WETS POINT, N.Y. — 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. West Point leaders deny that this is the case and say they have studies that show West Point grads don't treat each other more softly on evaluation reports.
You don't have to attend West Point to rise to the Army's top ranks. The recently retired Gen. Colin Powell did not go there. Neither did Gen. John Shalikashvili, Powell's replacement as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
But West Point grads, steeped in military culture, provide an invaluable example to officers from other institutions, insists Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Howard D. Graves. ``They provide a core for the whole Army,'' he says.
General Graves is himself a West Pointer, as are many of the faculty and senior staff. As the son of a Texas farm laborer, Graves's experience proves the adage that the military is a way up in US society for the poor. Segregated by height
When he attended the academy in the late '50s, cadets were still segregated by height to improve the appearance of parades. He was a member of one of the two tallest companies, called ``flankers'' and made up mostly of athletes. The shortest companies, which marched in the center, were named the ``runts.''
Companies were height-integrated in 1958. But that was only a minor relaxation in the traditional ``Fourth Class System'' (as distinct from the Four-Class program), which was codified in the 1920s and characterized by archaic and sometimes degrading discipline.
The brunt of this system fell on the plebes, the fourth class. Outdoors, they could only walk along walls and make turns at right angles. They had to ``brace,'' or keep their chins tucked in, making them all look vaguely like Barney Fife.
Plebes had to sit at attention and shout out answers at mess hall. Any upperclassman could stop any plebe and demand endless recitations of memorized trivia or deprive them of food or sleep. Basically, if you were a plebe and upperclassmen decided to single you out, you were history.
``The upperclassmen tended to play with plebes,'' Colonel Hammond says. ``Many of them saw their job as weeding out the weak.''
Things weren't as bad as they were around the turn of the century, when a plebe died after allegedly being forced to drink Tabasco sauce. (Cadet Douglas MacArthur testified at the inquiry, then tried to curb abuses when he was superintendent after World War I.) But by 1980, changes in the regular Army and society at large made fourth-class hazing look as old-fashioned as mounted cavalry.
Plebes weren't the only ones that suffered under the system, say West Point officials. With so much attention focused on the fourth class, upperclassmen tended to let their own standards slip. Reform program
Reform, in the shape of the new so-called Four-Class program, was introduced in 1990. It did not come without controversy. Significant elements, among them the it-was-good-enough-for-me alumni, thought things were getting soft.
``Frequently the alumni that make the most noise are those that only spent their five years in the Army and then got out,'' Hammond says.
Now plebes can't be forced to walk, talk, or look funnier than upperclass cadets. They can't be yelled at in a degrading manner. They can be disciplined only by upperclassmen in their own company or chain of command. Food deprivation is banned. Forced feeding is similarly forbidden. Academy officials readily acknowledge that things occur late at night in the barracks that they can't control. There are occasional eruptions of forbidden behavior - currently illicit ``pinging'' is in vogue. Hazing still a feature
Run-of-the-mill hazing also remains an overriding feature of plebe life. For the benefit of a visitor to a mess-hall table, one plebe (his name withheld to protect his own dignity) was run through a routine that appeared to involve balancing bits of dessert on his upper lip. He ended by shouting, ``Sir! That's [expletive] good Jell-O!''
Plebes themselves don't think things have gotten soft, considering their sudden introduction to military discipline, combined with a heavy science-oriented workload and company duties that include delivering papers and collecting laundry.
``Ask any plebe here. They'll say it's pretty hard,'' first-year cadet Rod Chandler says.
Plebes are also facing careers that have suddenly become more complicated. With current upperclassmen, they constitute the first West Point student body that contains no cadets enrolled before communism began to crumble.
In the past, cadets could focus study on a perceived main enemy - the Soviet Union. Now a faculty member who is a Soviet specialist jokes that he's ``set all his lesson notes on fire.'' The State Department has added Russia to the list of countries eligible to nominate candidates for US service academies' international programs. First East-bloc cadet
The first cadet from an East-bloc country, Poland, arrived at the Military Academy three years ago. Czech and Bulgarian cadets are currently enrolled as well. They are eligible to attend the entire four-year West Point program, after which they will return to serve in their own country's military.
Instead of garrison command in Germany, cadets now face the prospect of peacekeeping duty in places they can't predict. To some extent, uncertainty comes with a lieutenant's insignia - who would have thought graduates of a few years ago would now be serving in Somalia?
But the danger and confusion that mark the Somali mission is liable to be the lot of many current West Point cadets at some point in their first, mandatory, six-year tour of active duty.
``These new missions depend more on the competence of your junior leaders,'' notes Ms. Baerman, echoing the opinion of a number of senior cadets interviewed.
Baerman is herself a symbol of how the Army and West Point have changed. While women have been admitted as cadets since 1976, attaining true equality has been a long struggle.
In 1990, for the first time, a woman was selected as cadet corps brigade commander, the top-ranked cadet leadership position. Baerman says she would not face harassment if she wears her government-issue skirt to meals - unlike a female friend of hers who graduated from West Point only six years ago.
While West Point has had no serious sexual-abuse scandal in recent years, a 1992 General Accounting Office study did find female cadets reporting more harassment than at the other service academies.
Colonel Hammond of the Leadership Integration Office says he still spends up to half his time on gender-integration issues.
That it takes a special kind of woman to succeed in the West Point environment is obvious. In one politics class, a discussion of White House leadership turns to Hillary Rodham Clinton's role in pushing health-care reform. A male cadet says he does not believe her status is something the Founding Fathers envisioned.
``Yeah, well, the Founding Fathers didn't give me the vote,'' snaps back a female classmate. Civilian professors
Now that female cadets have paraded in West Point ranks for more than 17 years, the academy is facing another major change in internal demographics - an influx of civilian professors. Under congressional direction and over Army protests, the percentage of civilian instructors will rise from the current 7 percent to 25 percent by 2005.
At the same time, the size of the cadet corps will shrink, dropping from 4,400 to 4,000 by 1995. Per further congressional order, beginning with the class of 1997 graduating cadets will receive reserve rather than regular Army commissions.
In practical terms that means little, if anything, to a cadet's career. But the very word ``regular'' carried with it a symbolism that Superintendent Graves is loath to lose.
``We've got to find another symbol. I believe the nation owes cadets that,'' he says.
Graves says that total immersion in military culture, after all, is a challenging thing for cadets who enter West Point's gate as teens still on the cusp of adulthood. The dropout rate at the Academy has improved in the 1990s, but under current figures about 30 percent of entering plebes still find the place too tough and don't graduate.
There is a football team and a student union, as at other universities, and even annoying alumni who loudly repeat boring stories in the campus hotel lobby. But West Point is just not like other universities.
``This is the only school in America where someone can walk across campus carrying an M-60 machine gun and nobody cares,'' senior Michael Birmingham says.