Zain described Herndon as “a bunch of sweaty, shirtless sailors climbing a giant lubed-up phallic symbol.” I had to admit he had a point, even if it’d made Theo choke on his orange juice and Quint’s eyebrow go sky high.
That breakfast was over a week ago, during the few days of intersessional leave he got between final exams and Sea Trials. We left to drop him off at the bus back to Annapolis right after.
Sea Trials was a kind of final exam of its own. It wasn’t open to the public like Herndon, though, so we didn’t get to see him complete all the physical and mental challenges around the Yard, or his company earning the right to be first to start at Herndon. That evening, he Skyped me to tell me about it, grinning through his exhaustion.
He looked about the same now, whenever I caught a glimpse of him in the press of bodies surrounding the base of the monument. I winced, watching yet another midshipman scramble sock-footed onto the human pyramid. Zain was helping form the second layer. His back bowed for a moment with the added weight, before he heaved himself up again, clinging to the mids around him.
Herndon was really the name of the monument, a 21-foot tall obelisk standing just yards from where Bradley and I were ambushed by Belcher and Gould. When we first arrived, I’d had a strange moment of nerves brought on by the memory of that day, but it faded quickly. The area was nearly unrecognizable through the huge crowd of people, and our attackers couldn’t be among them. They were in jail.
Most of the people seemed to be alumni, upperclassmen, and Academy officials, along with many family members. Including my own mom and dad. They stood just behind me and Theo, who made the trip without Quint because of a hospital board meeting. None of us spoke. We were too wrapped up in watching the plebes’ struggles. We couldn’t hear each other anyway.
“More shirts!” someone yelled, and a volley of clothes were thrown upward in response. Several stuck to the sides of the monument. The plebes grabbed them and began scraping.
The dark stone had been nearly white when they started, caked in a thick layer of vegetable shortening by the upperclassmen. The top third still was, though the lower part had been scrubbed clean using the plebes’ shirts and the water sprayed at them continuously. The upperclassmen holding the hoses said that it was to keep them cool in the summer humidity, and it might’ve helped somewhat, but it also made everything incredibly slippery and their task that much harder.
They’d already completed the first goal: removing the plebe “Dixie cup” hat stuck to the very top of the monument with a giant lump of grease. It slid off minutes ago, after being knocked askew by thrown sock balls. Cheers exploded when it did, but now they needed to replace it with an upperclassman hat. Only then would they lose the moniker of “plebes” and become simply Fourth Class Midshipmen.
A female mid in a navy-blue swimsuit made it to the third layer of the pyramid, within feet of the top. The crowd roared, and then groaned as the base beneath her wobbled and collapsed. My gasp of fear was inaudible even to me. I went on my toes, trying to spot Zain again.
There! He looked no worse than before. Even though I couldn’t hear his voice individually, I could tell he was shouting encouragement and directions to his classmates, right in the thick of rebuilding the base. Drops of moisture ran down the end of his nose.
A cannon fired over the noise, signaling an hour had passed since they started. If anything, the plebes took that as more motivation. Zain told us the record for the longest climb was over four hours, when the upperclass had been particularly mean in securing the Dixie cup, and the quickest was a minute and thirty seconds, though there’d been no grease used that year. The class of 2019 still had a chance to finish with a respectable time.
Again and again, though, they’d get someone high enough to reach the top, only to fall back into the writhing mass of limbs. I chewed on my lower lip as I watched.
“They need to firm up the base,” a man nearby shouted to his wife. “They’re too unstable.”
The plebes were clearly reaching the same conclusion. I heard yells of “Lock elbows!” and “Push!” and then “Hold! Hold steady!”
Now the second layer looked more secure. Zain, standing on someone’s shoulders with his arms locked around the two mids to either side of him, seemed to be searching for a face in the crowd beneath. He found it, and his mouth formed the name “Platt!”
A few moments later, I saw Bradley’s blond head as plebes crowded and lifted him upward.
“That’s it!” said the man near me. “Let the little guy try!”
Bradley climbed from the first layer of the base, carefully, carefully to the second. The mids below were still pushing, supporting him, giving him the boost he needed to put one foot on my fiancé’s shoulder. I thought I could make out Zain saying, “I got you!”
Bringing his other foot up, Bradley teetered and gripped the corner of the monument for balance. Someone threw him one of the all-important upperclassman hats. He caught it. The crowd gave a cheer, and then seemed to collectively hold its breath as he looked up at the very pinnacle above him. The base of plebes trembled again, but held.
