WEST POINT, N.Y. -- Lunchtime.

The plebe is eating at attention, staring down at his food out of the turned-down slits of his eyes, back ramrod straight -- fork, mouth, fork, mouth. More? "CAN YOU PLEASE PASS THE HEAVENLY HASH, SIR!" he barks. Down comes the ice cream from the senior side of the table, one cool, smooth pleasure in the hellish life of a West Point freshman. "GOING TO GET MORE ICE CUBES, SIR!" The senior acknowledges with a condescending flick of the head; maybe it's a nod.

"Discipline," the general is saying in his office. "Can we talk about discipline for a minute?" His long arms are draped comfortably over the sides of the brown leather chair, fingers lightly tapping as he sits low, slouching a bit to the left, legs crossed.

Discipline, the word to live by -- so said the uncle who raised him, the track coach who trained his 6-foot-3-inch athlete's frame, and the man himself: Brig. Gen. Fred Augustus Gorden, 47, the living, breathing paean to West Point Weltanschauung -- duty, honor, country. Their newest commandant of cadets. And black. In that order, and no mistake.

Gorden is the image of the officer: tall, handsome, fit, neat, polite, controlled. A nice man. A gentleman. He doesn't have to carry a big stick: It stands in a corner of his office. He found it in the California hills.

"If you have a teacher ... you must have a pupil," he explains. "Usually, the pupil who demonstrates he has best learned what he was taught, that's who the teacher will most highly favor. And the pupil graduates into mentorship himself, or into leadership." Gorden puts less well into words what he demonstrates daily -- that he has moved imperceptibly through his life from pupil to teacher, from one who is led to one who leads.

If he takes being the first black commandant of the U.S. Military Academy as a matter of course -- which in an integrated Army it may be -- it wasn't always that way. He was the only black cadet in his West Point class in 1958. And yet he seems a bit surprised by all the attention since he assumed his new post last month.

"I expected there would be some local coverage -- the Highland Falls newspaper -- {but} 'Good Morning America' and The Washington Post, that was beyond my expectations, I've got to be absolutely candid with you. I frankly felt since there were black four-star generals ... It just didn't occur to me that the first black commandant of cadets would be that significant a milestone, if you will, in the history of the military academy or for that matter in the history of our country. It's taken me aback and I'm very honored by it."

But his low-key approach belies the years of Gorden's adolescence and maturity, the same years of kindled black consciousness in this country, the crisis of blacks in the American military. In fact, the polished general seems comfortable talking about anything but that most personal issue, his race. There is a hint that it is beside the point. Among black cadets there is the vaguest umbrage that the general is written about more for his race than for his talent. What bearing does it have on his bearing? Gorden declines to answer, insisting, "I'm just your average West Point graduate."

The general was born in February 1940 in Anniston, Ala., then lived until age 10 in Atlanta, where his mother gave him to her sister to be raised. Gorden had four brothers and sisters, and the two families grew up little more than a football field apart in the segregated South. Theaters, schools, neighborhoods, black and white. "A Jim Crow environment," says Gorden, but adds little more.

Is it a part of him? He clutches the chair's arms and looks vaguely ill at ease. "It probably is," he says. "In that environment parents seem more concerned that their kids have greater opportunities than they."

When his aunt -- whom he calls his mother -- married and moved to Battle Creek, Mich., Gorden found a more integrated atmosphere. He excelled in school; always helped at home and in the church; worked with his uncle part-time at a bakery. He was interested in languages, or possibly being a draftsman. He took a year at community college, hoping to transfer to Wayne State, when a local lawyer contacted his family and asked Gorden to apply to West Point. As with Gorden, most cadets at West Point are nominated and appointed by their congressional representative.

Talking to Gorden, you might think his life began with West Point. "My most powerful memory {of adolescence} is when our congressman called me and said, 'You are my candidate.' Then as I continued that summer, I was in the community center at a dance, and one of the guys asked me if I would be going back to community college, and I said, 'Gee, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum ... I'm going to West Point.'

