Tag Archives: Elizabeth Moseley Woods

Crossing the Line

Elizabeth Woods's Equator crossing certificate

Elizabeth Woods’s Equator crossing certificate

The custom of holding strange initiation rituals to commemorate a seaman’s first crossing of the Equator dates back several centuries.  WKU graduate Jean E. Keith, later a historian for the Corps of Engineers, wrote of his experience in October 1943 to his French teacher Marjorie Clagett.  “My head is completely innocent of hair. . . by reason of having crossed the Equator,” he reported, part of a “quaint custom among us sailors to mutilate each new one who does so.”  For two days, he and other newbies–“Pollywogs”–suffered at the hands of the “Shellbacks,” veterans of the crossing whose job it was to oversee the appropriate torments for their successors.  Highlights of the initiation included crawling through a gauntlet of fire hoses shooting salt water, bobbing for hotdogs in a bucket of mustard, and enduring a patch of tar smeared on the scalp and “rubbed in good” down to the neck.  After another dousing by fire hoses, the “Royal Court of King Neptune” officially elevated the Pollywogs to the status of Shellbacks.

Equator-crossing ceremonies are also observed among civilians.  During a cruise to South America, WKU foreign languages teacher Elizabeth Woods received a certificate from “Neptune, the Great God of all the High Seas,” declaring her “duly initiated into the mysteries of Our Realm.”  Referring to the customary mock trial before Neptune’s court, she noted that afterward the condemned “is flung unceremoniously into the swimming pool.”  One hopes the 73-year-old Miss Woods merely witnessed and did not suffer this indignity.

After crossing the Equator and the International Date Line on a single trip, Lt. Col. Belmont Forsythe obtained a unique souvenir: a “Short Snorter,” a $1 bill signed by fellow travelers including, in this case, U.S. Senator and Kentucky Governor Albert “Happy” Chandler.  The holders subsequently identified themselves to each other by producing their Short Snorters; if one was unable to do so, he owed the other either a $1 bill or a drink.

Belmont Forsythe's Short Snorter

Belmont Forsythe’s Short Snorter

Click on the links to access finding aids for these collections, part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives holdings of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  For more of our collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Elizabeth Moseley Woods, 1865-1967

Elizabeth Moseley Woods, 1865-1967

Elizabeth Moseley Woods was born in Mississippi in the last months of the Civil War.  When she was six, her family moved to Glasgow, Kentucky and, when she was sixteen, to Bowling Green.  By the time she joined the WKU faculty in 1911 to teach modern languages, Elizabeth had traveled around the world and studied in England, France and Italy.  She retired from teaching in 1937, but spent the next decade applying her passion for gardening and landscaping to beautification of the WKU campus.

To her younger sister Martha (Woods) Potter, however, Elizabeth Woods was just “Bethie,” and it is from Martha that we get an affectionate and intimate glimpse of this longtime WKU faculty member.

Bethie’s absent-mindedness caused particular mirth.  Standing with Bethie in her living room one day in 1933, Martha noticed that “her pink panties were around her feet where they had dropped down and she never had noticed them.  It would not have been so funny if it had been anybody but Bethie,” she wrote her children.  Several years later, Martha reported that “Bethie distinguished herself by parading around the streets of Bowling Green with a strap to her panties hanging down between her legs almost to the ground.”  Bethie explained that “the panties were the old fashioned kind with strap (a concession to what we used to call ‘open drawers’). . . .  I went into stitches,” laughed Martha.  “I told her I hoped that nobody took her for me.”

Bethie could be both clinical and sentimental in her opinions.  After a 1934 visit to a venerable Bowling Green senior citizen, “Bethie said never again,” reported Martha.  “She thought that old lady belonged under the ground.”  Bethie was no more enamored of humanity’s other half.  “She is a hard boiled man hater,” concluded her sister.  Nevertheless, Bethie mourned the death of WKU president Henry Hardin Cherry in 1937, saying “no one ever knew what a good friend he had been to her.”  She also liked Virginia Garrett, the wife of Cherry’s successor, because of their shared love of flowers.  And when Bethie arrived at a friend’s house for lunch and realized that the friend had forgotten about the engagement, she “hot footed it down the alley,” said Martha, to spare the woman embarrassment.

Both Martha and Bethie were beset by failing eyesight in their later years, but reacted quite differently.  “I know that Bethie can’t see as she should but she never admits it.  All old people get that way,” said 82-year-old Martha of her 86-year-old sibling.  After learning that, during dinner in a poorly lit room, Bethie had put down her fork and been unable to find it again, “I told her she should have just asked,” Martha wrote, “but she isn’t that way.”

Perhaps it was her willingness to let her older sister be herself that allowed Martha to coexist peacefully with Bethie until Martha’s death in 1963 at age 94.  But hers was an early death, relatively speaking, for Bethie lived until 1967, reaching the age of 102.

Martha Potter’s letters about her sister Bethie are part of the Lissauer Collection in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives holdings of WKU’s Special Collections Library.  For more collections about Elizabeth Woods, the Potters and other Bowling Green families, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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