Sam Hicks, being just an overgrown boy, wasn't thinking too carefully as he raked the comb through his matted hair.
Sam likes to eat and he spends a lot of time around the dinner table of the Navy's 65-foot training schooner Mistral. Usually that's no problem. The rest of the dozen midshipmen who make up Mistral's crew on the big boat's current two-month Atlantic cruise don't give Sam's habits a second thought.
But Louise Burke has a few standards left, anyway.
"Sam!" she howled through a mouthful of peanut butter sandwich.
"For heaven's sake find somewhere better to comb your hair than over the soup pot. Yuk."
"Geez," said Sam sheepishly, "you sound just like my mother."
Burke has heard that one before, more times than she cares to remember.
"That's what they all say," she mused. "Never a mother on my own, and now look what I'm stuck with."
She waved an arm limply at the assemblage of man-children, the mids she was helping to squire from Annapolis to Nova Scotia to Bermuda to the Virgin Islands nand back to Annapolis.
Louise Burke is a tough cookie from Swampscott, Mass., who discovered 10 years ago that she and land didn't mix all that well. So Burke and her husband, Les, gave up their roots and set to sea on other people's yachts.
"I'm a boat bum," she explained. "People ask me where the poor people are. I tell them they're all out sailing on the rich people's yatchs, like me."
A few years back Les died and Burke was stuck with the fact that while a lonely life with her husband and the sea suited her fine, just she and the sea was a little much.
"I never had the same friends for more than a month."
Then two years ago there came a happy compromise when she and the Navy hit on a pact that seems to profit both.
"I arrived at Annapolis the same day they got Mistral," she said.
"They looked at her and they looked at me and they put the two together. I'm married to this boat."
It's more than a marriage of convenience. Mistral was built in Saugus, Mass., not far from Burke's home town, in 1939, not far from Burke's own birthdate. Only time will tell, but it could be they were made for each other.
As executive officer of Mistral, Burke is responsible for overseeing the boat's upkeep and improvements. The Navy has complete yard facilities in Annapolis, where in the last two years Mistral's deck has been completely rebuilt, her wiring redone, her navigational aids augmented and her brightworl and topsides sanded, varnished, painted and polished.
Much of the most recent work has been done by the 12 mids now sailing her on the ocean blue, and all of it has been done under the watchful eye of Burke. That sounds good, but it isn't easy.
Burke doesn't say so, but Gen. Robert Taber, captain of the boat on her current cruise, said Burke's lot is not a simple one.
"She's a civilian, of course," he said, "so she doesn't have any real clout. Everything she gets done involves a little begging and a little cajoling. It's been hard on her, particularly the last weeks [preparing for the trip]. She's been working 18 hours a day. She's pretty worn out."
It hasn't slowed her. On the first day of Mistral's journey Burke was curiously absent from the deck, where the mids were enjoying their first breath of salt air. We found her down below, sprawled on the cabin floor with her hands full of greasy gaskets and plungers.
It was the head on the port side. It wouldn't pump out the Navy effluent. Burke rebuilt it in four hours without a grumble. She can put up with rebuilding balky toilets in a rolling sea. But please, don't scratch your head over the soup pot.