Sidebar Historian 1875

Memoirs beyond Memory: Willis Thompson May's Plebe Year, 1875-76

Memoirs beyond Memory cover

Edited by Lin Maria Riotto. ISBN: 978-0-9824848-2-1. Illustrated memoirs. The first book in the Reck House Press Sidebar Historian® series. Available from Reck House Press for $29.95. Projected publication date: 2014. A Reader's Guide will be available for this title on publication.

About Memoirs beyond Memory

As a boy and young man, self-confessed dandy Will May – the sole son of a country doctor in Crawfordsville, Indiana – was indulged by his widowed father and adored by his two younger sisters. At eighteen, May had no enthusiasm for the military, or indeed any particular profession, but because one of his friends had applied to the Naval Academy, May applied for a place at West Point. Within weeks of his arrival, Cadet 2816's military aspirations were fast fading. Nothing in his cosseted youth or adolescence had prepared him for four years at "the Point," or for thirty years largely spent with the 15th Infantry on the temporary, mostly-forgotten posts of the American frontier, the Philippines, or Cuba.

This record of his first painfully disorienting year at West Point reflects May's mind as a reluctant cadet, fearful of being hazed, adjusting to the relentless, often harassing discipline. While his good eyesight and steady hand saved him from the most serious hazing, he did not escape, for example, the humiliation of being seen in his fatigue uniform while picking up discarded cigarette and cigar stubs at the feet of a young woman he fancied, who sat surrounded by more senior cadets attentively idling in full dress splendor.

May began his memoirs in the mid-1920s while battling the throat cancer that would take his life. When he died on August 27, 1926, he had completed a partial first draft, revisiting his youth and his first year at the academy. A niece privately published his reminiscences through the day he boarded a train in Crawfordsville for West Point. Memoirs beyond Memory covers May's first year at the military academy. And while his niece alluded to a typescript by May that finished out his West Point career, it seems to have been lost.

Because May never had the opportunity to make many of the connections he undoubtedly would have made, had he lived a little longer, the editor has drawn back into his narrative those strands that lie outside his typescript, but not outside his experience.

From Memoirs beyond Memory:

Then came the fateful day when a considerable number of those reporting heard the familiar summons, "Candidates, turn out promptly," for the last time.

After three weeks of examinations the class was formed, with thumping hearts, to hear who had passed and who had "fessed." I distinctly remember my feelings. Much of the novelty had worn off, thus dimming my military aspirations; I was weary and homesick and I secretly hoped that I had "fessed." Nearby and fronting the line were a great many spectators, parents and friends of candidates, and among them I saw my father. Doubtless he already knew the result as far as I was concerned, for he was smiling.

Only the names of the failures were called out and as each one stepped from the ranks he was directed by Cadet Captain Bacon to turn in his bedding and other supplies to the Commissary and then report to the Commissary officer for further instruction. Thus ended a cherished dream, unless the youth proved to be "a man of influence" (an exception to the rule) and secured reappointment later. A more rare exception was the young man, usually with Army affiliations, who brought to bear sufficient influence to obtain a commission in the Army within a short time, without further military training, and would thus outrank all his classmates who still had a four-year "grind" before commissioning.

To get back to the ranks. . . . There I was, after all the names of the failures had been called, still standing among the elect. Actually, I was disappointed. Of course I glanced at father but his smile showed no sympathy with my feelings. He was glad. I was almost tearful.

Returning to the barracks I sat on the floor, resting against my roll of bedding, and cut my name in the undersurface of the visor of my cap, a customary means of identification. The sum of my feelings was expressed in the words, "Well, now I am in for it." There was a loophole in that the Oath of Allegiance had not yet been taken so I had time for further meditation, in which I engaged seriously. I did not communicate these conflicting emotions to father although he must have sensed my plight.

Within a day or two, however, we were marched to the Adjutant's Office where I took the necessary oath to serve Uncle Sam for eight years, unless discharged sooner. It was rather amusing to hear the old clerk repeat the oath in a mumbling way, ending with, "So help you God twenty-five cents."


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