Tributes & Stories

Tarnished Brass

By Lt (jg) Ken Ebersole ’76 USN (Ret.)

We all experience exciting periods of time in our lives, and as we pause to reflect on these times we wonder how the memories will remain vivid. I have decided to leave nothing to chance. As the day of the Army-Navy football game drew near the other day, I began to think of all of the craziness that takes place at Annapolis· under the guise of school spirit. My mind continued to wander to the other wild things we did throughout the year.

The United States Naval Academy means many things to many people. To some it means a beautiful campus and a fine education, to others it might mean dress parades or athletic competitions. For those of us who survived our four-year stay, U.S.N.A. means all of the above, but a great deal more.

What the general public never experienced was life in Bancroft Hall, the largest fraternity house in the world. It was in the "Hall" that I coined one of my as yet infamous quotes, "The key to sanity is temporary insanity." This statement was made in reference to the period of time between supper and taps, which we called Study Hour" I found that occasional diversions from the horrors of thermodynamics and electronics proved most essential to maintain a positive attitude on life. I have chosen in this journal to focus on these diversions to get a closer look at the elements which tarnish brass.

Study hour lasted from around 1930 until nearly midnight every weeknight, sometimes later if the next days events demanded it. So, we are talking about roughly four to six hours of bookin’ a night. This after a day of classes and athletics. I defy anyone to study for five straight hours after a full day of activity. Over a four-year period we did a study and concluded that the number of study breaks required during study hour increases exponentially as you approach graduation. More simply put, we goofed off most during first class year. For one thing the class load was lighter and we had to invent things to keep busy. Also, the threat of upper-class reproach was gone. 

My theory on study breaks is simple: Detach yourself completely from your work and forget about it for a time. This clears away cobwebs which develop from prolonged concentration. Actual physical activity is a useful tool to relieve the low blood sugar condition which occurs from sitting behind a desk for hours, just as a recess period in grammar school helps to renew a student’s interest in schoolwork. 

We invented two basic types of games to meet our needs: games of finesse and games of action. Like many great inventions, some originated completely by accident, while others started small and evolved into something much larger. More than once we got started on an idea and, despite best efforts to return to the studies, we ended up eating away most of the evening developing it. I am mildly amazed I never failed a course, although a couple of times the jury was out for a very long time. Here, then, were some of our choice pastimes.

BONGO BALL
This game was invented first class year. I had in my possession a number of leftover oceanographic balloons used to study the flow of offshore currents. They were very heavy duty, on the order of a small weather balloon. They could probably be blown up safely to about five feet in diameter, but for bongo ball 2 ½ feet is perfect. The idea of the game is to get our people in a room and hit the ball around at each other, trying to score points by hitting the opponent in the face. Because of the weight of the ball, it can travel very quickly in a small room. It’s funny, you can play the game night after night, and a wide open face hit never fails to produce riotous laughter. Eventually, the ball hits some sharp object like Weber’s head and bursts, ending the game. Intentionally breaking the ballot ensure victory id strictly forbidden, and the unlucky culprit responsible is always severely chastised. Spence and I frequently teamed up against Kevin Lynch and Byron Marchant. We normally used their room, because they had an upper bunk on which you could station a neutral fifth man (like Madman MacCafferty) who could get a good down angle on all of the others. To occasionally spice up the game a little, the balloon can be filled with cigar smoke or Baby powder. This always adds an extra ha-ha to the finale.

ACTION HOCKEY
This game is a simple adaptation of ice hockey in a one-on-one situation. The goalie has to guard the doorway, and has for his equipment a push broom and a tennis racket. The goalie uses the broom to block the low shots along the floor, and the racket to give air shots. His opponent has a golf club, preferably a five iron. In place of a puck, a wiffle golf ball is used. Footwear is not important for the goalie, but the attacker must wear heavy socks or knitted slippers so that he can “skate”. This game was designed for two people, but can be played in teams or using two attack men.  Link bongo ball it is a quick acion game, and a great diversion.

