The minute Pascal tied my hands together, I knew was in trouble. Pascal is a big man with an even bigger laugh, one of two hardworking, and hard-drinking, bosuns aboard a French research vessel called the Marion Dufresne. For his birthday a few days earlier, the crew had given Pascal a ball gag. Pascal thought this was hilarious, and immediately strapped the sex toy over his mouth, contorting his face in exaggerated expressions of mock distress, to the delight of the deckhands and officers assembled in the ship’s bar. Somehow, I couldn’t get that image out of my head, as Pascal, a mischievous grin now creasing his broad face, secured the knots around my wrists and gave me a wink. No doubt about it, whatever was about to happen next was totally going to suck.
“Pascal never mentioned anything about liminal reversal zones when he was binding my wrists.”
The reason for my oceanic bondage was that a couple of days before, I had crossed the equator for the very first time. The unremarkable event occurred on July 10, 2016, at 3:23 A.M. The site was the Indian Ocean—longitude 92 degrees, 49 minutes, and 6 seconds—roughly 500 miles due west of Sumatra. It being the middle of the night, the view out the ship’s windows did not change as we sailed from the Northern Hemisphere into the Southern, but even if the crossing had taken place 12 hours earlier or later under the harsh glare of the equatorial sun, the scenery would have remained constant. Indeed, were it not for the readouts on numerous computer screens in various parts of the ship, noting the degrees, minutes, and seconds that separated us from the equator (with only a small “N” or “S” to indicate which side of the line we were on), I would not have known we had crossed the equator at all.
In all, we crossed the equator four times in the course of our work to map the seafloor lying almost 3 miles below us. After each crossing, rumors would fly about the ceremony being prepared for the 20 or so of us neophytes who had never crossed the equator aboard a ship. Now, the moment of truth had arrived.
Naively, I had imagined something similar to the scene in “Animal House,” in which Otter and Boon roused their fraternity’s pledges out of bed with fire extinguishers and brought them before the fraternity’s president, Hoover, to swear an oath to Delta Tau Chi, after which everyone got drunk and danced all night to “Louie Louie.” Instead, I was treated to a shampoo and facial of raw eggs, mustard, ketchup, cooking grease, flour, saltwater, and ladle after ladle of the nastiest smelling fish soup I have ever had the misfortune of being within a mile of.
After the hazing—the only word to describe our ordeal—and in the same bar where Pascal had shown off his familiarity with ball gags, several members of the Marion Dufresne’s crew shared their “crossing-the-line” experiences with me, to put my kid-gloves treatment in context. One happily recalled having his head shaved in a reverse Mohawk. Another, though, told a more harrowing tale. He recounted being chained in a cage on deck all morning, as his fellow crewmembers periodically sprayed him with seawater, peppered him with insults, and splattered him with paint, as if he were a blank Jackson Pollock canvas. In the afternoon, he was made to drink five rounds of seawater followed by chasers of vodka mixed with other spirits. Meanwhile, a mixture of axle grease, sand, and burned diesel oil was periodically rubbed into his hair.
Properly lubricated, he was then brought before a comically attired court composed of his crewmates, who proceeded to charge him with entering Neptune’s kingdom without permission. This is the standard transgression in crossing-the-line ceremonies since the 16th century. The punishment, also standard in these proceedings, was numerous immersions in a tank of seawater, as if the caging, forced drinking, and engine-room hair mousse had been all fun and games. The crewman I spoke with did not remember how many “baptisms,” as he called them, he endured, but he did remember that because even King Neptune’s mighty oceans weren’t going to get all that junk out his hair, his head had to be shaved—it took several months, he added with a wince, for the aroma of burned diesel to completely leave his scalp.
What earthly purpose, I wondered, could such elaborate and premeditated degradation serve? Upon my return from the Indian Ocean, I put that question to Dr. Simon Bronner, who is the director of the Doctoral American Studies Program at Penn State University in Harrisburg, where he teachers classes on folklore. I had contacted Bronner because he’s the author of a short book called Crossing the Line: Violence, Play, and Drama in Naval Equator Traditions, which was published in 2006 by the Amsterdam University Press. Bronner’s book is out of print, but you can read it on Google Books, as long as you don’t mind historical accounts of keelhauling, blood pinning, and “fecal play.”
“Well, I can give you a manifest reason and a latent reason for the practice,” Bronner begins, referring to the obvious and subconscious justifications for the tradition. “The manifest reason is around the idea that the equator itself is some kind of a liminal twilight zone, if you will, because its latitude is 0, 0, 0. There is a certain religio-magical connotation to the equator, so the ceremony is a way to indicate that one is traveling not only through space but also time, through some kind of a liminal reversal zone.”
For the record, Pascal never mentioned anything about liminal reversal zones when he was binding my wrists, smashing raw eggs on my head and face, or offering me a sip of water after I’d been standing in the sun for an hour, only to find out that it was seawater. After I realized what I was about to swallow, I spat the stuff in his face, which elicited from Pascal a loud, staccato laugh, and earned me another wink.
