'W

HERE'S the grease?"

Those words were scrawled across the shirt of a Naval Academy midshipman on Monday. Unfortunately, "the grease" has gone the way of food fights and Ladies Nights.

The Herndon Monument is a 21-foot obelisk in an area of the Annapolis campus called Lover's Lane. Every spring, hundreds of plebes - Naval Academy freshmen - have plotted to scale the structure and replace a cup-like sailor's cap with a midshipman's cap. It's a rite of passage that has marked the end of a demanding first year at the academy.

Each year, the upperclassmen would coat the monument with 200 pounds of grease and lard. Then they'd spray the plebes with hoses as they labored to form a human pyramid high and stable enough for a classmate to make the cap exchange.

Until this year, that is.

The academy decided to lose the lard. The motivation? Safety concerns after four midshipmen's injuries earned them hospital visits in 2008.

As a result, an accomplishment that could take hours for plebes of the past to finish was completed in little more than two minutes on Monday.

FORMER midshipman Dwight Crevelt took a much longer, harder road to the summit in 1976, so I asked him what he thought.

"I don't know exactly what they're doing, but I think it's a little political correctness gone mad," he said. "There's nothing wrong with this program. They could probably count on one hand anybody that's ever been injured. This monument is kind of a rite of passage for the plebes and without the grease, without the mud, there's no challenge."

And so it appears that our risk-averse culture has reached the Naval Academy - even though it exists to prepare men and women for combat - and eviscerated a 60-year tradition.

Plebes of yesteryear, regaling their grandchildren with stories about the good old days, can add capping their first year with a trip to the top of a greased Herndon to an ever-expanding list of PC casualties.

That bygone era was one in which middle-school students weren't handcuffed and booked for having a food fight (as they were last year in Chicago).

First-graders weren't threatened with reform school after bringing a Cub Scout-issued utensil to school (as a Delaware boy was last fall).

It was before teachers thought to mark student assignments in purple ink to avoid the stigma that red could allegedly leave.

Before trophies were awarded to losing Little League teams merely because they showed up.

During the glory days, when lawmakers didn't try to replace high-school baseball players' metal bats (as a California state Senate committee recently recommended).

And the happy days, when state legislators weren't fixing to ban salt from restaurants (as a New York assemblyman proposed earlier this year).

When real-estate agents could use words like "bachelor pad" or "newlyweds" without fear of offending someone to whom those descriptions didn't apply.

Before Ladies Nights were fodder for a discrimination lawsuit, or the Miss America pageant started resembling a political-science class.

Yes, Crevelt is right. There's an element of political correctness behind the cleansing of the pole at the Naval Academy this year. But it also reflects an overreaction to the presumably unsafe. It's the same mind-set that causes parents to amble down the driveway yelling things like "Be careful!" as their kids encounter such dangers as crossing the street and riding their bikes. That is, when they're allowed to play outside at all.

An unhealthy dose of Nancy Grace and others has left us feeling that horrors like child abductions happen all the time. Yet, for all the hand-wringing, Gever Tulley, author of a book called "Fifty Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do)," recently told me that it would take 750,000 years for a child standing for eight hours a day on a crowded corner to be abducted.

It all amounts to the childproofing of our society. Americans today are bumper bowling where past generations actually risked rolling their balls into the gutter.

"These guys and women are going to run into a lot more difficult things in their life than climbing this monument if it was greased," Crevelt said of this year's tame Herndon climb. "I mean, a group of high-school cheerleaders could get up the monument in a couple minutes. They've taken the entire concept of a challenge out of it."

The lesson from Annapolis this week? Sometimes it's OK to leave the lard. Not everything needs to be so squeaky-clean.

Listen to Michael Smerconish weekdays 5-9 a.m. on the Big Talker, 1210/AM. Read him Sundays in the Inquirer. Contact him via the Web at www.smerconish.com.