The narrator reminisces about her childhood in San Francisco, particularly during fleet week, and how vehemently her mother and grandmother would warn her and her friend Dorothy about dangerous sailors. The narrator’s mother and grandmother never explicitly explain why sailors are dangerous, but simply forbid the young girls from meeting them or being in any situations that involve sailors.
Every year, the narrator and Dorothy were allowed to go from their hometown, Burlingame, to San Francisco to buy new coats. After shopping, they would meet, along with the narrator’s mother and grandmother, with her Uncle Oliver, who worked as the radio operator on a battleship. Uncle Oliver would take them to the fleet and show them around.
Once, the narrator is separated from her family on the ship, as her uncle is involved in recounting his old experiences to the eagerly listening sailors and visitors. Lost, she finds the ship’s captain, who escorts her safely back to her family. The narrator’s mother is horrified by her contact with the sailor, as are her grandmother and Dorothy.
That evening, the women attend a movie with the narrator and Dorothy, but the theater does not have enough seats. Dorothy and the narrator sit down, but as soon as two seats next to them become available, the mother and grandmother do not reach them quickly enough. Instead, two sailors sit down next to Dorothy. Terrified by the fear of sailors inculcated by the mother and grandmother, Dorothy cannot bear to stay at the theater and they leave. The adults comfort the girls by taking them out for hot chocolate, but when a few sailors enter the café, Dorothy becomes terrified again. The narrator’s mother assumes that the sailors followed them, and Dorothy, frightened, must spend the night at the narrator’s house.
Although Jackson also grew up in Burlingame, near San Francisco (where this story takes place), possible autobiographical aspects of this story are unclear. The most potent aspect of this story is its portrayal of how easily irrational fear can be inculcated in people. The hysteria and fear which grow in Dorothy, simply when sailors sit near her in the movie theater, are almost comically described by Jackson. Even though the sailors do not disturb her or the narrator in any way whatsoever, Dorothy becomes hysterical and is unable to watch the rest of the movie. Later on, Jackson implies that she becomes so upset that she must spend the night at the narrator's house. Clearly, the irrational fear of sailors inculcated in Dorothy by the narrator's mother and grandmother cause her to behave unreasonably.
The situation in this story is related to the way that individuals can easily be swayed by mob mentality, which can result in disastrous consequences, as seen in "The Lottery." The narrator, fortunately, is not as easily swayed as Dorothy by her mother's and grandmother's warnings with regard to sailors. The narrator (also the protagonist) adopts a more reasonable view of sailors. When she gets lost on the ship, she thinks, "I was always safe if I didn't lose my head" (103). Naturally, the sailor she encounters is extremely polite and helps escort her back to her family. This incident demonstrates that if one retains clarity of thought and does not harbor biases, social interactions with others (as between the narrator and the sailor) can be uneventful, perhaps even positive.
An ironic feature of the story is that the narrator's own uncles are also sailors. Her grandmother always insists on asking whether the officers and sailors they meet know her son, Paul, who is in the navy. This demonstrates the grandmother's affection for and pride in her son. However, the grandmother and mother fail to realize that their fear of sailors may be irrational, given that their beloved family members are also sailors. (Or maybe they heard too many stories of debauchery from the inside.) Since they do not think poorly of their family members simply because these men are sailors, they should realize that thinking poorly of all sailors in general does not make sense.