While getting my first dinghy sticker at the Harbormaster’s office I bumped into my old friend and shipmate, Dan Horn, the harbormaster himself. I told him about a conversation I had the week before with two of his staff planting 25,000 baby oysters in Cotuit Bay.
A man and a woman wearing waders were working away in the mud, setting out dozens of bags of tiny oysters on racks designed to keep them off of the bottom. The man excitedly waved me over to look and told me what they were doing, setting out 25,000 oysters as part of the Department of Natural Resources’ aquaculture program and moving them out to deeper water at low tide where they would be submerged most of the time.
I asked him about the program and he and his colleague patiently talked about the town’s use of a FLUPSY (a floating upwelling system) to grow tiny seed oysters into full grown clams for the town’s recreational permit holders to harvest in the fall. She talked about the filtration effects of oysters on removing nitrogen from the water — basically a win-win for both the harbor and my belly. It looked like miserable work, humping bags of clams from their skiff to the racks, then moving the heavy “tables” back out to deeper water.
I asked them if they worked for the Harbormaster, and they laughed and said “He works for us.”
Whoever you work for, I said, they need to know you’re working overtime in the cold mud so some summer clammers like me can get a dozen Cotuit oysters for the table.
If I have to pay a new dinghy fee (subject of a future post) and my $25 can buy some more oysters to clean up the bay, then even that’s not enough. Lots of volunteers from the Barnstable Association of Recreational Shellfishermen (like my step-father Warren Nickerson) wade into the mud alongside the staff and hump quahogs and oysters in relays from polluted waters to clean ones. Over and over and over.
My first memory is from 1960 on the linoleum floor of a kitchen in a house on the corner of Huron and Lexington Avenues in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I am two years old and crawling. My mother is cooking. At the kitchen table, sitting in front of a manual typewriter, is my father, a student at Harvard Business School. I discover a crumb of something interesting on the floor and put it into my mouth. It’s an old dried-out piece of fried onion and the flavor is intense.
Second early memory: I am sick and still in Cambridge. There is a vaporizer pumping out Vicks Vaporub steam over my crib. A smiling stranger enters the bedroom with my mother and he picks me up. He opens a black leather bag, prepares an injection, and gives me a shot in the butt. The pain is the worst thing I’ve experienced. The smiling stranger then becomes the dreaded Needle Man and his subsequent house calls are nightmares.
Four years later in the living room of an old colonial house on Central Street in Georgetown, Massachusetts, I am alone and exploring the forbidden drawer of my father’s desk. I’m afraid to touch his drafting tools, his slide rule, his mementos, but I touch them anyway. Knowing the consequences of desk invasion, I turn to the bookshelves and look for something to read.
I started reading when I was three years old. I said the word “stop” when my father stopped the Ford Falcon station wagon at a stop sign in Houston. He asked me why I said the word, assuming I was referring to the fact that he had stopped the car but I pointed at the red sign and the big white word. And the word was “STOP.” By five I was tearing through the weekly copies of Time Magazine, Argosy, BusinessWeek and the Boston Traveler. I had read all of the series by Thornton Burgess and Tom Swift, and was obsessed with sea stories by Edward Rowe Snow which Ida Anderson, the librarian in Cotuit, recommended I read.
My reading talent earned me with a lot of flattering attention from the grownups, particularly my grandfather, a high school teacher in Exeter, New Hampshire. I began to associate reading with praise, but I couldn’t pronounce a lot of words correctly (the Nile River was the “Neely River”) and got easily bored. I could rattle off the names of every one of the state capitols, carry on a conversation about U Thant, the Tet Offensive, and the names of the Mercury astronauts. I was trotted out at cocktail parties like a literary Mozart, a parlor trick who did tricks for treats. Life was good for I was special.
The bookshelves sag with college chemistry textbooks, a Modern Library edition of Rabelais, Boccacio’s Decameron, a Time-Life series of books about the countries of the world, a long row of yellow-spined National Geographics. There are shelves up higher which I can’t reach, so I drag over a chair to climb up for a peek. There is a book way up on the top shelf with the word “Child” on the spine. Being a child, I take it down, sit on the floor and look on the back cover.
There is a photo of the smiling Needle Man.
I understand why the book is kept so high and out of reach. It is part of the conspiracy to stick needles in me. It is where the pain is hidden. It’s an owner’s manual for raising a child circa 1964.
I open the book. I turn to the index at the back and start scanning for key words. The most important word in my world is there:
Yes Santa. The opposite of Needle Man. The avuncular giver of good. The chubby red-suited saint on his throne at Filenes Basement who flies around in a Piper Cub with Edward Rowe Snow and drops his presents out of the window down to remote islands for the stranded children of lighthouse keepers. Santa who brings train sets and itchy sweaters. He who sticks special gift packs of LifeSavers into stockings hung with care by the fire. The mysterious eater of Cookies. He who knows all. He who must be obeyed because he’s always watching.
