Welcome reinforcement

Letters offer a Cockeysville class a chance to learn about life at sea and give U.S. sailors something to write home about.

April 03, 2003|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

If you have done time in middle school, you know pupils don't often jump at writing assignments. They jump to lunch. They jump to dawdle. They jump to gym. But not many hop right on the old writing assignment.

Hence, writing is probably not the preferred activity of Keri Weber's reading pupils at Cockeysville Middle School. Like many other seventh-and eighth-graders, Weber's kids lean passionately toward the subjects of soccer, basketball, lacrosse, baseball and skateboarding. Clothes shopping is good, too. And listening to rock or rap. But writing? Letters?

To Weber's delight, her class leaped at the chance to write U.S. sailors aboard the USS Nimitz and USS Mobile Bay, both on active duty - one ship carrying Weber's brother, Navy Lt. Kurt Sellerberg, the other carrying his wife, Navy Lt. Julie Sellerberg. They are Weber's personal connection to the war. They are now her pupils' personal connection to the war.

After the initial shock of having to write seven paragraphs, Weber's pupils followed the trail of their curiosities about a place, a war and a way of life. Some of their questions Weber fielded herself - Are only boys on one ship and girls on the other ship? - and some well-meaning letters she had to tone down - Hope you don't get killed! The rest will be forwarded to her brother and sister-in-law. The pupils, Weber says, couldn't believe their letters would be mailed to actual aircraft carriers. Very cool.

"This is a big move for them," their teacher says. "We've had more kids stay after school or come in during their lunch hours to finish their letters." Staying after school? Coming in on their lunch hour? What's going on here?

"I was blown away," Weber says.

Before any letters were written, her class read news articles about the war and did research on aircraft carriers. They learned everything from the displacement tonnage of the Nimitz class of warships to the finer points of a "Steel Beach Party," where sailors play basketball or soak in plastic pools on a carrier's flight deck or so-called steel beach. Say "party" and you get a pupil's attention. It works every generation.

It made me happy because I didn't think you guys had parties, Hausina Qahir wrote in her letter. The reason I feel happy was because you guys must feel very sad about this war but a party could have cheered you up. Are you guys happy when there are parties? Is there good food and snacks there?

Soldiers playing basketball on an aircraft carrier interested Kendrick Carmichael: Does the ball ever go off the sides of the deck?

Food was a gripping subject. Pupils were informed that the most powerful war vessels are not outfitted with the Golden Arches. There were pointed questions about the availability of snacks, the duration of lunch periods and storage possibilities.

We learned mess specialists serve you three meals a day, but in between meals, you can buy snacks from vending machines. I know you don't have your own refrigerators, so where do you put the food that you get from your friends and family? When you go to lunch do you have to eat quickly? wrote Pari Bhavsar.

Many letters were addressed to Weber's sister-in-law, Lt. Julie Sellerberg. For more than nine months, Sellerberg has been aboard the guided-missile cruiser Mobile Bay, which the class learned has fired Tomahawks at Iraqi targets. Was it very loud when your ship fired the tomahawk missiles? wrote Nirav Patel. Is your bed under the big large guns?

The class learned that Sellerberg and her shipmates were scheduled to come home Christmas, but they received orders to ship out to the Persian Gulf. Homecoming would have to wait.

Do you ever get homesick? I'm sure you do! Kelly Powell wrote. I know it must be very stressful being in this mess, and I pray for all of our troops and allies to be careful and safe.

Dean Missick put Sellerberg's extended deployment in perspective - at least from a middle school pupil's perspective: I once left home to go sing for judges at Hershey Park and we went to play and sing for a day. Then we went home. I know what you must be thinking the sooner you get done the sooner you leave.

Many of the pupils' questions have already been answered in e-mails between Weber and her brother and sister-in-law. The first batch was fielded by Julie Sellerberg:

Do you have ATM's?

"Yes, just ATM's that have regular allotments that come out of our paycheck."

Can you smoke/drink on the ship?

"Smoke, yes. Drink, no (except if you're at sea longer than 45 days consecutively without a port visit, each person is allotted 2 beers - unless you're at war, then none.)"

Do you ever go swimming?

"Yes, I've been swimming five times this deployment - once was at the Marianas Trench - the deepest point in the ocean."

Do you ever go fishing?

"Yes, we've only caught one fish - a 80 LB tuna."

Are there bathtubs and Jacuzzis?

"No, only Navy showers. We have to get in, get wet, turn off the shower, soap up, shampoo, then turn the shower back on to rinse off."

Are you ever worried about Kurt?

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