The sky hangs pale blue and cloudless over Curtis Bay Coast Guard Yard as two sea cadet corps units march toward Building 27. The temperature is climbing toward the 80s.
Behind a roll-up door is a maze-like room as black as a coal mine chamber. It's roiling with machine-generated, non-toxic smoke and littered with obstacles. Five cadets put on air tanks and masks, readying themselves to enter this smoky nightmare.
They are the first to enter and to learn the hands-on aspect of today's fire-fighting lesson. Their faces are obscured by the masks, but their body language says they are intent on their mission.
"Remember guys, the key is teamwork," says instructor Jack Basford of the Wise Avenue Volunteer Fire Company. "It's the most important thing in fire fighting, it's the most important thing in football, in baseball, everything in life."
The young people he coaches are members of the Tecumseh Division of the U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps and the Frigate Constellation Division of the Navy League Cadets. These youngsters, who fancy the principles of self-discipline and teamwork, train together one weekend a month under the guidance of 10 adult volunteers. And while today's lesson is on fire fighting, the larger lessons they learn will inform their lives from now on.
As U.S. troops are being dispatched to hot spots all over the world, these cadets are getting a graphic look at real military life through news reports. For some, the corps is a no-obligation internship to explore the military as a possible career. For others who've already made the A youngster in the Tecumseh Division of the U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps participates in fire-fighting training at Curtis Bay Coast Guard Yard. Many of the cadets, boys and girls who range in age from 13 to 17, will go on to careers in the military. A similar group, the Navy League Cadet Corps, is for youngsters ages 11 to 13. At right, sea cadets (from left) Cara Baykowski, 14, John Bamberger, 14, Eric Kemp, 14, and James Ferrell, 15, discuss the firefighting exercise decision to join up, it's a head start in a job-tight world. And the corps looks mighty good to recruiters, too. With the military downsizing and becoming more selective, the corps takes on the aspect of a farm team of elite prospects.
Congress chartered the sea cadets in 1962 as a non-profit civilian organization under sponsorship of the Navy League and supported by the Department of the Navy. It is open to boys and girls ages 13 to 17. The Navy League Cadet Corps is for youngsters ages 11 to 13.
There are about 250 units across the United States training more than 5,000 youngsters. In Baltimore, about 40 sea cadets and 25 league cadets currently are signed up. They train from June to October at the Curtis Bay Coast Guard Yard; November to May on the Coast Guard Cutter Taney anchored near the National Aquarium.
Adult volunteers, called officers, lead the youngsters through drills and lessons. Commanding officer Patricia Vogt, whose full-time job is production manager at a manufacturer of parts for the aerospace industry, became involved five years ago when her son was a cadet. She says the program can handle up to 100 cadets.
Cadets and officers wear uniforms akin to regular Navy issue, modified by sea cadet or league cadet insignia. Besides the required cadet boot camp, they can receive training in such things as aviation, Sea-Air-Land training (the Navy SEALs), health specialties, electronics and shipboard duties.
A two-week camp the first summer of membership in the Sea Cadet Corps gives a full taste of military life at a minimal cost -- $110 for everything, including travel.
"I give them about every kind of training I can lay my hands on," Lt. Vogt says.
Michael Kalinski, 17, with a military bearing that would shame many active-duty personnel, talks while standing at ease, back straight, hands behind him. His spit-shined shoes sparkle. He says "sir" a lot. He's obviously been well-trained.
"Sir, I'm a very disciplined individual," says the Dundalk resident. "I thrive in a disciplined environment. I've wanted to join the Navy since I was 8 years old, ever since I was old enough to formulate an idea of a career."
Michael, the only male cadet from the unit to make a perfect score in summer boot camp at Orlando Naval Recruit Training Center in Florida, is applying to the Naval Academy. He also applied to the Merchant Marine and Naval ROTC programs in case he doesn't get into the Naval Academy.
Chip Slumski, 17, of Essex, three years in the sea cadets, already has joined the Navy on the delayed entry program. He goes in June 23, 1994, after graduation from Chesapeake High School. As a result of his sea cadet training, he'll enter the Navy with an advanced pay rating, earning about $200 more a month than a regular recruit.
Chip is young, but old enough to remember Desert Storm. As a result, he is aware of the possible consequences of his career choice. "Getting involved in fighting is a chance," he says. "But it's a chance you have to take."
All the cadets are well aware of the fighting in Bosnia and Somalia. For these young people the wars resonate.
"It is a little frightening to think about going to one of those places, although as a female I wouldn't be on front-line duty," says Heather Prouser, 16, of Eldersburg, one of a dozen girls in the two cadet divisions. Officers see her as the likely chief petty officer, the top cadet rank, next year.
