T: With new sailors, we go out and say “Hey! Watch out for the mail buoy so we can pick up our mail! Keep an eye out for that mail buoy, if you’re not gonna get that mail buoy, we’re not gonna get our mail!”
Q: So the new sailors would go out and they would look for it?
Q: So how long is it gonna take them before they find out it’s a joke?
T: [Laughs] They will never know unless somebody tells them.
I collected this practical joke in a conversation about the informant’s time in the U.S. Navy; I asked him about a few of the traditions I had heard about before and he also told me about a few others including the mail buoy joke. The informant is denoted by the pseudonym ‘T’ and I am ‘Q’ in the exchange above. The informant served in the U.S. Navy for 26 years before retiring as a Senior Chief Petty Officer in 2017. He learned this joke from other sailors in 2002 when he was stationed on a ship for the first time since enlisting in 1990. He never got this joke played on him since he was more experienced when he was first on a ship, leading others to believe he had been stationed on a few before, nor did he play it on other sailors, mentioning how there were plenty of younger sailors to play pranks on the new seamen fresh out of boot camp. He remembers this joke as a humorous part of the time he spent stationed on a ship, and also mentioned other funny rituals and jokes played on new sailors later on.
The mail buoy prank on new sailors is a classic example of practical jokes played to establish who is in and who is out of a particular identity, further distinguishing who has the knowledge and experience from who doesn’t. In this case, the mail buoy practical joke is a way of legitimizing the change in identity from a new to a seasoned sailor. Particularly in the military where a power structure determined by rank already officially exists, these kinds of practical jokes and other initiation rituals serve as a further distinguisher between those of different power, experience, and knowledge levels. There are also other identities that transcend the official structure, such as being a sailor in the Navy since members may not always be initially stationed on a ship. When the more knowledgeable, higher power, or more experienced individuals initiate the joke, they display the fact that they are in that particular identity (though it may not yet be known to those the joke is being played on). Once the other individuals learn about the joke, though, or get the punchline in other words, they are now also in on that group. In the mail buoy joke, seasoned sailors would know that mail is not actually delivered in a buoy to the ship, but the seamen straight out of boot camp may not and actually take the warning to find the buoy seriously. The fact that the new seamen would believe in the buoy would clearly mark them as new sailors. The humiliation of realizing the mail buoy is not a real thing would serve as an initiation ritual to the group of seasoned sailors and the recognition of the joke would be an internalization of this new change in identity. These types of practical jokes, particularly in the military, are significant ways in which people ritualize a change in their identity and studying them, like in the mail buoy piece above, can indicate what change is occurring.