I had an unexpected surprise while on vacation up at Nantucket recently. As an aside, people on my father’s side of the family started visiting in the mid-1800s. My paternal grandfather bought a 100-by-100-foot lot with an old tool house and two retired Coast Guard “bug” lights for $1,800 back in 1921. One thing led to another, and there you have it. With the exception of one summer (1984, perhaps fittingly enough), I’ve been up every year, beginning in 1960 as an eager 4-year-old child.
If memory serves me right, I was outfitted in a light blue cord travel suit and clearly recall walking out onto the old Charleston airport tarmac. The sun was glaring off the silver Delta turboprop and I had to squint to see the stewardesses (as they were known then) who were waving hello to the oncoming passengers.
Air travel was really kind of a big deal even in 1960, or maybe the general standards of decorum and dress pertaining to it made a striking impression on a 4-year-old’s initial foray outside the nucleus of Charleston.
Everybody seemed well groomed, friendly, warm, gracious and polite. And although obviously a sign of the times, the stewardesses were young and beautiful. The cabin would soon fill with cigarette smoke, but that didn’t really seem to bother anybody. The food wasn’t very good, but that didn’t bother anybody either because it was prepared hot and served with a smile.
Oh well, it was a different world and we could go on and on about all that. Yet the natural beauty of Nantucket hasn’t changed. The island has of course seen a lot of development as has just about every place along the eastern seaboard, but through preservation foundations, government preserves and the Land Bank (real estate transaction dollars put aside for land-use acquisition, maintenance and preservation), an astonishing amount of acreage has been put aside in perpetuity for the public to enjoy.
Every year I go back thinking I can’t be further intoxicated by it all, and every year I’m wrong. Between the clarity of light, fragrances, wild flowers, salt air, and refreshing water temperatures — it’s all too much. And that doesn’t even include the island’s glorious whaling and maritime history, outdoor activities, beautiful architectural and gardening styles and sporting opportunities.
Regarding the latter, clamming has always been one of my favorites — although it’s probably a stretch to describe it as a sport. Nonetheless, it’s so easy and fun and perfect for all ages. When I was a youngster, my father and some of his brothers used to take me. It wasn’t long before I, along with a friend, was allowed to borrow a Sunfish to scoot around the harbor to various points of interest. Then in 1974 I bought a used classic 13-foot Boston Whaler with the light blue decking and varnished woodwork for $800 — and still use it to this day.
The key to locating a clam bed on Nantucket is to walk barefoot through the eelgrass at low tide and to probe with heels and toes. This has to be done with a certain amount of caution because there are sharp edges here and there and one can expect to be nipped by the occasional spider crab — but that’s all part of the fun. Once there’s that telltale sign, you drop down into the water and start digging with your hands. Ladies find this a bit rough on the manicures and fingernail polish and may prefer to use a rake, but I’m telling you it’s a great feeling to sort through the sand, mud and eelgrass and pluck out a clam like it’s a nugget of gold.
Yes, it’s labor intensive to shell the clams later in the day, but one must consider the entire experience — the fellowship, natural beauty, and culinary potential that derives from these creatures, however lowly and unassuming they may be. Striped bass, bluefish and lobster get all the glory up there, but nothing will be more pleasing to the palate than well-prepared clams casino, which can serve as a phenomenal appetizer to any and all of the above.
On June 8, I went to renew my annual shellfish license, which unfortunately has long since become a mandatory requirement. The lady at the counter noted my birthday was the following day, and asked if I was ready to become a “lifer.”
“Lifer?” I asked. “What do you mean?”
“Well,” she said. “Even though you’re technically not 60, you don’t need to worry about any further renewals.”
And with that I was awarded a lifetime permit, a fitting birthday present for not only me but all clamming enthusiasts who are fortunate enough to have attained that particular milestone.
And, God willing and the creek don’t rise, I’m going to make good use of it.
Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at edwardgilbreth@ comcast.net.