I considered myself a seasoned sailor yet this storm was peculiar. Howling winds were driving millions of dainty white snowflakes against the hull like a thousand jackhammers. Moreover, the ship rocked like a drunken seesaw, swaying way too far to starboard and way too far to port. Above my head, dozens of galley trays and dishes crashed to the deck like little explosions. I was thankful I was a Radioman and not a cook. Those poor souls were going to have one heck of a big mess to clean up in the morning.
As I lay in my rack listening to the ship fight her way through the tempest, my stomach was in knots. I couldn’t blame the weather or the Captain. Despite its rage and fury or the course we were on, the Bering Sea was old hat. I had been this way more times than I could count. No, my butterflies were the result of something more frightening than Mother Nature or the Old Man.
The Morgenthau departed Kodiak on a clear morning a few days before. While we usually spent our patrols shadowing long liners and trawlers, this one was different. They called it a humanitarian mission but it was more like a taxi service. Our job was to transport two geologists from Kodiak and deliver them, unharmed, to the tiny island of Attu. I had no idea what these rock people would do there but that was above my pay grade.
Attu is the westernmost island in the Aleutians and the farthest one could go and still be on United States property. In addition to being the site of a World War II land battle and a National Historic Landmark, until 1979 the Coast Guard manned a tiny Long Range Aids to Navigation – or LORAN – station there. By 1985, the year of this story, the navigation system had been retrofit to support remote operations. However, we still needed to service the station and periodically sent crews ashore. When the Coast Guard terminated the program in 2010 the last signal was sent and the remaining 20 inhabitants left. Attu is now devoid of people and would probably make a good summer home.
Shortly after we pulled chocks in Kodiak I began to hear rumors. One person talked about pushing past Attu and deeper into the Pacific; another spoke of Rites of Passage. One guy even mentioned Davey Jones and I had to laugh.
Wasn’t Davey Jones the lead singer of The Monkees?
It wasn’t until one intrepid crewman inadvertently mentioned King Neptune that I took notice.
“Who’s King Neptune?” I whispered.
He was coy. “I can’t talk about it.”
“Come on, tell me.”
He looked back and forth as if being watched. “Okay,” he said. “The Skipper plans on sailing the ship across the 180th meridian tomorrow.”
“So, that means we’ll be initiated.”
“Initiated into what?” I said.
Just then the Operations Officer, a zealous and rather pompous lieutenant, rounded the corner. My friend simply turned and walked away.
Thanks a lot, pal, I thought. You were a big help.
Another heavy roll hit the ship and more dishes hit the deck. It was a big one and I grabbed the hurricane bar mounted on my rack for dear life. The last thing I wanted to do was take a short but painful ride off the side of my bed. Having the top rack has its advantages but falling to the deck was not one of them.
I could hear nervous laughter filtering down from the mess deck above. I was certain they were talking about the Rites of Passage and I was worried, too. None of us knew what to expect and I could not shake the feeling that I was doomed.
Despite the din and confusion I managed to fall to sleep. Unfortunately it didn’t last long. At exactly zero four fifteen I awoke to the herald of the Bosun’s Pipe. “You are now entering the royal domain of King Neptune,” the ship’s navigator said. “All Pollywog’s beware!”
I felt my stomach plummet.
I’m one of them, a Pollywog! my mind screamed. Terror gripped my chest and I had a sudden notion to jump ship and swim to shore. That’s crazy, John, you’re in the Bering Sea. You’ll freeze!
It wasn’t the best idea, I’ll admit, but seemed reasonable given what I thought would happen next. Needless to say, I did not abandon the Morgenthau. Instead I pulled the covers over my head and waited for the enviable.
It was zero eight hundred when the follow-up announcement finally came: “All Pollywogs are to report to the main deck by order of the King!”
I was thankful I had the chance to eat a final breakfast but regretted that those eggs and sausages sat like bricks in my stomach. Perhaps I should have waited to eat?
The feel of the nonskid rubbing against the bottoms of my shoes was the only sensation I had as I nervously shuffled with the other Pollywogs on the main deck. I remember the air was crisp and sharp. My breath hung around my head like a halo. There was no hint of last night’s tempest and the Bering was uncharacteristically calm. It almost seemed as if it planned it that way.
I wasn’t the only one facing today’s ordeal. All around me were other crewmembers haunting the deck. Dressed in everything from overalls to civilian clothes, I found it strange to think that these were the same people I had worked with only a few hours ago.
