Minutes before members of the U.S. Naval Academy's Class of 2013 were to begin the annual first-year-ending assault on the Herndon Monument Monday afternoon, a chant went up from some of the hundreds gathered for the traditional climb: "Grease the pole. Grease the pole."
If "pole" seemed a disrespectful way to refer to the 21-foot granite obelisk erected for Capt. William Lewis Herndon, perhaps it expressed the measure of dissatisfaction in the throng. By order of Vice Adm. Jeffrey L. Fowler, superintendent of the service academy, the monument was not slathered with lard nor coated in Crisco, neither was it buttered as in one year gone by, nor treated with the dark petroleum-based, rust-preventing goop called Cosmoline.
The "pole" was dry this year, as it has been sporadically since the ritual began in 1940, and that made for a quick afternoon — and some letdown in the ranks.
A greaseless Herndon is just not "representative of the struggle," said plebe Max Cutchen, of Marietta, Ga., who said he and his classmates were "very disappointed" to hear their Herndon would be 100 percent fat-free.
Nonethless, they came running by the hundreds out of the Tecumseh Court toward the monument in their shorts, T-shirts and socks, hurriedly gathering around the stone base to form a human platform for others.
By tradition — if never in actual fact — the plebe who grabbed the cap perched at the top would be the first member of the class to reach the rank of admiral.
In seconds, the plebes were making headway, absent the slapstick slipping, sliding and sloppy groping that makes the monument climb the amusing spectacle that it is.
Midshipmen Josue Castrejon, Class of 2012, pointed to a plebe maybe a third of the way up the obelisk mere seconds into the assault.
"It took us forever to get up that high," said Castrejon, whose group made the climb last year. It took them one hour, 43 minutes, 38 seconds to send Schyler Widman to the top to grab the plebe cap perched up there.
That wasn't bad, and certainly better than, say, 1995, when Stephen Charles Fortmann of the Class of 1998 grabbed the "Dixie Cup," as the blue and white cap is called, in 4 hours, 5 minutes, 17 seconds — the longest since the climb began.
This year the lack of grease would make all the difference in time and travail: no slips, no falls, no bumps, no bruises, no sprained ankles or neck injuries.
The Herndon climb has generated such casualties in the past, and Fowler, the departing superintendent, had seen enough of that. This year, he decided that concerns about safety would dictate a greaseless climb.
Fowler said publicly a couple weeks ago that the Academy might do away with the ritual entirely, shifting the emphasis of the end-of-plebe-year celebration to the Sea Trials, a series of competitive events that has been part of the annual rituals since 1998.
Based on the Marine Corps' Crucible and the Navy's Battle Stations recruit programs, Sea Trials is a more serious affair involving relay races, stick jousting, an obstacle course, underwater events, a hill assault and bridge defense exercises.
And no lard, butter or other lubricants, which are considered too dangerous. Not everyone in the crowd was buying the safety argument.
"They send these guys to war, come on," said Laurie Lizotte of Grafton, Mass., whose son is a member of the class of 2013. She was pointing a camera at the monument, lamenting the prospect of the Herndon climb going the way of warships under sail.
Mike Williams of Montgomery County, who was there to watch his son Philip run the Herndon ritual, seemed less troubled about the lack of grease than the notion of the tradition being no more. "I think it's a rite of passage, it's part of the whole mystique of being at the Naval Academy," said Williams. "I don't see any reason why it should be done away with."
Midshipman Jordan Davidson, Class of 2012, said whatever the possible dangers of the climb, "the memories of Herndon definitely outweigh the risk."
Keegan Albi seemed unconcerned about safety as he climbed the northwest side of the monument, gaining quickly on the peak. The 20-year-old redhead from Eugene, Ore., reached to the Dixie Cup and got it. In 2 minutes, 5 seconds. Not quite a record, but close to the 1 minute, 30 second time recorded for the last greaseless run, in 1969.
"It was pretty easy 'cause they didn't grease it," said Albi, whose classmates were already calling him "admiral."
"I just climbed on people. …If they keep it and I definintely think they should, they should grease it."
So strange, said plebe McLean Panter of Memphis, Tenn.: "All year we were waiting for it and it's all over in two minutes."