Remembering a time of honor at the academy

April 03, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

ANNAPOLIS -- A long time ago, a time of Joe Bellino and Roger Staubach, a time of seeing the cloistered world of the U.S. Naval Academy through a child's romantic eyes, it was all very different here.

Nobody talked about cheating scandals back then, or Tailhook sexual assaults or the shared disgrace of students and administrators. This was a place of honor. It was the home of Heisman Trophy football players, of students who simultaneously mastered academics and athletics and turned close-order drills into an art form.

But now the middies walk this city's streets and seem to avert their eyes, as though hoping not to be noticed until the current bad news goes away.

My father used to drive the whole family down here from Baltimore and puff out his chest with pride as he walked us across this campus. He wasn't a Navy man, but it didn't matter. He was just an American who thought something special happened here. He admired the discipline, the sense of order, the notion that selfless kids were going through a program that prepared them to defend the nation.

He didn't stick around long enough to see last week's news of 29 midshipmen facing expulsion, and 42 others recommended for punishment, for violating the academy's honor code, which states in clearest English: "Midshipmen are persons of integrity: They do not lie, cheat or steal."

Only this time, they did, and they got caught. In December 1992, 134 middies were accused of cheating on the final exam for a course called Electrical Engineering 311 and now, after much talk of cover-ups, of favoritism toward football players, of the need to overhaul administration of the honor code, the academy is hoping to put the worst cheating scandal in its 149-year history out of sight.

It won't happen overnight. These kids weren't just cheating on an engineering exam so much as pulling the veil off a carefully constructed image, which my father and millions of other Americans digested and passed on like a legacy.

We were children back then, and therefore susceptible to my father's enthusiasms. They stuck with us through the years. Even during my own college days, even when there was a bitter rivalry between the University of Maryland and Navy athletic teams, I held onto that vision of midshipmen as a breed apart, as people who held to a higher code of living.

Among other things, that code included cheating. At other schools, kids rationalized such practice. At Maryland, for example, every dormitory, every fraternity and sorority house had files: copies of old exams, which students had occasion to review. Sometimes, it was said, the same questions (and sometimes entire exams) given in the past would be given again.

Cheating? At many schools, such practice is hidden but routine. At Navy, everybody knew, such a thing would never happen. The middies were made of more honorable stock.

They weren't like other American young people, looking for the easy way to skirt through life -- except, with the latest scandal, they purloined a test never given before.

It's been a tough time at the academy. The All-Americans like Joe Bellino and Roger Staubach stopped coming here long ago, when pro football first gripped the national psyche. They found more allure playing quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys than commanding their own battleship.

Then there was the conflicted Vietnam era, when so many of the country's young people turned away from all things military. And then came the last few years, the post-Cold War era, and much questioning about the modern role of a military academy.

I never understood how the academy kept a tight ship through all of this. My father, a World War II veteran, was moved by memories of his own experience and translated it to the next generation. We were not only his children, but the children of literally scores of war movies that glorified the military. So we held onto his vision.

But this was long ago, and times had changed. While the country was going through its vast social convulsions, life was supposed to be changeless at the Naval Academy: the same honor code, the same rigid discipline, the same sense that these were selfless kids who held themselves to a higher level.

College can be pretty rough. The academic load is heavy, and the outside temptations arrive at a time when young people's adrenalin is roaring. We used to think the kids at the Naval Academy were immune to all this.

It turns out we were wrong. That's the lesson of the cheating scandal. It doesn't mean they're demons, doesn't mean they're inherently bad people. It just means they're like everybody else their age, fighting temptation and sometimes giving in, when all this time, we'd assumed they were different.

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