While I was at West Point, cadets were isolated from the world. We depended on the New York Times for news. I didn’t know about Christopher Reeves’s accident, or Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie, or O.J’s wild ride until weeks or months later.
It’s so different now. Cadets have internet, and cell phones (!) and Facebook (I’m glad it wasn’t around back then). We were at the beginning of that when I was a cadet. My first email account was through West Point, and even then I wasn’t completely sure how to get anything sent to me from anyone outside of our school network. You could talk to the outside world through MUDs. It was a little tricky, but you could navigate through a few different menus, establish a username and password, and boom, you were in. I figured this out and had conversations with people. During my second summer, I became friends with some guy all the way in Manchester, England. It was a way to talk to people you would never run across in a normal day. Depending on the hour you logged in, you would find different people in different time zones all over the world.
And sometimes you found people that were behind the same walls, doing the same exact thing you were.
Once I asked a guy where he was, and he replied: “I go to a little school north of the Hudson.”
Oh, ha-ha, I thought. This guy thinks he’s clever.
“Oh really?” I typed, “I’m in New York too.”
I strung him along until we got into specifics.
“Where do you go to college?” He wrote.
Heh. I thought. Heh-heh.
I typed: “A little school north of the Hudson.”
He could do one of two things with this bit of information: laugh it off or take his ball and go home.
“Fuck you.” came the reply.
A message telling me I had been blocked followed right after that.
When you were hiding behind a computer screen and a keyboard, you could be mean without anyone calling you on it. Log off and poof, you’re back in the real world where no one could connect you to the things you typed. I gave this guy his comeuppance because (in my mind) he clearly believed he was impressing some civilian chick, not someone living in the same setting, wearing the same uniform, and doing the same things he was (and therefore not impressed). I thought this guy deserved to be played, but I also can’t blame him for being pissed.
Another time I ran into a cadet online, it wasn’t so hostile. We got along. We joked. He didn’t seem cocky about his status, or dismayed that I was another cadet. In fact, he was glad. This meant we didn’t have to explain every dumb detail of our lives to each other, we could move past that. He was a year behind me, in the pipes and drums club. They wear kilts—with dress gray tops! Bagpipes! Tartan! Knee high socks! What’s not to love?
It wasn’t anything like the conversation with the other guy but I guarded my identity. I told him what class year I was in and left it at that. I was one in a hundred that way. If I gave him my company, he could easily narrow it down to one of three people. He could find my room, knock on the door and figure me out with just a few questions. And then we would have to talk! In person! Oh no!
When pressed by someone who wanted to know me better, I chose to stay disconnected. Maybe I wouldn’t look like the person he pictured on the other end of the Ethernet cable (because there was just one black guy in that club and this wasn't that guy). Maybe I wouldn’t have anything to say. I wanted to reveal myself, but I was afraid of being rejected. I know. Lame.
I made a lot of friends at West Point, but I’m sorry I didn’t make room for one more.