It is the eternal story of a small band of men, pitted against an overwhelming force of merciless barbarians. Their destiny was to stoicly face certain doom, and by doing so, preserve their honor and heritage for all time.
But this isn’t about Thermopylae, nor about the Spartans. This is about a Crossing the Line ceremony, and we were Wogs.
The Crossing the Line tradition dates back at least to the Middle Ages, and has been practiced by navies around the world ever since. In short, it is a rite-of-passage to initiate newbies to the Realm of the Deep – those who haven’t crossed the equator before are initiated by those who already have. Those who have gone through the ceremony are called Shellbacks. Those that haven’t are called Pollywogs (or simply, Wogs).
And now it was my turn. Only my timing was really, really bad. Twelve of us had flown down to Australia to meet our ship. They had just had a Crossing ceremony, and everyone in the crew of 300 was a Shellback. Most of them, of course, were NEW Shellbacks, each on an unholy crusade to demonstrate his new-found power.
300 Shellbacks and 12 Wogs. We didn’t need an oracle to tell us we were headed for trouble.
This is a good time to reiterate that hazing is bad. It has no place in a modern military. That is a good thing. Back then, however, hazing was more common, and that was a bad thing. Especially when it was going to happen to me.
On command, we donned our battle armor – underwear turned inside out and backwards. The enemy came for us at dawn, and like Leonidas before us, we put on a brave face. “WE…ARE…SPARTANS,” the king had said to the Persians. “WE…ARE…WOGS,” we echoed, centuries later.
“THIS MORNING, WE DINE IN HELL!”
More precisely, the pig trough. More precisely, a bunch of food all mushed in together that we had to eat without using our hands. As we “ate”, they taunted us, berated us – it was a pitched battle against a frenzied mob. Then they funneled us to the forecastle and forced us to our knees, our backs against the lifelines, no way out. We were given the chance to surrender, but we stayed.
And on they came.
First with fire hoses. Instead of showering us with Persian arrows, they showered us with salt water. Shivering but undaunted, we huddled together, brothers-in-arms. And we survived the first wave.
Before we could rest, the invading army returned, and with more terrifying weaponry – namely, Shillelaghs (pronounced sha-LAY-lee) – whips made out of sections of fire hose. Like piranhas on a water buffalo, the barbarians besieged us. All the new Shellbacks, lusting to make someone – anyone – pay for their own initiation just days before, swarmed upon us with wild eyes and frenzied cries of revenge.
Each new assault was worse than the one before – grease, coffee grinds, shoe polish. The Coffin, The Barber, The Sea Lawyer. Ominously, they seemed to draw strength from our anguish. But we fought on. We dared to allow ourselves the thought: “We can hold on!”
Alas, fate is a cruel master, and our destiny awaited us. We raised our eyes and beheld…
We had heard the stories and chose not to believe them, until now. Legend told us that scraps from uneaten food were stored for weeks by the insideous cooks, and allowed to rot. On the day of the Crossing ceremony, the rancid, spoiled food would be dumped into a long tube barely wide enough for a person to belly-crawl through. The goal was to get through it without getting sick.
No one made it.
We entered The Chute brave and defiant. We exited humble and defeated. Plus we smelled really bad.
In the end, the Shellbacks won the day, and achieved what everyone knew was inevitable – total victory. Leonidas said, “Remember this day, men, for it will be yours for all time.” The Legend of the 300 and 12 was ours for all time.
Or, if not for all time, at least until we got a good shower.
[First published April 7, 2007]