I turn to Santa’s page in the Needle Man’s book by and begin to read. Knowledge flows from the page through my eyes into my empty brain and in an instant the world begins to feel wrong like the hallway of the snowbound hotel in The Shining when Jack Nicholson’s son is riding his tricycle down the carpeted hallways and the parallax perspective shifts and turns the hallway into a endless nightmare with no end.
“How to tell your child there is no Santa Claus…”
No Santa Claus. No Santa Claus? In that moment — as brutal as if the words were written bu chiseling letters chiseled into a tombstone — everything that was magical about my childhood became a sordid lie. The Tooth Fairy. The Easter Bunny … All of it was dashed into pieces made from my parents’ lies. I forgot to breathe. It was my heart breaking moment of existential First Grader despair. A loss of innocence straight out of that madman William Blake’s poetry:
A truth that’s told with bad intent Beats all the Lies you can invent.
Six years old and sitting by myself feeling very alone and faint, I closed Needle Man’s book and pondered the consequences of this terrible knowledge. I had flown too close to the sun, taken a bite from the corrupt apple of knowledge, and lo — Eden was destroyed and I had nowhere to go with with my new found knowledge. Tell my little brother Tom because I needed a friend to console me? That would be too cruel to destroy his illusions. Run sobbing to my parents? That would certainly bring an end to the annual scam and Christmas would surely be cancelled forever. I knew enough to bury the secret.
Actually, I had no moral compass and I kept the knowledge of the Santa Scam to myself for another five or six years out of pure greed. The book by the Needle Man went back on the shelf, but I kept returning to it constantly because it was the Dark Book of Parental Knowledge.
I pulled the book down whenever I was left alone in the house. I had no idea I was reading the most provocative influence on baby boomer child rearing since Doctor Benjamin Spock. Needle Man was the guy who told mothers to breast feed, to love their kids freely and not run them through some Prussian schedule of forced feedings and denied urges. After all it was the 1960s, Dr. Spock was getting arrested for protesting the Viet Nam War, and free-range child rearing was still in effect before the dawn of Helicopter Parenting. Those were the years when Daisy BB guns and bikes without helmets were considered acceptable Christmas gifts. Whenever Mom would run an errand to the IGA to pick up some milk and leave me alone for 30 minutes, that was enough time for me to pull the down the book for a quick exploration. Darker secrets lay ahead, ones far heavier than the Santa Disclosure.
I rode Bus #3 every day to the Perley Elementary School in Georgetown to attend first grade. In the classroom I sat behind a kid who had rickets and was given a special glass of milk every morning by the school nurse while the rest of us watched. One day, while I watched, he pooped in his pants and cleverly worked the turd down the leg of his pants, shaking it out of the cuff and onto the floor beside his desk, grinding it into the floor with his shoe to erase the evidence. The entire Perley Experience was weird. The principal had a pet goat who wore a sweater with a big G for Georgetown on it and who came to school on special occasions and could be induced to butt heads with the high school football players who got on all fours and charged it with their helmets.
The dynamics of my life on the playground and school bus were vicious, a Malthusian life of fear and despair. I was the tallest kid in the first grade, a total smartass because of the reading and my Texan nursery school manners which made me sound like a total suck up whenever I called the teacher “Ma’am” or wore my cowboy shirts to school. So I was the target of many fist fight challenges by the bullies in the second and third grades. I got the shit beaten out of me by one future serial killer on a regular basis. His last name was McBriarity and he lived in a dilapidated grey unpainted sagging house next to a rank smelling tannery and was the youngest of 10 siblings. I was forbidden by my parents to ever associate with him, but he lived in the neighborhood and there was no escaping his torments. My father nicknamed him “Pig Pen” after the character in the Peanuts comic because he smelled a bit like the tannery.
Pig Pen’s throne was the very back seat of Bus #3. His court of cronies were allowed to sit near him if he approved and his approval was earned through gifts of pocket knives, quarters, or penny candy. I wanted to be a back seat rider badly, but I lived on the edge of that clique, listening to their bawdy limericks and forbidden songs which they had learned from the older brothers I lacked: songs about Hitler and Mussolini’s genitalia, three Irishmen working in a ditch, and monkeys who wrapped their tails around flagpoles to keep their assholes from getting ice cold.
The back of the bus crowd was obsessed with sex. It was a Patriarchy too far from the bus driver to be disciplined and there were profound whispered debates between them like a bunch of Oxford dons speculating about the mystery of girls. Listening to them was like sort of like what it must have felt to sit in the back row of a meeting of the Royal Society in London in 1600 while the great scientists like Newton debated the miasma theory of disease spread by foul smells.
