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It was during a zoology lecture on Echinoderms while I was a sophomore in college that I finally understood what happened to me the first time I went clamming with Pop Pop. I have always been fascinated with any organism associated with the sea, so the professor that day had my unwavering attention.

His delivery began with a list of characteristics common to the members of the Phylum Echinodermata, the "spiny-skin" animals.  He continued in his traditional manner, as with previous phyla we had studied, by listing and describing members of the various classes within this group.   As reinforcement to his discourse, he proudly projected 35mm slides of starfish, serpent stars, sea urchins, and sea lilies ---all "spiny-skin" animals that he had photographed on various research dives.
 
Near the end of the lecture, my interest really peaked during his discussion of the Class Holothuroidea, the class to which the sea cucumbers belong.  Projected on a large screen in front of the lecture hall filled with 249 slumbering students and wide-awake me was a creature to which I had been introduced once before when I was 10 years old.  At that time, I had no idea what it was and why it was doing what it did to me, but by the time class ended a great mystery of my life had been solved. 

I found it difficult to understand how 249 people could sleep while Dr. Lehman was describing evisceration, a defense mechanism of sea cucumbers.   I punched the dozing scholar next to me, so that at least one other person in the class could also learn from what was being presented. Somehow my startled colleague did not find the same academic thrill in the professor's description as I.  But now that I look back on it, how could anyone, unless he had been clamming with Pop Pop and had been on the receiving end of one of his pranks?

 
It seems that in time of predatory distress, sea cucumbers eviscerate -- meaning they eject their internal organs, which resemble intestines, from their body. These smooth succulent organs, which are quite voluminous compared to the size of the animal, become a more appetizing meal for the predator than the organism itself. While the predator, which may be a blue crab, proceeds to dine on this more palatable flesh, the sea cucumber slowly escapes, regenerates a new set of internal organs, and lives to eviscerate another day. A sudden blow to the animal’s elongated body can initiate this same retching reflex. 

My grandfather, whom my brother and I called Pop Pop, started fishing as a vocation when he was 12 years old.  When he was not fishing, he earned extra money by clamming, a pastime he dearly loved. Often he clammed non-stop from 7 o'clock in the morning until 3 in the afternoon, catching as many as 1,400 clams on a good day.  His poorest days would rarely yield fewer than 800.  After he returned to shore, the clams were counted and placed in burlap bags that he threw over his shoulder and transported by foot a half a mile to the local seafood distributor who paid him one cent for each clam.  That was the going price in the early 1950s.

I was 10 years old and spending my fourth consecutive summer with my grandparents and aunt at Hatteras. I shall always be grateful to them and my parents for allowing me to spend three months of each summer in this idyllic setting.  It was a Hatteras of unpaved roads, no Oregon Inlet bridge, no motels, no tourists, no beach homes, no electricity, no telephones, no television, and no indoor plumbing. The only source of potable freshwater was that captured from the roofs of houses and directed by gutters to a cistern that every household possessed.  It was a Hatteras of 60 miles of undisturbed beaches, of countless shipwreck ruins lying undisturbed except by nature, of unpolluted waters rich in sea life, of a simple unhurried lifestyle, and of a dialect that distinguished its population from all others. 

And for my brother and me, it was also a Hatteras of not having to live with an alcoholic father.  Although it upset my mother for my brother and me to be away from her for such a long period of time, she was willing to make the sacrifice so we would be a part of a stable family for at least a few months each year.  It was not until I was much older that I realized her unselfish motive.  For this 10-year-old kid, it was just a way of life ---spending the summer on an isolated island, many miles from my parents, with three people who loved me and whom I loved as much as life itself.  And it was that summer on a clamming trip with Pop Pop that I was first introduced to sea cucumbers and evisceration.

As we were leaving the house to go clamming, Grandmom followed Pop Pop and me to the piazza.  She did her usual act of holding on one of the piazza posts, leaning forward, and looking towards the sound in the western sky. If any clouds were there, she became concerned and began making excuses as to why I should stay home. 

