“I am, like my daddy was, and his daddy was, a waterman.”
So begins Chincoteague Summer of 1948: A Waterman’s Childhood Stories, a little wisp of a book that is both odd duck and fun read. It presents itself in quite authentic fashion as the recorded childhood memories of waterman Thurston Watson. But then the author, Ed Waterhouse, a Chincoteague native who had moved to California by the time the book came out in 2003, drops the word “fictionalized” on the back cover without quite explaining in detail what that might mean.
I am not sure what to make of it. Is the book made up out of whole cloth? Is it embellished here and there? Is the lone waterman here a composite of several characters? Whatever the answers to those questions may be, I think that you will be able to see from this one little excerpt about clamming in Chincoteague back in the day that it really is a fun read:
I quit school as soon as it was legal to do it, at age sixteen, feeling I had got enough schooling by then to read and write and to figger good enough to keep the man buying my clams honest and to keep the tax man away.…
One way I made my living was clamming. Right after the big war with Hitler and Tojo, seems to me a waterman would get maybe one cent apiece for large clams and two cent apiece for the smaller and tastier little nick and cherrystone clams. and a good day’s work might bring in fifteen or twenty dollar before expenses. That gave a waterman a right good living at a time many folks was getting thirty-five to fifty cent an hour for dry-land work, but a falling glass bringing unclement weather sometimes made it unfit to be on the water, and expenses such as boat maintenance, cotton flannel to sew up into new clamming moccasins, and other incidentals et up some of that money and brought watermen’s wages down to probably about the same level as dry-land wages.
As for clams, I raked ’em, signed ’em, and waded ’em. Even stole some from Charley Hancock’s clam bed till one day he drawed a bead on me with his twelve gauge scattergun. That happened when I was right young and left me with the unevitable feeling that honest work was considerable less dangerous than the outlaw life.
When I first started clamming for my living, you did not have to go too far to find plenty of clams. Sometimes good pickings was so close I could see my house on South Main Street while I was clamming, but as time passed, things ganged up on clammers. The good places would get clammed out, or the state man would put parts of Chincoteague Channel or the bays closed to clamming on account of polelution, so watermen had to go further and further away from home to get enough clams to make a living.
After a while it become so far to go that your day was wasted sculling your bateau to and from your day’s work. Then we would find a man with a motorboat who would tow us up the bay or down the bay, wherever we thought the clams was thick. He did it for a percentage of our clam-pile, or some would do it for a flat dollar amount per trip. Some of them did a right good job of it, cooking up a nice lunch for the clammers or once in a while providing a sip of coffee or water, in general making life somewhat comfortable for the clammers, at least as comfortable as you can get while soaking wet.
Them motorboats they towed us with was long scows, maybe twenty or twenty-five foot, some with a little dead-rise to ease the wave chop. … Early of a morning you might see a couple of them clamboats, each with a long single file tow of watermen’s scows and bateaus, many as eight or ten boats being pulled by each motorboat, each waterman getting his gear set up or maybe sitting on the stern of his boat puffing on a morning Marvel cigarette or a pipeful of Prince Albert t’baccer, maybe sipping coffee from a Mason jar or a Thermos jug, if they could afford one. With the sun rising up and casting gold splashes across the smooth and glassy water, it was right picturest.
Raking clams is pulling a rake with real long thin tines through the mud or sand and when you hear and feel something sounds kindly like scratching fingernails across a slate blackboard, you got a clam there. You can rake clams from the high water line of the shore out to maybe chest-high in the water, though waist-high water is about my personal comfort limit for taking clams.
Signing clams is looking for what looks like a tiny keyhole in the sand or mud, caused by the way a clam eats, sucking in water in one hole, straining food out of it and blowing that water out another hole right next to the in-hole, him being a bivalve. Often the outhole has some tiny clam turds next to it. You can sign clams from the high water mark on the shore out to shin-deep or shallier water, main limitation being how well you can see the clear bottom. Wind causing ripples on the water can make it near impossible to sign clams in water much above your ankles.
Signing is hard on the back because you bent over looking for them keyholes. Sometimes when you walking along looking, the clam feels you coming and snaps his shell shut, thinking that’ll make him safer, but him closing squirts a little puff of mud out of his out-hole and that gives his hiding place away. Dig a couple inch under the sign, either the keyhole or the clam turds or the mud puff, You got a clam there. Clams signs better the hotter it gets. Watermen used to say “How they signing?” as a greeting, like saying “Howdy.”
The men being towed up the bay was likely going to be wading clams. You wade clams leaning on the side of your bateau in water where you can reach bottom with your feet. You wear homemade cotton flannel moccasins with the fuzzy side out to protect your feet from getting cut on the occasional sharp shell, though a professional clam wader’s feet is right tough.
You slide your feet around in the mud like you’re dancing a Bojangles sand-dance, till you feel the edge of a clam buried in the mud. You dig him out of the mud with your toes. Then you slides that clam up the inside of your leg using your other leg’s toes and you reach down with your hand and pluck the clam off of your leg. Another way of bringing up the clams takes more practice but is faster; you pack the clam on top of your other foot with mud and bring your knee to your chin, balancing the clam till you get aholt of it with your hand, swish it in the water a couple times to clean off the mud, and add ’er to your pile. Sometimes wading clams, you might get a surprise when you step on a bullfish, or a skate, or a hoss-shoe crab, all three of which is competing with you for them clams.
When wading or raking clams, watermen wore clothes, often a couple of pair of union suit long johns. Kept ’em warm kindly like them sport snorkeler’s rubber suits do today. One last thing I might mention about clams: Old Chincoteaguers call a woman’s thing her clam due to what they preceive as a right close resemblance, and they call a man’s thing a wilk for the same reason.
Here is Chincoteague: Summer of 1948 on Amazon. Most of the material in the book is focused less on things like clamming in Chincoteague and the lives of watermen than on childhood memories of wandering the Island and getting into interesting predicaments. I picked up my copy at The Book Bin in Onley, if memory serves, and they probably have copies at Sundial Books in Chincoteague as well.
–posted by Jim Duffy on March 23, 2018
NOTE: The dramatic photo of the two clammers here is by the late, great A. Aubrey Bodine.