The Herndon Climb
The Herndon Climb is an important and meaningful ritual in Naval Academy culture. Scaling the heavily greased, 21-foot tall Herndon Monument as a group at the very end of the year for “plebes,” or freshmen, the Climb marks a major turning point in the lives of all Midshipmen, who are relieved of their low status at the moment they complete the task. The book is culled from interviews with more than fifty subjects, including participants in Climbs over the past six decades, with personal observations from the 2019 and 2018 events. Co-author James McNeal recalls the joyful pride of participating in the Climb as a plebe in 1983, and his experience helps bring vivid detail to the memories and reflections of his fellow Midshipmen.
The book also includes a discussion of the career of William Lewis Herndon, whose heroic sacrifice at sea inspired the monument, and also traces the history and development of the modern Climb to its roots in the earliest plebe celebration.
Tell me a little about your book
Scott Tomasheski: As the subtitle says, this is a history of the United States Naval Academy’s greatest tradition. Not only is it great, but it is unique among all the service academies. But we tried to capture more than just the history, we want our readers to get an impression of what it’s like to participate in the action, and to be there on the sidelines. Over fifty people talked to us about their memories of the Herndon Climb and shared their experiences, which range from funny to tragic.
How has writing helped you personally? And changed the way you think?
ST: I gained an appreciation of a part of the diversity of life to which I’ve rarely been exposed. I’m a lifelong civilian, so when we started this project, I had a lot to learn about the Navy and the Academy, and eventually, I learned more than I could have thought possible. Visiting the Academy for the first time, in 2018 I was a fish out of water but how many people have the chance to tour the Academy with an incognito retired Admiral? Funny, but even though he was incognito, everyone seemed to know who he was.
Is there one short story from your book you would like to share?
ST: One of the sad parts of the book is about someone who never actually participated in the Climb: Kristen Dickmann died unexpectedly and tragically near the very end of her Plebe year. Her classmates were moved to dedicate their efforts in the Climb to her memory. Several of her family members and company mates shared their thoughts with us for the book.
Is there anything that you had to Edit OUT of the book that you wished was kept in?
ST: We wanted to quote the lyrics from Monty Python’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” in the chapter on Kristen Dickmann, but we couldn’t secure the rights. We thought they perfectly reflected Kristen’s sunny outlook on life. Also, at one point I wrote a wisecrack about the food at the Academy dining hall being lousy – assuming that all food served in schools and institutions is lousy. But my partner struck that down. He’s Supply Corps! So naturally, he takes a little pride in the food service at the Academy. Later I did a little research and found out that most Midshipmen love the food in King Hall. I don’t actually wish the joke was kept in because, in retrospect, it wasn’t funny.
What lessons can a Junior Officer take from your book?
ST: Nothing is more important than teamwork! Except perseverance. Perseverance might actually be more important than teamwork.
What are you reading now?
ST: I’m reading an advance copy of Susan Weisberg’s Chester Midshipmouse. I have a tremendous fondness and respect for classic Children’s Literature and Susan’s Chester Midshipmouse is a wonderful creation in the “mouse hero” mold.
James McNeal: General Mattis’ book Call Sign Chaos, a great leadership book by a great leader.
What books had the most impact on you and your development?
JM: When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi, by David Maraniss. Coach Lombardi was far from perfect but his ability to build high performing teams is applicable to any organization.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading — and why?
ST: My taste runs the gamut from Charles Dickens, my hands-down favorite writer, to comic books. So, I guess my book club would be reading Dickens one week, and a stack of comic books the next. Maybe two weeks for Dickens, because his books take a long time to read.
JM: Admiral Stavridis’ latest book, Sailing True North, a wide-ranging collection of biographies of various Admirals throughout history.
What are your favorite books to give — and get — as gifts?
ST: I think I’ve only ever given my own books – autographed of course! And Joseph Heller’sCatch-22 as gifts. For anyone who has ever served in the military, or will ever serve, I think Catch-22 is, as a perfect, and perfectly hilarious, cautionary tale. On my last trip home from Annapolis, a guy next to me on the plane was reading it.
Give us three “Good to Know” facts about you.
JM: Scott and I have known each other since 1975 when we met in 7th grade. My wife Peggy is also a Class of 1986 grad. I am a volunteer coach with the USNA Sprint football team as well as an Adjunct Professor with the Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership.
ST: I’ve had quite a varied career. My first job was at McDonald’s where I was not talented enough to be a burger flipper and I got demoted to mopping floors and cleaning tables. Through college I worked at a record store – remember those? – and a movie theater. I tended to absorb a lot of knowledge so in those jobs I became both a music snob and a movie snob, tendencies that I’ve maintained to this day in the references that show up in my writing. I worked for many years in the medical device manufacturing industry as a microbiologist and chemist, where I always had a great reputation as a writer of memos and lab reports. My co-workers tended to come to me for help getting the words just right in their own reports. Eventually, I decided that I wanted to write books.
Writing a book is tough, were there any surprises as you set out on that journey?
ST: Actually, since I am primarily a writer of fiction, I found this book to be somewhat less difficult than novel writing – since I had an Admiral as a partner to do most of the logistical heavy lifting, and I didn’t have to rely on my own imagination to write the stories. He served everything up to me on a silver platter and all I really did was add a touch of spice.
What advice would you give to an aspiring military author? Is there any advice they should ignore?
ST: I’m not sure if English teachers still recommend creating a “rough draft” like they did in the days of manual typewriters. But I say you should never think of what you are writing as a rough draft. Write carefully and thoughtfully and think of what you produce as the final product. Nothing prevents you from going back and making changes later. And, get some experience and write about what you know. For examples of greatness that you can aspire to, read “The Great Escape” by Paul Brickhill, probably my favorite military-themed nonfiction book. And Cornelius Ryan’s “A Bridge Too Far” and “The Longest Day” will keep you occupied for a while and are well worth the effort. By the way, all three of those books were made into excellent, big-budget international films that are readily available on DVD.
What is next for you and your writing projects?
ST: I’m finishing up the self-publishing process on my third book in the “Time Defenders” series and writing a fourth. I’d like to write ten or twenty but I’m not sure I’ll live long enough! Admiral McNeal and I also have a few ideas for another collaboration that we are also very excited about. It’s top secret for now.
JM: I have a couple of other projects in mind, along with the one with Scott, they are not ready to be unveiled yet, but soon!
Purchase The Herndon Climb Here!
Rear Adm. James R. McNeal, SC, USN (Ret.) was born in Hawaii and raised in Southern California. The son of a 1962 USNA grad, he graduated from the Naval Academy in 1986. After six years on Active Duty in the Supply Corps, he transitioned into the Reserve component, retiring in 2017.
Scott Tomasheski is a Los Angeles-based novelist and writer, author of three books in the TIME DEFENDERS series.