by Cathy Ervin
Plebes are supposed to follow the rules, but sometimes they cant help making some new ones.
Hey Tully, lets go look at the sailboats, I said, leading my four-year-old nephew along the wooden dock. The dock lined the perimeter of a small harbor full of sailboats before wrapping around to the Robert Crown Sailing Center, home of the Navy Sailing Team.
I closed my eyes and took a breath of the moist Bay air, full of the familiar smell of rotted wood, saltwater and tar. Tall masts rocked back and forth mechanically in the wind. Among them were smaller boats, Lasers, which brought back memories.
Tully, would you like to hear a fun story?
Sitting on the smooth wood, I dangled my legs over the edge of the dock
Yes! Tully exclaimed, and he sat down beside me.
Since you already know about John Paul Jones, the famous privateer, I am going to tell you a story about two pirates.
Tullys eyes widened and a smile stretched across his freckle-kissed face.
See these small ships? I asked, pointing across the water to the Lasers. The pirates sailed in one of those ships.
|Editors Note: A new class of Plebes the class of 2008 entered the United States Naval Academy on June 30. They are now doing many new training programs, from learning to march and sail to mastering military courtesies, ethics and honor so that when the rest of the Brigade returns in August, the Plebes transition in seamlessly.
As images of treasure, blood-thirsty pirates and cannonballs filled my nephews head, I began my swashbuckling story of a pair of pirates who had once ruled the high seas of the Severn
Rigging for Trouble
At 1:30 on a Tuesday afternoon of my Plebe Summer, I was wearing my regulation blue-and-gold bathing suit and mandatory navy-blue baseball cap. I had just taken off my white works and had folded them neatly, placing them alongside the dock at the Sailing Center.
What an awesome day for sailing, I thought. Looking up into the clouds, I drifted away. My body soaked up the warmth, relaxing and clearing all stressful Plebe-thoughts.
A gentle hand on my shoulder brought me back. My roommate, Melissa, a small, frail, half-Asian girl was also my friend. We counted that good luck, for only 10 percent of the Academy was female so the odds of a good match were slim. Not only was Melissa kind and caring, she was a little on the crazy side, like me, and together we spelled either fun or trouble.
Lets go grab a boat, Melissa said with her mischievous smile. Youre my partner, right?
Definitely, I said, clipping on my helmet.
Lined up in orderly rows along the dock were small white sailing vessels about the size of a kayak with room for only two people. Melissa and I flipped a boat over onto its bottom so we could put the mast into place and rig the sail.
As I grabbed hold of the mast, I looked out across the Severn River. The water was a palette of blues, splattered with sapphire, cobalt and navy. The sunlight sparkled on the tops of waves splashing up against the sides of the dock. The light reflecting off the white sides of the boat blinded my eyes.
A symphony of sounds surrounded us: cries from seagulls swooping overhead, beating canvas battered by the wind and sloshing water striking the sides of the boats. The music was interrupted by the voices of our instructors.
They were newly ordained ensigns, fresh out of the Academy and now officially part of the Navy. Their first assignment was as Plebe Summer sailing instructors. This tour of duty required a lot of time in the sun and a lot of effort driving around motorboats.
The instructors all wore the same uniform: Oakley sunglasses, navy-blue collared shirts, khaki shorts and canvas shoes. Their bodies were relaxed from the hours spent on the water and bronzed from the hours exposed to the rays.Navys finest, I thought to myself as two instructors strolled by, laughing. They stopped in front of Melissa and me and glared down at us.
What are you two waiting for? snapped the taller one. Before we could answer, they rolled their eyes and continued on their way.
This Class of 98 is the worst yet, mumbled the instructor in the yellow jacket.
Tell me about it, sighed the taller one. They seem to be getting more and more slack each year.
Melissa looked up from the knot she had been struggling with to see my face change. Whats the matter Cath? she asked.
That instructor over there: I know her.
I had recognized Ensign Schmitt, an arrogant blonde who had been one of my cadres at the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, Rhode Island. A cadre was a midshipman who spent four weeks out of their summer up at NAPS training new recruits. This training, called Indoc, was a smaller version of the Academys Plebe Summer. Schmitt and I had never hit it off. I threw Melissa a look of disgust.
Another one of the Navys finest, I moaned as I looked down, hoping not to be noticed.
Ensign Schmitt pranced over to us with her neck strained and her nose pointing to the sky.
Ladies, lets get the boats rigged, okay? she said with an over-dramatic sigh. I dont have all day or the patience to put up with you, she said, her ice-cold eyes looking straight at me.
