I was on my stomach with my hands and feet hogtied behind my back. The supply locker in which I was imprisoned was just narrower than I was tall from my knees to the top of my head. The pirates had shoved me in so that my head was lower than the rest of my body. Although my head was still covered by my pillowcase and a sock crammed into my mouth, my face was pressed so closely against a wetsuit that I could smell and taste the rubber. I wiggled and tried to crawl with my shoulders to reposition enough to gain a measure of comfort. The equatorial heat closed in on me in the airless compartment and my breathing became labored. Sweat soon lubricated the neoprene and my body slipped back into the original torturous position.
My fingers felt the knots that bound my wrists. They were tight and symmetrical, the work of an experienced seaman. The boat rolled. I slid against the wetsuit into an even more uncomfortable contortion. Neko II’s change in attitude was the result of a deliberate tack. Someone was actively sailing the boat.
Unbearable seconds became minutes that ticked into hours that felt like weeks. What had become of the rest of the crew? I forced myself to play mind games to drive off visions of them writhing on the deck with blood spewing out of their bodies onto the teakwood.
I thought of the summer I spent with at cousin’s house in rural western Pennsylvania. Wayne and I were the same age, so our mothers always paired us up with each other at reunions even though we didn’t know or particularly like each other. Not until that summer between our junior and senior year in high school. That summer we hit it off like old friends.
We picked-up odd jobs around town such as painting houses, digging ditches, and delivering new phone books door-to-door. When we weren’t working, we spent our days exploring the forest covered rolling mountains and swimming the Clarion River. Sometimes we took Wayne’s .22 rifles to an abandoned rock quarry and shot coffee cans.
One day we took his dad’s .30-06. While walking across a railroad trestle on the way to the quarry, I spotted a black bear on the far shore of the river through the morning mist that floated above the water like a white veil. I shouldered the weapon and eyed the animal over the iron sites.
“Shoot it,” Wayne said.
It was an easy shot, maybe a hundred yards. The bear muzzled down to the water and lapped.
“C’mon. Shoot it.” Excitement charged his words.
The bear turned and muscles ripped through its massive haunches as it powered up the steep embankment.
“Are you gonna do it?”
I lowered the weapon.
“Too late now. What’s wrong with you, man. You coulda bagged a bear.”
In our own minds, Wayne and I became an unstoppable force around town. On Friday and Saturday nights we cruised main street in Wayne’s twelve year old Impala. Cars filled with teenagers idled in procession up and down the quarter mile stretch of road — the only road in town with stoplights — slow enough for conversations with the kids without rides that were walking the sidewalks. We were a team that flirted with every cute young woman and intimidated every other young man in a car, mindlessly revving the Chevy V8 every time we passed.
Wayne was the varsity middle linebacker for his high school team and was built like a statue of Adonis — a “Mobile Monster” as the t-shirt read that he had received from his coaches for being able to bench press 250 pounds and run the forty in 4.6 seconds or less. Wayne got the pretty girls. I was his wingman. I dated his girlfriends’ friends.
That order was undisturbed until we met Angelina Germanotta from an Italian-American family that recently moved to nearby Brookville. Wayne took Angelina to a drive-in to see a movie that they did not watch. I was invited to go along with Angie’s friend, whom I had not previously met. The friend, whose name I can’t remember was neither pretty nor had a “great personality.” For ninety minutes I sat in the back seat of of Wayne’s car politely apart from my date, who thankfully was not a talker, trying to watch a movie past Wayne and Angelina, whose faces were passionately pressed together.
Wayne moved on to other conquests and I never saw Angelina’s friend again. But several weeks later I got a call from Angelina asking me to a Sadie Hawkins dance. I agreed, knowing that Wayne had other invitations. At the dance I ran into Wayne in the restroom. He sucker-punched me in the gut. “You can’t go out with my girls.” I didn’t try to reason with him or defend myself. He’s a knucklehead and nothing I could have said would have made a difference.
