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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an article in
Naval Institute Proceedings
Vol. 61 No. 10 (Oct. 1935), pp1515‑1528

The text is in the public domain,
the 1935 copyright not having been renewed in 1962 or 1963.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p1515  Navy Life Begins

By Lieutenant E. M. Eller, U. S. Navya

"A gentleman by the Act of Congress!"

"Yes?" I looked inquiringly, half in amusement, half in curiosity, at the boy who had spoken to me. He was short and stocky and his blue eyes twinkled amazingly above pink, healthy cheeks. Later, when we became good friends, I learned that he was a Navy Junior (his father before him was in the Navy) and thereby knew many things that to us others were strange and hard to understand.

"Sure!" He laughed up at me engagingly and I liked him more at once. "Don't you remember his reading that line about 'an officer and a gentleman,' and a little later stating that all the foregoing was by the act of such and such a Congress? Don't you remember that?"

I did, of course. We, a motley crowd of us, were a group of candidates who had just been sworn in as midshipmen in the United States Navy. I had come early that morning to the old, Colonial city of Annapolis and, feeling very proud but looking a little slouchy I am afraid, had walked through the marine-guarded main gate into the Naval Academy grounds where I was soon directed to the Administration Building. Early as I was, there were many before me — many boys from many parts of the country and many walks of life. We were a strange and assorted lot: the nasal down-easter, the Irish Catholic Bostonian, the hearty Westerner, the big‑framed and a little-awkward boy from the Middle West, the sophisticated New Yorker, the slow drawling Southerner. Some had been accustomed to wealth, and a few, I am afraid, tried to lord it over some others who had evidently needed to buy only the cheapest of clothing. For the Naval Academy, like the great country it represents, gives a chance to all, the snobby rich and the gentlemanly rich, the parasitic poor and the proud poor, the cad, the bootlick, and the real boy. No matter what he has been, the gates are opened to all who can pass the entrance tests and the rigid physical examinations. No account is taken of the past which might place one above and another below; but all are entered equal, all in sound health, all with a solid basis of training. Whether they prove themselves fit to wear the uniform is another matter. Many become tired and drop in the race; many dislike the life and go seek a more congenial one; many are found wanting physically, mentally, or morally and must leave. Many fine boys and many undesirable ones walk out the iron gates before the four years are ended and do not return. But the chances are equal to all, each one can make what he wants out of them; any fit American boy, barring accidents, can win through the long four years to a commission. In the weeding out that proceeds continually, though many of the best go, there is something encouraging in the knowledge that few who are not gentlemen and representative of all the sound ideals an American should stand for last to the end. So maybe there is, after all, something in that act of Congress.

Whatever might happen in four years, could you have seen us at the time, and then a month later, you would have refused to believe that we were the same group of boys; that the tanned, healthy, and military formation of white-uniformed young men was composed of the same fellows you saw first in suits ranging from bright green down to purple and red, in positions descending from a slouch to a sickly droop as we stood around bidding the time of entering. Some were wan and pale from too little exercise. A few were of good  p1516 posture and sturdy physique. Some had cigarettes flopping from their lips. One group was talking athletics, another larger one was listening to a humorous tale by a born troubadour. A few sick minds were besmirching each others' ears with dirty stories. We were, you must remember, a slice of the good and the bad and all that lies between.

"All right, Gentlemen, you can come in now." A tall lieutenant, neat and military in his starched whites and glittering buttons, had opened a door to us. The mills had begun to grind. What would they turn out from this varied crowd?

One by one we filed in past him.

"Gentlemen," the officer said, "drinking and the use of tobacco in any form is prohibited in the Naval Academy.​b As you go by my desk and fill out the forms here, please deposit on it any tobacco or liquor that you may have."

It was like saying, "You may start clean, start all over again. Here is your chance."

I think every boy in the group was equal, for the moment, to the trust placed in him. Before we had finished there was a pile of cigarettes and matches, two or three plugs of tobacco, and one small bottle.

Then we were led to sick bay for physical examination.