The prevailing sexual theory held by Pig Pen’s gang was the Belly Button Method of Reproduction. The Stork Model of Baby Delivery had been long discredited because of its appearance in a Loony Tune cartoon. Nudity, rubbing and the butt were somehow involved in the Belly Button Method. Pig Pen was the final authority on the Navel Theorem and embellished it with observations about the role of alcohol and public displays of affection in front of him and his siblings before the act took place. There was no challenging his hypothesis, for he had actually committed an act of “show me yours and I’ll show you mine” with one of his older sisters and thus had actual field research to confirm that girls lacked the appendage then properly known as a “dingus” by the back benchers of Bus #3. To deny Belly Buttons meant banishment from the back of the bus. (I never could understand the whole civil rights back of the bus thing as a kid watching the evening news with Walter Cronkite because I was so desperate to sit there myself).
It occurred to me that I might earn my seat if I found an definitive answer in the Needle Man’s Book. I turned to it wondering if there was some scripture between its magic covers about baby making that I could smuggle onto the bus to show Pig Pen and his lieutenants. I had kept the horrible proof of Santa’s nonexistence to myself for over a year, and felt smug knowing that whenever the big kids got worked up in early December during peak Santa Fever when they talked about their visits to Jordan Marsh to sit on the fat man’s lap and got crazed talking about their Christmas letters to the North Pole complete with a list of wants compiled from the Sears catalog.
“Puny fools,” I thought. “I could make you sob and grovel with what I know.”
Anyway, Needle Man’s book did indeed contain anatomical diagrams of Fallopian tubes and uteri, testes and urethrae. It was a Cliff Notes to help tongue-tied parents disclose the mysteries of life to their tweens. It was not written for a six-year old autodidact looking for leverage against a bunch of future Massholes riding in the back of a school bus and cracking up over words like “douchebag” and “dildo” — both of which I called my mother to see if she too found them funny but which earned me a savage mouth soaping and spanking with a wooden spoon.
I read about foreplay, intercourse, gestation, birth. The whole biological saga was there for me to consider, but once again my mind was blown and with my world rocked and as I sat cross-legged on the hooked rug of the old colonial house on Central Street, my thoughts raced with the horror that OMFG, mother and father had engaged in coitus like frogs in amplexus to produce me and were still doing it as mother was very pregnant with my future sister at the time.
The Horror. The Horror. There was no unseeing that truth.
I was so unsettled by the discovery that I could never bring myself to share it with the back seat gang. Santa was one thing. Sex was way too dangerous, so I tucked the nuclear secret away beside the truth of the Santa-Tooth Fairy- Easter Bunny deception and never told a friend nor my brother for another six years.
More than 30 years later, during the summer of 1995, I was at the Hyannis Airport waiting for the 6:30 am flight to LaGuardia. I saw sitting in the terminal the Needle Man. He was perhaps in his late 70s, but still looked as familiar to me as he did when he stuck needles in me. But he had gone from being a young doctor who made house calls to sick toddlers in Cambridge to become the most famous pediatrician in the world, publishing 40 books beyond the magic one I had found, and become a celebrity for his pioneering concept of child raising.
His name was T. Berry Brazelton and he died at his home here on Cape Cod last week at the age of 99.
Dr. Brazelton sat by himself reading a book while we waited for the flight to board. Because the seat beside him was empty I sat down and introduced myself as a former patient. He claimed to remember me, or at least to remember my mother, who he correctly recalled had red hair. He laughed hard at my memories of Needle Man, looked concerned and a wee bit wistful when I told him about the Santa trauma, and narrowed his eyes and furrowed his brow when I told him about my personal Sex-Ed Education as a first grader.
“That must have been awful for you!” he said. “To carry such a thing inside of yourself for so long. Did you ever tell anyone?”
I told him the story of quahogging in the Seapuit River with my father. I was 13 when the old gent turned to me and ambushed me with the topic of the birds and the bees. I let him suffer a little as he tried to diplomatically talk me through the realm of manhood and responsibility. I took a little pleasure seeing him stammer with embarrassment, saying nothing until he asked me if I had any questions. I dramatically raised a finger to make him wait a second, felt for a clam with my bare toes, then reached down to pull it out of the mud.
Dropping the clam into the basket between us I innocently asked, “So you mean you don’t tickle the woman’s belly button and the baby doesn’t come out of their butt?”
Rest in peace Dr. Brazelton. I forgive you the needles.
While going through some junk I discovered a copy of a paper I wrote in 1977 in college on the origins of the Fair-Haven Sharpie, a flat-bottomed oyster skiff popular in New Haven, Connecticut in the 19th century. I wrote this for Professor William Ferris, then a professor of American Folk Lore in the American Studies Department of Yale. While most of the syllabus and lectures focused on his work in African-American music and culture of the Mississippi Delta, I went down a more local path and researched the development of the sharpie, tracing its origins back to the dugout canoes built by the Iroquois. The research entailed me walking east from my dorm room across to the Fairhaven neighborhood on the banks of the Quinnipiac River in search of any old timers who might have worked in the once burgeoning oyster fishery. I had a cassette recorder, a notebook, and a cheap camera.
