LEXINGTON, VIRGINIA — Lexington, Virginia.
THE SUN falling toward the mountains reflected off the face of the cadet barracks and backlit the huge flags of the United States and the Commonwealth of Virginia. A cold breeze spread the flags above four antebellum cannon known with affection here as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Company by company, out of the barracks marched the all-male cadet corps of Virginia Military Institute, to pass in review before an all-male group of officers. In formation before parading, the cadets were ordered to fix bayonets -- a ritual privilege bestowed on them for their predecessors' gallant performance at the battle of New Market 126 years ago.
As the band played ''Retreat,'' the regiment and the spectators stood at attention for the flag -- everyone but a kindergarten boy who had just got his first report card. Waving it, he rushed up to his father, a tall young Army captain on the sidelines. The father gently, almost imperceptibly, motioned the boy away. Disappointed, the child ran back to his mother. The lady with me whispered, ''This place needs women.''
When the band shifted to a jaunty ''Jingle Bells'' march, I tried to explain that with all those other officers and cadets looking on, the officer could not have broken his strict attention. My friend was unimpressed. Just then the boy ran back to the young captain, and the father picked him up, hugged him and kissed him square on the lips. The lady saw this, and apparently was impressed, but still she grumbled.
I saw her point, but she didn't see mine.
VMI is one of the few remaining all-male colleges in America. It is under siege -- by federal lawyers this time. Defenders of its all-male tradition fear that defeat would do more lasting damage than Yankee troops did when they burned the place in 1864.
The government wants to force the state-run school to admit women; the U.S. service academies did 14 years ago, and their walls didn't come tumbling down. Until last week, the school and the alumni who are its fiercest defenders had the state attorney general on their side, and hoped they had the governor, too. But Gov. Doug Wilder changed his mind, and promptly thereafter Attorney General Mary Sue Terry said she would no longer represent VMI in court.
Governor Wilder, who has higher political ambitions, said he opted out because the all-male tradition ''serves no legitimate public policy objective.'' Ms. Terry said that created a conflict of interest for her. The debate then turned to whether the state would pay outside lawyers to defend VMI. As events trend
against the status quo, some alumni talk of converting the institute into a private school, and the governor has said diplomatically that he would ''certainly consider'' any such plan if offered by the legislature.
But for those who know and love VMI the way it has been for 151 years, legal details are a distraction. They argue that it should stay that way because it is special, and it is.
Here, not at West Point or Annapolis, an awkward, serious officer named Thomas J. Jackson taught natural philosophy and artillery tactics. Later, as Stonewall, he was one of the great generals of American history. Accidentally killed by his own troops at Chancellorsville, he became a martyr to the Confederate cause and an idol to VMI.
Here in the VMI Museum is Jackson's horse, Little Sorrel, stuffed and poised to gallop toward the sound of the guns. There is Jackson's raincoat, with the hole made by the bullet that shattered his arm. Beside the parade ground is his statue, sword at his side and binoculars at the ready, scouting the route around Joe Hooker's flank.
At Jackson Memorial Hall there is a huge mural, perhaps 20 x 35 feet, of the cadets charging the Union invaders at New Market. At the other end of the parade ground is the George C. Marshall library, named for the VMI alumnus who was the Army's World War II chief of staff and later secretary of State, author of the Marshall Plan for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize.
There is a bronze bas relief of Gen. Lemuel Shepherd, class of 1917, later commandant of the Marine Corps. There is a statue of Commodore Matthew Fontaine Maury, ''Pathfinder of the Seas.'' There is hazing of first-year cadets, and there are Saturday classes. Except for administration and faculty, there are no women.
All these are part of the VMI tradition. To determine what today's cadets think of the current controversy an institute staffer and I stopped groups at lunch hour the other day. One after another, the close-cropped young men began with ''Sir,'' explained that they were not supposed to say anything about that, or that they were in a hurry to get to class, and ended with ''Sir.''
But the unspoken message from them, from the officers at dress parade, from the very mood of these chill afternoons on the VMI grounds is that change is inevitable. This, after all, is 1990. Only years later will these naive boys and these decorated officers realize -- to their great relief -- that Stonewall endures, despite everything.