Chapter 1.............Equator Watch
Chapter 2..............The Range
Chapter 3..............The Nassau Trucking Station
Chapter 4..............Mission San Fernando
Chapter 5..............The Girls From Ipanema
Chapter 6..............Over The Bounding Main
Chapter 7..............Women, Jim, And Settling In
Chapter 8..............Three Knots To Nowhere
Chapter 9..............It's Not Just A Fun Job
Chapter 10.............Lifeboat Diary
Chapter 11.............In The Drink
Chapter 12.............Bullshit And Fairy Tales
Chapter 13.............High And Dry
Chapter 14.............Mucking Up And Getting Mental
Chapter 16.............The Big Ditch
Chapter 17.............Polynesian Mysteries
Chapter 18.............Woolloomooloo, Tattoos, And Digiridoos
Chapter 19.............Isle De France
Chapter 21.............Breaking Up And Going Down
Chapter 22.............The Islands Of Coco-De-Mer
Chapter 23.............Return To The Isle
Chapter 24.............The Last Leg
Chapter 26.............Back To Sea
Chapter 27.............The Ghosts Of War
Chapter 28.............The Ghosts Of War II
Chapter 29.............Last Call
Chapter 30.............The Transfer "Home"
After seven days at sea, I had come to the conclusion that the most compelling argument for sea travel was the opportunity it provided for long periods of uninterrupted concentration. This revelation came to me as I stood alone at the ship's railing, watching the endless roll of the South Atlantic. In the distance, the setting sun dipped towards the blue-gray peaks and valleys of the Brazilian Highlands. We were skirting the South American coastline, steaming northward from Rio de Janeiro.
I wondered how many great works of literature, how many religious truths, philosophical awakenings, and scientific breakthroughs had been spawned by men who were doing just what I was doing. Did an ocean voyage inspire Da Vinci? Was Martin Luther a mariner? Did Shakespeare sail? Copernicus cruise? Newton navigate?
Now it was my turn. For inspiration, I conjured up some of the short, catchy maxims from my college days-architect Lewis Sullivan's "Form ever follows function," and naturalist Ernst Haeckel's "Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny." As I prepared to author my own epiphany, the slightest hint of ocean spray suddenly brushed my face, and one more phrase popped into my head: singer Jim Croce's "Don't spit into the wind."
Perhaps inspiration would come another day. I left the railing and went below decks in another attempt to scrounge some reading material.
I must admit here that my quest for the written word was not exactly predicated on the notion that I always preferred a good book over an evening of television; I just didn't have a choice. While my new home was a satellite tracking ship that ranked as one of the world's most sophisticated communications centers, the vessel's television technology had some way to go before it would be able to compete with a good set of jungle drums.
Thus in my short time aboard I had found that without television, my choice of after-work activities was extremely limited. Every evening, I sampled the wares of the chow hall, suffered through the movie of the day, checked the chow hall again, and watched the South American coastline slide by. This allowed plenty of time for reading, but in my rush to meet the ship I hadn't thought about packing anything to read.
Hoping to pick up a stray magazine, I stopped by the technicians' lounge, just a few steps down from my stateroom. As I pulled open the door, I couldn't help remembering the mental picture that had presented itself the first time I'd learned that there was a lounge on board. This was a naval vessel, so I knew it wasn't going to be the kind of lounge where patrons would go to order a Scotch and soda nightcap. With a piano bar out of the question, I imagined a kind of "gentleman's club," where my fellow techs would be nestled into overstuffed leather chairs while they rested their slippered feet in the plush carpeting. Surrounded by wall-to-wall oaken bookshelves, the techs would thoughtfully turn the pages of classic literature to the accompaniment of soft music.
This picture quickly dissolved once I passed through the door and got my first actual glimpse of the room. What I saw wasn't so much a lounge as a loitering area filled with government-issue tables and chairs and some benches that may have come from the booths in Mel's Diner.
The floor was the same green-gray speckled linoleum tile that seemed to cover every square inch of every floor below the main deck. Bolted to the walls were some gray storage cabinets. Instead of soft music, I heard the same thing everyone heard in every room and every corridor throughout the ship-the sound of the air conditioning system sending hurricane force winds screaming through the ducts and vents three feet above our heads. The one reader in the room sat with one of his bare feet up on a table and alternated giving his attention to the Hustler magazine he was reading and the toenail he was picking. At another table, the evening poker players stubbed cigarettes into an ashtray that already contained a pile of butts higher than any stack of chips. There wasn't anything to read in the lounge except poker faces.