"I've been interested in the Merchant Marine Academy since I was in the ninth grade, in the middle of Desert Storm."
But the threat of being unemployed -- as are so many twentysomethings these days -- is a stronger motivator than combat is a deterrent. Heather says a factor in seeking a Merchant Marine Academy appointment is the current uncertain job market.
"I'd be guaranteed a job after I finish the academy," she says.
Shawn Sternberg, 17, of Severn, is one who came into the sea cadets on a fact-finding mission. "I joined 2 1/2 years ago because I wanted to find out what the military was like," he says. "My sister and I came in together."
His sister, Theresa, 15, was one of two female cadets to achieve perfect scores in the cadet boot camp this summer. The other was Christy Vogt, 14, daughter of Lt. Vogt.
What Shawn discovered about the military is that he could go to college as a result of his service. "I'm in a program where I can get money for college," he says. "After college, I might go in the Army full-time, or I should be prepared for a job in the civilian world."
D'Urville Christopher, 18, of Northwest Baltimore, went into the League Cadets at 12 and straight out of the cadets in June into active duty Navy after being the highest ranking sea cadet. Signed on for four years, he is fulfilling a dream he's had since age 13. He's now in ship's engine school at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center near Chicago.
"D'Urville is the epitome of all our training," says Lt. j.g. Charles O. Hacker, executive officer of the cadets. "If you gave him an order, you knew it was as good as done."
"The service is a great alternative for kids these days," says Mr. Christopher, whose rank in the Navy is E-3 Fireman. "It teaches you discipline; it teaches you to be a man. When I first got in the sea cadets, I said, 'This is fun.' I enjoyed it. But most of all, it prepared me for my goal in life."
Lt. Cmdr. Michael T. de Bettencourt, chief of the inspection department for the Coast Guard in San Diego, wrote a study on the future of the Coast Guard as part of a master's degree program at the University of Houston. He found that military service is gaining in popularity as a career choice. "The military now is held in high esteem." (He notes, however, that its attractiveness is cyclical.)
But just as a career or stint in the military is gaining in popularity among young people, the services are becoming pickier about who they'll let in.
Cmdr. Gregory Hartung, public affairs officer for the Naval Recruiting Command, says the Navy is seeking fewer recruits now but "more qualified people." The recruiting goal for fiscal year 1994 that began Oct. 1 is 56,600 people, compared to 95,186 recruits in fiscal year 1989.
However, says Cmdr. Hartung, the Navy is still accepting candidates who meet their requirements: They look for high school graduates who score in the upper levels of the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery tests and have a strong mathematics and science background, he says. "We're meeting our goals each year."
Petty Officer First Class Robert Gordon, a local Navy recruiter and admirer of the sea cadets program, says the teens who finish the cadets are prime candidates for recruiters.
"They're normally pretty smart, and they've already got discipline they'll need in the military," he says.
To stay in the corps, a cadet has to maintain a C average in school and be drug-free -- and attend training. Miss more than 25 percent of the meetings without a good excuse and you're out.
"We don't want problem kids," says Jean Neal, an adult volunteer who holds ensign rank. "We have kids who know what they want to do and where they want to go. The ones who are not committed drop out."
A matter of respect
"Our biggest job is to get their respect and the cadets to respect themselves," says Charles Hacker, the cadets' executive officer. a 75-year-old retired transportation worker and World War II veteran whose son died in Vietnam. "At the same time, you can't lose track of the fact that these are children."
But in the end, the military does not prove the choice for everyone, not even for one of the top sea cadets.
Andrew Lacey, 17, of Glen Arm, is the highest ranking cadet this year.
He has been involved in several kinds of military training, once spending time on an aircraft carrier. Ironically, such opportunities changed his early aspirations.
"I worked with a lot of military enlisted men in training," he says. "I just didn't see respect in the ways they treated each other. The sea cadets are more structured, more unified, work together better as a team."
But he says the experience was still valuable. "Even though I'm not going in the service, I learned stuff in the sea cadets you can apply to life, like respect for others and commitment.
"It's hard sometimes," he says. "But when you make a commitment, you have to live up to it. If you commit, you commit."
The decision Andrew reached is a program strength, Mr. Hacker says.
"If young people think they have an interest in the military, they can find it out in the sea cadets without any obligation. That's better than signing up for three or four years and then finding out."
At the same time, Patricia Vogt says, the cadet philosophy mirrors that of the services.
"The current military doesn't have time to waste on goof-offs," she says.
Neither does the league.
For information on joining the sea cadets, call (410) 661-6797.