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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Life in a Man-of‑War

a Fore‑top-man

published by
Houghton Mifflin Company
Boston and New York

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Joining my Ship
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p1  The Old Guardo

"Well, then — my course is chosen — spread the sail."

I did not remain long on board the Columbus, and indeed I was not sorry for it, for the drudgery of a navy-yard, during the inclemency of the winter season, is anything but agreeable; but let it not be inferred that the Columbus is any worse than the generality of receiving ships; on the contrary, to do her justice and give praise where it is due, I must say she is, without exception, the best and most comfortable ship of them all. She is large and commodious, and on the lower deck, during the cold weather, you can perceive at all hours a couple of red‑hot stoves, from around which none are excluded, imparting their warmth throughout the whole ship. The sick‑bay is also similarly supplied; and with regard to the rations, instead of miserably-cooked beef, and its equally ill‑cooked accompaniment, fresh soup, you here perceive the mess-tables spread with delicious beans, tempting plumb duff, butter, cheese, and all the other little luxuries you obtain on board a sea‑going ship, and last, not least in a sailor's estimation, you get your three tots of whiskey pure, not as in other guardos, adulterated with water to such an extent that it becomes insipid to the taste, and causes many a poor fellow labouring under delirium tremens, who swallows this wishy-washy potation, to have recourse to the doctor, when his regular allowance of whiskey, taken three times a day in its original state, would soon rank him amongst the working men. 'Tis true she is not so scrupulously exact as to snow-white decks and glittering bright-work as the Hudson, nor is she so much in the back ground with regard to either as the Java, but holds a medium station between both; and I would advise all those who are inclined to join the naval service,  p2 to ship to Boston, and they will then have an opportunity of judging whether my assertions are well founded or not.

On the fifteenth of January, one hundred and seventy-five of us were drafted on to Norfolk, and on the same evening went on board the Barque Dromo; when, after giving the Old Columbus three hearty cheers, we spread our canvass to a stiff and favouring breeze, and bid adieu to Boston. We experienced uncommonly rough weather on the passage round, and the captain of the barque found that his freight of live lumber was any thing but dis‑agreeable when the wind began to freshen; she was poorly manned by her own crew, and if not for our half crazy harum-scarum States'-men, would have been in an ugly predicament when the gale sprung up. I believe it was the second evening after our departure that the wind began to increase, and in a short time approximated to a regular gale. We had a couple of old boatswain's mates in the draft, who of course were not without their calls in their pockets, and whether they had orders or not I cannot tell, but in the height of the confusion occasioned by the dreadful appearance of the weather, when the captain and mates hardly knew which order to give first, those two old "sea dogs" blew their shrill pipes, and in a voice as sonorous and commanding as if bellowed forth on the gun‑deck of a United States frigate, called, "all hands shorten sail." The announcement was electric; every one now tumbled up from below, some ascended to the foretop, some to the mainmast, some on the jib‑booms, fore and main yards, &c., and in as short a time as can possibly be imagined, the old Dromo was lagging lazily along under snug sail.

The captain of the barque gave them great praise for their expedition and alacrity, and our commanding officer, Lieutenant J–––––, (who, by the way, is an officer without arrogant pomposity; a gentleman without puerile ostentation; and a sailor in every sense of the word,) he ordered the main-brace to be spliced, and knowing the deficiency of the barque's crew, divided about thirty men belonging to the draft into three watches, who did their duty fearlessly and sailor-like the remainder of the passage, without a murmur of disapprobation on either side. I cannot omit mentioning a little incident  p3 that occurred when about four days out; it is too good to be lost, and shows a sailor's characteristic for enjoying a lark upon any occasion whatever, in glowing colours. — The Dromo had a long tapering main-skysail-pole aloft when we started, which, in the winter season, might certainly be dispensed with on the coast of America; but I suppose the captain, like a great many other little-minded, feather-brained personages in the same capacity, who, as long as they can cut a flash (as they term it) in port, do not take into consideration the risk a poor tar runs shinning aloft in a gale of wind to strike those superfluous and nonsensical appendages; he no doubt was anxious to make his old craft appear as a lofty liner whilst lying at the wharf: — Lieutenant J––––– told him he had better send it down more than once, but he postponed doing so for several days, until the buckling of the article in question, and the apparent increase of the wind urged him to it: He perceived one of our draft lounging about the deck, pretty well stimulated, I assure you, and perhaps thinking he would pull him, (to use a sea phase,) he ordered him in quite an authoritative tone, which was any thing but pleasing to our States'-man, to "jump aloft and send that skysail-pole down." — "How will you have it sent down sir?" asked Jack, with a knowing leer of his eye and a suppressed chuckle; "why in the quickest manner possible," replied the captain, "you men-of‑war's‑men have the repute of being so damn'd smart at those sort of things, let me see what you can do towards it, though if I were to give you my candid opinion, I think you look more like a fellow that could work "Tom Cox's Traverse," than any thing else; but go ahead, I'll give you a glass of grog when it is down." This last observation, viz. the glass of grog, was incentive enough to urge one who loved the stimulating beverage as well as Jack did, to move with alacrity towards the completion of the duty that was to gain him this desideratum amongst sailors: the ship rolled heavily, but Jack scampered aloft with all the agility peculiar to an adept in his profession. The captain was watching him with an eager and impatient eye, and remarked to his mate, who was standing at his elbow, that "he thought that the man-of‑war's‑man knew but little about sending a spar on deck, for  p4 he hadn't taken the end of any thing aloft to send it down by; but never mind," continued he, "we'll have a good laugh at the fellow when he comes below, for his damn'd pretentions." "Stand from under," now sonorously resounded from the man aloft; all eyes were turned upward in astonishment, and as the barque gave a heavy roll to leeward a plunge was heard in the water, and another moment the skysail-pole was floating far astern.

