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Chapter 22

WASH-DAY AND HOUSE-CLEANING IN A MAN-OF-WAR.


Besides the other tribulations connected with your hammock, you
must keep it snow-white and clean; who has not observed the long
rows of spotless hammocks exposed in a frigate's nettings, where,
through the day, their outsides, at least, are kept airing?

Hence it comes that there are regular mornings appointed for the
scrubbing of hammocks; and such mornings are called _scrub-
hammock-mornings;_ and desperate is the scrubbing that ensues.

Before daylight the operation begins. All hands are called, and
at it they go. Every deck is spread with hammocks, fore and aft;
and lucky are you if you can get sufficient superfices to spread
your own hammock in. Down on their knees are five hundred men,
scrubbing away with brushes and brooms; jostling, and crowding,
and quarrelling about using each other's suds; when all their
Purser's soap goes to create one indiscriminate yeast.

Sometimes you discover that, in the dark, you have been all the
while scrubbing your next neighbour's hammock instead of your own.
But it is too late to begin over again; for now the word is passed
for every man to advance with his hammock, that it may he tied to
a net-like frame-work of clothes-lines, and hoisted aloft to dry.

That done, without delay you get together your frocks and trowsers,
and on the already flooded deck embark in the laundry business.
You have no special bucket or basin to yourself--the ship being one
vast wash-tub, where all hands wash and rinse out, and rinse out and
wash, till at last the word is passed again, to make fast your clothes,
that they, also, may be elevated to dry.

Then on all three decks the operation of holy-stoning begins, so
called from the queer name bestowed upon the principal instruments
employed. These are ponderous flat stones with long ropes at each end,
by which the stones are slidden about, to and fro, over the wet and
sanded decks; a most wearisome, dog-like, galley-slave employment.
For the byways and corners about the masts and guns, smaller stones
are used, called _prayer-books;_ inasmuch as the devout operator has
to down with them on his knees.

Finally, a grand flooding takes place, and the decks are remorselessly
thrashed with dry swabs. After which an extraordinary implement--a sort
of leathern hoe called a"_squilgee_"--is used to scrape and squeeze the
last dribblings of water from the planks. Concerning this "squilgee," I
think something of drawing up a memoir, and reading it before the
Academy of Arts and Sciences. It is a most curious affair.

By the time all these operations are concluded it is _eight bell's_,
and all hands are piped to breakfast upon the damp and every-way
disagreeable decks.

Now, against this invariable daily flooding of the three decks of a
frigate, as a man-of-war's-man, White-Jacket most earnestly protests.
In sunless weather it keeps the sailors' quarters perpetually damp;
so much so, that you can scarce sit down without running the risk of
getting the lumbago. One rheumatic old sheet-anchor-man among us was
driven to the extremity of sewing a piece of tarred canvas on the seat
of his trowsers.

Let those neat and tidy officers who so love to see a ship kept spick
and span clean; who institute vigorous search after the man who chances
to drop the crumb of a biscuit on deck, when the ship is rolling in a
sea-way; let all such swing their hammocks with the sailors; and they
would soon get sick of this daily damping of the decks.

Is a ship a wooden platter, that is to be scrubbed out every morning
before breakfast, even if the thermometer be at zero, and every sailor
goes barefooted through the flood with the chilblains? And all the
while the ship carries a doctor, well aware of Boerhaave's great maxim
"_keep the feet dry_." He has plenty of pills to give you when you are
down with a fever, the consequence of these things; but enters no
protest at the outset--as it is his duty to do--against the cause that
induces the fever.

During the pleasant night watches, the promenading officers, mounted on
their high-heeled boots, pass dry-shod, like the Israelites, over the
decks; but by daybreak the roaring tide sets back, and the poor sailors
are almost overwhelmed in it, like the Egyptians in the Red Sea.

Oh! the chills, colds, and agues that are caught. No snug stove,
grate, or fireplace to go to; no, your only way to keep warm is
to keep in a blazing passion, and anathematise the custom that
every morning makes a wash-house of a man-of-war.