I thumbed to Mystic Seaport a few times to check out their collection of small boats and did my time in the research library there reading Howard Chapelle, the dean of American small boat design and curator at the Smithsonian. Chapelle had speculated on the dug out canoe origins of the long, narrow skiffs and I went a little deeper and keep digging into the construction techniques and coastal migration of the design up and down the East Coast. The sharpie was a very popular working boat and was utilized in the commercial oyster fishery from Cape Cod to Florida.
I lucked out with my leg work when I poked my head into a Fairhaven barber shop and asked the old timers there if they knew any old oystermen. I was directed to a local nursing home and there I met three very old codgers who still had their wits and could regale me with stories about the boats they built, sailed and worked from most of their lives.
When it came time to present the final paper in Ferris’s class, the grad student who ran my seminar (the once a week gathering of a dozen students and their assigned seminar leader) interrupted me and told Ferris I had never, not once, attended a single seminar during the entire term. Which was true. I worked in the library printing press during the afternoon before rowing practice and needed the job to keep my scholarship, so I blew the seminar off which I did in almost every lecture because I saw no point listening to blowhard classmates suck up to the grad student.
Ferris (who also graduated from The Brooks School, my prep school) said something to the effect of, “Oh yes. The oyster boat paper. About that. Have you considered post-graduate work in maritime history? I’m giving you an A+ and recommend you continue the work, it’s fascinating and the most novel piece of work I’ve seen in ten years of teaching this class.”
Wow. Okay. Wonder how he would have felt if he knew I had handed in the same paper to two other professors that same term and racked up two more A+’s for the same work.
Anyway, a reporter at the Cape Cod Times was doing some research on sharpies for his brother who was building one, and he came across a copy of the paper on file at the New Haven Historical Society. I guess one of the three professors deemed it good enough to submit it on my behalf.
The last two weekends of February were surprisingly warm on Cape Cod so what’s a person to but go clamming and paint boats? It was 60 and sunny when I decided to squeeze into a pair of uninsulated waders and scratch around for some quahogs off of Lowell Point. My lower extremities turned into popsicles but I wanted some chowder and would not be denied. A pair of beach walkers cocooned in their down coats took a seat on the stairs leading up to the old Lowell estate and watched me pull one clam after another out of the hard bottom.
A clam warden appeared out of nowhere. The relay off of the point is next to the town dock so it’s not hard for the department of natural resources staff to swing down in their truck and see if anyone is out there. A few years ago there was a lot of pissed off clammers after some local Wampanoags cleared out the beds under the cover of their native riparian rights so that stretch of beach tends to get a lot of scrutiny. The town with the help of the volunteers of the Barnstable Association of Recreational Shellfishers “relays” clams from high up in the bays where the water is a little more stagnant and polluted down to the lower harbor and so-called relay bed where they can flush out in cleaner water until they’re safe to eat.
The warden called out to me, asked how I was doing, asked me to show him my basket and to give him my license number. I was too far out to feel sociable and it was too cold to wade back ashore and then out again, so we conversed through shouts for five minutes before he was satisfied I was legit and only grabbing three dozen quahogs for my dinner.
It was quite nice to stretch out on the back deck with a knife and open said clams and then turn them into a winter chowder. Something about the smell and taste of plain clam chowder makes me realize the “terroir” of Cotuit is the particular smell of its antidiluvian black mud which comes through its clams and chowder.
The following weekend was just as warm, and with temperatures in the mid-60s I turned on the outside faucets, dragged out the house, and set to work on the motorboat and the sloop. Nothing like the lung searing fumes of hull cleaner to get one awake, but in eight hours of non-stop work I was able to paint a total of 51-feet of bottom with antifouling paint, right down to a fresh boot-top of red on the motorboat.
I left the motorboat in the middle of the lawn, daring to think for a moment I might launch and be on the water in February when the usual first launch is in April. But no. Hubris is a bitch and now the boat still rests in the middle of the lawn covered with a half-foot of cold, cold now and another foot is predicted tonight and tomorrow. At least they’re painted and I can cross that off the list — the first time in my memory I’ve checked off antifouling paint day in February.
With the crocuses buried and the tulips and daffodils utterly confused at this point, next up in the harbinger list are the arrival of the ospreys and the planting of my peas on St. Patrick’s day. With tomorrow’s yet-to-be named blizzard on its way, I doubt either will happen this week.
