Between a Rock and a... 350 Pound Oyster Tong
I was making steady progress to become a professional waterman. I now had an exceptional boat in Mary C, and because I lived in Rock Hall, I had easy access to some of the best fishing grounds in America. But I knew I couldn’t find true success as a waterman until I found and retained a reliable, strong and smart crewmember to help me do the work and share in the profits. In truth, I needed another waterman onboard with me, someone who would follow my lead, but also take over if needed.
In Kent County, I had access to many fine watermen who would have made fine partners. But I wanted Bob “Hoot” Gibson as my next crewmember. Having watched him serve as a crewmember for other captains, I knew he was eager to make money and could work like a machine. Though Bob was barely 16 and I was only 24, I was sure the two of us could outwork and out-hustle every other two-man team in Rock Hall.
As a team, we regularly worked the T Tree oyster bar. I liked this particular bar because it was only a few miles away from Rock Hall and it was loaded with consistently large oysters. Harvesting these oysters meant a better price, less effort to cull down to five percent, and a better fill rate to fill one bushel basket. Unfortunately, working this bar was far from easy because it was prone to heavy seas. The oysters were also deeper into the water, which meant we used a lot more rope. But what really made the bar dangerous was the presence of many very large stones that were intermingled with the oysters.
To profitably harvest the oysters off the T Tree, I needed heavy tongs that could hold the stones and a load of oysters. So I had gone to Martin Wagner and Alfred Jacquette, two of Maryland’s best blacksmiths, and asked them to build me two heavy-gauge steel tongs. When they were done, the tongs weighed 350 pounds each.
I loved working this bar, because it consistently yielded good profits and was almost never crowded with other watermen. Back in the 1960s, harvesting oysters with a drop tong system was nearly a perfect job for me. I didn’t mind doing the repetitive work over and over. I liked working with my hands, too. I liked watching the piles of oysters build up around my feet as we worked. For me, harvesting oysters on the Chesapeake Bay was a perfect way for me to make a living.
Mary C was rigged up just right and our winder systems functioned consistently and safely all the time. A good waterman like Bob, in calm waters, could make three dips in a minute in 18 feet of water. Dip. Dip. Dip. That’s all we did from sunrise to sunset every day the weather allowed us to work the T Tree. I was sure that life couldn’t get any better than what we enjoyed harvesting oysters that winter.
One rainy morning as the wind blew hard out of the northeast, Bob and I were alone on the T Tree, working our respective sides on Mary C. The rain didn’t bother me; I was wearing my oilskins, which kept me dry and warm. While I worked off the port side, Bob was doing the same thing off the starboard side. We worked so well, both as a team and as individuals, that our tongs rarely collided over the culling board. Trust me when I say that if you pick the right crew, life as a waterman is hard to beat.
I was working my side of the boat, filling up the floorboards with oysters. I was in my zone, thinking about “everything and nothing.” Dip. Dip. Dip. Then, as I worked over the culling board, two problems occurred almost simultaneously. First, a massive stone landed the culling board, too big for me to push off by myself. Then, far worse, the clutch on the winder failed, causing my tongs to rise over my head, instead of falling back into the water. Preoccupied with moving the big stone off the culling board, I never even heard the sound when the tongs smashed into the block and tackle rig attached to the mast. Then, still unbeknownst to me, the tongs released on contact with the mast and fell directly towards my head, which was leaning over the culling board. In an instant, the tongs smashed my face down into the big stone, then bounced off the culling board and into water.
Fortunately, my skull was not split wide open by the force of the drop tongs striking me. But I was knocked down on the floorboard. Instantly I was covered with blood, and the rain splattered the redness everywhere. What Bob first saw must have been terrible. With blood everywhere, I had two bones sticking out of my nose. The roof of my mouth was split open which forced even more blood to gush from my mouth and nose. My cheek bones were broken and I had a gash in my back. I was bleeding like a stuck hog, which must have been frightening to see on an all-white workboat.
What a situation for a young man of 16 to witness! Following his instincts, Bob ran up to the front cabin to get a dry shirt to cover my face. But when he got close enough to see how badly my flesh was torn, he didn’t want to use the shirt. Instead, he said “Don’t touch yourself nowhere!” He was concerned I might touch the wounds with my filthy oyster hands. The next words out of his mouth were, “Larry, don’t look at me or I will pass out!”