I went to my room and picked up a three-month-old magazine my bunkmate and coworker, George, had bought when the ship was in Argentina. I had thumbed through its pages before, but my grasp of Spanish was heavily influenced by the dialogue between the characters in the 1950's TV show, The Cisco Kid. In other words, my strength lay in translating such sentences as, "Hey Ceesco, eet ees time to rest thee horses, no?"
I knew I was in deep water when I couldn't even understand the magazine's title (Gente), but I skimmed through the articles anyway, hunting for words that looked similar to English. Once I found one, I'd work backwards and forwards through the sentence, trying to deduce the meanings of the other words and ultimately the intent of the article.
When I tired of this brain-busting cryptogram, I asked George where I could find something else to read. English was preferred, but my command of Pig Latin was passable, and I could use it in a pinch.
"Well, Dan," he answered in his Georgia drawl, "I don't rightly know if you'll have any luck, but I've always found something to hold my interest in the tech lounge."
This sounded more like an invitation to join him at the poker game than a promise of something new to read. Nevertheless, I thanked George for his suggestion and as desperation set in, I decided I would give the lounge another look. Maybe the toenail picker had left his Hustler behind.
No, the lounge was empty and there were no books, magazines, or newspapers in sight. I was so starved for the sight of some well-constructed strings of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and punctuation marks though, that I considered making a trip down to my work area, where I'd seen a pamphlet with the eye-catching title, Duobinary Coding-Major Breakthrough in Data Transmission. Instead, I took the opportunity to do some snooping. I opened the doors to one set of storage cabinets, expecting to find stationery, government pens, staplers, Scotch tape, and other office supplies. What I found was the ship's treasure.
The two cabinets contained hundreds of paperback books neatly lined up on shelves. The books were well worn and many were missing their jackets, but that just made browsing more fun. After only a few minutes, I discovered dozens of titles that held my interest. I quickly selected one about the life of a professional scuba diver and took it back to my room.
As I entered, George left, off to round up his poker pals and get the second shift started. Eager to dive into my book, I stripped down to my underwear and threw my clothes over one of our two straight-backed chairs. George and I each had a small closet and chest of drawers squeezed into our cramped quarters but our evening ritual was the same; bedtime was no time to worry about creases and clothes hangers. I brushed my teeth in the small sink, killed the overhead light, and vaulted into the top bunk. There, I found the switch to the reading light and picked up my book.
I immersed myself in the author's underwater adventures and tried my best to imagine the feeling of floating through the water exploring coral reefs and sunken ships and maybe spearing a fish or snatching a lobster. Growing up high and dry in a tiny town near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania had not afforded me the opportunity to explore the underwater world. Nor had I any deep desire to dive what water there was-chilly lakes and rivers made murky over the years by drainage from hundreds of abandoned coal mines. Nevertheless, I had been enthralled with the thought of diving since I had first put on a mask in a swimming pool.
I fueled my fantasy for a hundred pages before checking my small night stand for something to use as a bookmark. There, I saw the folded, typewritten page I had been handed just before lunch.
Whereas, the good ship USNS Vanguard bound northward to Port Canaveral, off the Coast of Brazil, is about to enter our domain, and the aforesaid ship carries a large and slimy cargo of landlubbers, knob-dickers, beachcombers, sea lawyers, range rats, lounge lizards, plow deserters, chicken chasers, hay tossers, sand crabs, equipment tweakers, rum lappers, Casanovas, handle-holders, and all other living creatures of the land, and last but not least, he-vamps and liberty hounds, falsely masquerading as seamen and sea-going technicians of which you are a member, having appeared before us; and
Whereas, The Royal High Court of the Raging Main has been convened by us on board the good ship Vanguard on the 7th day of May, 1974 at Longitude 40° 00' W and Latitude 00° 00' and an inspection of our Royal High Roster shows that it is time the sad and wandering nautical soul of that much abused body of yours appeared before the High Tribunal of Neptune; and
Be it known, that we hereby summon and command you Dan Kovalchik to appear before the Royal High Court and Our August Presence on the aforesaid date at such time as may best suit our pleasure, and to accept most heartily and with good grace the pains and penalties of the awful tortures that will be inflicted upon you for daring to enter our aqueous and equinoctial regions without due and submissive ceremony to be examined as to fitness to become one of our trusty Shellbacks, and a worthy Son of the Seas and to answer to the following charges:
CHARGE 1. In that Dan Kovalchik has hereto willfully and most maliciously failed to show reverence and allegiance to our Royal Person and is therein and thereby a vile landlubber and pollywog.
