Friends are the family you choose for yourself.
Tucked up against the railing on the southwest corner of the boat house porch, members of the greatest generation were soaking up the warming rays of the early afternoon sun. I was not aware that this was what they referred to as the calm before the storm. Back in the day, most watermen believed the weather forecasts, were as good as worthless.
Now, Rusty was a completely different matter. That old timer’s arthritic knee was the most accurate weather apparatus on the waterfront, and the day before, in his inimitable, yet modest style opined, “Bad weather coming.” What appeared to be an incomplete sentence was gospel to anyone who knew him. I showed up that afternoon looking to earn some pocket change with a run to the local diner. That was when the caretaker stuck his head out the door, “If this northeast continues to blow we’re going to have a run-out.” His reference was to an extremely low tide. “Charley, you still got your painting clothes in the locker?” My affirmative nod was followed by an order to change and get ready to travel. The excitement was palpable as the old timers began to consider the distinct possibility of late-season steamers and perhaps a snowstorm to boot.
It was just beginning to spit chilly rain as my mentor cranked the stubborn Scott Atwater to life as we pulled away from the dock. The tide was low with over two hours to go and with a nor’easter blowing it out, the old timer promised we’d be digging bottom last harvested by the Narragansett Indians. He wore that same devilish grin that he always displayed when he had a secret or surprise for me, as we flew by on the lee shore before making the turn into the bay and out to the clam flats. It looked like God had pulled the plug out and the entire bay was draining into the ocean.
Every footstep brought geysers of clam juice as the soft shells rejoiced at being exposed for the first time in ages. The digging was epic. Kneeling in the soft mud we tilled the soil and were rewarded with more clams than I had ever seen before or since. The sleet was stinging our faces as we lugged our overflowing wire baskets back to the skiff as the incoming tide licked at her transom. The old man muscled her off the flat, turned her bow into the weather and stationed me and our catch as far forward as possible to keep the bow down. The wind had come up sooner, and harder than expected and he told me we had a rough ride, but it wouldn’t be long before we were in the lee of the far shore. He wrapped me in his rain slicker, told me to keep my head down and steered our course by instinct. The snow and spray were soaking him, but he gave me the thumbs up and soon we were flying along the Fall River shore and headed for home.
It was dark when we pulled up to the float as the fragile old men moved faster than I could ever recall, hurrying down to the dock to secure our lines. “Oh, my God, they stuck gold. It musta’ been Charley did all the work ‘cuz this old buzzard ain’t got much spit left in him!” The caretaker smiled and made some profane reference to it being as cold as a “witch’s something-or-other,” while our welcome committee divvied the claims into smaller buckets to make them easier to carry. Two stronger men pulled the skiff around to the lee side of the building and secured it while another filled two buckets with saltwater to clean the clams in.
Once inside the kitchen with the oven door opened the caretaker peeled down to his Long Johns, lit his first cigarette in almost four hours and asked, “Where the hell is my medicine?” Pete ran out to his locker and returned with a vinegar jug filled with an amber liquid. Rusty cautioned him not to spill any of that on the counter because he burned a hole in it the last time. No one in that room had more than two bucks in their wallets but the mood was celebratory. Teddy inquired, “What the hell are the poor people doing today?” To which one of them piped up, “They ain’t drinking’ no smooth flavored shine or fixin’ to eat a mess of snowfall steamers.”
The cups were handed around to the gathering, passing me by, when the caretaker pushed his into my hand, claiming, ‘the kid deserved a drink more than anyone else in the room!’ We clinked our mugs and while they swallowed theirs in a single gulp I took a few sips that paralyzed my vocal chords. There was a lot of love and camaraderie in the little kitchen that night, as much as you will ever see in a private men’s club about to sit down to martinis and a prime rib dinner. I ate my fill of steamers and fresh coarse bread dipped in the flavorsome broth. I didn’t own a jacket with a hood, but my wet clothes were dried by the heat of the open oven.
The walk home in near blizzard conditions, carrying three quarts of fresh steamers, was warm and toasty as I was loaned a heavy woolen P-coat and wrapped in a heavy scarf. At that point in my life’s journey, I actually felt sorry for the rich kids because they had no idea what it was like to be rewarded for hard work and to be accepted by the men of the greatest generation.
Every time I splice a line, skull a skiff, dig a clam or sea worm, take a range, or set a bait seine… I think of those characters I was blessed to rub elbows with and miss them more with each passing season. It was the commonality of fishing that brought us together and made us relatives in a very special family. There are no time limits on what we had and it’s never too late to start on that type of relationship of your own.