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Strengthening the link to a memorable time

A Naval Academy plebe returns 50 years later to lend support to a new incoming class.

On June 30 I returned to my alma mater, the U.S. Naval Academy, just about 50 years to the day I took the oath as a midshipman. I was there to be part of the Oath of Office Ceremony for the Naval Academy Class of 2015 for whom my class of 1965 is the "Link in the Chain."

The Link in the Chain is a wonderful program developed by the Academy to give the incoming plebes a better sense of the traditions of the Navy by providing senior mentors from the class that will celebrate its 50th reunion at the same time that the incoming class graduates.

In Maine I was the Link in the Chain guest at the Pre-Induction Parents Club Picnic on June 18. There I met the six prospective members of the Class of 2015 from Maine. They are a small but impressive cross section of the incoming class of 1,229.

Five men and one woman from Maine -- all with impressive academic and leadership credentials. The Naval Academy is one of the most selective post-secondary institutions in the country. Believe me, these incoming midshipmen worked hard for this opportunity.

This was the first I-Day I had witnessed since my own. It brought back some powerful memories as I looked out at the army of white midshipman jumpers (whiteworks) with the distinctive blue-banded dixie cups over newly-shaved heads.

Women get a modified pageboy, but the men get the barber shears run evenly over the entire head -- a most efficient approach. I'll bet some of the barbers from my day are still at work.

Seen as a group, the new midshipmen looked really young and really scared -- just the way I must have looked. As a young man from a small school in Maine, with no military experience of any kind, I was overwhelmed on that first day.

I remember a blur of activity at a pace and nature that jarred my apprehensive psyche. At the end of that long day, signaled by lights out at 2200 (which had been 10 p.m. to me only a day before) I dropped exhausted to my bed wondering how I had ever gotten myself into this situation.

It was like this for a few weeks before I gradually began to adapt to the routine and even find joy in small triumphs -- the ease with which I was able to memorize the day's menu (a significant plebe responsibility), the forming of early friendships.

While the training has evolved and improved over the years, many of the traditions remain. I got up early the morning after I-Day and took a run along the seawall of the academy. The entire plebe class was already out for the morning run and being taught the same marching chants that I remember.

It will be a long eight weeks of training on the Severn by the Bay for these new members of the Class of 2015.

When their parents next see them, at Parents' Weekend at the end of August, they will see quite a change. Their sons and daughters have chosen a different path from most of their high school classmates.

There will be plenty of challenging academics, of course, but there will also be plenty of the kind of challenges that build character and leadership.

The Naval Academy excels at developing a sense of service and responsibility. One learns early on that a midshipman is expected, above all else, to be a leader who will uphold the great traditions of the naval service.

At the end of the ceremony the plebes were given 45 minutes to rendezvous with their parents for a farewell moment. It was a touching scene -- plebes spread out in small family groups all across the lawn outside Tecumseh Court, where the ceremony was held.

They looked surprisingly sharp in their new uniforms and, reunited with family and friends, most looked reassured -- a few had a swagger in their step. As one father who is a Naval Academy classmate said to me, "My son is acting just a little too cool. I reminded him that 'cool' is not the proper attitude for plebe summer."

The father is right. The attitude for plebe summer is "aye aye, sir, right away, sir." "Aye aye, sir" will get them through plebe summer. After that you can be assured the Naval Academy has a clear idea of what the next phase of leadership development looks like.

I left Annapolis feeling good about my alma mater and excited about the Class of 2015 and the journey we will take together.