When he stretched out the hand with the hat in it, his reach was inches short. He tossed.
It went straight up, getting the height it needed, then fell right back into his fingers. A massive groan came from the onlookers. Bradley did it again, and again it fell, this time all the way to the ground. He grabbed the slick stone and twisted around, reaching his free hand out. A second hat was passed into it.
He threw it once more. It landed on the top, slid… and stayed.
Deafening noise swept over the Yard. Bradley tipped his head back and pointed to the heavens.
A second later, all the other plebes were also raising their hands in victory, including the ones forming the pyramid. It crumbled in an instant, and Bradley and Zain both vanished.
Only for a few moments of confusion, though. Then I saw JJ climb onto the base of the monument, reach down, and pull Zain up. Between them, they hauled Bradley onto it, too, and the three of them leaned against each other’s bare shoulders. JJ and Zain pumped their fists in the air as the chant started.
“PLEBES NO MORE! PLEBES NO MORE! PLEBES NO MORE!”
Theo grabbed me from behind and spun me in a circle. When he let go, I stumbled dizzily into Mom, who was cheering with all her might. Dad beamed towards the monument and shouted “Well done!” yet it was barely audible.
Then the chanting morphed, somehow. It took me a few seconds to make out the new word.
“PLATYPUS! PLATYPUS! PLATYPUS!”
I turned and went onto tip-toe again, though I didn’t really need to in order to see Bradley. He was being carried on shoulders to the gazebo nearby, where the Academy Superintendent waited to congratulate him. And he was laughing.
“I think I missed some shortening,” Zain said, rubbing behind his ear as the waiter set down a basket of breadsticks in front of me. “Here, taste this.” He held his fingers out.
“Eww!” I said, leaning back. “Get away from me, you greaseball.”
He grinned and wiped his hand on a napkin.
Theo passed his phone across the table. “Quint wants to say hi.”
Zain took it, and I turned to ask Bradley if he’d like first choice of the breadsticks, since it was his big day. Not only had he been presented with a plaque and an Admiral’s cover—a nod to the legend that the person to switch the hats would also become the first admiral of their class—but we found out afterward that his mom had been there watching the whole thing.
She sat beside him at the table, sipping an iced tea and telling us all again how proud his father would be. Bradley had looked shocked to the core when she said that the first time. Now he just seemed secretly pleased, even as he kept insisting the guys at the base did all the work, not him.
“I won’t argue with that,” JJ put in, “seeing as how I’ve got permanent footprints embedded in my shoulders, but you did good, Platypus.”
“You all did good,” JJ’s sponsor mom, Sue, said, and his real mom loudly agreed.
My dad added, “It reminded me of a favorite Japanese saying of mine: ‘nanakorobi yaoki.’ It means ‘fall seven times, stand up eight.’”
“I think they fell more like twenty times,” I said. “I lost count.” While Zain kept talking on the phone, I gave him a thorough once-over and spotted quite a few bruises. My mouth twisted.
He saw it. “Yeah, I’ll pass it on,” he was saying as he moved closer and pulled me into a half-hug. “No worries, they’ll get back to you in one piece… Sure!”
On the other side of the table, JJ kept trying to explain to Theo the significance of Herndon.
“So now you’re like… sophomores?” the older Brat asked.
“No, no,” JJ said. “First of all, the word is ‘youngsters,’ but we’re not even that yet. We are now Fourth Class Midshipmen.”
“But weren’t you that before?”
“Yes,” said Bradley, “but we were also plebes. Now we’re not plebes, we’re just fourth class.”
“For another few days,” JJ went on, “until after the commissioning ceremony, which is when we become Third Class Midshipmen. I’m bringing my new shoulder boards right to the stadium with me so I can switch them out. Man, that’ll feel good.”
Theo nodded. “So then you’ll be youngsters.”
“No,” JJ said, and half the table started laughing at the look of confusion on Theo’s face.
Zain hung up the phone and said, “You don’t become a ‘youngster’ until you see the Academy Chapel’s dome when you get back from your summer cruise. Until then, you’re just third class.”
“The cruise is the thing you’re doing in June?” Theo asked.
“Yep, for me it’s in June,” said Zain. “Platypus and JJ got later ones, so I’ll be a youngster before them.”
“Yeah, whatever,” said JJ. “Mine’s on a submarine.”
