Army is playing Navy in football for the 122nd time this week and whatever mayhem will ensue on the gridiron can’t possibly top the kind of unruly behavior traditionally practiced at the two military academies leading up to the game. Already there have been published reports of one failed “spirit mission” by Army cadets to kidnap Navy’s goat mascot, prompting a righteous declaration that the schools’ superintendents “are disappointed by the trust that was broken recently between our brothers and sisters in arms.”
The dual statement by Lt. Gen Darryl Williams and Vice Adm. Sean Buck said the goat snatchers — who wound up with the wrong animal — “do not reflect either academy’s core values of dignity and respect.”
But days later, a second cadet operation successfully absconded with two Navy mascots. And anyone who has been to West Point and Annapolis during Army-Navy week would be left with the strong impression that the various pranks — which occasionally border or vandalism and bullying — are unofficially condoned by military leaders as boisterous boys-will-be-boys fun.
On a newspaper assignment to chronicle Army-Navy week several years ago, I met Army cadets who recounted how they had tarred and feathered a Navy exchange student with shoe polish and the contents of pillows; how they “changed the landscape a bit” by putting a Mickey Mouse watch face on the campus clock tower and erected a basketball backboard and hoop five stories high on one of the barracks.
They told stories of putting the superintendent’s car in the mess hall, stacking all the plates from the mess kitchen on the parade ground to spell out Beat Navy and tying another Naval Academy exchange student to a chair and bombing him with water balloons and shaving cream.
The same week in Annapolis, Midshipmen wrapped an officer’s car in tissue paper and stuffed it with Styrofoam chips, relocated printers and chairs and desks from various offices to the football practice field, sprayed classmates’ navy-blue uniforms with white baby powder, waxed photographs onto floors, tossed mattresses out of windows.
One raucous lunch-hour food fight featured Midshipmen climbing atop tables, others hoisting their tables — ladled with chicken cutlets, bread, salad, water, iced tea, soup and utensils — over their heads. A pitcher of soup was dumped on one upperclassman’s head, a pitcher of water and catsup on others’. Perpetrators then ran for the exits, slipping on water-, soup- and iced tea-slickened aisles, careening into chairs.
“You think the Navy is all discipline and order?” one Midshipman shouted in glee. “Not during Army Week!”
At West Point, where cadets switched from dress gray uniforms to camouflage during Army-Navy week, one instructor told his class how, when he had been a cadet at the academy, he was part of a “spirit mission” that took a boat from a nearby Hudson River dock and put it on the superintendent’s lawn — surely an invitation for his students to attempt topping that. Such ritual hijinks have been passed along for more than a century, including the one by 1903 West Point grad Douglas MacArthur, the celebrated World War II general, in which the cannon fired each morning for wake-up call was somehow relocated to the top of the clock tower during Army-Navy week.
This sort of “primarily unauthorized” activity, according to one cadet speaking confidentially (on the grounds he might incriminate himself), “may actually have happened.” With a wink and a nod, the only rules applicable to the mischief appear to be unwritten ones: Cleverness counts. Whatever is done has to be cleaned up. Don’t cost too much money. Don’t get seriously hurt.
“The whole thing is tension release,” assured one Midshipman. “It’s great.”
Then, at week’s end, the two academies’ football teams engage one another. Passionately. But with the expectation that they mind all rules, respectfully and with dignity.