In a politically-correct world that has tempered practical jokes, initiations and rituals, I miss some of them. Twenty-five years ago, I was assigned to a guided missile cruiser, my first time putting to sea that was not a harbor ferry or pleasure cruise. Though my primary assignment was maintenance of the electronic systems in my division workspaces, I volunteered to be a bridge-to-bridge phone talker during the Underway Replenishment, or UNREPs. I knew I was going to enjoy life at sea, as I was initiated by the deck seamen who were the helmsman and lookouts. Practiced in the art of good fun, the deck seaman handed me night-vision binoculars for my first watch. It was nearly pitch black on the bridge. He almost got me. I caught the whiff of black shoe polish applied to the eyecups of the binoculars.
As for me, a new crewman on my first ship, my “salty” (experienced) maintenance supervisor sent me aloft to perform a maintenance check. While this was in port, I was to go about a hundred feet above the waterline, so I paid very close attention to the proper safety procedures. He got me outfitted in climbing gear, lanyards, helmet, bucket of tools and sent me aloft to verify operation of the aircraft warning lamp atop our receiving antenna. Once aloft, white-knuckled, I found there was actually no physical maintenance involved. But the experience cured my fear of heights forever.
Some time later, it was one young seaman being prepared for a most-important mission that was most amusing to me. His mission: Capturing the mail buoy. It was one of the harmless but amusing initiations for a young Seaman’s first time at sea. The build up was important. The crew was expecting mail, letters from home, Care packages, and so on. A plane flew ahead on the course that the ship was following, dropping the mail buoy. It had to be retrieved. In hardhat, foul weather gear, sound-powered headphones, life jacket, lifeline and a gaff, the Seaman was posted to the forecastle and was instructed to keep his eyes peeled for the buoy. Twenty or thirty minutes in the cold breeze and sea spray later, of course, one of the Boatswains Mates, lookout or bridge watch would then cuss him out (over the headphones) for missing it. Of course, both the Deck Officer, the Bridge OIC and the Chief Boats were in on the joke.
Another practical joke was played on new seaman on the Low-Visibility Detail. These are lookouts posted to the forecastle during foggy conditions in busy sea lanes. “Boats”, an experienced junior Petty Officer, requested the new seaman on the detail, to signal to the bridge to report whether the Ship’s Whistle (a truly thunderous horn) was working properly. He straight-faced told the seaman, the bridge watch could not hear it. After protecting his ears with each blast, he turned to wave up to the bridge. “It works”. The fun lasted only a few minutes. The Skipper came onto the bridge, demanded to know what that fellow was doing, and after a brief chuckle, put an end to it. He gave us all sorts of oral navigation quizzes to torture us, since we tortured that poor seaman.