I believe in the right to choose a rite of passage which I do not consider to be hazing. Webster says “To haze is to humiliate”. There are many established rites which some people may consider hazing, but I believe it is these people’s desire to escape what is for them an uncomfortable situation. On the other hand, I do not feel that physical abuse is either hazing or a rite of passage, and it should not be considered as such. I feel to accept certain rites of passage is an honorable endeavor.
I spent twenty years in the US Navy, beginning in the late 1970s. It was while I was away on the second of my Pacific Ocean deployments that we were to cross the equator. There was to be a special ceremony to honor the crew members that had never crossed the equator before. Today this would be referred to as hazing and would not be allowed. We, the sailors that had never crossed the equator, were referred to as pollywogs, and the old salts that had crossed the equator were referred to as shellbacks. It was an interesting tradition where one had to begin by waking in the morning to breakfast of green eggs and ham. We were to crawl everywhere we went so as not to insult the shellbacks and so we could show our respect for them. After breakfast, I and my pollywog companions began the task of becoming a shellback. I had prepared for the event by adding some additional clothing on my backside for the whipping that would come from a shellback that wielded an instrument referred to as a shillelagh. The Irish word refers to a shillelagh as being made of wood, yet these were made of cut off one-and-one- half inch diameter fire hoses about two feet in length. My brother pollywogs and I proceeded by going up on the main deck and crawling, while being whipped and having grease rubbed in our hair, over under and through many obstacles. We reached the final barrier which was to complete the whipping phase only to be held in place atop the barrier for additional strokes. Having then surpassed the barrier the rite continued as we were to kiss the belly of the royal baby who, I believe, was a representation of the child of Neptune. This shellback, with a rather large circumference, had shaving cream on his belly topped with a cherry. My companions and I were to kiss his belly while being grabbed by the ears and having our faces rubbed in the shaving cream. I next had to bow on my knees before the representation of King Neptune and ask to be invited to proceed to the final phase which was to crawl through a tube full of garbage that had been specially saved for many days for this event. Crawling through this garbage, I became keenly aware that I was crawling through what many a fellow shipmate, having not been able to hold down such a fine feast as was the green eggs and ham, had left in my path. I then endured it to the best of my ability, but may have left some remembrance of my own, that memory escapes me to this day. I emerged from the trough then to be dunked in a drum full of water and muck and to recite the phrase, “I am now a royal shellback.” Although I had endured many slanderous sayings from my shipmates that day, I had saved my backside by the additional clothing I had worn.
Although this rite of passage included the use of an instrument for whipping the participants and it may have seemed humiliating to some, the shillelagh was only symbolic and in no way was used in an abusive manner. Participation was voluntary, and reluctance to endure the rite in no way detracted from any evaluation that would prevent one from receiving any due compensation or rights as an individual.
When I reflect back on my service in the military, I remember very few moments in which I had an opportunity to participate that I remember with such fondness. For my participation I received a certificate that was brilliantly colored which I hung on the wall, and serves to remind me of the many sailors with which I proudly served. I feel had I not participated, I could not claim such a feeling of exuberance and kinship with all my fellow shellbacks. Enduring the rite brings to mind a passage from the Christian Holy Bible:
They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; These see the works of the LORD, and his wonders in the deep. For he commandeth, and raiseth the stormy wind, which lifteth up the waves thereof. They mount up to the heaven, they go down again to the depths: their soul is melted because of trouble. They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wits’ end. Then they cry unto the LORD in their trouble, and he bringeth them out of their distresses. He maketh the storm a calm, so that the waves thereof are still. Then are they glad because they be quiet; so he bringeth them unto their desired haven.
Psalms, 107:23-30, KJV
I believe the shellback initiation was a rite of passage. I did not consider it to be hazing, and believe that it should be allowed to continue as a voluntary practice to uphold the best traditions of the US Navy.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.