I recently came across my old equator crossing certificate and I remember living through the hazing to tell the tale…
I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the tiny, tightly taped sausage fly over the railing and disappear in the equatorial ocean. “Nooo!” I gasped. For a moment, I was too stunned to breathe.
Four of us pollywogs had been measuring the length of the research ship R/V Roger Revelle for the better part of the morning. Our tool was an American country sausage. It was exactly the kind you would get at a diner, served alongside a stack of pancakes or eggs-anyway-you-like-‘em, plus your choice of grits, hash browns or skillet potatoes. No easy tool for the task, considering we had to march it across multiple decks to cover the full length of the ship.
We had started this – the first of many onerous tasks for the day – by carefully measuring the sausage itself. It was a tiny thing, about three inches long in its collagen casing. The steward had seared the daily batch of breakfast links right after serving us green scrambled eggs and purple ham – “Special of the Day”. The links had bubbled up and taken on a mottled grayish brown color. Cooking them had diminished their structural integrity, but we didn’t realize just how fragile our puny sausage was, until we’d measured about 210 units with it. Starting at the stern of the vessel, we’d barely covered half of the main deck, less than a quarter of the ship’s overall length, when the little link started to disintegrate.
Initially, we managed to rescue the mission by salvaging bits of duct tape off of random gear we saw along the way and by strategically applying those pieces to our ragged pork finger. This reinforcement allowed us to continue measuring until we reached a set of stairs that would take us up to the O1 level. We had counted 404 sausage units, so far. At that point, inopportunely, the duct tape started to unravel and the sausage started to look like the finger of a zombie. Random chunks were either starting to peel or were falling off altogether. The end came quickly. We watched in dismay as the sausage completely separated into ragtag chunks, barely held together by the few bands of remaining tape. I suppose Jeff made an executive decision because suddenly he pretend-tripped and let the useless fragments of American country pork fly over the railing, into the ocean. It didn’t make a sound when it hit the surface and immediately disappeared, leaving nothing but a few fleeting ripples. We were at 463 sausage units which is 1389 inches, which is less than 116 feet. There was a lot of ship left between us and the bow.
“Oops,” was all that Jeff had said when he pretend-tripped.
“Now what’ll we do? How are we going to finish?” I complained after catching my breath.
Marci was equally horrified. “We’re in so much trouble.”
“I don’t care. Let’s pretend we’re still measuring.” was Jeff’s answer, so we continued along the deck with Jeff’s index finger serving as a replacement ruler.
The preparation for this day had started several days earlier. We had a vague idea about what was coming. We knew that on the day we would cross the equator, we’d join the elite rank of mariners who’d done so before us. We’d have to endure a day of punishments for being unworthy pollywogs but then we’d be initiated into the Kingdom of Neptune and we’d attain the title of shellback. Most people will never cross the equator on a ship; therefore, the world is full of slimy pollywogs, with trusty shellbacks few and far between.
I was very serious about the whole thing. I was determined to be the best slimy pollywog that had ever kissed the Royal Baby’s belly. We had faithfully learned the required literature, including the eternal chant of all fledgling shellbacks. I studied it with such enthusiasm; I can still quote it to this day:
“Me mother was a mermaid, me father King Neptune.
I was born on the crest of a wave and rocked in the cradle of the deep.
Seaweed and barnacles are me clothes.
Every tooth in me head is a marlinspike; the hair on me head is hemp.
Every bone in me body is a spar, and when I spits, I spits tar!”
I’d been a good sport so far. Gave my best at every challenge and accepted all punishment for being unworthy. After we were done with our ship-length-measuring-task and after we had turned over our sort-of-measured-number we were corralled to the back deck and blindfolded.
“The punishment for your crimes is death by poison,” I heard.
“Open your mouth!” someone yelled. I was loosing a bit of my enthusiasm here.
“Come on. Open up!” they barked again.
I reluctantly followed the order and an oily substance was squirted into my mouth. I tasted spicy and sour, and recognized raw egg and mustard and something else … so revolting.
“Ghaaa” I gurgled and before I knew it I spit the whole mass right back. It must have been a direct hit because I heard a surprised yelp then some graphic cursing, and a bit of muted laughter behind me.
“She spit it out! She spit it back out!”
What! Nobody’s ever done that before? I clamped my jaw shut. Tight. There was no way I’d open up again. I listened to threats of much retaliation and pain but was passed on to the next group of shellbacks.
I was told to wait my turn, as someone was ahead of me, when I heard the distinct sound of cutting. It was the exact slow, raspy noise that scissors make when they work through a mass of thick hair. There was a shriek and a whimper and none of it was creating a good feeling. They better not cut my hair. Not even a millimeter.
In the olden days, actually not too long ago, the pollywogs’ heads were partially shaved; enough to require a full shave later. This custom has mostly been abandoned, at least on vessels with civilian crew, and definitely on university research ships. The reason for it, we were told, was that the shellbacks shaved a female scientist, who had very long hair, requiring her to get a very, very short haircut after the cruise. She must have not liked it much, because she sued the University and won a settlement. Since then, there was to be no more cutting or shaving for the ladies. Regardless, when you sit on a bin, blindfolded, and hear a pair of scissors cutting into what sounds like your hair, you still panic a bit.
I was starting to tire of the shenanigans and wanted the day over. It had gone on long enough, starting with a miserable breakfast, no mugs to pour the scalding hot coffee into, having to wear our underwear on the outside, measuring the ship in pork lengths and now this. There seemed to be no end.
