GALVESTON, Texas — Michelle Perry was up for a road trip, so she left her Decatur home before dawn Thursday, driving her two children, niece and nephew five hours to Galveston to tour the soon-to-be USS Fort Worth.
In the late afternoon, they made a stop at Joe's Crab Shack, and then everyone jumped back in the car for the drive home.
"It's education in the making," she said. "That's education you don't get inside the halls."
The Navy estimated it welcomed more than 1,000 people during three days of tours this week to the littoral combat ship, which arrived Monday from Wisconsin and began preparing for its Saturday commissioning as the USS Fort Worth.
More than 200 people were in line when Thursday's tours began at 12:30 p.m., Navy spokesman Dave Hostetler said. Long lines continued into the late afternoon.
U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, who led a long campaign to get a warship named after Fort Worth and is the ship's sponsor, made a surprise appearance.
"The pride Fort Worth feels for this ship is just at its top," she said.
It wasn't hard to find Fort Worthians in the crowd.
"It's amazing how many people are here for this," said graphic artist Jim Duff. "It's exciting for Fort Worth."
Duff's illustration of the ship is on commemorative posters, T-shirts, and coins. Duff and his wife Claudia relaxed Thursday afternoon at the dockside Olympia Grill at Pier 21 before attending an evening reception.
The ship is known as an LCS-3, the third of the Navy's new generation speedy, lightweight vessels with interchangeable modules for missions such as anti-submarine, mine detection and surface warfare.
Its sailors delighted in showing it off.
Chief Charlie Lopez of Los Angeles told visitors the ship would have numerous references to Fort Worth, including "pictures of Longhorns" in the mess decks, nicknamed "Cowtown" by the sailors.
"I'm a USC fan, but I can deal with Longhorns," he said.
He was thinking about a football team, but he'll get a chance to check out the real deal. Three longhorns from the Fort Worth Herd — Ladies Man, Duramax and Freckles — arrived Wednesday accompanied by trail boss Kristin Jaworski and three cowboys. Two horses, McCoy and Cherokee, and a mule named Niles came along. Their pens were being set up on the parking lot across from the ship.
Food tents and hundreds of chairs also were going up Thursday for the commissioning.
Cmdr. Randy Blankenship, one of the ship's two commanding officers, said the crew — two rotating groups of 40, plus another 35 or so who are on board for the specific missions — have been boning up on Fort Worth history and culture.
The sailors this week are wearing golden Molly the Cow pins — the city's logo — furnished by the nonprofit commissioning committee. The ship's name is painted in stars and six-shooters, and its motto is "Grit and Tenacity."
"I tell my sailors that we have all joined the Fort Worth family," Cmdr. Warren Cupps said.
The commissioning committee is expected to raise money throughout the ship's projected 30-year life to pay for improvements on board, and support sailors' families.
Some of the crew will be in Arlington on Monday at the Texas Rangers game. Cupps will throw out the first pitch.
He said he expected to get it over the plate from the pitcher's mound.
"I hope so," said Cupps, who plays second and third base in an adult league in San Diego. "You guys can run me out of town if I don't."
Several of the ship's crew are Texans.
"I was born at Peter Smith," said sonar technician Tomas Garcia, who moved from Fort Worth when he was 18 months old. His mother lives in Arlington, and he is stationed in San Diego, the ship's future home base.
Life aboard the ship "is not bad," Garcia said. It has a lounge with big-screen TV and couches, and the sailors play movies and have game nights, he said. The ship also has a small gym, he said.
Stephanie Serrano, from Hondo, is the ship's chief cook, responsible for managing a 21-day rotating breakfast, lunch and dinner menu, and running food prep from a little galley that includes two ovens, a copper pit and small grill.
Thursday's dinner menu: Rosemary chicken, meatloaf, mashed potatoes, green beans and a salad bar. And there figured to be some baked goods around.
"I like to bake," said Serrano, who has been in the service for 11 years.
As always, sailors have to wash their own dishes. The ship's three cooks take requests in a suggestion box. Serrano said she hasn't figured one out: a Mongolian grill.
"That's going to be a hard, tough challenge," she said.
Sailors praised the ship's technology, a key piece in its ability to work with significantly fewer crew members than comparable ships such as frigates. Mission modules are designed to be switched in 72 hours or less.
Thursday, an unmanned aerial aircraft sat inside the ship's hangar. And an 11-meter-long, multipurpose, dual-engine, rigid-hull boat with an inflatable skirt was reminiscent of a gigantic fishing boat.
How fast is it?
"I don't know — fast," crewman John DuBose said.
Someone suggested the boat could it be used for redfishing. That would be the purview of the ship's morale and welfare department, Hostetler joked.