Sean Driscoll in the Cape Cod Times reports today that the Popponesset oyster farm application approval has been upheld in court. This doesn’t clear the way for the applicant, Richard Cook, to start operations. Oh no. The greedhead property owners fighting him can appeal to the Court of Appeals or the Supreme Judicial Court (which their bottomless pockets almost guarantees they will, at taxpayer expense to defend I might add). According to the Times the property owners have another suit pending against Mashpee’s ZBA and building commissioner.
“The court stated the homeowners’ claim that the Cape Cod Commission must review the project because it is a commercial development was incorrect. The commission’s regulations include neither agriculture nor aquaculture in its definitions of a commercial project, the court stated.
The Appeals Court also found myriad other issues raised by the homeowners to be without merit, including claims that Cook had failed to adequately address the safety concerns of his gear potentially washing away in a storm and that the Conservation Commission reached its decision without enough deliberation or consideration.”
Today the Globe published a jaw dropping story out of Mashpee. Read it. I am almost too pissed off to type. I am so pissed off I shouldn’t type but when I heard about it on a Boston public radio talk show during a drive to Boston today I did something I’ve never done before and I actually called and vented (my venting begins around 1:09) like that old guy at town meeting who rants about how the fluoride in the water is causing him to have erectile dysfunction and who smells a little bit like pee in his dirty cardigan and who writes long letters to the editor.
Here’s the sordid tale of midnight legislation snuck in the back door on behalf of the rich and mighty. It’s the latest in a saga I’ve been blogging about for a while now.
So there’s been an ongoing stink for the past couple of years in Mashpee as a bunch of waterfront-owning McMansion-squatting greedheads have filed lawsuit after lawsuit to block a commercial oyster grower named Richard Cook from turning a two-acre stretch of Popponesset Bay into an oyster farm. The town, the state, the courts — all have given the guy the go ahead, but in a classic piece of scumbaggery by a hack State Rep from Newburyport (easily 100 miles away from Mashpee) an amendment was tacked onto the state budget last week that would declare a “marine sanctuary” not in Mashpee specifically, not even on Cape Cod to read the amendment, but at some undisclosed location defined by frigging GPS coordinates. The coward didn’t have the spine to actually name the town — he thought he could cloak it with some frigging latitude and longitude numbers. I’m sure it was an honest mistake. Here’s the offending amendment.
And the crowning indignant play by the esteemed Representative Michael Costello is that he further lacked the balls and courtesy to tell the Cape Cod delegation who were actually elected to represent Mashpee — State Senator Dan Wolf and State Rep David Vieira — that he was dropping the little turd of an amendment affecting their districts onto the budget. Thank god the Globe got curious and punched the numbers into Google Maps. (Thanks to reader Aaron Welles for checking the numbers in Google Earth and sending this screen shot below)
Costello was recruited to do the deed by ML Strategies, the lobbying arm of the Boston law firm of Mintz Levin, the pettifoggers who represent the abutters who live along the shore where Cook’s submerged farm would go.
Costello claims he did it for the environment. Who he did it for was a bunch of pricks who include the owner of the New England Patriots. Who wants to bet Costello gets spotted quaffing a frosty Sam Adams in the owner’s box with Gisele at Foxboro Stadium this fall? What Costello really did when he committed his ethical breach was try to preserve a million-dollar waterfront view, a great view indeed — across the bay at Cotuit’s pristine Ryefield Point courtesy of the Barnstable Land Trust.
Stand in Cotuit and look back at them and what you see looks like a row of tacky beached ocean liners, lit up to beat the band, their chemical lawns, big piers and cesspools poisoning the very bay this guy’s oysters might actually help clean up.
These people have no souls. None. They remind me of the time as a Cape Cod Times reporter covering the waterfront when I watched in amazement as a Lily Pulitzer-wearing ehisshewle of a grand dame (btw: great job missing this story Cape Cod Times, yet again the Globe has kicked your butt in your own back yard) tell a Barnstable shellfish committee in 1980 that commercial quahoggers in Osterville’s Eel River were a blight on her view and worked close enough to her house that she could “hit them with a nine-iron shot.” She wasn’t the last of the Littoral Leeches. Then the Ostervillians of Imposterville went after the aquaculture guys in West Bay for daring to float bags of seed oysters in front of their houses. “A menace to navigation!” They lost that fight too.
If I only possessed a Mashpee clamming license I would do my level best to invite all my clammer friends to join me in sitting on these jerks’ beach on Popponesset Bay every afternoon around cocktail hour in front of their guests (in a pink Speedo of course) and dig their goddamn clams. I would fish nowhere else. I would fowl nowhere else. I would do everything in my power to get that now sad but familiar sight of some poor policeman trudging down the sand in his brogans, towards me, telling me, “Please buddy. I know what the law says, but can you just do this someplace else? Please?”
I used to say “yes, sure, don’t want to cause a problem.” But never again. Take back the beaches and give Mashpee back to the original wampum tycoons, the Wampanoags. They at least took decent care of the place and appreciated a fine oyster.
