USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘sailors’
Customs
Material

Rings out of Quarters

Content:
Informant – “Sailors used to make rings out of quarters. They would set the quarter on a hard surface, standing up on it’s edge. They would tap the edge, rotate the coin, tap the edge, rotate the coin. Then they would drill a hole through the center.”

Context:
Informant – “I heard this from a navy friend of mine. He said they would tap the quarters with spoons, but I’m skeptical. I’ve made rings like these before, but I’ve always used hammers. But my friend swore they used spoons. I guess it makes sense. When you finish your chores on a ship, you have a lot a free time and nothing to do. My friend said they used to wear through spoons making these rings.”

Analysis:
Having made a ring like this myself (using a hammer), I can say that it is a very contemplative experience. There is a comfortable zen to the robotic monotony. It’s an easy task to perform on auto-pilot. You can zone out – a wonderful cure for boredom. Also, my informant’s friend was in the Navy in the 60s. There were still silver quarters in circulation then, so any ring a sailor made would be far more valuable than the quarter itself.

Customs
general
Initiations
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Shellback Initiation – A Navy Tradition

Item:

T: So that’s a- that’s where you crossing- you ride the ship til you’re crossing the equator.

Q: Uh-huh.

T:  So once you cross the equator you see King Neptune, you have to do the ceremony to become a shellback.  Once you become a shellback, next time, when you cross the equator with the new sailors, you’re gonna make them do things, so they have to go through the initiation, like, similar to that to become a shellback.  Like you have to wash the deck.  What we did is we.. what I did was we.. crawl through the ship, crawl through got sprayed water on, got jumped dunked in the water, all the stuff to become a shellback.  When you become a shellback, you better not lose your certificate or else you cannot prove it.

Q: There’s a certificate for it?

T: Yup.

T: If you cross the equator at the International Dateline, then you become a golden shell back.

Q: Is there like a worse initiation for that?

T: No, it’s the same, it’s just that you’re crossing the International Dateline instead of other place.

Q: What does the certificate look like?

T: Big.  You carry the ID card too.  I don’t know where I put my ID card.  If I go back to the ship, I have to do it again. [Laughs]

T: Back when- when it was 2013 on my deployment, I was a shellback so I was getting other people to go through it to become a shellback.  Make them dress funny, make them do things, spray water on them.  Dump into a blue- green water.  Yenno the neon sticks, the glow stick?  You break that stick into a water tank and make that water turn green.

 

Context:

I collected this piece in a conversation with a retired Senior Chief Petty Officer of the U.S. Navy about his experiences during active duty.  He recalled the shellback initiation above as a humorous tradition amongst those who are stationed on a ship that crosses the equator.  The informant mentioned how those who were too humiliated to participate would not watch the initiation; they would sit in their rooms and watch TV instead.  The informant has clearly participated in the initiation before, as both an initiate and as a shellback initiating others, and clearly holds respect for this Navy tradition since he joked about how he would have to do it again since he misplaced his ID card.

 

Analysis:

Initiation rites and traditions in groups, including but definitely not limited to the military, serve to introduce individuals to a group or legitimize their membership in it.  While conducted, they can establish comradery.  For the shellback initiation, those crossing the equator for the first time may not always be new sailors.  Vice versa, the shellbacks may not always be the higher-ranking officers.  As such, it puts initiates and shellbacks on more equal standing, either in rank or authority, in the space of this tradition regardless of official rank designations.  For the prior shellbacks, they would all have a right to participate in the initiation process by spraying water or making funny requests of the initiates.  For the initiates, once they have completed the process, they would have another facet of their ship experience that they share with each other and with those who came before them.  On the other hand, initiation traditions can also alienate individuals, but in the case of those who chose not to participate as told by the informant, it can be a personal choice.  An interesting part of the shellback initiation tradition, though, is the presence of ID cards and certificates to commemorate the event.  In most initiation rites, the process itself is the sp;e legitimizing factor in becoming a particular new identity.  In this case, there is also physical documentation.  I believe this may be because of the nature of military service.  The group an individual crossed the equator for the first time with may not necessarily be the group that they cross with the next time.  As such, there needed to be another form of documentation to be able to prove one’s shellback title.  Overall, the shellback initiation tradition in the U.S. Navy is a humorous and entertaining example of how initiation rites and traditions provide the means of earning a new identity.

