In late July of 1973, my dad woke me gently from my sleep just after 4 a.m., and immediately I sprung from my bed, slipping on my kid-sized khakis and a pair of fish-head sneakers before heading downstairs to the kitchen. There, he had just finished stirring some instant coffee in my Snoopy mug. The scent of burned toast lingered in the room as we dunked our buttered bread in silence, eager to head out on the long ride to the Wye River. We had packed the gear last night – dip nets, long lines of string with tiny weights tied to one end, and a bushel basket with the remnants of last year’s catch, the thin legs of crabs wedged between the intertwined strips of wood that had formed their last home.
After Dad rinsed out our mugs, he pulled the bag of chicken necks from the refrigerator and dropped them in the Styrofoam cooler, alongside the cheese sandwiches and cans of RC Cola. Minutes later, we were on the road to Schnaitman’s Boat Rental at the end of Wye Landing Lane, on schedule to be on the water before the sun’s first light scattered the doublers and Jimmys from our chicken lines.
I don’t remember how many crabs we caught that day, but I remember being on the water with my father, learning how to feel the tug of a new crab on the line and pull him in, one inch at a time, learning patience in the process of catching another bottom feeder. Sometimes the tension was so great that I wanted to reel in the catch as if he were a largemouth bass, jerking the line to hook the lip and land him in record time. But crabbing was different; you needed patience, and careful timing, to net the crab (or crabs if they were doublers) before the day’s light sent them scurrying back to the bottom of the tributary.
Twenty years ago, and 14 years following my father’s death, I took Holland, my oldest daughter, to Schnaitman’s to pass along the tradition and teach her the life lessons taught to me on the water. Instead of instant coffee and burned toast, we snacked on Pop Tarts and sipped Dunkin’ Donuts coffee for the long ride. The crabs weren’t running that day, but we didn’t care. It’s a trip neither of us will ever forget.
Last summer, I made the decision to submit a proposal to present at the Eastern Shore Writers Association 2023 Annual Conference. I was thrilled to learn in November that my proposal had been accepted to lead a session on memoir writing. The conference, held at Chesapeake College near the Wye River, was last Saturday (March 4), the day after I turned 58.
I arrived an hour early, knowing that Wye Landing Way was just a few miles from the college. The drive to Schnaitman’s was somewhat melancholic, slowing down every few hundred yards to clear the vultures from the center of the road, snacking on residual road kill from the night before.
When I reached Schnaitman’s, I stopped the car and stepped outside the weather-rugged docks. The taste of the brackish water on my lips was familiar, as was the old, timeless look of the boathouse. The faded sign on the side of the old gray structure sent me back to 1973, where familiar winds coming off the whitecapped Wye wrapped around me like an old friend. I stood there feeling the tug of a weighty doubler, the sight of bright blue claws clinging to the water-logged chicken neck we had so meticulously tied to string in the pre-dawn light, the sway of the boat as Dad hovered over me with the dip net in hand, ready to scoop the crabs before they were on to what was happening.
The patience. The sudden scent of Dad’s Old Spice right before the catch. The snap of the angry crab’s claws as Dad pinched the back paddler and showed me the underside of the carapace, where the thin apron confirmed it was a male, and it was a keeper.
The touch of Dad’s strong hand on my back, a pat of congratulations for a job well done that I longed for it to last a lifetime.
This will forever be my Ocean at the End of the Lane, where childhood memories remain like timeless stamps from the footprints I left on these soft shores so many years ago. Someday I will bring my grandson here, and I will pass along the traditions to a fourth generation, as my father had passed along to me, as I passed along to Holland.
The winds will still be here to welcome us, as will Schnaitman’s. I just know it. Patience tells me so.