The Hole in the Water
I parked at the north end of Slaughter Beach where the road turns west toward Milford. From this road a mile or so out a side road ends at the Mispillion Light house where the charter boats docked. Facing the water, to the right the bottom was sandy for quite a distance out, the slope into deeper water gently gradual before a mud bottom was reached. I was still in high school and then, as now, everything about the water was thrilling. Not an exaggeration. Usually I was aboard my father’s charter boat off this shore, but today I felt like something different. The excitement was delicious. It never wore off. Back in those days before suntan lotion and melanoma alerts, come hot weather you took your shirt off, fried, peeled and then were brown. You didn’t wear shoes unless you had to and before long you had grown your own sandals, the soles of your feet had grown that hard. So I left mine in the car as I gathered my hunter/gatherer tools: a dip net, a three pointed fishing spear and a truck inner tube with a bushel basket wedged in it. Once in the water I towed it tied to me by a cord around my waist so that my hands would be free. The trident was for the occasional flounder, should I be so lucky. The net was for crabs. Hard crabs were plentiful, but soft-shell crabs or peelers would require more finesse, not to catch, but to find. The soft crabs were feast food for people; the peelers were equal to the best fish bait. Because they were so vulnerable after they shed their hard shells, they hid in the grass. Because hard shell crabs also found them to be such a delicacy, they would have to be separated in the basket, so I’d brought a cloth bag to pack them in. The water was clear over a sandy bottom; unless bad weather or waves roiled it so it looked like good hunting.
It was morning on a bright, clear day. I had eaten a big breakfast so took no food; I’d be good ‘til dark if need be, but put a couple of sodas in the basket for thirst. Glass bottles in those days. I decided to walk offshore the length of the sandy beach, about a mile, before turning back. The tide had recently changed and was going out. There was no wind and visibility was so perfect I could make out Cape May, New Jersey to the northeast across the bay. Clearly visible were the charter and private fishing boats around the Coral Beds and here and there elsewhere, no doubt the Miss Teddy among them. I waded in to my knees and began walking slowly east; it is not a good idea to be in a hurry when wading. I have excellent reflexes and the bottom has excellent sharp things such as razor clams and oysters, live and dead. There is nowhere on the planet where some fool has not broken glass and left it behind, on land and on sea bottom. If you are fine tuned into not getting sliced or slashed you have a good chance of avoiding it. If you’re carelessly rushing, the statistics can bloodily change in an instant.
At knee deep I was the equivalent of half a city block offshore. The water was warm; I might run the risk of getting puckered, but not of hypothermia. There were a few swimmers, waders actually, close to shore, mostly kids. If they waved, I waved back, but we were too far away for howdies. Within an hour I had scooped up half a dozen keeper hard-shells and thrown back as many smaller ones. They were so plentiful there was no point in keeping any, but the largest ones; they’re so much more satisfying to eat when you’re hungry. And I had netted three soft shells. I saw a lot of fish, mostly small and wary, and also a school of bluefish lacing the water in the distance, but no flounder, nothing near or large enough to spear. Sometimes there will be a stingrays or skates blending with the bottom, but it’s unlikely you’ll step on one; they don’t want anything to do with you and will skedaddle before you’re in the danger zone. And you never step on a crab.
I also treaded a few clams. That means letting your feet recognize what they are so you can reach down and grab them up. These are so-called Cherrystone or Littlenecks- the smaller ones- and the larger Chowder clams. I love them all, one of my favorite foods, along with hard and soft-shell crabs and oysters and Rockfish and Trout, and Flounder, and . . . I don’t think there’s a seafood I don’t love and love to eat. They’re scarcer on the sandy bottom, but not nonexistent. Before long I was pulling up more and more of them, which meant I was running out of sandy bottom and had started out on the off-marsh muddy bottom at the east end of the beach. I had done well enough: a dozen or so hard crabs. The saying is don’t try to count live crabs; wait until they’re steamed. And I had five soft shells.