"He said, 'Oh yeah, and I'm going to Annapolis.' "

The first black cadet at West Point was born a slave in 1856 in Thomasville, Georgia. His name was Henry Ossian Flipper, and he completed the rigorous four-year program in 1877. Flipper's unique and brave accomplishment was marred by accusations that he embezzled funds. He was subsequently dismissed from the Army for conduct unbecoming an officer.

The grounds for Flipper's discharge, however, were highly suspect, and the fight to clear his name ended nearly 100 years after his graduation. He was posthumously granted an honorable discharge in 1976 by the Army Board for Correction of Military Records.

Fred A. Gorden was the 41st black cadet to enroll (and subsequently graduate) at West Point, an event not so unusual as to attract undue notice, but unusual enough to attract some. Some cadets then had never met a black person before, which is less common, but not unheard of even today. Gorden claims to have never experienced discrimination as a cadet. In the environment of freshman year, where all 601 cadets in the Can Do Class of '62 were one collective nobody, misery knew no favorites. All had to learn the preferred drinks of upperclassmen and yell them out at mealtimes; all had to run the company commander's laundry upstairs, or to formation from class in the physically impossible 20 seconds. The cadets ate three meals a day together, woke, slept, wrestled at the same time, through the same classes, in the same clothes.

"That's not normal to anybody; it's a cultural shock when you walk into that the first time," says James Dunmyer, Gorden's roommate of three years and a lifelong friend. "The first day you don't forget for the rest of your life. You spend your whole first day in that kind of an atmosphere, and you're not used to it, so it's a shock. Makes no difference -- male, female -- makes absolutely no difference. The idea the first two months is to get you quickly acclimatized to being able to survive in that system. And that's really all you think about.

"As a plebe up there everyone is treated the same, and I didn't see anyone sarcastically treat {Gorden} differently. He was treated rotten. We were all treated rotten. My own reaction was that he continually had to prove himself. It had to be hard for him; he didn't get an easy ride. Everybody at some time would get some slack, an opportunity to breathe; I didn't see that with Gordy, I saw constant pressure.

"But he was tougher on himself than anybody else was," Dunmyer continues. "The thing I saw Gordy do which was so important to him and important to me was that it took him three years of hard, steady work to make the dean's list, but he made the dean's list. He set goals for himself, didn't broadcast them and worked at them," says Dunmyer.

In their junior year at the academy, when Gorden was working to get on the dean's list, he and his roommate had a bet as to who would do better on an upcoming test. They bet a dollar, and Dunmyer won. They bet double or nothing on the next test, and again Dunmyer won.

"I beat him three in a row, until it got to be eight or 10 dollars, and that was a lot of money in those days, the early '60s, so I told him I didn't want to go double or nothing anymore, I wanted to collect.

"We were kidding, in a serious mood, kidding each other, and he told me he wasn't going to pay me, he wanted to go double or nothing because he was going to beat me the next exam, and I told him we could bet again, but I want my money. And he told me he wasn't going to pay me.

"And I said, 'Well, that means you're a reneger.'

"And everything stopped in the room, just like that. And he looked at me, and he said, 'That's one ... That's one.' "

"I'm sure Freddie Gorden has another side. I think so, and I lived with him for a long time," says Dunmyer. "I felt he had to be {dealing with his identity} because of what was happening: He was the only black cadet in the class ... and when the black movement came forward in the country in the late '60s. I didn't see how he couldn't be looking at himself and trying to identify himself within that ... but at the same time not walk away from ... {having} accomplished a significant number of things in the Army," Dunmyer says.

