Years of lard, tradition Rituals: Naval Academy plebes unite to scale slippery Herndon Monument, one of many academy rituals.

May 19, 1998|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

A thousand semiclad men and women ran screaming across the grounds of the U.S. Naval Academy yesterday toward a lard-slathered column of granite.

Why? Because that's how it was done last year and each of the 80 years before that. At this training ground for future military officers, tradition is like a mascot.

To the cheers of thousands, academy freshmen spent two sweat-soaked hours and 20 slip-sliding minutes getting one midshipman to the top of Herndon Monument. But what yesterday's crowds missed was the numerous, lesser-known customs and rituals that have become the tics of this 153-year-old institution.

Most of them happen toward the end of the year, when midshipmen seek an extra bit of help -- surviving exams or surviving the last days as a low-life "plebe," as freshman are known -- by way of luck, superstition and the ghosts of those who went before them.

For example, midshipmen entering the lobby of Rickover Hall during exam time touch the nose of Adm. Hyman Rickover's bust -- for luck.

The bust is dull brown but Rickover's nose is shiny.

Midshipmen flip coins into the arrow basket, or quiver, on the statue of Tecumseh. Or they salute the Indian chief's statue left-handed. Before football games, they "war paint" the bronze figurehead in the colors of their opponent. Again, all of it for luck.

To avoid bad luck, midshipmen never walk out "bilger's gate," a pedestrian gate in the academy's stone outer wall.

"Bilge" means to flunk out, and flunkees used to walk out that gate decades ago on their way out of the academy.

Today's midshipmen thrive on doing what midshipmen did last century. Sunday night "bricks" are still awarded to the classmate with the weekend's most objectionable date. Dates are still called "drags," and dates residing in Annapolis (aka Crabtown) are still "crabs."

For their four years here, conformity takes precedence over spontaneity. Each tradition represents one step closer to the Navy.

"It's one more thing we have in common with other graduates," said Heinisha Jaques of New York City, taking a break from yesterday's climb.

Many traditions become the demarcations of a year-in-the-life that can seem like 10.

"It helps you get through the year," said Becky Baltes of Rochester, N.Y., nearly breathless after falling from atop a pile of her climbing classmates.

The traditions also bring classmates closer.

"I mean, you don't get much closer than this," said a grass-lard-and-sweat-covered Baltes, pointing to her peers, their arms linked and clinging to the greasy granite obelisk.

This week, as seniors prepare to graduate Friday, a number of other well-worn traditions will be observed.

'Anchor man' tradition

The lowest-ranked senior -- the "anchor man" -- will walk away from Annapolis $1,000 richer. Classmates annually contribute $1 apiece to the anchor.

On Thursday, after their final full-dress parade march, seniors will jump off the 10-meter board at the academy pool -- still wearing their wool uniforms. They used to leap into the Severn River until someone got hurt and the ritual was moved indoors.

Also this week, academy juniors will be allowed to wear their class rings for the first time -- but only after dunking them in a container with the waters of the globe's seven seas.

On Friday, after they graduate and become ensigns, the academy's outgoing seniors will flip silver dollars to the person who first salutes them.

"I made $10 last year," said Lacey Edge of Columbia, who graduates Friday.

Some customs don't make it to tradition status.

Before 1925, on finishing their final examination, juniors would run to the southern sea wall, where seniors would toss them into Spa Creek. That ended when Midshipman Leicester Smith drowned in 1924. And midshipmen no longer commemorate the end of the school year by burying their books or tossing them into the Severn.

Monument most memorable

Still, midshipmen say the tradition they will remember most is Herndon.

The question will follow them through the rest of their days in the Navy: How long did it take you?

The fastest climb was a minute and a half, in 1969. The slowest time belongs to this year's seniors, who in 1995 spent four hours and five minutes trying to reach the top.

A tradition within the tradition holds that the first freshman to reach the top will become the first admiral.

No one is quite sure why that notion persists, because it's never happened.

Academy Superintendent Adm. Charles R. Larson was the first admiral of the Class of '58, and he was nowhere near the top of Herndon when he was a freshman, he said yesterday.

Larson said the academy's traditions regularly remind midshipmen that many others before them sought luck from a statue and earned friendship beneath a greasy monument.

"It makes them feel that they've joined the team," he said.

Pub Date: 5/19/98

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