About That Obelisk . . .

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!)

Tour des Trees 2020: Rollin’ in Place

I retired from my role as President and CEO of Tree Research and Education Endowment Fund (TREE Fund) in November 2019. That was right around the time that we announced that the next installment of our premier community engagement event, the Tour des Trees, would be rolling through Colorado in September 2020. Having ridden in and fundraised for five prior Tours (click here for last year’s report), I had fully intended to ride that planned 2020 mountain route as well, but those plans changed last Spring when I was awarded the opportunity to visit Ideas Island in Sweden, creating an irreconcilable scheduling conflict.

Then, of course, Anno Virum happened, and everything changed. I’m not posting from Sweden right now, and the Tour did not roll through the Rockies as expected. Bummers on both fronts. While losing the opportunity to work on a project at Ideas Island impacted only me, the loss of the 2020 Tour had far more consequential impacts on TREE Fund, significantly cutting into its ability to provide community engagement and fundraising to support crucial arboricultural research programs. The West Coast is burning as I write this post, demonstrating clearly and painfully how necessary and valuable scientifically-robust research findings and practices are to mitigating climate change, combating invasive species, and capitalizing on the myriad benefits provided by healthy urban and community forests. TREE Fund is a major player in that effort, especially as Federal funding for such work has evaporated or been redirected in recent years.

I was pleased, therefore, when TREE Fund announced plans for a “Rollin’ In Place” Tour designed to allow riders, runners, walkers, swimmers, hikers, whatevers support the organization safely from and in their own home communities. They’ve set a goal of $150,000, around the theme of “3-2-1 Go!,” explained thusly:

Traditionally, Tour des Trees riders would spend a week riding through a state or region, engaging with communities and raising funds for TREE Fund. Instead of riding 321 miles in the Rockies this year, we challenge you to take on 321 your own way! Ride 321 km a month the entire duration of the campaign, run 3.21 miles a day, do 321 pushups a week, walk your dog 321 miles, pogo-stick jump to a new record of 321 . . . you get the idea. 321 is the magic number!

I’m down to do my part on that front to help TREE Fund reach its event goals. I’m sticking with cycling as my activity, with a 321 mile goal, ridden out on the road, like a normal Tour. While I can’t get the climbing experience in Iowa that I would have gotten in Colorado, I do want to replicate the daily endurance aspect of the Tour, so my objective is reach 321 miles in six rides (a typical Tour week), ideally including one century (100+ mile) ride. We are moving from Iowa on October 22, so I intend to complete the miles and the related fundraising before then.

I’ve kicked things off by making my own contribution to the cause, and would greatly appreciate it if you would support TREE Fund via my “Rollin’ In Place” campaign. Here’s my fundraising page, where you can make your own gift to support the mission and goal. That page is linked to my cycling computer, so it will show progress updates as they occur, and I will also report them here, of course. Thanks in advance for whatever you can chip in to the effort. I am grateful, as will be the entire TREE Fund team.

Last year’s Tour team. We’re not together in person this year, but the communal spirit remains strong. (Click to enlarge and see if you can spot the very professional Ex-President/CEO throwing the metal horns. BRUTAL!!)

Last Landing at DSM

Barring something unexpected or unplanned over the next several weeks, Marcia and I made our final landing at Des Moines International Airport yesterday, back in Iowa after a week-plus in Nevada and Arizona. We’ve spent a lot of time in those DSM halls and concourses since 2011, and I can’t say that I will miss them in the least. Come November, I will also appreciate again flying out of cities where the word “International” in the local airport name actually means that you can get to a foreign country on a non-stop basis, which is not the case from Des Moines. I suppose there must have been a flight to Cancun or Toronto available at some point in the past, and they never bothered fixing the name after such service ceased. Meh.

As reported earlier, here and here, the trip west was wonderful, as was spending time with John and Katelin, and we’re so so SO looking forward to being out that way full time. Beyond the beautiful countryside and rich cultures of the region, it felt good to just be in places where most people are taking basic common-sense health protections (e.g. masks, social distancing, limits on number of people in enclosed spaces, etc.) seriously, and where the State governments are not engaging in macro-level evil political idiocy like this and this. Ugh!

