Saturday is "liberty" for midshipmen -- a time for sleeping late, escaping campus or finding other diversions from a grueling week of study and training.
So what is William Major, 20, doing reading to a boy who has spent the past seven weeks in traction at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center?
What about Drew Streib, who assembled puzzles and cut shamrocks with two girls with tubes in their arms. Or Kathryn Sampson, who sat in a darkened room comforting a crying infant? Or Dante Jones, who shot pool with an 11-year-old boy who couldn't shake the flu because of a bone marrow disease?
Call this a break?
At the Naval Academy, 17 midshipmen think so -- making weekly pilgrimages to the Children's Center in the first year of a program intended to bring joy to sick youngsters and respite to weary parents.
Interest at the academy has grown so intense that classmates are filling a waiting list, prompting thoughts of expanding the program to the hospital's adult floors.
"We have a good time," said Sampson, 19, cradling an infant who gazed at her in wide-eyed amazement. "Sometimes we just sit on the beds. We sing songs. They like it when we sing to them."
Project White Hat
Elsewhere in the room, a girl and her father played with action figures. Another watched television while her mother, slumped awkwardly in a chair, drifted to sleep. But many of the children spend stretches alone. Their parents work or juggle responsibilities of home with the needs of their hospitalized youngsters.
The program, called Project White Hat, is based on one at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Illinois, where Streib was stationed before enrolling at the Naval Academy. There, he volunteered with other sailors every Saturday at Chicago Memorial Hospital.
Last fall, Streib and Major had the idea to start the Naval Academy program, and it didn't take long to find a hospital eager to accept their services.
Many of the children are drawn to the midshipmen's uniforms -- the black jackets, brass buttons and anchor pins -- but in the end, it's their relaxed and friendly manner that seems to win them over.
"It must be the way the guys present themselves," said Cappe Thompson, a child-life specialist at the hospital. "They get right down on the floor and play with them. Anything the children want to do."
Gabriele Green wandered into the teen room, where her 11-year-old daughter, Jenna, glued ruffles onto paper shamrocks with three midshipmen for St. Patrick's Day.
"It's pretty neat," Green said. "It takes their minds off their sickness, and it gives them something to do. They get bored. The days get long after a while."
The teen room is a brightly lighted place with a caged rabbit named McKenzie, a computer in a castlelike enclosure, a pool table, paintings on the ceiling and a blackboard where somebody had scrawled "Howdy."
Malcolm Scates, an 11-year-old who suffers from aplastic anemia and a growth abnormality, declared he was too short to play pool. Later, he reluctantly agreed to a game of "cutthroat" -- and proceeded to sink balls with his pool stick held at shoulder level. Jones could only laugh at being hustled.
'Good role models'
"I think this gives the kids something to look up to," said the boy's father, Cary Scates. "Good role models, an idea of what they might like to do when they get older."
Major, who plans to be a naval flight officer, spends much of his time on the infant and toddler floor, diapering and rocking children to sleep. He said he had some experience taking care of children -- he has two younger sisters -- but nobody as young as the kids on this watch.
The sounds of coughing and crying fill the corridors of the Children's Center. Kids are there after being hit by cars, after brain surgery, after asthma attacks that leave them breathless. Some have weakened immune systems that leave them unable to fight illness.
"It's incredible," said Major. "Some of these kids are so sick they can hardly sit up. But they're ready to play. They'll tear you up."
Pub Date: 2/28/99