CHARGE 2. Did in fact destroy the phone patches to the States for Shellbacks last weekend. DISOBEY THIS SUMMONS UNDER PAIN OF OUR SWIFT AND TERRIBLE DISPLEASURE. OUR VIGILANCE IS EVER WAKEFUL, OUR VENGEANCE IS JUST AND SURE.
Attest for the King:
Davy Jones, Scribe
Thus read my summons to appear in the case of The Trusty Shellbacks versus Dan Kovalchik. The shipmate who handed me the summons had curtly announced that the equator crossing initiation would be held the next day. Then he turned and walked off, presumably to deliver the remainder of his summonses. As he disappeared, so did my good mood.
For the week I had been with the ship, I had concentrated on learning about the radio transmitters and receivers I was supposed to operate and maintain. Never one to seek out company or initiate conversations with strangers, I had gradually met perhaps a dozen of my coworkers somewhere between my workbench, the chow hall, the movie room, and the ship's rail. However, I was on my first cruise with a ship whose crew of nearly two hundred had worked and lived together for some months, or in some cases, years. They were not eager to invite me into their community. That was just as well. I was content with the pace. After a few more weeks together, I was sure I'd fit right in.
But this equator crossing initiation was happening too soon. I had also heard the ceremony referred to as a "hazing" and that was just the kind of childish fraternity nonsense I had always dreaded and sought to avoid.
Throughout the day, our trusty shellbacks (those who had already undergone the rite of passage) switched their conversations to whispers whenever a pollywog drifted close by. To confirm our suspicions that they were plotting our demise (or at least severe discomfort) the agitators deliberately raised their voices to proclaim such jewels as, "I wouldn't want to be in their shoes," or, "Geez, we didn't have it that bad when I went through."
I knew this behavior was designed to annoy us and when it did, I was doubly irritated that I had fallen for their cheap theatrics.
As I lay in my bunk, I slipped the summons into my book and snapped off the reading light. I stretched out, tensed, and slowly relaxed, taking a pseudo-yoga approach to dissolving the knot in the pit of my stomach.
With the lights out, my stateroom at first seemed as dark as a coffin. For the hundredth time that week, I cursed the absence of a porthole. A porthole would serve to remind me of the real world just inches away from my head, provide a sanctuary from the unnatural hues cast by our fluorescent tubes throughout the ship, and maybe serve as God's night-light at bedtime. I knew from experience, however, that my eyes would adjust to the darkness and that the splinter of light glowing under the door would soon provide enough illumination to reveal the ghostly outlines of the room.
Like a giant cradle, the ship's gentle rocking motion began to work its subliminal magic on me and I finally began to relax. A feeling of comfort gradually overtook me that was so complete I could practically feel the stress draining out of my body. What was I worried about? This initiation should be something to look forward to, not something to dread. It would just be another episode to add to the long list of adventures I hoped to accumulate after suffering through years of isolation in my parents' backwoods country house. I had wanted to be on my own and to see the world; I was finally in a position to do so.
These pleasant thoughts eased my concerns to the point that I no longer cared about what was in store for me on Equator Crossing Day. I just hoped George wouldn't wake me up when he quit his poker game and turned in.
WHAM! The cabin door flew open and slammed against the bulkhead. Two figures stood in the doorway, silhouetted by the hall light.
"HIT THE DECK, POLLYWOG SCUM! YER ON EQUATOR WATCH!"
One intruder turned on the light, blinding me as I sprang out of my bunk. Nevertheless, I saw enough to catch the glint of a sword in one upstretched hand.
