My old school, the U.S. Air Force Academy, established a “Legacy Class” program a few years ago. For each graduating class, for example this year’s 2017 crop, the class that graduated 50 years earlier is invited to participate in some of their special milestone events. My graduation was in 1967. You can do the math. During the past four years, some of my classmates took part in leadership seminars with the class of 2017, and led discussions on subjects such as honor and ethics in a changing society. A number of us attended a Veterans Day ceremony at the Academy Cemetery, seated in chairs set up for generals and department heads and us “Legacy” old-timers as the cadets stood in formation after marching the two miles from the main campus. Shivering in the November chill, we all listened to speeches about dedication and service and “the long blue line,” teared up as the bugler played “Taps,” and flinched at each volley of the rifle salute. 1
In connection with the Legacy program we attended a few key events marking some of the significant transition points in their junior and senior years. There were dinners with champagne glasses and formal toasts, litanies of “To the Chief!” and “Hear, hear!” Anthems and salutes, speeches and stories. Dinner conversations that ran like interviews: what did you do, where did you serve and what will you do, where will you serve. Careful table manners and courtesies, use the outside forks first, after you please sir. The MC called for us from 1967 to stand and be recognized, and with all the white-haired grads popping up across the grid of tables it looked like handfuls of golf balls scattered on a putting green. One difference from the old days, there was no “smoking lamp” in the dining hall to indicate when it would be OK to “smoke ’em if you got ’em.”
There was the “Ring Dance” when 2017 got their class rings in a tradition-guided ceremony, reminding us of how young we were back then, how serious, how eager to face uncertain futures. Some of the traditions have gotten more intricate and involved than back in our day, but there are threads that connect us across the years. The thinnest and least recognizable of these is the word “formal” in the term “formal dance.” Mrs. McComas never covered such moves in our mandatory ballroom dance classes as the ones we watched from the sidelines (pictured here in blinding nightclub red, reminding me how the unrelenting bass beat continued to ring in my ears for an hour after).
This week marked the graduation of the Class of 2017, and by now they’re off to all the places their careers will take them. Off to be pilots, engineers, planners, intel officers, managers, controllers, doctors, grad students, who-knows-whats. Some will be astronauts, generals, maybe later members of congress, diplomats, city council leaders. They are will-be’s. What does that make me? Don’t say it. The cadets now are more diverse, more involved, preparing for a more complex world than the one we faced. Statistics say they are more physically fit, stronger, healthier, and more active with the wider community than we ever were. And looking into the future at their role as an instrument of national policy, well… we had it so easy in comparison.
On the day before graduation we watched a parade on what used to be known simply as the Parade Field, now with the same grass, muddy spots and grandstands but called Stillman Field, named for the first Commandant of the Academy. The officers marching with swords like in the days of the American Revolution, the band playing familiar martial music in the crisp morning air. Ruffles and flourishes for the General, an artillery cannon to make everyone jump, a change of command ceremony with the rising seniors taking over. The graduates formed up and marched out across the field in echelon, to turn and be honored along the “pass in review” line as the rest of the Cadet Wing did the parade drill. It seems to never get old, for the spectators.
Later in the day came the high point of our “Legacy Class” standing, with the commissioning ceremonies. These were held in different locations all around the campus for each of the 40 cadet squadrons. Each of us was assigned to a squadron and gave a short speech to set the tone for the ceremony. Then, after the cadets were individually sworn in, we presented each one with a set of Second Lieutenant bars. Butterbars, everyone calls them. Our class had taken up a collection to buy the rank insignia over a year ago. The bars were engraved with 1967 – 2017 on one and USAFA on the other. They were in a little box with a slip of paper with some words of encouragement and advice. Old people always like to give encouragement and advice.
Then, on Wednesday, the graduation, hats in the air, the Thunderbirds roaring overhead. Such a cliché, right? Yeah, I know. It never gets old.