It started and ended with the shot of a cannon.
After all the grease was wiped away, the class of 2026 at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, were plebes no more—now midshipmen and women.
It was 21 feet to glory for the annual Herndon Climb, where first-year students are tasked with scaling a greased monument — erected in honor of Cmdr. William “Bill” Herndon — to knock off the “dixie cup” on top, and plant the hat of an upperclassman on top of the marker in its place.
It took a little over two and half hours on a brisk Wednesday morning, with older midshipmen dousing plebes with water the whole time, for the first-year academy students to finish the task. But considering the record for slowest time currently stands at more than four hours, the newly promoted students were understandably jubilant.
“I am so proud of all of these kids,” said Cheryl Bakkn, who flew in from San Diego to watch her daughter Jessica of 25th Company complete her first grueling year in triumphant fashion.
“We got here about 04:00 hours with around 150 pounds of lard,” said Midshipman Gabriel Neale, who went through the exact same ritual a short time ago. Neale, now a Herndon Staff member, told WTOP he has a personal stake in these new midshipmen and women.
“I trained them myself — I was their detailer over the summer, put a lot of hard work and love into them,” he said fondly. “I think they have what it takes.”
Meanwhile, parents like Bakkn say Wednesday’s Herndon Climb is the culmination of a journey that takes an entire community.
“There’s a lot of parents here, that I only know via Facebook,” she explained. “As soon as we see each other, it’s the first time we’ve met. Yet, we’ve been support groups for each other. Parents look out for each other’s kids, just like all the kids look out for each other.”
“The kids just get used to the fact that, even if they don’t know who it is, if they see somebody with a camera taking a picture, they smile. ‘Cause they know it’s going to end up with mom,” Bakkn went on.
She finished by saying: “The tenacity I’ve seen from these kids, they’re not gonna give up. They’re going to work together and support each other. It’s amazing.”
It was after the task was completed that the real fun started. Midshipmen and parents, reunited, with smiles and exclamations of pride heard round the base for miles.
“It’s a great deal for them [the parents] to be here to see their plebes be plebes no more,” Neale said. “The parents do get rowdy.”
But what of the first years who actually built the human pyramid to scale the Herndon Marker?
It was a year of blood, sweat and tears — but all those WTOP spoke to said they’re incredibly happy.
“I didn’t really believe this day would come, and now that it has, it’s kind of surreal,” remarked new midshipman James Marshall.
Marshall told WTOP it’s hard to believe he’s no longer a plebe. He was part of the scrum at the base of the Herndon Monument, supporting the weight of dozens above him, willing his classmates to the top.
“We had a lot of times we got close to capping it, then we fell over and had to completely reset,” he said.
But it was all the close calls that made the payoff worth it in the end.
“A lot of people who I was next to, I didn’t know before this,” Marshall told WTOP. “But I was pushing through same as them. I think that shows the importance of this event, and also how close you become to anyone from the Naval Academy.”
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