As I lay on the floorboards rolling back and forth in pain, Bob’s adrenaline kicked in. He pulled the tongs that had crushed me back into the boat by hand. He instinctively knew not to use the winder, with its failed clutch system. He then pulled up the crankshaft drags, which controlled drift while we were tonging. Though I was fading in and out of consciousness, I was amazed how Bob could pull those tongs up without using the winder.
He kept asking me what to do next but continued to follow his own good instincts. With no other workboats nearby to lend a hand, he had no choice but to get me back to Rock Hall and then to the emergency room in Chestertown. As he revved up the engine, he kept saying, “Don’t look at me!” and I kept saying, “Don’t run the engine at full throttle! The engine will overheat!” Once under way, the pain made it impossible for me to keep still. And lying on the oyster-covered floorboards made me feel sick to my stomach. After some trial and error, I found the least painful position was to stand up, holding on to the crossed ropes. As Bob steered us south towards Rock Hall, I looked north towards Baltimore so Bob wouldn’t get sick.
Halfway back to Rock Hall, the rudder pin pushed out of its housing, which forced us to stop. Working side by side, we managed to get the pin back in its post. While I was down near the engine, I smelled hot antifreeze, indicating the engine was getting close to overheating. I reminded Bob not to overpower Mary C, but he disregarded my words, since I was in bad shape.
It must have been a frightening sight for my wife, Paula Sue, to see Mary C roaring into the harbor at full speed in the middle of the day. She was working at the restaurant overlooking the harbor and I’m sure she was shocked to see my boat return so early. Once Mary C was docked, Bob unloaded me quickly from the boat and then reloaded me into my 1957 Ford Thunderbird. As we raced us down the stretch of Route 20 (locally called the Pat Leonard Highway), Bob told me he was having trouble keeping the car from drifting off the road. I told him he had to slow up or we’d both be dead before we got to Chestertown.
At the emergency room, I was in shock. I knew, for sure. I was covered with blood and I had much pain from my broken bones. I was unable to tell the doctor anything about the accident and Bob must have given him the details as best he could. Strangely, the main thing I was concerned about at that moment was my expensive watermen boots. I kept telling the people tending to me to keep an eye on my rubber boots. The doctor got tired of my asking about my boots, and finally told me to “quit worrying about your damn boots and let me stop some of this bleeding!”
After studying the damage to my nose, he informed me he couldn’t make both the inside and the outside of my nose right without surgery. He asked which part I wanted to have right, and, still in a daze, I told him to fix the outside. He did so by shoving two probes up my nostrils, which hurt like the dickens. Then he covered my nose with a piece of dark brown clay, to protect it from further damage. He sewed up the gash in my back and sent me home until I could recover enough to have surgery to fix my face.
For the first few days after the accident, I was so blanked out from the pain, and the painkillers, that I didn’t remember much. But I do remember the conversation I had with the doctor when I went back a few days later to discuss my options. After looking at each wound carefully, he told me I would be okay, if I gave my wounds a chance to heal. He said that could take three months—or much longer if I didn’t give my body a chance to rest. I was pretty upset with his plan, and I said, “Doc, I can’t afford to be off the water for a couple of weeks, let alone months.”
With no health insurance, no short-term disability and no source of incoming cash to pay bills, I told him, my recovery was going to be more harmful to my life than the accident. He listened to my whining for about two minutes and finally said, “Captain, you are grounded, so go home and heal.”
Stubborn as could be, I left his office with no intention of being off the water for more than two weeks. But as the last of my pain prescriptions ran out, I began to understand that my body was in factseverely damaged and that a period of rest was unavoidable.
For the first time in my life, I was grounded physically, emotionally, and even spiritually. All I could think about was the money I was losing and the lost fishing days with my friends. I was miserable. At age 24 I was unable to accept that I was the only waterman in Rock Hall grounded. It seemed so unfair and unlucky. I was so young and headstrong back then I couldn’t possibly see how (or even if) God was guiding my life. Only years later, when I was in my sixties, did I realize that it was God who placed that stone and Bob Gibson on the Mary C to save my life.
Wounded, But Not Mortally So
Medically, I was in good hands. My face, neck and back were badly torn up and required several surgeries to guide the healing process. When the doctors were done with me they sent me home to rest and recover. I hated to hear the words “read,” “relax” or “rest,” and it nearly killed me to stay inside, to stay still and allow my bones and flesh to heal. Slowly, I slipped into a funk. And I stayed in this funk for about four weeks, which gave my flesh time to heal over and my bones time to set.
