Annual plebe ritual pauses for `Oops!'

Mids forget to remove cap already on monument

May 21, 2004|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

Just before 11 a.m. yesterday, cheers erupted from a pile of several hundred scrambling, sweat-drenched midshipmen attempting to climb Herndon Monument at the Naval Academy.

Placing his feet on the shoulders of a classmate below him, a midshipman finally reached the summit of the 21-foot obelisk - coated with 150 pounds of lard - and set an upperclassman's cap on its point, an academy rite of passage marking the end of the lowly plebe (freshman) year.

It was cause for celebration, to be sure - but only for a moment.

As soon as the triumphant plebe tumbled from his place at the top, the cheers ceased and the students again started scrambling. Although that cap was in place, the excited plebes forgot to complete the first step to the challenge: remove the plebe cap that had been secured earlier on the monument's tip by the upperclassmen.

"Oops!" shouted several parents in the crowd, lowering the cameras they had aimed to capture the proud moment.

"They're confused," chuckled Trey Brown, an academy English instructor and 1997 graduate.

Victoria Tacconelli, a junior charged with the official timing of the contest, knew better than to shut off her stopwatch.

"They knew what they had to do when they came here," she said. "They're probably just really tired now."

Having spent more than an hour trying to hoist themselves swiftly up the obelisk, the plebes shifted strategies to try to remove the plebe cap. With the strongest, bulkiest of the group forming a base at the bottom of the monument, they sought one of the tallest, skinniest plebes - Philip "Flip" Johnson.

A sinewy student from South Carolina, Johnson succeeded in removing the plebe cap at 11:17 a.m. (The upperclassman's cap placed there earlier had been knocked off.) As soon as he removed it, however, the base beneath him crumbled, sending him 21 feet to the ground.

The crowd gasped and then let out a collective sigh of relief when Johnson reappeared from the tangled, steamy mass of Mids. He was again hoisted to the top to finish the task: placing an upperclassman's cap on top of the monument.

In all, the climb took two hours, 19 minutes and 24 seconds. According to legend at the Annapolis military college, Johnson's achievement will make him the first in the class to make admiral, the Navy's highest rank. According to history, however, none has.

Posing for pictures with his father, Eric Johnson, after the event, Flip Johnson said he realized his classmates' mistaken victory cries the moment they began cheering the first plebes to reach the top.

"Everyone was jumping around and I thought that maybe no one noticed," the 19-year-old said with a laugh.

In addition to the honor of scaling Herndon, Johnson said he was ecstatic to be finished with his plebe year.

"No more chow calls, no more going without time to sleep all day," Johnson said.

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