by John Wyatt
(1976. For those who are unfamiliar with Navy traditions, the Crossing the Equator ceremony occurs when those who have never crossed the equator (the slimy polywogs) are initiated by the forces of King Neptune (the Honorable Shellbacks). This a a true account of my initiation, though I may have embellished it just a little. I have included photos taken by some friends – though I’m not in any of them.)
(Click here to see the photo gallery from crossing the equator.)
I wake violently. Cries of "WAKE THE WOGS!" assault my sleepy ears. With a groan I turn over, flip on my bunk light, and peer at my watch. Six a.m. With an even greater groan I roll out onto the floor. Weary faces peer at me from behind green bunk curtains. The dead awaken.
A curious creature, dressed in early torture chamber, approaches; its right claw holding a formidable looking weapon formed from a two foot section of old fire hose. It cracks its weapon upon the floor and shouts "UP WOG!" This must be a dreaded shellback. With great difficulty I realize that this monster was once human.
I dress in the polywog uniform of the day: trousers on backwards, shorts on the outside. As I venture forth into the central area of our berthing compartment I see many other armed shellbacks running unfortunate wogs through a variety of tricks. I am directed to join the antics. Although I would rather return to bed, I hear myself cry “Yes most honorable shellback sir!” So begins my day in Purgatory.
After numerous activities, including wog-dog fights, meowing, rolling over and a personal tour of each and every floor tile, we are paraded up to breakfast on all fours. Shellbacks, all armed with weapons of cut fire-hose, line the way. They exercise these weapons vigorously upon my hindquarters.
I arrive at the breakfast line and am permitted to stand. The line stretches to infinity. An occasional shellback wanders by and is met with a stream of invective. Strength in numbers. The Royal Chicken walks by, wearing only shoes and shorts, covered head to toe with grease and feathers.
After breakfast I return to our berthing area, along with the rest of the dammed (on all fours, of course), to await the pleasure of his Highness King Neptune, whereupon I will be cleansed of all my slime and muck.
Our shellbacks are not present, thank goodness, being preoccupied with those poor wogs already before Neptunus Rex.
At last we are called. We are instructed to “Creep, crawl or slither up the starboard side to the foc'sle.” Upon arrival we all must lie on our bellies in several inches of salt water and are informed that we are the foulest, slimiest, lowliest wogs ever to venture into Neptune's realm. We must be cleansed.
Demons crack their weapons about my head and upon my rear. I must crawl upon my belly and up to an open fire hydrant, where I am told to swim upstream. Obviously these Hellhounds will be content with nothing less than my complete drowning!
After what seems like eternity, I am permitted to proceed onward. I meet a fiend who coats my face with grease. Through the cries of tormented wogs I hear the fiend inquire as to my well being. From his greedy look, I realize that it does not really want the truth, so I reply “Fine, most honorable shellback sir!” The fiend, its lust satiated, allows me to proceed.
I now must crawl on a non-skid surface. My knees protest, but I am too emotionally exhausted to heed them. Armed shellbacks line the path to the fantail. Their duties are painfully obvious.
At last I reach the fantail. My behind, thoroughly reddened, is granted a temporary reprieve. A demon wearing a friends face informs me that I am an especially slimy wog and must receive a shower. I force myself to follow it.
I am stood up in a stokes stretcher. I see a devil grinning horribly at me as it turns on a fire hose. Through the pounding torrent torrent of icy sea water I am instructed to hail King Neptune. For lack of anything better to do, I comply. Eventually it decides that I am clean enough and turns off the hose. Pleased, the devil allows me to return to the line of wogs awaiting audience with King Neptune.
As I wait, I wonder how I ever got myself into this situation. I can only conclude that I have some sort of mental aberration, bordering on the masochistic.
King Neptune will see me now. I propel myself, with total lack of dignity, into his august presence. The charges are read and sentence pronounced. I feel oddly unconcerned about my probable fate.
First, I must kiss the Queen's Royal Toe. Not very exciting, to say the least. Next my face is thoroughly immersed in the greasy belly of the Royal Baby. Then into the Royal Coffin: a trash can. The sides are beaten and I emerge half deaf. Then a visit to the Royal Doctor. Blue grease on my arm and a horrible concoction on my tongue cure whatever diseases to which polywogs may be susceptible. Through the garbage chute and I find, with weary astonishment, that I have survived to meet the final obstacle!
I am set upon the edge of a large tub of salt water. A shellback holds each arm firmly. Dimly, through the infernal cries and gnashing of teeth arising from this hellish nightmare, I become aware that one of these Vampires is asking me what I am. Wheels, sorely tried, revolve slowly in my head. I open my mouth and manage to utter a single word: “Shellback!” I am dunked and released from damnation.
As I remove my ruined clothing and revel in the shower erected for my benefit, it seems somehow strange that I should feel slimier now as a shellback than as a wog.