Traditions Lost


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May 15, 2007
Herndon Climb, other USNA rituals changing
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Uptown Annapolis Living
Sea Trials will be closed to parents and sponsors

By EARL KELLY, Staff Writer
Published January 17, 2008
To reduce the possibility of injuries during the annual rite of climbing the Herndon Monument, the Naval Academy may limit the number of freshmen allowed to participate in scaling the grease-covered obelisk.
The Herndon Climb is but one of the academy's spring festivities that is being reviewed, and some will be curtailed or even eliminated.

"Similar to how our Navy looks at all traditions in the fleet, we are evaluating the Herndon Monument Climb to ensure the event remains a valid part of our heritage but it is conducted with professionalism, respect, and most important, safety in mind," academy spokesman Cmdr. Ed Austin said yesterday. "The commandant has selected a team of midshipmen to review the Herndon ceremony and provide recommendations for a traditional and meaningful evolution emphasizing teamwork and determination."

Cmdr. Austin said some version of the climb will take place on May 15.

Also, Cmdr. Austin said, Sea Trials, a day of physical and mental exercises designed to test plebes toward the end of their freshman year, will not be open to parents and sponsors this year.

The previous superintendent, now-retired Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt, opened the trials for parents and sponsors to watch, but the new superintendent, Vice Adm. Jeffrey L. Fowler, aims to make Sea Trials more of a training exercise.

Also under Adm. Rempt, the week before Commissioning Week for seniors was called Recognition Week, for the freshmen and their families.

That week of festivities will be curtailed, Cmdr. Austin said, and the term "Recognition Week" will no longer be used.

"Completing plebe year is an important first step in the development of midshipmen," he said, "but it is just one of many significant elements in a four-year process."

The Plebe Parents Dinner and the Welcome Parade, all parts of the week of celebrations, "have been discontinued," Cmdr. Austin said.

Under the previous administration, the Herndon Climb was followed by the Plebe Recognition Ceremony, when freshmen received the insignia of third year midshipmen.

Now, the ceremony has been abolished, Cmdr. Austin said.

"Promotion to midshipman third class (sophomores) will occur upon graduation of the Class of 2008 on May 23," Cmdr. Austin said.

Herndon Climb

Sources said academy officials worry some midshipmen will be injured scaling the Herndon Monument, a 21-foot granite obelisk.

One change may be that a smaller number of plebes - not the whole class - may be allowed to participate in the climb this year.

Academy spokesman Judy Campbell said minor injuries happen each year, but she couldn't recall any instances of serious injury.

The Herndon Climb traditionally involves nearly all of the freshmen, or plebes, forming a human pyramid around the base of the lard-coated, 21-foot tall granite obelisk. Some freshmen are always exempted, though, because they are on various other assignments.

The climb typically involves an hour or two of mids struggling upward and slipping downward, until one member of the class finally succeeds in getting on his classmates' shoulders and removing a plebe hat, or "dixie cup," that upperclassmen taped to the top of the monument. He then replaces the plebe hat with a midshipman's hat.

This task must be done while upperclassmen soak the freshmen with a garden hose.

The Herndon Climb at times has been the subject of controversy since women were admitted in 1976, as some female midshipmen have reported being near the top of the climb, only to be pulled down by men who didn't want them to have the honor.

The Herndon Climb is always an emotional end to the first year at the academy, and hundreds of midshipmen's friends and family members gather to watch the event and cheer on their plebes.

Legend has it that the freshman who climbs Herndon will be the first to reach the rank of admiral. The legend has never proved to be true, according to the Naval Academy.

Dwight E. Crevelt, who climbed the monument in 58 minutes in 1976, could still recall the details this week.

"I got nearly to the top, and fell flat on my face in the mud," he said. "My roommate, both of us small guys weighing about 115 or 118 pounds, then looked at each other and took a run for it again. We got to the top and he yelled 'Go for it!'"

Mr. Crevelt said the concern about serious injuries was "garbage" and "political correctness run amok."

"The climb is self-limiting," Mr. Crevelt, of Las Vegas. "The whole class can't get around there (the base) anyway, because there is not enough space, and not everybody wants to get all muddy and greasy."

