The United States Naval Academy, Maryland, USA
“You can’t park here,” the man with the crisp uniform and shaved head tells me. “This is for official naval vehicles only.”
It’s about as strict and direct as the guards get here. I leave the car in a nearby street and walk back in.
An officer takes a cursory glance at my ID and then I’m inside, left to my own devices, free to wander as I wish.
I had expected more security. This is, after all, the training ground of one of the armed forces of America. This is the United States Naval Academy.
On the shore of Chesapeake Bay, the school almost looks like it could be a yacht club. The sun is shining today and pleasure crafts cruise by, those on board waving to those of us on land.
The whole city of Annapolis, Maryland, feels a bit like a resort town and the mood feels far more relaxed and leisurely than I expected.
Looks can be deceiving, though. For the students at the US Naval Academy, this is no vacation.
There will be four years of intense challenges that will test them psychologically and physically.
It’s summer holidays today so the campus is relatively quiet, although a few people in uniform occasionally march past.
I’ve joined a tour to learn a bit more about the buildings and the school’s history. Bob, our guide, is an old Navy man himself but didn’t come through the Naval Academy.
“But I did do the country a great service,” he tells us in his introduction.
“I was on the boat that looked after Elvis Presley.”
There are a few chuckles from the group.
“Thank you, thank you very much… for your service,” someone replies, to more chuckles.
Life for a Naval Academy student
As we stroll through the grounds and tour some of the buildings, Bob explains life as a student.
It starts for the 1300 new admissions with a six-week intensive boot camp over the summer. They then join the other three grades for the formal schooling at the academy.
Over the four years, they need to concentrate on their studies, which include military subjects as well as maths, science, engineering and some humanities (everyone graduates with a Bachelor of Science).
They are also required to participate in at least one sport, with a focus on teamwork and pushing personal boundaries.
As with any military organisation, rank is important. The younger students have to respect their seniors and there are a number of ways this manifests itself.
There are certain doors that only the older students can use, for instance. And with rank comes privileges – like a car spot on campus and permission to wear civilian clothes off-campus.
Despite the difficulties everyone at the academy faces, there’s no denying it is a beautiful place. I don’t imagine they will ever be posted somewhere quite as nice again.
It was founded in 1845 on this land and, although the area has expanded and new buildings have been constructed and others restored, it has a sense of heritage.
Bancroft Hall is the largest building on the grounds and is home to all the students. It, in fact, claims to be the largest college dormitory in the world.
Other than Bancroft Hall, one of the best-known buildings is the Naval Academy Chapel, in the centre of the campus. In the crypt, underneath the chapel, is the body of one of America’s greatest naval heroes, John Paul Jones.
The tomb of John Paul Jones
Our guide, Bob, has mentioned John Paul Jones a few times during the tour – he seems like quite a legend around these parts.
His tomb is elegant and grand, circular in shape with columns around the outside and a large marble coffin in the centre, covered in what looks like seaweed.
He has been given an honourable resting place here at the United States Naval Academy.
For the young students who enrol, they need someone to look up to, an icon they can hope to be like one day.
John Paul Jones may have lived generations before them in a world that was very different. But if they can see how respectfully the great men of the US Navy are treated once they’re gone, it can’t but instil the pride they’ll need out there beyond the walls of the campus.