Our fears are always more numerous than our dangers
Forty-eight years ago, I was brought into one of the most ancient organizations called the Ancient Order of the Deep.
The Crossing the Line Ceremony is as old as the sea. From the Official Navy Web Site:
Although crossing the equator may seem like a routine event for any modern-day naval vessel, navies have celebrated the time-honored tradition for centuries. Back in the days of wooden ships, Crossing the Line ceremonies were designed to test young Sailors on their first cruise out in the open sea.
The rich tradition of the Crossing the Line ceremonies often involved varied events throughout which pollywogs, the term given to those who have not crossed the equator before, were put through a series of initiation rites involving harrowing and often embarrassing tasks, gags, obstacles, physical hardships, and generally good-humored mischief. After the ceremony, the Sailors were inducted into the “Solemn Mysteries of the Ancient Order of the Deep” meaning that King Neptune had accepted them as one of his trusty shellbacks. With the pollywog to shellback transition complete, a certificate was often awarded to the new shellback as a rite of passage.
When the ceremonies were first conducted, they were physically challenging and could even be painful or embarrassing to the Sailors.
In February of 1974, I was just completing my first patrol on the George Washington. The patrol had been pretty hectic and had taken the shine off of anything I had as a preconceived notion about Navy life. As one of the new guys on board, I had to fulfill my ninety days as a mess cook before I could go on to do the jobs I had been trained for. It was pretty humbling in so many ways. You start out in the scullery washing dishes for the crew and the actual cooks. The day started incredibly early and if you were on days, it included set up for breakfast, making sure the coffee was ready, setting tables, and helping the cook to get the meal ready. Then the chaos of serving the oncoming crew (who were mainly grouchy at having been rousted from their bunks) and getting reset for the off going watch section. In the scullery on the Georgefish, everything was manual. From the minute the first dirty dishes came through the window, it was a non-stop ballet of scrape, rinse, wash, hot rinse, rack and dry. Repeat. You learned quickly to be complete in the scraping and rinsing part or the food would get stuck on the silver or dishes. Those came back to you with a few curse words so out of survival, you just worked harder.
The deep sink for rinsing was really hot. They gave you black electricians gloves to try and protect your hands and arms as you grabbed the dishes to retrieve them. But all too often, the water just got into the gloves which burned you even more. Timing was everything.
To add to the fun, the scullery person also was the receiver of trash. The little room where the trash compactor and trash disposal unit were adjacent to the scullery and the scullery person had to keep a clean and clear workspace.
It was a tiring job, but you got used to it after a while. But I noticed about a week before the day we were going to cross the line that my trash flow was slowing down. It went from a steady rhythm to almost non-existent. As I said, the job was really consuming so I didn’t have much time to contemplate the patterns of the universe. Frankly, there may have been a part of young me that was just glad to not have that part of my daily tasking to worry about. And I was getting close to the end of my time as a mess cook so put my thoughts into other things.
But deep within the bowels of the ship, the trash and slushy waste was piling up in anticipation of a ceremony I had not yet been exposed to. The older sailors who already had crossed the line met in small, hushed groups making their plans for the day that was coming soon. Secret assignments were made and the materials that would be needed were spirited away. This was the Zumwalt nuclear Navy of beards and long hair, but many of the older guys were leftovers from the diesel boat days when the ceremony was well planned and executed. The difference was that it was normally done topside with firehoses to wash away the sins of the Polly Wogs. Scuttlebutt on the Georgefish was that we were not going to surface. The whole ceremony would be conducted while submerged.
The Shellbacks wanted to make sure we had a memorable event. One we could write about 48 years later. They did not fail in that effort. I will do my best to try and describe the day. And it was a long day.
Breakfast was a hurried affair. As a pollywog, I was ushered out of the mess decks as soon as the meal was secured. All of the wogs were led into the lower level of the missile compartment to await our “trial” Shellbacks in costume kept us corralled until the “courtroom” was prepared. Then we were made to strip to our underwear. A “guard” came ot the top of the ladder and yelled for the first group to be brought up. The passageways were darkened, and we were led in single file to the aft part of the mess decks. Did I mention that we were also blindfolded and had our hands tied behind our backs?
The smell was the first thing you noticed. It was foul and evil and the mystery of the missing trash was no longer a mystery. The blindfolds were removed and so were the ties on our hands. We were made to get on all fours and move forward through an improvised garbage chute. (Poly plastic that was draped and taped in such a way that it contained the foul-smelling goop. I was in the second group that went through. That was unfortunate. Some of the boys in the first group must not have liked the smell of the goop to such an extent that the greasy food we had been served for breakfast was added to the crawl.
I am honored to say, I did not add anything to that mess. But we were treated to screaming shellbacks along the way with paddles of grease. I will spare you the details of the grease, but you can imagine where much of it ended up. A side note: submarine grease is formulated to resist water. That memory takes years to forget. I believe at least forty-nine years.
Much of the ceremony remains a blur. I remember there was someone who was the Royal Prosecutor who asked a series of questions of each Wog. The answer didn’t matter. After each response, the truth serum was administered. I do not know to this day what was in it, but I remember it was green, slimy, tasted remarkably like hot sauce, and it didn’t stay down for very long. Each expulsion resulted in more screaming and another dose. Finally, you were given your sentence. And to be absolved, you had to kiss the Royal Babies Belly. What that translated to was retrieving an olive, covered with the truth serum from the belly button of the largest man on board with your hands behind your back.
When it was all done, you were led from the mess decks to the lower-level berthing showers and cleaned up.
At the end of the ceremony, the Shellbacks cleaned up the mess and put up clean decorations. King Neptune donned his outfit and the inductees were brought back to the mess decks for their coronation into the new realm of being a Shell Back. I don’t remember much about that part other than having to scrub down my scullery and trash room when they all left. We had steak and lobster that night for dinner, but I wasn’t very hungry for some reason. I think I remember foolishly telling myself that I would never do this to another person. I think I broke that promise less than ten years later on board the USS San Franscico when I found myself on the other side of the line. But that is a story for another day.
They don’t do things that way anymore. According to the Navy’s heritage site: Today, the event is voluntary and is conducted more for entertainment purposes and morale boosting than anything else. Other milestones such as crossing the Antarctic Circle and deep-sea diving have also been adopted in this tradition.
I am glad I went through it when I did. I was also on one of the last groups of Chief Petty Officers that went through an actual initiation. The events were part of my growing up as a sailor and an individual. Both helped me with overcoming my fear. To be honest, I wondered if I would hold up under pressure. I found a strength that I might not have found without it.