My latest gig finds me back at my alma mater in Northwest Ohio and I’ve tried to get in the habit of walking along the Slippery Elm Trail every evening to both stretch the old leg muscles and clear my head.
Along the way, I pass an obelisk. To the locals, it’s a marker for the railroad line that the trail replaced, designating the distance between Bowling Green and North Baltimore. To the others, it’s a miniature Washington Monument etched with arcane glyphs. To me, of course, it’s a replica of the Herndon Monument on The Yard.
During a walk this week, it occurred to me that just a handful of years ago, I would have seen it simply as an obelisk, a mildly interesting marker along a relatively unremarkable trail. More than that, it struck me how much my perspective changed on so many things the moment we walked onto The Yard for I-Day in 2016. The same is certain to happen for the Class of 2026.
Before that day, when someone said Herndon, I thought of the Washington, D.C. suburb and when I first laid eyes on the monument, I thought, as many do I suppose, that it did look like a replica of the Washington Monument. After I Day, to me it became the single most important landmark on The Yard, the finish line for Plebe Year, a year that would challenge our son and in fact our whole family more than any year before or since.
As a kid, I vaguely remember the Army-Navy game and wondering why everyone made such a big deal about it. After all, they weren’t ranked teams and none of the players would be going to the NFL. After I Day, it became the most important college football game of the year and almost as importantly, marked the end of the Fall semester.
Of course, the news took on a whole different dimension. Having spent most of my career in the news industry, I was probably more aware of global events and military activity than most, but after I Day, it became much more personal. Every story about troop movements or training exercise accidents went from the kind of thing I’d skim past to a story I’d read from top to bottom from multiple sources. That intensified over our four years at the academy.
In addition to Waldo hunting, I found myself scanning parking lots for Navy stickers and magnets and casually looking through crowds for hats, shirts, or jackets emblazoned with an N*. This led to striking up conversations with total strangers on a regular basis.
Some perspectives changed over the course of I Day. When we strode across The Yard after dropping our Plebe-to-be at Alumni Hall, I recall looking up and down Stribling Walk and admiring the main corridor across the campus. By the end of the day, it became a stark reminder of that shocking moment when we met our son. For the next four years, I would have awful flashbacks to that moment, without question my worst as a father.
The biggest change struck me at a Trenton Thunder baseball game during Plebe Summer, the first one I had ever attended without my son. As we stood for the national anthem, I found that my lower lip was quivering and a few tears were streaming down my cheeks. After I blotted my eyes and took my seat, I dismissed it as just missing my son and knowing he was going through great challenges while I enjoyed a sun-soaked evening in the stands.
But that same thing has happened repeatedly, time after time. Whenever I hear “Oh, say can you see…” I find myself getting choked up. During one event, a dear friend looked back and said, “it’s a lot different now, isn’t it?” I nodded, unable to speak.
It’s a right of passage, I suppose. After I Day, some perspectives, and our world, would never be the same.