Nonetheless, Angelina and I had a great evening and I hung out with her the rest of my time in Pennsylvania. Once I asked her why she hadn’t asked Wayne to the Sadie Hawkins.
“He thought he was some kind of great kisser. But every time we kissed I got a mouth full of spit. It was gross. Besides, he was a jerk.”
As I squirmed and struggled in my little prison, I wondered where Angelina was. How different would my life have been if I had stayed in touch with her?
I was startled out of my memories when my captors unexpectedly opened the door and wordlessly hauled me topside. They dropped me to the deck without warning, knocking the wind out of my trussed body. I tried to force myself to breathe, but my chest muscles seized and I could not inhale. I felt I would suffocate under the pillowcase over my head and I finally managed to spit the sock out of my mouth. By the time air finally flooded into my body I realized that I was standing and tied to a mast.
Light filtered through the threads of the pillowcase and I knew that it was morning. After hours locked in the unlighted supply closet, even this little bit of light caused me to squint.
A dark shape moved toward me and whipped the pillow case off my head. The sudden brightness was blinding. My eyes began to water. Before me was the silhouette of a large woman. She had stringy shoulder length hair and a physique as thick as Ethel Merman.
I was still breathing hard and recovering from hitting the deck. She grabbed my by the upper arms and shook me violently. Her forearms were unusually hairy and her pungent breath smelled of stale rum and cigarettes. Then she slapped me. Like a man.
“Breathe slowly. You’re hyperventilating.”
It was Piest’s voice. Through slitted eyes I saw that my captor was First Mate Andres Piest. He was wearing a wig, large fake breasts, and a long toga made from a white bed sheet.
“Hey, I’m all right,” I said. I twisted away from him against my bindings. “Get away from me!”
That brought on a chorus of drunken laughter. Beyond Piest I saw the Captain sitting in the center of the deck on a chair. He also wore a toga, festooned with oversized golden epaulets, and a bulky brunette wig of cascading curls befitting Louis XIV. In his left hand he held a pitcher of grog in the other a trident, crudely fashioned from a Hawaiian sling and the plastic horseshoe that had been mounted above the galley doorway. He was flanked by similarly dressed veteran crewmen including Dix and Sven, who wore a low-slung coconut bikini and a grass skirt. Dix had a fresh bruise on his cheek. Piest sat on the empty seat beside the Captain.
The rest of the crew were likewise tied to masts or rails. Simon was tied behind me to the same mast.
Dix stepped forward and proclaimed, “Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! All persons having business before the Honorable, the Court of Neptune, are admonished to draw near and give their attention, for the Court is now sitting. All hail the Honorable Neptunus Rex and her beautiful Highness Amphitrite!”
“Hail King Neptune!” the courtiers said in unison. The Captain-Neptune sat in stoic silence and Piest-Amphrite nodded at the acknowledgement.
Simon craned his head and whispered in my ear. “This is a line-crossing ceremony.”
“A line-crossing ceremony. It’s a hazing of sailors who are crossing the equator for the first time.”
“Why is Neptune with Amphrite? Amphrite was Poseidon’s wife. Neptune’s queen was called Salacia. They’re mixing Greek and Roman mythology.”
“Look college boy, this isn’t Harvard. We’re on a boat in the middle of the bleedin’ Indian Ocean. These guys don’t care if she’s Amphrite, Salacia or Twiggy.”
“Silence!” Neptune roared. “Davy Jones, will now read the charges.”
Dix as Davy Jones continued. “There are on board this boat a great number of officers and seamen, hereafter known as Pollywogs, who have never yet been initiated into the mysteries of the crossing of the Equinoctial line, thereby desecrating the dominions of Neptune with their presence. We seek your righteous judgment.”
“Mr. Jones, are the uninitiated Wogs accused of rebellion or attempted mutiny?”
“No, my King.”
