A tombstone with text on it

The Mystery of the Old Sea Captain

An unexpected new friend helps Tucker become a hero. Who exactly is he?

By Eleanora E. Tate
From the March / April 2022 Issue

Learning Objective: Students will make inferences to figure out the identity of a character who plays an important role in the story.

Lexile: 700L-800L
Guided Reading Level: T
DRA Level: 50
Other Key Skills: character, point of view, figurative language, text structure, key details, plot, author’s purpose, genre, narrative writing
UP CLOSE: Inference

As you read, look for clues that help you make inferences and piece together a mystery.

I want to tell you about a boy I knew who lived in Morehead City, North Carolina, named Tucker Willis. Everybody liked Tucker.

He was good at nearly everything he put his hand to. Tucker could jump like a flea on the basketball court. He was smart in school. He could swim like a fish and surf.

But when he turned 12, he was still so short that he looked like an elf.

You know how it is when you’re a little different. Kids called him Squirt, Shrimp, Inchworm. He got teased about surfing too because not many Black kids we knew surfed.

I thought Tucker was the cutest thing in the world. But to him back then I was knock-kneed LaShana Mae, the girl who lived down the street. I was a few years younger. We were friends, though. We went to the same school and the same church—St. Luke’s Missionary Baptist.

Back in those days—in the 1970s—I was just a skinny girl with braids and braces. Kids called me Wires, and I hated that.

So Tucker and I had a lot in common. We often talked about the things kids called us. Even though being called those names hurt, Tucker laughed it off.

But one day, Tucker did something that made everybody stop calling him names he didn’t like.

It all began when Tucker was out on the pier alongside his house.

He noticed a man on a dock a few yards away. The man had a thick white mustache and beard and wore a blue-and-gold military-style jacket and cap.

I wasn’t there, so I didn’t see him, but that’s what Tucker told me.

The man waved. Tucker, being friendly, waved back. They struck up a conversation.

The man said his name was Richard and that he was staying at the Moten Motel. His home was in Manteo, on Roanoke Island, where he worked as a captain for the U.S. Life-Saving Service.

Tucker figured what Richard meant was that he worked for the U.S. Coast Guard. Tucker was extremely knowledgeable about the Coast Guard, but he had never heard of this Life-Saving Service.

As a lifesaver, Richard said, he and his men went into the ocean in the middle of hurricanes to save people whose ships were sinking.

Richard explained that to be in the Life-Saving Service, you had to be strong, an exceptional swimmer, a quick thinker, and you had to understand how dangerous the sea can be.

Tucker wished he could enlist right away, and he said so. He was qualified—other than being too young, of course.

And too short.

Richard told him it wasn’t the size of a person that got the job done. It was how much the person wanted to do it.

How were those huge ships able to move into a port and back out to sea? Because of little tugboats pushing and pulling them in, Richard said. A tugboat could bring in a ship many times its size.

Richard said that Tucker would make an excellent tugboat, and one day he might even grow to be a big ship.

Then he thanked Tucker for the talk, said maybe they’d meet again, and wandered back toward the motel.

A few days later, Tucker decided to go surfing at the Atlantic Beach pier.

His dad worked there as a cook. It was early morning, but a hot July wind made the waves choppy and sandy. Tucker said only one guy was in the water, floating on a red raft like a huge jellyfish.

After he swam out far enough, Tucker climbed onto his surfboard and rode a wave in. When he glanced back at the pier, guess who he saw? Richard, on the pier, clapping for him.

“Do it, Tugboat!” Richard hollered. “Pull that wave in!”

Tugboat? Then Tucker remembered Richard’s story about tugboats. He waved back and swam out to pull in another wave, passing the man on the raft.

The man said, “You’re little to be way out here, ain’t ya, Squirt?”

Tucker shook his head. He kept going until he noticed a tall purple cloud rising up on the horizon. That meant a storm was on its way.

Keeping an eye on the cloud, Tucker went on pulling in more waves until a huge one crashed down on him.


No big deal for Tucker, though. He popped right up in the water and grabbed his board, which was tied to his ankle. He was all right.

But the man on the raft wasn’t. He thrashed around in the water screaming that he couldn’t swim.

As that big black cloud spread across the sky, the wind and waves grew rougher. Tucker straddled his surfboard and, using his hands for oars, paddled toward the man. But as Tucker got close, the man lunged at the surfboard in a panic and knocked Tucker off.

