|The Subject was Crabs
by Paul Pintarich, author of "History
by the Glass"
“. . I should have been a pair of ragged claws/ Scuttling across
floor of silent seas. . .” -- T.S. Eliot: “The
Love Song of J. Alfred
“There are three species of creatures who when they seem coming are
going,/ when they seem going they come: Diplomats, women, and crabs.”
-- John Hay: “Distichs. II”
Dungeness crabs; more specifically, those grouchy crustaceans of Pacific Coastal
waters whose waving ragged claws recall the protestations of an ancient
Greek chorus in a play by Euripides. Technically, the critters belong
to “section /Brachyura/ (short-bodied) within the order /Decapoda/” (having
5 pairs of “locomotor appendages”) Photo
is a hotlink to the Oregon Dungeness Commission.
Or more simply, “/lunch./”
The name comes down from Middle-English “crab(be)”, and from the
Swedish, “Skrabbe.” There is the “Crab Nebula” in outer space,
crab as a symbol of cancer in the zodiac; Roman Legionnaires might well
have said, “Hey, Octavian. Pass the /carcinides maenas./”
And let’s not forget Buster Crabbe, (who played Tarzan, Flash Gordon
Buck Rogers)--as well as a former wife who was crabby as hell. Some
years back, however, when we rented boats from the now-disappeared George’s
Dock and passed time dropping crab pots into a more bountiful Nehalem Bay,
we ignored all romantic references and plopped the freshly captured critters
into a kettle of boiling water. Immersed, they would scuttle their death
throes while turning red, their anger dissipating without laments in either
Latin or Greek.
The dock was co-owned and operated (sort of) by two retired Navy chiefs
who passed the time merrily drinking whiskey from coffee cups, and
perpetually red faces aptly fit Joseph Conrad’s definition of “rum
As cheerfully practicing alcoholics, the pair ran what the Navy would
call a “loose ship.” For ten dollars you could rent a rowboat, a couple
of crab pots, and for several hours mess around in the bay. And if you
returned late, when the two ex-chiefs were well into their cups, they might
blearily dismiss your tardiness with a cup-raised “To hell with it!”
then lurch about helping you boil your catch.
A former colleague, an ex-priest whose chronic bad luck may have been
the result of divine intervention (or a crabby first wife who personified
“diabolical”), came to Oregon from the Midwest; a place known more for
walleyed pike, Stizostedium vitreum, certainly, than a crab fishery.
Eager to learn about those delectable critters scuttling over the silent
bottom of Nehalem Bay, James and his wife met us at George’s Dock, their
arrival announced by a tire on my Volkswagen bus going immediately flat.
(Previously, riding with James and his wife in Portland, we were hit and
sent spinning through an intersection, causing me to mouth oaths James
had probably never heard serving Mass.)
Early that morning it was a clearer-eyed proprietor who launched us
aboard a small green rowboat provisioned with two oars, four baited
pots, an ample supply of beer and some lunch. And, of course, two
skeptical, eye-rolling wives (my first as well) who seemed to anticipate
Our day was sunny and bright, bay calm and wind light, and we rowed
about dropping pots at respectable distances, then took a break to
time for the crustaceans to scuttle into our traps. Intervals of waiting
were filled with reporters’ tales (lies?) enhanced by beer, until it
time to pull the pots, marked by their bobbing buoys.
Strong as a bull, as I was then, and well lubricated, I attempted at
point to row the boat single-handedly across the bar and out into the
broad ocean, an exercise dissuaded by surprisingly high waves and the
women expressing their concern by suggesting, “We’re all going to die!”
While James was reevaluating his tenuous relationship with a Higher
Power, I laughed carelessly in the face of Neptune’s frothy challenge,
though secretly holding back an urge to relieve myself. Beer
that to you.
(I remind that I haven’t had a drink in 25 years.)
After everyone calmed down we pulled the boat ashore on Nehalem Spit,
there to frolic, picnic and eventually watch in dismay as our little
green boat, lifted by the incoming tide, drifted blithely (and quite
swiftly, mind you) to the center of the bay.
Advising the women to cover their eyes, I was first off with my clothes
and hit the brackish water in a flat racing dive. Though the day was
sunny and bright, immersion into the bay could only be described as
breathtaking, so it was difficult for me to holler at Jim, now down
horn rims and running awkwardly in his jockey shorts, to go back.
Boat-less now, and with two eye-rolling wives, we sat wetly, drank
beer and discussed the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune,
day having lost its potential for merriment. Eventually we were spotted,
and one of the chiefs fired up an outboard, retrieved our boat and
greeted us with comments unique to Navy boatswain’s mates and unsuitable
for family newspapers.
As you can imagine, by now our crab pots were overflowing with
crustaceans grumpier than our wives. And when loosed over the bottom
our boat their angry claws snapped about dangerously, resembling the
chorus in Electra.
After apologizing to the chiefs ("To hell with it!" they said),
our catch was boiled to a bright shade of red, my tire changed and our
goodbyes said to Jim and his soon-to-be former wife.
It would soon be goodbye to George’s Dock as well, since the place washed
out to sea during a flood late in the last century; the chiefs probably
saluting their disappearing establishment with raised coffee cups and a
final, “To hell with it!”
Nehalem Bay photo is a hotlink
to the Neahkahnie Net information page. Click on it and you will
have all the directions you need.
Original text © 2008 Paul Pintarich