Crossing the Line
The date of January 28, 1945 will be remembered by all of us as a very special day. We, who were Shellbacks before, will remember it as a day of fun and frolic. You, who were Pollywogs, until that day will remember it as a day when you were subjected to many tortures and torments which were deemed necessary to make Shellbacks out of you.

This was the third successful “Crossing the Line” ceremony held on board the “Lucky L” during her rather colorful existence. To give you a faint idea of why this traditional ceremony is carried out when crossing the Equator, and to also help refresh your memory, the following, brief description of the beginning of this ceremony, and a broad general description of the ceremony itself follows.

This ancient ceremony is as old as the sailing of the seas, with its origin obscured in the mists of the dim past. Just exactly how it first began is not known, but all information points to a beginning with religious significance. Why it is kept alive today is something many Pollywogs have often wondered.

The following version of the beginning and history of the ceremony is based on a little fact and mostly on the writer’s imagination. While it is hoped it is not too far wrong, it is a possible, and I hope, plausible version.

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In the very earliest days of sailing when venturing out of the sight of land was something only the most daring and adventurous sailors attempted, a special religious ceremony occurred just before entering the unknown and uncharted seas. Since those old pagans thrived on bloody sacrifices, at least one or more men would be put to death to appease the pagan gods of the sea. Then as time went on and men became more familiar with the dangers of the sea, a set place for these ceremonies was set. The first probably being the Rock of Gibraltar as that marked the end of the known and charted water of the Mediterranean Sea, which were the only known waters of that time. As years passed, men began to revolt against human sacrifice, and so the ceremony was undoubtedly altered so the sacrifice was made with animals instead of human beings. Finally, when there was no longer a religious significance to the ceremony, and man began to take pride in the fact that they had been outside the Mediterranean Seas, they started initiating those men who had not gone through the Straits of Gibraltar. This also served another purpose as the sailors of that day and age had to be a very hardy lot to endure the hardships encountered. This initiation weeded out those men who were unfit for such a strenuous life. It was encouraged at that time so those men killed and crippled during the initiation ceremony could be replaced before the voyage to the unknown seas began, rather than having them die where replacements were impossible to obtain. “Survival of the fittest” was just that in those days. A man was really rugged who had earned the right to be called “Salty.” As the seas outside the Mediterranean became better known, the place for this ceremony was changed.

Whether it changed several times before the Equator finally became the traditional spot is not known. The probable reason for picking the Equator was because the longest sea voyages were to India. Men could be picked up along the coast of Africa to replace those men disabled permanently or killed during the ceremony, before the ship rounded the Cape of Good Hope. Any man in that day and age who had crossed the equator, been initiated, and completed a trip to India and back had every right to consider himself one of Neptunus Rex’s favorite sons of the deep. When the pagan religious aspect of these ceremonies were dropped and men began initiating those who had not been across the line, the ancient ceremony was probably similar in-many ways to our present form of crossing the line ceremony. The main characters of today are as old as the sea itself. Neptunus Rex, Ruler of the Raging Main, is none other than the old Greek God Neptune. Davy Jones has long been a traditional character of the sea. Who, among sailors has not heard of Davy Jones’ very famous locker? The others, for the most part, are just as venerable. In the olden days the flogging, or beating a Pollywog received, was far more severe than that the present day Pollywog receives. But try to convince anyone who has just crossed the line of that fact. Then a Pollywog being killed or disabled permanently was a fairly common occurrence. Now, outside of some discomfort in sitting down for a day or two, a Pollywog suffers no painful effects from the initiation. In the modern version electricity has made its appearance in the form of various electrical gadgets designed to annoy the hapless Pollywog. Yet, we still cling to the ancient stocks, which have been a traditional part of the ceremony since the Middle Ages. Another old-timer is the tank where a Pollywog’s sins are washed away and he finally becomes a Shellback. At first they probably tied a line around him and heaved him over the side with the tank coming later in the natural evolution of the ceremony. The bludgeons and shillelaghs of that bygone age were versions of the cat-o-nine tails which not only raised vicious welts, but cut deep into the flesh of the man being initiated. In comparison our present day canvas tube stuffed with rags does not appear very formidable. Yet, all Pollywogs cringe and quail when he sees one of our present day shillelaghs being swung by an experienced Shellback. We now concentrate on a Pollywog’s posterior extremity. In those olden days they didn’t care where they hit a man. After going through one of their initiations you would have been a bloody mass of cuts and welts from your ankles on up. It is only in comparatively recent years that officers have been subjected to the same initiation as that given the crew. At first just the junior officers were initiated, however this custom has grown so much that now the oldest and highest ranking Pollywog officer in the Navy would expect to, and would be, initiated. No more partiality would be shown him than that shown the crewmembers of similar age and physical condition. An officer who enters into the initiation in the spirit of fun, painful fun it is true, but still fun, rises rather than falls in the estimation of the men under him who normally take orders from him, but who, on these two days of all days, order him around like a slave.

