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Into the Mystic
Many years at sea tend to make you a little lonely and crazy. You begin to wonder if anyone knows that you are alive. If you aren’t careful, you can become so isolated that you become a seagoing hermit. I’ve seen old timers who became so detached from the real world that they were actually afraid to leave the ship, asking shipmates to bring them necessities from ashore. To paraphrase the singer, Van Morrison, they had smelled the sea and felt the sky so long that their souls had sailed into the mystic.
Part of my problem was that I never had a sense of belonging to begin with. Growing up in Lumberton, for example, I always envied families that joined in events together as simple as the annual summer trek to Pontchartrain Beach, the long-gone amusement park along the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain.
Even today, I still remember their advertising jingle, blasted out ad nauseum over New Orleans radio station WNOE-AM, owned by James A. Noe, one-time governor of Louisiana:
“At the beach, at the beach, at Pontchartrain Beach;
You’ll have fun, you’ll have fun, every day of the week;
You’ll love the thrilling rides, laugh til you split your sides;
That’s Pontchartrain Beach!”
Unfortunately, I never made it. To paraphrase the CCR song, “Proud Mary,” I spent all my time “pumping pane for the man” at the gas station where I worked throughout high school, but I at least had the radio on.
Although reading at sea was what kept me sane, and I will explain it later, different people dealt with the ennui and the melancholy of prolonged life at sea in different ways: some turned inward and become indifferent to the outside world; some became alcoholics and wore out their welcome in every liberty port; a few found solace in music, and woe to the person who snitched one of their precious 45 rpm records and later cassettes; and some, like me, with a vague sense of history, marked the passage of time with the many rituals and rites of passage of Navy life.
It was only when I became a deck seaman at 17 that I began to gain a sense of “belonging,” primarily because of my participation in the ancient nautical customs and traditions that were still common and politically correct in the Navy of the late 1950s, many of which we inherited from the British Navy: the “Crossing the Line” ceremony (Crossing the Equator initiation ceremonies, which often got pretty violent); “tacking on crows” (punching your buddy in the arm to “attach” his new promotion badge); hoisting a broom at the main mast when you made a “clean sweep” of a competitive gunnery exercise; stringing colored electric lights from the bow to the stern with a lighted cross atop the main mast at Christmas; stringing white lights in the same place when you “Med Moored” (backed in to the pier, stern first) in a foreign port, etc.
Later, when I became a line officer, my involvement in such customs and traditions became much more official: I was in charge of the gun crews; I was responsible for stringing the lights. On one ship, I remember quietly asking the Old Man to put me in charge of a special Crossing the Line ceremony (we were crossing the Equator at the International Date Line, which made the initiates “Golden Shellbacks”) because I had overheard scuttlebutt on the mess deck that some nutjob was going to put broken glass into the inflated rubber life raft full of rancid kitchen garbage that all of the “pollywogs” (uninitiated) had to swim through en route to their audience with King Neptune. As they approached his august presence on their knees, they had to kiss the greased belly of the Royal Baby. In today’s Navy, you couldn’t even find a sailor fat enough to serve as the Royal Baby. “Big Navy” kicked them out for being overweight, too fat to fight for their country. That’s wrong. I’ve known overweight sailors who could whip the last man standing. If you cross the Equator on a Navy ship today, they wash you down with a fire hose, give you a diploma and you eat barbecue. Everybody gets a trophy. I guess that’s progress, but it’s bogus.