Suddenly there arose such a deafening thunder that I was sure it was the sea splitting wide open. Us Pollywogs panicked and tried to scatter but there was nowhere to go. Some tried hiding their heads in their arms and others crouched like rabbits. Some even tried vainly to hide behind others – I was one of them. It took a second before I realized it was the ship’s whistle.
King Neptune had arrived.
He stood on the deck above and momentarily surveyed his kingdom. He smiled and then laughed. With a turn to his left and a turn to his right, he nodded to his minions. They smiled too as they opened the valves on the fire hoses they carried. Torrents of ice-cold rain fell from the sky. With nowhere to run, we had no choice but to cower in place. It was terrifyingly cold.
The deck looked like a scene from the North Pole. Icicles were already forming on the many stanchions and fixtures littering the bulkheads and deck. Mist rose from our heads. I looked at my feet and wondered if I’d ever feel my toes again.
With no time lost, I was quickly approached by someone vaguely familiar to me. I was handed a piece of cloth and ordered to place the blindfold over my eyes. Wanting to say no but knowing that was not in my best interest, I somehow managed to tie it over my eyes. My hands were blocks of ice. With a quick tightening pull by my familiar acquaintance, I knew that my fear was yet to reach its climax. I was about to walk the pathway to hell.
I tried to calm myself by listening to the gentle waves slapping against the steel hull and the familiar cry and bark of sea gulls flying overhead.
It didn’t work.
All I could hear were the screams of terror by my other shipmates as they started on their initiation.
I was grabbed by the arm and told to move.
My heart was pounding as I was led to what I think was the port side of the main deck. Left on my own, I began to feel my way along the cold bulkhead.
Suddenly barbarians assaulted me. What I guessed was raw eggs was smashed on my head. Cold, wormlike noodles were forced into my mouth. A substance with the familiar odor of coffee grounds was rubbed on my face and in my hair. Mysterious liquids and semisolid materials were dropped in my shirt and down my pants. My mouth was forced open as someone claiming to be King Neptune’s doctor revealed that it was “time for a dose of medicine.” I had no chance to speak when a lukewarm liquid was squirted into my mouth. It only took a split second to recognize it: red hot pepper sauce.
I pulled away and spit out the foul concoction.
I made a conscious effort to move faster, hoping the onslaught would end. My quick move was abruptly cut short as I was grabbed yet again and held firmly by two faceless individuals. I heard the familiar buzz of a razor as the brutes let out sinister laughs.
Feeling beaten and sore I emerged from the gauntlet. It was over! I ran my hand through my hair. As expected, I had a swath of hair missing from the top of my forehead to the nape of my neck. Oh well, I thought. I was in need of a haircut anyway.
I was finally allowed to remove my blindfold and squinted against the emerging sunlight. I was expecting to be welcomed into King Neptune’s kingdom. Instead I stood there aghast.
“Your journey isn’t done,” someone said.
My mind reeled from the sight before me. The ten-foot long, Coast Guard approved life raft was covered with a tarpaulin but I knew what was in it. The smell gave it away.
Before I could ready myself for the journey – as a journey of this type requires preparation – I was forced into a kneeling position and firmly pushed towards the life raft. I was still trying to comprehend what I was about to do when I slid over the inflated edge and into the liquid garbage.
I saw what looked like yesterday’s dinner: vegetable soup. On top floated masses of macaroni and cheese. I could see hundreds of severed fish heads near the surface. The sliced cantaloupe melon and lime green Jell-O that tasted oh so good the night before was anything but now. As much as I tried to hold back, I gagged. My stomach wanted to add to the mess but I held back. I wondered how many before me were able to do the same.
I couldn’t turn back so I concentrated with all my might. I tried to ignore the sour and bitter taste in my mouth. Was it from my own stomach or had something slipped by my lips? As I crawled my way through the slime, chunks of an unknown material were squashed under my palms. Yellow and orange fluid filled my eyes and ears.
I was hauled out of the waste and helped to my feet. When my eyes were finally clear, I saw the smiles on the faces of my fellow crew. Respect gleamed in their eyes and I felt a surge of pride. I had entered King Neptune’s elite legion, the Order of the Golden Dragon.
It was time to take a shower.
The ordeal I went through to earn my place in the Order of the Golden Dragon took place in 1985. Since then, rules and regulations have been passed that qualify these types of initiations as hazing. They are no longer practiced.