The captain was outrageous when he perceived his darling spar fast disappearing from his anxious gaze, and as soon as Jack arrived on deck, (which he did immediately after this mischievous frolic,) he levelled at him a volley of imprecations, vowing dire vengeance for this unprincipled outrage. — "Why did you not tell me," continued the captain, almost choked with rage, "that you did not know how in the first place, and I would not have sent you at all; but believe me, my fine fellow, you shall pay for it if there's any law to be had in Norfolk; what induced you to make such a damn'd faux pauxº I can't imagine." — "Why sir," responded Jack, with the greatest effrontery imaginable, which did not at all decrease when he perceived Lieutenant J––––– standing by, "you told me to send it down the quickest manner possible, and I'm sure it could not be done slicker, nor in less time, on board the smartest craft that flies a pennant." This remark caused a giggle throughout the crowd that had now assembled to hear the result of this ludicrous affair; but it made the captain, if possible, more outrageous than before, and turning round to Lieutenant J–––––, made a full complaint of Jack's misconduct, of course multiplying it four-fold; but the only satisfaction he received was an admonition from this excellent officer "to send, on future occasions, his own men when he required any duty done aloft, and perhaps it would be completed more to his satisfaction"; so our hero got off "scot free" for his mischievous though ludicrous prank.

In eight days we arrived at Norfolk, experiencing on the whole, a very rough passage, and dropped anchor alongside the Guardo. We furled sails on board the barque, man-of‑war fashion, and acquitted ourselves to the satisfaction of the "old salts" who from the Java's  p5 forecastle were viewing us with keen and criticising glances. The receiving ship's launch now came alongside and took our bags and hammocks, and after splicing the main-brace and giving Lieutenant J––––– three fervent and heartwarm cheers, we vacated the old Dromo and were ushered in due form on board the Java. The first person I perceived when I gained the gangway, was my old friend and shipmate, Bill Garnet, who greeted me in true sailor style, and eagerly enquired if there were many of the State's in the draft. I told him there were plenty; "but Bill," continued I, "how is this, I thought you were never coming in the service again; I expected you would be located down east long before this time." — "Why," replied my talkative friend, "you see I was determined to go down home, but I thought of course I'd have a little bit of a spree in Boston with some of my topmates before I started; well, about fifty or sixty of us went to the theatre to see that little girl dance, and a precious shindy we had of it I assure you; there was regular knocking down and dragging out amongst the constables and sailors, and to the fray I got two or three ugly pokes myself, being pretty well corned; how it finished I can't tell, but I waked up about daylight next morning and found myself in one of the damndest rattle-traps of a cellar in all Ann Street, and flanked on every side by ten or twelve more, who lay on the floor pin fashion, heads and points. As soon as I collected my scattered senses a little, I felt my pockets, (for I was fool enough to take all my money with me the night before,) and you must think I was struck aback when I could find only two dollars and a half: I roused up the owner of this rookery and made enquiry respecting my cash, but he could tell me nothing about it; well, here was my ramble home knocked in the head, for I wouldn't face there after so long an absence, without some rhino in my pocket; well, I roused up all the sleepers, sent out for a couple of bottles of steam, and swallowed two or three glasses to drown sorrow; I had no boarding-house, so I was determined not to take any, for I knew how my advance would fare if I chanced to ship; so, to cut the yarn short, I strolled down towards the wharves and found a little schooner bound to Norfolk, that was in want of a hand; I flew to the store where I had left my bag and hammock, brought it on board  p6 the schooner, touched half a month's advance, and in six days from that, landed in this place." — "But how came you to join Uncle Sam again?" I enquired, "you who were so inveterate against a man-of‑war." — "Why, to tell you the truth," replied Garnet, "I found I could not do better, situated as I was; so I shipped, but I took good care the crimps got nothing out of me, for I went on my hook and took no advance; so by being saving these three years, I'll have a nice little sum to go home with after all." The draft was now ordered to lay aft to muster, and by this means I got clear of my friend Bill's loquacity. As our lads passed in review before the scrutinizing and quick-detecting eyes of the first lieutenant of the Java, you could perceive by the contortions of his unprepossessing visage, that we were any thing but welcome; and although Lieutenant J––––– came on aboard himself, and represented us to him in the most favourable light, yet, for no other reason but to gratify his malicious and overbearing disposition, he would not allow us our regular grog that evening; and because, forsooth! one or two of the draft respect­fully presented themselves in his august presence to know the reason of this veto, he confined them in double irons, and the next day gave them a tight dozen for daring even to request that which by law they were entitled to: not satisfied with this, he ordered the marines to be drawn up under arms, with directions to permit none of the "piratical Boston draft" (as he was pleased to term us) to approach, on any consideration, the sanctum of the quarter deck. It was a scene ludicrous in the extreme, to see this warlike martinet bustling about from deck to deck, big with the importance of the occasion, giving his orders respecting the safety of the ship, as if an enemy were about to board us; and all because a few poor sailors, after encountering a rough and tempestuous passage, perhaps too, a little elated from the effects of their last extra glass of whiskey, were somewhat anxious to freshen the nip; but enough of this. I had seen sufficient of the ship to disgust me, and when I drew a comparison between the quiet, orderly, and comfortable deportment of things on board the Columbus, and the disgraceful, though laughable stone I had just seen enacted, I wasn't the only one that wished myself clear of this "Old Guardo."

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Page updated: 5 Oct 21