Just above the spot where the Bear Mountain Bridge spans the Hudson River between Poughkeepsie and New York City, my friend Ben”s school sits like a stone gray fortress in the New York hills. One of my very best friends from high school, Ben left little doubt where he wanted to go to college and nobody was especially surprised when he headed to the East Coast.
That was three years ago and although we exchange e-mails, I haven”t seen Ben more than a handful of times since the night before he left for college when we walked from his house to the bay in our hometown. We talked that night about where we might be in four or five years and how things would change. Then Ben climbed to the top of the metal railing that separated the sidewalk from the water and dove headfirst into the black waves. The next day he left for school.
It”s a familiar adage these days to say that our lives have changed in the last month in many ways I”m sure that they have. But this notion of change seems relative. I hadn”t given much thought to what Ben and I talked about that night by the water until a few weeks ago when I really began to wonder how much things were changing for Ben.
True to campuses all across the country, the students at Ben”s school have been transfixed on the events of the last month. The terrorist attacks in nearby New York City, the military response launched in recent days and the outpouring of national pride and unity are themes that haven”t escaped the students who sit in class with Ben each day. It”s just that Ben and his classmates have watched with a different sort of interest from a campus that is more than just a college campus in the traditional sense.
The United States Military Academy at West Point an “institution devoted to the arts and sciences of warfare” where Ben and his fellow cadets have followed the news of the last month seems a far cry from the world we experience here at the University.
At the nation”s oldest continually occupied military post, times like these blur the lines between college campus and Army base. Cadets carry books to class while military police secure the gates and restrict entrance to “official business.”
Ben told me that things felt different in subtle ways, that a seriousness of purpose had come over the place. Still, Ben was quick to remind me that it would be well over a year before he and this year”s graduating seniors would be eligible to join the ranks of fighting soldiers and that any sort of ground war seemed unlikely. He told me that he was certain that the future hung heavy on everyone”s mind, but that few cadets were talking about what might happen.
That seemed strange, because when I saw Ben this past summer all we talked about was the future but of course the future was different then, when international conflict was a term used to describe what happens in other countries.
Set to graduate this spring, Ben seemed to play the role of college senior fairly well this past summer. He talked about receiving his commission and beginning his mandatory five-years of service with a sort of anxious anticipation. We smiled about his prestigious future as a military officer, about a long career in the Army or a cushy civilian job in a few years. His options were enviable. That of course was this past summer when combat scenarios and battle plans seemed like they were limited to the sterile situations he studied in his classes or read about in his books.
For the first time since he and I stood by the water three years ago and wondered if our lives would change I began to think that they really could.
These days the hypothetical seems a bit more possible a fact that Ben admitted when he explained how the tone of their preparations had been shifting. From discussing situations of peace-keeping operations to focusing on managing platoon- sized groups in the field, Ben explained that lessons seemed to be changing.
But I told myself not be surprised. Everyone”s lives were changed last month right? Maybe some will be changing more than others.
Geoffrey Gagnon can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.