Aye-aye, Maam, I said loudly as she strutted back to her motorboat.
Wouldnt it be funny if she asked you to say the Man in the Arena? Melissa laughed, and I couldnt help but smile.
My reciting Man in the Arena by Teddy Roosevelt was becoming a common occurrence in 34th Company. My roommate, along with every other plebe, knew of my struggle with memorization and with the continuous upper-class harassment that went along with it. Many of my classmates empathized with me, but I knew that most never bothered to memorize the passage they knew they would never be asked to. They knew they would only ever hear: Ervin:
Man in the Arena. Go!
We better get movin here, I said.
Sailing off Course
The dock was almost empty, and the Bay was filling up with boats whose captains had paid attention during the briefing. That afternoon, we had been shown a demonstration video of the lesson for the day at the Sailing Center. I found it for the extra time it gave me to study my Reef Points. Instead of paying attention, I concentrated on the small navy-blue book I kept with me at all times.
Reef Points, another Academy tradition, is a 235-page handbook that every Plebe was required to know from cover to cover (Reef Points 10). Its full of information on academy history, officer insignia, famous quotes and military conduct. It even includes a section on Naval Academy Slang.
As Plebes, we were asked questions from this palm-size book at all times of the day by every upperclassman we encountered. Whenever there was an extra minute in our daily routine, Reef Points came out. It was a common sight to see a Plebe with lowered head and Reef Points opened. I would often open mine as I stood in line, waited in my room or sat in classes, as I had in todays sailing lesson.
Lasers are such tiny boats that they are not too difficult to put together. The hard part for me was remembering how the knots were supposed to be tied. Even the metaphors that were used to help us out mixed me up. When tying a slip knot the bunny (being the end of the rope) had to go around a tree, then through a hole. My bunny could never seem to get it straight. By the time we had finished tying the ropes in place, I had invented at least five new knots.
I figured if the knot holds, then why worry how it was tied. Luckily for Melissa and me, the knots managed to work.
After the mast went up, the sail was rigged and the boom tied in place, we were ready to shove off. We took our positions, Melissa at the rudder and I in charge of the sail.
A small gust pushed against the canvas, and in no time we were drifting away from the dock. I adjusted my helmet strap and tightened my yellow life jacket as I looked ahead to the bobbing buoys beckoning us to begin.
The smell of the saltwater lingered in the air, and I could taste it in the wind that blew across my face. I was excited as I looked out across the water. The Bay was spotted with tiny white sails. I looked up at the golden sun shining down and thought that this was the first time that Plebe Summer actually felt like summer.
Then a shrill whistle cut through the air. Our sailing instructors sped toward us in their motorboats. Their shirt collars flapped in the wind, and the sun glared off of their Oaklies. With one hand on the wheel and the other in the air, they motioned us in the direction of the orange buoys. Our training for today was to practice figure eights around the buoys.
Melissa, who was sitting to my left, held on to the wooden lever that moved the rudder back and forth. Like the steering wheel of a car, the rudder guided the boat.
I held on to the ropes, pulling them or loosening them depending on the amount of wind caught in the sail. The sail, like an engine, was the power behind the boat. It harnessed the wind, which was the engines fuel.
The wind would hit our sail on either side, shifting the sail away from us or bringing it toward us. The sail, which looked like a giant white shark fin, was attached to a horizontal metal bar, the boom, and a vertical bar, the mast. The boom was at the same level as our heads as we sat.
When the sail caught the wind, it would pivot the boom around, making us duck to avoid being knocked over. We were constantly ducking, moving the rudder, switching sides and pulling ropes. It was like a dance, for you had to be in sync with your partner to make it work. In no time at all, Melissa and I were waltzing across the Bay.
Four Boats Closing in on Five
After our third figure eight on the course, we figured we had mastered the skills pretty well. Now it was time for something new. I reached over the side of the boat and ran my hand through the cool, inviting water.
It may be a perfect day for swimming, I said.
I was just thinking the same thing, she replied playfully. I was noticing how warm Matt and Eddie look over there.\
They may need to be cooled off. What do ya think?
Im sure that they could use a bit of refreshment, I said with an evil laugh.
Melissa and I steered away from the buoys, changing our course.
Ready about, I commanded.
I was preparing us to tack, putting the front of our boat through the eye of the wind.
The wind punched our sail, Melissa turned the rudder, and in no time we were facing our target.
Full speed ahead! I shouted as our boat sliced through the choppy water.
