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Of all privileges or sources of pleasure which tend to remove the monotony of military life, there are none to which the stripling soldier looks forward with more delight than furlough. Indeed it is hard to say which is the stronger emotion that we experience when we first receive information of our appointment to a cadetship, or that which comes upon us when we are apprised that a furlough has been granted us. Possibly the latter is the stronger feeling. It is so with some, with those, at least, who received the former announcement with indifference, as many do, accepting it solely to please a mother, or father, or other friend or relative. With whatever feeling, or for whatever reason the appointment may have been accepted, it is certain that all are equally anxious to take advantage of their furlough when the time comes. This is made evident in a multitude of ways.
A furlough is granted to those only who have been present at two annual examinations at least, and by and with the consent of a parent or guardian if a minor.
Immediately after January next preceding their second annual examination, the furloughmen, as they are called, have class meetings, or rather furlough meetings, to celebrate the “good time coming.” They hold them almost weekly, and they are devoted to music, jesting, story telling, and to general jollification. It can be well imagined with what joy a cadet looks forward to his furlough. It is the only interruption in the monotony of his Academy life, and it is to him for that very reason extremely important. During all this time, and even long before January, the furloughmen are accustomed to record the state of affairs respecting their furlough by covering every available substance that will bear a pencil or chalk mark with numerous inscriptions, giving the observer some such information as this: “100 days to furlough,” “75 days to furlough,” “only two months before furlough,” and thus even to the day before they actually leave.
The crowning moment of all is the moment when the order granting furloughs is published.
I am sure my happiest moment at West Point, save when I grasped my “sheepskin” for the first time, was when I heard my name read in the list. It was a most joyous announcement. To get away from West Point, to get out among friends who were not ashamed nor afraid to be friends, could not be other than gratifying. It was almost like beginning a new life, a new career, and as I looked back from the deck of the little ferryboat my feelings were far different from what they were two years before.
My furlough was something more than an interruption of my ordinary mode of life for the two years previous. It was a complete change from a life of isolation to one precisely opposite. And of course I enjoyed it the more on that account.
The granting of furloughs is entirely discretionary with the Superintendent. It may be denied altogether, but usually is not, except as punishment for some grave offence.
It is customary to detain for one, two, three, or even more days those who have demerits exceeding a given number for a given time. The length of their leave is therefore shortened by just so many days.
There are a number of customs observed by the cadets which I shall describe here.
To disregard these customs is to show at least it is so construed a want of pride. To say that this or that “is customary,” is quite sufficient to warrant its conception and execution. Among these customs the following may be mentioned:
To begin with the fourth class. Immediately after their first semi-annual examination the class adopts a class crest or motto, which appears on all their stationery, and often on many other things. To have class stationary is a custom that is never overlooked. Each class chooses its own design, which usually bears the year in which the class will graduate.
Class stationary is used throughout the period of one s cadetship.
In the early spring, the first, second, and third classes elect hop managers, each class choosing a given number. This is preparatory to the hop given by the second to the graduating class as a farewell token. This custom is rigorously kept up.
Next to these are customs peculiar to the first class. They are never infringed upon by other classes, nor disregarded even by the first class.
First, prior to graduation it is an invariable custom of the graduating class to adopt and procure, each of them, a class ring. This usually bears the year of graduation, the letters U. S. M. A., or some other military character.
This ring is the signet that binds the class to their Alma Mater, and to each other. It is to be in after years the souvenir that is to recall one s cadet life, and indeed every thing connected with a happy and yet dreary part of one s career.
The class album also is intended for the same purpose. It contains the “smiling shadows” of classmates, comrades, and scenes perhaps never more to be visited or seen after parting at graduation. Oh! what a feeling of sadness, of weariness of life even, must come upon him who in after years opens his album upon those handsome young faces, and there silently compares their then lives with what succeeding years have revealed! Who does not, would not grieve to recall the sad tidings that have come anon and filled one s heart and being with portentous gloom? This, perhaps a chum, an especial favorite, or at any rate a classmate, has fallen under a rude savage warfare while battling for humanity, without the advantages or the glory of civilized war, but simply with the consciousness of duty properly done. That one, perchance, has fallen bravely, dutifully, without a murmur of regret, and this one, alas! where is he? Has he, too, perished, or does he yet remember our gladsome frolics at our beloved Alma Mater. My mind shudders, shrinks from the sweet and yet sad anticipations of the years I have not seen and may perhaps never see. But there is a sweetness, a fondness that makes me linger longingly upon the thought of those unborn days.