There was a kid in my town who went to West Point one September and came back for Christmas without his sense of humor. He lost it the way you might lose a bus ticket or an umbrella.
The sides of his mouth ceased their creasing. If you'd tickled the bottom of his feet - providing you could make your way through the boots - he would have saluted.
This experience prepared me for the report of the Army study group that found a "relatively humorless attitude" at the academy. I thought, actually, that the word "relatively" was giving them the benefit of the doubt.
It's not that the military hasn't been good for laughs, but from "Bilko" to "M A S H" to Kurt Vonnegut, the running joke has been about its utter humorlessness. Just imagine Gen. Patton in front of the troops - "Take my tanks . . . Please" - and you'll get the picture.
There was, however, another point in the report that summed up why humanizing humor is important to West Point. Referring to hazing - the antithesis of good humor - the group wrote: "A young man or woman who decides not to put up with hazing may be, in fact, demonstrating the qualities of intelligence, independence and maturity that West Point and the Army want."
In other words, the West Point system may be best at screening out precisely those qualities or people that they allegedly prefer.
But this isn't exclusively an Army problem. A lot of our institutions routinely repress or penalize the qualities that they are supposedly fostering. It's rather as if the means were set up to defeat the ends.
For decades, medical schools accepted students who were interested in taking care of people and then put them in an isolation booth. The only person they saw for the first two years was a cadaver. The medical system rewards its apprentices more for endurance than for compassion.
Law school has a similar self-defeating dynamic. As Scott Turow shows in his new book, "One L," students are trained in competition more than in law. Law schools may, as he says, "produce good test-takers rather than good attorneys," but anyone who has sat in a classroom knows that the students are instructed to define only legal and illegal, not right and wrong.
Each system, like some powerful bureaucracy, is able far too often to defeat the goals it "serves." This is true for universities, where hopeful college teachers "train" by spendings as little time with students as possible - or else - and it's true for business.
Next month, Dr. George Vaillant will publish The Grant Study, a long-term profile of 95 men that was begun in 1938. Nineteen of the most successful men are presidents of businesses. Among the qualities they hold in common are the ability to maintain "enduring marriages and the best relationships with their children."
You might then expect businesses to have a vested interest in providing an atmosphere that would support these elements of success. Yet routinely, they do just the opposite. They encourage rising young executives to work long hours and to move frequently. These "requirements" often shatter precisely those "sustained relationships" that might feed into "success."
In some ways it seems that the real aptitude of the men in Vaillant's study was in beating the system. Like the best of the doctors, the most thoughtful of the lawyers, the kindest of the teachers, they maintained their humanity despite the system.
Which brings us back to humor. Humor is the most effective weapon going against the process. It's the weapon of endurance, individuality, the tool of the outsider and the independent insider. Infiltrate an institution like West Point with a touch of irony, a self-depreciating laugh or two, and anything could happen. Humor isn't a bad instrument of change.