So strong is the tradition that no sailor considers himself a true salty son of the deep until he has been initiated into the Ancient and Honorable Order of Shellbacks. His certificate of crossing the line becomes one of his most valued possessions. He would not part with it for any amount of money if he would have to be initiated again. Perversely, all are proud sooner or later, that they underwent the ordeal of the initiation and are now Shellbacks, The present day ceremony begins the day before the line is to be crossed. All the Pollywogs are mustered and assigned various menial tasks, ranging from carrying water for the watches, to diving the bilges. Many others are stationed in strategic parts of the ship as lookouts. What they are looking for is something they seldom find out, but they still keep a very diligent watch.

A vigilant Shellback with a handy shillelagh insures their diligence. It is quite a sight to see one man in shorts, and one bundled to the ears in heavy winter clothing, standing lookout watches together with a couple of pop bottles or fire hose nozzles fastened together to serve as binoculars. All eventually get doused with water and have a few sample locks of their hair cut off to toast the Royal Barber’s Shears. And then the call “All Pollywogs below deck. Davy Jones is coming aboard.” is heard over the loudspeakers. Neptunus Rex’s emissary Davy Jones “comes aboard” with a retinue of pirates to welcome the Captain and other loyal Shellbacks to the domain of his Royal Majesty, King Neptunus Rex, Ruler of the Raging Main. After the speech of welcome, which is filled with threats of violence to the Pollywogs, a particularly loathsome Pollywog officer is dragged into the presence of Davy Jones to receive his summons to be at the trial on the morrow. After handing the rest of the summonses to the Captain for delivery to the remainder of the Pollywogs, and making a few more dire threats over the loudspeaker system, Davy Jones and his pirates “’depart.” Although the Pollywog doesn’t realize it at the time, this means the ship is almost back to normal routine for the rest of the day.

Only two more discriminations against him remain. When the noon meal is piped, the Pollywog officer and enlisted man alike, find themselves serving the Shellbacks. All food and fighting gear (knives, forks, spoons, cups, etc.) are brought to the Shellbacks as they take their seat at the tables awaiting service. A few members of the Royal Police insure that prompt and efficient service is rendered. Only those men who can prove themselves Shellbacks are permitted to eat at the tables. In peacetime no Pollywog would be allowed to eat until all the Shellbacks had finished eating. In wartime those Pollywogs with the oncoming watch are permitted to eat, but they must sit on the deck to do so. It is the custom for all Shellbacks to demand, and get, special service at this meal. No Shellback can be fed by a Pollywog, but anything else in the way of service is likely to be requested, and usually is. It is rather unusual to see a Pollywog summoned from across the Mess Hall to stir up the sugar in a cup of coffee. Even more unusual is to have a Pollywog officer politely request permission to fill your cup with lemonade or coffee. These two are just samples of the services demanded, and obtained, by the Shellbacks from the Pollywog mess cooks. As mess cooks they must be in a special uniform and so you see them running around the Mess Hall in all stages of dress and undress. A pair of shorts, apron and cap comprises the uniform of one and the rest range up to the Pollywog in full white uniform with a coat on to keep him cool. After dinner comes the last discrimination of the day against the Pollywog. The movie, which only Shellbacks are permitted to see. Even this is good news to the Pollywog who has been persecuted all morning. He is now able to get some much needed rest and a respite from the many tasks imposed on him by the Shellbacks. The morning of the Crossing the Line ceremony is greeted with shouts of exultation from the Shellbacks, even though most of them have been up a good share of the night putting the finishing touches on their costumes and equipment. The lowly Pollywog goes around with an expression of dread on his face, and is in the most dejected spirits. Breakfast is held early and then all Pollywogs are mustered and held in the Mess Hall while the Shellbacks set up all the gear and apparatus that they have worked on so industriously and secretly. And then, all too soon for the Pollywog, the initiation begins in earnest.