Cook said it all to the Globe:
“All the way along through the process, I’ve done what the agencies and regulators have asked me to do in filing for permits and et cetera,” said Cook. “And I don’t understand how at this point someone can come in the back door from off-Cape and without any knowledge of local authority and residents, try and create something like this in order to stop my proposal from moving forward.”
I launched the motorboat yesterday afternoon after two weeks of working on it in the middle of the yard. Some years the boat manages to go in early, other years it goes in late. This year was late because of the winter-that-wouldn’t-end. Some years the boat needs multiple visits to the mechanic, other years I get her running on my own. This year I tackled a few overdue projects and one nasty recurring problem which required a sledgehammer. As my Cousin Pete (who lives across the street in the western half of the Chatfield family compound) likes to to say, watching a Churbuck with an internal combustion engine (lawnmower, pressure washer, automobile, chainsaw, outboard motor) is like watching a monkey with a hand grenade. I know he likes to sit on his front porch with a cocktail and laugh at my best efforts to destroy anything that lives on gasoline and I am sure he noted my application of a sledge hammer to my Honda 40 horsepower outboard for future retelling.
Back in March, in a fit of optimism, I dragged the boat out from behind the garage, cut off the useless blue tarp that collapsed during the first snow storm, noted that the trailer’s ten year-old tires are still hanging in there (which is good because the wheels are rusted onto the axles forever), and started the familiar recommissioning process which is becoming second nature now that the boat is twenty-two years old and on engine #3.
The battery went onto the charger. I grabbed a broom and swept out the sticks and leaves, sand and shells, dragged out the clam rakes and baskets, and winced at the beard of dried slime along the waterline and the crust of barnacles on the keelson — proof I didn’t do much of a job last fall when I yanked the boat for the season. I had a feeling my neglect would mean the boat would bone me so I drove up to see Dow Clark, my mechanic and asked him if he could tune things up. He pointed out that there was a blizzard coming (this was last month), and he wouldn’t work on the boat if the temperatures went below freezing because he needed to run a hose through through engine’s water intakes in the parking lot and didn’t want to turn it into a skating rink for the other tenants in the little row of garages behind Peck’s and the Domino’s Pizza place.
The blizzard came and went, I returned to the boat (glad I hadn’t launched her in time for an evening of 60 mph gusts out of the north), replaced the battery, and lowered the engine. The first boat problem of 2014 emerged immediately: the steering was frozen, a common occurrence which meant the push rod system that pushed and pulled the motor on the transom was seized. Inside I went to Google and YouTube, read about the problem, watched about a dozen different possible solutions, and returned armed with a propane torch, a hacksaw, a length of rebar, a cold chisel, a ball-peen hammer, a mason’s hammer, a grease gun, and a spray can of white lithium grease, another can of “PB Blaster, and finally, a can of carburetor cleaner. I disconnected the motor from the steering assembly, got rid of all nearby gasoline, lit the torch, and started heating the steering tube. For the next six hours I feebly tapped at the end of the stainless steel ram with the hammer, tried a 2″x4” lever, reapplied heat, sprayed various fluids, and finally, in a fit of total despair and destruction, broke out a sledgehammer and started whaling away at the end of the pernicious steering gear.
That did it. If it is stuck, whack it. A couple applications of the precision tool and the ram started to budge a tiny bit with every smack. I finally drove the thing all the way into the tube, then continued the brutal repair with a piece of rebar, clocking my knuckles so hard when the sledgehammer missed that I was convinced I’d broken my hand. After countless attacks on the piece of precision Japanese machinery, the steering ram popped out and I performed a little Dave Dance of Happiness on the brown lawn. I reamed out the tube with brushes and carburetor cleaner, cleaned the ram piston off and regreased it, then reassembled the whole mess until the steering wheel spun back and forth with silken, greased ease. Success. I spared myself a new $125 steering cable and a trip to the mechanic.
Then to the greasy manual for a refresher in changing the engine oil and lower unit lube. I siphoned whatever water I could find out of last year’s gas and drained the fuel lines, changed the fuel-water separator, and tightened the drain holes on the three carb bowls. New spark plugs followed, a change in the fuel filter and I was ready to test it. Professional mechanics use these “headphone” sort of clamps that attach to the water intake of the motor and then run a hose through them so they can work the running motor on dry land. The last time I did that I melted the water pump. This year I hooked the trailer up to the car and drove the boat down Old Shore Road and backed the trailer in deep enough to lower the motor without launching the boat (I have learned that launching prematurely always means the boat will not start and will need to be paddled back to the trailer, winched back on, and taken up to Dow Clark two miles inland on a trailer with no lights and an expired registration that is one flake of rust away from collapsing.
