speed of marching) heads bobbing up and down until we reached our assigned table. Each plebe stood at attention, eyes straight ahead (in the boat) and chins “rigged in” that caused wrinkles on the neck. When all the upper classmen assigned to a table arrived, plebes sat at attention on the chairs’ last three inches. Each table seated four plebes and variety of upper classmen. Normally two first classmen sat at the head of each table. They were in charge.

Plebes had to anticipate every upper classmen’s needs: poured their drinks, passed them food and utensils without request. During the meal, first classmen fired a barrage of questions at each plebe until the “firsties” began to eat. The second classmen descended upon the plebes next. A plebe could not speak with his mouth full of food. He had to chew three times and swallow if asked a question while eating. We had to put up with “come arounds.” An upper classman ordered you to his room at a specific time for any number of punishing harassments. They could fill the day depending on the time the upper classman used to “square away” a plebe.

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Breaking Through the Fog of a Fundamental Christian Teenager

My friends on the basketball team from Yokosuka Navy Base, who rode in the carryall with me to and from YoHi, noticed the change that had taken place in me from reading the Bible during the forty-five minute drive each day from practice. “Are you asking Jesus to help you? Has Jesus saved you because you read the Bible? Do you think you’ll play better in sports because you pray? Is the devil trying to tempt you?” Jerry Cohen, Jack Purdum and others peppered me with questions and tried to provoke me, but that only drove me further inside myself. Ignoring them, closing my eyes, I descended into the deadly serious medieval words from the Bible. My friends continued to try to keep me from changing into to a holier-than-thou-monk. Maybe they recognized my changed personality seemed delusional and wanted to awaken me to enjoy our friendship and the future.

***

“What have you learned from the Bible?”Jerry asked a month later appearing interested.

“The teachings of Jesus have changed my life. You’ll start to understand what I mean if you read the Book of St. John. Ask me anything and I’ll discuss it with you.”

“I’ll read some tonight. I’m sorry for making fun of you.”

“A religious sailor started a Bible Study group to help people understand the Book of Revelation. Come with me at our next meeting,” I said. Jerry joined us for one session, started reading the Bible, and shared his thoughts with his father.

“Why don’t you discuss the Book of Revelation with my Dad and me tomorrow after school?” he said a few days later.

“Ok, but I’m no Biblical scholar.”

“That doesn’t matter. You might find my Dad has some insight on the Bible.”

“Alright, see you then.”

Entering their home with trepidation because I had never thought of discussing my new Christian beliefs with a Jewish Doctor who was far more knowledgeable, I wanted to cooperate in the pursuit of Bible study, whether it came from his father, or anyone else. Doctor Cohen sat on a leather chair in his library surrounded by hundreds of books in floor-to-ceiling bookshelves with the Book of Revelations on his lap. A little over-weight, balding with dark hair on the side, his large head exuded a facial expression of reflection, intelligence, and kindness. Fortunate to have a man of his caliber at our discussion, upon viewing him, I became almost instantly frozen in humility as a teenager before a pinnacle of wisdom.

“You’ve been studying the Bible with a group led by a sailor?” he asked.

“When Jerry showed an interest in what inspired me, I asked him to join me.”

“Dad and I noticed from the book of Revelation,” Jerry began, “that St. John’s dream described a vision of Jesus returning to Earth in the future in the clouds to save the believers. But, only twelve thousand Jews were included. Do you believe that?

“The Bible is the Word of God and the truth I’ve been taught.”

“Dad and I agreed that no loving God would ever allow millions of practicing Jews remaining on earth to die in the lake of fire.”

“I’ll ask John for his input, or maybe my minister,” was what came out of my mouth having no answer for their dissent, recognizing I knew too little to convince Jerry about such a discrepancy, much less his father.

At our next meeting I asked John about their protest. “The Book of Revelation is the Holy Word of God all Christians believe,” he began confidently. “The Holy Spirit inspired every word in the Bible. Jerry and his father are Jewish. They reject Christ as the Son of God and our Savior. Don’t waste your time with non-believers.”

This conflict and his answer baffled me. The Cohens had a strong argument and John seemed prejudiced against Jews but, I was too uncertain to criticize him. The next Sunday at church I asked the Navy Chaplain, a graduate of Princeton's Theological Seminary, about this dilemma because of his knowledge, intelligence, kindness, and easy accessibility.

“Many things aren’t fully explained in the Bible,” Chaplain Chambers said.  “We often don’t understand their meaning without careful research into the language of the original texts, especially the Book of Revelation. Terms like twelve thousand can mean a much larger number today, since that number would have been significant then. Millions of Jews follow the Ten Commandments and live virtuous lives. We can’t always take the Bible’s language literally. Many passages from the Bible say if a person loves his neighbors, treats all life with compassion, and cares for his family, even if he never heard of Jesus or the Bible, God would welcome him into Heaven.”

He used an analogy: “A native on an island with no Bible to read, who lived a virtuous life harming no one, as God would have us live, would not suffer in Hell. Just because he lacked that knowledge, our loving and all-knowing God would never reject such a person from the gates of Heaven.”

My pursuit of truth made me aware that many sincere and good people see religion differently. Afterwards I shared this understanding with Jerry in a philosophical discussion.

“Reading distinguished authors to gain wisdom on how to live an ethical life is preferable to memorizing the Bible,” he said. Intrusive “born-again” indoctrination required me to consider my past as depraved. Self-loathing and repetitive Bible verse memorization, athletics, and studies left little time for open-minded thought that might have allowed me to challenge some religious concepts I accepted without questioning. Nevertheless, someone wiser than I, had planted seeds of a broader understanding that would bear fruit in the future.

     

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