Friday, July 3, 2015

WEST POINT EXPEDITION!

When I signed up for a Road Scholar trip ( www.roadscholar.org ) in the Hudson River Valley, and started working on my travel itinerary, I knew I wanted to visit the famous college called West Point that is located in that area.  I found out that to get to tour West Point, I first have to get to the village of Highland Falls, New York, as that was the access point for tours of West Point.  When I made it to the address my GPS directed me to, I felt reassured that I was in the right place, when the first structure I observed was this large edifice, labeled as the West Point Museum.  It was not until several days later that I learned that this building I was admiring is a somewhat recent addition to the campus.  The building was originally erected in 1933, to house a small, Catholic women's college.  The Catholic college was for females only until the late seventies, when males were allowed to enroll.  (Apparently, the change to co-educational did not go well, as the college closed just a few years after males were admitted.)  It has just been in the last few years that the building was acquired by West Point and made into the West Point Military Museum (www.usma.edu/museum ).  It is said to have the oldest and largest collection of militaria in the Western Hemisphere!  As much as my instincts said to dash up the steps leading into the building labeled with the words "West Point", I remembered that when I looked at the website for West Point ( officially called "The United States Military Academy) the instructions said it was mandatory that I go inside the Visitor Center, to schedule a tour of West Point. 

When I looked around a little more, I spotted a building that said "Visitors Center".  ( Not being familiar with military symbols, I did not realize that the Coat of Arms above the Visitor Center letters meant "West Point" !)  Once inside the Visitor Center, a query at the front desk directed me to an area on the right where folks stood in line to purchase a ticket to tour the West Point campus.  After showing my driver's license, I was able to be placed on a tour scheduled to go out in one hour.  Since about 3 million people per year visit West Point, I felt fortunate to not have a very long wait.  This large number of visitors is understandable in view of the fact that West Point is just about 50 miles north of New York City.  ( I had read that it is possible to sign up in advance and pay for your ticket on the Internet,  but I had not taken that option, since I was not sure which day was going to work for me to visit.)

The hour I had before my tour started gave me the opportunity to explore the exhibits inside the Visitor Center.  Since the tourists like me do not get to go inside an actual dormitory, a "pretend" dormitory room has been set up to give visitors an idea of what student housing looks like.  I learned that freshmen cadets are called "Plebeians", since that word originally referred to the lowest class of Roman society.  The sophomores are called "Yearlings"; the juniors are called "Cows"; and, the seniors are called "Firsties" .  If you notice the predominance of the color gray in the wardrobe closet, you will understand why West Point students and alums are collectively referred to as "The Long Gray Line".   The exhibits, along with a review of the website ( www.WestPoint.edu ) explained that all cadets live on campus for the entire 4 years, in one of seven barracks on campus.  The facility is described as a four-year, co-educational, federal service academy.  Tuition for cadets is fully funded in exchange for an active duty obligation upon graduation.  About 1300 cadets enter each July, and about 1000 graduate.

I was surprised to learn that West Point has cadets from foreign countries, as well as the USA.  In the case of foreign students, their country of origin must pay for the tuition, and not the USA.  As an example of the success the Academy has had at teaching their students, it is widely known from media coverage, that the presidents of the countries of Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and the Philippines, have been graduates of West Point.   Likewise, "The Long Gray Line" includes two Presidents of the USA, one president of the Confederate States, numerous famous generals, and 75 Medal of Honor recipients!

Once a visitor has paid their fee for the tour, and been given their time-stamped ticket, they wait in the Visitor Center parking lot to board the tour bus that will take them on their journey.  Since the entire military reservation encompasses 15,974 acres, a mere "walking tour" is not possible in the two hour excursion covered by the ticket.  Another reminder of the "War on Terror" happened when the bus stopped at the Thayer Entrance Gate, and was boarded by an armed military policeman, who looked at every person's identification, as well as comparing their photo ID with a direct look at their face.  You can find out more about the identification required for the tours by visiting their website at www.WestPointTours.com .


I was thankful to add the West Point Chapel to my "list" of military chapels visited.  In previous years, I have had the opportunity to visit the chapel at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, as well as the Air Force Academy Chapel, in Colorado.  Needless to say, there is a striking contrast between the Gothic Revival style of the West Point Chapel, versus the very modern design of the Air Force Academy Chapel!

I was thankful that my tour included an opportunity to get off the bus, and go inside the chapel.  The interior of the chapel demonstrates the characteristics of Neogothic architecture, by its inclusion of a ribbed vault design, and pointed arches in the windows. 