I climbed aboard, lowered the motor, inserted the key, said a prayer, and started cranking. It astarted after 15 seconds, a feeble, barely combusting ignition that I nursed to life like a freezing man lighting a fire in a Jack London story. I let it strangle and shudder, then dared to give it a bit more gas, let go of the choke and it LIVED! Do another Dave Dance of happiness, feel like a master mechanic.
I let it run for 15 minutes on the trailer, relishing the opportunity to hog the entire boat ramp by myself on a Saturday afternoon ; a ramp that in three months would have a line of impatient boaters waiting for their turn to launch or haul their boats while some ass clown clogged things up by deciding to clean his Bayliner while everyone waited and honked their horn. The off-season in Cotuit is the season of the Townie Prerogative: when those of us stupid enough to live here from January to April get to put out our dinghies on the prime spots, get to hog boat ramps for as long as we want, drive fast in areas of the harbor usually confined to 6 mph, and then clam in places that get closed on May 1.
I let the motor run for a quarter hour because the second rule of Churbuck Outboard Failure is that a motor that runs well near the beach will fail as soon as it is about 500 feet away from the beach — generally because of water in the system, or a failed water pump that sets off the dreaded alarm sound which means a $500 repair bill is coming soon. A sub-rule of Churbuck Outboard Failure is that failure in the off-season means there aren’t any other boaters around to come to one’s rescue and the possibility of being stranded and having to swim in 40 degree water is very real. These are the lessons learned over 22 Cape Cod Springs, proof that wisdom is nothing more than the accrual of repeated failures.
I resisted the temptation to back off of the trailer and bomb around the bay. The bottom was unpainted and there was more work to do. Driving an unpainted boat would definitely draw the curses of the Gods of Maritime Failure and I only get superstitious when I am on the water.
Back to the yard and then off to the marine supply store for the annual BOHICA* (nothing will trash a bank balance faster than a can of bottom paint or any sort of marine hardware). The harbormaster nearly wrote me a ticket last August for being on the water without navigation lights. I had to invest in a new sternlight and green-and-red bow light, wire, connectors, switches, etc.. Back to the boat and my favorite liquid after a smoky peaty single malt scotch — Hull Cleaner — an evil solution that is swabbed around the waterline of the white hull which turns brown over the course of a summer like a smoker’s lungs. Hull cleaner must be washed off, so down into the cistern under the grape arbor I go — through a manhole cover into a dank dirt floor chamber under the birdfeeders to turn back on the outdoor faucets. Then back into daylight in search of the hoses, replacing washers and finding a working nozzle while the birds act inconvenienced because I dare interrupt their springtime binge diet.
Hull Cleaner magically bleaches everything away like a blessing from the Pope, but it also eats into the trailer’s galvanized frame one whiff of the stuff and the disconcerting sensation of burning lungs makes me believe it is an evil fluods. I hose it off, get the bottom wet, and drag my 55-year old ass under the boat with a scrub brush and scraper to vanquish 2013’s barnacles and slime. This results in my being crippled later in the evening, forced to lay on my back on the floor while watching 60 Minutes and moaning that I have strapping sons who should be crawling under boats on wet grass littered with stinky evicted barnacles.
The next day my son thoughtfully volunteered to crawl under the boat wearing a set of disposable Tyvek overalls to paint the bottom with antifouling paint while I masking-taped the boot top line. When we were done the boat looked about as good as it did the day in 1992 when I picked it up from the builder in Vineyard Haven (the best $7500 I have spent in my life).
The wiring of the lights was a sobering reminder that I am a terrible electrician. My first attempt succeeded in turning the new lights on, but my mis-wiring also turned the circuit into one big electric stove top that started to turn red, smoke and melt the plastic insulation off of the wire. Back to the Internet for assistance, but finally I figured out enough 12V electrical wiring theory to get the job done correctly.
By this point in time it is noon on Easter Sunday. Easter dinner starts at four pm. I look for volunteers to join me for the maiden voyage and a quick clamming expedition to secure enough littlenecks for appetizers. No takers, everyone is occupied with deviled egg construction. So I break out the new waders, find the VHF radio, cellphone, clam license, buckets, oarlocks, oars, temporary mooring float, throw it all into the boat, insert the drain plugs, connect the gas tank, back up the trailer hitch, and off I go under bluebird skies and a nice spring day.
The boat started on the first try. I backed off the trailer, brought the boat into the beach and left it there while I parked the trailer on the side of Old Shore Road. Back to the boat, off the beach, restart, back away and head for the winter stick that marks my mooring near the yacht club’s beach to tie on a temporary painter until the mooring guy can get out there and swap the wooden winter stick for the regular rode.