“Then I, Neptunus Rex, Ruler of the Raging Main and of the Doldrums, Lord of Mistral and Monsoon, Wild Nor’ Easter and Southerly Buster, Master of Merman and Mermaid and of the Dugong, of Sea Serpent, Sea Lion and Sea Horse, of Whale and Walrus, of Oyster and Octopus, of Albatross and Frigate Bird, of Noddy and Booby, of Shag, Tern, Auk, Gull, of Puffin, Penguin and Porpoise, of Jellyfish, Starfish, Angle-fish and Devil Fish, of Codling, Herring, Brisling, and Whiting, and also of the smallest Whitebait, and of all other swimmers in salt waters, do graciously grant the Wogs a reprieve until the eighth bell of the afternoon. Until that hour, release them and let them suffer the torment of the Shellbacks of Neko II. Those that endure it well shall enter into my rest.”
For the rest of the day we Wogs were subjected to all manner of humiliation and abuse at the hands of the veteran crew, known as Shellbacks. We were violently stripped of our clothes down to our skivvies and our clothes thrown overboard. We were blasted with water from fire hoses while standing on greased canvass, fed live muscles scraped from the hull, and forced to crawl through a tub filled with waste from the mess hall mixed with sea water.
Wogs that complained had to Kiss the Baby, meaning the Wog had to kneel and kiss Sven’s hairy, sweaty belly button after it had been smeared with cold bacon grease.
By the time the seventh bell of the afternoon watch rang, I was the only Wog who had avoided the indignity of Kissing the Baby. My reward was to Walk the Plank. Like a condemned man, my hands were tied behind my back and I walked to the end of a board jutting off the side of the boat over the ocean.
“C’mon guys?” I pleaded from the end of the plank. “You don’t really expect me to jump.”
They did. And they began chanting “jump” for me to do so – everyone was chanting – Shellbacks, Wogs, King Neptune and his court. Even Simon. Especially Simon.
The plank bounced under my weight every time the boat broke a swell. The water beneath me was clear and faded at depth into a pure deep blue. I looked up and saw King Neptune, my Captain, standing at the other end of the plank. He was smiling and, I thought, inviting me back aboard. Then he jumped up and bounced the plank with his full weight, throwing me headlong into the sea. Cheers from my delighted crewmates erupted before I hit the water, after which time I heard nothing by my own heartbeat.
I quickly sank deep beneath the boat, falling toward the ocean floor. I didn’t resist. Everything was calm and quiet, a serenity I had not felt since I was a young child. Looking up I saw the silhouette of Neko II’s hull, long like a wine bottle, floating above me. I swallowed and it sounded like the plumbing in the basement of my parent’s house. Shafts of light pierced the water from the late afternoon sun which created the feeling that I was floating through a cathedral. The light was dreamlike and hypnotic.
I thought of the thousands of sailors who had drowned at sea throughout the course of human history. Is this the last thing I saw? It was beautiful. Perhaps the next life isn’t so bad.
I can’t remember what happened next, but somehow a Shellback hooked the rope that tied my wrist with a gaff and pulled me aboard. When I awoke, I was standing dripping wet before King Neptune who was seated with his queen on their thrones.
Eight bells rang then Dix read from a certificate:
“Whereas by our Royal Accord, Our Trusty, Well Beloved John Griffith has this day entered Our Domain. We do hereby declare to all whom it may concern that it is Our Royal Will and Pleasure to confer upon him the Freedom of the Seas without undue ceremony. Should he fall overboard, We do command that all Sharks, Dolphins, Whales, Mermaids and other dwellers in the Deep are to abstain from maltreating his person. And we further direct all Sailors who have not crossed Our Royal Domain, to treat him with the respect due to One of Us. Given under Our Hand at Our Court on board Neko II on the Equator in Longitude forty-two degrees east, forty-six minutes, on this forth day of July in the year 1967. Signed: his Royal Highness Neptunus Rex.”
Neptune smiled. “Welcome aboard, Mr. Griffith.”