Like so many holidays in the United States, Memorial Day has lost its original meaning and now has become just an excuse for a three day weekend. BBQs and drinking. Although my father did not die in a war, I would like to honor him and his service by reposting this post on Crossing the Line. After writing the post I found my father's official card he was given as a Shellback.
Recently while visiting family, I came across a series of photographs of my father while he was in the Navy during World War II that had been in the family for years. I had seen these photos from an early age and thought nothing more of them than on board high jinks. Upon closer inspection, I noticed that there was something ritualistic about them and a ceremony I had come across once came to mind. I did some research and found that these photos represented a traditional initiation rite of the U.S. Navy called Crossing the line. My father was stationed aboard a transport ship that brought soldiers back from the Pacific Theatre, so he crossed the equator several times.
The ceremony of Crossing the Line is an initiation rite in the Royal Navy, U.S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Marine Corps, and other navies that commemorates a sailor's first crossing of the Equator. Originally, the tradition was created as a test for seasoned sailors to ensure their new shipmates were capable of handling long rough times at sea. Sailors who have already crossed the Equator are nicknamed (Trusty) Shellbacks, often referred to as Sons of Neptune; those who have not are nicknamed (Slimy) Pollywogs.
After crossing the line, Pollywogs receive subpoenas  to appear before King Neptune and his court (usually including his first assistant Davy Jones and her Highness Amphitrite and often various dignitaries, who are all represented by the highest ranking seamen), who officiate at the ceremony, which is often preceded by a beauty contest of men dressing up as women, each department of the ship being required to introduce one contestant in swimsuit drag. Afterwards, some wogs may be "interrogated" by King Neptune and his entourage, and the use of "truth serum" (hot sauce + after shave) and whole uncooked eggs put in the mouth. During the ceremony, the Pollywogs undergo a number of increasingly disgusting ordeals (wearing clothing inside out and backwards; crawling on hands and knees on nonskid-coated decks; being swatted with short lengths of fire hose; being locked in stocks and pillories and pelted with mushy fruit; being locked in a water coffin of salt-water and bright green sea dye (fluorescent sodium salt); crawling through chutes or large tubs of rotting garbage; kissing the Royal Baby's belly coated with axle grease, hair chopping, etc.), largely for the entertainment of the Shellbacks.
This is an account of the ceremony on board HMS Blossom in 1825 by Petty Officer John Bechervaise in his private publication Thirty-Six Years of a Sea Faring Life (1839), available from Kessinger in facsimile. Blossom was just starting a three-year voyage of exploration around the Horn to the Arctic.
There were on board the ship a great number of officers and seamen, who had never yet gone South of the Tropics, consequently were to be initiated into the mysteries of crossing the Equinoctial line, and entering the dominions of Neptune; great preparations had been making since our leaving Woolwich, for an event which promised to some part of the crew great amusement, to the other great fear; many a poor girl at Woolwich, and at Spithead had been deprived of some part of her wardrobe, to adorn Amphitrite; from one a night cap and gown had been stolen, from another some other part of dress, and although I had no hand in it, I was as bad as the rest, for I was consenting thereto. An immense grey horse hair wig, sufficiently long to reach well down the back of Neptune, had been purchased in England by subscription, accompanied by a venerable grey beard to sweep his aged breast; a tin crown and a trident completed the regalia. On a review of all those who previously had crossed the line, I was selected as Neptune; in vain I endeavoured to defend myself from being deified, it was useless, I must be Neptune, all remonstrance was vain; I took it, resolved to use the trident with mildness. Now reader fancy to yourself the writer of these lines with his legs and arms well blacked, his cheeks, vermillion, short and very loose trowsers, a double frilled shirt, from whose ample folds the salt water dripped plentifully, two swabs for epaulets, a long grey horse hair wig, a venerable beard of the same colour, a tin crown, a trident, and to complete the whole, a hoarse church yard cough; fancy all this I say, and Neptune, or your humble servant in his shape stands before you. The evening before we expected to cross the line, the lookout man reported at 8, P.M., a light a head; presently a hoarse voice hailed "ship ahoy" which being answered by the Captain, Neptune intimated his intention to visit the ship early next morning. Accordingly early in the morning the ship was made snug, the top-sails were close reefed, courses hauled up, top gallant sails furled, a new sail was secured to the gunwale of the barge on the booms, the other edge to the hammock netting, leaving a hollow of eight feet, capable of containing an immense quantity of water; into this sail the very men who were to be dipped in it, were employed in pumping and bailing water, little thinking, poor creatures, they were making a rod for themselves. A gun had been dismounted on the forecastle, the carriage made into a car, on which were to sit Neptune and Amphitrite, and between them the Triton; in order to keep all secret, a sail was run across the forecastle to screen Neptune and his gang from observation. Just before the appointed time, all who were likely to undergo the dreadful operation of shaving were ordered below, the gratings put on, and a constable stationed to prevent the ascent of more than one at a time; a wise regulation, for our numbers were nearly equal, and had they shown fight, might have conquered; a rope was rove through a block on the main yard arm, to one end of which was secured a handspike, astride of which sat a man with his hands fastened to the rope over his head.
The first of the ship's company that were shaved, who was brought up blindfolded by the whole posse of constables was the armourer, a weather-beaten honest old Hibernian, who had been a farrier in the Peninsular Army for many years. At the reduction, he had found his way as armourer of some small craft, and thence to our ship; on his entering for our ship, so anxious was he to be within the given age, which was thirty, that on being asked his age he gave it as eight and twenty, although fifty six was written in legible characters on his old cribbage face, which throughout the ship's company had gained him the cognomen of old eight and twenty. On this man then the barber had to perform his first functions; a bucket was filled with all the cleanings of the hen coops, pig-stys, &c. and with it a due proportion of tar had been mixed; with a large paint brush dipped in this villainous compound, and his razor, close to him the barber stood waiting the signal. My first question was "what is your name my man?" "John S----, your honour," at the instant of his opening his mouth the brush went across it, when the face the poor creature made it is impossible to describe, "phoo what do you call that?" "what do you call that?" I again asked the old man how old he was, "eight and twenty your honour, and so I am; oh I will spake no more, I will spake no more." As a last effort to make him open his mouth, I said if you mean to put him overboard, mind have a good rope round him for perhaps he cannot swim. Terrified at the idea of being thrown overboard the poor fellow said "I cannot swim, oh, I cannot swim;" but as the brush again crossed his mouth, he uttered with his teeth closed, "I will spake no more, by J---s I will spake no more if you drown me." Amid a roar of laughter two men tripped the handspike on which he sat and sent him backward into the sail where the bear was waiting to receive him; it was soon over, he escaped and stood by to see his shipmates share his fate. At the time of his being shaved he was not aware who Neptune was, when he found it out I could not get him to speak to me for some time; at length Irish good temper conquered, and we were friends again.
—John Bechervaise, Thirty-six Years of Seafaring Life p.146-150
Equator-crossing ceremonies, typically featuring King Neptune, are also sometimes carried out for passengers' entertainment on civilian ocean liners and cruise ships. They are also performed in the merchant navy and aboard sail training ships.
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