During a class at church the other night, one thing asked of us as a way of introducing everyone was whether we had ever crossed the equator. Several had. I haven’t, but I could have.
In the early 1970s, while serving at a naval base 9 degrees north of the equator, I was offered the chance to tag along and report on a class of Sea Scouts on a Navy ship to South America.
The only barrier blocking my voyage was that imaginary line that runs around the planet’s belly.
You see, when sailors cross the equator the first time, they undergo a hazing much like the one college students endure when joining a fraternity. It’s messy and humiliating. The benefit is that it boosts the esprit de corps and advances your shipboard status from “polliwog” to “shellback.”
Part of the initiation in my day was to have your hair shorn. I could have endured the other abuse; I just didn’t want my head shaved.
That is because I was a couple of months from my release to civilian life, the States and college, and I didn’t want to be the only college student in America with short hair.
Remember, this was the 1970s, and a person’s hair was a serious statement. It meant something. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young had recorded Almost Cut My Hair, an anthem to letting your “freak flag fly” instead of succumbing to societal pressures: Almost cut my hair. Happened just the other day. It’s gettin’ kind of long. I could’ve said it was in my way. But I didn’t …
I had never had long hair. First, my mother wouldn’t allow it. Then, in high school, the manager of the supermarket where I worked would not allow his $1.19-an-hour workers to look in style. In the Navy, the same rule applied.
I was determined that before I joined the civilian workforce again, I would experiment with shagginess in college. Hey, it beat some other experimenting that was going on.
Not long after I turned down the equatorial crossing, I was stealthily trying to let my hair grow. One day an officer ordered me and co-worker Crazy Waldo to get haircuts.
My pleas of “but I’m getting out soon” fell on deaf brass, and so Waldo and I went to the base barber. I got a haircut, but Waldo took it to the extreme, as he usually did:
“Shave my head!”
Back then, people didn’t shave their head unless things were crawling around up there or the local police picked them up and did it for fun. Waldo got in as much trouble for having no hair as he had for having long hair.
Nowadays, I wish I had crossed the equator, because I still haven’t been closer than 600 miles to it. Besides, after I finally let my hair grow, it wasn’t anything like The Beatles or Frank Zappa had. It was sort of serial-killer stringy.
Not long after graduation, I returned to a “normal” haircut and began flying my freak flag on the inside. The 1970s were over.