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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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
in case you want to see a sea cucumber
eviscerate, click here.