Me, Jenn & Ab
Two weeks ago, my cousin Jenn Parsons graduated from West Point Military Academy and I was fortunate enough to receive an invitation to part of the otherwise week-long festivities. Joe Biden was billed to speak at commencement, so it was sure to be all kinds of entertaining. While extreme weather and general disorganization plagued the event overall, the Smith and Parsons families edged around those issues through preparedness and humor. Also, wine.
My dad got a little generous with the pour. Notice my non-smart phone on the right.
Let’s back up. My cousin. Someone who is related to me. Ranked among the top 30 graduates in the whole graduating West Point class. Joe Biden actually gave her a diploma and shook her hand. “You’re allowed to smile,” he told her. Jenn also received the highest grade among her fellow mechanical engineers, emphasis in aeronautical engineering. Basically, my cousin is SO COOL they officially closed school.
Jenn being commissioned.
Of course, you would NEVER know that if you met her. In fact, if you Google the terms “modest” and/or “humble,” a photo of my cousin would surely pop up. It’s the unassuming brilliance that dazzled the military, the kind that so embodies their 2012 class motto: “For more than ourselves.”
The first event I attended was on Friday morning: The Graduation Parade. The parade was being held on the main lawn, a giant patch of grass that apparently costs more to maintain than the white house lawn.
Mic’d announcements boomed off the massive buildings, echoing through the growing crowd of spectators haggling for seats. Our 12-person group arrived early enough to get seats in the bleachers, and waited while the cool morning mist hung in the air. My cousin Abigail (Jenn’s younger sister) pulled her pink hood over her head and sat with me as we pretended to save seats for nonexistent relatives.
Abigail in the middle. Saving my seat.
People watching at its finest: what will someone do when you refuse them a seat? At first, we simply tried to avoid eye contact. When someone asked us outright, we horribly assessed if we wanted to sit with them or not. Eventually we caved and allowed two elderly folks to accompany our bench. I mean, we’re not monsters.
After about two hours of screaming children; six collective bathroom trips for the immobile, elderly couple sitting on the inside of us; and one creepy-looking, life-size cutout of a cadet following me with his eyes, we found it incredibly funny when verbally attacked.
Which is exactly what happened when, ten minutes before the ceremony began, a white-haired, cane-yielding, jet-black sun glasses-wearing woman came around and began demanding someone give up their seat for her. Uh-uh, no way lady. We have been here for a LONG time, I don’t care how old you are, I thought. So I avoided eye contact while she told my Nana in the front row she would “go find a KINDER soul to give her a seat.”
Abi’s grandfather called out after her, “Sorry!”
She turned back to him and sneered, “No you’re not.”
Wow. Talk about hostile.
Here are some more photos from the day:
Can you pick out Jenn?
Jenn hugging my mom before the parade
Uncle Jeff & my dad in matching outfits.
Our Uncle Tony flew out from San Diego for the event!
After the parade, we made our way to get some lunch, killing time before the Honor’s award ceremony. We snuck into the main auditorium an hour before it started, but were promptly asked to leave so the cadets might rehearse. Whoops, already getting in trouble.
United States Military Academy 2012 Awards Convocation
At the start of the ceremony, we all joined in to sing our National Anthem for the second time that day. The whole situation started to feel a lot like church. Sitting, standing, lots of singing. People dressed nicely. And the whole time, you’re only marginally sure what’s actually going on.
I looked up at the stage as the cadets received their respective awards and knew I was looking at our Nation’s future leaders. I mean, Jenn wants to be an astronaut. For these graduates, the sky isn’t even the limit. Jenn received the Colonel James L. Wash Memorial Award for the highest degree of excellence in mechanical engineering. She’s kind of a big deal.
(Fine Print): The Colonel James L. Walsh Memorial Award, established in 1956. A Mounted Cadet Saber awarded in the name of the National Defense Industrial Association for the Highest Degree of Excellence in Mechanical Engineering. Sponsored by the National Defense Industrial Association. Presented to: Cadet Jennifer Parsons.
After the awards, Jenn was able to hang out with us for a bit. We drove around campus as she had to mind to pre-graduation administrative things. We admired her cool saber while Ab checked its relative sharpness. She may or may not have gashed her finger. It’s fine.
Jenn with her sweet saber.
We stopped for beer at the closest gas station, and drove back to the hotel to bum around. The Parsons clan went to a formal banquet, while the Smiths ordered pizza. My parents and I swapped YouTube videos to fill the time. My dad chose “United Breaks Guitars.” I introduced them to The Lonely Island’s “Captain Jack Sparrow.” Around that time, the Parsons newcomers showed up, including my wildly brilliant and adorable twin, 8-year-old cousins, Lilly and Dante. Since my dad brought 16 bottles of wine for the weekend, we did some serious drinking. (Not the 8 year olds!) Lilly sat on my lap and held my hand the whole night. Dante wrestled with my dad. Once I gave them my ipod touch to play with, they became distracted with Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja. It was a wonderful time.
Me & my cousin Lilly in our matching glasses.
The rest of the clan returned from the banquet and we rallied until we realized our meeting time for the morning was wicked early. Like, 5:45 AM. I was sharing a room with my Nana, so we retired with our books, mentally preparing for the four hours of sleep we would be getting.
Lilly, Ab, Dante & I were up way past our bed times.
Have you ever tailgated at 7am? I have.
Even though we had assigned seats, we found ourselves in lawn chairs with bagged hotel breakfasts a full three hours before the ceremony would begin. We are a happy family of early birds.
