Clams and Arrows of Outrageous Fortune
This is not a linear story, nor is it a karmic tale. When I was nine my father bought me a bow and arrow and a bolt action single shot .22 caliber rifle. The rifle comes up elsewhere. I was allowed to use it then only when hunting for rabbits or squirrels with my father or target practice with him or one or another of his friends. This is about a bow and arrows. And a shotgun.
Back in those days beyond the thin row of houses across the street were fields, then woods so I had plenty of space in which to hunt. Hunting is one thing, finding and hitting is another. I had no one to teach me either. I have two unforgettable memories of my early, and final, practice with the bow and arrows.
I was in the middle of a field one day. For some reason I didn’t connect cause and effect too clearly. I fired my arrow straight up into the air, following it with my eye until it was out of sight, gone. When next I saw it, it was close and getting swiftly closer. It buried itself in the ground between my feet. I had nightmares about this for a long time. I could have one of them even now.
For target practice I taped a square cardboard box closed and painted bull’s eyes on each of the six sides, concentric red circles with white eyes in the centers. I would throw the box into the air as high as I could then fire an arrow at it with my bow. The arrows would pass completely, cleanly through both sides of the box, which slowed them and they would fall harmlessly inside my back yard. I have no memory of whether my aim or my skill improved. Over time and use the holes in the box grew sloppier and sloppier until some of them grew large enough to offer next to no resistance. Then one arrow went through the box without resistance and through a window in the house next door, landing at the feet of a neighbor nursing her baby- Mrs. Fagin, nee Mumford. This necessitated a conversation first between Mr. Fagin and my father, then my father and me, then an apology to Mr. and Mrs. Fagin to whom I surrendered my bow and arrows.
(An aside: Mrs. Fagin had a pretty daughter, Janine Mumford, who occasionally babysat with my younger sisters and me. She might have thought me at the time too young to find her sexy, but ah, not so. She would perform a soft strip tease for me to the giggling amusement of my sisters. Sort of a flash dance back and forth past my bedroom doorway. I can still see that.)
My father usually managed to take us on summer vacations of a week or more, either road trips to interesting places like Canada, Mexico and most of the states in between or get us a cabin at either Oak Orchard or Slaughter Beach on the water. Let’s cut a few years ahead now to when I’m sixteen, in high school, just having gotten my driver’s license. I needed to earn money not working in his grocery store if I could avoid it. I was still going out on his charter boat whenever I could, but I didn’t make anything but tips from that. I’m a waterman, nee waterboy, an amateur because I didn’t want to turn pro and have to do that for a living and hence lose the magic, the enchantment. Catching, harvesting anything from the sea drew heightened enthusiasm from me, whether fish, oysters, crabs or clams. This year I decided it would be clams. I had done a little of it before and knew that I could sell clams for twenty five cents a dozen from the trunk of my car in Wilmington or Philadelphia.
I went to Oak Orchard opposite across the Sound from the Indian River (ocean) Inlet outside of Rehoboth. I bought a waterlogged, leaky wooden rowboat with oars for $25 and was allowed to leave it at a dock free. On my first expedition I found my boat for my purposes sunk, that is full of water but still floating. It took me half an hour to bail it out. I took with me: a flashlight, a mug of coffee, plenty of drinking water, sandwiches my mother made for me, other snacks, burlap sacks, cord, rope, mesh bags, a couple of different long handled clam rakes and a short handled one I had made for myself, a couple of bailers, an anchor and, of course, my oars and oarlocks. I don’t wear sun glasses and didn’t then have to wear glasses then , thank god. With all my preparation, that put me on the water by about ten a.m. It was hot.
I pushed off from the dock and started rowing north headed for a drainage slough with a good muddy bottom; I had clammed there before. It had softer mud, the kind where you don’t have to use a rake, which for my purposes is better than harder bottoms which take you longer to get the same amount of clams. I like best just treading them with my feet then bending over and picking them up and putting them in the mesh bag. Using a mesh bag means that with constant movement the mud washes off of them and you don’t have to do it later. Bending over with my head under water means that while under I can scour around and serendipitously pick up others in the immediate vicinity.
Technique varies with the depth of the water, given the same soft mud bottom. If the water is shoulder deep you can latch onto a clam with your toes and snake it up your leg to your hand without bending underwater. Underwater you can maintain negative buoyancy with the bag of clams you carry. On a harder bottom I will use a clam rake but it slows me down. An even harder bottom is risky because there is the danger of slicing your feet on oyster and other sharp shells, like – ugh- razor clams. I never wore shoes of any kind when clamming (oystering was another thing entirely as I have amply implied.)
Well, anyway, I found my slough and got a lot of clams and then the day was mostly gone and it was time to head back. During the day and enroute to the dock I had to keep bailing my boat out. There was no danger, just a nuisance. This all might sound scary or yicky, but I am a strong swimmer and should worst come to worst I could just abandon my boat and wade or swim to an always near shore.
I didn’t want to accumulate too many clams as I had no cool place to keep them except for my father’s meat locker at the grocery store. He didn’t want me to be doing this so I didn’t want to do that.
