7 min read
Figure of speech, synecdoche
Long Gray Line
The long gray line of us stretches / through the years of a century told / and the last one feels to the marrow / the grip of your far off hold.* To the marrow, yes. And in the quads, the calves, the lower back. Not to mention the smell, which was pungent, ripe, unwashed-for-a-week cadets. Sensations from yesterday’s ruck march have a hold on me. Ed from the class of 1976– in his late sixties–has bad knees from ranger school and refused Advil when I offered it. Nah. “I’ll take the pain,” he said. I could have used it for my own knees. I decided I’d feel the pain too.
The march back to garrison from Lake Frederick is the culminating event of Cadet Basic Training at West Point. Roughly 14 miles through hilly wooded terrain, the course marked the route back to the barracks for some 1200 new cadets.
Old Grads have the chance to join the Marchback and in doing so become a living physical representation of something much larger, something that embodies the spirit of the Academy–the Long Gray Line. This term refers to all cadets going back to the Academy’s founding in 1802 by Thomas Jefferson.
The Long Gray Line is purely conceptual because such a line is impossible of course, with the remains of graduates interred from before the Civil War on through to a living force deployed around the globe. The idea imagines a continuous line in formation which transcends place and time. Throughout history, these men and women drilled in parade, wore dress gray, lived by the honor code, and responded when the nation called. At Homecoming and special events graduates review the ranks, inspecting the cadets as they march by. Here is part of that Line of Gray, a physical part of the line often spanning 70 or 80 years from oldest graduate to youngest cadet.
The Long Gray Line is a synecdoche because what it refers to includes all cadets and graduates now and in the past. We were not in gray yesterday, but we were in uniform. The synecdoche, pronounced with emphasis on the second syllable, uses the part to mean or infer the whole. It’s a figure of speech or rhetorical trope.
Common examples in the military include Boots on the Ground, where boots refer to soldiers. All hands on deck, where hands refer to sailors. Brass means officers of high rank, with its reference to the brass insignia worn on the their uniforms.
The cadets in ACUs–the Army Combat Uniform–with M4 rifle ruck marched with 250 old grads in polos and shorts. We had the better deal. My husband Mark and I carried packs filled with boodle bags, each stuffed with protein bars, gummies, Rolos, Reese’s, and other goodies to pass to new cadets. Norah had peeled off early for fall season to practice with the Army Volleyball team so I was sad that I missed her. But I was thrilled to march with my nephew. We talked off and on for most of the march and I met his company mates, his squad leader, passed out candy, listened to stories.
A new cadet I met named Jonathan was the first in his family to join the military. He lived nearby in New Jersey and told me that his grandfather and his family escaped from North Korea. They found an old canoe and used it to cross the river, but not sitting inside. They hid underneath. When I asked about guards, he said that they shot at the canoe. His grandfather’s family reached the other side and learned that his brother had not made it.
Later, Craig and I talked at the luncheon in Eisenhower Hall. A group from his class of 1968 walked in the Marchback each year and one had just died. A classmate wore the deceased grad’s lanyard and all wore black wristbands to remember him. Craig learned that I had escaped from Vietnam and said that when he had arrived in Vietnam, his battalion commander assigned him as a new captain to take over a battery which just fragged its commander. Fragging was not uncommon in Vietnam, when soldiers committed mutiny on officers, the term getting its name from the fragmentation grenade rolled into the officer quarters. There were no serial numbers or fingerprints to deal with. Craig was replacing the battery commander who had just been fragged or killed.
At Mark and Holly’s house that evening with a younger grad and our classmates–now in our 50s and the hosts retired from the Army–we discussed the Marchback. Taxpayer dollars paid for basic stuff at West Point, the tuition and board and general upkeep, but over recent decades fundraising and donations provided for a large amount of programs. These have become a vibrant and essential part of the cadet experience. The Marchback was not a fundraiser and it distracted from the mission of a tactical ruck march for the class. Stealth and tactics were a stretch to achieve with old grads sauntering along in shorts.
