Hats at the U.S. Naval Academy graduation...


June 11, 1994

THE TOSSING OF hats at the U.S. Naval Academy graduation, one of the most beloved, patriotic images in our culture, bears a certain resemblance to the running of the bulls.

The image that finds its way into the newspaper year after year -- of hundreds of white officers' hats floating like confetti high above the jubilant faces of newly commissioned ensigns -- is deceiving. The scene (which almost always is shot from above) looks so beautiful in the picture, but what happens on the ground can be pretty ugly.

The tradition involves not only the mids hoisting their caps but hundreds of onlookers stampeding to snatch up the hats as souvenirs.

At the most recent graduation ceremonies in Annapolis, the hat-snatching crowd started forming at one end of Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium while, at the other end, academy officials were awarding diplomas. By the time the last diploma had been handed out, the crowd, composed largely of children and teen-agers, had reached the 50-yard line and was pressing hard against the tables occupied by the press corps.

(Could this have been the Navy's way of exacting revenge for the negative coverage of Tailhook and the academy cheating scandal -- by putting reporters smack in the path of a stampede?)

A line of fresh-faced underclass mids had been assigned to try to keep the crowd back, but when the hats went up and the crowd surged they got mowed over like everybody else. Bodies squashed against one another. The press tables went flying, one landing on a man's leg. He screamed for help, but in all the pandemonium nobody paid attention.

At least nobody fell -- this time.

...* * *

IT'S LEAP YEAR again, the National Institute of Standards and Technology reminds us.

Don't forget to hold back your clocks for a full second on June 30, the Commerce Department agency urges.

Adding the extra second is not designed to increase productivity, but to keep the super-accurate atomic clocks of the world in sync with the less reliable rotation of the Earth.

Atomic clocks, which use the radiation frequency of cesium atoms to define a second, don't lose or gain a second in a million years. (At least that's the manufacturer's guarantee.)

The rotation of Planet Earth, on the other hand, varies several thousandths of a second each day, slightly slowing down.

So the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Paris orders the world's official clockwatchers to add the "leap second" to their atomic clocks nearly every year at the end of June.

This synchronization of Coordinated Universal Time (atomic clock) with astronomical time has already happened 18 times since 1970, the latest one occurring last year.

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