FRISBEE
It has never ceased to amaze me how much fun that little saucer shaped piece of plastic can be. The passageways in the Hall were plenty wide for a good game, but the low overhead demanded a skilled hand. For such reasons I would qualify Frisbee as both a game of finesse and action. We never had too much trouble getting volunteers to play. Two people would start, and after the Frisbee had knocked on a few doors, a few more players would filter out to play. Once even the plebes were bored, because as we were tossing the ‘bee around they started darting in and out of their rooms, creating an impromptu dodgeball game. Of course, we didn’t throw it any harder than usual. For awhile during first class year, as the days were getting longer, we started going outside after dinner to play a little frisbee before dark. We all started working really hard on acrobatic catches and different types of throws. I must admit we didn’t progress much in the “new and different throws” department, but our catches, in all humility, were a sight to behold. My best catch was the “Rudolph Nureyev” named by Kevin Lynch. It was a flying spin-in-the-air behind the back catch. Although a high percentage catch, it was beautiful when it worked.

Moving on now to games on finesse, where physical action is replaced by concentration and skilled movement. These games are good for short breaks, when a temporary diversion is needed to help you back off of that thermos problem and regroup for another assault.

GOLF 
After Spence had been bitten by the golf bug, we had a bagful of clubs setting in our room, and hence the source of a new game. We purchased a supply of wiffle golf balls, and all that remained to be done was to let our imagination run rampant. The result: the ninth hole at Pebble Beach. The tee was in the doorway of our room. The hole was a dog-leg left, using Spence’s rack as the green. My rack was part of the fairway, and the space in between the racks was a river. Anything against the wall was bye-bye into the Pacific Ocean. Our desks lined the right side of the fairway, forming an impenetrable forest. We used a number of items for the hole itself. Normally we used a pillow with a dent pushed down in it. Sometimes when we just couldn’t miss we would use a cup to make a smaller target. On a really light night we might get some people together and play eighteen holes. The loser bought cokes.

BLOW-DARTS
This is a prime example of how things can lead to another. It all started with these dissecting needles that I had, left over from a Biology class. We started fiddlin’ around throwing them at our cork bulletin board like darts. Well, I got to thinking that it might be neat to try and shoot them out a blow gun, so I made a tube out of paper. It didn’t work. The needles were too heavy in proportion to their diameter. But what in the world do you do now with that blow tube you so carefully constructed. Answer: you create a dart which will work! Spence was sitting there watching me fumble around with an assortment of paper cones, and his look gradually changed from mild indifference to acute distraction. He pitched in and perfected my crude beginnings. As I recall, we tried a number of different darts, but the best ones were made of electrical tape, using a straight pin for the payload. We tried several fin arrangements on the darts before settling on the four fin method. We were immediately impressed by both the velocity and accuracy we were able to attain. The crazy things even stuck well in hardwood. While Spence continued to perfect the single shot, I started on the MIRV warhead, which produced a shotgun effect. The MIRV consisted of three small darts instead of a big one. It proved to work satisfactorily. One evening we had an opportunity to put the darts to practical use. We had a bad mouse problem in the 26 Company Wardroom, and the conventional traps just weren’t working. There were at least two of the little critters, and they were bold enough to come skittering out along the wall while we were all watching T.V. So one night we took station, Spence with his 15mm, and me with my shotgun. We put on a little demonstration for the boys who were skeptical, and they were dutifully impressed. As promised, the mice did not come out, but Weber kept feeling sorry for them and always tipped them off. We got off a few shots, but only managed some close misses. I do believe we did scare one to death though.


AIRPLANES
During second class year, about the same time as blow-darts, we started experimenting with aerodynamic forms shaped from sheets of wood pulp: paper airplanes. We lived one deck above ground level, and our window faced out onto a courtyard, which usually played host to some very tricky winds. Because the courtyard was laid with brick, it was easy to measure the distance of the flight, so this was our primary source on contest. We tried other contests like aerobatics and time of flight, but distance remained our favorite. The only suitable material for making the planes was the “Brigade Bulletin”, a daily info sheet we received. It was an 8 ½ x 13 sheet, and the extra length is very important. We tried numerous configurations, but the standard fold you learn as a kid proved to be the best. What makes or breaks your flight is the prevailing atmospheric conditions. The best flights occurred on evenings after a warm, sunny day. The bricks would still be warm, creating good updrafts. On days like that, standby for world’s records. The next most important thing to the flight is the delivery. This may sound simple, but firing out of a window for maximum range requires some technique. First you must open the window as wide as possible. Next you kneel down on the floor, so you can get a full arm extension. One important thing we learned about the throw is to make sure your hand does not hit the window sill. This will not only make for a poor flight, but it might even cause you to lose interest in the whole activity. Our courtyard stretched about 120 feet in width, and on the far side faced another wing of the Hall. Our objective was to get a flight all the way across to the other side. At first it seemed impossible, but eventually both Spence and I managed to do it at least once each. Too bad we didn’t have it on film, those flights were pieces out of aviation history.

