The American Soul (and yours and mine): Closer to King-of-the-Hill? Or the Herndon Climb? And where do meteorologists fit in?

Okay, okay. So it’s a long title.

Today’s LOTRW post is the product of insomnia (writing started around 2 am). A lot of Americans are tossing and turning instead of sleeping well these days. This week’s death of Senator-and-American-naval-hero John McCain has occasioned a near-universal sense of loss and soul-searching.

Sometimes soul-searching can use a bit of a frame. Here’s one.

Wikipedia has this to say about King-of-the-Hill. a children’s game, the object of which is to stay on top of a large hill or pile (or any other designated area) as the “King of the Hill”. Other players attempt to knock the current King off the pile and take their place, thus becoming the new King of the Hill.

The way the “king” can be removed from the hill depends largely [largely? Only largely?] on the rules determined by the players before the game starts. Ordinarily pushing is the most common way of removing the king from the hill, but there are significantly rougher variations where punching or kicking is allowed. As such, the game is often banned from schools.


Contrast that with the Herndon climb. We learn from the May 21, 2018 Washington Post:

Several hundred young warriors stormed a 21-foot-high obelisk at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis on Monday, slipping and sliding as they formed a human pyramid around a monument covered in 50 pounds of vegetable shortening.

The annual tradition marks the end of their hellacious “plebe” year at the academy, the country’s premier training ground for Navy and Marine Corps officers. But that year is only over once the freshmen, known as plebes, manage to replace a “dixie cup” cap perched at the monument’s tip with an upperclassman’s hat

…The Herndon Climb is the ultimate test of the teamwork and perseverance taught during the plebes’ first year.

(The full article provides a lot more detail about this event.)

Teamwork? Perseverance? (versus king-of-the-hill and everyone for himself/herself?) A lot to like about this Navy culture and tradition.

But it does raise a question. Just who was Herndon?

Commander William Lewis Herndon (25 October 1813 – 12 September 1857) was one of the United States Navy’s outstanding explorers and seamen. In 1851 he led a United States expedition to the Valley of the Amazon, and prepared a report published in 1854 and distributed widely as Exploration of the Valley of the Amazon.

He was noted especially for ensuring the rescue of 152 women and children when commanding the commercial mail steamer Central America in September 1857. During a three-day hurricane off the coast of North Carolina, the ship lost power. Herndon arranged for getting some women and children safely off the ship to another vessel. With no way to save the ship, Herndon chose to stay with more than 400 passengers and crew who drowned as the ship sank off Cape Hatteras on September 12. It was the largest loss of life in a commercial ship disaster in United States history.

A small-world side note: Two years later his daughter Ellen Lewis Herndon married Chester A. Arthur, the future U.S. President.

Hmm. What a guy. No wonder he has his own monument. And the narrative is easy to connect with the life and values of John McCain on several levels. But (bringing it home)…

What about meteorologists? Where do we fit in?

For most of us, there’s an easy answer. We’re all about teamwork. And perseverance. And a cause greater than ourselves: saving lives and property. Some of this public-good spirit has been captured by Michael Lewis (justifiably well-known for The Big Short and other works), in a new audiobook entitled The Coming Storm. He sees a few heroes – folks well-known to our community. But he also sees some troubling signs, hints that our science and services might be trending a bit more to the in-it-for-ourselves model. A two-hour listen if you have the time – and if you seek more cause for soul-searching.

Sleep well.

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