The alarm horn goes off just as I pull up to the mooring. SHIT! Off with the engine before heinous amounts of destruction occur. I tie the boat onto the winter stick before addressing yet another spring launching spoiled by Honda. I turn it back on. No alarm. I note the engine “pisser” is not squirting water. Proof the water pump isn’t work. Off with the engine, find the hidden paper clip, tilt up the engine, and ream out the little piss-port under engine cover. Restart, long satisfying stream of pee and no alarm horn.
I headed off to Sampson’s Island to clam, and opened up the engine all the way as I skipped across the chop of Cotuit Bay, the wind chill plummeting the temperature and bringing wind blown tears to my eyes. No alarm horns No surges in power as the carbs drink in water. Just a well working boat on a sunny day. One month of weekends and one boat is in the water in time for the first stripers, squid and bluefish. Now to start on the big sailboat and another month of messing around.
The Cape Cod Clam Caper appears to have been solved. A spate of thefts last year from commercial and municipal oyster grants from Dennis to Marstons Mills meant someone was stealing tens of thousands of clams and finding a way to fence them. Which meant someone was selling the public “transfer” clams being grown in polluted water before their transfer and cleansing.
Now comes the sad news that one familiar Upper Cape institution, Joe’s Lobster Mart in Sandwich, on the bulkhead of the Cape Cod Canal allegedly bought the clams from the alleged clam pirate, one Michael Bryant, 38.
The owner of Joe’s, Joe Vaudo, has run the place for the past four decades (I am an occasional customer) and is chairman of the Sandwich Planning Board. He’s been fined and is at risk of losing his lease from the Army Corps of Engineers who manages the canal.
Every place has its native culinary specialties. Buffalo, New York has beef on weck; Cincinnati was five-way chili; New Orleans the Po-boy; North Carolina the pulled pork barbecue sandwich with coleslaw, and on and on and on. Turn on a food channel and there will be some overenthused fat guy on a culinary tour of the backwaters looking for the regional speciality.
Yet what of Cape Cod? What are the classic items that every tourist should seek out? Frankly the place isn’t famous for much — certainly not on the level of a Philly cheesesteak — and even within Massachusetts there are foods that get mixed up with Cape Cod but which aren’t really Cape Cod born. Take the fried clam for example — that’s a North Shore/Essex County speciality born in Essex at Woodman’s where in 1914 Chubby Woodman fried some soft-shelled “steamer” clams in batter at the suggestion of a customer. Sure, one can obsess about the best fried clams and search the Cape for the best examples (personally I used to favor Sandy’s in Buzzards Bay, but crave the ones from The Bite in Menemsha, even if you have to own a hedge fund to afford them).
Clam chowder is pretty Cape Cod, but apparently the dish came down from French-Canada and the word is derived from “chaudière” after the stove the stuff was cooked on in the Maritime Provinces. They serve Legal Seafood’s chowder at Fenway Park — frankly a kind of disgusting thought on a steamy humid day when a guy comes trooping up the stairs in the bleachers hawking what is essentially clam-flavored hot milk thickened with corn starch or flour. No one makes the clam chowder I grew up with, but if you want a sense of it, read Melville’s account of Ishmael’s dinner at the Spouter Inn in New Bedford.
One very Cape Cod dish is Portuguese kale soup, especially around East Falmouth where there is a big population of Cape Verdeans, Azoreans, and other descendants of the Portuguese sailors who settled on the Cape after sailing on New England whalers in the mid-19th century. Take chicken broth, a lot of torn up kale (the miracle food of the paleo-Hipster movement), some kidney beans, diced potatoes, sliced chorizo and you have a bowl of goodness.
If I had to nominate one dish as the official Cape Cod specialty I would have to go with the stuffed quahog, also known as the “Stuffie.”
Take big quahogs — the bigger the better, like ashtray sized monsters — grind up all the meat and clam juice and mix with some sort of bread crumbs, diced onion, celery and whatever feels right, mix into a filling like a turkey stuffing, pack into the open shells and bake until golden brown. The restaurants serve them with a pat of butter, a lemon wedge, and a bottle of tabasco.
Stuffed quahogs are big among Cotuit cooks for bragging rights. My step-sister, mother, aunts, brother-in-law …. everyone has their own take on the stuffie. Green bell peppers? Maybe red pepper flakes? There is no great restaurant stuffed quahog. Most bars that serve them as bar food get premade ones from New Bedford — nasty, very processed pasty things with no big clam chunks. Do not confuse a stuffie with Clams Casino — different thing altogether.
I confess I like a homemade Cotuit stuffed quahog, and even will go with a mass produced ones if I’m at the right bar and want something to go with a beer. My favorite recipe — which is total heresy because it is “gourmet” to some critical palates– is Chris Schlesinger’s “Ultimate Stuffie” from the Back Eddy in Westport. These suckers have ground Portuguese sausage, a ton of sage and oregano, and kernels of corn. I discovered the recipe in The New England Clam Shack Cookbook, (probably one of my most used books on my kitchen bookshelf.)