“Latently,” Bronner continues, “there is a lot of tension when you’re on a ship because you’re in this master-servant role. On a ship, the idea of discipline and obedience is much more emphasized than in other branches of the armed forces because a ship is a danger zone—discipline and obedience can save lives. So, I think the ceremony is partly a release from all that. Often the officers who are crossing the equator for the first time are treated the harshest. But there is a sense among the participants that there is license to do many of the ceremony’s activities within the framework of play that you couldn’t do anywhere else. The activities serve as an equalizer and ice breaker, especially in institutions, organizations, or groups whose members are strangers to one another.”
OK, I get that. I’d seen Pascal and the rest of the Marion Dufresne’s crew execute complicated, dangerous, tasks on deck with congeniality, precision, and calm. Teamwork and hierarchy (who gets to give the orders, who has to take them) is incredibly important when 5 tons of steel are swinging over your head, sometimes shifting suddenly with the unpredictable pitch and roll of the ship. Five tons of steel doesn’t care if you are a really nice guy with a wife and two kids. If you are in the wrong place at the wrong time when 5 tons of steel come calling, you’re mush.
The crew safety that results from discipline and order was just one reason why many navies tolerated crossing-the-line ceremonies, whether the line was the equator or just a route around a prominent point of land such as “the Raz,” a cape on the Brittany coast in France that separates the Bay of Biscay from the English Channel. Toughening up the crew was no doubt another. In the naval context, those who have made these crossings, and survived their subsequent hazings, are considered strong and are often referred to as “shellbacks.” The ones who haven’t are sometimes called “pollywogs,” which suggests soft and even feminine qualities. The ceremony, therefore, is an opportunity to turn these “sissies” into “real men” who will be able to do hard work together, and make sure no one is crushed to death by 5 tons of steel.
At the same time, though, because ships have traditionally been male domains, where lots of men who haven’t been laid in a while are packed together in close quarters, the ceremonies also serve to relieve sexual tension, lest, well, goodness know what might happen! That’s why the ceremonies also often featured members of the crew dressed unappealingly in drag, as if to deflect any latent homosexual tendencies that might allegedly “undermine” morale. Indeed, issues of gender and sexuality are such an important part of hazing ceremonies, that the ceremonies themselves have been used to “prove” that women were not suited for male military institutions. As Bronner recounts in Crossing the Line, in 1994, lawyers for the Virginia Military Institute actually argued before the U.S. Supreme Court “against the admission of women on the grounds that it would destroy the hazing ‘rituals and traditions’ designed specifically for an all-male institution.” VMI’s ludicrous logic did not prevail, and today women are initiated there along with the men. At last report, the world was still spinning on its axis.
“One crewmember happily recalled having his head shaved in a reverse Mohawk.”
According to Bronner, the esprit de corps justification for hazing ceremonies like the one I went through is universal, even if the practice is not. Historically, among the Europeans, the Spanish and Italians were not big on crossing-the-line ceremonies, but the Dutch, English, and Scandinavians were. The French were probably among the earliest practitioners, as I learned from Bronner’s book: “The first traveler account with a description of an equator-crossing ceremony,” he writes, “was recorded by Jean and Raoul Parmentier during their voyage to Sumatra on a French ship on May 11, 1583. They recount ‘l’acollée en passant sous l’équateur,’ or a marking of the occasion of crossing the equator with knighting of fifty sailors by an accolade, celebration of a solemn Mass, singing of hymns, and a feast of albacore and bonitos.”
I was aboard a French ship, and close to Sumatra, too, participating in a ritual that apparently goes back more than 400 years. In retrospect, that’s kind of cool, but why us? I mean, I understand why esprit de corps is important for crew members manipulating 5 tons of steel, but we were passengers aboard the Marion Dufresne—students, scientists, and me, the resident writer. Why was it necessary that we be subjected to the same sort of treatment as the crew?
The answer, I think, goes back to Bronner’s broader observation about organizations composed of strangers, and how shared adversity in a controlled, contrived, and ultimately safe environment can bring those strangers together. That describes our hazing, but historically, crossing-the-line ceremonies have not always been so controlled and safe, or even as benign as the one experienced by the crewmember who couldn’t get the stink of burned diesel out of his scalp for two months. In fact, the first recorded ban on these rituals occurred not long after the Parmentier’s account, when, in 1614, the Dutch East India company banned dousing on its ships due to the injuries it was inflicting on its sailors.
