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
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
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
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
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
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.
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. …