For God and for Country

 

            Hi, ho! Hi, ho!  It’s off to church we go.  Every Sunday morning all midshipmen were required to attend religious services. Although attendance at church was mandatory, some latitude was allowed in one’s choice of denomination.  Those who did not wish to attend the Catholic, Jewish, or Protestant services on the Academy grounds could, on approval of a written request, join a church party and worship in town. Church parties were formed, mustered, and marched, three abreast, through the narrow cobblestone streets and sidewalks of Annapolis, sending women and children scurrying to clear a path as these phalanxes made their way to the churches of their choice.

            Not all midshipmen willingly participated in religious services, and some ingenious methods were exercised in attempts to avoid them. Many First Classmen, the only ones with enough seniority to get away with it, would join church parties and drop out of ranks, duck into a convenient narrow alley in town, and meet their dates for morning coffee. Rejoining their platoons on the return march to the Yard allowed them to be present for the noon meal muster.  One of the most innovative opt-out ploys was invented by one midshipman who professed his faith in Islam. Knowing that there were no mosques within commuting distance of Annapolis, he announced that he had become a Muslim and therefore could not attend any available services.  The administration rose to the challenge, however, and directed him to bring his Koran and prayer rug to the Officer of the Day’s office where he could be supervised as he alternately studied scripture and bowed facing the east during the hours that the rest of the brigade spent attending church. Not possessing either a Koran or a prayer rug, he substituted the Naval Academy Regulation Book and his bath towel for these essentials.  After about three Sundays of kneeling on his towel and contemplating USNA regulations for two hours, he re-embraced the faith of his fathers and became just another midshipman, marching off to church with the rest of us.

            The centerpiece of the services in the Yard was the Protestant worship in the main chapel. About one third of the brigade was formed into companies and paraded from the dorm to the chapel.  The Sunday march differed from a formal Wednesday parade in that we didn’t carry rifles, swords, or other weapons to church, and the band played Onward Christian Soldiers rather than The Stars and Stripes Forever. Visitors still lined the walk to observe as we marched past, our faces frozen in stern military rigor, which cracked only once to my knowledge, when a little old lady was heard to remark in a shrill voice, “They wouldn’t smile for a nickel!”           

            The chapel, really a cathedral, was quite imposing, with a high central dome and radiating wings in the form of a Latin cross. Stained glass windows, each with its historical significance, bathed the worshippers in multicolored light.  The service was basically Episcopalian, with its formal liturgy, midshipmen standing, kneeling, and sitting on cue in perfect synchrony. A multi-rank pipe organ, a forty voice chancel choir, seated adjacent to the pulpit, and an antiphonal choir of equal size, occupying the rear of the nave, led the singing. The twelve-hundred white-gloved midshipmen in dress uniform, who occupied the nave and the two horizontal arms of the cross, were an impressive sight for the visitors whose pews filled the main floor under the dome. I could say that the pageantry was spectacular, but a full-page letter of instruction from the administration cautioned us never to think of this exhibition as anything other than a sacred service.  In no way was it to be construed as a spectacle.

            Charlie and I usually seated ourselves in a four-person pew in front of a stained-glass window on the second level just behind a railing overlooking the main floor visitors’ pews. We chose this vantage point as it afforded an opportunity to check out all of the midshipmen’s dates in the congregation, an occupation which helped to stave off the drowsiness which often threatened to overcome us.  I recall one Sunday when the chaplain used the story of The Three Little Pigs to make some theological point understandable to us midshipmen. I had dozed off, and when he began speaking of the house of bricks, I heard it as “Ritz,” which startled me awake, certain that I had been caught sleeping in chapel. (Ten demerits, two hours extra duty.)             

            One of our goals during the service was to sing loudly enough to get the visitors to look around for the source of such powerful baritones. The two of us would stand and belt out A Mighty Fortress is our God at the top of our lungs. Alas, or maybe fortunately, in competition with the two choirs and twelve-hundred other midshipmen, we were never able to turn a head.

            At the close of worship, following an emotional rendering of The Navy Hymn, which Charlie and I had the good sense to sing sotto voce, the chaplain, a tall, thin man, would spread his arms, large hands attached to spindly wrists extending from the voluminous sleeves of his robe, and commend us to “the mighty arms of God” for the coming week.