Pollywog No More: Crossing the Line

Living through an equator crossing ceremony and telling the tale.

“Oops,” Jeff intoned, as he tripped.
“Nooo!” I wailed in response. I just couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the tiny, tightly taped sausage fly over the railing and disappear in the equatorial ocean. For a moment, I was too stunned to breathe.

Four of us pollywogs had been measuring the length of the R/V Roger Revelle for the better part of the morning and 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, only 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 quite a bit, 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. The 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 face 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 ragged 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 duct-taped 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 units or 1389 inches, less than 116 feet, and there was a lot of ship left between the bow and us.

“Now what’ll we do? How are we going to finish?” I wondered.
Marci was equally horrified. “We’re in so much trouble,” she moaned.
“I don’t care. Let’s pretend we’re still measuring.” was Jeff’s solution. We continued along the deck with Jeff’s index fingers serving as replacement rulers.

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 rank of the 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 attain the title of shellback. The vast majority of 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 back to the back deck and blindfolded.

“The punishment for your crimes is death by poison,” I heard.
“Open your mouth!” I was a loosing my enthusiasm here.
“Come on. Open up!” someone barked again.

I reluctantly followed the order and a slimy 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 accomplished 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 and was passed on to the next group of shellbacks.

I was told to wait my turn 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 shaving for the ladies. Regardless, when you sit on a bin, blindfolded, and hear a pair of scissors cutting into what sounds like hair, you still panic a bit.

I was starting to tire of the shenanigans and wanted the day over. It had gone on a 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.

I groaned when several arms grabbed me, pulled me a few feet over and pushed me onto a bin. Ungh! And then somebody snatched 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. I was pulled up again and pushed in another direction, until I collided with some of the other pollywogs.

The shellbacks had corralled all of us into a circle. We were allowed to take off the blindfolds and one of the shellbacks presented us to the court, who’d been observing this 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 health 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.

One by one, we were introduced as unworthy, slimy polliwogs on trial for a number of offences. Some of mine were laying out on the bow and getting some sun. Apparently this had distracted the bridge crew. Not that I’d noticed any strange patterns in our ship tracks. Also, a far greater offence, I had managed to piss off the captain the day we got on board. I don’t remember what I’d said or done exactly but I do remember complaining about the bunking situation. Probably I didn’t like my cabin mate or something. I do remember the guy who’d walked us around yelling at me that he’d have me removed from the ship if I didn’t quiet down. I didn’t know who he was at the time. He was in his mid-thirties and I figured he was a steward or something. I looked at Prof. Luyendyk but he just pulled up his eyebrows and gave me a dark look so I shut up, which was a good thing because, as it turned out, the steward was really the captain. I still think he could have bothered to introduce himself if he wanted that kind of respect. At any rate, he turned out to be an okay guy, which I realized a few days later when he came to me and apologized. He’d been under a lot of pressure that day and a lot of things had gone wrong right before getting underway and he’d run out of patience…

Okay, I thought, but really, you’re the captain. Shouldn’t you have better self-control?

Upon introduction to King Neptune, who looked suspiciously like the first mate under his cardboard crown, I had to get on my knees and kiss his hand. That 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 hairy, very bare feet.

Argh!! So gross!! I had to suppress 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 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. In truth, we’d gotten off fairly easily. Little did I know what was yet to come. To fully appreciate it, I have to 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 missed the many happy Nutella commercials on TV, you don’t know what you’re missing. I highly recommend a crepe (very thin French pancake), covered with Nutella, optionally topped with a few slices of banana, and folded into the shape of a pie slice. 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 stays with you like that kid in middle school who had no friends because he was awkward and dressed funny and always had a bad homey haircut but always hung around and you felt bad for the guy but he was just not acceptable. So why would you want that in your life? The same with peanut butter. I can’t really describe the degree of revulsion I felt towards it back then, but I would compare it to most Americans’ aversion to, say, cow tongue or pig brain.

You can 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 the whale’s belly with its three day old kitchen garbage?

I was looking around like there would be 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 going too slowly because as soon as I bent and twisted for minimum exposure to the task, somebody shoved my face into the mess and rubbed it around like they were trying to mop it all up with me. When I staggered back, in disbelief, my brain slowly took 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, all over my hair and face and on my shirt and arms. I was repulsed but snapped out of it and started to do 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. 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. My eyes watered themselves clean, my hair continued to smell through several washes and I discarded my shirt at the end of the day.

Stay tuned for the final part

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