After being fully immersed in the hustle and bustle of the big city for the past few days, it was time for Heinrich and I to take a break and venture out into upstate New York. When I first met Heinrich all those years ago (how time flies!), he proudly showed me a pen that one of his military comrades had brought him back from West Point Military Academy. He had romanticized the image of West Point ever since, so I decided we needed to see it for ourselves.
Early that morning, Heinrich and I hopped aboard our coach at the Port Authority bus terminal and headed off. Thankfully, the bus was only about half full, but it soon became clear why the buses here weren’t the most popular form of transportation.
Considering the buses in rural Turkey offered free wifi and televisions on every seatback, these vehicles were just a little underwhelming. But in the end, our bus managed to get us to our destination in one piece.
West Point is surrounded by green, tranquil countryside and is situated in an important bend along the Hudson River. [Side note: During the American Revolutionary War, this strategic location was capitalized on with the Hudson River Chain, which was actually a series of chains set up to span across the river and prevent British naval ships from passing.] As we passed the statue of Hannibal, West Point’s mule mascot, along the main street, we found ourselves in front of the same historic stone buildings one envisions when merely hearing mention of West Point.
In order to see the actual buildings of the academy (not just the museum), Heinrich and I had to sign up for a guided tour, which did not depart until a few hours after we arrived. We passed through exhibits about the history of warfare, replete with impressive dioramas and artifacts (who knew West Point had Goering’s pistol, guest book, and baton? Or Napoleon’s sword and pistol?).
Finally, it was time for our tour to begin. Heinrich and I made our way outside to find the waiting mini bus and tour guide, a friendly white-bearded man named William who immediately gave us some invaluable advice: “I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but we had quite a large Chinese contingent at West Point today. If you want to hear anything, you should keep close to me.”
It turns out, William was not exaggerating. The mini bus filled with Chinese tourists, including loud, screaming children. One overweight little girl boarded the bus carrying a cup of ice cream in her hands, and as she passed, she wiped her grubby hands on the sleeve of Heinrich’s T-shirt. He gave me a look of annoyed disgust.
Our first stop along the tour was at the largest church in West Point, West Point Cadet Chapel. The structure is impressive and contains what we were told was the largest pipe organ in the world (with 23 511 individual pipes!). Pipes jut out of every surface along the side of the church, all controlled from the organist’s chair at the front.
The first row of the church seats West Point’s superintendent, with both his name and his predecessors’ signatures engraved in small silver plates along the front of the pew.
William informed us that recruits were forbidden from marrying during the four years of their time at West Point, so the day after graduation, there are weddings aplenty. In fact, there are stories of some recruits booking their wedding day during their first year, before even being in a serious relationship. They simply trusted that they would find a mate some time during their studies and that they would then want to get married as soon as possible after graduation (ah, youthful optimism!).
We drove past the row of professors’ houses, which seemed opulently large. Apparently, classed used to be held in the professors’ homes, so they were so big out of necessity. With time, the lectures were moved into classrooms (like at every other university), but the houses were never downgraded.
As we drove around campus, we kept seeing “Beat Navy” signs posted everywhere. The gift shop had also been filled with T-shirts, flags, signs, mugs, and stickers with this slogan, which William explained was just part of the sporting rivalry between West Point (army) and any naval or air force academies.
We arrived back at the main entrance, and Heinrich and I sat on a bench as we waited for our return bus. As the coach wove through the Appalachians, Heinrich and I both sat in silence and watched the thick mass of trees that carpeted the region fly past the window. It was like we entered another world again as the bus inched its way back into the city through the thick sludge of rush-hour traffic.