See, first timers make the mistake of not giving themselves enough time to get through car security entering the school, then metal detectors and bag checks to get into the stadium. We’d heard horror stories of folks missing the ceremony entirely due to traffic entering the school. That wasn’t going to happen to us. The morning was beautiful. It was warm, but foggy enough to cool the air. Dark, threatening clouds hung overhead, but the rain didn’t come. Not right then, anyway.
Dante & Lilly
After some time, we made our way to the stadium. The hot sun was burning off the remaining haze as I fumbled to remove all the electronics from my bag. “All of them?” I asked the TSA bag checkers. The man in the rubber gloves smiled weakly, exasperated by the question. I proceeded to pull out two cameras, four chargers, a phone, and an ipod. I nearly overturned my bag to get it all out. The rest of the party had long since gone through the lines, I was holding everyone up.
Although it was early, the stadium was packed. I snaked through the crowd, using my House of Blues security training to make my way easily. We got to our seats and looked at our watches. We had two hours until the ceremony started. Ab and I played “Life” on her iPad to pass the time, noticing the sun getting hotter and hotter as the time passed. Babies started crying. Programs became fans. My mother applied sun screen. And without warning, thousands of graduation-goers began baking in the hellish sun as we agonized for the stupid thing to start already. When a rare breeze rolled through, the crowd let out a collective sigh of relief.
The sun was so bright.
Abigail's legs were starting to burn
Side note about extreme weather: everyone hates it. We’re all miserable. But somehow, the shared misery makes it okay. At least I’m not the only one who feels this way, I rationalized as I swiped one handprint of sunscreen across my right shoulder. That should be enough, right? It wasn’t. What resulted from my sunscreen apathy was the worst sunburn of my life. No joke, even as I write this almost a full two weeks later, my skin continues to peel and hurt.
Me and Abigail in the hot sun.
The pleasure we took from the heat was the fact that at least WE were putting ourselves through this to see Jenn walk across the stage first, in the top 30 cadets. To see her shake Joe Biden’s hand. Most other families suffered through the heat for nothing but mediocrity. A name quickly called by no one famous. Of course, any West Point graduate is beyond mediocre, but that small comfort helped me and Abi fight off mental sun poisoning. We later found out that MSNBC used a photo of one graduate shaking the Vice President’s hand as their story cover photo, and the photo was (of course) of Jenn. I was excited for her, but in no way surprised. You can see the photo here.
Jenn shaking Joe Biden's hand on the jumbotron.
Once the ceremony actually started, we were inches from heat stroke. From a cadet volunteer’s radio I heard no less than three medic calls in a matter of minutes.
People were fading. The cliché, “dropping like flies” seemed appropriate to use. After Biden spoke, and after Jenn walked across the stage, Ab and I booked it up the stadium steps to grab a bit of shade. Half of our 16 person party had disbursed throughout the venue. All of us trying to find a brief moment of relief. Ab and I found a locked Coca-Cola freezer and cracked it just enough to get a tiny blast of cold air.
Tiny yet satisfying. I began scraping icicles out of the cooler an empty Popsicle cart and holding them to my face. I took off my heels and slipped on my flats.
We ran into my little cousins and shared some shade with them and my Aunt Mary. They were getting ready for the traditional hat toss in which little kids run onto the field to catch the hats when the cadets fling them in the air to celebrate commencement. Sometimes cadets put money or notes in their hats for the kids, and we instructed our otherwise well-behaved cousins to be ruthless and aggressive. They got hats without having to fight anyone. We are a family of winners.
Jenn with Lilly & Dante after the ceremony
The most interesting thing to note about the graduation overall was how unbelievably disorganized the event was. Ironic, right? The ARMY can’t figure out how to properly bus families back to campus after 200 years of graduations? We waited in an unholy line in the ungodly sun for almost an hour while the busses filled up slower than the trickle of Chinese water torture. Notably, the SAME old lady that was rude to us from the day before tried cutting people in line! Guilt tripping her way to the front, we held our ground and boxed her out.
We rode the bus to the main campus where Jenn was commissioned personally by her commander. She stood up with 5 of her companymates and the commander said, “If there was one word to describe this group, it would be: prepared.” That sent shivers down my spine. She said that Jenn was “one of the hardest workers in the entire company.” My Uncle Jeff and Auntie Laurie pinned Jenn’s stripes onto her uniform, and we were all just so proud.
We made our way to the bus that would take us back to our cars, and waited in another massive line. My dad pulled up a weather map on his phone and beating red right above West Point was the eye of what seemed to be a hurricane. Gerbil-sized rain drops began pelting us and I grabbed Lilly’s hand and muscled and scratched our giant party onto the school bus. I got into a screaming match with some lady. My sprightly Nana elbowed old ladies out of her way. Abigail verbally assaulted the bus driver until he re-opened the door and let our whole family on.
Moments after we pulled away, the sky opened up, and the great flood that caused Noah to build an ark seemed to be matched by the massive storm we were experiencing. We got off the bus and still had a quarter mile walk to the car. At this point, the rain was a welcome change. The hot sun had melted our makeup and our dresses were already ruined by rings of sweat. Lilly and I actually walked in the rain to the car. And then started running because it’s way more fun.
We got soaked!
Uncle Tony after the storm!
We went out to dinner later to celebrate Jenn’s accomplishments. We brought our own wine, because we’re just that classy. It was great to spend so much time with my family, and I was so grateful to my Aunt Laurie for organizing it for us, including giving us care packages with sunscreen and necessities for the events. I am so blessed to have such a loving and fun family. Congrats Jenn!
Jenn & Auntie Laurie after the commissioning ceremony
Jenn, Ab & Me at dinner. Look at that sunburn!
Sisters by the Hudson
Jenn with my parents after dinner