The ceremony is a costume party with a side dish of mayhem. The Royal Party “comes aboard” and is welcomed by the Captain who is relieved of the navigation of the ship by the Royal Navigator. This ceremony of welcome to his Royal Majesty is broadcasted over the loudspeaker system and is designed to put even more fear into the hearts and minds of the Pollywogs. After the welcoming ceremony is over the Royal Party and the Shellbacks make their way to the boat deck where the Royal Court is to convene. The old saying, “Necessity is the mother of invention” is really proven true when one sees the costumes of the characters. The only materials available this year were rags used for wiping machinery and from other standard items found onboard a man-o-war. To describe them all would be an impossible task, but here are a few of the more noteworthy ones. For you who do not remember, or did not see the various characters, I will try to give a word picture of the most outstanding costumes. Our Queen, ladies first you know, was especially beautiful and well costumed this year. The Queen was a young officer of about twenty who had a beautiful long red wig made from frayed rope and stained red, a white gauze brassiere properly filled out with plaster of paris, and a long flowing white skirt made of more gauze. And to top it all off, he was having a wonderful time acting like a woman, WOW! ! ! ! ! Even his wife, Bonny Sue, could be forgiven if she couldn’t tell he wasn’t a woman. No man could have told the difference unless he got within six feet or less. Congratulations, Ensign Nelson, your costume was the outstanding success of the ceremony. Now to go on, there was the Royal Judge, Lieut. Rogers, with a long English style white wig made from cotton and a long black robe. His Majesty King Neptunus Rex was dressed in a long flowing purple robe, with a golden metal crown set on long flowing locks of un-dyed frayed rope. Coupled with a golden pointed trident he made a very imposing picture. You had lots of fun with that electrically charged trident of yours, didn’t you Yak? Then our Royal Chaplain, who is normally a Chief Radioman. Brooks, you old sinner I could almost believe you were a chaplain. You were so understanding and so free with your sympathy chits. And that disreputable looking fellow over there is none other than the famous Davy Jones. What a foul looking fellow you were Ginny. And, what is this? It looks like Hermann Gearing himself. “Kill him quick, don’t let him get away.” My mistake, it’s only our special Chief of the Gestapo, Galway. Well anybody who made that mistake could be excused. His uniform was gaudy enough, and it is a cinch he is fat enough. And that solemn, sorrowful looking fellow over there with the tall stovepipe hat and the long black coat, why is he so sad? Oh yes, the Royal Undertaker. Business is so rushing he can’t take care of it and he’s worrying too much about it. Can anyone picture W. H. “Blubber” Kelly worrying about anything? Just in case you can’t, you should have seen him. And there’s that chubby little baby over there. You say he’s only two. Well, well, who’d have believed it? But, I guess Mascal’s version of the Royal Baby lived a hard life. Incidentally Mascal, are you going to starve those guys who bit instead of kissed? Wow. I saw her first! How’s about a date cuteness? Well if it isn’t little Red “Get off your knees” Dufresne dressed up as a Red Cross Nurse. Red you looked almost good enough to eat, and who is that serious looking fellow over there? None other than Stinky Hunter our kindergarten specialist. Hear you took your job of presenting a match for a Pollywog’s face pretty seriously Hunter. Anyhow I hear three or four actually kissed it. And now for a couple of shillelagh experts, Burkholder, Tate, Hale, Gordon, Carey and others really proved themselves worthy of being called experts. And must not forget a fellow who did a great deal of work in preparing costumes. A genius when it comes to making beautiful wigs out of rope, Sammy Parise, take a well-earned bow. You also made an excellent dentist even if your patients didn’t appreciate your mouthwash. And the gang of Shipfitters, Carpenters, and Electricians who made the heavier and electrical equipment. All of you who were forgotten please remember that it is impossible to remember who was who, and then too, one sees so much only a part of it can be retained in one’s memory.