We’d had it easy, which in our case only meant wearing dirty, smelly crew coveralls all day, and being branded with the letter “N” for neophyte on our foreheads with a Magic Marker. After our wrists were tied, a rope was looped through the knots, so that later we could be led around the ship like prisoners. Before that, though, the same crew members who had been serving us meals and pouring our drinks for the past few weeks were now cracking eggs on our heads, spreading handfuls of dijon mustard on our faces, dumping flour on top of that, and then ladling that nasty smelling fish soup over our heads and down the fronts and backs of our coveralls. I’ve reviewed the videos taken by crewmembers of all this, and can say with a great deal of confidence that the crewmembers heaping these indignities upon us were doing so with a great deal of glee.
This “food play,” as Bronner might call it, was followed by a quick seawater rinse with a fire hose, then a tug on the rope and shouts at us from crewmembers signaled that it was time to move from the food fight that had occurred along the starboard gangway to the bow of the ship, where the captain, some of the senior scientists, and a number of other key crewmembers were awaiting us, costumed as King Neptune’s court.
Now the annoyance of having food in one’s eyes and not being able to wipe them with anything but a filthier hand morphed into a theater of the absurd—like something Samuel Beckett might have written on a bad acid trip. We were forced to kneel on the steel deck in the equatorial sun, in rows facing a kangaroo court straight out of Looney Tunes. The captain spoke first, proclaiming with all the seriousness of a vaudeville clown that we had violated King Neptune’s realm, etc., etc., blah, blah, blah—he was reading this stuff off a script! By now, though, my eyes were on fire, and kneeling on the deck was not an especially good prescription for the three ruptured discs in my spine and the hole in the bottom of my left femur. Still, I think I put on a brave face.
Here, of course, there was more disgusting soup dumped on our heads and down our garments—the next day, if you hadn’t washed absolutely every molecule of it out of your hair and clothes, you were followed around by the faint scent of vomit. Pascal was there, too, now dressed in the cheapest drag imaginable as King Neptune’s wife. In fact, the whole affair seemed deliberately impermanent and amateurish, from the paper hats to the tinfoil-covered swords wielded by members of Neptune’s court. Sure, we were being humiliated and subjected to stupid—if you can think of a better word, email me—rituals, but clearly not a bit of it was intended to be taken seriously.
Finally, my crimes were read aloud by one of the scientists (something about being a spy for the NSA rather than a writer), and then, still on my knees, I was instructed to crawl on the filthy deck toward Pascal/Queen Neptune, who untied my hands so that I could better massage fish-soup-scented noodles into his hairy feet. And then it was off to get my punishment, as if the foregoing had all been peaches and cream. Some people were sentenced to two or three immersions in a tank of seawater, others got six, and one among us—a working member of the ship’s crew—got an entire pot of fish soup dumped over his head, followed by 25 immersions. I was sentenced to three immersions, which the ship’s chief mate (Pascal’s boss) immediately raised to five, ignoring the verdict of the court and my personal absolution by the King.
“Merci, fucking, beaucoup,” I muttered to the mate as he led me on my hands and knees (in this case because the deck was too slippery to walk on) across a piece of plywood bridging the deck and the tank, where two crewmembers were waiting to do their worst. Like Pascal after getting a face full of seawater from yours truly, the French mate laughed at the liberties I had taken with his mother tongue.
The cool water, stained and polluted though it was by all that fish soup, was a relief. On the fifth dunking, the two crewmembers held me down until I struggled, but immediately let me up for air when I did. And that, I believe, encapsulates how everyone was treated—each of us was pushed about as far as the crew thought they could go, and not a degree, minute, or second more.
After our baptisms at sea, we were hosed off one last time, and invited to leave our disgusting coveralls on the deck for someone else to deal with—the master-servant roles were now back to where they’d been at breakfast. Then, squinting from all the saltwater and God knows what else was in our eyes, we stumbled off to our cabins to shampoo the stink out of our hair. A party followed, in which everyone was offered Cuba Libres and fried hors d’oeuvres, and we each received a “Certificat de Passage de la Ligne,” so that the next time we crossed the equator, we wouldn’t have to go through anything like that again.
“Teasing,” Bronner says, “is a way to create a shared bond. Friendship groups can arise when people are thrown together and show a willingness to be made fun of.” So, the whole thing was a test of my ability to take a joke? “Exactly,” Bronner says. “If you’re not a good sport about something that really doesn’t matter, you probably won’t be a very good team player when it does.”
At the time, I would not have bought this line of reasoning, but in retrospect, Bronner’s assessment makes sense. After our hazing, there was a lot more easygoing camaraderie among passengers and crewmembers alike, and I recalled that during the ordeal, my taunts to Pascal and the chief mate—the spitting of seawater, the gratuitous profanity—had been received only with good cheer. These guys could take a joke, and whatever one might think of the manifest or latent reasons for the hazing they had dished out, you sort of had to admire that.
The question was, could I? The next night, the kitchen staff—wanting, I suppose, one last laugh—served fish soup as the appetizer before dinner. Most of scientists and students who less than 24 hours earlier had been washing similar stuff out of their hair seemed to enjoy it, but I couldn’t touch the stuff.