"It's going to come up a squall pretty soon and you better not leave home," she would say.  "Your mother particularly charged me to take good care of you, and it is not safe for you to be outside or away from home during a thunder squall." 

Grandmom had an unhealthy fear of storms.  Whenever I asked her permission to go to play with my friends in the neighborhood, I could count on her looking to the sky in search of foul weather.  Her paranoia of summer squalls kept me from leaving home unnecessarily on many occasions.  When an occasional thunderstorm did pass over the village, she would gather everyone at home into a room without a chimney.  She warned that chimneys draw lightning.  We were told to take a seat and to sit in silence until the tempest passed.  The sound of the wind, rain, and thunder were accentuated by the silence in the room.  After each flash of lightning with its accompanying burst of thunder, I could always count on one of Grandmom's high-pitched screams of fear.  Sometimes it was rather unnerving. 

A few summer clouds were drifting over the sound that morning, but I knew that no matter how much she begged and pleaded, Pop Pop would save me from her storm edict. His response to her was, "Now, Mag, go on back in the house and don't worry.  We'll be all right.  I'll take care of the boy." 

"Clifford, you know his mother would be worried sick if she knew he was out in the sound with a storm coming up.  I am not going to be responsible if anything happens to him!" With that said and her conscience cleared, she went back inside acting as if the whole world had turned against her. 

It was a mile hike on an unpaved sandy road to the shoreside where Pop Pop kept his skiff.  The Hatteras natives referred to that area, the southern end of the village, as "down below."  I was already tired by the time we passed the fish houses and docks located on the village harbor, which were only halfway on our trek to the skiff.  Pop Pop told me that we would bring our clams back to the dock to sell them at the end of the day. 

After what seemed like several hours of walking in the deep loose sand of the road, we arrived "down below" at the skiff.  My granddaddy untied the boat and with me inside, he shoved her off the embankment from above the high-tide line into the shallow water of the sound.  The sudden smooth motion of the skiff when the water was deep enough for it to float gave me a sense of independence from gravity.  The rippling water splashing on the sides and bottom of the boat was music to my ears.  It is a sound that even today I associate with a feeling of unity with nature in an environment that is fascinating and intriguing. When Pop Pop boarded the skiff, it rocked suddenly, and the sound of the water slapping on her bottom was intensified. 

With the balance of a tight rope artist, he walked to the rear of the rocking boat.  Extending from the floor at the stern, lying across the front seat and out over the bow was a long pole.  Pop Pop used it to shove the boat to our clamming spot, which was located about a mile from shore. Standing on the raised platform in the stern of the skiff, Pop Pop's push against the pole as he placed it on the sound's bottom was translated into corresponding thrusts of forward motion by the boat.

I sat near the bow with a gentle southwesterly breeze in my face and gazed toward the west into a now cloudless sky.  My senses were filled with images that have remained with me even after almost 50 years have passed.   I still see my beloved Pop Pop and me in his simple wooden skiff peacefully slipping over shallow, sparkling, emerald-green waters. The sky was brilliant blue with a golden sun warming our backs.  The warm, humid air was filled with the odor of rotten eggs from the nearby saltmarsh but the scent faded as we moved further into the sound.  Shorebirds were squawking, some diving and wading in search of food, some gracefully soaring at great heights.  The shoreline was slowly shrinking in the east.  I can not imagine how heaven's streets of gold can compare!

All too soon the boat ride was over.  We reached our destination.  Having cast the anchor overboard to secure the skiff, Pop Pop stepped out of the boat into two feet of water.  I jumped in.  The water was much warmer than the ocean water in which I had been swimming the day before. The bottom was of fine sand, a bit oozier than the sandy bottom of the ocean.  There was an occasional patch of eelgrass.  I did not like wading barefooted through the eelgrass because it was more difficult to see what I was stepping on.  Although I had little fear of what was there, I wanted to see it before I stepped on it. 

That fear did become magnified however, when Pop Pop said, "Son, be careful and don't step on any stingrays."  He told me that it was not unusual to find them half buried in the sand of these shallow waters.  He explained that they were there catching clams also -- an important item of their diet.  He warned me of the danger of being stung if I stepped on one of their backs.  I began thinking that clamming may not be as much fun as I had imagined.


