Naval Academy was once homey and quite accessible

September 25, 2001|By Susan Reimer

IT'S HIGH SEASON in Annapolis, sailing capital of the East Coast and home of the U.S. Naval Academy.

Every year at this time, a glut of tourists blows into my town on the freshening breezes of fall to window-shop through a pair of sprawling boat shows.

And natives find themselves stuck in traffic behind license plates from every state as alumni and the parents of midshipmen arrive in town to cheer the often luckless Navy football team.

All is quickly forgiven, however. Annapolitans know the boat show craziness lasts only a couple of weekends and leaves their pockets full.

And the bumper stickers on those out-of-state cars speak for many of us when they declare, "We Love Our Mid(s)."

The Naval Academy lies in the heart of historic downtown Annapolis, and it makes my town a college town with a special flavor.

Our college kids wear crisp white uniforms this time of year, and answer with "Yes, ma'am" and "No, sir."

Every now and again, the Naval Academy will be embarrassed by front page headlines: a cheating scandal, a sex offense or another spat with the city fathers over sewage fees. And natives often complain that traffic is getting worse and the stadium events are too noisy.

But no one ever hesitates to offer midshipmen, who aren't allowed to have cars or drive until senior year, a ride. And they must remember Annapolis as a pretty friendly place: about 22,000 retired military have settled in the county.

In exchange for this patient hospitality, Annapolitans treat the Navy campus like a public park, strolling through the gates among more than 1.5 million official visitors each year for a jog along the sea wall, or to watch Fourth of July fireworks or the parade of yachts decorated with lights at Christmas.

We attend Sunday services under the copper-covered dome of the Naval Academy Chapel, and gather there to listen to an organ recital at Halloween or to the Messiah after Thanksgiving.

Our children take science, math and humanities courses taught by volunteer faculty, and many of our kids end up attending: This year, there were 59 freshmen, or plebes, from Maryland, 15 of them from Anne Arundel County and eight from Annapolis proper.

More than 5,000 of our children go to Navy sports camps every summer, and just about all our kids learned to skate on the ice at ancient Dahlgren Hall.

Our kids swim for a Navy junior team, or they wrestle for a Navy junior team. And our rec-leagues parents operate the concession stands at Navy events to earn money for their teams.

We watch basketball games, attend concerts and listen to addresses by everyone from Madeleine Albright to Tommy Lasorda in the magnificent Alumni Hall. The town's scholars are welcome in Nimitz Library, home to thousands of rare books.

Every New Year's Eve, the academy throws its gates open and lends its buildings to the city for the family-friendly "First Night" celebration. The stadium is the site for dog shows, crab feasts, jazz concerts and Olympic soccer games.

Every May, we rent our homes for a week to the parents of midshipmen so they can have a comfortable base of operations during the endless ceremonies of Commissioning Week.

Also during that week, teachers wink and look the other way as our children leave school early to watch the fearless Blue Angels entertain overhead.

Spectators flood the Hospital Point field at the academy with their picnics and dot the harbor in their boats. Blue Angel parties can be the height of sophistication in Annapolis.

All year long, midshipmen volunteer their precious free time to tutor our children, and they show up in fatigues and heavy boots to help landscape our schoolyards and parks. They clean up the shoreline after storms and give parents respite by staying with their critically ill children.

In return, more than 500 volunteer families give the exhausted midshipmen refuge on weekend afternoons under the decades-old sponsorship program.

They gratefully consume our home cooking and fall asleep in front of our TVs. We sponsor Mids because we think it is good for our kids to be around the likes of them.

Navy football has had only two winning seasons since 1982, but you wouldn't know it by the crowds that continue to set attendance records.

Navy tailgate parties have become the thing to do in Annapolis, as evidenced by the tents, grills and catering trucks that cluster around the stadium. Few other sporting events can offer the spectacle of 4,000 midshipmen marching across town and into the stadium, while jets fly low overhead.

Life in Annapolis is different now.

The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have jerked Annapolis from the pleasant illusion of the Naval Academy as simply a college with well-dressed students.

We have been reminded that it is a military college and a naval base. The gates are closed to us now, protected by armed Marines behind sand bags piled above their heads. Those who remember the heightened security of Desert Storm will tell you it was never like this.

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