Another rite of plebe passage

May 17, 2006|By BRADLEY OLSON | BRADLEY OLSON,SUN REPORTER

The lowly plebes, caked in mud and sweat, jogged toward the "minefield" of cinder blocks, tires and sticks and began to holler wildly.

Dressed in fatigues, some with painted faces and one sporting a freshly cut Mohawk, they'd already been warned to stop their whooping or face more "PT": more push-ups, more sit-ups, more leg lifts, more pain.

Almost immediately and in unison, the 25th Company of plebes began, with respects to Walt Whitman, to "sound their barbaric yawps" in defiance.

The minefield was only the latest challenge for about 1,000 Naval Academy freshmen, who awoke at 3:30 a.m. yesterday to begin "Sea Trials," one of many rites that mark their transition into fully respected midshipmen at the school.

The grueling 14-hour obstacle course includes almost 30 physical and mental feats that test their limits and commitment to teamwork.

The events include all manner of challenges: getting 45 people to hang from one rope, carrying a heavy raft about a quarter-mile, climbing under muddied barbed- wire fences, jumping from 20-foot platforms, treading water for extended periods, carrying logs and walking over makeshift bridges.

The tasks were made to mirror those that face Marines or Navy SEALs in training, many of which emphasize survival skills in the water or combat readiness.

Since 1998, the plebes have had to endure the trials two days before their last, better-known challenge: the Herndon Climb. A tradition since 1907, the plebes must find a way to scale a 21-foot greased obelisk and retrieve a hat while being sprayed with cold water.

The rituals that lead up to their final week as plebes - called "Recognition Week" - include many pranks celebrated mostly among midshipmen.

One example: Plebes in all 30 companies take turns creatively decorating the campus in the middle of the night with their company's number. This year's highlight, midshipmen say, was 13th Company, which placed ornaments bearing "13" all over academy trees.

The week is a fitting finale for plebes who've suffered through an austere year of few privileges and many niggling tasks.

For Michael Gumpert, 19, the worst of those was always "chow calls," where at the request of an upperclassman he has to stand at attention and recite the day's menu: "Noodles with marinara sauce, garlic bread, green beans, chocolate chip cookies, milk, coffee or apple juice, SIR!"

"It'll be really nice to have it over with," he said.

As he awaited his turn in the minefield, Scott Hampert said the day had been tough, and the only thing he had enjoyed was giving a little attitude to the upper-class Mids administering the ministations. The Annapolis native said he knew all the tests were necessary but could hardly wait for them to be over.

"Plebe year is all about having endurance," said Hampert, 19. "The stuff that you have to do will seem pointless, and you don't want to do it, but once you make it you know you can take on just about anything."

The 40 plebes in the 25th Company went from the minefield to "damage control," a set of pipes that rupture drastically and require the Mids' repairs. Their antics seemed to follow them wherever they went.

Landon Palmer, a junior leading the 25th, shouted, "My grandma could patch a pipe quicker than that!" or "You're all gonna die!" as the plebes laughed and tied the rope. When they jogged on to their next station, they were soaked.

"Attitude is Company 25's motto," Palmer said. "We give each of the cadre [administrators] more attitude so they give us more back. It's the glue that holds us together."

New at Sea Trials in recent years have been parents, who previously were invited only to the more ceremonious academy events in May. Mids said their presence could have mellowed the trials a little, although parents said it was just another chance to be proud of their kids.

Yong Kang of Crofton came to watch his son, Paul, a graduate of Arundel High School. Kang said his son would probably most enjoy getting to listen to music again when he returns to the academy as a sophomore.

Paul Kang said he won't miss being bossed around by Mids only a year older. As for Sea Trials, he said it had been hard but fun.

"It's a beautiful day, and you want to go all out since this is pretty much the last challenge you have as a plebe," he said. "The motivation has been great and it keeps you going. After this, no one will be tearing you down anymore."

bradley.olson@baltsun.com

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