"Let's roll, scumbag! Get'cher clothes on. Get'cher lifejacket on. Putta hard-hat on. MOVE IT!"
So the fraternity nonsense had begun. But I had already decided I would go along with it; I wanted to be a team player. I sure didn't want to antagonize anyone with whom I might be working the next couple of years. I followed directions wordlessly.
Once I pulled my clothes on, I got a better look at my shipmates. Both were dressed in ragtag pirate's togs. One had covered his head with a three-corner hat and his face with a painted-on beard, but the best part of his costume was a grinning Jolly Roger artfully decorating his black T-shirt.
The other crewman had wrapped his head in a bandanna and added an eye patch. These accouterments, when combined with his shoulder-length hair, his beard, and the maniacal glint in his uncovered eye produced a pirate Blackbeard would have been proud to call a member of his crew. Pinned to his tattered shirt was a huge cardboard star proclaiming him "Sheriff." To complete their outfits, both intruders wore ratty, ragged cutoffs and mutilated socks.
Despite the getup, I saw enough of my shipmates to realize I hadn't met them or even seen them before. This didn't help my state of mind; the hazing would have been bad enough had I been surrounded by friends or acquaintances. I didn't relish performing for strangers.
My captors led me at sword point (wooden, I noticed) to the main deck. There, illuminated by the yellow lights that lined the superstructures, I saw two fellow pollywogs standing stiffly at attention. Although the evening temperature was probably no higher than eighty, their faces glistened with sweat. As I joined them, I felt the first drop of my own perspiration fall down my neck and I pretended my discomfort was solely the result of the hot, heavy lifejacket. Certainly, it had nothing to do with fear.
Jolly Roger thrust a piece of paper in my face. Before I could read it, the sheriff, who apparently had some reservations about the reading and comprehension levels of pollywogs, came unbidden to my aid. He addressed us in a loud raspy voice (and an excellent Long John Silver imitation).
"Listen sharply, mateys! Ye be but three men on watch: The fo'ard watch, the aft watch, an' don't be fergett'n the sergeant. The fo'ard watch will be a-stand'n at the bow wit' b'noculars to watch fer yon Equator. The aft watch stands at the stern wit' a pair o' scissors to cut the Equator line so's it don't foul the propeller. Until yer relieved, the sergeant will be a-walk'n quick as 'is peg leg can carry 'im between the fo'ard and aft watches to be makin' sure each swab is a-doin' 'is duty."
"But Sheriff!" Jolly Roger bawled out, "The sergeant got no peg leg."
"Aye," the sheriff replied in a loud whisper, "But the night be young yet, bucko." He raised his voice again.
"Any of ye pollywog scum who be caught derelict in yer duty will be subject to two trips through the line of initiation, by thunder!"
While the sheriff continued to lecture us, Jolly Roger disappeared towards the stern and quickly returned with the aft watch from the previous shift who, soldier-style, carried a four-foot pair of wooden, silver-painted scissors against his shoulder. Roger orchestrated a changing of the guard and quick-marched the replacement Equator-cutter sternward to begin his patrol. Finally, the sheriff ended his tirade and marched the sergeant and me to the bow.
I looked at my schedule and saw that I had been fortunate. It was a few minutes after midnight, but the watches had started at ten o'clock. I could have been one of the poor souls scheduled for three or four in the morning. I also saw that rank still had its privileges; our company's top-level supervisor had been assigned to the first bow watch. For all their bluster, my coworkers were realists, giving their boss an easy shift. This did a lot to soothe any worries about what my tormentors could or would do to me. I knew then that, at worst, I'd be subjected to an hour's inconvenience and a little razzing from the guys. I could handle that.
My escorts and I rounded the forward bridge and the bow came into view. The bow watch was there, all right, but he wasn't alone. Someone was standing spread-eagled, lashed between two crane struts. I recognized Mr. Top-Level Supervisor. Gleefully, the sheriff pointed at him with his sword.
"Look ye and learn, toad! Here be an unworthy puke we caught with his finger up 'is nose. Ye can't be equator watchin' when yer mind's on yer boogers!"
So much for rank and privilege. These crazies had tied up our fearless leader and had him standing on deck for two hours. Surely it was time to release him.