Then the man grabbed hold of Tucker. Tangled up in those big arms and legs, Tucker knew he was about to die.

Just then, something lifted Tucker up through the water and onto his surfboard. That’s when Tucker saw his friend Richard in the water.

Richard was hauling the raft toward the man. Then he pulled the man onto it.

“Let’s push and pull it, Tugboat!” Richard yelled. “Push and pull it in!”

Somehow Tucker and Richard hauled that raft—with the guy glued to it—close to shore.

Four or five people splashed into the water and helped them onto the beach. One of them was a reporter on vacation.

The guy Tucker rescued was named Mr. Nibbles. He was so grateful that he gave Tucker $100 right on the spot.

The reporter interviewed everybody and took pictures. When he asked how such a small boy was able to rescue a big, grown man, Tucker said, “’Cause I’m a tugboat, like Richard said. We pull the big ones in.”

But when he turned to point out Richard, Tucker couldn’t find him.

The story about Tucker’s rescue appeared in the local paper, then got picked up by other newspapers and went all over the world.

Strangers stopped Tucker on the street, in stores, even came to his home. They wanted to meet the little “tugboat” who hauled in that big man and get his autograph.

Businesses up and down Arendell Street put up GREAT WORK, TUGBOAT! posters in their windows. And there was a parade. Tucker was a hero. He and the mayor rode on the back of a big ole white Cadillac convertible and waved at everybody.

I was very proud of him.

Everybody called him Tugboat after that, including us kids. It wasn’t cool anymore to tease him with those other names. Funny how things can turn around, isn’t it?

And you know what? Tucker grew to be tall. He went to North Carolina Central University and joined the U.S. Coast Guard.

But there’s something Tucker never figured out.

When he first told people that Richard was the true hero, nobody believed him. Apparently, nobody but Tucker had seen Richard—not even Mr. Nibbles.

There’s more.

One day, Tucker went into the pier gift shop to spend some of his rescue money. He picked up a book about the Coast Guard. He was thumbing through it when he stopped at an old-timey picture of some Black men wearing jackets like Richard’s.

And below that was a picture of . . . Richard. Mustache, beard, jacket, everything!

Tucker read, “Captain Richard Etheridge was keeper of the Pea Island Life-Saving Station. This all African American, courageous lifesaving crew saved hundreds of lives by plunging into stormy seas and bringing shipwrecked passengers to safety.”

Then he read: “Captain Etheridge, born in 1842 near Roanoke Island in North Carolina, died in 1900.”

Tucker said he probably read that date 20 times before it sank in.

Richard Etheridge had been dead for nearly 100 years. How was it possible that a dead man had helped Tucker save Mr. Nibbles?

Unless Richard was a ghost.

Tucker hit up the library the next day and searched for anything he could find on Richard Etheridge.

He discovered that Richard Etheridge really did die in 1900.

A few years later, when Tucker visited Roanoke Island, he found Etheridge’s monument and grave. The headstone was marked 1842-1900.

That’s when Tucker stopped talking about Richard being involved in the rescue—unless somebody asked.

If you run into Tucker “Tugboat” Willis, ask him about the rescue, and he’ll tell you.

Then, carefully, ask if he ever met Richard Etheridge. He’ll tell you yes, he did, and what he learned: that it pays to be polite to everybody you meet. You never know when that person might help you.

Every time Tucker tells me the story, he tells it to me the same way I told it to you. Seeing how Tucker turned out proves that some mighty things that help folks out in some mighty big ways can come in mighty small packages.

It also proves that good things come to those who wait, like I did. I know, because I’m Mrs. LaShana Mae Willis, Tugboat’s wife.

Write to Win

Write a letter from Tucker to Richard. In the letter, Tucker should share what he figured out about Richard and thank him for the different ways Richard helped him be brave. Send it to “Sea Captain Contest” by May 1, 2022. Five winners will each receive a $20 gift card to the Scholastic Store Online. See page 2 for details. Visit the Storyworks Contests page for more information.

This story was originally published in the March/April 2022 issue.

