Thursday, 28 January 2010
Sedgwick Yet Again
Again we return to the West Point tradition regarding the statue of MG John Sedgwick, Class of 1837. "Legend holds that if a cadet is deficient in academics, the cadet should go to the monument at midnight the night before the term-end examination, in full dress, under arms, and spin the rowels on the monument’s spurs. With luck, the cadet will pass the test."
As there are exceptions to every tradition, let us turn the calendar back to December 1940 and the story of a Plebe turned out in both French and English. Spinning the rowels on Sedgwick’s statue only worked for French, but our cadet returned the following year, graduated and retired as a brigadier general. He adds, however, “In 1940 we weren’t aware of the midnight, full-dress [tradition]. We simply went over to the monument at any time and spun the rowels.” Perhaps that explains why he passed only one test. By the sixties, however, the full-blown tradition was evidenced by a two-page, color photo of a cadet at the monument, at night, in full dress, on page 328-29 of the 1967 Howitzer. He graduated.
An amusing explanation of why spinning the spurs did not work—and some interesting, albeit speculative, additions to the tradition—were provided by a 1992 graduate. In danger of failing Physics in his second year, he individually made his way to Sedgwick, joined up with a number of other “goats” assembled there, and successfully spun the rowels. Adding the belief that “looking back” afterwards would neutralize the effect, the cadets formed on line and with their backs towards Sedgwick to return to barracks by the most direct route. As they began to cross the Plain in the pitch darkness, about half tripped over the low, black chains bordering the parade grounds. Reforming beyond the obstacle, they continued a steady march forward until someone in the barracks gave a war cry and the line charged. Crossing diagonal walk, they could see Tactical Officers everywhere and began to receive indirect fire in the form of water balloons and then waste baskets of water. Running toward the safety of a sally port with fixed bayonet and ample adrenaline, our intrepid cadet executed a bayonet thrust at a nearby tree. Unfortunately, his blade stuck fast in the trunk, and he had to stop to extricate it. He adds, “Stopping was the same as looking back . . . . And that is why I flunked physics that semester.”
Another amusing episode, from a 1979 graduate, concerned cadets providing a diversion so that their classmates could petition Sedgwick without interference. Four or five cadets ventured out into Central Area in a bizarrely modified version of full dress under arms and distracted the duty officer with their own version of a Keystone Kops routine, running around in circles, bumping into each other, and taking pratfalls for several minutes before and after the midnight hour. Another distraction was not planned: a 1992 graduate reports that, in the spring of 1991, the fire alarm in Eisenhower Barracks went off about 15 minutes before midnight. As he exited his room, he noted several Plebes in full dress rushing to form up outside. Between the completion of the roll call and release from fire drill, the Plebes enjoyed the full attention of every upper classman in the company. He does not recall if any of them attempting a belated visit to Sedgwick or not.
Two 1982 graduates made an unusual trek to Sedgwick’s statue in the snow. Both members of the cross country ski team/club, they skied out across the Plain, spun the rowels, and returned, observed by many but not caught and not found academically deficient either. Two Plebe roommates in the Class of 1977 paid a wintry visit in December 1973 without the benefit of skis. Unable to study effectively on the night before a math final, they decided to rely on Sedgwick instead. After taking a very circuitous route to the statue and accomplishing their mission without incident, they stopped for a few moments to take in the beauty of the barracks lights on the snow and reflect upon their good luck. They then spun the spurs a second time and decided to proceed directly back to barracks. Their luck held until some upperclassmen in a barracks windows began yelling at them. They split up, made it back safely, and passed Plebe math.
Two Plebes in the Class of 1975 made the run out to Sedgwick through two feet of snow but attracted a lot of attention from upperclassmen at barracks windows en route. Quickly spinning the spurs, they headed back by a different route, pursued by duty personnel. Reaching their company area safely, they encountered their cadet company commander and platoon leader, who conducted a tongue-in-cheek inspection of the sodden Plebes. In May 1995, a member of the Class of 1998 observed three of his classmates heading for Sedgwick. A few minutes later, he saw two of them running back, with the NCOIC of the marathon team in hot pursuit. Needless to say, both were overtaken and reported but passed their finals. P.S. The delinquency report disappeared somehow as well. Thanks, General! A logistical note was provided by a 1990 graduate. If you do not have an illuminated wristwatch or red filtered flashlight to help determine midnight, attempting to light matches in a heavy wind can be interesting, especially when you have only five.
Finally, a rather unusual invocation of the assistance of Sedgwick’s spurs. A 1963 graduate, while a first classman, invited his girlfriend to West Point with the intention of asking her to marry him but was uncertain if she would be willing to sacrifice her career to accompany him. At midnight of the night before her arrival, he spun Sedgwick’s spurs. They were married a few hours after his graduation, he retired as a brigadier general, and they are still happily married.
Your humble servant, J. Phoenix, Esquire
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