"Sergeant!" the sheriff sang out, "Booger-brain 'pears to be needin' a change of scenery. March 'im aft an' tie 'is sorry arse to the garbage chute!"
I was going to have to stop making baseless assumptions concerning my coworkers' behavior. Like Halloween, Equator Crossing celebrations would apparently excuse all but the most obnoxious conduct.
The eleven o'clock watch handed me the binoculars and left with the others. As they disappeared behind the bridge, I heard the sheriff paging one of his minions.
" 'awkins! 'AWKINS! Now, whar be young Jim 'awkins, me faithful cabin boy? Arrr!"
I was alone at the bow, or so I thought. I started as one of the ship's crew took a step out from the shadow the bridge cast on the forward railing. He carried binoculars also and I realized he was the true bow watch. I relaxed a bit; as an on-duty crew member, he was divorced from the proceedings and was no threat to me.
"Those guys are loony," he muttered.
"No kidding," I whispered. My companion seemed intent on his job, and made no further comments. That was just as well. I didn't want to be seen engaging in idle conversation while on this important duty. That might be the provocation necessary to get me tied to the rail by one of those roving maniacs. If my defense required standing at attention with the binoculars glued to my eyes for one hour, so be it.
Standing at the prow, the ship's left-right rocking motion was less pronounced than it was amidships. My stomach switched its attention to delicate up-down movements instead, as we climbed slight swells and fell into shallow troughs. On previous excursions past the protective covering of the massive forward bridge, I had been rewarded with an annoying blast of wind in the face. On this night, however, there was only a refreshing breeze. A tail-wind must have countered the wind generated by our speed.
To my left I could see a thin ribbon of lights in the distance, marking the coastline. To the right, the moonlight danced a shimmering path right up to the side of the ship. The bow wave captured the soft blue light and tossed it aside, the splash barely audible in the otherwise calm sea. Periodically, the deck hand spoke quietly into a telephone mounted in front of him, identifying new dots of light as they appeared. If this was all there was to Equator Watch, I decided, I could handle it.
This turned out to be the case; my shellback tormentors left me alone for my entire shift. They reappeared at two o'clock with my relief and allowed me to return to my room where I thankfully hit the sack for the second time that evening. I had no trouble falling asleep.
The next morning, the shellbacks once again provided me with a personalized wake-up call. It seemed Equator Crossing Day did not mean work as usual; Jolly Roger led me to the mess hall and encouraged me to sit with the other pollywogs and eat a hearty breakfast. (He wasn't just being thoughtful; he had an ulterior motive.) Afterwards, the sheriff and his men herded us into the tech lounge. The lounge suddenly looked much smaller as the fifteen of us sat and awaited further orders. No one spoke.
As my subpoena had mentioned, the basis of the equator crossing ceremony was the appearance of King Neptune to serve as judge and jury of each crew member accused of being a pollywog. To that end, a crew of royal servants was assembled to bring the accused to trial. This cast of supporting characters could be stipulated by whoever was organizing the hazing. On the good ship Vanguard, the King was joined by his wife Amphitrite and their Royal Baby. The Royal Scribe, the Royal D.A. (as prosecuting attorney), and an attorney for the defense all served the court. A Royal Doctor, Barber, and Dentist were in attendance and a Royal Sheriff led a band of deputies to guard and escort the prisoners.
In contrast to the initiations aboard U.S. Navy military vessels, Vanguard hazings were relatively harmless; the subjects experienced no pain or disfigurement. Of course, nobody made the effort to explain this to those of us locked in the tech lounge waiting for our names to be called.
A smell gradually permeated the lounge. I quickly recognized it as the same odor present in the classrooms and hallways of my high school on the first day of classes. It was the smell of sweat, tension, and more than a little fear.
The deputies waited until we each displayed these symptoms to the desired levels and then, one-by-one, they took us out of the lounge and marched us up to the main deck. Before we stepped out of the stairwell, however, our guards fitted us with blindfolds. Thus handicapped, we were ready to be guided to the doctor, the dentist, and the barber, who were responsible for making us presentable for our court appearance.
Guided by words and helping hands, I carefully stepped across the threshold of the watertight door and onto the main deck. Sunshine made its way through my blindfold and I felt its welcome warmth on my exposed legs, arms, and face. While my guide paused, I twisted my head to tune in as much as I could of my surroundings. From somewhere close by I heard vile shellback epithets, muffled pollywog responses, whoops of laughter, and a near constant snapping of camera shutters.
