Tea Fights in Annapolis
-Or if I wanted to learn to dance, I would have hired Arthur Murray
During my days at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis there existed a tradition that filled all plebe Midshipmen with trepidation. These were the Tea Dances held on about 4 or 5 Sunday afternoons during the Dark Ages (the period between the end of Christmas leave and spring leave-January through the end of March). We hated them with a passion, but plebes do what they are told. I doubt that Tea Dances exist at the Academy any more, but they lurked on the winter weekend horizon for us. This story is set during the winter of 1960Ömy plebe year.
The Dark Ages were the worst time of year for Midshipmen. They started immediately after one of the most anticipated times of the Midshipman yearÖChristmas leave. The return to the Academy after Christmas leave plebe year was a black moment. In my case it included leaving an amorous long-legged blonde beauty back in Kansas (which is probably worth its own TINS tale) and returning to Plebe Year. Since we had beaten Army in early December, all plebes were allowed to "carry on" until after Christmas leave, which meant that much of the harassment plebes suffered ceased. This only made it worse because the upper classmen fell upon us like birds of prey when we returned to Bancroft Hall. They were just as irate over the end of leave as we were, and thereís nothing better to take it out on than a plebe. During the Dark Ages everything was gray. The Naval Academy is gray anyway, and with the low scudding clouds of winter drifting in off Chesapeake Bay, the lack of sunshine most of the time, the snow and slush, and the cold temperatures, everyone was miserable. On top of all this, forcing us to attend the Tea Dances, or Tea Fights as they were more accurately called, came close to driving us to despair.
The general idea was to teach us to be gentlemen, as John Paul Jones said a naval officer should be, but some of the methods used to achieve this objective were suspect. The worst was dancing instruction, during which all plebes were cycled through Memorial Hall where some French fudge packer, as I recall, taught us the various dance steps by having us dance with each other. The fights between plebes to see who would get to lead were monumental. Once in a great while they brought girls in, but it was rare. You have to remember that as plebes we were not allowed to talk to or touch a female while in the yard. If you were caught doing so, you were placed on report. Thus, bringing girls for us to dance with during instruction bordered on sadism.
Anyway, after we were properly instructed, a number of Tea Dances were scheduled and young girls of high school or college age were trucked in from Annapolis, Washington, and Baltimore. As I recall there were about 400 girls invited to each dance and about 600 plebes were assigned to attend. Girls of all shapes, sizes and appearances showed up. The idea was to have the excess plebes cut in on their classmates during the Tea Fights. The girls were in semi-formal dress, as I recall, and we wore our Service Dress Blue uniform.
The Tea Fights were held in Dahlgren Hall which now houses the Navy hockey rink, but in 1960 was a dark, dank gym with rifle racks on the walls. The ceiling was a good 40 feet or more above the floor. There was a wide balcony/walkway about 15 or 20 feet above the floor that went all the way around the hall and just added to the darkness of the place at floor level. At the north end of Dahlgren there was a series of staircases leading from the balcony to the floor.
The picture below of Dahlgren was taken recently and it shows the hockey rink. The picture looks north, but the staircases are obscured by the wall of a restaurant that has been built in the hall since I graduated. You can still get a good idea of what it was like because you can see the balcony (red, white and blue bunting), and all the state flags still fly from the walls as they always have. The rifle racks have been removed and have been replaced with the wall lamps you can see under the basketball goals. The goals remain where they were in 1960. In your mindís eye picture this cavernous place on a dark, drab winter Sunday afternoon filled with about 1000 kids facing off not for a hockey game, but for a Tea Fight.
Inside Dahlgren Hall (Present day)
The girls gathered at the south end of Dahlgren, and we entered from the colonnade that led from Bancroft Hall to the north balcony level in Dahlgren. The colonnade entered the hall from the right side of the picture. Once inside we were driven toward the staircases at the north end leading down to the dance floor. One of the staircases was narrow and functioned as a chute into which we were herded. The chute had us feeling like we were at either a rodeo or a slaughter house. The girls were brought one by one across the dance floor toward the staircase, and the Midshipmen were brought out of the chute one by one and paired with a girl, to whom he was supposed to introduce himself and then ask for a dance. It was luck of the draw, both for the Mids and the girls.
The fun began when the Mids in the chute could see the girls coming across the dance floor toward the staircase. They counted back to see who they would be paired with, and if their approaching partner did not meet their size or appearance standards, they made frantic efforts to get further back in the line. The narrowness of the chute and the pushing and shoving of both upperclassmen and officers trying to keep an orderly line and classmates trying to preserve their own positions in line made great staircase theater. Some plebes successfully escaped the chute, as one of my room mates did, spending one entire Tea Fight in the head. My other room mate saw a gorgeous young girl approaching the chute that he was going to be paired with. He stared hungrily at her as he introduced himself, but when she opened her mouth to respond, she revealed crooked discolored teeth and a breath that would gag a maggot. He had to breathe through his mouth as he danced with her to keep from puking down the front of her low cut dress.
Another Tea Fight phenomenon was "Mooing". As the Mids moved into the chute they started mooing like cows. As the girls crossed the dance floor some of the mooing was directed at them. If the girls were insulted we could always claim that we were only making fun of our own predicament.
Finally everyone was either paired up with a dancing partner, or the excess Mids were standing around waiting to either cut in or go hide in the corner by the rifle racks. You have to picture the scene to fully appreciate it. Besides the 1000 kids mingled on the dance floor of the dark gym during a glum, overcast winter day, none of the Mids knew any of the girls they were dancing with, and would probably never see them again. You can imagine what went on. Although most of the plebes were gentleman enough to just see it through to the bitter end, and most of the girls were attractive and pleasant to talk to, there were a lot of instances of less than gentlemanly behavior. At one Tea Fight I was paired with a fat girl who had a conversational disability and the personality of a folding chair. I maneuvered her to a rifle rack and tried to loosen her up a bit with some body massage. I canít remember the end result of that little tryst, but I donít think she hit me, and I know I never saw her again.
Actually on the face of it, Tea Fights werenít that unpleasant. The things we resented were being forced to take dancing instruction and dancing with classmates, being forced to spend a Sunday afternoon at a dance, being run through a chute like cattle to hook up with a partner, and risking being paired with someone very unpleasant. Of course the girls took that risk too. Sunday afternoons were about the only time a plebe had to himself, and we didnít like forfeiting what little freedom we had.
Although I donít personally know any classmate who met his wife at a Tea Fight, Iíll bet there are some. I donít mean to disparage the girls who came to the affairs. They were by and large a nice group of kids. But when you gather 400 of them in one placeÖ
Iíve talked to West Pointers from our era and they had their version of Tea Fights as well. Their attitudes about them were very similar to ours. Their conduct at the dances was just as unbecoming an officer as was ours. I donít know how much longer Tea Fights continued at the Naval Academy after our graduation in 1963. They had been around for years and were left over from another era, and I suspect that they were reaching the end of whatever usefulness they had.
And so closes one more dubious adventure from my days at the Old Boat School.
Dirck Praeger sends