During our recent trip out west, I had the great pleasure of devouring a new book on a fascinating topic imminently and instantly familiar to anybody even vaguely associated with my alma mater: the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
The Herndon Climb: A History of the United States Naval Academy’s Greatest Tradition by Rear Adm. James McNeal, SC, USN (Ret.) and Scott Tomasheski (Naval Institute Press, 2020) provides the first in-depth exploration into how a nondescript looking 21-foot-tall obelisk at the heart of the Academy campus (“The Yard,” as we know it) has come to carry such an immense significance to countless midshipmen that it takes only the utterance of a single, simple word to instantly evoke an intensely complex set of emotions related to their shared Navy experiences.
That word is Herndon. It’s the name of a monument honoring a 19th Century captain who went down with his ship, which is special and memorable, of course, though the Yard has many other monuments of greater visual grandeur, and honoring equally admirable heroes. What separates Herndon from all of the other iconic statues, buildings, relics and markers about the Academy is the fact that 1,000ish plebes (freshmen) swarm and climb it each and every May, formally marking the end of their physically, psychologically and emotionally grueling first year in Annapolis. That task is greatly complicated by the fact that the monument is thoroughly, disgustingly greased with various unsavory unguents before the climb, top to bottom, and by the fact that the plebes have to remove a “dixie cup” sailors cap from its apex (which is typically glued and/or taped in place), and replace it with an officer’s combination cap, while being hosed down by upper-class midshipmen, ostensibly to cool the scrum, but, you know, not really.
It sounds absurd, doesn’t it? Sure it does. Most great traditions are. But let me tell you: it’s an amazing thing to see, a whole lot harder than it sounds, and it serves as an unparalleled portal of transformation for those who experience it, “Plebes No More” once that combo cover rests upon Herndon’s peak. The emotional heft associated with seeing a class collectively celebrating the end of a truly brutal year of insanely rigorous intellectual and physical training is infectious and intoxicating, a messy explosion of joy, relief and gratitude unlike anything most folks are likely to see or experience elsewhere. It was thrilling to go through at the end of my own plebe year, of course, but also thrilling every year after that to watch subsequent classes tackle and achieve the long-awaited goal that linked them inexorably with those who had passed through the greasy crucible before them. It’s also popular with those who were never plebes themselves, a truly unique spectator event that brings out locals and travelers year after year to share in that magic, muddy moment of transformation and release.
Admiral Jim McNeal and Scott Tomasheski have done a superb job in researching, organizing and writing Herndon’s tale, tapping historic documents and contemporary written accounts, and conducting extensive interviews about all facets of the climb experience and its evolution over the past century. As plebes, we were all required to know an immense collection of “rates” (arcane factoids about everything Navy), and to spout them on command when prompted, usually just as we had put big pieces of food into our mouths at our squad’s dinner tables, or while we were hurrying to avoid being late for class, or formation, or for any of the other obligatory commitments that filled our days. So, ostensibly, I should have a lot of information at my disposal about the Herndon Monument and Climb, but McNeal and Tomasheski’s book made it screamingly, fascinatingly clear how little I (and likely most other midshipmen and Navy alumni) really did know about such a significant part of our psychological lives and experiences. For example:
- Just who was Commander William Lewis Herndon, and why does he have a monument at the Naval Academy?
- How in the world did climbing that particular monument become the rite of passage required to end plebe year? And when did it happen?
- Tradition says that the midshipman who removes the dixie cup and replaces it with the combo cover will become the class’ first Admiral. Has that really happened, and if so, how often?
- Every class has completed the climb, but the times to do so vary widely. Which class did it fastest, and how? And which class took the most time, and why?
- What, exactly, is that thing greased with?
The Herndon Climb also makes for compelling reading in its organization and construction, with a skillfully-crafted, multi-part account of what Climb Day feels like for its participants, interspersed with a variety of explorations into specific climbs and climbers, or specific themes associated with the climb over time. To their credit, the authors don’t shy away from some of the more problematic issues associated with the tradition, e.g. Commander Herndon was a great explorer and sailor with some deeply problematic beliefs, women have often been treated exceptionally poorly during the climb, and it’s certainly a dangerous undertaking for little-to-no discernible operational benefit to the Academy and its charges. On the flip side, McNeal and Tomasheski have uncovered some truly glorious and inspirational stories about the ways that certain classes and certain plebes embodied the very best and purest aspects of Navy culture on Herndon Day, honoring the institution, its fallen members, their colleagues and community alike.
A personal note related to the book: Admiral McNeal was a classmate of mine at the Naval Academy, and then at Naval Supply Corps School after we graduated. We’re both Marine Corps brats, but took different paths into Annapolis, different paths in our post-Supply School careers, and different approaches to Herndon Day itself: Jim was at the base of the pyramid, a key player in the successful ascent, while I (accurately) recognized that I was neither big nor strong enough to be at the bottom of the pile, nor tall, slender, light nor nimble enough to be a top-tier scaler, so I just did my part in the masses around the monument. Those differences notwithstanding, Jim and I both feel highly bound to the Academy and to our classmates by our shared experiences, and both of us went on to work on behalf of the class in leadership and reunion roles after we left Annapolis in 1986.
The Herndon Climb also documents the story of one plebe who achieved the cap swap in honor of his father, a fallen aviator from the class of 1985 who was a company-mate of mine, as well as a perceptive interview with the ’86 classmate who completed our most arduous day together. Having seen and cheered Midshipman Kevin “K.J.” Delamer getting the job done for our class in May of 1983, a week before my 18th birthday, it was very interesting to read his thoughts and reflections about the experience all these years on, especially his frank admission of not being exactly the most squared away plebe in our class, a trait I certainly shared, and then some. (Spoiler Alert: K.J. did not become the first Admiral in our class).
Those personal connections add a layer of richness to the narrative for me, but even without them, this is a wonderfully readable book for both those who have experienced Herndon and those who have not . . . yet. I suspect that anyone who reads this book without having seen the event in person will make a point of doing so in the years ahead, perhaps more than once. It certainly made me want to return for another Herndon Day, and I consider that effective, if unstated, call to action to be a core sign of a great book, one that has stuck with me since I finished it, giving me plenty to think about and remember.
I heartily recommend The Herndon Climb to all Naval Academy alumni, parents and friends, as well as those who are curious about and interested in the ways that rituals and traditions evolve to embody the cultures that birth them. It is a fascinating case study, teasing universal truths and tales with ethnographic skill from an ostensibly arcane and highly localized event. Kudos to the authors for a job most well and effectively done, and to the Naval Institute Press for bringing their work to market. (You can click the cover image below to acquire your own copy. You won’t be disappointed!)