Excerpt from Chapter 7

If the gang of rowdy, ill-mannered boys who followed the young Stephen Decatur—“Decatur’s wolf pack”—had been an actual brood of wolf cubs, Kirkpatrick would clearly have been the runt of the litter. A year or more younger than Decatur and two years before his growth spurt would begin, Kirkpatrick was fittingly called “shrimpy,” “skinny,” and names worse than that—when the boys deigned to notice him at all. Invariably, his attempts to join them caused him to be angrily chased away.


Detail from painting by John Atkinson Grimshaw 1887


Kirkpatrick lay in his bed, fully dressed, at 9:00 in the evening. As the sounds of church bells across Philadelphia arguing over the proper time faded into silence, Kirkpatrick heard Decatur’s rallying cry, the call of a wolf, strong and clear in the night air among the empty streets and warehouses surrounding the navy yard. Doyle darted out of bed, ran to the window, lifted the sash, and let himself out onto the roof below, crabbing rapidly across it until he reached the eaves and could lower himself down to the ground by the drainpipe. He sprinted as fast as his legs could move towards the Philadelphia Navy Yard: the rally point for Decatur’s gang. Kirkpatrick ducked quickly through the hole in the fence the boys had opened and hid behind a large pile of discarded cordage where he could see the gang’s headquarters—an abandoned cooper’s shop. Minutes later, once he was certain all the gang members had entered the shop, Kirkpatrick crept to a gap in the shop’s broken siding where he could observe without being seen. This time he was determined to stay hidden and just listen.

Inside, Decatur quieted the happy babbling of the boys around him with a loud “Avast, you swabbies! Hear this! Now hear this! Attend to orders from the quarterdeck!” Decatur hopped agilely on top of an old locker to address his crew. “Tomorrow night we begin with a proper cutting out expedition, as bold and daring as ever taken against the tyrannical English or any other foe. I mean to take the United States for my own and run my flag up her mast!” and with that he yanked his straw hat off and waved it above his head to a chorus of cheers. Kirkpatrick listened to Decatur’s plan, then headed home as quietly as he had come.

The next evening, Decatur led the gang out of the cooper’s shop. Ducking behind buildings and scurrying through shadowed open spaces, they reached the bow of the United States, moored to the wharf. The United States was one of the navy’s newly commissioned frigates, built in the Philadelphia navy yard and launched a week before. She was now in the first stages of rigging, with her aft mizzenmast raised and stepped with its shrouds in place. Even without most of its rigging, the oak sides of the ship rose above them like a dark fortress in the moonlight. Decatur ordered Dickie Somers to reconnoiter the watchmen in their hut twenty yards from the stern of the United States; Somers returned at a bent-over run to report that as expected, the two watchmen were well into their evening companionship with a jug of whiskey—with no thought to anything going on outside their hut.

From where he was hidden on the wharf a few feet away, Kirkpatrick watched Decatur and the rest of the boys shinny up the thick hawser of the United States’ bow mooring line to the hawse hole where the line left the ship. They reached up to the bowsprit fore chains and climbed aboard, Decatur calling “shhh!” to quiet their excited, whispered chatter. When Kirkpatrick was sure Decatur and his gang had all gone aft to the base of the mizzen mast in the rear of the ship, he climbed aboard and hid amidst the piles of gear on deck. Kirkpatrick looked upward to the top of the mizzen mast. It rose to the mizzen top, a broad platform from which the mizzen foremast would be supported. Above the mizzen top, a single temporary spar had been rigged to aid in raising the mainmast in the middle of the ship.

“That’s where I will fly my flag!” said Decatur to the boys around him, pointing to the naked wooden spar above the mizzen top, swaying back and forth with the rolling of the ship.

“But Stephen,” Dickie Somers objected. “There’s no rigging—no shrouds to climb!”

“I care not for that; I’ll shinny up it like a monkey,” said Decatur, then added, “Somers with me. Perkins—clap an eye on the watchmen’s hut and warn us if anything stirs.” With that, Decatur and Somers mounted the ladder of mizzen shrouds on the far side of the ship away from the watchmen’s hut, and rapidly scaled up to the mizzen top. Oblivious to the movement of the spar as the ship rolled, Decatur shinned up to the peak, then looping an arm over the forward guy rope, pulled off his straw hat and held it against the spar. Yanking a knife from his belt, he drove the blade through the hat brim deeply into the wood. He slid back down to the mizzen top, embraced Somers as they both admired Decatur’s “flag,” and the two boys scurried down the shrouds, barely able to contain their laughter. When they reached the deck, the rest of the gang broke into loud “Huzzahs!” “Nobly done!” “The finest thing!” as they clustered, cheering, around their leader.

