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Chapter 7


Not only is the dinner-table a criterion of rank on board a man-
of-war, but also the dinner hour. He who dines latest is the
greatest man; and he who dines earliest is accounted the least.
In a flag-ship, the Commodore generally dines about four or five
o'clock; the Captain about three; the Lieutenants about two;
while _the people_ (by which phrase the common seamen are
specially designated in the nomenclature of the quarter-deck) sit
down to their salt beef exactly at noon.

Thus it will be seen, that while the two estates of sea-kings and
sea-lords dine at rather patrician hours--and thereby, in the
long run, impair their digestive functions--the sea-commoners,
or _the people_, keep up their constitutions, by keeping up the
good old-fashioned, Elizabethan, Franklin-warranted dinner hour
of twelve.

Twelve o'clock! It is the natural centre, key-stone, and very
heart of the day. At that hour, the sun has arrived at the top of
his hill; and as he seems to hang poised there a while, before
coming down on the other side, it is but reasonable to suppose
that he is then stopping to dine; setting an eminent example to
all mankind. The rest of the day is called _afternoon_; the very
sound of which fine old Saxon word conveys a feeling of the lee
bulwarks and a nap; a summer sea--soft breezes creeping over it;
dreamy dolphins gliding in the distance. _Afternoon!_ the word
implies, that it is an after-piece, coming after the grand drama
of the day; something to be taken leisurely and lazily. But how
can this be, if you dine at five? For, after all, though Paradise
Lost be a noble poem, and we men-of-war's men, no doubt, largely
partake in the immortality of the immortals yet, let us candidly
confess it, shipmates, that, upon the whole, our dinners are the
most momentous attains of these lives we lead beneath the moon.
What were a day without a dinner? a dinnerless day! such a day
had better be a night.

Again: twelve o'clock is the natural hour for us men-of-war's men
to dine, because at that hour the very time-pieces we have
invented arrive at their terminus; they can get no further than
twelve; when straightway they continue their old rounds again.
Doubtless, Adam and Eve dined at twelve; and the Patriarch
Abraham in the midst of his cattle; and old Job with his noon
mowers and reapers, in that grand plantation of Uz; and old Noah
himself, in the Ark, must have gone to dinner at precisely _eight
bells_ (noon), with all his floating families and farm-yards.

But though this antediluvian dinner hour is rejected by modern
Commodores and Captains, it still lingers among "_the people_"
under their command. Many sensible things banished from high life
find an asylum among the mob.

Some Commodores are very particular in seeing to it, that no man
on board the ship dare to dine after his (the Commodore's,) own
dessert is cleared away.--Not even the Captain. It is said, on
good authority, that a Captain once ventured to dine at five,
when the Commodore's hour was four. Next day, as the story goes,
that Captain received a private note, and in consequence of that
note, dined for the future at half-past three.

Though in respect of the dinner hour on board a man-of-war, _the
people_ have no reason to complain; yet they have just cause,
almost for mutiny, in the outrageous hours assigned for their
breakfast and supper.

Eight o'clock for breakfast; twelve for dinner; four for supper;
and no meals but these; no lunches and no cold snacks. Owing to
this arrangement (and partly to one watch going to their meals
before the other, at sea), all the meals of the twenty-four hours
are crowded into a space of less than eight! Sixteen mortal hours
elapse between supper and breakfast; including, to one watch,
eight hours on deck! This is barbarous; any physician will tell
you so. Think of it! Before the Commodore has dined, you have
supped. And in high latitudes, in summer-time, you have taken
your last meal for the day, and five hours, or more, daylight to

Mr. Secretary of the Navy, in the name of _the people_, you
should interpose in this matter. Many a time have I, a maintop-
man, found myself actually faint of a tempestuous morning watch,
when all my energies were demanded--owing to this miserable,
unphilosophical mode of allotting the government meals at sea. We
beg you, Mr. Secretary, not to be swayed in this matter by the
Honourable Board of Commodores, who will no doubt tell you that
eight, twelve, and four are the proper hours for _the people_ to
take their Meals; inasmuch, as at these hours the watches are
relieved. For, though this arrangement makes a neater and cleaner
thing of it for the officers, and looks very nice and superfine
on paper; yet it is plainly detrimental to health; and in time of
war is attended with still more serious consequences to the whole
nation at large. If the necessary researches were made, it would
perhaps be found that in those instances where men-of-war
adopting the above-mentioned hours for meals have encountered an
enemy at night, they have pretty generally been beaten; that is,
in those cases where the enemies' meal times were reasonable;
which is only to be accounted for by the fact that _the people_
of the beaten vessels were fighting on an empty stomach instead
of a full one.

Herman Melville