They played it in a brickyard in South Philly, where Tunney first beat Dempsey 52 years ago, on real grass that had a fresh coat of green paint, before 79,000 partisans, about half of whom had scrambled eggs on their visors. It wasn't the game of old, with acres of All-Americans and a charged international press. But it was still the military's annual Mardi Cras, complete with old-grad taigate parties, cadet dances that ran on half the night (despite Army's loss) at the Ben Franklin hotel, reunions at Bookbinders seafood house.
If Harvard-Yale stands for acumen translated into 60 minutes of football, if Texas-Oklahoma means good-ole-boy brawn, then the Army-Navy game represents a kind of tradition the world doesn't know, or maybe care, much about anymore. All you had to do was ride up on the special train from Washington on Saturday crammed with Pentagon brass and see for yourself.
What you might have seen was Gen. Bernard W. Rogers, chief of staff, U.S. Army, standing in the aisles, coat off, comportment tossed aside, leading three cars of troops through the corniest possible cheers. Little ditties that went, "Son of slum and gravy/Will you let the Navy/Take from us a victory? Hell no!" Three hours later, when his gold-helmeted boys swarmed on the field for the kickoff, Rogers would rise from his seat in the viewing stand, put two fingers to his mouth, and horse-whistle for a full 30 seconds. He would be grinning, too.
There were other supreme-ranking men aboard who seemed, almost desperately, to want to be a son of Mars and Thunder again, if only for an afternoon. Such as Gen. Lyman L. Lemnitzer, once Army chief of staff, once chairman of the joint chiefs, once supreme allied commander in Europe -- and now a slightly hard-of-hearing but still erect 79-year-old retired soldier in a blue woolen blazer. At one point in the ride, Gen. Lemnitzer began rifling through three folded-over newspapers.
"I know it's here somewhere, just hold on," he said. "Story this morning by some sports writer fellow saying the cadets and midshipmen think it's 'just another game' nowadays." The old general, commissioned in 1920, 51 years in uniform, suddenly frowned, almost scowled. "I can't accept that at all. It'll never be just another game."
It wasn't just another game in '51, when Lemnitzer listened to the final two quarters on a scratchy radio going into Tokyo in an airplane. (The score escapes him.) That was Korea, and he was about to take command of the 7th Division. And a few years earlier, in another conflict, Lemnitzer was somewhere in Italy when he caught part of another Army-Navy broadcast.
"Or was that Army-Notre Dame? Ah, well, that one's almost as good."
Lemnitzer isn't sure how many Army-Navy games he has attended through the years.
(The game hasn't always been in Philadelphia. The 1926 contest, the socalled "Classic Tie" at 21-21, was played before a record 110,000 in Soldier Field, Chicago.) Time has run them together. But you "still get a feeling in here," he said He drummed at his chest. Then he went back to the box lunch a porter had provided him.
Even the undemonstrative seemed capable of being moved. Stewart Meyer is a two-star general in charge of the Ballistics Missile Defense Systems Command in Huntsville, Ala. He is an articulate, likable, dispassionate man, with tiny brass calendars on his watch band. He had come up from Alabama, both for business and the game. He hasn't been back to "The Point" for awhile. Which has something to do with why he went to Philadelphia.
"I'm talking about the respect of what West Point stands for. What it did for me, taking me as a youth and giving me direction, something to believe in, commit myself to." Meyer stopped, only for an instant. "Things I still hold to very closely, by the way."
He had done a lot of thinking about the phenomenon of old grads, and not just West Point old grads, Meyer said. "You know, I used to believe that the continued fervor of an alumnus for his school was always... well, a little foolish. But as I grow older I've begun to change my mind.I believe now those feelings have a great deal of validity. What they're saying is appreciation, something it takes awhile to acquire."
And then, waving at the thought: "Oh, hell, it's probably just part of the aging process. I'm getting sentimental."
Meyer's class graduated "412 strong." They have a four-star Army general (William A. Knowlton, who commanded in Turkey), two four-star Air Force generals, a couple of dozen lesser generals and any number of bird colonels. But no matter what rank they made, all of them would be tuned in to the game -- "It's the one thing I'm sure of." Come January '79, Meyer will have 36 years of service. He is one of the last in his class still on active duty.
Meyer was a full colonel in Washington when he got his orders for Vietnam. He did two tours, commanding artillery divisions. He thinks Nam was responsible for getting him a star. "About making general: You must understand at any time in any branch it's a little like being struck by lightning."
