Slippery climb kicks off rites at Naval Academy


Tried-and-true tradition kicks off a series of celebrations at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis today.

The normally reserved plebes will step out of their crisp white uniforms and into shorts, T-shirts and lard as they slither their way up a 21-foot obelisk.

The climbing of Herndon Monument is just one of the many events that mark Commissioning Week at the Naval Academy. Concerts, color parades and fireworks will dominate the Annapolis landscape between now and Wednesday, graduation day.

But, far removed from the mandatory pomp and circumstance, it is events like the scaling of Herndon that best illustrate the ebullient feeling associated with Commissioning Week.

Plebes don't scale the lard-covered obelisk just for fun. They scale it to retrieve a white plebe "Dixie cup" hat placed atop the monument and replace it with an upperclassman's hat. According to legend, the midshipman who switches the hat will become the first member of the class to become an admiral.

Tomorrow, junior class members will hold their annual ring dance. According to tradition, midshipmen design their own rings. Their dates wear the ring to the dance, suspended on a blue ribbon around their necks.

Each ring is dipped in a binnacle containing water from the seven seas, to symbolize the travel that lies ahead. Then the couple enters a large gold replica of the class ring, where the ring is placed on the midshipman's finger. The ceremony is sealed with a kiss.

During the midshipman's senior year, the ring is worn on the third finger of the left hand with the class crest inside, signifying the bond with classmates. Following graduation, the academy seal is turned inside as a reminder of days at the academy.

On Monday, tradition will have to be altered. The Blue Angels, the Navy's precision flying team, has been grounded. The team's lead flier was ordered to shore duty so he could be available for investigators conducting disciplinary proceedings related to the Tailhook sex scandal.

The Blue Angels will be replaced with a pilot from the Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach, Va., who will fly an F-14 Tomcat during a 15-minute demonstration. The Blue Angels have been an attraction during graduation week at the academy since 1946.

The demonstration will result in some vehicle and boating restrictions. The Old Severn River Drawbridge will be closed to vehicles and pedestrians 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday and 1:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday. No anchoring will be permitted on the Severn River from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday or Monday.

Boating traffic will be prohibited on a portion of the Severn River Sunday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and Monday from noon to 2:30 p.m. A temporary buoy line will close the river from the south end of the academy sea wall north to the Route 50 Severn River Bridge.

This year's color company will pass the torch to next year's company during Tuesday's 11 a.m. Color Parade at Worden Field. The head of the color company usually has his fiancee or girlfriend assist him, and this year will be no different. However, Naval Academy spokeswoman Karen Myers said there has been some discussion over whether the Color Girl is an appropriate tradition to continue in the 1990s. The policy will be reviewed next year.

Republican Sen. John S. McCain of Arizona will deliver the graduation address at 10 a.m. Wednesday at the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. A 1958 graduate of the academy, Mr. McCain is a former Vietnam prisoner of war.

Graduation will end with the tossing of hats, a tradition that has its roots deep in academy lore.

Before 1912, Naval Academy graduates were required to serve two years in the fleet as midshipmen before being commissioned officers, so they needed their hats.

But the class of 1912, commissioned at graduation, was issued officer's caps. In a spontaneous gesture, the new officers tossed their hats into the air and began a tradition that now symbolizes the end of the four-year program at the academy.

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