By Pter Grier, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
THE incident of the mattress-cover inspection is one of William Hickman Jr.'s vivid memories of his freshman "plebe" year at the United States Military Academy.
Lulled by fatigue or familiarity, he forgot his station in life and accidentally addressed a sophomore by the slang for second-year cadet, "yearling." He might as well have slapped a general on the back and called him "buckaroo."
"They gave me two minutes to tear apart my bed, take all the laces out of all of my shoes and all my clothes off their hangers, stuff them in my mattress cover, and present them for inspection," sighs cadet Hickman, now a junior.
The many buttons on cadet uniforms made this particularly frenzied. Still, he got off easy. Only a few years ago the "they" of his story, the upperclass enforcers of a barracks culture as old as the Long Gray Line, had far worse hazing methods at their disposal.
Petty humiliations such as forced funny walks or the use of condiments as cosmetics are no longer officially allowed.
"The quote we always hear is `in the Old Corps...,' " Hickman says.
Welcome to the New World West Point.
Cadets still stand in company formation before morning and noon meals and chant that most ancient and famous of their battle cries, "Beat Navy." They stride fast and straight between buildings, as if dragged by ropes, and snap off "Sir!" even to disheveled passing journalists.
But behind the granite of tradition, vast changes are taking place. Exchange cadets from Poland, Bulgaria, and other ex-Soviet satellites now train alongside Americans. Environmental engineering is the most popular major or field of study for current seniors.
The Class of 1994 is the first whose entire West Point experience occurred after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is also the first to graduate after four years under the new Four-Class program, designed to lessen the brutal hazing that characterized the plebe's lot for 150 years.
Has West Point gone soft? Some die-hards think so. "We are still fighting the vestiges of the old system," says Col. H. Steven Hammond, director of West Point's Office of Leader Development Integration.
The presence of the past is everywhere at the US Military Academy, after all. There is the memory of famous graduates - Lee and Grant, MacArthur and Eisenhower, and more lately H. Norman Schwarzkopf.
There are the gothic battlement buildings, which seem to rise straight from New York bedrock. There is the setting itself, an "S" curve on the Hudson River that George Washington considered one of the most strategic spots in the original American states.
Every effort is made to produce cadets who feel part of something larger than themselves. Without that bond, few 18-year-olds would willingly submit to a life where malls become a distant memory and the head of the physical education department is called "Master of the Sword."
Cadets at the United States Military Academy learn fast that they have entered a world many of their friends back home consider weirdly spartan. Senior Megan Baerman recalls recounting academy adventures to her high school crowd - tales of "pinging" (walking very fast) when she wasn't supposed to, and the punishment that ensued, and so on. They looked at her as if she were telling them bad sorority anecdotes from the 1950s.
"They think it's so sad," she says. Controversial separateness
Ever since West Point was founded in 1802, the separateness of life here has at times been controversial. Academy critics have periodically complained that elite military schools do not fit easily into a democratic form of government.
Within the Army, many of the officers commissioned through Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) have long suspected that the 25 percent or so of the officer corps that consists of West Point graduates is a self-preservation society. …