 

Annotation:

For examples of the shellback initiation tradition, please see pages 74-76 of Naval Ceremonies, Customs, and Traditions written by retired U.S. Navy Commander Royal W. Connell and retired U.S. Navy Vice Admiral William P. Mack.

Connell, Royal W., and William P. Mack. Naval Ceremonies, Customs, and Traditions. 6th ed., Naval Institute Press, 2004.

Folk Beliefs
Folk speech
Proverbs
Signs

Red Sky at Night, Sailors Delight; Red Sky at Dawn, Sailors Take Warning

Content:
Informant – “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky at dawn, sailor’s take warning.”

Context:
Informant: “This is an old sailor’s saying. Sailors are deeply superstitious people. I’m not sure where I heard it from, it’s just always been around. I’m not sure where it comes from. Maybe it’s because the jet streams blow west to east? The general idea though is that if the sky is red in the morning, that means a storm is coming your way. If it’s red at night, then the next day will be clear.”

Analysis:
There is actually truth to this saying. A red sky at night means that the sun is being refracted through a lot of dust and moisture as it sets. This indicates that a high pressure system is passing, moving west. Good weather will follow. A red sky in the morning however, means that the pressure system is arriving, moving east. This indicates bad weather.

general
Humor
Initiations

The Mail Buoy – A Practical Joke on New Sailors in the Navy

Item:

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?

T: Yep.

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.

 

Context:

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.

 

Analysis:

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.

Folk Beliefs
Signs

Seagulls are Dead Sailors

The informant for this piece is my aunt, who worked for the Cherokee Government for several years and is still heavily involved in the organization. She grew up in Tulsa, OK, but has also lived extensively in Tahlequah, OK.

In this piece, my Aunt talks about how seagulls are dead sailors watching over you.

AJ: Did your mom ever tell you about seagulls?

Me: That’s a crazy way to start a sentence.

AJ: [laughs] I guess that’s true. Well, when I was thinking about folklore I remembered this thing I think your grandpa told me. It was after his brother Dean died, shortly before you were born. We were both really sad, and he had just come back from taking his ashes to California, and we saw a seagull. Now, we don’t see many seagulls in Tulsa, do we?

Me: Nope.

AJ: So I pointed it out to daddy and he told me something he learned in the Navy. He said that when a sailor dies, they come back to life as a seagull.

Me: Oh yeah, mom told me that after he died.

AJ: Yeah. I don’t think your grandfather necessarily believed in reincarnation, but I think he thought in some way maybe he could come back as a seagull.

Me: Is that why you like the idea?

AJ: Yeah, I think so. It’s a comforting thought, right? That he’s watching over us, even if it means he’s a bird. [laughs] Every time I see a seagull I think of him. You probably see them a lot in California.

Me: Yeah, especially after the tailgating.

AJ: [laughs] Well, next time you see one, it might just be your grandpa.

Much like a lot of the folklore I collected from both my mother and my Aunt, this piece relates to those we have lost coming back and being around us. I think my aunt finds comfort in the fact that my grandfather is watching her and is guiding her in life. It’s interesting, because if you asked my aunt if she believed in reincarnation, she would say no. Yet, this folk belief is can be considered reincarnation in a certain way. It’s always interesting trying to figure out where the line is in people’s folk beliefs and their religious beliefs, as some seem to contradict the other, yet it’s totally fine that they do.

general

The Heart

심청이 (Shim Chung-yi) – Heart-yi

The Story:

심청이는 여자의 이름이였다. 심청이의 아버지는 눈이 멀었다 – 안 보이셔. 그리고 가난했다. 어느날 심청이가 자기의 몸을 중국 선원들한테 팔았지. 옛날에는 선원들이 이직 시집을 못 간 여자의 몸을 바다에 빠트리면 가는길이 안전하게 된다는걸 믿었었지. 그래서 심청이는 집을 떠났고 받은 쌀은 아버지가 먹을수있게 저장에다가 넣었지. 중국 선원들이 가다가 심청이를 바다에 던졌어. 물에 빠지면서 거북이가 심청이를 받아서 용공으로 데려갔어. 용공에서 임금님이 심청이에게 물었지 “너 는 어떻게 여기까지 온거냐?” 심청이는 그래서 자기가 어떻게 온걸 설명해주었다. 임금님은 심청이의 예쁜 마음 보아서 다시 자기의 집으로 데려주었고 심청이에게 말 했다 “돌아가면 너의 아버지 눈이 보이것이다. 심청이는 돌아가서 아버지랑 행복하고 풍부하게 살았다. 