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And now to take you along while an imaginary Pollywog gets initiated into the Ancient and Honorable Order of Shellbacks. It could be any one of you eighty some Pollywogs because you all went through pretty much the same ordeal.

The Royal Police drag him out of the Mess Hall and because he offers some resistance and impertinence are forced to instill a little respect for Shellbacks and the royal Party in this Pollywog. Now do you think you can show proper respect to us? Give him another taste of the business end of a shillelagh. Send him up, they’ll soon teach him better manners. Now he is led before the Royal Judge. The court is intent upon him. He looks at the Royal Queen with lust in his eyes, (Who didn’t?). Neptunus Rex is angered and touches him with his trident. Stand still, lowest of the low and keep your eyes to yourself. His eyes shift again and the Royal Police are on the job with their shillelaghs. The Prosecuting Attorney is ending his case to the Royal judge with a plea, for “Death.” Now the Defense Attorney starts to plead for mercy for his client. It will do no good in this case, but his caterwauling rises above all else. Why doesn’t he stop, anyone can see the case is hopeless and the man is clearly guilty. The Royal Judge silences him and pronounces his sentence. “Take him away and try to make a Shellback of him.” Your honor, you shouldn’t have let him off so easily. Look at the scum cringe as he hears the verdict.

The undertaker comes over to make arrangements for burial, as such a person could never live through the initiation. But wait here comes the Royal Chaplain to his rescue. If it was anyone else he would be stopped, but he is only doing his duty as a Chaplain. He offers his assistance in holding last rites for the condemned man, and offers to write his last letters in case he didn’t get them finished. All right Chaplain, that’s enough. Can’t you hear the growls of the Royal Bears waiting for him? Don’t do it Chaplain. Don’t give him a Sympathy Chit. He doesn’t deserve one. Well, maybe he’s the last one you’ll so favor. Before he goes, the ladies of the court desire to be amused by having someone make love to them. Down on your knee, Pollywog, and serenade them. Are those cats? What a groaning. That can’t be Shellback material. The ladies are disgusted with his poor showing. Now look what you have done. The Royal Baby heard that noise down in the kindergarten and it has made him cry. Pollywog, kiss the Royal Baby’s abdomen, and if you bite, it will go hard with you. That’s better, now don’t cry baby, we’ll take care of this Pollywog.

Now Pollywog, meet Prof. Stinky Hunter, get down on your hands and knees when you greet him. Stay still so we can blindfold you for your final examination before leaving the kindergarten. Now Pollywog put your head up. That’s it, now lean forward and kiss the object you touch. And now the blindfold is removed and the object that greets the Pollywogs astounded eyes is the very hairy posterior extremity of Prof. Hunter. The dope. To look at his face you’d think he really believed he kissed it. A little sleight of hand with a piece of bacon rind about six inches square gives this result. Keep on making faces Pollywog and you will regret it. You asked for it, Shellbacks instill some respect in this bilge rat with your shillelaghs.

And now he is led to see the Royal Doctor, Pollywog, address the Doctor correctly, and not as “Rags.” Put him on the table so the Doctor can give him his physical examination. Look at him squirm, and listen to him screech. Shut up, worm. The Doctor is only testing your heart action with his new and improved electrical beat-meter. And now to the Royal Dentists where Sammy and Stubby hold sway. Fix up those cavities right fellows, that’s it. And now don’t forget the special mouth wash to rid him of Pollywog halitosis. Don’t spit it out.

