Soaking wet, dripping in mud and sweating so badly steam rose from their mass of bodies, plebes at the Naval Academy climbed a 21-foot obelisk slathered in lard yesterday, ushering in graduation week and completing one of the academy's most unusual traditions.
The climb in the rain up Herndon Monument to tear down the hat of a freshman, or plebe, and to replace it with an upperclassman's, has been a ritual since the early 1960s.
This year's class took one hour, 19 minutes and 44 seconds, the fastest time in almost 10 years. The plebe class in 1995 struggled for more than four hours, and the 1969 class was up in a blink --less than two minutes -- though legend has it they climbed up on chicken wire, which is now outlawed.
But this year, from the moment the 1,200 students rushed the monument, one difference was significant: Women, still a small minority at the academy, were in the middle of it all, stepping on heads, pulling themselves up, bracing themselves to be stepped on.
Some female students said Commandant Sam Locklear, akin to a college's dean of students, inspired the class in a speech he gave Thursday night, asking them to think about teamwork during the climb. He urged the plebes to end the myth that a woman's role is on the sidelines.
In years past, some students said male plebes would pull their female counterparts off the heap when they appeared to be getting too high -- or wouldn't give them a hand up to approach the monument on someone's shoulders.
The Class of 1979 wore T-shirts that said, "NGOH" or No Girls On Herndon.
"I think we did get rid of that myth," said Kate Besignano after the climb. "We were all up in there and nobody was yanking us off. Instead, [the male students] were all giving us a boost up and we were helping them up, too. Maybe the Class of 2003 will be known for starting new traditions."
Nathaniel Jennings, a 6-foot-4-inch basketball player from Severna Park, eventually grabbed the hat, after reaching with the tips of his fingers. The person who grabs the hat gets a plaque and, as the legend goes, will be the first in the class to make admiral.
The climb and the morning parade launched a week of events, most open to the public, leading up to graduation Wednesday.
At 8 p.m. Sunday, the men's glee club will perform at the Main Chapel.
Monday, at 11: 45 a.m., the Blue Angels, the U.S. Navy's flight demonstration squadron, will perform maneuvers in their F/A-18 Hornets.
Tuesday's activities will begin with the Color Brigade on Worden Field at 11 a.m. A concert by the Electric Brigade follows at 12: 30 p.m. on the field.
The Blue Angels will reappear for graduation at 10 a.m. Wednesday, flying over the stadium. And then with a "hip-hip hurrah," the midshipmen will toss their hats in the air to celebrate their graduation. And in a few weeks, "plebe summer" -- and the rituals of the academy, Herndon and all -- begin again.