In recent years, the plebe who makes it to the top gets a vice admiral's shoulder boards, compliments of the superintendent, but in Mr. Crevelt's day the victorious freshman got to wear the superintendent's hat.

"(Then-Rear) Adm. Kinnaird McKee gave me his cap, and I was authorized to wear it a full week," Mr. Crevelt said. "I was an admiral for a week, I wore it around town and everybody saluted me. Even the commandant saluted me."

Mr. Crevelt left the academy at the end of his sophomore year because of poor eyesight, but went on to help form a chapter of the academy's Alumni Association in Las Vegas, and to making a career in designing computer programs for the gaming industry.

The Herndon Monument was erected in 1860 to honor Cmdr. William Lewis Herndon, an academy graduate who died at sea in 1857.

The annual climb has its roots in 1907, when a group of plebes unexpectedly formed around the monument on Commissioning Day, according to the Naval Academy.

Plebes began climbing the monument in 1940, and around 1949 the upperclassmen began lubricating the monument.

The academy started recording times sporadically in 1959, when the time was 12 minutes. A midshipman scaled the monument in 1962 in only three minutes, by using a cargo net, but such devices have since been banned.

The longest time, according to Naval Academy records, stands at 4 hours, 5 minutes and 17 seconds, recorded in 1995.
To reduce the possibility of injuries during the annual rite of climbing the Herndon Monument, the Naval Academy may limit the number of freshmen allowed to participate in scaling the grease-covered obelisk. . . . Similar to how our Navy looks at all traditions in the fleet, we are evaluating the Herndon Monument Climb to ensure the event remains a valid part of our heritage but it is conducted with professionalism, respect, and most important, safety in mind

I'm not one of those who thinks we have to keep everything the way it was in the "good old days." Times change and, with those changes, some traditions are lost. Sometimes, quite frankly, that's a good thing.

However, this one blows my mind. Herndon is . . . Herndon. Like chow calls, it's one of those things that has to be experienced to be understood. 25+ years later, I still remember standing in T-Court waiting for the horn that would signal we could run to Herndon. I remember the mud, the heat, the grease flying, the groans, the exhaustion of the guys on the bottom of the pile, the almost-successes, the failures, as people struggled for hours to make the climb (and it was hours -- I think we held the record for longest time to the top; thankfully, we've now been surpassed).

And then the glorious moment when it was all over. Somewhat like tossing your cover at graduation -- not quite as good but pretty close. It's a free-for-all. It's crazy. But it's . . . PERFECT.

I simply can't imagine a nice, neat, perfectly packaged ceremony where a select group of men and women (chosen by perfectly proper lots, I'm sure), would go at it without mud or grease (so no one would possilby get hurt) while 800 of their classmates stood by in perfectly proper uniform, perfectly cheering (probably nice, group cheers). That would be so wrong on so many levels.

If they're worried about injury, maybe USNA should stop playing football, basketball, boxing, wrestling and any other contact sports. And Sea Trials. And PEP. As for professionalism and especially respect -- that's what Herndon is all about. Respect. It's not the climb but what the climb represents -- the culmination of a year of earning respect. From your peers, the upperclass, the faculty, your family . . . everyone.

There have been a lot of changes in the past year -- most of which I've supported. But this one just blows my mind.
I provided medical support for Herndon for 3 consecutive years ('98-'01) and the worst injury we saw was a strained back. We saw more injuries during sea trials, and more people dropped out during parades than ever dropped or were injured at Herndon.
THIS is an issue that needs to be dealt with? :confused:

I'm sorry, but this new Supe is a total dweeb. A real dissapointment. Some things he's done have been spot-on (kicking the parents out of Sea Trials, enforcing study hours, etc.), but others have simply bordered on the bizarre.

Oh, well. The next guy will be able to fix it all. Sucks to be a Mid while he's there, though.
This does give you a chance to say "When I was a cadet/midshipman".

"When I was a 4/c, we double-times everywhere and kept our eyes in the boat at all times during chow."