So I'm looking at the Washington Post website today, as I do every day, and one of the features is a picture series on the annual Herndon climb at the Naval Academy. As the academic year ends at Annapolis, the first year students -- Plebes -- are sent out to climb the large obelisk and retrieve from its top a Midshipman's hat (one styled like the standard naval officer's saucer cap) and replace it with a Plebe's cap (which looks like a traditional sailor hat, but with a black stripe around the edge). It is a final bit of struggle, signifying their promotion out of the purgatory that is being a lowly first year student. However, this year, for the first time ever, the Herndon Monument was not greased.
Anyway, it cast my mind back.
Plebes climb the Herndon Monument, 1996.
First, I thought of the above picture. I'm proud of it. It gives me real pleasure, and I have given it a permanent place in my portfolio. Ironically, the story behind it can leave me nervous and frustrated to this day, although it confirms my decision to move to Lexington and make a try at documentaries.
In the spring of 1996, shortly before I quit daily news work in Washington, the Chief of Naval Operations committed suicide after he was accused of wearing ribbons and medals he had not earned. The Navy and its traditions were very high in the news, and so my boss at Reuters decided that year to cover the Herndon climb, about which we had shown no interest before. Off I went to Annapolis...
I had been given little background or even information on the event. I sense the idea to cover it had been a spontaneous act, and I was seen as expendable for the day (my boss and I did not play well together). Arriving that morning, I asked around to find out what a "Herndon climb" was, and found the event was not until the afternoon. Nice enough -- who am I to refuse a lunch in Annapolis, especially as Jennifer had come along.
Returning, I positioned myself with several other photographers and TV to watch the festivities. Jennifer comfortably ensconced herself amongst the watching crowd, apparently near some alumni. And the event began with the Plebes roaring up to the giant, stone edifice and flinging themselves at it like Vikings at a particularly rich castle.
Jennifer learned from the alumni that this enthusiasm either drives them directly to the top through sheer momentum alone, or breaks against the stone, dissipating in increasingly frustrated efforts until someone finally organizes a proper human pyramid to get the thing done some hours (yes, hours) later. This, it soon became apparent, was going to be one of those hours-long days.
Climbers formed a base, layers were pushed and pulled up, then slid down. I began to notice that the girls seemed more intellectually adapted to the job, trying to make their carefully conceived plans heard over the macho drive of the boys. It was a perfect photo op, giving me time to get past pure coverage to look at opportunities for more interesting angles and moments. I shot close-ups of reaching hands and straining faces. And then it happened: I saw the Plebe pause and look up as he took a breath before continuing, standing on layers of his classmates. I shot it. I knew it was great. It was one of those rare, special moments (lost now that digital allows you to immediately check on your pictures) when I saw the moment in the viewfinder and knew, knew I had the picture. I checked the frame number, and made a special note on the film envelope -- Go to THIS frame.
I forget now how long we stayed -- I want to say it was three hours -- before deciding that to wait longer would put us back in Washington too late. We left them still struggling. And I can't remember if Reuters ever shipped any of the pictures. The two top guys there had little regard for me or my work by then, and it wasn't unusual for my stuff to be completely ignored. (Sometime I'll tell the story the return of Air Force pilot Scott O'Grady to Andrews Air Force Base, but then I'd have to find the pictures from that...) Fortunately, I do know my note was completely ignored, and when I retrieved the negatives, that picture was among them.
We moved to Lexington a year later. I welcomed my new world...