On the grounds of the U.S. Naval Academy last week, the speculation began even before the lanky young Californian had passed through the doors of Alumni Hall.

Brandon Walker's parents, knowing well what was to come, asked themselves a simple question.

How much time would pass before a snarling midshipman would bark an order at their child?

The answer: Less than 10 seconds, as it turned out.

"As soon as they walked in the door, they started yelling at them to tuck in their shirts," said Walker's father, Mike Walker, from San Clemente.

Brandon Walker was among 1,218 men and women inducted into the academy Wednesday as fourth-class midshipmen, Class of 2008, marking the start of six grueling and transforming weeks called Plebe Summer.

For the plebes -- chosen from a field of more than 14,000 applicants -- Induction Day is many things. It is the first day of college. It is the start of a lengthy separation from family members and friends. Those who graduate, in four years, will be commissioned as officers, required to spend at least five years in the Navy or the Marines.

More than that, it is a day of barked commands and stunned reactions, of shaved heads and crisp, new uniforms. It is the ritual-laden beginning of the surrender of the civilian self.

"From now on, the first and last words out of your mouth will be 'sir' and 'ma'am,' " each is told.

Plebes learn to tilt the right hand just so for the perfect salute, to ball the left into a fist and press it against the seam of their trousers. The upperclassmen who instruct them approach their task with terrific enthusiasm. In the end, it is a day to be endured and, years from now, recalled fondly.

"I remember this day as, I don't know, I like to call it one of the worst days of my life," said Ensign Rowdy Garcia, showing a reporter around Alumni Hall, where the plebes are being processed. "It almost seems like no matter what you do, you're doing something wrong."

Indeed, many of the plebes, who include 78 from Maryland, know that they are doing something wrong, even if they're not.

One unfortunate plebe, in the back of a group rushing from one place to another, caught the eye of upperclassman Robert Inman. "Why are you the last one?" Inman demanded, as if someone didn't have to be last.

Most plebes learn fast that, for the duration of the summer, they should do nothing to draw attention to themselves. But one of upperclassman Mitch Fury's charges, a plebe in a group that was about to watch a video about the oath they would soon take, had forgotten that crucial lesson. The plebe's name tag was broken, and he thought it was a good idea to tell Fury. Fury listened for a moment and gave him a hard stare.

"That's fascinating," Fury replied sarcastically. "I'm fascinated. Is now the time to fix it? Did you ask permission to fix it?"

Fury, of Severna Park, explained later: "You try to shock them into doing what they're supposed to do."

He should know. It was only a few years ago that he was being inducted himself.

"I was a little cocky walking in the door," he said, "but they pretty much take all that out of you. There's a million things [the plebes] don't know that you can humble them with."

And so went Induction Day. Once the immunizations were given, cell phones were surrendered, heads were shaved (guys get buzz cuts and women get haircuts) and the rest of the processing was over, the plebes were rushed onto buses. Their families had gathered outside hoping to catch a glimpse of a son or daughter. Mike Walker was among them, and he caught sight of his son -- even got him on video.

"He can handle it," a proud Walker said. "He's the kind of kid, when he sets his mind to something, he's going to do it come hell or high water. He's wanted to do this since he was 12 or 13 years old."

By the time their heads were being shaved, some of the plebes admitted to a certain amount of anxiety.

Jeff Deliz, 17, of Michigan, said he'd already been yelled at -- failure to start a sentence with "sir" -- but said he came from a disciplined home and was ready for what lay ahead.

"I'm just going to bring a little humor to it," he said.

That is a strategy he might want to reconsider.

Just ask the plebe with the name tag Durrant. Upperclassman Mike Brock caught him smirking at another plebe's mistake.

"If I ever catch you laughing at your classmates again, Durrant, all hell's going to break loose. Do you understand?"

"Sir, yes, sir!"

Garcia, the ensign, took a softer line. When a plebe rushed by and belted out the expected line -- "Sir, good morning, sir" -- Garcia came back with, simply, "Hey." He is confident that others will impose the measure of discipline and instruction that is so crucial at this fiercely hierarchical institution, and that the plebes will thank them for it later.

"As much as they yell at them and sort of demean them in a way, it's for the good," Garcia said. "They don't want to cheat them out of the Plebe Summer. It may not have been a good time, but it's something you look back on and you're proud."

No one will be cheated, and no one will be spared.

Last week 1,218 new plebes were inducted into the Naval Academy -- and the time-honored military tradition of waiting in line. Carol Coats gives her son Tyler Coats a farewell hug as he heads into Plebe Summer, a grueling six-week orientation for the fourth-class midshipmen. During the induction process, plebes cycle through medical exams, haircuts, above, uniform fittings, equipment issue and paperwork. At left, candidate John J. Leone is measured for his new uniform by tailor Sophia Barbo. At right, newly uniformed candidates loaded down with gear rush from place to place.