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Ballard: Going from a pollywog to a shellback

Guest Columnist

On one of my Saturday morning trips to Hardees, I met Mike Manning and his wife. I asked him if he recalled anything he’d remember forever and without hesitation he told me it was when he was in the Navy.
In 1972 he was aboard the U.S.S. Nixon, going from the east coast to the west coast. He had to undergo a ritual the Navy has when the ship crosses the Equator. Any servicemen on the ship who had never crossed the Equator were known as lowly Pollywogs.
The night prior to the Equator crossing there is a ceremony that dates back at least 400 years. During this ceremony the high-ranking members of the crew dress in elaborate costumes portraying King Neptune’s court — King Neptune, his wife, Davy Jones and the royal baby. Thus begins the initiation of the lowly Pollywogs. That evening the Pollywogs have to entertain the King’s court with skits, singing and other merriment.
The following morning, the Pollywogs appear for breakfast dressed only in their skivvies, which are worn backward. They are served a breakfast made too spicy for them to eat.
After breakfast, they are taken up on deck and again presented to the King’s court where judgment is passed on them because they are lowly Pollywogs and entering into the Shellbacks.
As the ritual begins, they have to crawl the entire length of the ship through considerable debris. The Shellbacks had saved all the excess food for a while and it was called the slop shoot. The Pollywogs had to crawl through it.
The guy in front of Mike couldn’t hold his lunch down, so he had to crawl through that also. As they are crawling on their hands and knees the Shellbacks beat them with wet fire hoses. At last they reach the stern of the ship where they have to kiss the royal baby’s stomach. The royal baby is usually the fattest Shellback on board. He is dressed in a diaper and his belly is covered with an abundance of a greasy concoction. As the Pollywog bends over to kiss the royal baby’s belly, the royal baby rubs the Pollywogs face in the foul smelling grease.
From here the Pollywogs go to the royal barber.
Mike told me things have calmed down some over the years, because the royal barber used to be able to do anything he wanted to. If he wanted to cut an x across your head he could do so. During Mike’s visit to the barber, the barber put graphite grease in Mike’s hair.
Upon exiting the barber, the Pollywogs are taken to a large pool on the back of the deck. They climb a ladder, jump in, rinse off and climb out of the water. Mike said at this point the King would ask them, “What are you?”
All week they had been saying they were a lowly Pollywog, but their response now was to say they were a Shellback. If they mistakenly said they were a lowly Pollywog they had to begin the ritual again from the beginning.
I had never heard of this Navy ritual until Mike told me about it. He laughed about it as he told me, but he said it was anything but funny at the time he was being initiated.
Paulette Ballard collects interesting, funny and unusual stories from people in and around Lincolnton. If you have a story you would like to submit for her column, e-mail it to pballardnc1029@yahoo.com. In the subject line type “For your column.” Include your name and phone number for her to contact you.

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