Standing on the battered flight deck of the doomed aircraft carrier Hornet during the 1942 Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands in the South Pacific, Navy Steward Charles W. Brooks looked ahead of him at the long line of men waiting to board lifeboats and at the heaving sea below.
"Lord, if you let me live I will serve you for the rest of my days," Brooks prayed.
Once saved, most men forget battlefield promises. But Brooks became deeply religious and has labored for 34 years to fulfill his pledge by working with city youth. District Mayor Marion Barry, in recognition of that service, proclaimed Nov. 11 Charles W. Brooks Day.
"They don't come like Mr. Brooks every day," the Rev. Carey E. Pointer told the friends and family who gathered for a salute to Brooks that was held 10 days ago at Mount Carmel Baptist Church. "Rarely has one man done so much, for so many, for so long and for so little," Pointer added.
Former colleagues and members of the innumerable youth groups Brooks has organized over the years echoed Pointer in a parade of tributes and appreciations.
"Charles Brooks has probably been more effective than all the psychiatrists the school board ever hired," said Dennis Evans, a church administrator who worked closely with Brooks at one time. "He had a great feeling for young people, and only God knows how many of them he saved to become good citizens."
Brooks, 63, a short, unprepossessing man, shrugs off such praise.
"I promised to serve the Lord that day back on the ship," he said. "The best way I know how to do that is by helping other people."
Brooks came to Washington from Houston in 1950 after his former commanding officer from the Hornet, Adm. George D. Murray, offered to help him find a job.
Brooks had served as Murray's steward. After the war, Murray was trying to develop an after-school program for youths in the District.
Brooks came, and within a year he had organized the first of his many champion precision drill teams.
During off hours from his job at the National Security Agency, Brooks begged and borrowed money to buy instruments and uniforms for his teams and often spent part of his modest salary treating his charges to hamburgers and soft drinks after practices and competitions.
Two or three nights every week, in the basement of his home in Adams-Morgan, Brooks rehearsed 40 to 50 youngsters in steps and movements, forming them into a precise drill team. He also instilled in them a sense of self-discipline and pride.
"Drilling was like dancing for us," recalled Senioree Austin, now a member of Mount Carmel Baptist Church, who joined one of Brooks' early teams in 1955. "It gave us a way to get rid of all that adolescent energy that might otherwise have gone into mischief-making."
During the 1960s, Brooks, concerned about the large number of students who were receiving failing grades because of habitual tardiness, persuaded school officials to let him start the Early Bird Program at Cardozo High School at 13th and Clifton streets NW.
Every morning at six o'clock sharp, Brooks put on activities -- from ping-pong tournaments to cooking contests -- that even die-hard late-comers couldn't resist. The students showed up early for the fun and remained for classes.
"The secret of his great success was that he always approached problems from where they were, recognizing what their needs were," Evans said. "He encouraged them to believe that they could do well and that they had a potential to fulfill."
Brooks worked the streets as well, reaching out to the angry, alienated young men and women he met on street corners and in parks. His message never varied, and it usually worked.
"He made them understand that they were somebody," recalled Evans, "that God loved them and that they were never going to get anywhere in life doing what they were doing."
For all his efforts, Brooks received little official recognition and no pay. "He was a volunteer through and through," recalled Carver Leach, director of the city's Department of Recreation's Roving Leader Program.
"Some people always want to know when they're going to get paid," Leach said. "Charles never talked about that. He just seemed to want to get the job done."
Working during the day for the government to support his family of five children and working at night to help others meant sacrifices at home. Spending time with other people's children meant not always spending enough time with his own, he said. And "we didn't have money to fix up the house."
Eventually it all took its toll. In 1971 Brooks retired from NSA after suffering two major heart attacks.
After he recovered he went back to his volunteer work.
One of his projects was helping Ed Jackson, a District social worker and Advisory Neighborhood commissioner of Ward 1, gain support for Hollyday House, a proposed youth center.
"It rained cats and dogs the day we were supposed to go out working the streets, and all my volunteers reneged -- except Charles and his drill team," Jackson recalled.
"Along came Charles marching at the head of those kids in the driving rain. When people saw them out there in that weather working for something they believed in -- that Charles had made them believe in -- they just opened up their hearts and gave us whatever they could."
Brooks recently accepted his first job that pays him to deal with kids. He is a "counselor of last resort" at Kramer Junior High School in Anacostia. He gets the kids who are disciplinary problems, chronically late and with poor academic records.
"In 33 years, this is the first time anyone has ever paid me anything for any of my volunteer work," Brooks said. He earns $124 every two weeks.
His own children are all grown now. Four live at home and a fifth is in suburban Maryland. Brooks hopes to set up a nonprofit organization so that the children can carry on his work but "I don't want them to suffer like I did to do this work," he said.
But Brooks added, "I have no regrets. This is the duty I promised God the day he saved me. And I've kept my promise."