Zain pouted. “I wanted the submarine too,” he said. “I think they didn’t give it to me because they were afraid I’d sing Under The Sea the whole time.”
I rolled my eyes. “Z, you would have sang Under The Sea the whole time.”
“I didn’t say they were wrong,” he said as everyone laughed again. “I was just explaining their reasoning.”
Theo was shaking his head. “Okay, I think I got it now. Do you military types have to make everything so complicated, though? What do you do when you actually graduate to top this all?”
“Well there’s the Blue Angels fly-over at the ceremony,” said JJ’s sponsor dad. “The rest of it is a fairly standard college graduation until after, when the newly-commissioned officers get their insignia pinned on. Traditionally, it’s their parents and their sweetheart that does that. Then there’s the silver dollar salute, of course, and-”
“Hold up,” Theo said. “What’s a silver dollar salute?”
Zain reached across me for a breadstick. “You’re supposed to give a silver dollar to the first person who salutes you as an officer,” he said, saluting jauntily with the breadstick. “Most firsties try to have it be an enlisted person who’s special to them, like a family member who serves, or even a midshipman who hasn’t graduated yet. The silver dollar is to show your gratitude for their respect and knowledge.”
“My uncle’ll be doing mine,” JJ said. “You guys know who you’d ask to do it?”
The other two both shook their heads, and Bradley’s mom said, “I’m sure we could see if someone your father knew would like to, honey. I still have all their information somewhere.”
Bradley smiled a little. “I’d like that, Mom.”
After eating, we walked as a group to the gate of the Yard to drop the mids off. The Commissioning Week traffic made driving anywhere in Annapolis difficult. I was happy Mom and Dad had thought ahead enough to get us a hotel room downtown way back when Zain was still applying for admission. Theo and I would stay the night with them before catching the bus up to New York tomorrow afternoon.
In the growing twilight, I thought I saw a couple of familiar faces on the sidewalk outside the gate. I was sure of it when Bradley slipped away from his mom’s side and went to talk to them. Nudging Zain with my elbow, I whispered, “Look.”
“I see ‘em,” he whispered back, grinning. “Wonder what they’re chatting about?”
I still couldn’t believe it took me pointing it out for Zain to realize Cameron and Myrick were interested in Bradley. They both went soft when they spoke to him. Bradley’s blush was visible from a distance, too.
As we reached the gate, Zain turned on Create A Diversion Mode, joking around with JJ and making sure everyone was focused on him and not wondering where the other mid had gotten to. He didn’t need to do it for long, though. Bradley reappeared beside me just a minute later. He looked over his shoulder at Cameron and Myrick strolling away hand-in-hand, and said quietly, “I need to email you tonight.”
“Why?” I asked, suddenly worried. “Something wrong?”
He shook his head. “No. At least… I don’t know.”
I hesitated. He didn’t realize anyone else knew about his feelings. Did I dare hint at them?
Then Zain popped up on his other side. “So what’d they want? I’m dying of curiosity.”
Bradley blinked a few times and glanced over at the rest of the group. They were still discussing other things, paying no attention to us. “Um,” he said. “They asked… Cameron’s dad and Myrick are putting on her shoulder boards after the ceremony, so she didn’t have anyone else to… They asked if I’d give her the silver dollar salute.”
Zain’s mouth twitched like he was fighting a huge, beaming smile. “Really? What’d you say?”
Ducking his head a little, Bradley admitted, “I, uh, said it’d be an honor.”
Now Zain was grinning, but everyone else was starting to look around for us, so I quickly said, “I’ll stay up to answer your email. You guys need to report back before your liberty ends.”
“Yeah,” said Bradley, and went off to wish his mom goodbye like he was glad to have an excuse to avoid more questions.
As he walked away, Zain hugged me tighter than I could breath for several seconds, then held my shoulders and said, “That email, I want to know-”
“I won’t tell you a word.”
He huffed. “Brat.”
“It’s not called nosy when you’re a Top,” he said. “It’s called gathering relevant information. You can ask Quint. He’ll agree with me.” Then he kissed me and asked, “See you in the morning?”
He already knew he would. Just as I knew he wanted to remind me that this wasn’t goodbye, not quite yet. I nodded and tried not to imagine repeating this scene tomorrow. We have his port visit when he docks in New York on the cruise still. Plus almost a month in Hawaii this summer. That second thought was what gave me the strength to smile and say, “Sleep well, Fourth Class Midshipman Mohyeldin.” And then watch him go through the gate and out of sight.
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