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USS Constitution Set to Sail

America's oldest commissioned ship is restored for 200th anniversary trip

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In those days she had a crew of 450, including 55 marines. For the crew, life was mostly harsh and cruel, but full of high-seas adventure.

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"I don't know how they managed because conditions were so bad," says Jason Smith, a crew member from Nashville, Tenn. "We have safety harnesses when we climb the rigging, and they had nothing, even in stormy seas."

Three sailors shared one canvas bag for all their belongings in those days. The daily ration was a piece of meat, hardtack, dried beans, water, and a watered-down pint of rum or whisky. The crew slept in hammocks. On cold days, a heated cannon ball placed in a hanging bucket provided the only warmth.

Crew members who manned the cannons below deck often lost their hearing because the roar was so deafening. Small boys sold by their parents to the ship for a year were known as "powder monkeys," and brought gun powder to the cannons.

"The archives of the ship indicate that a crack crew could sail in total silence," says Chief Wilson. "Because battles were fought in close quarters, they used hand signals because they didn't want the enemy to hear their commands."

On the historic sailing to Marblehead, today's crew will also use hand signals. "We're going to try to sail in total silence," says Wilson.

"Because of the training," says crew member Deana Driver from Raleigh, N.C., "we've become closer. Last week it was so cold, but the captain said that sailors from the 1800s couldn't wait for spring or summer to work. So we stayed on deck and had a greater appreciation for what the former crews had endured."

Navy Cmdr. Michael Beck, the Constitution's captain, wants the ship to serve as a catalyst for a national dialogue on citizenship. "We want the Constitution to act as a living reminder of the principles and ideals that ennoble this country," he says.

During the l997-98 academic year, the USS Constitution Museum will be distributing an interdisciplinary curriculum about the ship to schools and educators nationwide.

'Old Ironsides'

Aye, tear her tattered ensign down!

Long has it waved on high,

And many an eye has danced to see

That banner in the sky;

Beneath it rung the battle shout,

And burst the cannon's roar; -

The meteor of the ocean air

Shall sweep the clouds no more!

Her decks, once red with heroes blood,

Where knelt the vanquished foe,

When winds were hurrying o'er the flood,

And waves were white below,

No more shall feel the victor's tread

Or know the conquered knee; -

The harpies of the shore shall pluck

The eagle of the sea!

Oh, better that her shattered hulk

Should sink beneath the wave;

Her thunders shook the mighty deep,

And there should be her grave;

Nail to the mast her holy flag,

Set every threadbare sail,

And give her to the god of storms,

The lightning and the gale!

Oliver Wendell Holmes, 1830