With a flick of his wrist, a U.S. Naval Academy baseball player from Orlando, Fla., tossed an upperclassman's hat atop the Herndon Monument on Monday, leading his 2016 classmates to launch into cheers of "Plebes no more!" amid roars from onlookers.
"I was considering jumping and making it a little more dramatic," said Patrick Lien — who is a catcher, not pitcher, on the Navy team, "but I didn't want to fall and make a scene."
The Herndon climb was itself a scene: hundreds of plebes, or freshmen, charged a slickened, 21-foot tall granite obelisk at the service academy in Annapolis. Plebes climbed atop each other all around it, groping their way up and slip-sliding down. Many tumbled, and their base of strong classmates collapsed periodically.
Following tradition, the monument, dedicated to the memory of Cmdr. William Lewis Herndon, had been slathered overnight with close to 100 pounds of Crisco, according to members of the Class of 2015 who applied the shortening. Other midshipmen turned hoses on the plebes — ostensibly to cool them from their strenuous effort and the midday heat.
"It was awesome," shouted a soaked Bridget Lee, of Little Rock, Ark., who had lawn clippings in her hair and stuck to her skin. "I tried climbing twice, I fell both times."
The goal is to replace the "Dixie cup" hat worn by plebes with an upperclassman's hat at the very top.
The climb is a time-honored rite of passage for the freshman class. It's the final hurdle for the class of nearly 1,000 plebes to overcome as a group during their first year. The event marks an end to being called plebes; now, they're known as fourth-year midshipmen.
The Class of 2016 completed the challenge in one hour, 32 minutes and 43 seconds — far faster than the four-plus hours in 1995 when the Dixie cup was glued and taped on. The record of one minute, 30 seconds, stands from 1972, when the monument was not greased.
On Monday, the Dixie cup was duct-taped on but knocked off in an assault of balled-up socks and T-shirts.
The scene was watched with smiles, recollections and some worries.
"I was somewhere down in the base getting smushed on. I didn't even see them put the cap on, I heard about it later," reminisced Paul Di Rito, Class of 1979, of Norcross, Ga.
He watched Monday with his wife, Patti, from outside the academy's chapel, where they'd been married in 1980, scanning the mosh pit for their son, John.
The climb is a show of teamwork, a realization that it takes everybody pushing, holding, linking arms and standing on each other to accomplish the goal, said members of the Class of 2016.
Whose shoulders did Lien stand on when he landed the cap atop the monument?
"Everybody's," replied his classmate Hunter Harrell of Spring Grove, Pa.
"The Class of 2016's," added plebe-no-more Connor Deneen of Orange County, Calif.