I was further offshore now that the tide was lower, but still at knee depth, sometimes deeper, sometimes less so. I was following serendipity, not traveling a straight line. The walk back was much the same as going out, with about the same yield. At the car I sorted things out into separate pillow cases my mother had made drawstrings for and put them on top of a burlap sack over the ice; the fresh water of ice melt would kill them. I had a pair of heavy rubber gloves to deal with the hard-shells. It’s hard getting them into a bag, but they couldn’t stay out in another basket in the open trunk. Best count them after they’re steamed, but I’d say I had a couple of dozen nice ones. I ate some peanut butter crackers and drank a coke, then set out again, this time going north west toward the long jetty coming from the lighthouse. This was a crescent shaped muddy cove off a marsh that came all the way to the water; no beach here. The distance to the base of the jetty in this direction was also about a mile. I left the gig behind; I was less likely to see the bottom clearly over mud, particularly with a tide moving it even ever so slightly. I did bring the dip net in case I saw any swimming crabs. This expedition was for clamming only.
At the change of tide to incoming about now, the sky started becoming cloudy, but didn’t seem to be threatening rain or squall. It just got a little darker, soft gray clouds opening from time to time to let sunlight through. It was more comfortable, cooler without the glare. There was still no wind , not even a breeze. The bottom was perfect, soft enough the feel the clams with my feet, yet not mushy enough to sink into. Going out I traveled further out, deeper, in water about hip high. Coming back, as the tide came back in I would wade closer to shore. Clams were abundant either way. This was familiar territory, a dependable source. These were for my use, my family’s, not for sale.
I never used a clam rake unless I was on hard bottom. Then, when the rake hit a clam it was like a telegraph which would tell what size the clam was, how deep and whether there was more than one. I was that used to doing this. I grew up on, in and around these waters.
Fishing on the charter boat was enjoyable enough, although during the course of many fishing “parties” the men usually got a bit rowdy, often on their way toward drunkenness. Their behavior was an annoyance to me. They usually became condescendingly friendly toward me, uncomfortably so. When he was along my father was as, shall I say disorderly, along with the others. I wondered what I was missing. Was this the way I was supposed to act when I grew up? I’m not sure I really equated the drinking, at the time, with the behavior. At 16 I had started to drink, going to out of town bars and nightclubs that would serve me, but there was much about alcohol that was a mystery to me, an exotic mystery. When you are doing it, it seems, you’re the smartest, coolest kid on the block, but when you’re observing drinkers and drunks, they are such fools. Present company excluded.
I was in my native element here in this muddy cove, alone. I stress the word alone. That’s when I’m happiest. I knew there was something wrong with me; my mother knew there was something wrong with me, as did my teachers. They offered and tried to get me some help. Manic depression wasn’t a workable concept back then. There were the depressions that I couldn’t get out of without the natural passage of time. There was the erratic, often wild behavior when I was high, up. It was about then, when I was 16 that I started self-medicating with alcohol. I was wrestling with a lot of my own ignorance. For instance, I didn’t know, didn’t realize my father was an alcoholic. I didn’t know what an alcoholic was and didn’t know I was on the path toward becoming one. But on the water, when I was alone, and I preferred to be alone, I was free, as happy as I could be. I didn’t want to go home; I didn’t want to be anywhere but where I was.
By the time I was near the jetty I turned in toward the marshy shore and made a gradual arc back toward the car. The sky had turned darker, but there was no wind. The tide was coming in faster now and I moved in closer toward shore staying at the same depth in the water, about hip deep. Then the wind did pick up to nowhere near whitecap strength, so I quickened my pace all the while throwing clams into my basket at a steady rate. I didn’t get very far before the unexpected happened. I walked into an anomaly, a hole. It wasn’t a hole full of water; it was a hole full of soft mud. I went suddenly, not gradually, the water level now suddenly nearly to my shoulders.
There was no immediate cause for alarm, and I’m not one to panic. My first reaction was to assess the situation, to see if I was stuck or could easily get free. I was stuck. Every time I pushed down with a foot, I went a little deeper. Deeper wasn’t good; the tide was coming in. Thinking, I turned the dip net upside down, gently plunging the net side down into the mud along my feet. It helped to lift me up a little, but it reached no harder bottom beneath the softness I was stuck in. There was nobody in sight so signaling for help was not an option. I was linked by a loop of cord to my tethered inner tube, but it was heavily laden with a lot of clams. I didn’t want to dump my hard won clams to gain what might be necessary buoyancy. At least, not yet.
