Monday, October 6, 2014

Bucket list: West Point. Check

Cody, the "prison puppy," was part of my bucket
list-trip West Point for an Army football game.

Since childhood I'd always wanted to visit West Point and the U.S. Military Academy.

As a youngster I'd heard my mother speak of an automobile trip she and her younger sister had taken from their hometown of Fond du Lac, Wis., to West Point,, N.Y. I wish now that I'd asked her more about the trip when I was older, because I really don't know many of the details.

Through the magic of the internet, I've been able to piece together some of what I assume are the details of that trip. 

I'd always thought that my mother had made her epic auto trip while in her late teens; which greatly impressed me . . . two teenage girls driving more than 950 miles cross country in the pre-interstate days. Now, I don't think that was the case; she must have been somewhat older.

Another assumption, logical at least in my mind, is that my mother and aunt made the trip to visit their cousin, Esther, who was married to James R. Andersen, an instructor at West Point. Since Andersen was at the USMA from 1939-42, I now believe mom must have been about 24 years old at the time; still a gutsy adventure for two young small-town women.

During World War II, Andersen rose quickly in rank and responsibility. By early 1945 he was a brigadier general and Chief of Staff to Lt. General Millard F. Harmon, commander of U.S. Army Air Forces in the Pacific. 

On Feb. 26, 1945, Harmon, Andersen and eight other officers and enlisted men were lost when the B-24 Liberator in which they were flying en route to Washington, D.C. vanished between Guam and Hawaii. When last heard from, the converted bomber had plenty of fuel and was traveling in good weather over calm seas. What newspaper accounts called the most extensive air and sea search in the Pacific to that time failed to turn up and any trace of the plane or its crew.

My oldest brother, who was born in September, 1946, was named James Roy after Gen. Andersen.
In 1949, an Army air base on Guam was renamed Andersen Air Force Base.

My own trip to West Point was occasioned by the desire to attend a football game there. My daughter, son-in-law and I drove up from our winter place in western Pennsylvania to attend the Oct. 4 game vs. Ball State. 

We saw a good game and a Black Knights win. The experience was made extremely enjoyable by the Army's handling of my special needs for wheelchair accommodation. Everything was handled in a professional and efficient manner from start to finish.

As game day approached, I discovered that my parking pass had not been mailed with the tickets. With a single phone call I was able to secure the pass delivered by next-day express.

We drove up on Thursday evening, staying at a hotel in Mahwah, N.J. On Friday we drove the 40 minutes or so to West Point and spent the day at the USMA Visitor's Center and the West Point Museum.

The museum is, simply stated, awesome. There are four floors of the history of warfare and of the U.S. Army. We spent nearly four hours poring over the displays and dioramas. You could not overuse the word "priceless" to describe some of the items held there. There is an original Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, along with a pair of his pistols. Napoleon's sword and brace of pistols are exhibited. Hermann Goering's sidearm, dagger and a silver presentation pistol he gave to Hitler are displayed among the war trophies. More plebeian, but no less historically interesting in my view, are a pair of arrows retrieved from the Little Big Horn battlefield. 

I have no doubt that the museum lives up to its claim to be the largest and most comprehensive military museum in the nation. From foot-long silver darts dropped -- silent but deadly -- from high altitude over enemy positions in Vietnam to a WWI tank and a replica of the first A-bomb it was all immensely appealing to my interest in military history.

A week out, we knew that game-day weather was going to be iffy. Predictions called for a 90 percent chance of rain. And the predictions proved accurate. Rain in the morning caused the cancellation of the cadet parade that I was greatly looking forward to. 

It continued to rain virtually non-stop until almost the end of the game. Fortunately, wheelchair seating at Michie Stadium is under the upper deck and we remained dry and comfortable. By the time the game was over, so was the rain, and our half-hour wait for the wheelchair-accessible shuttle bus was also dry.

I cannot stress strongly enough my recommendation that you add West Point and an Army football game to your own bucket list.

An unusual aspect of our trip was that we were accompanied by Cody, a year-old yellow lab service dog in training. Cody is a "prison puppy." He is being given his basic training by a prisoner at the facility where my daughter teaches. As part of that training, he is periodically taken outside the walls for socialization and a broad range of experiences that aren't possible in the prison setting.

He handled everything well. Army football games feature liberal use of cannon fire inside the stadium and across the Hudson River. Cody jumped just a bit at the gun's report at kickoff, then was unphased by subsequent firings. 

After another four or six months with his prison handler, Cody will move on to advanced training to become a service dog in an area such as advanced seizure detection, providing stability to a handicapped walker or some other discipline. 

My daughter has worked with these dogs for as long as she's been at the prison. The program involved is called Canine Partners for Life, a non-profit organization that for more than 20 years has been training service dogs, home companion dogs, and residential companion dogs to assist individuals who have a wide range of physical and cognitive disabilities. You can check out the program at 

As I get older and less mobile, my days of traveling to attend college football games may be drawing to a close. If I never get out to another, my West Point experience will have been a fine capstone.

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