TUNNELS
I remember marching down Stribling Walk during Plebe Summer at night and seeing light poking through the holes in the manhole covers. There must be some sort of a tunnel, I thought, under the sidewalk. I heard bits and pieces about the tunnels during the next three years, and finally, my curiosity sufficiently aroused, I set out to investigate. It was first class summer, and I was at the Academy taking summer classes to make up for ones I had missed while in the hospital. I had plenty of free time in the evenings, and the more I thought about the tunnels the bigger the obsession grew. I received a tip from a classmate on the source of the tunnel, long and well lit. It was filled with large water pipes, but in most places there was room to walk upright. I knew there had been many others before me, because white shoe polish graffiti bearing the class years of generations before me lined the walls. The tunnel led out from under Bancroft to Tecumseh Court, where it angled off to travel under Stribling Walk. Just short of the spot where Tecumseh sits was an intersection, with tunnels ended back in the basement of the Hall, and although the entrance doors were locked from one side, these tunnels proved to be valuable exit routes the coming year. The following nights I continued to explore the tunnels led to Chauvenet and Michelson Halls, following the nights I continued to explore the tunnels, mapping them as I went. To my amazement the tunnels led to Chauvenet and Michelson Halls, on to Rickover Hall, and even all the way across the Yard to Nimitz Library. By the end of summer, my map was complete, and the question was now facing me of what to do with it. 

There is something down inside all of us that makes us occasionally long for a more exciting lifestyle than we normally face; call it the Walter Mitty syndrome. I don’t know how many adventure suspense movies I’ve watched where the hero had to sneak around in a covert manner to achieve his mission. The mere though od it has always thrilled me. At the Academy we have a name for night time pranks: reconnaissance raids, or recon-raids. I had never gotten involved much in recon-raids, but with the tunnels, a whole bushel of possibilities existed. 

There were in my company a number of guys as crazy as myself. It was, therefore, not difficult to recruit a few partners in crime. Among the regulars in attendance were “Gich”, “Tigner”, Mark the “Mad Viking”, and the “Grynch”. 

The gate guards at the Academy are civil servants, mostly past their prime. Why in the world we chose to drive them crazy I do not know. Perhaps we felt that their lives lacked a certain excitement. At any rate, the Jimmylegs (as they were called by the Mids) were at loss to catch the Tunnel Players.

Our primary means of wreaking havoc with the Jimmylegs was with the use of firecrackers. One of the tunnels leads down to within about 200 feet of the Maryland Avenue Gate. We would pop our heads out of the tunnel opening and start chucking firecrackers out into the street. The first blast only got some curious stares. One guard came down to investigate, so we headed back underground. After about a half hour, we were feeling out oats again, and developed a new strategy. Grynch and Bee would go back to the original spot and repeat the first stunt. Tigner, Jenks, and I would go ground level and create a show of our own. Tigner was never at a loss to grandstand. To him the whole world was a stage or an Astrodome, and this was to be his night. He chose to climb up on the Macedonian Monument, and with a lit firecracker in each hand he delivered the most eloquent Cheyenne war chant I have ever heard.  Being a diluted Cherokee myself, I could be considered an authority. Well about this time the Jimmylegs decided the game had gone about far enough, and as they climbed into their squad car, we quickly decided that indeed the game had gone far enough. We met Bee and Grynch in the tunnel. Unknown to us, while we were busy reforming our tactics a half hour before, the Jimmylegs had been working on some of their own. As we were working out way back to the Hall, we decided to check out the action topside. Tigner and Grynch each popped open a manhole cover under Stribling Walk. Looking back toward the area we had been working, they saw nothing. Turning around to look toward the Hall, they were astonished to see the squad car bearing down on them a mere fifty feet away. Almost overcome by laughter, panic, and reoccurring coronaries we stumbled our way back through the second wing exit.