I do appreciate that regular readers here may be tiring of my rants on how much I’m not enjoying Iowa lately, but it’s hard not to express those sentiments, given how overwhelmingly bad the neighborhood attitudes and political leadership are on life-and-death matters here in the state and city where we still live, for now. It eats at us. It’s tragic. We want to be done with it, though we know our departure won’t in any way alleviate the suffering of so many Iowans at the hands of their inept “governing” cabal of intolerant, anti-science theocrats and their big corporate enablers. Oh well. I’ll try to minimize such sentiments here over the weeks that remain for us in Iowa, but rest assured, they will continue to percolate below the published surface.

And now, having spent more words than I probably should on those matters, I suppose looking at pretty pictures might be a preferable option, for me and for you alike. Click on the image below, taken at Chimney Rock in Sedona, for our trip gallery, should you be so inclined. I’ll leave it to readers’ discretion as to whether you see a lens anomaly there in the image, or visual evidence of a Sedona Vortex in action. Either way, I like the shot, as it captures the magic of the region (literal and/or figurative) well. We are planning one more out of state trip (driving over to Northwestern Illinois) before our move, so maybe I’ll have one final Midwestern gallery before the pictures start looking like this full-time in November. Have I mentioned how eager I am for that?

Flagstaff and Chill

When Marcia and I left Las Vegas and drove eastward into Arizona on Monday, the day’s high temperature was about 115° F. This morning, when I got up early for my coffee, the thermometer read 35º F, and it has only risen into the high 50s at the sunny peak of the afternoon. So that use of “chill” in the title today is literal, not figurative, especially since we’ve done our usual mixes of forced marches throughout the days, with not a lot of time allotted to slugging about and relaxing. While temperatures across the Southwest have dropped dramatically over the past few days, it’s especially noticeable in Flagstaff, sitting at about 7,000 feet above sea level. No wonder Arizonans from the scorched bits of the state down south come up this way for summer reprieves.

This is our second visit to Flagstaff, and we find it to be a most appealing destination. One of our favorite things about it is the stellar job that the city’s leaders and managers have done in protecting, preserving and activating incredible outdoors spaces within the city limits. There is a tremendous network of mixed use paths known as “FUTS” (for “Flagstaff Urban Trail System”), along with an equally rich spiderweb of single-track cycling trails and more hardcore hiking trails out of the city and into the surrounding mountains. There are wonderful views and vistas to be seen on pretty much every trail we’ve strolled, most especially looking up toward the San Francisco Peaks and (especially) Humphreys Peak, which towers over the region with its summit at about 12,700 feet above sea level. The (mostly) pine forests in and beyond Flagstaff’s municipal boundaries are also wonderful, creating shady groves with open sight lines, and framing most of the scenery one might choose to snap while ambling about.

I include some such snaps below, noting that every one of these images was captured within either walking distance or a short (10 minutes or less) drive from our hotel, smack in the middle of the busiest downtown part of the city. Add in the benefits of Flagstaff’s “dark sky” policies on urban lighting (designed to protect Lowell Observatory, which also resides within city limits), and you’ve got a tremendously natural feeling urban environment, one which most other cities would do well to emulate. We will be here through Friday, with some side trips to the Sedona area, for house-hunting and general regional acclimation. It’s very exciting and enjoyable to consider living near here in a mere couple of months!

Old and Out of the Way

Marcia and I are in Las Vegas this weekend, visiting Katelin and John. The trip out was our first foray through airports since March. If you had told me a year ago that I ever would or could ever get on a commercial airplane looking like this, I’d have bet good money against it.

The Des Moines airport was not very crowded. There should have been plenty of room to safely socially distance in the terminal while awaiting our flight. But, of course, Iowa’s elected officials have done a terrible job in setting examples and providing rules for the Anno Virum, and many of the State’s residents have embraced that lethal disrespect for others that oozes down from above. So we experienced aggressive jerks at the airport invading other people’s safe personal spaces, and/or refusing to understand that a mask worn over your chin and neck is not really a mask at all. As, frankly, we expected. Sigh.

After six months mostly at home or on the road with just the two of us, being readmitted to the nattering noise of large numbers of other humans was jarring and very unpleasant: TV’s and flight announcements blaring, idiots watching movies on their laptops without headphones, other idiots having shouted conversations into their phones. People can really kinda suck sometimes. No wonder social distancing hasn’t over-burdened me on a personal day-to-day basis, beyond being bummed about not being able to see family members and travel freely, and annoyed at people being stupid about basic personal protective measures. Hermitic misanthropists like me are well programmed for days like these, I suppose.