Look at it. Say you go on board a line-of-battle-ship: you see
everything scrupulously neat; you see all the decks clear and
unobstructed as the sidewalks of Wall Street of a Sunday morning; you
see no trace of a sailor's dormitory; you marvel by what magic all
this is brought about. And well you may. For consider, that in this
unobstructed fabric nearly one thousand mortal men have to sleep,
eat, wash, dress, cook, and perform all the ordinary functions of
humanity. The same number of men ashore would expand themselves into a
township. Is it credible, then, that this extraordinary neatness, and
especially this _unobstructedness_ of a man-of-war, can be brought
about, except by the most rigorous edicts, and a very serious sacrifice,
with respect to the sailors, of the domestic comforts of life? To be
sure, sailors themselves do not often complain of these things; they
are used to them; but man can become used even to the hardest usage.
And it is because he is used to it, that sometimes he does not complain
of it.

Of all men-of-war, the American ships are the most excessively neat,
and have the greatest reputation for it. And of all men-of-war the
general discipline of the American ships is the most arbitrary.

In the English. navy, the men liberally mess on tables, which,
between meals, are triced up out of the way. The American sailors
mess on deck, and pick up their broken biscuit, or _midshipman's
nuts_, like fowls in a barn-yard.

But if this unobstructedness in an American fighting-ship be, at
all hazards, so desirable, why not imitate the Turks? In the
Turkish navy they have no mess-chests; the sailors roll their
mess things up in a rug, and thrust them under a gun. Nor do they
have any hammocks; they sleep anywhere about the decks in their
_gregoes_. Indeed, come to look at it, what more does a man-of-
war's-man absolutely require to live in than his own skin? That's
room enough; and room enough to turn in, if he but knew how to
shift his spine, end for end, like a ramrod, without disturbing
his next neighbour.

Among all men-of-war's-men, it is a maxim that over-neat vessels are
Tartars to the crew: and perhaps it may be safely laid down that,
when you see such a ship, some sort of tyranny is not very far off.

In the Neversink, as in other national ships, the business of
_holy-stoning_ the decks was often prolonged, by way of punishment
to the men, particularly of a raw, cold morning. This is one of the
punishments which a lieutenant of the watch may easily inflict upon
the crew, without infringing the statute which places the power of
punishment solely in the hands of the Captain.

The abhorrence which men-of-war's-men have for this protracted
_holy-stoning_ in cold, comfortless weather--with their bare feet
exposed to the splashing inundations--is shown in a strange
story, rife among them, curiously tinctured with their proverbial
superstitions.

The First Lieutenant of an English sloop of war, a severe
disciplinarian, was uncommonly particular concerning the
whiteness of the quarter-deck. One bitter winter morning at sea,
when the crew had washed that part of the vessel, as usual, and
put away their holy-stones, this officer came on deck, and after
inspecting it, ordered the _holy-stones_ and _prayer-books_ up
again. Once more slipping off the shoes from their frosted feet,
and rolling up their trowsers, the crew kneeled down to their
task; and in that suppliant posture, silently invoked a curse
upon their tyrant; praying, as he went below, that he might never
more come out of the ward-room alive. The prayer seemed answered:
for shortly after being visited with a paralytic stroke at his
breakfast-table, the First Lieutenant next morning was carried
out of the ward-room feet foremost, dead. As they dropped him
over the side--so goes the story--the marine sentry at the
gangway turned his back upon the corpse.

To the credit of the humane and sensible portion of the roll of
American navy-captains, be it added, that _they_ are not so
particular in keeping the decks spotless at all times, and in all
weathers; nor do they torment the men with scraping bright-wood
and polishing ring-bolts; but give all such gingerbread-work a
hearty coat of black paint, which looks more warlike, is a better
preservative, and exempts the sailors from a perpetual annoyance.

Herman Melville