For What It’s Worth

Hazy hazing memories

It’s interesting the way our view of certain activities or behaviors change over the years. For example, ask people today what they think of hazing and most will have negative opinions about it. Hazing is mean, cruel, even abusive or criminal. Images of physical abuse and even death will come quickly to mind. Hazing has become so abusive, degrading and dangerous that it is forbidden in most quarters.

But this was not always so. I’m old enough to remember when hazing was accepted and considered to be basically a fun ritual one endured as part of becoming a member of a particular group, such as a fraternity or a sports team. At that time, initiation into a group didn’t involve such things as having to strip naked or enduring paddling that resulted in a need for medical attention. At least, I wasn’t aware of it if such occurred.

Part of the difference between then and now is our perception of what is abusive and what is degrading. My most memorable hazing experience occurred in the Navy, and I am confident much of what I endured on that occasion with no thought of it being either degrading or abusive would today be considered both. Keep in mind that this happened 55 years ago when I was 18, so it may be a bit of a hazy hazing memory.

For seafarers, crossing the equator is a notable occasion. Sailors who have not sailed across the equator are known as pollywogs while sailors who have crossed that imaginary line are in the elevated status of being a shellback. When crossing the equator, a ceremonial initiation rite is held amid much celebration, and pollywogs are welcomed into the shellback fraternity. I don’t know if the U.S. Navy still allows this hazing activity or if it has been phased out.

Whatever the situation now, the initiation rites were allowed in the fall of 1957 when I became a shellback. It was indeed a memorable occasion, and I remain proud to be a shellback. Interestingly, many sailors spend a career at sea and never cross the equator. I crossed on my first sea deployment, which stirred some jealousy on the part of a few Navy veterans.

Fortunately, crossing day was bright and sunshiny with calm seas. We wore dungarees and a t-shirt, and I’m confident I also was wearing a wide-eyed expression of wonder on my face as I naively joined my shipmates for the ritual. For me, it was an adventure, something the cowboys back home in Oklahoma would not have experienced.

Understand that the occasion was a full-scale production, participated in by everyone from the ship’s captain on down. There was no rank or separation of officers from ship’s crew during the initiation rites. Neptune, king of the seas, a veteran sailor dressed in robes, crown and carrying a trident, reigned over the ceremonies on the ship’s deck along with Davy Jones and others in the king’s court.

We got on our knees and bowed to the king and appeared before him in judgment, where each of us was deemed to be a slimy pollywog and sentenced to undergo the ritual to become a revered shellback. Full details not necessary here, but that sentencing included having our head and arms put in stocks while one of the king’s barbers scissored great chunks of hair from our heads. Afterward, to correct our mangled hairdo, we got what then was called a burr haircut.

One member of the royal court was the royal baby, a grizzled, veteran sailor with a hairy chest and potbelly wearing a giant diaper. His hairy pot-gut was smeared with mustard and other items, including hot sauce (not sure whether it was Tabasco or Louisiana Hot Sauce). He sat on a chair and each of us had to get on our knees before him and kiss the gooey belly. As we did, another member of the royal court tapped our behind with a prod that carried a light jolt of electrical current. The shock caused many of us to lunge, which buried our face in the slimy, mustard/hot sauce coated belly.

Another part of the rites was a kind of death at sea. A wooden coffin sat on the deck and we crawled into the open coffin. The lid was closed over us and the coffin was filled with water by a hose inserted through a hole in one end. To avoid the rising water, we rose to our knees and, when our back hit the coffin lid, a member of the royal court hit the lid with a board, sending a slight shock through our system and startling us. Quickly, the lid was raised and we were welcomed back to life from the sea.

Also on the deck was a “baptismal” pool made of canvas wrapped over a wooden frame. We walked up a set of steps and jumped into the pool. There, a member of the royal court asked if we were slimy pollywogs. As soon as we replied, “Yes, sir,” he dunked us. As we emerged from the dunking, we were asked the question again. This continued until we caught on and replied, “No, sir, I am now a shellback.”

Escaping the dunking pool, we ran through a paddle gauntlet. This consisted of running between two lines of sailors swinging paddles at us as we ran; the faster we ran the fewer times our rear end was smacked. I don’t recall that any of the blows that actually connected were noticeably painful.

Whether that experience was degrading or abusive is a matter of personal opinion. At the time, I didn’t think of it as being either, nor do I think of it that way in looking back. Granted, on an intellectual level there was no logical rationale for the initiation rites and going through the rites did not make anyone a better sailor. But, strange as it may seem to some, it was something of a bonding experience, a shared experience that set participants apart from other people as members of a special, unique group.

A salute to you shellbacks out there.

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4 Responses to For What It’s Worth

  1. Cindy says:

    So when you crossed the equator again on the trip back north, did you (as a shellback now) help initiate another group of pollywogs, or was the crew the same and there were no pollywogs? One reason I’m asking is that I recently heard that people sometimes experience an odd sensation when they cross the equator. The context of that conversation was flying rather than sailing, but I wonder if you felt any sort of physical anomaly when you crossed. My guess would be that you wouldn’t notice anything if you were in the middle of the hazing, but I don’t know if there was any hazing going on the second time…

    • Harry Hix says:

      We did pick up some new ship’s crew; so, I have been on both sides. Did not experience any sensation or feeling when crossing the equator. One of the most interesting sensations at sea was experiencing a totally calm sea, which we did a couple of days around the equator. No waves, no ripples on the water. The seas was as still and unmoving as a glass tabletop. No sense of motion on the ship. The only way to know for sure we were moving was to look over the fantail and see our wake. That was a great contrast to stormy seas with waves so heavy we had to strap ourselves in our bunks to keep from falling out when the ship rolled.

      • Cindy says:

        Was it difficult to walk around on the calm days? I’m thinking it might be similar to having “sea legs” when you dock and disembark…?????

      • Harry Hix says:

        Hadn’t thought about this until you mentioned it, but I don’t recall that I noticed anything different about walking on the deck. But, I do recall several times having “sea legs” briefly when leaving the ship after extended time at sea. It’s a strange feeling to find yourself walking on land as though you were walking on the ship at sea with the ship rolling in the waves. You feel almost like you are are staggering slightly.

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