They didn’t need Perkins to alert them that their shouting had roused the watchmen. The two watchmen stumbled out of their hut, wooden clubs in hand, looked for the source of the noise, and immediately spotted the boys at the base of the mizzen mast. “Get the hell off that ship, you damned little weasels!” one yelled, “or we’ll skin the hides off ye and nail them to the mast!” Decatur quickly gauged the distance forward to the bow line they had used to board the ship and the now running watchmen and yelled, “Abandon ship. Every man for himself!” He then stepped to the aft taffrail, poised on top for a second, and dove cleanly into the water below, followed with shouts and catcalls by the other boys. “Look y’ here, old Deadeye,” Decatur called from the water to the head watchman. “Your ship’s been captured! If you want to strike her new flag, climb up and do it yourself. We’ll come back after you’re good and drunk and warp her out to sea!” The watchmen hurled scraps of wood and metal at the boys to no effect, and then settled for curses as Decatur’s gang swam to safety on a nearby pier. Kirkpatrick stayed hidden aboard the United States.

Kirkpatrick waited until the wharf was quiet again, then made his way aft to the mizzen mast. The wind had picked up, and the United States was pitching even harder in the heavier swells. He pulled from his pocket the long winter scarf his Aunt Bessie had given him for Christmas, a startlingly ugly thing of blue, red, and white wool that he had worn only once to school, to the resounding mockery of his classmates. You’ll grow into it, Aunt Bessie had cheerfully said as Kirkpatrick had stared at its impossible length. I’d need to become a giant to do that, he’d thought. Winding the scarf loosely around his neck, Kirkpatrick climbed the shrouds to stand on the swaying mizzen main top, grasping a guy rope for balance, the deck now fifty feet below. Above him, the spar reached another thirty-five feet up to Stephen’s hat, now gyrating back and forth as the ship rocked. I can’t do this, was his first thought. I must, was his second, and he started up. The ascent terrified Kirkpatrick; his arms and legs, shorter than Decatur’s, could just reach around the spar, which was getting more slippery as the moist sea breeze increased. Another foot up, he kept telling himself. Don’t look down; don’t look down!

After what felt like a timeless battle to inch upward, he finally got to the top and saw Decatur’s hat, firmly fixed to the spar. Kirkpatrick tried to link his arm over the same guy rope Decatur had used, but realized in a spurt of fear, I can’t reach it! He clung to the swaying top, and took a deep breath, forcing his racing thoughts to become quiet. Use the ship’s roll! The idea popped into his mind, unbidden. Kirkpatrick unwound the scarf with one hand, squeezed even tighter against the spar, and as the ship’s roll pushed him forward, passed the scarf around the spar with both hands—just catching it in time to desperately tighten his grasp as the backward swing of the spar began. Taking advantage of the ship’s steady rocking motion, Kirkpatrick hastily tied three hitches around the scarf and snugged it tight against the spar just below Decatur’s hat, then paused to recover himself.

He allowed his eyes to lift away from the spar toward the watchmen’s hut, now no larger than a doghouse eighty-five feet below him. To his horror, he saw one of the watchmen walk outside the hut. Kirkpatrick froze against the spar. Above him, his scarf gaily danced its full length in the wind. Kirkpatrick was clearly, ridiculously visible in the moonlight. Don’t look up! Kirkpatrick prayed. His prayers were rewarded when the watchman stretched, walked to the side of the hut, urinated against a pile of rubbish, and came back inside, never taking his eyes off the ground. With the spar’s roll to help him, Kirkpatrick slid down to the mizzen maintop, dropped through the lubber’s hole in the center of the top to reach the mizzen shrouds, and descended to safety once again on the deck. A few minutes later, he was racing along the wharf back to the cooper’s shop and Decatur’s gang.

Kirkpatrick burst into their meeting and strode up to Decatur. “Able bodied seaman Kirkpatrick reporting for duty, sir!” he cried, in as deep and grownup a voice as he could manage, and gave what he imagined was a proper salute, right knuckle to his forehead. He was greeted with jeers from the startled gang. “Did someone fart? I heard a noise.” “Look here, Decatur, we really must board up this shack. Any kind of rat or vermin can come in as they please!” “Pop back into whatever hole you came out of, Skinny, and stay there!” “Get the hell out of here, pipsqueak, before we strip you, beat you, and send you back to your Momma, naked and bawling.” Decatur just looked at Kirkpatrick in silence.

“What do you mean to tell us, Kirkpatrick?” he asked. The room quieted.

“If you go to the United States, now,” Kirkpatrick replied, “you will find a broad pennant below your flag. You will recognize the colors.”

“The devil you say,” cried Decatur. He took another look at the expression on Kirkpatrick’s face, then hopped off his perch and ran for the door. “Follow me, boys!” What they saw as they spilled outside the shop was the mizzen mast and spar of the United States, majestically rising over the roofs of the surrounding buildings, with Decatur’s hat at the peak now bright in the moonlight, and Kirkpatrick’s scarf trailing triumphantly in the breeze beneath it.

Decatur was the first to come back into the shop, his face now lit up by a huge grin. The boys crowded excitedly around Kirkpatrick, and Decatur put his right hand on Kirkpatrick’s shoulder. He looked Kirkpatrick up and down, then met his eyes. “If that isn’t the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen,” Decatur said. “Welcome aboard, shipmate. Welcome aboard.”

Share This