Darkness surrounded the Naval Academy yard patrol boat as it moved down the Chesapeake Bay near the Thomas Point Lighthouse. Marcus Robinson stood on the boat's bridge an hour after midnight and enjoyed the unseasonably warm March air. Suddenly, three alarms sounded, shattering the silence.
"I'd been awake since 6:30 the previous morning, and I was counting on our mission to be routine," said Robinson, a 2004 Wilde Lake High School graduate and the night's commanding officer.
But, the 47-foot boat had another idea that early Saturday morning. Its gyro had malfunctioned and set off the blaring sirens. The crew of midshipmen had lost its navigational system.
"We had to rely on magnetic compasses and visual fixes," he said, "but there wasn't much to see, just the yellow lights of an occasional tugboat and big tankers moving past us.
"It was pretty intense," he said.
"Though we have practiced handling systems failures in a controlled setting twice every week, it was something else when it actually happened. I was the one in charge of the safety of the crew - and I absolutely loved it."
Robinson, 21, will graduate at 10 a.m. today in the top third of his class at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis. The commissioning ceremony, during which he will become a Navy ensign, will be held at 1 p.m.
Only 1 in 10 applicants are accepted at the Naval Academy, according to spokeswoman Judy Campbell. The Class of 2008 began with 1,220 students, and 1,000 are graduating, she said.
The son of Carleton and Stanette Robinson of Harper's Choice, Marcus has talked about attending the academy since he was 10, his mother said.
"My grandfather and my uncle had both served in the Navy, but it wasn't even their influence, really," he said. "This is just something I knew I wanted to do."
Robinson attended Wilde Lake for his junior and senior years and had a teacher there whose moral and personal values served to shore up his beliefs.
Herbert West, a social studies teacher, said he has kept in touch with Robinson in the four years since high school graduation, continuing the theme of their conversations of years past.
"Marcus is beyond determined - he's awesome! I've always coached him about his responsibilities as a gifted and driven young man, and he has been very receptive, though I really didn't have to sell him anything," said West.
"I'm so enthused that he is still focused and moving forward," West added. "You have to be hungry for this, and Marcus is."
But, in typical fashion, Robinson isn't resting on his laurels. He is looking down the road and researching what comes next.
While he said he is looking forward to 30 days of leave, which begins immediately after his commissioning today, he will report June 23 for his first two-year tour of duty. Assigned to surface warfare on the naval destroyer USS Forrest Sherman, which is in the Caribbean, he will be stationed in Norfolk, Va. His fiancee, Amber Whalen, will join him there.
But since he had hoped to be assigned to naval aviation warfare to advance his plan to become a pilot, he is thinking about how he can get a transfer for his second tour. There is one obstacle: Pilots must have 20-20 vision, he said.
"Midshipmen are now permitted to have laser surgery to correct their eyesight, but my astigmatism put me outside allowable limits for the procedure to be successful," he said, conveying news he heard last summer.
With that path blocked, he said, he is working toward a waiver to allow vision correction with contact lenses to suffice so he can apply to transfer when the time comes.
Meanwhile, there is the possibility that he could be sent to Iraq - technically, as soon as June 23 when his leave is up.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who nominated Robinson to the academy, said, "Marcus went into the academy after the war had started, and it has been going on the entire time he's been in the academy. So he knew what to expect. You've got to respect him for his patriotism and bravery."
"When the war started in Iraq, I could tell it wasn't going to be a war that would end quickly," said Robinson. "It's not that I like war or anything, but I am prepared to serve my country. This is something we talk about all the time at school - being part of something bigger."
"The numbers in the enlisted ranks are horrible, with a lot fewer applying, so it's nice to talk about the positive side," Cummings said. "It's people like Marcus who make you feel good about the future of America."
Cummings, who serves on the House Armed Services Committee and on the Board of Visitors at the Naval Academy, said he recalls Robinson as "a strong, young man who could serve as a role model" for high school students and encourage them to enter military academies.
"I always knew that I wanted to do something in my life that would make a difference in the world," Robinson said. As he starts life in the Navy on Memorial Day weekend, he said he has a deeper appreciation for the meaning of the holiday.
"Now that I understand more about what veterans actually went through for our country, it's easier to relate to," he said.
Despite the accolades he is receiving, Robinson teasingly calls himself "the least driven person in my family."
His mother is a certified public accountant and his father is a senior manager at Northrop Grumman, and both have demanding careers, he said. His sister, Carlynne, 19, is a drama major at Northwestern University.
Also an influence in his life is his cousin, Michelle Obama, and her husband, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, whom Robinson calls "incredibly smart and very charismatic."
But he acknowledged that his main drive comes from within. Not only is he determined to find a way into naval aviation, his ultimate goal is to become an astronaut.
"A transfer request is definitely hard to get," Robinson said, "but it's possible."
Is someone in your neighborhood worth writing about? Is there an event that everyone in Howard County should be aware of? Neighbors columnist Janene Holzberg wants to know about it. E-mail Janene at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 410-461-4150.