The first clue that the upcoming week was to be no normal week in Annapolis came during a trip to the local grocery store on Sunday. It seemed unusually busy, and closer inspection of the wandering shoppers showed that many were wearing clothing and hats emblazoned with emblems and logos depicting their support of or attachment to the US Naval Academy. The next clue came to light from a quick scan of my Eastport neighborhood, where unfamiliar vehicles, flags, and gently rocking porch occupants adorned a number of residences.
OK, I’ve got it! It’s Commissioning Week at the Naval Academy, and a good number of locals have rented their houses out to make way for families of graduating Midshipmen while pocketing a sizeable chunk of cash in the process. And why not indeed.
For those not familiar with Annapolis, it must be understood that the US Naval Academy is Annapolis, and Annapolis is the US Naval Academy. The two are inseparable, which will be apparent from a quick look at a map where the magnitude and proximity of the Academy relative to the town is evident. This is no distant fixture perched on a remote hill, but right there breathing down the necks of the shops on Main Street and the boats at City Dock.
Having to accommodate around 4,500 Midshipmen, plus staff and ancillary workers, it is a sizeable chunk of real estate and provides much employment and income for the surrounding area. Don’t get the impression that Annapolis is alive and crawling with marauding Mids, as they are for the most part incarcerated behind the imposing perimeter walls. The few lucky ones that are allowed out for brief sojourns into the real world are noticeable only by being impeccably dressed in crisp uniforms.
So what is Commissioning Week all about?
Commissioning Week is a week of events, almost entirely within the Academy grounds, that culminate with the Midshipmen 1st Class graduating and receiving their commissions as Ensigns in the US Navy, or 2nd Lieutenants in the US Marine Corps. For the families and friends of graduates that stream into town for the week there is a packed schedule of parades, band and Glee Club performances, award ceremonies, displays and demonstrations, plus numerous other frolics.
So let’s look at a sample offering.
SUNDAY - As previously mentioned, Sunday is move-in day for the families plus shopping for essentials while wearing blue and gold garb with Naval Academy emblems and logos.
MONDAY - This day’s highlight is the Herndon Climb. This is a timed event that entails 1,000 plebes (freshmen) attempting to scale the Herndon Monument, best described as a 21 ft mini version of the Washington Monument, and replacing a plebe’s “dixie cup” hat placed on the peak with a Midshipman’s “cover”. Sounds easy until you consider that the monument has been greased up with vegetable shortening, and the sparsely clad plebes are being sprayed with water by some of their more sadistic senior chums. This year, after one hour and five minutes of many attempts at slithering, glistening, and mostly collapsing human pyramids, the goal was achieved, thankfully without injury, but four and a half minutes shy of the record. They’ve been “larding up the monument” every year since the 1940’s, and a successful attempt signifies the end of the plebe year.
TUESDAY - Another day of pomp, parades, and performances, with the US Navy Blue Angels aerial display team rehearsing for their much awaited performance on the Wednesday. These six thunderous F/A 18 jets fly in seemingly impossibly close formations, and perform brain-numbing maneuvers at maniacal speed. For many Annapolitans stuck at home and at work, the thrill comes from a lone Angel appearing out of the blue just above the roof line in a banked turn at full throttle, rattling the windows and setting off car alarms. My cat Roxy is not a fan …
WEDNESDAY - For many locals, Commissioning Week means only one thing; The Blue Angels. Just as for the Tuesday rehearsal, on Wednesday many locals take time off work to get on board a boat and head out onto the water for what is deemed to be the best seat in the house. It can make for a long day on the water, as to get in the front row means casting off many hours before the performance is due to start, and this can present quite a conundrum. Unlike attending a house party, or a community gathering, once on board a boat, unless you fancy a long swim, you are stuck there until the boat lands back at the dock. This is all fine and dandy if everyone gets on and is having a jolly good time, but if things turn boring/sour/over-boisterous you can’t simply make your excuses, grab an Uber and slide away surreptitiously. I’m not aware that Aqua-Ubers exist, but they and water taxis might find locating one particular boat in a crowded sea of wood, plastic, and metal an impossible task. The same applies to the boat operator with loud/over-exuberant/obnoxious guests, as he/she can’t simply show them the door and wish them on their way. Apart from fun times spent ducking Blue Angels, Wednesday starts with the Navy Sailing Awards ceremony and ends with the Graduation Ball, so there’s a lot to pack in.
THURSDAY - This is a bit of a quiet day, and time for the visitors to rest up before the big finale on Friday. There is the Color Parade in the morning and the main Prize and Awards ceremony in the afternoon, but otherwise plenty of time for friends and families to meet and greet.
FRIDAY - This is the main event; Graduation Day. The action happens just down the road from the Academy at the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, and this outdoor venue seems to have been chosen for two reasons. First, everyone has a good view of the Blue Angels as they do a low fly-over to kick off the proceedings, plus it also makes for a terrific photo op when the graduates in unison toss their hats high in the air to celebrate leaving the Academy and going on to serve their country. That’s if it doesn’t rain, that is.
After all the week’s shenanigans, Annapolis can then settle down and get back to normal, or it would if it were not a holiday weekend, with Monday being the Memorial Day holiday. But then there is no real “normal” to Annapolis, and that’s one of the fun things about living here.