“You’re next!” It was my turn on the barbers’ bin and there was much shuffling around. “Get ‘er over here.” I groaned when several arms grabbed me, pulled me a few feet over and pushed me onto another bin. Ungh! I felt somebody snatching a strand of my hair and I heard “Snip, snip, snip!” I couldn’t believe my ears. Hadn’t we discussed this the previous evening? There was to be no actual cutting. Hadn’t we been promised immunity from mutilation? Not that I had any time to think. “Move ‘er. Git the next one.” I was pulled up again and pushed in a different direction. I stumbled around a bit until I collided with some of the other pollywogs.
The shellbacks corralled us into a circle, none too gently.
“Take yer blindfolds off and present yerselves!”
Squinting into the equatorial afternoon, we faced the royal lineup, as one of the shellbacks introduced us. The members of the court had been observing the goings-on the whole time: King Neptune, Queen Amphitrite, the Royal Baby, plus attendants; all shellbacks, all enjoying this way too much.
I knew what was supposed to happen next. I’d heard horrible tales of mariners having to crawl through the whale’s belly. It was the one thing that had been giving me knots in the stomach whenever I was thinking about it. A long, tunnel-like contraption filled with nastiness – the galley had been saving the garbage for a few days in preparation for a full belly. Thankfully, that morning, the captain had decided that it was too hot and that a heap of kitchen garbage on his deck posed a sanitary hazard, so he called it off. We still had to meet the members of the court but it wouldn’t end with a dumpster crawl. I was thrilled.
One by one, we were introduced as unworthy slimy polliwogs, on trial for a number of offences. “Bow to y’er king!” I peered at King Neptune, who looked suspiciously like the first mate under his cardboard crown. I had to get on my knees and kiss his hand, which wasn’t too bad and I moved on, feeling relieved. Next I met the Queen. She, too, looked familiar of sorts, despite being adorned by a mop of long cotton strand tresses. I couldn’t help but wonder if somebody had washed that thing before she’d put it on.
Again, I had to kneel but this time I had to kiss her very bare, very hairy feet. Argh!! So gross!! I tried to suppress both the shudders racing down my spine and the bile that wanted to race the opposite way. I took a breath, closed my eyes and pecked down like a hungry bird towards a wiggling worm after the first rain. As soon as my puckered lips made contact with warm, sweaty, soft tissue I drew back like a sling shot and nearly fell backwards. This was one of those moments in life that soar to the top of the list of things to erase from the memory banks as expediently and permanently as possible.
I figured, in the absence of the whale belly crawl, this would be the worst thing to have to live through. Actually, we’d gotten off fairly easily. Little did I know what was yet to come. To fully appreciate it, I have to first explain a little about my relationship with peanut butter.
I grew up in the land of Nutella. If you’ve never indulged in a Nutella moment or completely neglected the many happy Nutella commercials on TV, you don’t know what you’re missing. I highly recommend a palatschinken (or crepe – the very thin French pancake) covered with Nutella and then rolled up. Optionally, you could top it with a few slices of banana, and fold it into the shape of a pie slice. Either way, close your eyes, take a bite, and meet heaven.
The down side of this is that if you didn’t grow up with peanut butter you might have a hard time getting used to the odd aroma. It’s pungent in a way, and not very pleasant at all. And the consistency! It’s in your mouth forever. It sneaks between your teeth and gums and sticks with you like that kid in middle school who had no friends because he was awkward and dressed funny and always had a bad haircut, who stubbornly hung around and you felt bad for the guy but he was just not acceptable. So why would you want that in your life? I can’t really describe the degree of revulsion I felt towards peanut butter back then, but I would compare it to most Americans’ aversion to, say, cow tongue or pig brain.
And so, you might imagine my surprise when, upon introduction to the royal baby, I realized his Buddha’esque belly was completely covered in, you guessed it, peanut butter, of all things. I was paralyzed by horror as it dawned on me “… kiss the hand, kiss the foot, kiss the belly…”
Yep. I had to kiss his belly. Why?? My brain screamed. No really, why? Why would anyone want to kiss a PB&B?? Who thinks of such a thing? Where was that whale’s belly with its three day old kitchen garbage?
I looked around, as if searching for an alternative solution, a different task. Maybe I could just kiss a dead fish or something. But with all eyes on me, I realized that this moment was going to happen with or without my consent. Apparently, things were already going too slowly because as soon as I bent to the task and twisted for minimum exposure, somebody shoved my face into the mess and rubbed it around like they were trying to mop it all up with my head. I staggered back in disbelief as my brain started to slowly take stock of all the places that had become contaminated. The tally of casualties was overwhelming. I had peanut butter in my eyes, up my nose, deep in my left ear, in my hair, and on my shirt and arms. I was distinctly repulsed but forced myself to snap out of it and to start doing some damage control. My nose was first. I was worried, if I started digging I’d just get things lodged farther in so I did the only thing I could think of, I blew the cavity clean as hard as I could. Snotty peanut butter exploded out of my sinuses like solid fuel out of a space rocket. I didn’t care about anyone around me; this was crisis time. I don’t think I ever got everything out of my left ear. To this day, I have moments of muffled hearing that conveniently come and go as needed. I blame it on peanut butter trauma. Eventually, my eyes watered themselves clean. I would discard my shirt at the end of the day and my hair would cease to smell rancid after a number of washes.
While I continued to groom myself, the others went through their own introductions.
End of part one…