Shim Chung is the name of a girl. She lives with her father and he is blind. They are a poor family. One day, Shim Chung sold herself to a group of Chinese people for money. Back then, sailors believed that when a girl who is not yet married is thrown into the water, their voyage will be safe. Shim Chung received rice in payment and stored it in the storage for her father to eat. After she left, her father called out for her but there was no reply. Shim Chung was thrown into the sea and a turtle caught her as she fell, and brought her an underwater kingdom (dragon home). The king asks her how she ended up there and she explained her journey. He tells her she has a kind heart and when she returns her father’s eyes will open. She is returned home and calls out to her father, and he is able to open his eyes. They became rich and happy.

 The Analysis:

The ultimate moral of the story is that a kind daughter will bring wealth and happiness to a family. Shim Chung is the name of the girl in the story but it is also a play on words, which means heart. She has a kind and beautiful heart, selfless and caring only for others and not herself. Her beauty is not skin deep and resonates throughout her personality. The king of the underwater kingdom takes notice of this and sends her back to land. Kindness and goodness will never lead one astray, so everyone should live their live for others, not for themselves. 

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Homeopathic
Magic

Theater Occupational Superstition: Don’t Whistle in the Theater!

Interview Extraction:

Informant: “Ok, so you want to hear the story about why you don’t whistle in the theatre? One reason is that supposedly the first riggers* in the theatre were sailors. And sailors received their orders via whistles, which supposedly carried better than voices in the wind. And so you didn’t want to be backstage randomly whistling ‘Two Gentlemen from Veronia’ and have the scenery come crashing down on your head because you were whistling the cue* for the sailors who were doing the rigging.

The other supposed origin of that superstition is, in the days of gas lit theatre there were a couple of stage hands who’s job it was to wander around and relight any gas jets that had gone out because other whys you would get sort of a large pocket of unburned gas that would eventually get to another gas jet and you would have a big fireball and the theatre would blow up and… that was bad. So they were listening for a particular whistling sound that supposedly this gas jet that wasn’t lit would make and you didn’t want to distract them from their fairly important work.”

Analysis:

This superstition was not one that I was aware of prior to my informant mentioning this belief in one of his class lectures.  The belief is that it is bad luck to whistle in the theater, and doing so will doom the production you are working on.  There are no known ways to cut the curse.  The superstition of whistling in the theater is similar to the superstition that walking under a ladder is bad luck.  Both superstitions serve as a way to teach safety, because if someone were to break those beliefs they would get hurt.  Something could fall off a ladder and hit them on the head or a piece of scenery could fall on top of them.  You are more likely to get told to stop whistling in the theater because you are distracting the production crew than you are to be told to stop whistling because it is bad luck.  Working in theater can be very dangerous if you are not aware of your surroundings because crew members are constantly moving heavy equipment.  Distracting people from their job not only serves as a danger to yourself, but to others as well.  In that sense, whistling in the theater becomes homeopathic magic because it really will bring your production bad luck due to the destruction and distraction it can cause.

However it is unclear which one of the two stories is the true origin of the superstition.  There is a possibility that the true origin of the whistling superstition came from the first story my informant mentioned, because that theory is more well known to people in the theater than the gas-jet theory.

My informant was born in 1961, Connecticut.  He has more than 30 years of experience in theater and has worked on over hundreds of productions.  He continues to work on theater productions today, and serves as the associate professor of theater practice and technical direction at the University of Southern California. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.

*Riggers: is term that describes someone in charge of moving or lifting heavy objects using a pulley system.  The term comes from sailing speech, in which a rigger is someone who uses ropes to hoist the sails on a ship.  This is exactly what a rigger in theater does, but instead of hoisting sails they are hoisting scenic pieces.

*Cue: is a term used in theater that means a signal to do something.  A signal or cue indicates that it is time to move a part of the set or play a certain song for the production.

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