I went through a number of contortions to try to raise one leg, and then the other, but every time one came up the other sank back down. I knew this would be a drowning situation for a lot of people and, of course, I felt it as a danger since I hadn’t figured it out. Yet.
I took some deep breaths, then submerged, until I was in an L-shape on my belly underwater flat on the surface of the mud bottom. I figured that I might be able to wiggle free by wrenching my legs free using my body as a fulcrum. That’s when I scared myself. My arms and body started sinking into the mud. The hole was bigger that I thought. This was like a quicksand bog, the kind you see in movies. Before I ran out of air, I got claustrophobia, the edge of panic. I was stuck only if I kept my wits. My arms were in the mud and my chest was embedded and sinking in. I grabbed my tether to the inner tube and gradually pulled myself clear of the suction. Thank god it was a strong enough rope. As I pulled down, I could feel the inner tube coming downward more than I was comfortable with. I came up for air- finally. The air was darker and there were now a few choppy whitecaps. I could see the charter boats coming into the jetty. It looked now like bad weather was coming. I hadn’t been paying attention.
I did not want to throw away an afternoon’s good catch, but I was getting a little scared. It seemed that the water was a little higher. I decided to go under again, lay flat on the mud, keep my arms out instead of down and try to kick my legs out instead of down. When that didn’t work I pulled myself to the surface the same way, a little more easily this time as my arms were not stuck down in the mud. The only thing left to do, it seemed, was to throw all the clams back in the water and use the inner tube as flotation, let it pull me up. I have always been a stubborn person. I really didn’t want to let go of my clams; they are so delicious, steamed, dipped in melted butter. I did so a handful at a time; the basket was too heavy to turn over and dump.
I had waited too long for this to work easily. The basket now empty, the tube floated high at about face level, but it wasn’t staying level with the waves and wind prancing it around. I had to find the right approach. Inside the inner tube would be my best position, with my arms through and around its sides. But the bushel basket was hard wedged inside it. And that posed another problem. Money was tight for me and I had to do things cheaply, so this was not a new tube; it was probably a very old one and the bushel basket had sharp wire in it. In trying to force the basket free, I could puncture the tube. Not good. I had to find a position that would give me maximum steady buoyancy. I clambered my arms into the basket which raised the tube 90 degrees, from horizontal to vertical, and in the process pulled the thing over another 90 degrees so that my head was inside the upside down basket.
When I got it righted I had a good look at the basket. I was afraid to try to rip it free from the rubber. But It was an old basket, too, not fine cabinetwork meant to last for ages. It was a cheap container with a short life span. I set to work trying to tear it apart with my hands. I think my predicament gave me some extra strength, but not enough. I was able to pull some slats loose and splinter others, but only the weakest. I could do nothing with the framework.
Last resort time. I pulled the inner tube as close to me as possible, and looped one arm through a hole I had made in the basket. Then I untied the rope from abound my body. Lord, don’t let me lose it now. Then I wrapped, one loop at a time, the rope under my armpits and around the inner tube, pulling it down as deeply as I could. I was able to make three complete wraps, then I tied myself to the now vertical tube with my elbows and arms inside the basket.
Some waves were now breaking over my head and the wind was actually whistling. I was chin deep in the water. Let the tide come in! If it didn’t actually lift me out of the mud now, then perhaps I wouldn’t drown and could, at lower tide, have a better chance to get free. The operational words were if I didn’t drown. And maybe, even maybe, I might get rescued come daylight, if I didn’t get hypothermia. Lot of ifs here. Obviously, however puckered, I didn’t drown.
The last of the incoming tide did lift me clear enough of the mud so that I could kick myself the rest of the way free.
I made it to the car before dark with an empty basket. Damn, did I leave a lot of clams behind. Every time I go to Wegman’s I refuse to pay $5.99 a dozen for the little darlings.
®Copyright 2014 Jack Scott. All rights reserved.