"Can you hear this?" the doctor would say, and whisper "thirty-three."

"Yes," you would answer.

"And this?" he would say, and whisper  p1517 nothing at all.

Your good angel was with you, if you weren't too eager and answered again "yes, Sir!"

"What diseases have you had?" a doctor asked each of us.

One boy answered, "Smallpox, chicken pox, malaria, German measles, scarlet fever, shingles, yellow fever, influ-"

"Wait a minute!" the doctor broke in with a grin, "you don't belong in the Navy; what you ought to join is a circus."

"Are your parents living?" was another question. A quiet, sandy-haired boy was answering.

"Yes, Sir."

"Your grandparents?"

"Yes, Sir . . ."

"How many of them? One, two, three, or four?"

"No, Sir; six."

"Six! What are you a Mormon?"

"No, Sir, I have a stepfather."

It was a long and thorough examination. When it was finished, there were other places to go and something else to do until at last we had gathered before the Commandant and had been sworn in. It was as we were coming out that the blue-eyed Navy Junior and I had entered into conversation.

"Gosh, what comes next?" I wondered. "I'm already tired out."

"Oh," he laughed, "the day has just begun. My dad says this is the day you learn the old Navy custom of standing in line. He says the first 1,000 times are hardest and that you'll think most of them come the day you enter."

His dad knew his Navy; but toward noon the rush and standing in line slowed down. We were grouped in a large room; it was, as I later learned, Memorial Hall. Around the walls naval heroes looked down at us with vague, unseeing eyes. As we stood waiting, it seemed to me that the past slowly faded and that in each picture the eyes smiled on us with a wistful, hopeful  p1518 look while the lips whispered "Luck to you, my lads." An occasional bust sat on a pedestal. Trinkets and papers in glass gave evidence of the incalculable and imperishable glory given to a little thing of little worth when woven about with the high qualities of honor and courage and loyalty. Far above our heads stretched the Navy's most historic banner. Its large, roughly cut white letters sewed on a blue background proclaimed the immortal words of one of the bravest of the brave, of Captain Lawrence as he lay dying on the deck of his shattered frigate: "Don't Give Up The Ship." It was the flag Perry had flown that memorable day on Lake Erie a few months later; the flag he had hauled down from one silenced ship and had thrown across his arm to make, with courage, his only shield as he rode in an open boat across the shot-torn waters and hoisted the battle cry again on another ship. Hoisted it . . . and dared to victory.

A hush came over the crowd of us, all noisy, lively boys, as we assembled there. It is food for the heart to stand in the presence of glory. I think all of us resolved that moment to live a little nearer the pattern of these men.

There was not long for meditation.

"Gentlemen!" A tall officer with two stripes on his shoulder bars called us to attention. "You are now to be divided into two groups, the sheep on one hand and the goats on the other." He smiled, and we, relieved, laughed but nervously nevertheless. Many of us had feared for a moment that he was earnest, that the sheep were to stay and the goats depart, and were worried for ourselves. "That is only figuratively, of course," he added. "It may be, later in the year, that any number of you will think you are the goats for having chosen wrong! But what I mean to say is that half of you must study French and half Spanish. All other subjects will be the same for all of you, but the language you take is elective. You have five minutes to decide. Those who want French step to the left side of the room; those who want Spanish, to the right. The Spanish students will be assigned to the First and Third Battalions; the French, to the Second and Fourth."

As simple as that are some decisions in life. Five minutes to decide who will be your friends, who will be the companions to influence you, who are the boys with whom you will live and intermingle and build your character for four years. It is true, of course, that every midshipman has, before the four years are finished, a wide acquaintance throughout the four battalions of the regiment, yet primarily he lives within his own battalion and even within his company. He eats, drills, attends formation,  p1519 recites, and competes with men of his own battalion. So much of the day is taken up with these and so little left for recreation that fundamentally he becomes more a part of his battalion, if possible, than of the regiment of midshipmen, itself. However, few of us understood the importance of the moment; few of us could have chosen any better if we had, for none knew who would make up his battalion. Most decided upon past experience in either of the two languages, which was wise. Many decided because they thought Spanish was easier, which was wise too, perhaps. But it added a complication.

