How do four years pass in the blink of an eye?
That's what I wonder as I sit alongside the hallowed ground of The Plain, a wide, flat, manicured lawn on the grounds of the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. Story goes that, of all the expanses of green grass in this great country, only that at the White House costs more to maintain.
On this Friday morning, The Plain is groomed to perfection and green as an emerald, having just seen five consecutive days of rain. But there will be no rain this day, not during this parade. The lead-grey skies are cracking open to reveal patches of hazy blue, as if God himself smiled down from the heavens and said, "These young soldiers have endured enough these past 47 months. No need to march them through the mud at graduation. Let's make this a day to celebrate."
And celebrate they would, this West Point Class of 2011. Just over a thousand of the nation's finest men and women, and yes, I'm proud to count my son among them. As we wait for the first bugle note to echo across this lush space, I'm remembering another morning very much like this one: July 2nd, 2007. R-Day, in West Point parlance. Reception Day.
The day 1300 fresh-faced teenagers, most of them having just graduated from high school a scant few weeks earlier, arrived at this place to embark on--or maybe endure--the biggest challenge any of them had yet seen in their young lives: to be first torn down and then built up, tested by hardship, challenged by adversity, molded through a West Point education to become officers in the Army of the United States of America.
That day, so etched in my mind, seems like it could have occurred just a few weeks ago. The memories are vivid--waking my son up that morning for an event that would change the course of his life; the drive to the academy, younger brother and sisters in tow; the bus ride to Eisenhower Hall and its massive auditorium; and finally, the "90 seconds to say goodbye" that wrenched my heart.
Through the long lens of my camera I see them now, assembling on the far side of the sally ports that tunnel through Washington Hall. Even from 500 yards away, it's easy to read the body language: casual joy, excitement, exuberance. They've been together for 47 months, these cadets. Twenty-four hours to go until West Point kicks them out of the nest, awards them the bars of a 2nd lieutenant and sends them off to lead America's troops, many of whom will be even younger than they.
Suddenly everything changes. A command unheard at our distance snaps these cadets to attention. They assemble in perfect order, in perfect posture--eyes forward, heads held high.
Bleachers are filled to bursting with parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers, sweethearts, friends. Pride cascades down the steps. Four years after we dropped them off here--or more accurately, after West Point snatched them from us--our sons and daughters are 24 hours away from leaving this place.
A voice command echoes across The Plain from an officer too far away for us to see. Another issues his response, long, low, earnest. Ten thousand observers are silent. A bugle sounds, the band strikes up a march, and the West Point graduation parade is underway.
With incredible confidence and amazing precision, they pour forth. More than six thousand cadets march onto The Plain in unison, by regiment, batallion and company. And united they are, no matter their year in the Academy; whether a graduating Firstie, a Cow, a Yuk or a lowly Plebe, these cadets are joined together by the unshakable, centuries-old bond of West Point.
In moments the emerald green expanse is filled, though not to capacity, with our sons and daughters, literally an Army of young future officers. A noble, placid sea of confidence faces us now. Grey trousers and gleaming white shirts and hats, brass gleaming on chests, the graduating Firsties marked by the red sashes around every waist and shiny sabres on each left hip.
I'm transported back again to 2007 when we all first saw these Firsties march. It was the evening of Reception Day and only a few hundred yards from where we are now. We'd given our children to West Point just that morning. The incoming Plebe class--the "New Cadets"--had been efficiently ingested, lined up, looked at and barked at. Their civilian clothes were taken, even their eyeglasses disappeared to be reissued in ugly, standard thick black plastic courtesy of the U.S. Army. The men endured 30-second buzz cuts of whatever hair they'd brought. A few hours later, the entire incoming class (numbering more than 1300 back then) marched in unison to Trophy Point to take the oath of allegiance and to show us parents what the Army can do with our children, given a few hours and enough yelling.
Maybe it was me projecting my emotions onto the New Cadets, but they seemed so scared back on that warm July evening--not exactly fragile but certainly not enjoying this new maelstrom of order and discipline and the challenge that already enveloped them. They looked as though they'd been dropped into a chilly river just above the falls and already felt the inexorable tug of a powerful current carrying them toward profound change.
Now, assembled together on the plain four years later, they exude confidence--and class. The Firsties are called forward to stand in formation at the very edge of the bleachers. Parents crane their necks, desperate to pick out a son or daughter among the thousand faces in identical uniforms. The Firsties smartly salute their Superintendent who proudly returns their salute from the center box. Then, on command and in unison, they spin 180 degrees to face the underclassmen still in formation on the opposite side of The Plain.
The music thunders again; some of America's most famous marches sound forth, including "The Army Song" (The Army Goes Rolling Along). Company by company, the underclassmen march forward, executing in unison a right, a left and another left turn to pass by their superior officers, the Firsties, who stand in review. Midway through the parade, every cadet, every able-bodied man, woman and child stand and salute the flag of this great nation as it proudly passes, carried high by West Point cadets.
I'm fairly certain my son and the other cadets wouldn't agree, but time seems compressed at West Point. The four years that passed so quickly for me probably seemed an eternity to them. Even on this morning, five-thousand future officers march in precision past all of us parents and the graduating class and it seems to take only seconds. In moments, the underclassmen have vanished from The Plain, the path of their march carrying them back through the sally ports to be swallowed by the enormous facade of Washington Hall.
The final bars of the closing march echo into the silent distance, leaving the Firsties alone on The Plain. Tomorrow they will graduate and receive their commissions as officers in the U.S. Army. Today they are still just college students, albeit cadets at one of the finest and toughest undergraduate schools in the world, the United States Military Academy.
The order is given--"Cadets dismissed." With a roar of exuberance and disbelief, these graduating Firsties break formation; the smart, straight columns give way to bedlam as they fall into the outstretched arms of their loved ones, enjoying the adulation of the parents, family and friends who first brought them to West Point for R-Day. Graduation--a day many of them thought they might never reach--now stands 23 hours away.
How do four years pass in the blink of an eye?
Jon Scott is anchor of "Happening Now" and "Fox News Watch" on Fox News Channel and the proud father of a West Point graduate.