How our family helped our son (and ourselves) survive Plebe Summer

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Teamwork makes the dream work!

With the Class of 2022 about to go through Induction Day, I thought I’d share a post I made on a forum for the Class of 2021. Here it is with minor updates & edits (this is not a prescription, only one family’s experience):

Here are some suggestions and tips for helping your Plebe get through the grueling six weeks that are Plebe Summer. And this is lengthy, so apologies if I eat up a few minutes of our life that you’ll never get back. Also, we went waaaaaaaay overboard (but don’t regret it!).

Overarching: Avoid telling your Plebe you miss them. That may seem counterintuitive, but they are going to feel isolated and, likely, a bit homesick. Telling them you miss them will only amplify those feelings.

Calls: 
You probably know this already, but you’ll get three calls and will get the times and dates for those. My only two pieces of advice– 1) for the first call, keep it just to immediate family. The 30 minutes will FLY by. Let your Plebe take the lead on the conversation. We had our family huddled around the phone and put it on speaker. 2) prep a few questions (what’s the best food there? what would you like us to send to you?) and comments (the dog caught a squirrel the other day) in case the conversation lags, which it may.

MAIL

You cannot send enough mail. Let me restate that: There is no such thing as too much mail. Every note we got from our son included this line in all caps, underlined: KEEP WRITING AND KEEP PRAYING.

Side note on mail FROM your Plebe: There likely won’t be much. They have to write back in the first week or two, but some will send one-liners just so they can tell the detailers they did what they were told. Others will write longer letters, but they will vary in tone. Our son’s letters were lengthy and grim (though not desperate). Here’s a way you can increase mail from your Plebe – send them fill-in-the-blank, Mad Lib-type cards with pre-addressed stamp envelopes. The cards should literally be fill-in-the-blank with just a few blanks. Examples: “Today, we learned about ______; For lunch we had _______; my roommates are from _____; the best thing so far has been _______; please send more _________; please stop sending _________”

First letter home
The first letter home opened with a sobering line: I would be lying to you if I said I was enjoying myself. We learned that the difficulty of Plebe Summer depends a lot on the company.

Start writing NOW: Write a few simple notes now so you can drop them in the mail as SOON as you have their address.

Now, how can you keep the mail flowing?

Get others involved:

  1. Share your Plebe’s address with everyone (we placed in in our church bulletin among other places). Give folks some basic guidelines (don’t tell the Plebe you miss them, be positive, etc.) and encourage them to write often. But don’t be passive – I reached out and directly asked several people, people I knew our Plebe respected – and asked them specifically to write. They did and it was a big morale boost (“I can’t believe so-and-so wrote. That was great.”).
  2. Every chance we could, we placed index cards and pens and asked people to write short notes to our Plebe – his graduation party, at the back of our church, at other kids’ grad parties, really any gathering. In the end, we had about 50 or so notes – most silly, which is great – and they were awesome additions to our letters.

Everyone should write: My wife, daughter and I all wrote separately. Here’s how we broke it down.

I went to the dollar store and bought a ton of cards – the packages of 8 blank cards and the regular cards, too.

My wife wrote in the larger cards about once every three or four days, basically twice a week. She mostly wrote about how proud she was, shared stories and thoughts about music (they are both musicians), Bible verses, day-to-day happenings at home and stories from around town. She would include a few of the aforementioned index cards.

My daughter used the small, blank cards about once every three or four days, basically twice a week. She’s not much of a writer, but she found a way. She would go to Google and search for jokes. She’d share a joke and sometimes an inspirational quote and, because she likes to draw, a simple picture.

Daily card
Though this one is from the academic year, I sent a card like this every day, sometimes two per day during Plebe Summer.

Since I’m a writer, I carried the heavier half of the load. I wrote a small card every day, sometimes two a day. I bought a bunch of colored pencils, markers and stickers (again, from the dollar store) for this purpose. These notes were often just a single, colorful message – a Bible verse, an inspirational quote or something as simple as: “Today’s recipe: 1) Kick ***, 2) Take Names, 3) Repeat *Step 2 is optional”. When I was traveling, I would drop postcards, too.

Every week, I put together a letter that looked like an 8-page magazine – this allowed me to create “mini-posters” that featured photos (he specifically asked for photos from some of the places we’ve hiked – Philmont, Grand Canyon, etc. and pictures of the family), song lyrics, inspirational quotes or jokes. The jokes were helpful, because the Plebes are often asked – well, are told – to share a joke during mealtime. These magazine-style letters were a big, big hit. They were colorful and had a lot of pictures – my son said “pictures of anything that’s not HERE” were cherished. The text for the letters was simple – every day stories from life at home, funny things from the news, musings on whatever crossed my mind, random facts, and screenshots of Facebook posts (including some about him expressing support) etc. Here is a screenshot of three pages from one of them if you’re interested in seeing an example:

Plebe Summer Letter
Three pages from one of the typical magazine-style letters I sent my Plebe during the Summer. I continue to send them throughout the academic year, though less frequently.
CARE PACKAGES: PLEBE GOLD

Letters are crucial, packages are the real treasure. A few tips.