Fortunately, the community of Rock Hall found a couple of new ways to help me heal on the outside, which also lifted my spirits. Mr. George Leary, who owned the Rock Hall Marine Railway, offered me a part-time job as a utility person, helping his skilled craftsmen with their work. I wasn’t a good enough carpenter myself to do billable services, but I was able to help the experts work more efficiently. Because my father had taught me so many skills, I was very adept at helping others. I required minimal instruction and less supervision, so I did not slow any of the full-time workers down. What a blessing it was for George to give me at least a part-time job so I could keep my mind active.
Though the job did keep groceries on the table, I was not able to keep up with my boat payments, house payments and medical bills. They were piling up fast, and without income from harvesting oysters and rockfish during the winter months, I was now flat broke and on my way to bankruptcy— not an attractive option for me as a waterman. To keep up with the bills, I decided to sell Mary C to Bob, who was ready to strike out on his own. I knew he would take great care of her, and I selfishly liked the idea that I would see her on the water now and then.
Between my day job and the money from selling Mary C, I held onto enough financial strength until my healing was complete. And that spring I bought the 42-footfoot gas-powered boat, Comet, from Captain Bobby Clark. Years before, Bobby had purchased her from the family of Uncle Josh, who had died of cancer. I was honored and thrilled to own the workboat once owned by Uncle Josh. For this special boat, I was willing to go into considerable debt to become its new owner.
It’s funny how it played out. I had been dreaming about buying a larger workboat, but couldn’t find a way to make it all happen. For a while, I had wanted to convert some of my summer work to creating a charter fishing enterprise, but I just couldn’t find the right timing. Ironically, because of my oyster accident, events fell into place that helped me advance my dreams—and the dreams of others at the same time.
As I had hoped, I enjoyed the charter fishing business, because I liked to interact with the people. I took great pleasure in watching people catch their first rockfish, bluefish or croaker, and I found real enjoyment in teaching young people the basics of fishing on the Chesapeake Bay. In many ways, my first years as a charter fishermen helped me connect with the world beyond Rock Hall. It also helped me get my strength and my confidence back after my accident on the T Tree bar.
Later that fall, I rigged up Comet to harvest oysters with hydraulically powered patent tongs. This was a new system that was far more expensive to set up than the drop tong system I had used for years. But it was worth every cent I borrowed from the bank. With my new patent tong rig, I could dig oysters faster and deeper, in mud or sand, which dramatically increased my harvests. Bringing in 75 bushels per day (then the daily limit per licensed watermen) was no problem with this new rig.
With Comet now fully geared, I roamed all over the Chesapeake Bay in search of the best public oyster reefs. With oyster buyers paying top dollar and plenty of healthy oyster reefs to meet market demands, I didn’t even need to add a second rig or hire a third crewmember. All I needed to make good profits was to find and hire an experienced waterman to cull my oysters to, or below, the “five percent little ones” rule seven days per week.
The crewmember who made my fall oyster season a complete success was a man named Willis Dashanay. Willis, locally known as Mighty Nice, culled our harvest quickly, legally and profitably. He was a great asset to my business. But even more important to me than just getting the work done, Willis brought a gift of laughter. He had a remarkable sense of humor. He also recognized that I was a driven man trying to financially recoup from my oyster accident. Sensing my tendencies to push too hard, he provided just the right blend of strength and humor to keep me from running at full throttle for too long and risking a physical relapse. Willis was a blessing to me that fall, and it made perfect sense to me when he left the water years later to become a preacher.
In the spring, after missing out on the previous year’s fin fishing seasons, I was eager to make the good money again by working with an experienced captain. Captain Phil Perry hired me as a crewmember to help him catch rockfish, perch and shad on his boat Sammy. A superb waterman and even better friend, Phil got me back in the groove of fishing with gill nets. Through his friendship and his ability to catch fish, he enabled me to finish my healing process and declare myself officially off the disabled list. That job also helped me get back on track financially and clear off the last of my medical bills.
Because of the accident, I lost almost a year’s worth of income and momentum in the early 1960s. But with the help of these special people from Rock Hall, I financially survived. Sadly, many watermen never recover financially from injuries that serious, so I knew I was either very lucky or somehow blessed. Now back in the game, I volunteered to serve the Kent County Watermen’s Association at an even higher level.
Excerpted, with permission from Schiffer Publishing, Atglen, Pa. (www.schifferbooks.com), from The Best of Times on the Chesapeake Bay—an Account of a Rock Hall Waterman, copyright 2012, lived by Captain Lawrence William Simns and written by Robert L. Rich Jr.