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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces part 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.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 1
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p. xxi  Introduction

"The face that would smile when my purse was well lined,

Showed a different aspect to me;

And when I could nought but indifference find,

I hied once again to the sea."

There is an old saying amongst Yankee sailors, that when a person makes one cruise under the "stars and stripes," he does not appear satisfied — a certain something urges him to try his luck a second time; this happens almost nine cases out of ten, and although some, soured and chafing with the injuries they consider to have received on board the ship that first fluttered the coach-whip over their heads, may make one, or perhaps two merchant voyages after being discharged; yet should they chance to fall in with any of their old topmates or chummies, decked out in lined frock and all the other et ceteras of a man-of‑war's‑man's rig — last cruise becomes the topic of conversation, and after a few social glasses swallowed between them, all antipathy towards the service melts like snow before the midday sun, — promises are made — the Rendezvous is soon in sight — and in a week from that, our worthy tar installed on board the Receiving-ship, damns the hard work in every craft that carries a windlass. Such was the case with me; for when it was paid off from the "Old States" in Boston, I had little thought of again "seeking my fortune on the angry wave;" but the Fates decreed otherwise. I sported the small amount of my cheque with as lavish a hand, as if I'd never see the end of it; and whilst going my round of pleasure with some gay companions who like myself always looked on the fair side of everything, I was one morning thrown quite aback, when my landlord informed me that my money was all gone! — showing me at the same time a small bill of twenty or twenty-five dollars, which he said I was indebted to him: I did not dare dispute it; and you must needs think this news was a damper to me, particularly when "mine host" asked me in a no very agreeable tone what I calculated to do. "Why ship in the service to be  p. xxii sure," responded an old hanger‑on in the establishment; one of those fellows that may be met with in almost every sailor boarding-house; a kind of locum tenens of all work, who whilst your money lasts is ready to run of your errands, and is willing to accompany you at any time to procure whatever articles you may wish to purchase, with a strict injunction from the landlord "to be sure and not pay too much for them;" and who whilst prosecuting his commission takes care that his throat, and your own, do not grow parched for want of moistening with liquor at the expense of your pocket; — but when you are outward-bound he is an altered man — he coincides with "mine host" in all his exactions, prompting him if necessary when enumerating the articles in your bill. "Why ship in the service, what else would he do?" continued this shabby sycophant; "he's been there before and knows what it is better than I can tell him; besides there are plenty of his shipmates on board the Columbus already, for I saw no less than seven go over to the navy-yard yesterday; another thing, look at the three months' advance, I guess you can't touch anything like that in a merchantman; you'll be able with that to pay your bill nicely, and having something to spare for a spree before you go on board." The landlord here chimed in and informed me that my friend was perfectly right, the wages being very low at present; "and remember," he continued emphatically, "I don't want to hurry any man out of my house — God forbid — but I assure you, if I were in your place, I'd try Uncle Sam." These gentle hints touched me so closely that I thought it was in vain to parley; so finding it was either "neck or nothing," I eagerly swallowed a glass of stimulus — flew to the Rendezvous — and in less than half an hour returned, the United States' servant to command for three years.

"Now then," said I to my landlord upon my return to the boarding-house, "I suppose you are satisfied, let us regulate affairs a little, and let me see how much I'll have to spare out of my advance." "Satisfied," replied he; "I was that before you shipped, I hope you don't imagine I forced you to it? no, no — you would try the service again, and of course I could not prevent you; talking of your advance,  p. xxiii you won't require to lay much out to fit yourself, for no doubt but you have got clothes enough from last cruise." I soon overhauled my wardrobe, and found according to his prediction, that I had a sufficiency of every article requisite for my introduction on board the Guardo, and the next day, feeling almost tired of lounging about with light pockets, I placed my bag and hammock on a cart, bid good‑bye to all my cronies of the boarding-house, took another dose or two of blue-ruin to put bashfulness to flight, and with a light heart, a lighter head, and a mind perfectly satisfied, I footed it to the navy-yard, and in a few minutes was ushered on board the Columbus.

As soon as I gained the gun‑deck I perceived plenty of my old shipmates on board, who eagerly crowded around me, giving me a frank and hearty welcome, and each one (sailor like) endeavouring to pay me more attention than another. One took my bag to the bag‑room, another slung a clean hammock and stowed it in the netting, a third took me on the berth-deck and introduced me to my new messmates; in fact, though I was looked upon when on shore somewhat slightingly as my pockets became light, I now found amongst those warm-hearted tars the most disinterested friendship, and their kind reception was so flattering to my feelings, I was now doubly pleased at the step I had taken.

I had scarcely been forty-eight hours on board before I found myself quite at home; and completely recovered from the effects of my late debauches on shore, I contrasted my situation now with the time I was so unceremoniously shoved on board the "Hudson," prior to my cruise in the frigate United States, and what an apparent difference! — then I might be compared to some wanderer in a foreign land, ignorant alike of the language or manners of the inhabitants, bashful of obtruding my notice upon any one, fearing a rebuke, and becoming inadvertently the butt of every shallow-pated, self-sufficient ignoramus, who chose to level his insult at me; — now the case was materially altered; the turmoil and confusion of a man-of‑war at the present time was to me a scene I was acquainted with, and which had long lost its novelty, for three years in the active  p. xxiv service of a sea‑going ship does wonders towards rubbing the rust off of the veriest green-horn that ever drove a clam-cart; and as I daily beheld the entrance of young saplings, aspirants for naval enterprise, I felt pity for their inexperience and loneliness, and bearing in mind how I was myself situated on a former similar occasion, I cultivated the acquaintance of each, putting them on their guard against deception of every sort, and rendering them those little favours which I myself, at the time above adverted to, stood so much in need of.

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Page updated: 13 Sep 21