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A greasy, monumental ritual at the Naval Academy ends after more than 2 hours

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — It took Naval Academy plebes two hours, 19 minutes and 11 seconds Wednesday to accomplish the ultimate in upward mobility: scaling a greased obelisk and swapping out a cup with a cap, this year with an unusual hitch.
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Cold Plebes embrace during the Herndon Monument Climb at the U.S. Naval Academy, Wednesday, May 15, 2024, in Annapolis, Md. Freshmen, known as Plebes, participate in the climb to celebrate finishing their first year at the academy. The climb was completed in two hours, nineteen minutes and eleven seconds. (AP Photo/Tom Brenner)

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — It took Naval Academy plebes two hours, 19 minutes and 11 seconds Wednesday to accomplish the ultimate in upward mobility: scaling a greased obelisk and swapping out a cup with a cap, this year with an unusual hitch.

The annual grueling, slippery ritual marking the completion of the plebe year ended with 20-year-old Californian Ben Leisegang standing victorious on the shoulders of scores of classmates and placing an upperclassman’s hat atop the Herndon Monument.

The Class of 2027 worked together to scale the 21-foot (6-meter) obelisk covered in vegetable shortening to replace a plebe “Dixie cup," a white canvas sailor's hat with an upturned rim, with the upperclassman’s more formal hat. There are about 1,300 plebes in the class, according to academy spokesperson Elizabeth B. Wrightson. After the climb is complete, they’re called fourth class midshipmen, not plebes.

It's said that the person who gets the hat to the top of the monument will be the first admiral in the class.

Under rainy skies in Annapolis, Maryland, plebes linked arms around the monument’s base to build a pyramid, clearing grease from the monument’s surface, enduring a constant soaking spray from hoses.

Around the two-hour mark, one plebe finally got close enough to place the upperclassman’s hat near the obelisk’s pinnacle. Many of those in the pyramid dropped to the ground as the crowd celebrated. But in an uncommon scenario, the Dixie cup hat remained in place, Wrightson said.

The plebes quickly started back up to finish the job. Minutes later, the same plebe whipped the top of the obelisk, still lathered white with shortening, with a waterlogged shirt and knocked down the upperclassman’s hat.

The hat was handed back up, and he finally knocked down the Dixie cup hat and slid the upperclassman’s hat into place, prompting uproarious cheers from the crowd below.

Academy Superintendent Vice Adm. Yvette M. Davids congratulated the class and introduced Leisegang, a midshipman fourth class from Rancho Santa Margarita, California. He is in the 4th Company.

“All I have to say is: We went out there. We executed on the controllables, and that was working together,” Leisegang said. “Let’s Go!”

Noting that they are a link in a chain, Davids passed on messages from the class of 1977, urging them to never forget what it’s like to be a plebe and asking them to give “fair winds and following seas” to the class of 2077.

“You represent so much, not just the past but the future,” Davids said.

The climb began in 1940, and the placement of an officer’s cap atop the obelisk to show they had conquered the plebe year came seven years later, according to a history of the event by James Cheevers, the former senior curator at the U.S. Naval Academy Museum. Upperclassmen first smeared grease on the monument to increase the difficulty in 1949. They first put the Dixie cup atop the monument before the climb in 1962.

Records of how long it took each class to scale the monument aren’t complete, but the shortest time is believed to be 1 minute, 30 seconds in 1969, a year the monument wasn’t greased. The longest was more than four hours in 1995, when upperclassmen glued down the Dixie cup.

The Associated Press

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