The ceremony of CROSSING THE LINE is an initiation rite in the Royal Navy,U.S. Navy, and other navies which commemorates a sailor's first crossing of the equator.
As we headed south leaving the United States far astern all conversations became more and more pointed toward the big day in the near future when the ship would enter into the domain of His Majesty Neptunus Rex, the region of Latitude 00-00-00. Reactions on all sides were mingled. For the "Royal Shellbacks," who had previously undergone the initiation and long since abolished the stigma connected with being a "lowly slimy Pollywog" eager anticipation aptly described their feelings. Here was a chance seldom found to have a good time, possibly somewhat overbearing if one were so inclined, at someone else's expense - a perfectly legitimate good time, too. In a similar or maybe still another vein, this was the crew's day, that is the Shellback crew members. The shiny bars signifying the occupants of Wardroom Country meant nothing unless a shellback card could be produced. Indeed, this was a welcome opportunity.
For the midshipmen, who were Pollywogs almost to the man, jubilance best described their emotions. What could be better than to consummate the dubious ordeal as a midshipman rather than an officer. In the course of their "bull sessions," it was firmly decided that as the next port of call was Balboa, Canal Zone and the formation was to circle the Galapagos Islands, many hundreds of miles to the south, there could be little doubt that the circuitous journey had its primary objective to "cross the line." With this realization a sincere, if long range, "well done" was extended to those who planned the cruise.
As the weather became hotter indicating the approach of the equator, the Shellbacks began to organize. In accordance with tradition, the senior Shellback of the crew was appointed to the lofty position of Neptunus Rex. The others in the long list of necessary personages were named down to wielders of the very ominous shellaleghs.
Committees were formed to devise the many "implements of torture," through the application of which the "slimy Pollywogs" would be absolved of their sins and accepted into the Royal Domain.
At 1600 of the day preceding the actual crossing, a troop of gaily and very clumsily bedecked characters began to emerge from all parts of the ship - especially Officer's Country - in readiness to respond to the whims of the Shellbacks. With each new arrival a fresh chorus of laughter went up in tribute to the ill-conceived imagination of those who had concocted the uniforms. Due to impending darkness, suddenly, above the revelry was heard the awaited word - Davy Jones had been sighted and would be aboard shortly. Then, over the side came his couriers followed by this special emissary of Neptunus Rex.
At the evening meal the emptying of the crew's chow trays was dutifully done by several divisions of midshipmen. Following this the subpoenas, describing at great length the crimes of each Pollywog was issued with the reminder to be sure "to bring it with you" the next morning.
With this, official activity ceased awaiting the following morning when proceedings could continue in high gear.
The following morning Davy Jones returned in the company of Neptunus Rex and all members of his royal retinue. A parting shot at this stage of the proceedings, was made by the Executive Officer who blandly announced that it had been reported that the water was deeper on the port side than on the starboard side and "suggested" that the Pollywogs take corrective action.
At 0800 as per the instructions contained in another special plan-of-the-day, all Pollywogs assembled at the assigned frames in old clothes. Everywhere could be seen the members of the Royal Police Force standing by to quell any uprisings. They had their job cut out for them, but they dispensed with the minor altercations with no apparent difficulty. They did not, however, succeed in thwarting the efforts to capture the new Jolly Roger which also fell into the hands of the uninitiated not long after it was run up.
At 0830 the Royal Party gaily attired in all the regal finery, including the hairy chests of the mermaids assembled and began the tour of inspection of all Shellbacks to be sure that all was in a proper state of readiness for administering the ritual to the awaiting Pollywogs. Next, followed by his Royal Court, Neptunus Rex toured the ranks of Pollywogs noting with disdain the "miserable wretchedness" of the crop. It might be added that at this point the thoughts and emotions of the Pollywogs reached the peak of variety - from complete anticipation to complete apprehension.
The time had come - the first group composed of officers and VIP's started through. According to the plan, each had a noose around his neck attached to a central line held by the royal prosecutors. Here the officers were lucky. It took one group's passage for the very expectant shellalegh wielders to become aware of the fact that the nooses were so close together that there was no room for a half-swing much less a vengeful thrust as a man went by. Thereafter, the nooses were cast aside before the gauntlet was to be braved. In the words of one of the officers later - "never have I been more pleasantly disappointed."
On completion of this, provided there was not a return trip, the prosecutor awaited. Upon receiving the summons from a victim, the prosecutor promptly lived up to the sign hung around his neck stating "I never lose." As each new bit of fodder arrived, he managed to "convince" the judge that the defendant was guilty as charged - if not to a greater extent. The judgment on each being the same, the procedure followed was also the same - a "photograph" and a drink from the Baby's bottle firmly convinced each Pollywog in turn that both were concoctions of the long-since departed practitioners of witchcraft. No venture through this portion of the ceremony was complete without the opportunity to kiss the Royal Baby - an episode few will forget!
Now proceeding on hands and knees, the unfortunates were directed aft to receive another magic potion which brought back instantly the boyhood battles over castor oil. Next came the operating table onto which Pollywogs were placed with great alacrity to be given an initial coating of "preservative" - any spare grease which had been ferreted out. At the same time a very able, if unappreciated, Shellback manipulated a spray gun loaded with green paint with remarkable dexterity.
In strict accordance with "out of the frying pan into the fire" the next fate in store was the coffin where several more coating of grease in addition to various bits of debris were liberally applied.
As spirits were considerably dampened at this stage the next event was very logical. Mounting steps to a raised platform, anxious hands thrust the victim onto a swinging, rocking-chair like seat. A liberal application of flour which readily adhered to and thickened the already present grease was added. Then came the upending of the seat, a healthy splash and the voyager was in a waist deep tub of sea water. After several duckings, he was boosted out almost as quickly as he had entered.
This climaxed the ceremony, and thus, the evolution and elevation to the mighty status of Shellback had been achieved. However, all was not concluded. The grease was still very much present and regardless of approach taken, yielded only to a great amount of elbow grease, some sort of solvent, and at least an hours application of both.
Thus, ended the "Crossing The Line" ceremonies and without exception, and notwithstanding a few bruises, everyone had a good time, acknowledging that the ceremonies comprise a very good, if at times a trifle painful, tradition.
VINTAGE VIDEO OF 1949 SHELLBACK INITIATION
Click on the filmstrip to enjoy actual footage from the 1949 Shellback Initiation aboard the
USS TOLEDO (CA-133). Please understand that video files are quite large and you should be
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