"Here! here! The officer was laughing. The division had been made and two‑thirds had selected Spanish. Only a small group huddled on the French side. "No, you can't get away with this. You all want to take Spanish because you think it is easier. I did too." The confession pleased us. "But I found out my error."

When we had finished laughing, he picked out the shamefaced ones who had studied French and wanted no more of it; so that, finally, the sides were about equal in number.

"Now," said he, "you are to be assigned rooms. There will be two to a room. You may choose your roommate. My only advice is, pick one with a little nose, he doesn't snore as loudly."

Thus it came about that the last two of us on the French side found ourselves as roommates. Everybody else seemed to know somebody. We alone were utter strangers.

"Shall we try it together?" I asked.

"I'd be glad to," he said in a long, winding drawl that had come all the way from the grasslands of Kentucky. When he grows old, he will be, no doubt, a colonel. Even when we first met at the Academy, he was spare and sallow with dark, brilliant eyes and a thin, peaked face which,  p1520 with his body, had probably been written small by the immense surname he bore — it had in it almost half the letters of the alphabet.

Not all the new class, which in my case was over 800, are admitted the same day. There were probably 50 or 60 of us newcomers that morning. As registration had started early in the week, we swelled the total to about 200. Those who had come the preceding three days, of course, were old hands. What they didn't know about the Academy they made up in impressiveness, as we would be doing on the morrow!

These others were to guide us to our rooms. From the first, Bancroft Hall, where we were at the moment and would live for four years, amazed me. In this one building are the battalion administration offices, the regimental administration offices, the Commandant's office, the offices of all the school publications, the Memorial Hall, and a similar one beneath for recreation called "Smoke Hall," the mess hall, the Midshipmen's Store where everything a midshipman needs from tooth paste and socks to books and paper is furnished, the post-office, the sick bay with its stock of iodine and Epsom salts, the tailor shop, the laundry, the trunk-and‑bag room, the express office, a bowling alley, a pistol gallery, the cobbler shop, and innumerable other rooms, it seems, not forgetting quarters for 2,500 midshipmen; while joined to it on either side by colonnades are the armory, the swimming pool, and the gymnasium; and surrounding most of it are vast terraces. It is a remarkable building, though as simple as your own house when you have become accustomed to it. It is built roughly like a thick-bodied, square-angled U. The bottom of the U, the landward side, faces the "Yard" proper, as the Academy grounds are called, and in front of it and along the ends of the base is a broad terrace on which  p1521 the whole regiment is drawn up at formation. Inside the U at the rear, the seaward side, and abutting on the base line is another great terrace. From the above you can see that Bancroft Hall is by no means a perfect U. Moreover, its resemblance is further decreased by stairways and approaches and by short corridors from the side wings. But that is the nearest comparison I know that might describe it.

Up the broad steps in front of this building we had been led to the Commandant's office and Memorial Hall. Now a lad of the day‑before-entry led Vallandingham,​e my roommate-to‑be, and me toward our room.

We walked and walked and walked. Then we turned a corner and walked as far again down another apparently endless corridor. Like the preceding one, it was perfectly straight. The floor (I would be saying deck in a week) was a red bitumastic. Exactly down the center of the ceiling ("overhead" I soon learned was the proper term) was a glaring row of symmetrically placed large, white chandeliers. The walls were barren and cold, and unbroken except by an endless succession of stained doors with a staring glass center and a transom above.

It looked like a prison to me. In a flood of loneliness I thought of the high wall about the Yard, the armed sentry at the iron gate through which I had entered, the military manner in which we had been handled all the morning, the absence of anyone I knew, these bare, yellow walls.

