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Fourth Battalion, Fourth Class (Plebes) on the steps of Bancroft Hall.

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The marks for the first year gave me a class standing of 450 out of 1050
Midshipman 4/c, sufficient to graduate a year early.

 

A Plebe's Survival
 

Most of the other Plebes at Annapolis had prepared themselves by reading the handbooks that tell you the pat answers to the standard questions to be posed by upperclassmen and give good advice on how to survive as a Plebe. I went innocently into that institution without any preparation, and what a shock. I quickly learned obedience and subservience the hard way. I failed to answer the first question put to me at dinner time and “shoved out” most of the meal. The question was, “Mr. Jarvis, why are you here at the dinner table?” I replied, “To eat, Sir.” I couldn’t have made a greater mistake. My reply was supposed to be, “To serve and entertain the Upper Class, Sir.” That was a sample. It got lots worse and stayed that way all year.

It is all right to haze Plebes, up to a point. Officially, hazing gets outlawed every few years but it seems to go on, regardless. There was one Youngster at my table who was a bad one—Youngsters are second year Midshipmen having been plebes so recently, they are sometimes worse than the more seasoned 2/c and 1/c. But all upper classmen are in fact superior officers to the Plebes and are entitled to give orders.

This Youngster thought I needed a lot of attention because I hadn’t come prepared with all the stock answers and I was pretty naive in general. To make me more worldly he had me recite “Dangerous Dan McGrew,” a dirty poem that is still in my memory.

Dangerous Dan McGrew

“A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in one of those Yukon halls.
The kid who tickled the music box was steadily scratching his balls. The faro kid had his hand on the box of a lady known as Lou.
And there on the floor on the top of a whore was Dangerous Dan McGrew.
When out of the night which was black as a bitch and into the din and smoke, pushed a dirty old prick just down from the crick with a rusty load in his poke.
He shouldered his way through the flea bitten crowd and yelled that he wanted to play.
His pants were split and covered with shit that looked like the white of an egg. His face was red as a baboon’s ass. And in him a passion burned. He gazed around at the flea bitten crowd and everyone’s asshole squirmed.
The lights went out, the stranger sprang in the dark. His aim was true, the sparks they flew, his domickers hit their mark. The lights came on; the stranger rose a satisfied look on his pan.
And there on the floor, his asshole all tore, was poor old cornholed Dan.

That was Youngster No. 1. Another Youngster insisted that I was so gross I had to do the “fly act.” That meant going over to the mess hall door where an electric mesh zapped incoming flies. The “fly act” meant sticking your fingers in the mesh to get the same electrical zap that the flies got. Some upper classmen frowned on this a bit as inhumane punishment, but nobody ever seemed to get injured permanently. For some reason, I didn’t mind this punishment, I guess because there were worse ones and this one seemed to satisfy the Youngster for the moment.

The matter that did bother me, however, occurred after meals when the Plebes have to push their chairs in to the table and stand erect with their behinds touching their chairs. This permits the Upper Classmen to file out of the mess hall without any Plebes in the way.

One Youngster who passed by me every day got in the habit of popping me in the stomach on the way out of the mess hall. I always did get at least something to eat during meals and really resented his popping my full stomach. One day when I was least expecting it, he popped me particularly hard. I will never understand my reaction but, instinctively, I let go my right fist and hit that Youngster so hard that I decked him. Boy, was he surprised. I can hear him now as he got up and confronted me, shouting, “Don’t you know it’s a capital offense to strike a superior?” I was scared, really scared that this incident would, at the least, get me kicked out of the Academy. When suddenly a First Classmen interjected, saying to the Youngster, “Come on, let it be, you deserved what you got.” And that was the end of it. I still can’t imagine my decking that Youngster, but I did it, and thank God for that First Classman.

The common saying is that Midshipmen are officers and gentlemen by act of Congress, but the courses at the Academy are designed to try to make the “gentleman” part a reality. Where else would you wear white gloves and a sword to all the “hops” (formal dances) and have all your teachers address you as “Mister Jarvis?” And take courses in Naval Courtesy and Etiquette, in International Diplomacy, Naval Traditions, and be bound by a rigid Honor Code in all matters? And take required courses in the manly art of fencing and in the gentlemanly art of sailing where you mastered the handling of pleasure yachts?

At one breakfast in the cavernous mess hall, a particular Youngster (second-year midshipman) demanded of me, “Mister Jarvis, who was it that said, ‘If the mast goes, I go with it?’” I could just envision some heroic Navy man tied to the mast of his ship uttering those famous words. But, not knowing the answer, I made the only permitted response, “I’ll find out, Sir!” In the weeks following I searched history books and asked my upperclassmen friends but to no avail. Because I didn’t have the answer, I was “shoving out” at practically every meal, that is, assuming a sitting position but without a chair.

Finally a Second Classmen gave me a tip. He said, “Go look at the placards in Isherwood Hall.” Sure enough, in one obscure corner there was a wall full of placards. One placard read, “If the Mast Goes, I Go With It.” It was signed Midshipman Jarvis. In the old days there had been another Midshipman Jarvis. After Plebe year, my graduation from Annapolis was almost an anti-climax.

Like other famous East Coast schools the sports program was fantastic. Every afternoon I had to go out for sports; I can recount at least 15 different sports I participated in.

But the nub of the Annapolis program lies in the day-to-day academics. We were graded in every class every day. In addition, we had other, regular, more extensive exams during each course as well as the final exams. All these grades and your athletic and leadership marks went into a big hopper and out came your class standing. Each year you knew exactly what your class rank was.

This class rank is important in many ways. Take a small example —Navy etiquette. When two ships approach each other in the ocean, the junior ship Captain, is supposed to haul up his saluting flag first and only then the senior Captain from the other ship flag salutes. What if both ships are captained by officers who graduated from the Academy the same year? Very simple: class standing governs! Class standing was important to me in a different way. At the end of my very first year at Annapolis it was decided to split the class — half of us would graduate early and serve in the Japanese invasion which was to end World War II. Since I was in the upper half of the class I got to graduate a year early. Even so, I missed the end of World War II because the atom bomb had ended the Japanese War prematurely, but I was in time to serve in the Korean War which followed. My class standing for the first year was 450. Although my class standing was lowered because of all the demerits I got from being an “off the ball” Plebe, it was high enough to make the top half of the class, well under the dividing point of 550.

 

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