Plebes Rise To Occasion As Tradition Carries On

(By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
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By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 16, 2008

So maybe the U.S. Naval Academy's legendary Herndon Climb isn't particularly dangerous for an event in which a thousand mostly shirtless, screaming first-year midshipmen crawl over one another in a mad scramble to the top of a 21-foot stone obelisk coated in lard.

Despite numerous spills, cuts and bruises -- and three precautionary trips to the hospital yesterday -- there were no major injuries at the annual ritual that marks the end of the grueling plebe year. And that came as sweet relief to fans after the academy's leadership announced this year that it was considering an overhaul of the climb for the sake of safety and professionalism.

In the end, the only noticeable safety changes were the addition of 30 student observers and a slight reduction in the amount of lard slathered on the Herndon Monument.

Three people, including one spectator, were flown to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center, an academy spokeswoman said. Before the event started, a woman fell down the steps of the chapel. During the climb, a female plebe walked out of the crowd, complaining of neck and back pain, and a male plebe might have suffered neck and head injuries. Otherwise, the scene was the same as it has been for decades.

The plebes scaled the monument in 2 hours, 35 minutes and 59 seconds, about twice as long as the better times in recent years.

It is an old military aphorism that no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy, and if the Class of 2011 had a strategy, it rapidly fell apart against the monument's stout defense.

Cheering plebes tore off their T-shirts and used them to wipe away the lard, then locked arms around the Herndon Monument's base, supporting the weight of barefoot classmates surging to the top. The goal: To replace a blue-rimmed sailor's hat, the symbol of the austere plebe year, with a proper midshipman's cap.

The mission was freighted with special meaning this year, for both hats belonged to Kristen Dickmann, a popular plebe and volleyball player from Pennsylvania who died mysteriously this month.

The plebes' initial burst of energy petered out as they realized just how hard it would be to reach the top. "I can't get a ladder!" a frustrated, red-faced plebe near the top of the squirming mass of bodies yelled above the din of battle.

But the plebes kept shoving forward.

Older midshipmen sometimes cackled as the plebes fell, watching with growing confidence that their classes' times would not be bested. Nevertheless, they understood the joy the plebes felt at being so close to the end of their introduction to military discipline.

Plebes have to run virtually everywhere and call everyone "sir" or "ma'am." They can rarely leave the academy grounds and are forbidden pleasures taken for granted by freshmen at other colleges -- booze and fraternization.

"Being a plebe means you're lower than dirt," said Ryan Rose, a third-year midshipman from Logansport, Ind.

Academy rules largely prevent plebes from speaking their minds. But the plebes did persist in the tradition of writing messages on their T-shirts that hint at some of the hardships they have faced during the past year.

"I'd rather be sleeping!" one shirt said.

"I can't wait to . . . Sleep. Walk. Frat. Be a Ma'am. BE A REAL PERSON," a young woman's shirt said.

"Can I Have a Beer Yet?" another shirt said in block letters.

As the morning wore on with little progress, the plebes and the upperclassmen watching them grew restless. This was the slowest class to scale the monument since 1997.

By 11:20 a.m., more than two hours after the climb started, a plebe big enough to be a football player started to rally his dispirited classmates.

"If you are between 180 and 200 [pounds], get in front of me right now!" he shouted, and the Class of 2011, reminded of its duty to conquer or remain plebes forever, surged forward for a final attack.

Twenty minutes later, Greg Reichel, a tall, lanky volleyball player from Hummelstown, Pa., who knew Dickmann well, reached up and grabbed the lard-encased plebe's hat, which had been taped to the top of the monument. He ripped it off and fell back, cannon-balling down into the mass of classmates below.

Undeterred, Reichel made a second push forward, Dickmann's cap on his head. Standing on the shoulders of his grunting, grimacing classmates, he reached out for the top of the monument with his long arms and placed the midshipman's hat atop the obelisk.

A cannon blasted, a wild cheer went up, and the Herndon Climb was done.

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