NAVAL ACADEMY

A Slippery Climb From Freshman to 1st Admiral

Naval Academy freshmen grapple with a 21-foot obelisk greased with lard. The first to the top will be the first class member to become an admiral, tradition holds.
Naval Academy freshmen grapple with a 21-foot obelisk greased with lard. The first to the top will be the first class member to become an admiral, tradition holds. (By Mark Gail -- The Washington Post)
By Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 19, 2006

Their majestic graduation parade is a distant three years over the horizon, so yesterday the freshman class at the U.S. Naval Academy busied itself with a less glorious tradition: scaling a 21-foot stone monument greased with 200 pounds of lard.

Nobody seems to know just when or why the group effort to mount the monument morphed into a rite of passage marking liberation from the lowly status accorded every class of plebes.

It's a tradition on a campus where traditions are revered, and tradition holds that the first plebe to reach the top (standing on the shoulders of his classmates, you understand) will be the first member of the class to become an admiral.

Documentation to support this factoid is harder to come by than the reason for the ritual.

Midshipman Brian Richards, who stretched his 6-2 frame to reach the peak of the obelisk first, will be the first admiral produced by the class of 2009 -- if tradition is served this time around.

He tipped off a white plebe hat -- called a "Dixie cup" -- that had been sitting atop the monument, replacing it with the white hat worn by the brigade of midshipmen.

This year's class went about the business quickly, forming a pyramid of bodies to reach the top in just an hour and 14 minutes. If that seems an unastonishing time in which to travel just 21 feet, albeit straight up, consider that the same slippery task took the bumbling class of 1998 four hours, five minutes and sixteen seconds.

The first recorded time for the climb is three minutes, clocked in 1962. The class of 1972 holds the official record (one minute, 30 seconds) but that's as bogus as the nose on a circus clown, because the monument wasn't greased that year for fear somebody might get hurt.

Yesterday's attempt was an entertaining spectacle. Despite throwing T-shirts and muddy socks and tying sheets around the monument in an effort to build a human pyramid, nothing seemed to work, and the classmates collapsed into a heap, time after time.

"It looks good in the beginning, but it gets hard," said Midshipman 3rd Class Jordan Adler.

"The key was the camaraderie, my friends," said Richards, a 20-year-old from Kent Island, Md. "It is a teamwork thing. I wouldn't have been able to get up there without my buddies."

Richards said climbing the monument was a symbol of the plebe year at the academy. "You have your ups and down. We go up the monument, we fall back down. Then you finally get to the end, and you make it."


© 2006 The Washington Post Company