Since getting to Nevada, though, things have been most exceptionally pleasant. Katelin and John’s house and park-like yard are great places to hang out, and we have done some wonderful walks. The best one took us up over a 7.5 mile route to just under 10,000 feet of elevation, to visit the subject that inspired this post’s title: a 3,000+ year old Bristlecone Pine known as Raintree, the oldest known living thing in Nevada. Here’s a snap of me with that venerable sylvan old-timer in her ancient grove, just for a sense of scale. (Click to enlarge, if you’d like).

Pretty freakin’ incredible! Well worth the strenuous hike. Marcia and I are headed to Flagstaff, Arizona later today for the rest of the week. It is on the (very) short list of places where we hope we may find our retirement home later this year. It is a good deal cooler there than the 115° F temperatures we have been experiencing around Las Vegas, so that will feel refreshing too.

More pics and reports later this week or next when I am at my computer. I am posting right now from my phone, so apologize in advance for likely fat-fingered typos!

Little Grotesques: B. Catling’s “Only The Lowly” and “Earwig” (2019)

Earlier this year, I posted one of my occasional Five By Five Books articles about The Vorrh Trilogy (2015 to 2018), by B. Catling. In my review of that immense series, I described the collective feel of the books thusly: “Big, audacious, immersive, surreal, grotesque, written in gloriously florid language, and screamingly unique in just about every way imaginable.” Right up my alley, in other words.

Catling has followed that sweeping epic of the strange with two unrelated novellas: Only The Lowly (released in March 2019 by Storr, a small, independent publishing house) and Earwig (published in September 2019 by Coronet, a “major” marque, which handled The Vorrh series as well). I was able to get these newest Catling books in their American editions (Lowly on Kindle, Earwig in paperback) over the past couple of months, devouring both of them quickly and eagerly upon receipt. I’d describe the pair exactly as I did The Vorrh Trilogy above, just substituting the word “Little” for “Big” at the beginning of the quote. I’d also focus specific attention on the key word “grotesque,” which is defined thusly:

Noun Usage: A style of decorative art characterized by fanciful or fantastic human and animal forms often interwoven with foliage or similar figures that may distort the natural into absurdity, ugliness, or caricature.

Adjective Usage: Fanciful, bizarre, absurdly incongruous, departing markedly from the natural, the expected, or the typical.

Per those descriptors, Earwig and Only The Lowly are grotesque, and grotesques, indeed, works of art within which the borders between the human, the supernatural, and the bestial are blurred, where physical and moral caricatures caper and prance, where ugliness of word, deed, visage and intention abound, and where deliberate narrative incongruities and unexpected plot eruptions make it impossible to establish any sense of comfort or contextual certainty throughout the books’ queasy runs. They’re wonderfully wobbly little bites of curdled literary cream, sauced with sticky drizzles of sweet and savory and possibly hallucinogenic unguents and spices, then fermented in dark broths of bubbling unease and discomfort. Both books are more than capable of causing strong revulsion upon first sample, but once a reader has acquired a tolerance for their uncanny and unnatural tastes, they become deeply desirable and most memorable, indeed.

While the emotional, intellectual and psychological experiences of reading Earwig and Only The Lowly may be similar, the books do present their pleasures (?) in very different ways. Earwig is set in Belgium and France in the years after World War I and the Spanish Flu Epidemic, and its plot is linear, for the most part, laid out from the view of an omniscient third-person narrator. It tells the story of a hateful caretaker and his strange ward, and if the very concept of “mouth horror” evokes a shudder of revulsion in you, then Aalbert and Mia’s tale should have you wriggling most uncomfortably in its unrelenting and graphic obsessions with oral disasters. Only The Lowly, on the other hand, knits together ten short, interconnected, first-person narratives by Bertie (most chapters) and Cara, a lumpen married couple living in a biologically and culturally bizarre beach city, perhaps of our world, perhaps after our world, perhaps neither or both. Like Earwig, it’s rife with squishy discomfort and disgust-inducing depictions of strange social, sexual and sensory happenings, delivered in a post-English patois somewhat akin to that deployed in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, were it to be processed through an Edward Lear absurdity filter.

Neither of these little books are comfort reading, needless to say. But they’re far richer for that, pushing emotional buttons you didn’t know you had, forcing consideration of the inconceivable, and using the tools and techniques unique to great writers to lift readers into flights of deliciously noisome fancy. Great, grotesque miniatures from a writer who has emerged in recent years as a personal favorite, at bottom line. I recommend you read them both, if you dare . . .