I held the wind captive while keeping my eyes fixed on our enemy target.
Hey Martin, I yelled to my skipper, imitating an upperclassman, Are your eyes in the boat?
Yes Maam! she replied.
As Plebes, we were required to always have our eyes in the boat, looking straight ahead. Any movement of our eyeball away from that fixed position was considered a lack of bearing and discipline.
Soon we were closing in on our targets. Matt and Eddie glanced our way, unaware that we were heading straight for them. As our boat continued to charge, the boys seemed to care less.
Hey Melissa, I pointed toward our target, Look at the guys.
They dont seem a bit worried do they? Melissa said, squinting into the sun.
They probably think that were just having a problem tacking, I said as I pulled on a rope.
We were closing rapidly on our target.
Mind your helm! I yelled to Melissa, noticing that we were veering slightly to the left. She adjusted the rudder.
Hey guys, I said angelically.
The boys eyes widened with worry, but before either of them could utter a word, their bodies jarred with the impact as metal collided with metal. The two boats crunched and scraped until the boys boat tipped over on to its starboard side.
! one yelled as both boys tipped along with the boat. The splash was followed by Melissas cry of man overboard!
The boys sail was now lying flat atop the water. Two bald heads bobbed in the water, screaming profanities into the salty air.
Mission complete: both passengers wet! I said as I slapped Melissa a high-five.
I like this training much better, she said, retying her brown ponytail.
Weve got a whole fleet to pick from, Melissa said.
In 20 minutes, we had destroyed four ships and had a fifth in our sights.
Lets get those two over there. It looks like Amy and Liz, said Melissa, pointing a finger ahead of us.
Our Fifth Kill
Enemy straight ahead
all hands on deck, I said as we ducked under the swaying boom. Tacking and holding our course steady, we were only inches behind Amy and Liz, on their port side.
Hey girls: Are you enjoying the day? Melissa asked as we pulled in for the kill.
We had perfected a ramming technique to destroy our enemies. We came out of nowhere, so our victims had no time to react before the big collision. Now the other Plebes were catching on. Theyd spot us coming and change direction so that their boat would end up parallel with ours. Instead of colliding, the two boats brushed by one another.
Liz and Amy had caught on and were now steering away from us. But they hadnt
|Author Cathy Ervin and her partner in crime, Melissa Martin in their class photo with the Plebes of 34th company.
anticipated Melissas new plan of attack.
Pull our boat as close as you can to theirs, Melissa directed me.
Okay I agreed, still unsure of what she was doing. I caught the ledge of the other boat and pulled, shortening the gap.
Hows it going guys, I asked the confused girls.
Whats going on? one demanded.
I looked up to see Melissa with one leg in our boat and the other in theirs.
Hold on Cath, she yelled, grabbing hold of their mast. I shifted to keep our boat from tipping.
Melissa was now hanging from their mast, rocking their boat. Before the girls had time to react, she pushed with all her strength and jumped back into our boat.
Amy and Lizs boat capsized in one swift motion. I felt like a getaway driver as I fled the scene of the crime, my partner still hanging off the side.
Oh yeah! we both yelled as we pulled away from the sunken ship.
Chalk that one up for another kill, I said as Amy and Liz struggled to flip their sailboat back over.
Our attack on the Fleet of Plebes lasted for half an hour. As we counted an increasing number of heads bobbing in the Bay, we knew it had been successful. Our classmates werent entirely angry at us for using them as targets, for theyd gotten to cool off in the water. Wed just completed another kill, when Uh-Ooo
Melissa said softly.
What? I asked.
Then I saw the problem, too. A motorboat was hydroplaning across the surface of the water straight toward us.
Here comes the Navys finest,
I said, making out two ensigns onboard. A static voice shot through the salty air: You two! Out of your boat now!
"Oh well, I said. It was fun while it lasted.
Yeah, and lucky for them we havent figured out how to capsize a motor boat yet, Melissa laughed.
Out of your boat! Now! the voice boomed. You two are going to shore!
As the motorboat pulled up beside us, Melissa and I climbed aboard.
Both ensigns had their sunglasses propped up on their head and their hands on their hips. One of them was my nemesis.
Wait until your upper class hear about this one, Schmitt hissed as she fixed us with her piercing, cold eyes.
The other ensign grabbed the megaphone and yelled, You should never mess with us! ever!
Melissa and I rode back to the dock in silence, but I smiled at the sight of a few white sails still lying in the water.
You think this is funny, Ervin? Schmitt said, catching my smile. Soon you wont be laughing.
