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The Kaining of America

A Fog Lifts at the Air Force Academy

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

The football stadium was the only feature of the Air Force Academy visible from the highway that day. Everything else was obscured by a dense, low-lying fog.

"Can I see your license?" the guard asked at the gate.


"Do you have any firearms in the car?"


"Can you open the trunk?"


Looking ahead into the fog that completely covered everything 50 yards down the road, my only question for him was: "I would like to take a look at the campus. How do I get there?"

"The visitor center and the chapel are the most interesting things to see," he said. "They are about two miles down this road."

"Thank you."

But the guard was not quite right about what would be the most interesting thing to see at the academy that day.

The visitor center emphasized a number of important points about the cadets who attend the academy and what it seeks to teach them. On one wall, for example, was a map of the United States with a pin marking the hometown of each cadet.

There were pins, of course, in every state of the union.

Nearby exhibits highlighted the diversity of the cadets as well as their common pursuit of excellence. While they came from different regions and ethnic groups, most had won athletic letters in high school and academic honors.

But the cadet chapel was far more interesting than the visitor center. It stands as the moral and architectural punctuation point of the academy.

Most of the buildings at the Air Force Academy are not merely uninteresting, they are aggressively boring -- plain, rectangular blocks of concrete, metal and glass.

But the chapel takes the same physical materials and makes what in this era has become a daring statement: At the center of what we do here -- training young Americans to defend this nation's freedom -- is the God who made us free.

Towering over the rest of the academy, rising as the one distinct structure anywhere at the school, this chapel expresses in the language of art what the Declaration of Independence and Pledge of Allegiance state in English: This republic recognizes that we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, and as citizens we pledge our allegiance to "one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

That afternoon, the fog was so thick I could not make out the chapel from the nearby road or nearest parking lot. It only came into view -- through the ghostly gray -- as I walked past the geometric palisades of Harmon Hall and stood in what might have been, on a sunny morning, the chapel's very shadow.

On the chapel's other side, looking out over the lonely Terrazzo below, I wondered where all the cadets had gone. Then I drove back toward the entrance gate.

The fog was starting to lift.

A short way up the road was a scenic overlook. I parked there and got out of the car. The fog had dissipated enough that across the way, in the middle distance, I could see the core of the Air Force campus and the chapel rising above it.

But before that, down a steep hill, spread a multitude of playing fields -- and here is where the most interesting scene of the day unfolded.

On one field, men played rugby, on another, soccer. In the distance, two teams of women competed in what looked like lacrosse. To the left, men and women sprinted on a track.

Then, without warning, it sounded: From a powerful unseen speaker system, the music signaling the academy's daily retreat ceremony roared down from the unseen mountains above. All the cadets on the playing fields instantly halted their games.

Then, as they stood at attention in manifest reverence and respect, Old Glory was lowered for the day as "The Star-Spangled Banner" played.

Two days later, the Air Force football team traveled to Albuquerque to play the University of New Mexico. The kickoff was delayed by lightning strikes. Halftime was reduced to five minutes with the teams remaining on the field.

And that is when UNM's band played the national anthem.

Several players for one team took a knee as that anthem played. On the other team, every player stood.

Do you have any doubt which team was which?

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