MAY 5 WAS A DARK, DOUR DAY as some 180 men out of the 1946 class of 1,000--500 members having passed away in the intervening years, including my late husband, Richard in 2002--made their early morning way into the chapel of the U.S. Naval Academy for a memorial service.
Navy Chaplain (retired) Alister Anderson, also of the Class of 1946, delivered the service speaking of Jesus walking on the sea (Matthew 14:22-23), as the large stained glass image of Jesus poised on pale blue waves looked down on the congregation. The chaplain spoke too of how here were the men who had learned the ways of war, learned how to command other men. He quoted Robert E. Lee saying at Fredericksburg, "It is well war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it."
Father Alister spoke also of the need for compassionate understanding in time of war, telling of Captain John Philip, skipper of the USS Texas, as his ship passed the burning hulk of a Spanish cruiser off Cuba in 1898. "Don't cheer, men," he commanded. "The poor devils are dying."
Filing out of the chapel where more than one eye had teared up thinking on private loss and history, we passed a board listing various weekly church services: Protestant, Roman Catholic, and to my considerable surprise, Muslim on Fridays, followed by Jewish in the last place.
We proceeded to Mahan Hall, greeted by USNA Alumni Association president George Watt who smoothly and professionally pressed the usual buttons for senior alumni--gratitude for past contributions and hope for more to come to maintain the school of which they could all be proud, offering a party on his porch in honor of those who could make it to class's 70th reunion, which won him some mild chuckles from the house.
Then he introduced Vice Admiral Rodney P. Rempt, USNA superintendent, a sturdy figure of a man somewhere in his mid-60s in short-sleeved white shirt and snug white uniform trousers. The vice admiral paced back and forth on stage, microphone in hand, sometimes standing at a lectern as slides were flashed on the movie-sized screen behind him. Many of the pictures dated from the time of the Class of 1946. And as he neared the end of his talk more and more pictures appeared showing young women boxing, running, playing soccer, lacrosse, basketball--all the more manly sports as it were, with the exception of football and hockey. Hazing was gone, he told us, gone with the all male classes at the Academy. Women partook in all sports on a par with the men.
He spoke of the women being required like the men to dive from the 34-foot tower into the swimming pool in order to graduate. He didn't bother to mention 22-year midshipman Jacqueline Davis who in 1984 refused to jump, was dismissed, and then was reinstated on grounds of a medical waiver. Said Ms. Davis after her reinstatement, "You wouldn't think it would be so important for me to jump, because I'm never going on a ship anyway."
The superintendent spoke with great enthusiastic pride of one female Academy graduate who'd flown 54 combat missions in Afghanistan, mentioning he was sure other female graduates were playing their role in Iraq. If I'm remembering correctly he asked the men of the Class of 1946 to take as their mission to strive to do whatever they could so that ever more worthy women be encouraged to attend the Academy. (Not a mission of which my late husband would have been in any support, I know.)
Let me interrupt for a very brief but possibly pertinent autobiographical note before getting to my exchange with the superintendent regarding Muslims at the Academy.
I have always felt very proprietary towards the Navy as my great-grandfather was Mad Jack Percival, a hero of the War of 1812, who took the first U.S. warship into Hawaii in May 1826, and commanded the USS Constitution on its first and only trip around the world in 1844. He was a consummate seaman, written up by both Melville and Hawthorne. Quite simply, Mad Jack's been my role model since I first heard about him when a very small child.
Being female, perhaps I should have chosen instead to admire his daughter, Sarah Barnes Percival who married Captain Alphesus Baker, who commanded the merchant ship the Charles C. O'Leary traveling to and from China. Sarah bore five of their six children (one of whom was my father) aboard that ship, so I guess some of Mad Jack's heroic DNA must certainly have passed on to her. And I trust to me.
The superintendent came down to our level, pacing back and forth, microphone in hand, inviting questions. One man asked about civilian instructors at the Academy engaging students in discussions about President Bush's policy in the Iraq war. The superintendent smoothly brushed this aside, talking of how wonderfully qualified the civilian instructors were. I then asked the superintendent how he felt about having Muslim services scheduled at the Academy while we were, as it were, at war with countries of that particular faith. Let me be clear that I have nothing against good American citizens who happen to be devout Muslims, but it does make me wonder whether they belong in our service academies at the present time without really extensive clearances.
"Glad you asked," he responded happily and launched into a talk about how splendidly tolerant the USNA is as regards religion. In September, he explained, they are going to inaugurate a special Jewish chapel on Academy grounds. He asked, in what I took as a rather patronizing tone, if I was satisfied. I followed up, asking how the Academy handles Islam's Friday services and whether or not the superintendent had read the Koran.
He asserted that he had and ventured to say how Islam, like all the major religions, is loving, kind, and compassionate. And offered his opinion that it was I who was being "intolerant."
I did not stay for the remaining day and a half, thereby missing the Sunday Protestant service officiated by a young woman, an Academy graduate and an ordained minister.
Interestingly, on Monday I received a number of phone calls from various class members who'd tracked me down to tell me they agreed with my asking about Islam, and also expressing distress about the superintendent's heavy pushing of the feminist agenda. I felt that not only had I been upholding surely what would have been Richard's views but perhaps Mad Jack's as well.
Cynthia Grenier writes the Mag Trade column for the Washington Times.