"What an awful place," I said to myself; and a moment later was reaffirmed in my conviction that I had erred in ever leaving home! We had turned down a side corridor and had stopped at a room at the end. As our guide flung open the door, I looked upon — Desolation. A rough wooden table was in the center of the room. Above it was a sad white chandelier like those in the corridors. Beside the table were two unpainted wooden chairs. A plain mirror hung above a porcelain wash basin. A sickly yellow radiator was under one window. Two iron bedsteads without mattresses, like bleached skeletons, glared at each other from opposite corners. In the other two, drooped tall coffin-like structures, our clothes lockers. Nothing else was in the room. An empty closet and an  p1522 empty shower, without doors, gaped at each other just inside the entrance. That was to be my home for four years. A room shorn of all but the bare necessities, as life was shorn of its friends. Except for a few days at Christmas, I would live in this room and see none whom I had ever known before for a long twelve months to come. Would it be too long?

"Huh," said Vallandingham who was as depressed as I. "I'm going out to have a smoke. Want one?"

"No thanks," I answered and, as they left me alone, I sat in one of the hard chairs and wondered why I had been fool enough to enter a place like that.

Luckily, in a few minutes a gong jangled in the corridor and a bugle sounded. The noise lifted my thoughts a little from the gloom that had crowded out all the excitement of the morning. I left the desolate room to find out what had happened. It was the call for lunch for chow.

Of all the remarkable places in that astounding building of Bancroft Hall, the mess hall is second to none. Extending the full length of the base of the U, under the back terrace, its enormousness staggers one when he swings down the stairs at either end. Although it perhaps isn't, I'll always think of it as the biggest room I have ever seen, and by far the most amazing dining-room in the world. During the academic year, when 2,500 of us ate in this hall at once, every table, every fork, every napkin, took on a military air. The room is fairly wide, but so extremely long that it appears narrow. A yell let out at one end would not be certain of being heard at the other. Two rows of columns extending down its full length divide it into three longitudinal sections. The middle one sweeps emptily from end to end. Into it the whole regiment marches, comes to a halt and stands silent until the order "Seats!" is given. In the two sections on  p1523 each side of the center are the battles. They are about as long as each section is wide, and one after another, like white-clad platoons, run the full length of the room. Every table is at attention. It is startling to walk into the messroom between meals. As far as you can see is a field of glistening white. Table follows table apparently into an endless distance. Around them are simple wooden chairs, placed in exactly the same position at each; for every place is set in the same spot at every table. At the same distance from each end of all the tables stands an aluminum water pitcher. The two shiny lines are like bayonets of perfectly drilled troops. At no place is there a curve or a break. And in the middle of every table is a copse of vinegar and sauce containers. Out of the very center of the group a catchup bottle rises. If you should sight over its little brass top along to all the other little brass tops to the very end of the hall, if you could see that far, not one would you find out of line. We called it the "red‑eye parade." The Filipino mess boys must spend hours every day just lining those things up, and practi­cing two words: the phrase, "No more."

Vallandingham and I sat together at lunch. We were both somewhat homesick and feeling out of place. It was all too new; this vast hall, the discipline, the quiet little Filipinos serving the food, the inexhaustible hunger of the fellows who had been in the Academy a few days.

Following lunch, we stood in line the  p1524 rest of those 1,000 times, most of them at the Midshipmen's Store. First, mattresses and pillows were issued us, then name-plates to be fixed above the doors of our rooms; and right there poor Vallandingham began to suffer — we were lined up alphabetically. There were two W's, one Y, one Z, and no X's after him. He was that near the end of the line. What a blow it was to recognize then the handicap and the extra waiting in line that would be his during the four years to come!

After a number of lesser things, we were issued all that was necessary, excepting blue and white service uniforms, for our clothing and housekeeping during the coming years. How many of you could carry on your shoulders in one load all the worldly possessions you need for yourself and for your housekeeping? I did. So did all the 60 others. Likewise did their knees bend and their breath come hard as did mine while I staggered across the broad seaward terrace from the store to my room. First of all, I had a broom. Whether or not it pleases him, a midshipman is his own chambermaid. He makes his own bed — he had better make it well! He stows away his clothes neatly, properly folded and in the proper places. He shines his shoes. He dusts off the top of the locker, chairs and other odd ledges. He washes his mirror and basin. Aye, even, he sweeps his room. Since two live together, to prevent the inevitable ridge of unswept dirt down the deck of the room, each takes the job on alternate weeks of being housekeeper. Yes, since you ask, there is a way of getting out of this work; but that is only when you have become a first classman, your last year, and unofficially hire the negro janitor who sweeps the corridors to take a swipe at your room, too, when the duty officer is known to be elsewhere.