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This fiction story features a famous Black captain from history. Explore our Celebrating Black Stories collection to learn about the lives of other Black leaders, writers, and innovators from history and today.
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Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

Table of Contents

1. Preparing to Read

2. Reading and Discussing

 SEL Focus, Close Reading, Critical Thinking

3. Skill Building and Writing

4. Collaboration Station

5. Differentiate and Customize

Struggling Readers, Advanced Readers, Multilingual Learners

6. Can’t-Miss Teaching Extras

1. Preparing to Read

Engage Students, Preview Vocabulary, Set a Purpose for Reading

  • Before having students open their magazines, tell them they will be reading a story titled “The Mystery of the Old Sea Captain.” Ask them to briefly turn and talk with a partner to brainstorm ideas about what mystery might surround an old sea captain.
  • Next, have students look at the story’s opener on pages 10-11. Ask: What questions do the picture and subtitle on page 10 raise for you?

  • Distribute or assign our Vocabulary Skill Builder to preview five terms. Students will be able to add other unfamiliar words from the story as well. Vocabulary terms include pier, U.S. Coast Guard, enlist, thrashed, and plunging.

  • Prompt students to read the Up Close box on page 11 to set a purpose for reading.

  • Preview the questions in the margins of the story. Encourage students to think about the questions as they read.

2. Reading and Discussing

First Read: Get to Know the Text (20 minutes)

  • Have students read the story independently or in small groups. They can also listen to our dazzling Immersive Read-Aloud, which uses music and sound effects to bring the story to life and boost engagement and listening skills.

Second Read: Unpack the Text (30 minutes)

  • Put students in small groups in your classroom. Ask them to discuss the close-reading questions in the margins. Circulate among the groups to listen to discussions. This can be a good way to informally assess whether students are comprehending the story. 

  • Discuss the critical-thinking questions together as a class.

  • Review the SEL focus either before or after the critical-thinking questions.

SEL Focus

Positive Self-Image

Talk with students about how Tucker feels about being short and how Richard helps him see himself differently. Point out the line “Richard told him it wasn’t the size of a person that got the job done. It was how much the person wanted to do it.” Ask: How do you think this line affected Tucker? Do you think it could have helped him when he needed to rescue the man on the raft? Invite students to reflect on things they’re interested in doing, like Tucker was interested in joining the Coast Guard. How might Richard’s advice apply to them? How could believing in themselves help them move beyond whatever they think is holding them back?

Close-Reading Questions


  • What have you learned so far about Tucker? What similes does the author use to help you get to know him? (character, p. 11) Tucker is well-liked and good at almost everything he does. He is also short. The similes “Tucker could jump like a flea,” “he could swim like a fish,” and “he was still so short that he looked like an elf” help you get to know him.

  • Who is telling the story? Who is the story mainly about? (point of view, p. 11) Tucker’s friend LaShana Mae is telling the story. It is mainly about Tucker.

  • In what ways might meeting Richard seem unusual to Tucker? (inference, p. 11) Richard’s military-style jacket and cap might seem unusual to Tucker; he told LaShana Mae about it, so it probably stood out in his mind. Richard’s mention of the U.S. Life-Saving Service also seems unusual since Tucker had never heard of it before; he assumes Richard means the U.S. Coast Guard.

  • How does Tucker feel about being short? What details so far make you think so? (character, p. 12) Tucker feels frustrated about being short. Kids call him names like Squirt, Shrimp, and Inchworm, which hurt even though he “laughed it off.” He also thinks being short keeps him from doing things he’d like to do, such as joining the Coast Guard (even though he’s also too young).
  • How might Tucker be like a tugboat? (figurative language, p. 12) Richard explains that even though a tugboat is small, it can push or pull a ship many times its size. Like a tugboat, Tucker is also small, but Richard sees that Tucker is capable of doing things that go beyond his size. 

  • How does the man’s comment compare with what Richard just said? How does it relate to what happens later? (text structure, p. 12) Richard just said that Tucker is like a tugboat, not limited by his size. The comment of the man on the raft, “You’re little to be way out here, ain’t ya, Squirt?,” shows that the man thinks Tucker’s size should limit how far out he swims. Later, the man’s comment proves to be wrong when Tucker ends up saving him.  

  • What do you know about Richard that suggests he would come to aid Tucker and the man? (key details, p. 13) Richard previously explained that he was part of the U.S. Life-Saving Service and that he and his men saved people whose ships were sinking in the middle of a hurricane. The man on the raft was sinking in a storm, so Richard saw an opportunity to help. In addition, Richard has been supportive of Tucker and probably wants to show him he can help rescue the man.