Next day I put them over ice and under wet burlap in some coolers I had bought and drove to Wilmington with them, 60 miles north. On the way there I stopped in some seafood restaurants to see if they would buy any; no, they already had steady suppliers, but I found that my price of 25 cents a dozen was wholesale and I could get maybe 35 cents or more retail. I wanted to sell them all. (Actually, I didn’t. Steamed clams are one of my favorite foods. I could have eaten them all myself.) Since I was doing this to earn money, I couldn’t afford to have many left over to bring back. I found a place along the main highway before actually going into Wilmington, between two produce stands and parked my car there with the trunk open. I had already made a simple, rather attractive sign @ 25 cents a dozen and put it up. What the hell. By 2 pm I was sold out. I’d need to either bring more clams or raise the price, or both.
Next morning I was on the water again. This time I started deeper up the same slough and worked my way slowly back toward the Sound. The clamming was good everywhere I went but I was trying to intuit where they would be the most plentiful. Every time the bottom got gritty or harder I would turn one way or another covering far more distance than I had the day before. By the end of a longer day I had more clams, but I had worked harder for them. There were other sloughs and the Sound bottom seemed promising, if more variable. I was on an expedition. An clam explorer.
I bypassed the restaurants next day and went directly to my previous spot with a new sign: FRESH CLAMS 35 CENTS A DOZEN. I sold out before dark, but I’d had more clams. On the drive home I reasoned that the further from the source of supply, salt water, the higher the price I could get, within limits. So, I decided to move my market to Philadelphia next trip and maybe nudge my price up a little even though I was doing well enough as it was. My costs, my overhead weren’t high. Back then three gallons of gas was a dollar as were three quarts of beer and three packs of cigarettes. And I was having fun. I felt that it was important to get the clams to market the day after they came out of the water, my sense of what was right.
My next day on the water was strange, unforgettable. I got underway earlier, having decided to row further north toward Rehoboth and tow the boat back toward the dock in deeper water seeking the best clam bottom. I had been wading in water from knee deep to waist high mostly, with some deeper spots here and there, generally finding the most clams beneath the deeper water. It made sense that clams would prefer cooler, i.e. deeper water. So, towing the boat with a ballast bag of clams in the other hand I turned to work my way back slowly offshore between belly and shoulder deep, averaging about nipple deep. In this bay the water depth increases very gradually, which meant I was working a good distance off the western shore of the Sound. I could see there was a house here and there on the bank, with maybe a dock, but I couldn’t make out much detail.
After a couple hours of average progress, average yield I stumbled into Clam Heaven. It was like walking on little cobblestones. I would take a breath, dive with a mesh bag and nearly fill it up before I surfaced reluctantly for air. Then I would lean over the gunnels and dump the bag into a burlap sack and go back under for more. I don’t know how long I was at this, but I didn’t get uncomfortable, I didn’t get chilled. I did get worried. I had so many clams in the boat I was unsure that I could get back in without swamping it. With all that weight I had to remember to take the time to bail, bail, bail. If it sank it would go to the bottom and remain there.
I was in such a “feeding frenzy” that if what happened next hadn’t happened I would probably have lost the boat and everything in it. I was so oblivious to all but getting more clams and bailing the boat that I didn’t hear the sound of an outboard motor coming from shore until the boat was almost on top of me. The man in the boat cut the motor and was drifting toward me, now so close he would have bumped me if I hadn’t moved. Over his bow I saw his head and the double barrel of a twelve gauge shotgun pointed at my head. I instinctively held my hands up. The water was about shoulder deep.
He said, “I could shoot you.”
I said, “I hope you don’t.”
“Didn’t you see my signs. My clam beds are posted.”
“No. I didn’t come from shore. I’ve been clamming at this depth all day.”
“Those are my clams in your boat.”
“Take them please. I’ll put them back. Spread them around.”
I had a flash of recognition and took a risk. “Fagin!”
“You know me?”
“And you know me. We used to be neighbors in Milford. Although I don’t know if that helps me here.”
“Yeah, I remember.”
“I didn’t know you were a waterman.”
“I didn’t know you were.”
“Honest, I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I’ll empty my boat and won’t come back. I didn’t know I was trespassing.”
He sat and just looked at me as if he were figuring out a knotty problem. But he put the shotgun down.
I said, “I’ll put the clams in your boat or on your dock, whatever you say. I want to make this right for you.”
“Scott, isn’t it?”
“You were a wild kid.”
“Some thought that.”
“Still wild, eh?”
“No sir, just working hard to try to make some money. For college.”
“Want a drink?” I could see that he had been drinking and now remembered that he had been a drinker.
He handed me a half-full pint and I took a swig. The face I made made him laugh. He took a big swig, didn’t make a face.
“Sure. Pretty girl.”
“Got knocked up. I’d use this shotgun if I knew who to point it at.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. I liked her. She used to babysit for my sisters.”
“Now, what am I going to do with you?
“I don’t know, sir. I’d like to make it right. Whatever you say.”
“I’m going to just let you go.”
He handed me the bottle; I took it.
“Now what do you think about that?”
“We’re going to finish this bottle and part in peace if you don’t have any bows and arrows in that boat.”
“I’m happy with that. Would you do me another favor?”
He made a face and said,”What’s that?”
“Point out your property, your clam beds so that I can stay clear of them.”
“Fair enough.” And he passed me the bottle and pointed out his boundaries.
®Copyright 2014 Jack Scott. All rights reserved.