Hence the broom. At each end of it was a capacious laundry bag in which were regulation (that is a word you must hearken well to) suits of underwear, regulation black and white socks, regulation handkerchiefs, regulation shoes, 6 or 8 working suits consisting of trousers and middy blouse, a neckerchief, a cap, a regulation sewing kit (I was my own housekeeper, you know) several little white sailor hats with blue borders, a cape rain coat, overshoes, 6 sheets, 3 spreads, 2 blankets, soap, towels, shirts, collars, ties, an athletic outfit, a few other things including a shoe-shining kit, and a Reg‑Book, the ominous meaning of which will appear in due time. To balance the weightier of the two laundry bags, at the light end of the broom which lay on my shoulders, I held against the handle a wastebasket filled with coat hangers, a rug and 2 large blue blotters which were to give dignity to my side of  p1525 the ugly green pine table fixed in the center of our room. That is what I had, all I had, and all anyone else had with which to begin. Just as we began equal in opportunity, so we began and remained equal in possessions. There is a story of a young fellow of wealthy parents coming to the Academy in his personal car, with a valet to take care of him and his suite! The next day the valet went home in the car and the wealthy young fellow stayed behind with regulation shoe strings, stiff cuffs, and broom; with exactly what everyone else had; with nothing less nor more, for nothing that is not regulation is allowed within the sacred precincts of Bancroft Hall. It is one of the finest points of the Naval Academy. Not once in the four years I was there did I hear of a man's money or social standing affecting his position in the school. In our blue or white uniforms we were 2,500 midshipmen and what we were before or on the outside counted for nothing at all. The sons of a poor country preacher, of a ward politician, of an industrial magnate might stand in ranks side by side and not one of the three would be better or worse than what he showed himself to be; not one of the three got a passing mark or stayed clear of the report because his father could pull strings — or talk fluent words — or drop $1,000,000 and never miss it; not one of the three, if they were plebes, but that stood in awe of and was dust to the lordly first classmen.

"What do you do with all this junk?" groaned Vallandingham as he let his burdens fall in a mass on the floor a good hour after I had reached our room.

I looked at my own things, sadly all in a muddle, and shook my head. Although I had got the mattress on the bed and the wastebasket under the table, the rug on the floor, and the broom in the closet, I had not had the courage to stow all this away. That would mean, when done, that  p1526 I was inevitably and irrevocably tied to the barren, lonely room.

Together, however, we took heart. One by one the socks and shirts and et ceteras left the pile and took up position on the shelves of the tall coffin-like structures, his locker and mine. We were proud of our ability when all was stowed. We did not realize the tearful shock the lockers would be to the inspecting officer when he made his rounds a few days later. We did not realize that he would pass the shock on to us so efficiently that within an hour we would have learned how every piece should be folded and exactly where it should go.

Eventually, that afternoon, we made our beds. The white spreads, the towels on the racks under our mirrors, the unbleached cloths under them, stuck against the wall by thumbtacks, with pockets for our toilet articles (regulation, too, of course), the fiber wastebasket, the blotters on the table, and the meager rugs on the deck — these things plus a few books on the two shelves were the only distinguishing touches from barrenness that the room had, that it would ever have!​f You see it as it was and always would be for four years. There were, nor would be, no pillows with gay tops, no pennants shouting from the ceiling, no flamboyant draperies, no pictures setting off the yellow walls — regulation permitted the posting of a few on the inside of the locker door. There would be — but, aye, I almost forgot. There was more. In the regulation position in the center of the tables of the table were two bottles of glue, two bottles of ink, and on either side, also in the regulation position, was a thin blue-bound book. But what has size to do with importance? A hundred ponderous tomes could not have affected our lives more. It was the book of books. Every day of every year its precepts were to mark our paths. It was our Bible and our law, our mentor and our judge. It was the Reg‑Book, the book of Regulations for Midshipmen at the U. S. Naval Academy, or something like that. As you have hearkened well to the word, regulation,  p1527 look well at the book, for there all regulations have their origin, and its thin blue form weaves itself inevitably through all a midshipman's days.