Praying for Deliverance
Back at the dock, Melissa and I stood in silence. I wondered which upper class was coming to pick us up today.
Usually at the end of a training session, one of our upperclassmen would march us back to Bancroft Hall. Today our fate would be in the hands of this upperclassman. If Richardson, Conaster, Moorehead or Merrill came, we were surely dead. I prayed for Mr. Weide to come.
Now I scanned the approach road to see what fate might be coming. In the distance, I saw a very slim and tall figure. He held his body straight as a board and held his head high. His carriage reflected pride and control.
Thank you, God. Its Mr. Weide.
Melissa and I both waited in suspense as Weide marched to the ensigns lounging in their motorboat. Schmitt pointed to us; then she motioned to the water and to the other Plebes. Her hands were flying, trying to keep up with her mouth.
Weide listened silently with his arms crossed and his head nodding. Now and then, he glanced toward us, but I could not tell whether he was angry or disappointed. Whatever he was, though, he was not happy.
Im beginning to think that we shouldnt have done what we did, I whispered to Melissa.
Dont worry, roomie, she whispered back. Mr. Weide will take care of things.
Im not so sure of that anymore. I mean, look at him.
The last thing I wanted to do was disappoint Mr. Weide. He was the type of leader I wanted to be. He was tough and disciplined, yet he knew how to laugh and have fun. He could smile the largest smile I had ever seen, a grin that went from ear to ear.
Mr. Weides Judgment
Melissa and I waited on the dock until the rest of the Plebes had finished their exercises. As we waited, I pulled out my Reef Points for my daily task of trying to memorize Man in the Arena. As I reread the words who errs and comes short again and again, I reflected on what Melissa and I had done. The more I thought of it, the more I regretted it.
As the fleet of wet Plebes returned to the dock, we earned a barrage of laughs and smirks.
With our classmates, we marched back to the Hall. We were to change into PEP gear, our blue-rim T-shirts, our navy shorts and our running shoes. We all knew that PEP gear meant physical torture. I had feared this was coming, and I felt bad knowing that Melissa and I were the ones to blame.
Before Melissa and I could change, Mr. Weides Marine Corps bark came echoing throughout the P-way. Ervin
Martin! Hit a bulkhead now!
Here it comes, I thought.
Get out here now! he barked.
We ran out of our room and squared the corner.
Beat Army, Sir! we yelled and squared another corner.
Beat Army, Sir! we yelled even louder. Then we pounded our hands three times against the bulkhead, did an about face and braced up at attention. In other words, we hit a cinder-block wall, turned around 180 degrees then pressed our chins down on to our chests while standing at attention.
The angry faces of Mr. Grant and Mr. Weide loomed only inches from us. It felt like two grenades had rolled into our P-way, leaving me and Melissa trapped with nowhere to run for cover. We stood frozen in fear, waiting for the explosion.
What in the hell were you two thinking today? Mr. Weide boomed.
Do you know how bad you made us look in front of those ensigns? Mr. Grant banged.
They informed us that you not only blew off your lesson, but that you also risked the safety of the other Plebes. Why am I always dealing with you, Ervin? Grant hollered an inch from my ear.
Both exploded for a good five minutes. When they stopped, my ears rang in the silence.
Then, after the smoke had cleared, Mr. Weide asked softly, How many kills did you get Ervin?
Twelve! Excellent job, you two, Mr. Weide said, smiling the smile I never thought Id see again.
I think that 12 is definitely a record! declared Mr. Grant.
Why dont you two get back in there and change into some dry clothes, Mr. Weide said.
Melissa and I stood in our room dripping saltwater onto our meticulously waxed floor.
? I said to my partner in crime.
That was crazy, Melissa gasped. I thought for sure we were
In trouble! I said, finishing her sentence. Relief swept over me as I changed into my dry PEP gear.
At evening meal, Mr. Grant and Mr. Weide announced our accomplishments to the company: We had single-handedly taken out six enemy ships and pissed off two of the most disliked ensigns at the Academy.
Melissa and I had our eyes in the boat and were unable to look at each other. Still, I knew that her smile was as big as mine, and that she may have even lifted up her chin a little bit higher, as I had done.
And that, I told Tully, is the true story of how your aunt came to be a pirate.
||About the Author
Cathy Ervin, of Annapolis, left the Naval Academy after one year to follow another dream, working with children. She is the founder of EO-Challenge, a program combining outdoor adventure with education. This story is a chapter from her book on her Naval Academy years, In the Arena.
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