For a moment it seemed as if 8-year-old Adam Patula wanted to flee.
Just minutes before, he and his brother Jared, 5, had been ordinary tourists from Acme, Pennsylvania, wandering with their parents on the deck of the 152-year-old USS Constellation, moored in Baltimore's Inner Harbor.
But now the boys had become "powder monkeys," the lowest-level sailors aboard the Constellation in the sloop's early years as a fighting ship. Powder monkeys were boys ages 11 to 17 who earned $6 a month hoisting sails and carrying gunpowder and iron projectiles from below deck during battles. The work was hard and dangerous.
Just about any other sailor could boss around a powder monkey, which is what Able Seaman Elan Sprouse was doing to Adam, Jared and seven other visitors to the Constellation last Saturday. They had agreed to serve a short tour as powder monkeys to see what it was like.
Sprouse wanted them to pull on a "brace," a rope as thick as one of Jared's arms that would move the big "mizzen" sail so that it catches the wind.
"On the mizzen braces!" Sprouse boomed.
Adam and the other monkeys answered in small, quivering voices: "On the mizzen braces, aye."
"I've had first-graders louder than that," Sprouse yelled. "Let's hear it: On the mizzen braces!"
"ON THE MIZZEN BRACES, AYE!" the monkeys shouted, pulling with all their might and looking up to see a huge horizontal wooden timber (the "yard," from which the sail would hang) swiveling 50 feet over their heads.
Adam looked up and smiled: "Whoa, it's turning!"
It was just one of the experiences kids can have by joining a powder monkey crew on the Constellation. The one-hour tours are offered on weekends and through special arrangements.
The graceful old "sloop of war" had some exciting missions in the 1850s and '60s. It helped capture slave ships in the Atlantic and protected U.S. merchant vessels in the Mediterranean. Today, it's a kind of floating classroom.
Adam and the others also learned what sailors ate in the days before refrigeration. The monkeys clambered down to the lower deck to examine some rock-like food items, including hardtack (brick-like bread) and salt pork (an aging slab of meat stored in salt to keep it from spoiling).
"It doesn't smell too good or look too good," said Tyler Anderson, 9, of Ballston Lake, New York.
The accommodations weren't much, either. Powder monkeys slept in canvas hammocks that dangled from the low ceiling.
The Constellation tour ends with a bang when a crewman fires a big cannon-like gun. Even with just a quarter-pound of gunpowder (rather than the two pounds needed to blast an iron shell), there was a startling BOOM!
Tyler closed his mouth to keep from swallowing papery wisps of ash: "Whoa, that was so cool!"
-- Fern Shen