Service etiquette

By lex, on April 23rd, 2007

Mine was the third class at the US Naval Academy to admit female students as midshipmen, which perhaps explains why we were the first not to be subjected to the long-lived and infamous tradition of the “Tea Fight” at Dahlgren Hall. Dahlgren was the on-campus hockey rink that doubled (off season) as a kind of dance hall and social headquarters. A good account of Tea Fight tradition can be found at the class history entry for the USNA class of 1968:

The Tea Dance was, I am sure, envisioned by the Brigade Social Director as an opportunity for the members of the fourth class to get acquainted with a member of the opposite sex while practicing their social graces. It was a vestige from a bygone era of elegance from which pictures of luxurious hotels and posh country clubs come to mind; no doubt tea was actually served at one time. Civilian institutions of higher education had long since converted to much less formal “mixers” to achieve the same end. However, mixers lacked that certain air of refinement and culture that the Academy desired to inculcate in its budding officers and gentlemen.

Young ladies from local institutions of higher learning ‚Hood College comes to mind – would arrive by bus and enter Dahlgren Hall from the north end. There they would be met by members of the Hop Committee and escorted to the main floor, past the romantic 5-inch and 40-millimeter gun mounts present at that time. On seeing these mighty weapons, it is quite possible that at least one or two of the young ladies might have had just the smallest beginning of a doubt that the coming event would unfold as they had imagined. However, they were most likely reassured when an elderly matron garbed in a black dress trimmed with a white apron and hat (another hold-over from an earlier time) helped them with their coats. Large, strategically located screens blocked the view from the south end of the hall of the young ladies’ arrival.

While all this was taking place, the public address system in Bancroft Hall blared out the following: “Fourth Class Midshipmen of the Second (in our case) Regiment will now proceed to the south end of Dahlgren Hall”. Out of the room we would chop, resplendent in service dress blue alfa. Squaring the corner in the middle of the passageway with a resounding “Beat Army”, we proceeded to our romantic interludes, the air full of English Leather and other assorted love potions. Crossing the colonnade from the fourth wing we were met by other members of the hop committee (how did they get that job, anyway?), identified by a gold braid over their left uniform blouse sleeve. Heading south on the Dahlgren Hall balcony, we passed grinning upperclassmen who gave us a knowing look. Why were they there and what was so funny? Making our way to the main deck, we encountered a large gaggle of our classmates who were generally shuffling towards the north end, prodded along by the hop committee. It soon became evident that we were in the larger end of a funnel shaped chute. The farther we went, the narrower the chute became. Going around a corner the situation became, as President Nixon used to say, crystal clear.

A similar chute had been erected for the girls at the north end with the smaller opening facing us. The two opposing chutes would simultaneously deposit one Mid and one girl at the middle of the floor and that is how we would meet the love of our life ‚Äì if not life, at least afternoon. As the cowpokes of the hop committee herded us along, sounds of “moo” were heard from the back of the crowd. That was embarrassing. But not as embarrassing as watching classmates standing on tiptoes and craning their necks to try and see which young lovely would emerge as their “date” for the afternoon. There was jostling for position, as some classmates did not like what they saw. (ed. Hence the language migration from a “Tea Dance” to a “Tea Fight.”) A few of the girls must have noticed this. Who knows, maybe the same thing was going on in the girls’ line? At least one Mid could not bear the thought of the entire evolution and spent the afternoon in the men’s head. Eventually, most of us were paired up, for better or worse, with a person of the opposite sex who at the very least had longer hair than we did and probably smelled nicer. We whiled away the several hours dancing to the strains of “Ja Da” presented by the world famous Chiefs’ Band, as the upperclassmen in the balcony enjoyed the show.

The universe’s tendency towards entropy in all things meant that by the time the class of 1981 went to their first Tea Fight, an upperclass midshipman had the privilege of choosing which lady and which plebe midshipman would paired off for the evening – the kind of petty power that tyrants of every kind routinely abuse. “Special case” plebes were therefore sidelined until a “suitable” date emerged from the ladies chute.

Which process – even after the third class of females matriculated, rendering the Tea Fight fatally anachronistic (never mind that we weren’t allowed to date them) – wouldn’t have gone well with Mrs. Oretha Swartz, the Annapolis-based doyenne who authored one of the first pieces of gear we were issued during plebe summer, the nearly 600-page “Service Etiquette,” now in its fourth edition and updated to resolve “some difficult problems of etiquette raised by the full integration of women in the services.”

My father and his brother were the first men in their family to go to college since the Reconstruction, while my mother’s people were coal mining immigrants from Ireland. As the product of a thoroughly middle class upbringing, opening the book – and I may have been the only midshipman of my acquiantance that actually did – was in many ways like taking a trip across a strangely formal and alien landscape.

Mrs. Swartz’s world was one of doffed caps and white gloves, precedence lists and seating charts. Some of the chapters – the one on making introductions, who gets presented to whom, for example – I found useful, while others – the chapter on how and when to leave “calling cards” delightfully exotic.

It was expected that a newly reporting junior officer would “call,” or visit upon senior officers at his new station. Servants – ! – would carry the card of introduction to either the senior officer or the lady of the house if they were present. If they were absent the visiting officer was expected leave the card in a little tray by the door specifically made for the purpose. A card left for the lady of the house would be turned down at one corner, while a card announcing an officer’s absence for a period of leave would have “p.p.c” (pour pret conger) pencilled into the lower left corner. A sideways nod to the less savory realities of human nature was even allowed for in this otherwise stern, Victorian tradition: If an officer were to call on a married woman at home alone – a lady “not keeping servants” – it was explained that “of course there was no use for a card.”

Of course.

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Filed under Best of Neptunus Lex, by lex, Carroll "Lex" LeFon, Carroll LeFon, Humor, Lex, USNA

4 responses to “Service etiquette

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