After graduating from West Point in 1962 and marrying his college sweetheart, Marcia Ann Stewart, Gorden received a commission to join the field artillery and went on to Middlebury College to take a master's degree in Spanish. But he seems to have experienced these years in the reverse of many of his peers. He volunteered to go to Vietnam in 1967, when black enlisted men were beginning to feel overrepresented in the wound wards and body bags of an increasingly unpopular conflict. He was serving his country halfway around the world when other blacks were rioting against it in Detroit.

At the graduation ceremony from the advanced field artillery course at Fort Sill, Gen. Creighton W. Abrams spoke.

"Some time from the beginning to the end of the speech my aspiration to be a professional military man was realized," Gorden says. "The impression I had from that speech was that professional military men believed enough in what the country was doing in Vietnam to give their lives, and if that was the case, I didn't need to wait until my number was called."

Gorden served as captain of a field artillery unit in the 101st Airborne Division, 1st Brigade, in Vietnam for a year, and was awarded a Bronze Star for valor.

In the summer of that year the 2nd Brigade of that division was battling black demonstrators in the inner city of Detroit. "Under those circumstances I wouldn't have traded places with the soldiers of the 2nd Brigade. Can you imagine me standing there? ... I would have been talking to my brothers there on the other side."

He remembers being at a cadet party in Brighton Beach, N.Y., in the spring of 1962 when news came over the radio of a black church being bombed in the South. "We were having a great time," Gorden recalls. "Here I am the only black cadet in the class ... that makes an impact on me, the strife in this country over race relations. But I'm commissioned, all this is going on in society, and me, I'm commissioned."

Gorden returned from Vietnam in 1969 disillusioned, he claims, but disillusioned more with the reaction of American youth to the war effort than with the war itself. He returned once again to West Point, this time to teach Spanish (while his former roommate Dunmyer taught engineering), and saw the visiting track team wear antiwar armbands while competing at West Point.

"What was disillusioning in some respects", he says, was to take cadets to colleges and universities to compete in athletics only to have them become the subject of antiwar protests.

The subsequent years of Gorden's military career included assignments as inspector general at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii; commander of division artillery at Fort Ord, Calif.; and a director in the office of the assistant secretary of defense for international security in Washington.

But his return to West Point seems the most appropriate rounding-off of his military career. He is the Army Success Story, evidence that the system can work. And as an example to aspiring cadets, his appointment could hardly be better timed.

The number of black cadets jumped almost 400 percent -- from nine to 44 -- when West Point instituted a minority recruitment program in 1968, but it is still a subject of concern. It now hovers between 7 and 8 percent, and has never approached the 16 percent targeted back in 1968.

But Gorden's appointment, says one black senior, Benjamin Webb, "gives me the feeling that maybe things have changed, that progress has been made. There has been a big step {forward}. He serves as an inspiration for minority cadets, that they can achieve as much as anybody else."

Webb says he found West Point to be the most integrated environment he had experienced. "It's not a utopia, it's not perfect, but it's the closest I've seen," he says.

Another cadet, Robert Williams, agrees. "You can overcome the stereotypes just by being yourself," he says. "If others can't handle it, that's their problem." And of the general's new status, Williams says it made him feel more confident. "Someone is going to break down those {remaining} barriers -- maybe it will be me."

Watching the general, you would think the Army teaches cadets how to use their hands; his are indisputably beautiful: the fingers slim and long, like an artist's might be.

The neat, perfect, pink nails are rounded and they draw your gaze as as he presses his fingertips together, then presses his palms flat together thoughtfully, adjusts his glasses, all with the easy, fluid motion of a man in control. The heavy, gold West Point class ring, with the blue stone, sits snugly above his wedding band.

The same class ring adorns the left hand of Gorden's best friend, Jim Dunmyer, whom he has not seen in seven years. The eyes of the retired lieutenant colonel moisten as he struggles to fit his almost 30-year relationship with Fred Gorden into words.

"I loved him," he says. "He was one of the guys. And he's still the same person today. I said it in the yearbook then, and I couldn't say it any better now ... There was no finer among us.