If these Pollywogs would only listen and follow instructions, they would save themselves trouble. Careful fellows, take it easy with those shillelaghs. You almost spoiled the fun for the rest of the gang when you hit him then. He almost went over the rail. And now Pollywog meets our beauteous Red Cross Nurse who will treat you to a new thrill in life by giving you a massage. To the stocks with him and lay on with the shillelaghs. Imagine the impertinence of the creature, insulting such a fair and lovely feminine flower. That’s it fellows, now one more for good measure. Now my chastised Pollywog to the Royal Tonsorial Parlor where you will be treated to a shave, haircut, manicure, and facial massage. Here he is Royal Barber, trim him up, his hair is too shaggy. Good haircut, barber. My dad has hair like that; it doesn’t cover the center of his head either. And now for the shave with the electric razor. Don’t jump so. Do you want to commit suicide? Well, we won’t let you, so stand still, and now Royal Masseur slap a little of that beauty preparation on him. He could stand a double dose of it. He’s already broken one of the Royal Photographer’s cameras and six clocks. That’s the way, slap it on thick. Come on Pollywog, smile. And we mean SMILE!! And now since you smiled so nicely a special treat for you. You like eggs don’t you? Here’s a nice one for you. Open, your mouth wide. Here it is. Don’t splutter so. It spoils an egg to crack and cook it, Take care of him loyal Shellbacks and send him through the Tunnel of Hell. There he goes into the opening of the canvas tunnel. He comes out again complaining of a strong stream of salt water. The better to rid you of any tinge of fresh water you lounge lizard. Get in there. He’s going in and the Shellbacks ply their shillelaghs with vigor on the receding end of him as he goes through the tunnel. Nothing like a little help to get a man through they say. Now he emerges looking rather clean for such an ordinarily slimy and dirty creature. Blindfold him fellows. Now lead him aft. Turn him around a time or two. Now let’s go over here where you can go swimming. He drags and tries to get away. “I can’t swim. I can’t swim”, he yells. But a shillelagh or two properly convinces him that he is going where he is told to go. Now up on this seat. You don’t want to. OK. Let’s try another shillelagh artist. Careful Carey, you don’t know your own strength. I’m amazed at you Kelly. The Royal Undertaker trying to create more business than you and your overworked staff can take care of. He pleads to get on the seat. “Pollywog you are now on the edge of the: delousing tank which is filled with a very precious and rare liquid brought by His Royal Majesty, King Neptunus Rex, from his palace especially for this ceremony. Don’t swallow any or we shall send you through the initiation again. I’m sorry to tell you this, but we can’t let you off that easy. Davy Jones’s pirates are back here and they will give you the torture of the thousand knives if you fail to qualify as a Shellback. So listen carefully, when you come up to the surface, be sure to yell out the word Shellback as loudly as you can. If you don’t yell it loud enough it will be either over the side or to the pirates for you. We are tender hearted so we advise you to jump over the side fast if you fail. Being shark-bait is a far better fate than what the pirates have in store for you. Do you understand what you are to do? O.K. then come up yelling Shellback.” The Pollywog goes under and under and then comes up with a rush and the scream of “Shellback” can be heard half-way to the states and all the way to Tokyo. It is unbelievable, but he has proven himself worthy of the right to be a Shellback. A rather soft and tender Shellback, but one who will never regret, in the years to come, that he did become one.

This initiation was repeated until all of the Pollywogs became Shellbacks. This time, as in the preceding two initiations, not a man had to be turned over to the pirates of Davy Jones to torture, nor did any fail to become Shellbacks the first time through. All were ready and willing to become Shellbacks at the end. Even the most incorrigible of the lot. Much credit for this is due to the many Shellbacks who worked unceasingly to make certain that all qualified. It was a hard job, and one not properly appreciated by some of the new Shellbacks at first. But, all soon changed their mind and thanked them for making Shellbacks out of them.

And now at the close of the ceremony the Royal Party “departs” as it came. Up to the fo'c'sle and down the hawse pipes to the waiting chariots. Ever see such beautiful matched sea-horses? And now with a rush they are off on their way beneath the waves to the Royal Palace and all that remains of them is the swirl of the waves. And so ends another historic and never-to-be forgotten day.

After all has calmed down from the tremendous excitement of the day, the old-timers of the Shellbacks get together to compare this initiation with the previously held ones. All agree that this was a very successful one. The new Shellbacks have one observation they keep repeating and repeating. “I wouldn’t go through another initiation for a $1,000,000.” As far as that goes neither would the old Shellbacks. This particular one would jump over the side and become shark-bait first. How about you?