Tradition of properly greased obelisk makes a comeback at Naval Academy

May 23, 2011

All school year, there were rumors that the new U.S. Naval Academy superintendent would restore one of the most challenging aspects to a potentially dangerous rite of passage for first-year students: Climbing a 21-foot granite obelisk that’s covered with grease.

Officials have long worried that the generations-old ritual had become unsafe, and last year they outlawed the most dangerous ingredient — baking grease, the type usually used in home-style desserts.

Without that slippery impediment, last year’s challenge lasted mere minutes instead of several hours. It disappointed plebes, who wanted a memorable way to end their first year. It bored the hundreds of spectators who traveled miles to watch. And it angered alumni who love their traditions.

“It’s a great tradition,” said John H. Dalton, a 1964 graduate who was the Secretary of the Navy for five years during the Clinton Administration. “Plebe year is rough, so this is about having a major, final feat for the class.”

So, grease was allowed to return to the Herndon Monument climb Monday afternoon — along with medical professionals, water stations and safety zones for students who didn’t want to participate.

Vice Adm. Michael H. Miller, the academy’s top leader, said in a statement that keeping the tradition consistent — and greasing up Herndon — instills camaraderie among classmates and links them to alumni who endured the same feat.

Plus, he added, “the plebes are extremely athletic and in good health.”

The climb kicked off Monday afternoon with a thousand plebes running toward Herndon, just as generations of plebes before them. At least one student was injured during the climb and was taken to the hospital on a backboard. On Monday night, officials said she was treated and released.

The goal of the climb is to reach the top of Herndon, remove a plebe’s “dixie cup” hat and replace it with a midshipman’s cap. Only then are the first-year students officially done being plebes.

Everyone dressed in navy shorts and white T-shirts, which were quickly stripped off and used to wipe grease off the pillar. Socks were rolled up and thrown at the hat on top of Herndon that refused to budge for hours — and eventually had to be removed by hand.

To get to the top means creating a sweaty, muscular human pyramid. At the bottom are the “big guys,” the type who played football in high school.

“It’s hot; it’s really hot at the bottom,” said Tommy Reed, 20, of New York, who spent a while at the foundation-level.“And you get exhausted so quickly.”

The next two levels are lighter, muscular men and women who aren’t afraid to have someone step on their head. At one point, a bent-over male plebe balanced himself on the shoulders of two classmates while another classmate stood on his back. Socks and shirts were turned into ropes. Plebes fell backwards and were caught crowd-surfing-style. And grease flew.

Once those three layers stabilized, which took at least an hour, tall and wiry climbers would try to scurry up the flesh mountain, carrying a white cap.

“You just see a small person and you just start lifting them up,” said Marc Nucum, 19, of New Jersey. “I was pretty high up, but I wasn’t worried. I knew people were going to catch me.”

Hour after hour went by. It was suddenly 4 o’clock in the afternoon.

Several members of the Class of 1964 waited patiently in the stands with their spouses and relatives. Fifty years ago, they were the ones climbing Herndon — although no one recorded the time.

“I think they are a little anxious,” said Jay Green, who is in charge of organizing events between the classes of 1964 and 2014, which are 50 years apart, through the academy’s “Another Link in the Chain” program. “They don’t let the rows stabilize.”

The alumni, who are in their late-60s, marveled at the athleticism and determination of their much younger counterparts.

“Look at all of those six packs,” Dalton exclaimed. “Who has muscles like that?”

“Fifty years ago, you did, John,” Green laughed.

As the plebes toiled in the sun, some of their parents, relatives, friends occasionally shouted out brilliant strategies from the sidelines: That climber should take off his socks! Why don’t they send a small woman to the top? Build a bigger base! The guy with the tattoo is too big to be that high!

Two hours, 41 minutes and 32 seconds after the Class of 2014 started, Matthew Dalton of Florida was pushed to the top, dislodged the plebe cap and placed the midshipman’s hat in its place.

The crowd burst into chants of “USNA!” and “No more plebes!”

Jenna Johnson writes about Maryland politics, including the General Assembly, the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley and the 2014 election.
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