The higher up one goes in the military, Meyer said, the more contacts and friends he makes in branches other than his own. "These Navy guys, they're your comrades-in-arms all year long -- except on the second Saturday after Thanksgiving."
Toward the middle of the ride, Meyer could be seen, jacket off, tie loosed, going toward the barman at the head of his car. "Hey, what's the betting line, anyway?" he said to the man next to him.
The second Saturday after Thanksgiving Navy guys become "crabs." Annapolis is "crabtown." Anybody in a sailor suit is an "anchor-clanker."
Sgt. Maj. of the Army William Bainbridge explained this. Bainbridge is the highest-ranking enlisted man in the U.S. Army. He didn't go to the Point -- he enlisted, at 17, out of Galesburg, Ill. That was in '43, seven days after he got out of high school. He still feels he can root on the long gray line as well as anybody.
"Look, if you actually went to Notre Dame, you might feel you had more right to go cheer them on in a football game. But I've got a personal piece of the Army because of my green suit." Bainbridge grinned. "Dogfaces have a team, too."
In a little while, Bainbridge got up and wandered to the head of the train, where the Navy brass and fans were sitting. (On the ride up every year, the two contingents stay pretty much segregated; on the way home, depending somewhat on the score, the two sections begin to mix.)
"Hey, Sarge, I hear mule meat's going for 19 cents a pound," said a Navy man.
"Nah, up to $1."
He went into another car -- to hoots and jeers. "Hey, there's an Army rooter," he said to a rather large lady.
"I beg your pardon," she salvoed back. "This is my only maternity dress. I can't help it if it's green."
A stringbean Navy enlisted man, who must have been recruited to play basketball, loomed over the short-instature Bainbridge. "We're going to cream you sand-eaters," he said out of the side of his mouth.
"Don't you wish you could?" said Bainbridge, lightly bear-hugging the man.
The sergeant-major was infiltrating despised enemy territory in the first place, he said, because he wanted to lay a bet with the secretary of the Navy, the Hon. W. Graham Claytor Jr. Only problem, he wasn't sure just who the secretary was -- not just what he looked like, but even what his name is. He had to ask a barman.
On the way back to the Army portion of the train, Bainbridge ran into an elderly man who grabbed him immediately with both arms. "Hey, Sarge, I'm an old artillery man. We fired for you boys in Germany in WW-Two." The two reminisced -- old grads of a different alma mater.
"There is no equivalent for being a general, that's how the system works," Bainbridge said later. "I've always been a soldier, never an officer. But if someone wanted to know what I think of my life I'd tell 'im: I'm pleased, more than pleased."
Bill Bainbridge can to no higher in rank in the U.S. military. He probably will retire next year. "I don't know what I'm going to do, but I know where I'm going to do it," he grinned. A while ago, he and his wife bought some land in Florida. "That's where a lot of old soldiers end up."
The whole day seemed to belong to the Navy. Their half of the train had gayer decorations (lots of balloons), more champagne, better music (a professional sailor-and-wife singing team imported from Orlando). Also, some prominent civilians, including Federal Reserve Board Chairman William Miller.
The game, of course, was the real indignity. It was 14-0, Navy, after 10 minutes and it was 28-0, Navy, after 60. Coming out after halftime, Army fumbled on its first possession. It could do nothing right. You could almost feel the gloom descend on the gray half of the stadium (which was buoyed by 2,000 Army recruits from Ft. Dix at the south end of the field, who had come to cheer).
Still, no one stopped cheering. "It's the moral equivalent of war," a lieutenant colonel named Mallory said over and over. (Earlier, on the train, he had made a fist and summoned up MacArthur on there being no substitute for victory.)
With less than six minutes left, and with zip still on the board for Army, Mallory said, "'Bout now, you got to dig in and get tight-lipped and white-knuckled." He became both.
At halftime, Gen. Lemnitzer, a sturdy, jaw-jutted presence in his great overcoat and old fedora, stamped his gloved hands together and said "the boys" weren't moving the ball well enough on the ground. Forget the aerials, go with infantry. "I don't know," he said, already contemplating the end, "this one may be in doubt."
His spirit never was. He was there till the bitter end. So was the corps of cadets, shouting itself hoarse, along with all the named and unnamed heroes of D-Day and Pork Chop Hill and the An Hoa Basin. Once, not long ago, when Vietnam was more a cause than a place, this grand old contest seemed in danger of becoming just another provincial rivalry. The crowds are smaller now, but the game is still a kind of national shrine. That sort of tradition never really loses.