Pop Pop placed the two, No. 2 zinc tubs from the skiff in the water beside us. Attached to the handle of each floating tub was a short piece of roping about five feet long.  He tied the other end of the rope around each of our waists.  As we caught clams, we placed them in the tubs that bobbed about behind us.  He gave me one of the two clam rakes that were lying on the bottom of the skiff.   He took the other one.  The rakes had unusually long, dangerous looking tines with a wire net attached between the end of the handle and the perpendicular support to which the tines were welded.

For a couple of minutes, Pop Pop instructed me on the art of clamming --- how to push the rake along the sandy bottom, how to detect a clam by the scratching sound made by a tine scraping it, and how to retrieve the clam by scooping it up with the rake and flipping the rake in order to capture it in the wire net.  I was now ready and determined to catch more clams than Pop Pop. 

I began by clamming beside him.  I felt a little safer from the stingrays there.  Pushing the rake was strenuous.  For every clam I brought to the surface, Pop Pop matched it with five.  I was not long realizing that I would never catch more than he at this rate.  I reasoned that he had an advantage since he must have known where the clams were.  Mistakenly, I decided that if I got in front of him, then I would find them first.  In spite of that, the sound of clams being placed in his tub continued at the same rate as before.  How could he be catching clams in an area that has already been raked?  His tub was a third full of clams, while the bottom of mine was hardly covered.  The longer I clammed, the braver I became.  Within a couple of hours, I was roughly 50 feet in front of him, clamming as hard as I could, trying desperately to catch the same amount he had.  He continued to follow me, raking in my footsteps and easily finding many clams that I had missed. 

I was often distracted by the abundance of extraordinary critters that either ended up in the wire net of my clam rake or those that swam or crawled by.  I was constantly asking Pop Pop, "What is this?"  The more questions I asked, the further behind I became in my quest to catch as many clams as Pop Pop.

My granddaddy was a prankster.  He also loved to horse around by wrestling and throwing a playful punch every once in a while.  More often than not, my brother and I were on the receiving end of this activity.  We loved it.  Occasionally, we would have to back off because he would forget his own strength, but we always went back for more.
When I was not looking, Pop Pop scooped up an unidentified creature in his clam rake.  It was a critter that so far that day we had not seen. He wanted to show it to me, but he decided to have a little fun in the process.  Pop Pop enjoyed playing baseball as a young man ---pitching was his specialty.  He drew back his right hand, which held the newly discovered organism and proceeded to send it flying towards the back of my head at an alarming speed.  He could not have made a more direct hit if he had fired it from a gun while using a scope for accuracy. 

I was laboriously working the clam rake when the living missile made contact with the back of my head.  I had no idea what had hit me, but after the initial thud, I saw stars and experienced a temporary painful jolt.  When I lowered my chin to my chest as a reflex from the impact, I witnessed the most unbelievable sight.  Entangled about my neck and lying on my shoulders and chest were what appeared to be five or more feet of slender intestines.  They were milky white and very slippery. 

I screamed from the shock of being hit by an unidentified flying object and from what I saw lying on my neck and upper torso.  I squatted in the water and frantically jumped around in an attempt to wash away this necklace of foreign organic matter that I was not about to touch. 

During this dreadful time of stress, I heard laughter behind me.  It was then that I realized that Pop Pop must be responsible for my dilemma.  Even after I managed to clean away the foreign guts from my body, Pop Pop continued to roar with laughter.

My curiosity soon overcame my alarm and humiliation.  I was quick to forgive Pop Pop for his mischief.  I used my clam rake to scoop up the peculiar thing that had ricocheted from my head and had fallen back into its watery habitat.

What was this bizarre, cucumber-shaped animal that had lost his repulsive entrails to my neck and chest?  Pop Pop did not know, and it remained a mystery to me until that day in zoology class during my sophomore year in college.




Footnote:  Just in case you want to see a sea cucumber eviscerate, click here.


        

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