You’ve heard of “Throwback Thursday.” Consider this “Throwback Month.” While on vacation, it is impossible to do new research and post fresh stories, so for now, please enjoy a “throwback” from 2013.
When my maternal grandmother’s brother Ray Rucker died, he left behind a puzzling collection of photos from his time in the Navy. Every time one of them came into my field of vision, I wondered what these sailors in the most powerful Navy in the world -- the defenders of freedom -- were doing in those crazy costumes.
|Neptune Party: The Royal Family|
So, it turns out these were some of the main characters in a naval tradition that dates back over 400 years in the western seafaring world: the line crossing ceremony. Which line? Why, the equator, of course.
Whether a test of a sailor’s ability to withstand a long and rough voyage or merely a way to boost morale, the tradition of the Neptune Party has been a rite of passage for many a sailor transforming from a “Slimy Pollywog” (a sailor who has never crossed the equator) to a “Trusty” or “Honorable” Shellback.
Ray was a sailor onboard the USS Colorado when this particular ceremony took place, but his photos do not clearly reveal whether he was among the experienced Shellbacks or if he was being initiated into the “mysteries of the deep.”
The festivities varied from ship to ship, but no doubt Ray experienced the standard features of the Order of Neptune.
1. Typically the ceremony began with King Neptune, the mythical god of the sea, coming aboard to exercise his authority over the seas and the ship. With a trident in hand, he served as judge ruling on charges that the Pollywogs were not real sailors at all, and that furthermore they had not shown proper respect to the god of the sea. King Neptune was often portrayed by the ship’s commander or other high ranking officer.
|The Royal Police|
The most experienced Shellbacks dressed in costume as members of King Neptune’s Royal Court. Usually the characters included King Neptune, Amphitrite (Neptune’s wife), Davey Jones, the Royal Baby, and the Royal Barber.
Other appropriate characters could be included as well. Some Shellbacks might have dressed as pirates as part of the Royal Police.
2. Pollywogs entertained the Royal Court with a talent show or even a beauty contest with sailors dressed as women.
3. Davey Jones presented subpoenas to the Pollywogs to appear before the Royal Court and answer charges lodged by the Shellbacks.
4. Court was held after breakfast which had been rendered inedible by the addition of hot sauce or other spices. King Neptune assigned punishments that included wearing clothes inside out or backwards, crawling on hands and knees through garbage, being swatted with pieces of fire hose, being pelted with rotting fruit, and being treated with “truth serum” (hot sauce rubbed on the face following a shave). The Royal Barber used hand clippers to cut the Pollywogs’ hair in various directions – never intending the results to be worthy of a tip.
|The Royal Baby|
5. Next the Pollywogs knelt before King Neptune to kiss the Royal Baby’s belly which was covered with grease. Often the Baby grabbed the Pollywog’s hair and rubbed his face all over his belly to make sure the sailor was duly covered. In some cases, the Baby flung mustard in the Pollywog’s face. The “honor” of being the Royal Baby was usually given to the ugliest guy on the ship. Some honor!
6. The final step in the transformation to Shellback was a royal bath in sea water often contained in a canvas pool on deck, a “baptism” of sorts. The new Shellbacks received a certificate, and the event was recognized in their service records with date, time, latitude, and longitude.
|The Pollywogs go head-first into the Royal bath.|
The caption on the photo is hard to read but it says
USS Colorado Neptune Party
|The latest crop of "Shellbacks" in the "royal bath"|
The Neptune Party was a fun time, according to many sailors. In recent years, however, there have been reports of unspeakable abuse. In the early 1920s when Ray was a Pollywog, the ceremony likely was a highlight in a sailor’s memories of life at sea.
“Line-Crossing Ceremony.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.
Moore, David. “Pollywog or Shellback: The Navy’s Line Crossing Ceremony Revealed.” Veterans United Network. Veteransunited.com.
“Pollywog to Shellback.” Destroyer Escort Sailors Association. DESA.org. 2011.
Amy Johnson Crow continues to challenge genealogy bloggers and non-bloggers alike to think about our ancestors and share a story or photo about them. The challenge is “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.”
© 2019, Wendy Mathias. All rights reserved.