Most importantly, make sure you get the address correct. IIRC, like the academic year, packages go to a different address than letters & cards.

Side note: The post office will push their “flat rate” boxes, which allow you to put in whatever you want for a single rate. Truth be told, you can probably send things cheaper with their other boxes. Don’t sweat it though. Just get it there. DO NOT overnight anything. Remember that the Detailers have to sort through and deliver mail in addition to the million and one other things they are charged with doing every day. Mail will move slowly during Plebe Summer. So very, very slowly.

What to send? Doesn’t matter (well it does, kind of)! Just send it. A few suggestions.

  • We sent at least one package every week.
  • Get as much as you can from either the dollar store or a wholesale club. For the latter, you can send a little bit at a time.
  • Do NOT send any kind of medicine – even simple OTC stuff like ibuprofen. It will get confiscated.

Mail: Duh, save a stamp and include your card and/or letter … and some of those index cards!

Health: Throat lozenges are good. Your Plebe will get Plebe Hack. It’s gonna happen. When you combine extensive (mostly outdoor) physical training, the mid-Atlantic’s horrific pollen counts and 1,100 people jammed into confined quarters, the Hack spreads. But, again, you cannot send medicine. Lozenges help; we sent Halls Defense, which has a lot of vitamin C. Stuff like Emergen-C helps, too, as do Airborne gummies. We also included a lot of packets of Gatorade powder (you can only drink so much water, apparently).

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I sent a boatload of these and he used pretty much all of them.

Hygiene: My son asked for Wisps (pictured here) – which are single-use toothbrushes that do not require water, sold in two-packs in our Dollar Trees; we used them a lot when we were backpacking. Time is so precious during Plebe Summer, so this allowed him to save a few seconds and keep his dental hygiene up. We sent A LOT of them. I literally cleared out the stock of three Dollar Trees.

Laundry: Shout wipes and Tide pens are crucial. They will obsess about their uniforms being spit-spot and these are important tools.

Snacks: Yes, you can send snacks. But keep them healthy. We sent a lot of beef jerky (his favorite) and fruit snacks (we bought a huge box at the wholesale club and sent a handful of individual packs with each package – something like this). If your son or daughter love nuts, send ‘em. That being said, my wife sent brownies and cookies – but enough to share. We also sent small bags of his favorite caramel candies.

Clothes – yes, your Plebe will get A TON of clothes – all they need and then some. That being said, our son wanted compression shorts. That’s what we sent. They won’t be able to use anything else (women can use sports bras, too). Speaking of underwear, we sent A LOT of Body Glide to help with chafing.

Another tip – Go to the dollar store and buy Tupperware-type containers. This allows you to package your boxes more efficiently, but more importantly, makes it easier for your Plebe to organize their goodies, as well as protect them from, um, uninvited guests that reside within Bancroft. And if they have too many, once they’re done, they can dispose of them without feeling guilty about wasting a ton of money.

For us, it was all about helping our son through Plebe Summer, and it was probably the shock we experienced at I-Day that caused us to go overboard with the notes and packages. Our objective was simple – get to Plebes Parents Weekend. We focused a lot of energy on what he might want or need and, most importantly, keeping his spirits as high as possible to get him toward the first finish line – PPW. And, to be honest, it made us feel like we were doing something  in a situation where we otherwise felt helpless.

Like all things USNA, your mileage may vary and your experience will be different. There is no right or wrong way to be a Plebe parent and I don’t mean this post to be prescriptive, just a way to show one family’s experience.

And two final thoughts:

  1. If at all possible, plan to attend Plebe Parents Weekend.
  2. Relax. Tens of thousands of Plebes and their families have survived the first year. You will, too! Don’t be afraid to ask for help or support.

With that said, good luck. Wishing our plebe and your family calm seas and smooth sailing.

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I did a podcast with my son after his Plebe Year and it was a great conversation. IMPORTANT: I made an egregious error in the podcast, saying it was 9 weeks long. It’s not. It’s six. Proof that if Ernest Hemingway and Edward R. Murrow needed an editor, I probably do, too!

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If you’re an “experienced” parent, I hope you’ll share your tips, too!

4 thoughts on “How our family helped our son (and ourselves) survive Plebe Summer

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