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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

No. 113 "Feelin' for clams"

When most people think of clamming, they imagine someone standing on a shoal, bending over a rake, and pulling and pushing it back and forth. With each pull they would try to feel or hear the scrape of the rake tongs on a solid shell. That is indeed how most people did it.

But on the Island, the most serious clambers left their rake in a skiff, and stayed far from the more shallow shoals. Instead they would squat or kneel in hip-deep water with a floating bucket strapped to their waist. There they would grope with both bare hands and bare feet to feel the clams with their fingers and toes and an acute sense of touch. “Feelers,” as they called them, could usually fill a bucket much faster, and easier, than someone toiling with an iron rake.

One family that I knew would go clamming as a group; father, mother and all six children. They would spends hours at a time, as long as the tide would allow, in Banks Bay or on Twelve O’clock Shoal, nestled together while working the bottom for “littlenecks,”  “cherrystones,” or “chowders.”

Working as a team they could scour an acre or more of sandy bottom in less than a day. In fact, one of the little girls was so energetic in churning the bottom with her ten fingers and ten toes that her brothers and sisters called her “Maytag.” When asked, why, one of them explained that the only other thing that could stir up as much water as she did was a Maytag washing machine.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

No. 112 "If they fire us, they'll have to pay us right away ..."

In the summer of ‘42 (sounds like a movie title doesn't it?) my mother, not yet thirty, awaited the birth of her seventh child. The first six had been born at home with the delivery overseen by Mama’s mid-wife grandmother, whom everyone, even her grandchildren, called “Aunt Marg.” But Aunt Marg was now more than eighty years old, and calling on her for the delivery was no longer a viable option. It was agreed that this time  Mama would have to go to the hospital in town.

Without insurance or a steady income, plans had to be made for how to pay for the doctor and several days in a hospital room. It was thought that the total cost would be almost exactly one hundred dollars. Wartime concerns had caused the Navy to impose restrictions on fishing on the ocean side of the Banks, so there was little hope of earning that much in the water.

But there was one almost sure way to make the money. The Army recently had commissioned the building of a station at Ocracoke on Pamlico Sound that included a long wooden dock for servicing the boats that patrolled the nearby Banks and Inlet. Word had quickly spread that workers on the dock were paid a dollar an hour, far more than any of the laborers along the Sounds had ever even heard of. So early one Sunday morning Daddy headed up and along Core Sound towards Ocracoke, looking for a job working on that dock.

Sure enough, he was hired as soon as he presented himself to the foreman supervising the project. Working as much as twelve hours a day, seven days a week, he began to count both his earnings and how much longer he would have to stay there before he could go home with the money he would need.

In less than two weeks he figured he had enough wages coming his way to gather his belongings and head back south down the Sound. But upon confronting his foreman he was flabbergasted to learn that he would  have to wait until the next pay day, more than week later, to collect his final earnings.  Bitterly disappointed he returned to his work with his sadness so evident that one of his coworkers asked him what was wrong?

When Daddy explained his situation, his friend commiserated with his predicament, and then suggested a plan for how both of them could get their money without having to wait.

"The foreman is right about having to wait until payday," he conceded to my father, "but only if you quit before the project is finished."

"On the other hand," he explained, "if they fire us, they will have to pay us right away and probably order us to get off of their dock as quick as possible. You just follow me and we'll both be out of here before the day is over."

My brother Mike, in the middle, with Denny (b. 1944)
and Telford (b. 1950)
So, together, the two laid down their tools, and then sat down on the edge of that portion of the dock that was already completed, sometimes laying back as if to take a nap in the summer sun. When told to get back to work they just ignored the order and continued to waste away their time as the other workers toiled on busily all around them. Finally, the foreman gave the two malingerers exactly what they had wanted.

"Both of you are fired," he shouted so loudly that others could hear, and hopefully learn from the example. "Go straight to the paymaster and get you wages and don't let me see either of you on this dock ever again!"

Within less than an hour Daddy was back in his boat with $115 in his pocket. Not long after sundown he tied up at the landing and ran up the path to let Mama know that he had the money they would need to allow for her to have her new baby in a hospital. Four weeks later my brother Mike was born in Beaufort, and Daddy paid both the doctor and the hospital for their services before carrying his wife and his new baby home in the same boat he had used to get to Ocracoke.