By lex, on February 3rd, 2004
You probably aren’t aware of this, but the odds are that you, gentle reader, are a slimy polliwog.
Unless of course you have crossed the equator in a Navy warship, been introduced to King Neptune, and kissed the baby’s belly.
The line is the equator, of course – and crossing the equator for the first time qualifies you as a slimy wog, the lowest form of sea life. But not to worry, the Trusty Shellbacks in the crew will partner with King Neptune and his retinue to bring you into the fold, after a suitable cleansing.
The Crossing of the Line ceremony on Navy ships is a received tradition, believed to date back to the Viking days (although their parallel was almost certainly something north of the equator). Passed on by them the Angles, thence to the Anglo-Saxons, thence to the Royal Navy and then to us.
I first crossed the line in June of 1987 – it was after we’d finished our line period in the North Arabian Sea, and were wending our way home, via Australia. As we closed within several degrees north of the equator, there was a suspicious whirr of activity among those of my shipmates that had cruised before; conversations whispered behind hands, evil grins and an obvious sense of anticipation. Preparations for something nefarious were clearly in a forward state of readiness as the equator approached.
The day prior to our crossing, the minds of all the uninitiated on the ship were preoccupied only with this question: If we flush the toilet exactly at the equator, which way will the water spin as it drains?
That night, preparing for the evening movie in the ready room, our wa was disturbed by an announcement over the ship’s loudspeaker system. Someone claiming in a stentorian tones to be Davy Jones, and representing the interests of one King Neptune, was essentially asking the ship’s CO what the hell he thought he was doing, bringing all these slimy polliwogs into the King’s domain? The CO averred that he had in fact sinned, but offered to make up for his miscreancy by conducting a cleansing ceremony, starting that very night.
The novices among us went to sleep that night somewhat unsettled in our minds, and wondering what the morrow would bring.
In the event, it brought a pounding on our doors at a very early hour – the veterans of our crew waited without, dressed in appallingly self-made pirate gear, garishly painted about their faces and swearing energetically into our uncomprehending faces.
They claimed to be Trusty Shellbacks, and it seemed we were expected to put our khaki pants on inside out, wear only a t-shirt and boots, and duck walk down to the ready room. Duck walking is just like it sounds – you bend over at the waist and with your hands behind your back, and you waddle around the passageways squatting on your haunches. Rather than quack like a duck, you are required to grunt “wog, wog” with each step.
Now, even for a young and supple Lex, it was no simple feat to duck walk down the series of ladders and hatches that made up our nautical home. Once arriving in the ready room, we were subjected to several of the more familiar and lesser humiliations until sunrise. At that moment, sensing a lessening in the intensity of our harasser’s interest and a momentary shift in the balance of power (several of them had gone to the head), we polliwogs fomented a brief rebellion, which was ruthlessly put down by the returning shellbacks.
Our time having come, we were asked to crawl up to the hangar bay on hands and knees. While waiting for an aircraft elevator to take us to the flight deck, various members of the shellback mafia treated us to tests of physical endurance while chastening the large muscles between the back of our legs and our lower back with the caress of a shillelagh – a cut down piece of fire hose. It didn’t really hurt at all, but it did make a satisfying (for the shellbacks) “thwack” as it struck home.
We got eventually to the elevator, and having been hosed down by several fire hoses, energetically applied at a volume sufficient to save a burning apartment building, we made it to the “roof.” Once there we were introduced to more crawling around on hands and knees in unspeakably filthy slime, and we were doused again with colored water. Once cleansed, we were asked to “kiss the baby” (the belly of the ship’s most obese chief – I do not want to even try to guess where this tradition came from) and were finally introduced to King Neptune and his retinue.
The King, behind his locks of hempen hair and beard, looked suspiciously like the ship’s Supply Officer. A retinue of “Wog Queens,” female sailors, who had avoided our fate by dressing in a most provocative manner, attended him. Some of them looked pretty damn cute, actually.
Which was strange, because this was 1987, and there were no females at sea on warships, in those days.
And it occurred to me on closer observation that these were not females at all. There were far too many Adam’s apples, among all those Eve’s.
One of the things I never figured out (because I was afraid of what the answer might be) was how it came to pass that these Wog Queens, in exchange for avoiding the more uncomfortable aspects of the crossing the line ceremony, managed to cruise for four and a half months with brassieres, fishnet stockings and stiletto heels stowed away in the very little space available to a Sailor at sea, while waiting for Just This Day!
I’ll also point out that the Navy no longer countenances certain aspects of this ceremony – the physical abuse for example, as gentle as it was, is mostly gone. Wog Queens are seen no more.
I do not miss them, personally.
The King gave us a dressing down, gave us a shower and welcomed us into the fold. It was all good fun, when all was said and done – it broke up the monotony of a long and uneventful transit, and gave all of us initiates something to look forward to on our next deployment.