By lex, on May 25th, 2010
My plebe class spent two and a half hours trying to scale Herndon, the vaguely phallic monument strangely situated before the chapel at the US Naval Academy. Our senior class of 1979 had spent loving hours slathering the damned thing with grease an inch thick before rototilling the turf surrounding the monument and turning fine Maryland earth to a foot of mud.
It wasn’t much fun after the first hour or so. Sort of like plebe year itself. Into the second hour it became a kind of grudge match. Sort of like plebe year itself. There were other places for the class of 1982 to be, other things we’d have rather been doing. But just like that long, painful year we stuck it out until the deed was done. Because we’d learned over the course of the year that the only thing which could defeat us was acceptance of defeat. Those of us that had survived an arduous year while our high school chums that had gone another way took bong hits and chased co-eds had accepted the fact that we could, in the cauldron of plebe year, learn to tolerate being berated. But we also learned that we would never face final defeat until we had given up.
That’s a useful thing to learn.
When we were done, we left not with a sense of satisfaction but rather in an exultation of savage joy. The hardest year that any of us would ever spend outside a prisoner of war camp came to a fittingly symmetrical end on a hot day in May. We were later left to ponder the way that teamwork made an impossible task merely unpleasant.
This year’s plebe class got to the top in two minutes and five seconds. They were undoubtedly left wondering what the fuss had ever been about:
Vice Adm. Jeffrey Fowler, the departing academy superintendent, instructed the midshipmen not to grease the obelisk this year. It was a gesture of his dissatisfaction with an event that, for all its rich, greasy history, has raised safety concerns with academy leaders. In 2008, four midshipmen sustained injuries in the climb serious enough for ambulance trips to the hospital. All four recovered.
“Admiral Fowler made the decision this year that it would be safer for the midshipmen to climb the monument without grease,” said Cmdr. Joe Carpenter, an academy spokesman. He noted that no one was injured in this year’s ascent.
Well, bully. No one was injured. Which we can all agree is important in a military institution. And it’s not the fault of the midshipmen, the vast majority of whom I am sure still have sand. Even if their leadership does not.
But I wonder: How many mids got injured playing football this year? And what did the rest of them learn from that?