Such episodes were fun, but they were not enough. We needed to find one big project to challenge our new found expertise at mischief making. Our opportunity did not come until February. One Saturday night, we were coming back from Buzzy’s Pizza Parlor feeling duly bloated, and as we passed by the Superintendent’s Office in Leahy Hall, we saw that the Admiral’s flag had been left flying that night. Well, I thought, those silly Marines shouldn’t leave a flag like that flying at night. Why, some rascals might even come along and swipe it. After we had gone through all of the Marine jokes we could think of, we agreed unanimously that it was only fitting and proper that we should be the rascals. So we hurried back to the Hall, and changed into our P.F. Flyers. It was decided that Doc ought to be the flag carrier on the getaway due to his experience on the cross-country circuit. The flagpole is only a stones throw away from the Maryland Avenue Gate, but it is sufficiently shielded by trees, so the Jimmylegs posed no problem. As expected though, by the time we had the flag in hand, some Mids were passing by. They only registered mild amusement, but taking no chances the five of us split six different directions. When we arrived back in the Hall, we admired our catch. Now we were faced with the problem of what the devil to do with it. We thought of hanging it up in the company wardroom for all to admire. Sooner or later, though, we figured the wrong person might stop by to admire it. Not desiring a 0530 reveille to go out marching in the bottom of my laundry bag until a new plan could be formulated.

We decided that the only suitable course of action would be to pick a prominent landmark on which to display the flag. The best choice was Mahan Hall. It had a tall bell tower, and next to the Chapel, was the tallest building in the Yard. This called for some preparation, since I neither knew how to get into the building at night now how to get up to the bell tower once inside. One afternoon I explored Mahan, and after about an hour I found the route to the tower. It is like a medieval castle with circular stairways, dust, and cobwebs. Having that portion covered, I turned my attention to a means of gaining access. The main doors, I knew, would be locked. So, I figured the ground level windows were the best bet. All of the windows were of the louvered type, with just enough room for a pudgy midshipman to squeeze through. One of the rooms on ground level was only being used to store stage props. I figured this would do just fine to “stage” our entrance. A preliminary recon-raid was arranged to case the joint and break in a couple of new additions to the tunnel players. After a tunnel tour, we took a look around the back side of Mahan. There was a light on inside, and a closer look revealed a man watching television. A night watchman? Probably. But since we were going nowhere near his little hideaway on our assault, we noted that the cautious silence was in order, and worried about it no further. Finally, the appointed evening arrived, and after a futile attempt at homework, we went over the plan once more. The crew consisted of Gich, Mark, and myself. We had all chosen dark clothing and crepe soled shoes. Leaving nothing to chance, we went to Dykhuisen, our local Marine, and borrowed a stick of camouflage paint and did a job on our faces that Chesty Puller would have envied. With stocking caps on we were unidentifiable even to friends. After taps, with flag, flashlights, and ropes, we took to the tunnels. The only thing missing was the “Mission Impossible” theme in the background. It has snowed earlier in the week, and the temperature that night was 28 degrees. The climb through the tunnel was routine and uneventful. We exited the tunnel right next to Mahan, and gingerly walked over to the window that I had opened that afternoon. I climbed through first, and then Gich and Mark. Gich I think it was kicked over a can as he was coming in, causing a racket somewhere on the level of a 500 pound bomb. After we all swallowed our hearts, we proceeded on up towards the tower. We had to walk through the lobby to get to the tower. Luckily no one was there, but had there been they most certainly would have died of fright from our appearance. As we came near the tower, there was no more light, so we went to the flashlights. The climb up the staircase was more eerie at night than during the day. All I could think about was my primal fear of bats and rats. I pushed open the door to the room housing the huge clock beneath the bell, and one of the resident pigeons fluttered out of the way.  Once again I pushed my heart back into place, and I began to wonder why I hadn’t brought a change of underwear. One more flight of steps and we were in the bell tower. At the height, the north wind really whipped, and must have dropped the temperature a good 20 degrees. After fumbling around with the ropes with gloved hands in a rather unprofessional manner, we shucked the gloves and worked fast before the fingers froze. We draped the flag over the bell tower balcony, and beat a hasty retreat. As we left the building, we realized that the snow left an excellent clue as to how we had come and gone. Oh well, it didn’t matter much anyway. We came back to the Hall and spent the better part of the rest of the evening removing paint and two layers of skin from our faces. The next day the flag had been taken down, and we never heard anything about it.

To the veteran adventurer this episode may seem tame. But to the three Mids who frequently found themselves lost in textbooks, it was a night we won’t soon forget. As graduation rapidly approached, I surrendered my tunnel map to Grynch and abdicated to him as the Tunnel King.