Between some two periods of standing in line that afternoon, we opened the Reg‑Book and following its cold, unarbitrary statements took off everything we had on. Back on our bare bodies went the regulation underclothes, the regulation black socks, garters, the flopping white-work trousers, the white middy blouse, the neckerchief tied in the regulation fashion, and one of the white hats with blue border. Our other clothes were to be shipped home, to be sent away entirely so that there would be no link with the past — except memory.

Every entering "plebe" (one is an ordinary, lowly plebian all his first year) should thank the authorities that be that the first day, with the summer to follow, is so intensely busy. It saves many a heartache out of the dreariness and loneliness and regulationness of Bancroft Hall. It prevents many from deserting at once and fleeing back to the familiar comforts of home.

By supper time we were tired out and more than ready to eat. Afterward, as shadows gathered and thickened about Bancroft Hall, a few of us congregated in one of the rooms of our corridor and sang a bit to the twang of a guitar and made ourselves desperately lonely. Mercifully, our tired muscles and full stomachs made  p1528 us also drowsy. One by one we stole away, turned on our glaring room lights, slipped into our regulation pajamas, turned out the regulation lights, and slid between fresh, regulation sheets. One by one the golden blurs of the windows in Bancroft Hall faded away and the 60 new boys, with those who had come before, swiftly lost their loneliness and depression and uncertainty in all‑soothing sleep. High in a depthless sky the golden horn of the moon shone down on the darkened Academy and floated, wavered, floated again on the glittering water of the Chesapeake Bay.

Long afterward I half awoke to a sad, sweet melody. Slowly and mournfully and beautifully, like moonlight spun into music, a bugle wound out a lingering, silvery taps. Before the last note had wandered through the velvet shadows and drifting gold under the trees, and on out to the waiting Bay, I had gone to sleep again. My first day as a midshipman had ended. Despite the shadows at the gateway, the happiest summer of my life had begun.

Thayer's Notes:

a Ernest McNeill Eller, when he wrote this article, was on the staff of the Naval Academy's Department of English and History. He was for many years a regular contributor to the Naval Institute Proceedings. During World War II he served in the Pacific under Admiral Nimitz, being awarded several medals including the Bronze Star. He retired with the rank of Rear Admiral in 1954, but was called back to duty in 1956 as the Navy's Director of Naval History for fourteen years.

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b Despite this apparent no‑smoking rule, the reader will notice that New Midshipman Vallandingham goes off "for a smoke" (p1522), that the recreation room in Bancroft Hall is known as "Smoke Hall" (p1520), and that the midshipman's study table in his room seen in the photograph on p1527 includes a glass ashtray.

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c Perry's original flag was enshrined in Memorial Hall at the Naval Academy for over a century, but is now in the Naval Academy Museum. For a classic color photograph of the replica in Bancroft, see my note to Norris's Annapolis: Its Colonial and Naval Story, p6.

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d Another aerial photograph of Bancroft Hall, wider and taken from a different angle in 1942, can be found in Puleston's Annapolis, in which we see the building and the Academy in its context: the city of Annapolis and, more importantly, the sea; or at least the salt waters of the Chesapeake Bay.

[decorative delimiter]

e James Lee Vallandingham, b. February 6, 1904 Owenton, KY; d. June 6 or 9, 1951, Lexington, KY. He is buried in Owenton. He has left almost no footprint online.

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f On p1527 the reader will notice a guitar, however, still apparently permitted?

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Page updated: 14 Nov 21