Week at the Coast Guard: Paul Owens '20
It seemed to rise from the ground like ancient ruins as I approached, the four white pillars of the main building’s facade boasting the same strength as Ancient Rome. To the left and right spread wings with classic academic brick, a building that would fit right into any Ivy league campus. I was taken aback by the contrasting black, iron fence that enclosed it, not knowing whether it was keeping the civilian world out or the hell I was about to endure in. This week will be good for me, I thought nervously, knowing that the Academy Introductory Mission was meant to test high schoolers and show them what Swab summer, the brutal seven week boot camp for new cadets, would be like at the Coast Guard Academy. Thoughts of my dad crept into my head, wondering whether he had felt the same gut wrenching anticipation when he arrived here almost 40 years ago for college. The minivan crept up to the open gates, ready to swallow me onto the campus.
As we drove toward the auditorium, I finally had an unencumbered view of the scholarly, red brick halls and passageways that fortified the institution. The iconic clock atop Chase Hall, the dorm and dining area, shimmered brightly in the midday Connecticut sun. I squinted as I got out of the minivan and hauled my luggage into the auditorium, my eyes adjusting from the cool dark car to the bright sun and heat radiating from the asphalt. The dimly lit auditorium slanted downward towards a wooden stage with a projected powerpoint that read, “Welcome to the United States Coast Guard Academy,” a sight that seemed welcoming and inviting. About 200 high schoolers were already seated, waves of chatter and laughter washing over them like the ocean waves rushing against a Coast Guard cutter. Just as I sat down, an officer stepped up to the podium, her light blue uniform with rankings hanging from her chest commanding the room without a single word. I imagined the photos of my dad in his crisp officer uniform and wondered how he commanded on a vessel in his soft spoken and quiet manner, his blue and white cap pulled down to his brow similar to the officer in front of us now. She peered around the room from under that cap as if examining each and every one of our faces, the bright yellow lights that shone above the stage casting an ominous shadow across her own face. The stillness of the air was shattered as she spoke sternly and with purpose, explaining what we already knew but didn’t believe, that this week would be grueling and test our strength mentally and physically. My hands and feet tingled with nervous excitement until a heavy metal door on the left was flung open with a crash and all hell seemed to break loose.
In burst five cadets from the Academy, all silent yet holding themselves in a proud and dutiful manner. “Alpha 1 platoon come with us, we’re your cadre for the week,” one of them directed as those appointed to Alpha 1 rose and began to gather their items lackadaisically. The cadre pounced on them, screaming and hollering, veins popping as they ordered them to move quickly, with a purpose. Each high schooler’s face was stoic, petrified at the sudden change of pace from silence to slaughterhouse in which they were the animals. Again and again cadre burst in, taking each of the platoons out of the auditorium until one finally called Bravo 1, and I rose from my seat.
We were herded like cattle out of the auditorium and over to the dorms, each of the platoon members fumbling with their luggage as they ran after the cadre. Down a dark passageway, our dungeon, we stopped and were ordered to line up against the walls. The fluorescent safety lights that remained on were reminiscent of a hospital as they illuminated the off-white floors and walls. Each cadre prowled the dimly lit passageway, hunting for one of the high schoolers who lined the two bulkheads to make a wrong move. Don’t move, I thought nervously as the bulked-up platoon commander, Mr. Leanord, walked down the hall, his shoes squeaking on the pristine floor beneath his feet. I flinched as he neared me and stopped, turning to face me head on. “This is not a summer camp!” he screamed, only inches from my face, misting me with spit. I thought the entire world could hear the low, percussive thumping of my heart as I tried to keep my eyes fixed on the imaginary horizon line in front of me, staring straight through the 5’6” commander parked in my line of sight. His biceps were thicker than my neck and he made sure all 24 high schoolers in the platoon knew who was in charge as was evident by the multiple pieces of what used to be a clipboard that lay scattered across the hallway. I thought back to what my dad had told me years ago, how a man next to him fell to the ground in boot camp here, driven mad as he exclaimed, “Yes sir! No Sir! No excuse sir!” like a malfunctioning machine. I wondered where my dad found the mental strength to endure this brutal molding.
“Fall in!” Mr. Leonard ordered, snapping me out of my thoughts and back to the dull passageway where each of us zippered into line, jogging behind him. We burst from the gloom through double doors into golden sunlight and were directed into formation with three rows of eight kids. I turned to peer back at Chase Hall across the parking lot whose scholarly red brick glowed in the evening light. “AIMSTER OWENS, EYES IN THE BOAT!” I heard from my port side, a command for me to remain facing the horizon which we were ordered to do at all times. The 6’3” frame of the cadre who yelled loomed over me, his breath shaking as if holding back a tide of anger as I stared helplessly at the oaks and maples that dotted the Connecticut hills. Behind me I heard a cough, diverting the attention of the cadre to another aimster who felt the waves crash down on him. Relief washed over me, immediately replaced by sorrow for my fellow shipmate whom I couldn’t even see. “Ready, March! Left. Right. Left. Right. Eyes in the boat. Left. Right.” It was easier to think each command than feel sorry for yourself, your head throbbing and feet aching from sounding off responses and standing at attention. On either side of us lay academic buildings that seemed to ooze knowledge and prestige from their decades old brick, highlighted by white shutters taken straight off a boat house. Past them we marched, struggling to keep formation and pulse with our puny military experience. More spit. An “Aye Aye Sir!” A moment . . . then the cycle repeats with spitting and yelling. As we continued on with the curve in the road, a glistening flow lay before us, spread beneath the hill in which the Academy was firmly planted. The Thames River radiated a pacified strength with its vast width and rhythmic flow. Sailboats dotted the water and I imagined the stereotypical Connecticut man, decked in preppy attire and boat shoes to match, leisurely enjoying the wind in his sails. The things I would have given to change places with that man . . . but our formation halted and with it my daydream.
I had been looking forward to dinner for the last few hours, imagining a break where I could actually relax. Yet as I sat down at a solid wooden table with my platoon, I wasn’t offered any solace. The mess hall could have been taken straight off a boat from a ‘60s war movie. Nothing fancy, but each plate and set of eating utensils lay perfectly in position on every table, mimicking the pristine nautical flags that hung all across the white walls. The cadre circled around us, making sure we were in the seated position of attention: back straight and one fists length away from the hard, uncomfortable back of the chair, heels together forming a 45- degree angle, and eyes in the boat.
We began to eat with struggle, eating a “square meal,” meaning we couldn’t look down at our food to eat in. Each forkful had to be brought straight up to eye level, brought over to our mouth, then be put back on our plate in the same fashion. My fork grappled with the food as I tried to feel around the table for what I was eating, my eyes fixed on the brown haired boy in front of me and the frosted window behind him. My dad had warned me that was how dinner was at boot camp, but not looking at my food had seemed like a game until it became a reality. It felt like only a few moments had passed when we were rounded up once again and sent back to formation, backs stiff and stomachs still growling. I stood at attention, too exhausted to appreciate the beauty of the Thames River in front of me which reflected the golden setting sun and muttered to myself, “What the hell did my dad get me into?” -Paul Owens '20