Despite the blindfold, it was a relief to be on the deck, away from the claustrophobic lounge and my fellow scared rabbits. The agony of waiting was finally over.
I docilely allowed my escort to take my arm and lead me the few steps to the doctor's "office." There, another helpful soul took my other arm, welcomed me, and invited me to brace myself as he prepared to investigate my response to "the rapid introduction of a temperature change-inducing substance to a previously stable, protected environment."
Suddenly, before I could deduce the meaning of this statement, both guards tightened their grips on my arms. Simultaneously, I felt a hand pulling out my waistband. A flood of ice water invaded my previously stable, protected nether regions. Amidst whoops of laughter (nearby this time), the doctor thanked me for my contribution to medical science and asked my guards to escort me to the dentist.
Again, only a few steps separated the doctor's and dentist's office space, but the journey was frequently interrupted as I gyrated my pelvis and cocked and shook my legs to unload the ice from my shorts. When my guards were sufficiently amused at my awkward dance, they relaxed their holds long enough for me to dig out the last of the offending cubes.
I felt a hand cradling my chin.
"All right, matey. Open up. Let's have a look inside."
Right. I was about four years old the last time I fell for that. In those days it was "Open your mouth, close your eyes, I'll give you a big surprise." Well, I had a surprise for them; I wasn't four years old anymore. I jammed my lips together, tightly.
"Stubborn, eh?" I heard. "Boys, help me force his mouth open."
Hah! Amateurs! It's damn near impossible to force someone's mouth open, I knew. I clenched my teeth and awaited the onslaught, welcoming the opportunity to defeat the shellbacks at their own game.
It was a sneak attack. I suddenly felt the familiar hand pulling on my waistband again. The previous deluge had not deadened my feelings below the waist. If anything, they were intensified. My shivering scrotum sent an emergency message to my brain, demanding absolute top priority control of body functions. Imperative that voice box be activated now! Pump up lungs; all available volume required; intelligible speech unnecessary!
My brain obediently relinquished control. In less than a heartbeat, I opened my mouth to suck in all the air required for my primal scream. The dentist, of course, was ready for this and directed a stream of vinegar past my lips, between my teeth, and over my tongue to splash against my dangling uvula.
Coughing, choking, and spitting, I realized that it was small consolation that the ice water never arrived. I had been outwitted.
My pride had made me forget that, in this case, the shortest distance between two points could only be found through my full cooperation. Any deviation from this path would subject me to any number of humiliations, all of which were tried and true, having been practiced many times since the days of the Ancient Mariner.
Thus broken, I allowed my escorts to guide me to the barber's station. I gingerly seated myself and the barber went to work, experimenting to find the proper hairstyle to wear before the king. The Navy way is to shave the head, but our barber shunned the scissors and instead concentrated on finding the best mousse. It turned out that his notion of ideal ingredients for hair sculpting were to be found among the table scraps saved from the mess hall for the past few days. I was soon wearing what I hadn't eaten.
At last I was a prisoner fit for a king, and none too soon; my case was next on the docket. My escorts took me to the pillory. A popular device in merry old England and its colonies, the pillory consisted of a heavy wooden frame with holes cut to accommodate (and confine) the prisoner's neck and wrists. The guide and two or three assistants helpfully placed my extremities into the holes and locked the contraption. It was time for the trial.
As I was to learn later, the Court closely followed a script. The only differences came in the form of the wording of the imaginary charges against each pollywog and in the variety of insults each member of the Family could muster. Otherwise, the course of the trial never changed and the outcome was never in doubt.
To open the proceedings, the scribe read the charges and asked for a plea. At this point it was the defense attorney's job to insist upon his client's good virtue and persuade the shackled unfortunate to sing out his innocence. Those gullible enough to do so were met with a handful of marinated kitchen garbage in the mouth as everyone joined in the verbal harassment:
D.A.: Speak up, fool! Show respect for the King!
Wife: He talks like a faggot!
Baby: He squeals like a cabin-boy!
Defense Attorney (beseechingly): C'mon, louder, LOUDER! The King won't let you go until he hears you say "Not guilty!"