And there are better ways to run a tactical ruck march. Listening to this discussion, I wasn’t sure where I stood. I’m a veteran and a capitalist and an idealist. I hadn’t seen this as a fundraising endeavor. I hadn’t seen it as purely soldiering requirement. Rucking is hard stuff. For many new cadets this was the longest and hardest thing they’ve done.
What was the mission or objective of this Marchback? I was damn near miserable as a new cadet on that march. It sure would have been nice to talk with my brother who was an older cadet, or a grad who could share wisdom about the Army, cadet life, academics, war. Better yet, a woman mentor, the idea of such a thing scarce and nearly nonexistent in the eighties. My nephew said the time went by fast. When we hugged goodbye on the ski slope, my eyes filled and I noticed him blinking.
I walked with classmates on the home stretch to the Superintendent’s house (the ranking officer in charge, like the president of the college). Mark, Karen, Donna, Ken, Todd, Brian, Matt, Bill, and Alex, among many other graduates. Brett walked the march for the first time because, like my daughter, he was an athlete who had to leave for football training. His knees must have been hurting, but you wouldn’t know it from the smile on his face. We fell in behind the 1976 graduates for the final two miles.
The mission. The new cadets marched with all their gear on their back, their rifles, in 90 degree heat and summer humidity, drenched with sweat and unwashed for a week. The chaplain who spoke at my classmate Totes’s funeral walked among us and gave me a blessing with a fist bump. The Superintendent, Lieutenant General Steve Gilland, started with the class, marched with the class, rallied the Old Grads and was on the reviewing stand as the class and the graduates marched by.
The oldest graduate, from class of 1960, led the way, likely 84 years old. Next to him was the guidon bearer, Second Lieutenant Sara Scales, one of four daughters who were/are cadets, whose father is a 1984 graduate. Five cadets from one family. I had just met her at the Cyber course in Fort Gordon, Georgia, where she finished her basic officer training. She is an elite level runner and officer in the Army’s newest branch.
The class of 2026 with its new motto as the class walked the final stretch, crowded with spectators and fans. For Country We Commit, 2026.
The mission for the Marchback is about more than Cadet Basic Training. It’s about more than money. New cadets met old grads and old grads met the new class. In an age where fewer and fewer carry the burden for the many, the Marchback of nearly 1500 cadets and graduates, spanning 66 years in age, is the very best of us. It lets us Grip Hands* across the classes with each other and those no longer there, but no less there in spirit.
The long gray line of us stretches, thro’ the years of a century told and the column of marchers were and are bound, cadet and alumni, to each other, gripping hands, across time and space, drawing on this for strength to do what we had to do, what we must do. And before us, those who walked the same ground, wore the same dress gray, drilled on the Plain, they had served in the War of 1812, both sides of the Civil War, the Spanish American War, the Great War, and every war since.*
THE CORPS! THE CORPS! THE CORPS!
The Corps, bareheaded, salute it,
With eyes up, thanking our God.
That we of the Corps are treading,
Where they of the Corps have trod.
They are here in ghostly assemblage.
The ranks of the Corps long dead.
And our hearts are standing attention,
While we wait for their passing tread.
The Corps of today, we salute you.
The Corps of an earlier day;
We follow, close order, behind you,
Where you have pointed the way;
The long gray line of us stretches,
Thro’ the years of a century told
And the last one feels to the marrow,
The grip of your far off hold.
Grip hands with us now though we see not,
Grip hands with us strengthen our hearts.
As the long line stiffens and straightens
With the thrill that your presence imparts.
Grip hands tho’ it be from the shadows.
While we swear, as you did of yore.
Or living, or dying, to honor,
The Corps, and the Corps, and the Corps.
Based on the original by
Bishop H.S. Shipman
*Excerpt and final passage of this letter is from my upcoming book, Raising Athena.