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All-America, All the Way
Frank Deford
February 21, 1972
Major Pete Dawkins, a man of his times—of good days past and now of the present
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February 21, 1972

All-america, All The Way

Major Pete Dawkins, a man of his times—of good days past and now of the present

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In support of this widespread notion, bad news has no place at West Point, and, like PDA (public display of affection), simply is not tolerated on the premises. When the superintendent was removed last year to face trial for having concealed war atrocities, the cadets were ordered to go mill under his window as a spontaneous warm tribute. When the football team went 1-9-1 in 1970, the Academy yearbook declared: "It can truthfully be said that bad breaks prevented us from enjoying another successful season." It can also truthfully be said that this is the same rationale which gave us fanciful body counts all these years, too.

The first of Dawkins' classmates to die in Vietnam fell in January 1963, when the present plebes were in the fourth grade. It has been that long that the funeral barrages have been cracking above the Hudson, and almost that long that the Army has wrestled with its soul and the Academy has fought to preserve the middle word—Honor—in the motto it venerates. "It's particularly hard to be an artist as a soldier," Dawkins says, "and if you do have pride, life is trying to be an artist in your job. But being a soldier must always be a derivative value. There is no absolute value in performing the soldier's manifest task: that is, killing. A soldier's life can only draw value from the society that gives it meaning, by preserving those qualities that society believes are worth preserving. The Army must always gain a sense in itself that derives from the public."

When Dawkins first set out to be a soldier in the summer of '55, that sense was easy to behold. A military man, the absolute t.t.u. soldier, sat in the White House, presiding over the nation's massive deterrent. The star-spangled heroisms of Iwo Jima and The Bulge were only a decade past, and the soupy words from the general the civilian had fired had hardly left the top of the Hit Parade: Old Soldiers Never Die. It was so easy to want to be a young soldier then.

"You must remember those times," Dawkins says. "I was so ripe for it all. I was obnoxiously headstrong. I'd show them. I was just 17. I had guys in my plebe class who were 21. I never would have taken that crap they threw at us if I had been 21. But everything up at the Point was right for me the summer when I was 17."

No one at the Academy likes to believe that the supply of quality plebes may have diminished in these times less congenial to military evangelism. "We still get those typical red-blooded American kids who have wanted to come here since they were eight or 10 years old," says Brigadier General John Jannarone, the academic dean. Obviously, the general does not mean it exactly this way, but implicit in that assertion, one often voiced, is the fact that the U.S. Military Academy is largely inhabited by young men who have not been moved by the events of the 1960s. Certainly, to see Dawkins return to a football game is not so much to watch him come back to West Point but to watch him come back to 1958.

In the huge mess hall the air is feverish with glory be. Nothing seems forced; it is for real. The occasion: Army plays Rutgers tomorrow. That Rutgers has not been a gridiron juggernaut since it won the lidlifter in stocking caps a century ago is of small moment. Army is meeting somebody in football.

The band plays rugged martial music, interspersed with lively modern pop. As the meal nears an end, some cadets, as if suddenly infested with demons, climb on their chairs, take off their jackets and wave them like banners, around and around over their heads. This is a tradition.

Other cadets sit backward on their chairs and bounce them about, yelling like banshees, as if they were astride cavalry stock. In one wing of the hall, masters of the art start hurling cakes 30 feet into the air. It is announced that Army has this day defeated Rutgers in 150-pound football, and the hall explodes with cheers that, surely, could not have been rendered any louder or with more pride on the day the word came in that both Gettysburg and Vicks-burg were won.

Dawkins, his chest ablaze with ribbons, marches out of the hall, looking self-conscious, as the cadets give him the once-over. "He's still top priority around here," says Bob Antwerp, First Captain of the Corps. There are not many celebrities, never mind heroes, left in the U.S. Army of 1971.

Outside, in the chill winter air, cheerleaders are setting up a rally on a balcony of Washington Hall. The cadets begin to gather below in the courtyard. A cheerleader offers a rocket cheer as something of a benediction, then cries: "We got a super guest star here tonight."

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