When the noise and the pressure of life at the Naval Academy got to be a bit much, Tracy James, Lance Lesher, Norm Stapleton and Brendan Murphy had a significant advantage over their classmates. They could go home.
The four, scheduled to graduate next week, grew up figuratively in the shadow of the chapel dome. They say being so close to home helped make life easier for them and for their friends.
They could fill in for friends from far away who had drawn duty when they expected to be on vacation, recalled Lesher, of Severn.
"You have two weeks' leave, and you have a watch in the middle of it, there's nothing you can do," he explained. "We could help out."
And they could invite those friends to their homes, added James, who grew up in Crownsville. "My mom still sponsors mids," she added.
But the best thing, "the greatest thing, was to be able to sleep in your own bed" when you could get away overnight, concluded Stapleton, of Bay Ridge.
Stapleton had wanted to go to the Naval Academy ever since he saw his first dress parade as a youngster. And Murphy, a lacrosse star at Broadneck High School, gravitated to the school because his parents sponsored midshipmen.
"We had piles of them at our house and they were real nice guys," he remembered. "And I wanted to go to a top-10 Division I lacrosse school."
But for James and Lesher, it was different. Lesher figured on following in the footsteps of his father, a 20-year Navy enlisted man who retired as a chief petty officer. But barely two years into his first hitch as a machinist's mate, Lesher said he "saw the opportunities" as an officer and applied for the academy.
James "had no interest" in a service academy until she landed a work-study program at the National Security Agency during her junior and senior years at Old Mill High School.
"That was during the Oliver North scandals," she said, recalling the Iran-Contra affair. "It became so exciting and I got interested in the Naval Academy."
She, Lesher and Stapleton graduated from the Naval Academy Preparatory School (NAPS) in Rhode Island before entering the academy. It was an experience they say helped them greatly during their plebe year and one that Murphy, who entered the academy fresh out of high school seemed to envy at least a little.
"You notice right away the people who have been to NAPS," he said of those first weeks as a plebe. "And you start to attach yourself to those guys because you realize that they know what's going on. And you don't."
Now that they've made it, they talk proudly of their accomplishments.
"You're taking a heavier course load than your counterparts in civilian universities, plus you have your company jobs to do and you have to play a sport," bragged Stapleton. "When you come to the end, you've really accomplished something."
They recall fondly the milestones of the last four years, like squirming up lard-coated Herndon Monument to mark the end of their plebe year.
"We came back a month after that and somebody called me ma'am," James recalled. "Before that, no one called me ma'am."
And they are thankful, they say, for the opportunities they see ahead.
"Most people who finish college now are scrounging for a job," Stapleton explained. "We're going to see the world."