ANNAPOLIS -- They grunted and groaned, sweated and strained. They climbed all over each other for what seemed an eternity, rising almost to the pinnacle only to collapse in a heap and start all over again.
At last a basketball player from Kellogg, Idaho, stretched all of his 6 feet 8 inches to tear the white "Dixie cup" plebe hat from the top of Herndon Monument and replace it with an upperclassman's hat.
After 300 and some days, plus the two hours and 36 minutes it took to climb the greased monument, members of the U.S. Naval Academy Class of 1994 were no longer plebes. They whooped and hollered, high-fived, and hugged and rolled in the mud to celebrate.
Brad Cougher, who had finally yanked the cap free, rode on his classmates' shoulders, arms held high in triumph, to the nearby steps of the chapel where Rear Adm. Virgil L. Hill Jr., the superintendent, waited with one of his shoulder boards mounted on a plaque.
As legend would have it, Mr. Cougher, the fifth consecutive basketball player to make it to the top, will be the first member of his class to become an admiral.
The monument climb, a tradition that dates to the early 1940s, is the opening salvo of a series of Commissioning Week events. It signals the completion of plebe year for freshmen.
Yesterday's climb began with a cannon blast at precisely 2:30 p.m. More than 1,000 plebes charged up Lover's Lane from Bancroft Hall, the midshipmens' dormitory, toward the granite obelisk, full of confidence and shouting encouragement.
They tossed T-shirts, sneakers and socks at the monument, hoping to use them to clean some of the 200 pounds of lard with which upper classmen had greased the pole.
The brawnier mids linked arms around the base of the monument while others climbed on top of them. Within the first 10 minutes, a group of mids had reached the halfway point and expectant cheers rose from the crowd. But the pyramid swayed first one way, then the next, a hand slipped here, a foot there, and it all came tumbling down.
Time after time, they set up the pyramid only to have it come crashing down as thousands of spectators who had been shouting, "Yess, yess," moaned, "Nooo."
"I was about the second tier, and it pulls one way, then another and you lose your balance," explained Kati Pruitt, from Martinez, Calif.
Onlooker Sandy Davis of Holly Springs, Miss., waved at her son, Clay, who had staggered to the edge of the crowd after holding a spot on the second tier of plebes. "I just wanted to see your face to make sure you were all right," she shouted.
Clay rolled his eyes in embarrassment and dived back into the crowd.
"There's an awful lot of bodies in there. Somebody could get stomped on," Mrs. Davis fretted.
Tim Kidd, a 22-year-old plebe from St. Louis, hobbled around the crowd on crutches. Sure, he was frustrated because he couldn't join the climb, he said. Since the first day of plebe summer last July, they had been counting the days to Herndon.
"But we're a team, and hopefully I can help some of them out
when they need it," he concluded.
An hour had gone by with no success when Dave Shaw, from Bridgewater, Mass., and Danny Pidgeon, of Jermyn, Pa., pulled away from their spots at the base of the monument.
The cannon blast had just signaled two hours when a hand reached over the top and began push away the lard, and someone tossed up an upper classman's hat. This was it. The crowd roared. The mid placed the hat on top, held up an arm to celebrate and tumbled down. His classmates started triumphantly toward the superintendent, only to realize that they didn't have the "Dixie cup."
For another half hour, they struggled until Mr. Cougher reached up and began pulling the cap free. He stretched and yanked, slipped once and went up again. Finally, it was over.