  • How is the rescue a turning point for Tucker? (plot, p. 13) The rescue is a turning point for Tucker because everyone now sees him as a hero. The kids stop teasing him and calling him names for being short. Instead, everyone calls him Tugboat. 

  • What might this line suggest about Richard? (inference, p. 13) The line suggests that there’s something mysterious about Richard. Perhaps Tucker imagined he was there, or he was invisible to everyone but Tucker. 

  • Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island Life-Saving Service Station really existed. Why do you think the author told a story about these real-life rescuers? (author’s purpose, p. 14) The author probably wanted readers to know about this all African American lifesaving crew that many people have likely not heard of. She honors their heroic work by including them in the story and making readers aware of what they did.

  • What can you conclude about Richard Etheridge? How might Tucker feel about him? (inference, p. 14) You can conclude that Richard Etheridge was a ghost. Tucker probably feels grateful to him for helping him rescue the man on the raft and for giving him confidence in himself.


Critical-Thinking Question

  • “The Mystery of the Old Sea Captain” is a story about a ghost. Ghost stories are usually spooky. Do you think this story is spooky? Why or why not? (genre) Answers will vary. Students might say that this is not a spooky story because Richard, the ghost, is a friendly and helpful character, rather than an eerie one. Readers don’t find out he’s a ghost until after he’s no longer in the story, and when they do, they learn that he was a rescuer from long ago. 

  • What clues in the story tell you that LaShana Mae, the narrator, is fond of Tucker? Were you surprised in the end when you found out that she married Tucker? (inference) In the beginning of the story, LaShana Mae says, “I thought Tucker was the cutest thing in the world.” She also points out that they had a lot in common and talked about the names kids called them. When she sees him at the parade after the rescue, she notes that she was very proud of him. In the end, she says, “Seeing how Tucker turned out proves that some mighty things . . . can come in mighty small packages.” Answers to the second question will vary, but some students might say they weren’t surprised because as LaShana Mae narrates, she knows what has happened to Tucker as he grew up.

3. Skill Building and Writing

Featured Skill: Inference
  • Distribute or digitally assign the Inference Skill Builder, which will help students make inferences in the story, especially about Richard’s identity. 
  • Ask students to respond to the writing prompt at the end of the story. Encourage them to submit their responses to our writing contest!

4. Collaboration Station

Create a New Opening Image

  • Put students in small groups and ask them to look at the picture on page 10. Have them discuss why they think it features a picture of a gravestone. Then invite them to brainstorm ideas for a different picture they think would work well as the opener to this story. Finally, have them work together to draw the new picture, make a collage of it, or create it on a computer.

Differentiate and Customize
For Striving Readers

Read the first section of the story together with students, pausing to answer any questions or clarify parts they don’t understand. Pause at the last line of the section: “But one day, Tucker did something that made everybody stop calling him names he didn’t like.” Tell students that their goal is to find out what he did that made people stop calling him names he didn’t like. Continue reading together. Then follow up with the questions “Who helped Tucker?” and “What do you find out about the man who helped Tucker?”

For Advanced Readers

Point out the Author’s Purpose bubble at the top of page 14 and the caption beneath the photo. Then ask students to do research to find out more about the real Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island Life-Saving Station. They can start by watching this video, which features interview footage with a former member of the crew. (Note: The video could start after a short ad.)

For Multilingual Learners

Point out the picture of the tugboat on page 12. Explain to students that its job is to push or pull big ships into a port, or the place where a ship parks next to land. Invite them to share the word for tugboat in their own languages. (They might need to look it up in a bilingual dictionary or online.) Then talk about how Tucker’s nickname became Tugboat. Do they think it’s a good nickname for him?

Can't-Miss Teaching Extras
Explore the Storyworks Archive

Connect this story with another Storyworks fiction that takes place on the coast of North Carolina and has to do with shipwrecks: “Lost and Found” by Rebecca Behrens. Have students discuss what the settings of the two stories have in common.

Watch a Video

Introduce students to the Pea Island Life-Saving Station and the brave work of Richard Etheridge and his men by showing this video. (Note: The video could start after a short ad.)

Learn About the U.S. Coast Guard

Students can learn about the history of the U.S. Coast Guard and how it merged with the U.S. Life-Saving Service, as well as its role today in this article from Kiddle. (Note: The webpage has ads.)