Monday February 8, 2016; 12:20 pm EST
Eternal Father Strong to Save x Herndon?
Is there a message in the Naval Academy’s challenge to the traditional rite of passage?
History was made this week at the U.S. Naval Academy for the 71st and perhaps final year when the Plebe class scaled Herndon, a diminutive obelisk, to exchange a Plebe Dixie Cup cap for a midshipman’s combo cover. Formerly the final rite of passage earning Fourth Class midshipmen the “carry-on” privileges — and freedom from picayune circumscription — that upperclassmen enjoy, May 24’s feat resembled former assaults less in deed than in name.
In today’s kinder, gentler Navy, the Herndon Climb has fallen into disfavor for unnecessary roughness and the glorification of individual heroics. In its place comes Sea Trials, a combination obstacle-course/mud-crawling marathon of Marine skills stressing teamwork. And though Superintendent Jeffrey L. Fowler has not officially sounded the death knell for the Herndon tradition, his arm is poised to strike this ship’s final bell.
Hocus Focus: Comparing This Year’s Climb to Previous Years
The plebes did climb, though, and they did exchange hats. So mission accomplished, right?
Not according to purists, and if newcomers hadn’t realized changes were afoot, the slogans painted on hundreds of midshipmen’s T-shirts proclaimed two messages loud and clear: Save Herndon and Grease the pole.
Grease the pole refers to 200 pounds of lard that traditionally coated the obelisk. This year upperclassmen were cautioned in a surprise announcement on Herndon Eve that any attempts to grease the monument would result in delayed graduation or equally stiff penalties.
Fans who were paying attention also noted the absence of duct tape securing the Dixie Cup in place, tape that has been so stubborn in previous years it required cutting and scraping off the granite. A preferred tool was the metal anchor that adorns the combo cover.
Gone was the mad rush from Bancroft Hall, replaced by an orderly march in formation. Leading the way as a reward for dominating Sea Trials was 8th Company, followed in numerical order by 1st through 30th companies.
Given the brevity of this year’s event, two minutes and five seconds as opposed to hours, it seems unlikely that all members of the Brigade had a fair chance of reaching the action before the deed was done.
Gone, too, were the showering hoses that served as irritant on cool days and relief in the heat. The Admiral’s official viewing stand was moved closer to the action to rein in the magnitude of the event.
The spirit of downsizing was so palpable that spectators joked, “The Blue Angels are switching to Cessnas this year because they’re safer.”
So how do the youth, champions of change, feel about symbolic tradition in an era affecting such far-reaching changes as the role of women aboard submarines and gays in the military?
Resigned but not happy. Here’s what they were saying, from the top down.
First Class: They’re taking away the importance of plebe year. Plebes are saying ‘we already have carry-on after Sea Trials, so this is not a big deal.’
Second Class: The sense is Sea Trials will be it for the future. This will probably be the last year for Herndon.
Third Class: Herndon was more meaningful. Sea Trials is a chance to come together, but Herndon is more of a celebration that includes family.
Sea Trials is more of a test, but there’s a lost tradition.
Herndon is the entire class coming together. You can’t climb it by yourself.
I can’t see the gain. Sea Trials are more like the enlisted world, but prior enlisteds see it as a joke.
Rather than just stopping the tradition they’re weakening it and decreasing its importance, so when it finally does go away, people won’t notice as much.
Fourth Class: The Navy will always be unpredictable, but I hope next year they keep it and they grease it.
Reservations aside, the victors were still proud and jubilant as they chanted Plebes No More and hoisted this year’s conquering climber, 3rd Company’s Keegan Albi, onto their shoulders. “It feels great. It wasn’t greased this year, so it was pretty easy,” said Albi, a 20-year-old, straight-A student from Eugene, Oregon.
Crystal Ball Predictions
Despite conjecture, no one knows for sure what next year will bring. Many alumni are confident the next superintendent, expected to arrive this summer, will change it back. Or perhaps that’s just wishful thinking.
“Herndon is the last thing the plebes do, and that’s why the memories last forever,” said one midshipman.
If that’s so, perhaps any challenge could be significant — as long as it marked the end?