In a recent discussion at the library about growing up in Annapolis, some old-timers bemoaned the fact that kids no longer could ride their bikes into the Naval Academy. I agreed, because in the late 1940s and early 1950s, I would ride my bike to the Academy to enjoy this vast playground of my youth. As I explain in my book about growing up in Annapolis, “Memoirs of A Main Street Boy: Growing Up in America’s Ancient City,” the Naval Academy was an integral part of my childhood. In fact, my mother walked me there in a baby carriage, and I crawled around on the grassy lawn in front of the Academy’s Chapel with its green copper dome.
My mother told the tale of sitting on a bench, reading by my carriage one summer day, looking high up the Chapel dome, some 200 feet in the air, to see my father, a sheet metal worker at the Academy, hanging on a rope-held seat repairing the copper roof. She high-tailed it home and would return only with the guarantee my father wasn’t working on the dome that day.
I recall as a toddler the joy of being on the Chapel green frolicking to the sounds of the Chapel bells, and picking up chestnuts fallen from the trees, peeling off the skins to reveal the smooth chocolate brown nuts. They made great missiles to throw at the trees. The Chapel, called the “Cathedral of the Navy,” holds many memories, from visits to John Paul Jones’ crypt in the basement to the enormously long walk down the aisle with my oldest daughter, Laura, at her wedding.
The Academy looks a lot different today than it did in my youth. From its original 10 acres, the Academy grew to the present 340 acres by annexing some of Hell Point, a former poor, tough neighborhood at the foot of King George Street near City Dock and dredging more than 60 acres of silt from the Severn River and Spa Creek into steel bulkheads along the shore.
As the Academy grew, so did its employment of locals such as my father, grandfather and assorted uncles. In my youth, one out of four Annapolitan males worked at the Academy, not to mention the impact of naval personnel on real estate, tailors, restaurants and other local businesses.
As I grew older, this sprawling military college campus became even more central to my life and those of many of my peers. The fact that my dad worked there suffused it in my everyday existence. But even more involving for my generation was the entertainment the Academy offered continuously – band concerts, parades, visiting ships and dignitaries, sports galore, and prime college facilities at our disposal.
A weekend or summer’s day might include swinging on the rings, jumping on the gymnastic horse or trying to handstand on the parallel bars in Macdonough Hall, the Academy’s one-time boathouse that became a gymnasium. We’d play tennis on the bright red clay courts overlooking the Severn River. If we carried a basketball to the Academy, we’d play on the Navy team’s courts in Dahlgren Hall, the former Armory and drill area that was turned into the varsity basketball arena, until the “Jimmy Legs” (an ancient, nautical nickname applied to Academy guards) would shoo us out; then we’d play on the outdoor courts beside Dahlgren. Or we might sneak into “Smoke Hall,” a midshipmen recreation center in Bancroft Hall, the midshipmen’s dormitory, for a game of pool.
One of my favorite things in the Academy is a monument beloved by most midshipmen, the bust of Tecumseh, called the “God of 2.0,” the Academy’s passing grade in my youth. I loved it, too, as a youngster, because when the mids prayed for good test grades or a win over Army, they threw pennies at their good-luck charm, Tecumseh, as they marched by, and we kids gathered the pennies as if it was an Easter egg hunt. Tecumseh is a large, bronze Indian’s upper torso, a replica of the original wooden figurehead of the USS Delaware from Civil War days. Before Navy’s games against Army, what fun it was to see Tecumseh covered in war paint, his face streaked with red, green, yellow and white with multi-colored arrows in his bronze quiver.
If Tecumseh brought victory over Army in football, we young Annapolitans would be sure to head for the Academy when the mids returned from Philadelphia following the game. We’d go to watch Navy’s football players ring the Japanese bell in victory.
It was easy to go to the Academy in those days, walking, by car or by bike. The 9/11 terrorist attack put an end to that ease.
But no matter how you get there today, the Academy still offers many joyful events to Annapolitans, just one of the many reasons Annapolis is lucky to be home of the U.S. Naval Academy.