Captain Childs was seated on the pier bollard squinting up at the tenuous gray clouds whisping in the blue morning sky, when the boy approached him. Towering above the wharf, and swaying gently as the ship rolled in the morning tide, the heavily rigged masts of the Katie Hines cast a fish net of moving shadows over the old man’s leathery face.
The boy stopped beside the man and fingered nervously the black button on his jacket. “Sir,” he asked, “can you tell me who’s captain of this ship?”
Captain Childs turned and looked down, blinking the morning sky from his eyes. The boy was a scrawny Negro dressed in a torn and dirty cotton suit. Below knee-length pants, lean brown legs were rooted in a pair of large, high. top shoes, and at the toes, through the wet coat of mud, peeked the bright glitter of brass.
“Cast adrift from home, have you, boy?” the old captain asked appraisingly.
Wide with great wonderment, the boy’s eyes followed the ship’s graceful, sweeping lines from bow to stern. He tried to trace out the intricate rigging of her tall masts, and he blinked with childish wonder when his eyes were lost in the jungle of ropes and yardarms. Emblazoned in gold letters on the bow of her black hull, glistened the words, Katie Hines.” He stared at them emptily, for he could not read, and they meant nothing to him.
That morning he had first seen the ship’s mast tips and topsail spars swaying above the sunlit roofs of the ware houses, as he tramped through the quiet cobblestone streets of Baltimore’s water front. He had never seen a real ship before, and she was beautiful to him then as he hurried through the damp street in search of her, with his eyes riveted to the loose ropes flashing in the morning sun where they dangled from their aerial trappings.
But now, as he stood beside the Katie Hines straining lazily at her taut moorings, she was more beautiful than his childish mind imagined a ship could be.
He turned to the captain, his eyes flashing with eager excitement. “Sir—sir—” he stammered, “can I go to sea on her?”
Captain Childs smiled, then cleared his throat and pretended sternness. “Well, now, that’s a big request. What’s your name, boy?”
“Matthew Alexander Henson, and I want to go to sea.”
“How old are you, Matthew?” The old man ran his large, wrinkled hand affectionately over the boy’s woolly head.
Captain Childs pointed to the boy’s dirty clothes and his mud spattered shoes. “Looks to me like you’ve been running in rough weather.”
“I walked all the way from Washington.”
“Because you want to be a sailor?”
“Yes, sir. May I please, sir, go to sea with you?”
The captain got to his feet and his huge, towering body dwarfed the boy. His sun and salt-scarred face gave him the look of a heavyweight who had battled the sea the better part of his life. Except for his flowing white mane, there was nothing in his youthful, searching blue eyes, his wind-toughened face, or his massive, squared shoulders that revealed his sixty years of life.