Back in Step by Kathleen Toomey Jabs

Forbidden to talk or look left or right, we waited together ten years ago to have our heads shaved or, for the women, cropped short. We stood in silent lines to receive issued gear while parents walked through “the yard” and watched with a mix of pride and misgiving. We were from every state and US territories. Throughout the humid Annapolis summer, we did push-ups in the damp grass at sunrise and listened to the exhortations of Herr Lenz, our eighty-year-old Physical Education Program (PEP) leader. We learned to march, carry rifles, fold ties and stow socks so they smiled. We memorized the armament of tanks and ships, the Code of Conduct and quotations of famous Naval leaders. We were the US Naval Academy Class of 1988, proud, scared, cocky and poised, training to be leaders of the greatest Navy in the world and making a commitment to serve our country for at least five years following graduation.

At graduation, we tossed our covers in the air and ourselves into our new assignments. Again, we scattered across the world to flight school, nuclear power training, surface ships and Naval and Marine Corps bases. People married, started families, left the military, and, with each change, each new distance, memories pushed themselves a little further into corners.

But, sooner than seemed possible, it was time for our ten-year reunion. Homecoming in Annapolis, Navy vs Colgate, a class tailgater. A chance to remember, find old friends and, for just a little while, go back to the way we were, watch new faces march in the same formations and wear the same
uniforms we had.

One year ahead the Class President and Secretary began a reunion countdown in Shipmate, and, slowly, submissions increased. They placed full-page ads in the magazine and then did a mailing. Another classmate volunteered to start a web page, using the class motto, Sibi Aequum, as the password. The site listed each graduate’s current e-mail and home address. News traveled. This reunion was not one to be missed. We would be different; we would all return. More volunteers offered services: one group of classmates sent flyers advertising gear and sold clothing with the class crest. Excitement mounted. Some planned the Friday evening dinner, others offered to register new arrivals, still more coordinated music and assembled gift bags.

The weather was perfect. The weekend opened with the Friday afternoon parade (“p-rade”). For many of us, it was the first time we’d actually seen one from the bleachers. Midshipmen marched on, rifles slung over a shoulder, faces grinless, and then, the memories arrived. We all hated marching; afternoons of seemingly purposeless drill, and yet, we sat in reverent silence as the colors were paraded and companies reported as ordered. Looking for changes is inherent to reunions, but often the only newness is attitude and approach. Despite all of 88’s attempts to change, we recognized each other. We sought out the people with whom we shared the deepest ties: roommates, shipmates, friends from classes, sports and companies.

The tailgate tent flooded with alumni and guests, many of whom never entered the football stadium. In the end it wasn’t the game or the chance to shop in the famed “Mid Store.” We were there for each other and to remember. We celebrated, reunited, renewed our bonds to the Academy and re-visioned our sense of all that had been and all that could be. There was power in the knowledge that the choices in our future rested upon the chances of our past, chances taken together ten years earlier, and again to come back for this weekend. We crossed miles and dared to return, risked mingling past and present. And while we there, in a weekend that passed all too quickly, there was balance, if only for a few moments. Time was the harmony to our melody. We followed the cadence and assembled, back in step, until we marched away with plans to follow our own drums until the time came to meet again.

About the author
Kathleen Toomey Jabs is a 1988 graduate of the US Naval Academy and served in the Navy at several duty stations both at home and abroad, including two years in Japan. She earned an MA from the University of Hawaii. In addition to writing both fiction and a monthly column for the Naval Academy Alumni Association, Kathleen currently teaches English Composition at Florida International University in Miami.