November 09, 2007
West Point — A black figure emerges from an inky corner at the top of the mess hall steps. He looks left. Right.
"What's up, boys?" he says, voice gravelly, barely above a whisper.
With that, others emerge from cold shadows cast by the Gothic stone barracks of the United States Military Academy.
This is early yesterday morning's rally point. At precisely 0100 hours, a handpicked team of 29 cadets, with the wink-and-a-nod approval of a renegade colonel, assemble for a "secret and dangerous" spirit mission.
Their objective, outlined in classified e-mails, is to "improve" all statues on West Point — by dressing them in black "12th Knight" T-shirts and gold dish-towel "battle rags."
The Black Knights football team plays the Scarlet Knights from Rutgers tonight at Michie Stadium. The T-shirts and towels are part of a campaign to outfit every human on post in black before kickoff. Bronze or flesh-and-blood, the fans will become the "12th Knight," the extra player on the field.
Spirit missions like this take place at colleges across the country. Penn State runs "white-outs." Texas A&M fans "bleed maroon." Notre Dame students spray-paint helmets gold before every game.
But at West Point, where the Army trains men and women to become the nation's elite officers, even spirit missions must be executed with a cold efficiency. Every facet of cadet life is strictly managed, and rebellion squashed. After-hours pranks carry great risk: laundry duty, running, even expulsion.
Yesterday's cadet captain, known only as "Spirit 5," orders his crew to watch for patrolling military police and to work quickly, safely. This mission "is designed so that discovery or capture of one cell will not compromise the entire plan."
A van pulls into an alleyway between barracks, the colonel gives the signal and the cadets scatter for their assigned statues. They include Sylvanus Thayer, Class of 1808, and Dwight D. Eisenhower, Class of 1915. There are seven in all.
The closest to the rally point, but also the most dangerous, is the giant Gen. George Washington. He is mounted on his steed, atop a two-story block of granite. He rests at the edge of the parade ground, in plain view of the barracks. The cadets have a ladder for this, but someone still will need to scramble up and tape the shirt to his chest. They pick a plebe — a freshman — and he shocks them by scaling the monument in seconds, without the ladder.
By 0200, the black bandits begin to return, double-timing it across The Plain. They scatter a herd of grazing deer. Cold and winded, the three teams confirm execution of their missions. Swiftly, they load the equipment into the colonel's van, and fade away into the night.