Pollywog (Takes deep breath): NOT. . . (receives garbage in mouth)
D.A.: Speak up, ya swab! Sound off like ya got a pair!
Wife: What a wimp! I thought there were real men on this ship!
Baby: I'll bet he likes cabin-boys!
Defense Attorney (imploringly): Say "not guilty." NOT GUILTY! Say it!
Pollywog (pauses, reflecting on past advice and subsequent results) :. . . Guilty!
The D.A. generally gave the prisoner another scoop of garbage for good measure, released him from the pillory and ordered him to pay homage to the Family by kissing the Royal Baby's belly, which was usually ample and amply smeared with Royal Axle Grease. The king then sentenced all guilty parties (meaning all pollywogs) to a trip through the garbage pit.
When my turn came to be sentenced, I had to keep myself from snorting with derisive laughter. The garbage pit? What was the point? I had already been splattered with great gobs of garbage. A little more would hardly be noticeable. I wanted to mock my persecutors and considered paraphrasing Br'er Rabbit: "Oh, please don't throw me in the garbage pit. Anything but that!" At this juncture, however, I thought it best to hold my tongue. I remained the picture of submission as my guards led me to the pit.
The pit boss told me to step over the foot-high edge and helped me get down on my hands and knees. Although enough sour, fermented liquids had been mixed with buckets of spoiled kitchen scraps to make a stinking, gooey mess, I could tell the concoction was only a few inches deep. Knowing I had weathered the worst of the hazing and that freedom could be no more than ten or twelve feet away, I happily began a quick hands-and-knees shuffle through the goo.
There was a catch. A bar lay across the pit walls, blocking my way.
"This here's where we do the 'pollywog limbo,' scumbag. You gotta go under the bar."
Since the bar was only a foot high, I had to lie completely flat, immersing my body and half my head in the fluid, noxious mess. With plenty of verbal and physical encouragement from the rear, I inched my way under the bar and emerged a shellback.
Friendly hands helped me to my feet, removed my blindfold, pounded me on the back, and pushed me into the spray of a fire hose; the initiation committee had thoughtfully set up a saltwater shower to help us clean up.
After I removed the most offensive smells, I hurried back to the beginning of the initiation line to watch those pollywog scum who were just arriving on the main deck. I felt a silly sense of superiority over these hapless fools who had so recently been my equals. Of course, it only lasted until the last pollywog crept under the bar of the garbage pit. From then on, we were all shellback brethren.
We disassembled all the props that had been collected for the ceremony and hosed down the deck. Once the last of the garbage had been washed overboard, those who had the stomach for eating participated in a cookout on deck.
As I discussed the day's activities with my new friends, I came to realize that my rookie status on the ship was a lucky break. Because I had only met a few coworkers during my short time aboard, I was a relative unknown. Thus, the committee had whisked me through the gauntlet comparatively quickly. On the other hand, those who had been around long enough to provoke personality conflicts with the initiators were among those who were given the roughest time. Naturally, the garbage-slingers recognized the initiation as a one-sided grudge match and used it to full advantage.
Surprisingly, the shellbacks didn't limit their harsh treatment to their antagonists. Other recipients of the worst abuse were the friendly, popular guys. The glee with which the Court piled sludge upon their friends was indistinguishable from the joy apparent when they mucked their enemies. With a few more weeks of exposure to my shipmates, I could have easily fallen into one of these two dreaded categories. I was thankful for my anonymity.
Sometime later, my personalized shellback certificate arrived in the mail. The gist of the flowery language on the document was to aver that I was indeed a trusty shellback and that if anyone had a problem with that, they'd have to answer to none other than Neptunus Rex, Ruler of the Raging Main. The ship's captain signed the certificate as well, but future events would suggest that he wouldn't be so eager to defend me against would-be detractors.
I couldn't wait to get my certificate framed, or better yet, mounted and shellacked. To me, it was impressive proof that I had broken out of the small town mold I feared I would be cast in for the rest of my life. True to my dreams, I was finally seeing the world. Okay, I was no Magellan, but a two-week cruise from Brazil to Florida wasn't a bad start. I couldn't wait to find out where the ship would take me next. This job was perfect for me. How did I luck out?
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