It's a time-honored tradition involving a greased pole and a really sweaty human pyramid.
Every spring for the last 70 years, first-year students at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., have marked the end of their plebe (freshman) year by climbing a 21-foot obelisk that's coated with 200 pounds of lard.
It takes a lot of teamwork and a couple of hours for someone to finally reach the summit and snatch a hat that's perched up there. This time, that someone was Matthew Dalton, a 2010 Countryside High School graduate from Safety Harbor.
Dalton, who intends to become a Navy pilot, was pushed to the peak by his classmates after two hours and 41 minutes. To reach it, he had to stand on top of two other students' heads.
"You have to work as a team. The grease makes it impossible to climb it by yourself," said Dalton, 18. "By the time you get to the third tier of people, the general consensus is that you need to get someone tall and skinny up there to grab it. I fit that body type."
The grueling challenge took place earlier this week at the Naval Academy. As always, it was a rite of passage for the plebes after a hard year of indoctrination by older students.
Atop the campus' Herndon Monument, tall as a telephone pole and slathered in grease, rested a plebe's "dixie cup" hat. The goal was to replace it with a Navy midshipman's cap. Only then would be the first-year students officially stop being plebes.
Last year, in the name of safety, the Naval Academy got rid of the grease. But the 2010 event was a bust. The plebes scaled the non-slippery obelisk in two minutes, boring and disappointing the plebes, spectators and alumni.
This year, the lard was back despite the potential danger. The Navy decided the challenge would instill camaraderie among classmates and link them to alumni who had accomplished the same feat.
Dalton is in great shape. He used to run cross country and compete in the pole vault at Countryside High. This weekend, he's returning home to Safety Harbor for the summer.
His parents, Jerry and Debbie Dalton, couldn't make it to Annapolis for this week's Herndon Monument Climb, but they've since watched it on video "a million times," his mother said.
"He called us and said, 'I'm actually the one that did it.' I'm excited for him," his mother said. "Some people at the academy want to be Navy SEALs, but he wants to fly."
Among other things, the Herndon Climb is a test of endurance. The biggest plebes cluster around the base of the greasy obelisk and hoist others up on their shoulders. It's hot, exhausting work. Eventually, a three-tiered human pyramid forms. Once it sort of stabilizes, wiry climbers try to scurry up and place a midshipman's hat atop the spire.
"Another kid in front of me tried to make it to the top but slipped back down," Dalton recalled. "He gave me the hat and said, 'Your turn.' "
And it was.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151.