In contrast to the hilly location of the chapel, there is a gigantic flat area below it, called the Plain.  The Plain is the central parade ground and it is the current location used by the cadets for their military reviews ( i.e., parades).  So when you hear there will be a "military review", it does NOT mean students will be going over paperwork assigned from their military professors!  In the past, the Plain has been used for mounted Calvary maneuvers, a football field, and an encampment for summer training. 

Although guests are asked not to walk on the Plain, we were able to get off our bus and sit in the viewing stands that are used by spectators when military reviews and special events are being conducted.  This gave an opportunity for our  knowledgeable tour guide (pictured standing on the concrete curb),  to tell us a few fascinating personal stories about some of West Point's more famous graduates. 

The periphery of the Plain is home to several pieces of military artillery mementos.  This photo shows a canon from the Civil War, and our guide pointed out that the end that shoots out the cannon ball, is buried into the ground, signifying the mindset that we must never take up arms between the states, ever again.  History shows us that numerous West Point alums were officers in both the armies of the North and of the South, including Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. 

This photo shows the view from a hill of the West Point campus, over the Hudson River, that  is called Trophy Point.  This stage and amphitheater are the incredibly scenic venue for numerous special events, including weekly concerts by the Army Band in the summer.  I happened to be visiting the campus on July 3rd, so the Army Band was in full-blown dress rehearsal of their Rock n' Roll numbers for the big Independence Day Concert/Fireworks Celebration planned for the following day.  Since July 4, 1802, was the date that West Point officially started operations---just six years after the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776---the soldiers had TWO very important dates to be remembering on July 4, 2015!

One of the prominent monuments at Trophy Point is called Battle Monument, and as you can see in this photo, consists of a column surrounded by canons.  It was dedicated on May 30, 1897 by the surviving Civil War veterans.  It is said to be one of the largest columns of granite in the world, standing 46 feet tall, and 5 feet in diameter.  There are inscriptions of the names of Civil War soldiers, and the canons are inscribed with the names of various Civil War battles. 

The view from Trophy Point is absolutely magnificent, and makes this quote from the 1841 visit by Charles Dickens, completely justified, when he said, "It could not stand on more appropriate ground, and any ground more beautiful can hardly be."

The beauty of God's creation on the outside, is matched by the beautiful symmetry of His Word---The Holy Bible---inside the Cadet Chapel.  It was in the chapel that I saw this copy of the CADET PRAYER:  "O God, our Father, Thou Searcher of Human hearts, help us to draw near to Thee in sincerity and truth.  May our religion be filled with gladness and may our worship of Thee be natural.  Strengthen and increase our admiration for honest dealing and clean thinking, and suffer not our hatred of hypocrisy and pretence ever to diminish.  Encourage us in our endeavor to live above the common level of life.  Make us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong, and never to be content with a half truth when the whole can be won.  Endow us with courage that is born of loyalty to all that is noble and worthy, that scorns to compromise with vice and injustice and knows no fear when truth and right are in jeopardy.  Guard us against flippancy and irreverence in the sacred things of life.  Grant us new ties of friendship and new opportunities of service.  Kindle our hearts in fellowship with those of a cheerful countenance, and soften our hearts with sympathy for those who sorrow and suffer.  Help us to maintain the honor of the Corps untarnished and unsullied and to show forth in our lives the ideals of West Point in doing our duty to Thee and to our Country.  All of which we ask in the name of the Great Friend and Master of all.---Amen  (written by Clayton E. Wheat)

The three words spelled out in the stained glass windows of the Cadet Chapel---Duty, Honor, and Country---are also written out on the Coat of Arms of the United States Military Academy.  The human figures portrayed underneath those words are all famous leaders from the Old Testament, and their names are also spelled out: David, Nathan, Jepntnah, Aaron, Moses, Hur, Gideon, and Joshua.  There is something to be learned from studying the stories of each of those Biblical characters, but the one most meaningful to me is Joshua, because a cousin I had who mailed me a letter while he was serving in the military, in the Middle East, told me Joshua was his favorite book from the Bible to read for strength.  Joshua 1:19 says, "Have I not commanded you?  Be strong and courageous.  Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go."  Because of the soldiers who have  trained at West Point, (as well as ALL our military service members!),  we can have the freedom to explore our beautiful nation.  As I travel around this great country of ours, I give thanks for our U.S. service personnel, as well as thanks to our God,  and it gives me "MILES OF SMILES"!!  Tricia