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Bill Thayer

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Address to an Old Coir-Brush

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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 p36  The Sailor's Drill

"We know these things to be mere trifles."

Our "skimmer of the seas" is now with easy pace dividing the waste of waters between Vera Cruz and Havana. The weather is beauti­ful in the extreme, and we take advantage of its serenity to exercise our small-arms men in the use of the musket, together with the military evolutions of marching and counter-marching, which to an old salt is anything but agreeable. Our master-at‑arms is master of the ceremonies on these occasions, (being an ex‑military character himself, of which he is not at all vain, for the epithet of soldier which is often lavished on him, is anything but palatable,) and when he gets a batch of old weather-beaten sea‑dogs on the quarter-deck to drill, he is the more precise and particular with every movement, knowing that such is their abhorrence; but in some instances he is obliged to knock-under, for our wags take this opportunity when an officer is not within ear‑shot, of striking some similies, and making some home remarks that shave but twoº closely our pro tem drill sergeant, all of which he appears to take in good part, for he cannot well do otherwise, and

"Joins in the laugh that almost makes him sick."

"Lay in the starboard gangway all the sixth division with your muskets," bellowed forth a boatswain's-mate, on a delightful forenoon, as we were moving along almost imperceptibly through the water, so still and placid was everything around. "Well, I'm blowed if this ain't too bad, broke forth old Bowser, the forecastle man, with a countenance anything but beaming with smiles. "Here, I've just got my donnage all out to mend up a bit, and now I must go and handle that cursed musket for an hour or so." "Oh, I don't mind the shouldering arms, and prime and load, and the like of that, a cent," remarked another of the division just called. "It's all right enough, a fellow should understand these sort of things in action,  p37 you know; but that right shoulders forward, and mark time, and right about face, and all that stuff that the master-at‑arms is so fond of; what's the use of it, I'd like to find out; I'm stationed in the top at quarters, and that's not exactly the place to wheel about, and dress back, and march two paces forward, and such like; no, no, I reckon load and fire is as much as a fellow would have time to attend to in a bit of a brush; but there's no use talking about it, I must off and get my musket;" so saying, he stowed a handsome bag laniard he was working some fancy knots on, securely away in his ditty‑bag, with an injunction on one of his topmates to have an eye to it till his return, and dove below to the fore-passage, where a crowd was already assembled, receiving their instruments of warfare from the hands of the person who had charge of them.

A long line of this awkward squad was now drawn up the whole length of the starboard gangway, and amongst them many of our ship's growls, old customers who had spent their life-times on board a man-of‑war, and who of course consider the privilege is allowed them of venting their peevish spleen on all around, and which they put in force on every occasion, however trifling: — You could perceive by the angry contortions of their grum countenances, that they did not at all stomach the military tactics they were about to be drilled into: the master-at‑arms knew this full well, and his eye twinkled with delight to think that he had it now in his power to tantalize our tars after his own fashion. "Attention," peremptorily cried out the drill-sergeant: they looked at him 'tis true, but the greater part of them were paying more attention to their white frocks, to endeavour to keep them from coming in contact with the well-oiled barrel of the musket, and thereby leave a stain behind, than they were to the all‑important personage that was strutting in front of them with all the grimace of one of the monkey species. — "Shoulder arms; Flukes you've got your musket on the wrong shoulder," addressing himself to a maintop wag; "do you hear me?" — "I'll bet you a dollar I've got it on the right shoulder," responded the wag. — "But don't you know the right shoulder is the wrong one?" cried Pat Bradley, our Hibernian being one of the squad now  p38 drawn up for review. These little attempts at wit caused a giggle throughout the rank, and the master-at‑arms again went on with the exercise. "Load by twelve words of command: load; handle cartridge: what are you about Dobbs, why don't you go ahead the same as the rest?" — "I was waiting for the twelve words of command: you've only given two of them yet," remarked this soft-headed tar. — "Now remember," cried Drill, after they had come to a shoulder, "remember, at the word aim you bring the left heel in the hollow of the right foot, and keep the piece firm against your shoulder; now then, — ready, aim; — why Flukes you're not in the right posture; what did I remark just now?" — "Why damme, ain't my starboard heel chock in the bight of my larboard foot, and what more do you want; but if 'twill suit you better, here's 'bout ship and stand on the other tack;" so saying, he shifted his position accordingly, with a knowing leer at the master-at‑arms. — "At the word load, remember to bring the piece level with the eye." — I say, Swipes, if that's the case," remarked Bradley, addressing himself to an almost broken-down piece of live lumber, whose peepers were somewhat obliquely set in his head, "you'll have to keep your piece perpendicular, for I'm sure you'll never be able to bring it level with that weather eye of yours in God's creation, otherwise." This little sally caused another titter, and induced Drill to try them on a different scale. — "Come now, form two deep, and when I give the word march, step out together; Dobbs, you cover that man behind you." — "Why I reckon he's got covering enough this warm day; he's got two pea‑jackets over him," responded this soft simpleton, pointing to a fellow in his rear, who was stretched out under the boat, snoozing it away in great style, and whom he thought the master-at‑arms alluded to; another laugh was the result of this funny misconstruction. "The meaning of covering is, that you are to keep exactly in front of the man in the rear rank; do you understand?" continued the drill-sergeant, addressing Dobbs; "now then, right face, — march."

He had them situated now just as he wished it and with a grin of triumph kept them pacing round and round the main and mizenmasts,  p39 to the no little chagrin and mortification of some of our old stagers. — "Bowser, why don't you keep your head erect? you'll never make a soldier." — "Nor do I want to; but I'm almost as good a soldier now as you are a sailor, and that's not much to brag on," answered the sheet-anchor‑man drily; "damme, do you think I was brought up with a dog‑collar around my neck, as you were?" — If you want to make old Bowser stand straight," chimed in Flukes, "you'll have to fish him a couple of squilgee-handles; dont you see he's got Saint Lorenzo on his back. "Mark time," now sung out this man of tactics; "Bradley why dont you mark time?" — "Faith, master-at‑arms," cried our Hibernian, "I am marking it off, damn'd sharp too, and mighty slow it appears to fly, for 'taint seven bells yet." — "Dont you see," continued Drill, a little put out, "what I mean? keep your proper step, without advancing till I give you the order, forward." — "Oh, now I understand you," responded Bradley, "this step puts me in mind of beating up Chesapeake Bay, with both wind and tide in your teeth, you make just about as much headway." "Halt; front, — now go through the loading again; load; handle cartridge; tear cartridge; where's your cartridge, Flukes?" — "Damme if I know," cries the maintop‑wag, "I suppose it's in the magazine among the rest, where would you have it?" — "I mean what do you do with your fingers," testily remarked the master-at‑arms, endeavouring to illustrate the last motion. — "What do I do with them? why I help myself to a tot at the grog‑tub three times a day with them for one thing; I assure you I can't do very well without them," answered our wag. — "I don't want any of your witticisms, Mr. Flukes, attend to your exercise."

Thus did he keep them marching and wheeling, counter-marching and pacing, sorely against their will, every movement calling forth some happy remark from one or other of them, until the bell struck seven: the officers of the watch then dismissed them, to give the "knights of the broom" a chance to clear up the decks for dinner; and this is a faint outline of a sailor's drill.

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Page updated: 19 Aug 21