My daughter asked about the pitchfork when I cleaned out the garage last week. Actually, I hadn’t noticed it, leaning against the bare planking, tines up, behind a stack of old lumber. She wanted to know what it was, what it was used for. Simple question; I think she wanted the short answer.
Her look made it obvious that she knew I’d never pitched hay, not in her short little life-time, not in the considerable number of years that came before. It was true of course, I hadn’t.
American Gothic came to mind but this was a different kind of pitch fork – four tines instead of three, and thicker, more for spading than for hay. There really wasn’t any way that I could keep the answer short…
We met in Larry Penny’s Ecology class, both of us day students commuting from up island and working towards a college degree. We were drawn here for the same thing, the chance to study biology in the kind of setting where we first learned to appreciate it. I had spent two years at Stony Brook, George had spent three years in Vietnam. We were close in age, but a generation apart. I’m not sure what I would have done had I been pulled up in the draft. Given my lottery number, it would have been inevitable. George didn’t wait; he signed up as a paratrooper along with his brother Clyde. True Americans of their time.
Between classes we bonded over life on the water and the need to work to make it through school. He was a bayman as was his brother, his father, and generations of men before. I was working that life too, or at least trying. Winter made it really tough to get by but the first rays of Spring started to make their appearance now, midway through my first semester at Southampton College.
After class one day George asked if I wanted to take a ride with him. There was ‘a spot’ he’d been looking at that he wanted to try. I really had no idea what he had in mind but with nothing else that needed doing right then and there I was happy to go and explore. We walked out to the parking lot, past the pick-up truck with the battered lobster claw hood ornament that I guessed – wrongly – was his, to a half-rusted sedan whose most distinguishing feature was a length of pot warp trailing out from under the trunk lid.
We got in and headed off, west towards Hampton Bays.
Coming over the top of the old Ponquogue Bridge, my eyes went to the horizon looking for any signs of a swell. I had been surfing The Bowl and Threes for a couple of years by then but George had something else in mind. He was looking past me to the west, over to the wetlands under the late afternoon sun, the drumming of the tires telling him that we were still on the bridge. At the bottom he pulled off the road, cut across what had once been a parking lot, and drove on to the hard packed marsh on the other side. He went as close to the flats as he dared and shut off the car behind a small stand of scrub pine, the look of anticipation giving way to a wide and intense grin.
“Did you ever eat razor clams?”, he asked.
“No” I said, although I didn’t really know what he meant.
It took a few bangs from George’s fist before the trunk lid popped open, then he started to pull things out. First, and definitely not a fashion statement, his wellies. As he stepped into those I looked down at my own bare feet, shrugged to myself, and continued to observe. Next came a 5-gallon bucket full of stuff. The stuff went back into the trunk along with the errant pot warp and out came a pitch fork…
Empty bucket in one hand, pitch fork in the other, we walked on the flats for about ten minutes when George stopped and looked around. We were on a wide section of flat sand, tide still ebbing but nearly low. The afternoon sea breeze made the bay shimmer and dance.
“Right here.” he said. “They should be here.”
I really had no idea why ‘here’ should be better than ‘there’ or ‘there’ and still didn’t know what was coming next, when he pitched the fork deep into the sand and with one fluid motion pulled the handle back and up. A heavy clump of sand broke apart when it fell onto the hard packed surface to the side. Three large razor clams, suddenly exposed, struggled to dive for cover. George grabbed them quickly with one hand and laid them gently into the bucket. Before I knew it, the pitch fork was back to work.
“You need to be quick.” he said. “They’ll pull themselves back under faster than you’d think.”
Yes, I saw that. Finally shaken from my awe, I went for the clams nearly as quickly as he pulled them from the sand. Within less than ten minutes more than two dozen were in the bucket.
“You want to eat these tonight? What do you think? We could cook these up at your place…”
My girlfriend was coming out to visit that evening and I knew she’d be game. George had a friend in mind and we planned on dinner for four. We took enough for a feast and left the rest undisturbed.
We pulled in to Tully’s Lobster on Dune Road where we found some fresh bread and a couple of lemons, then detoured up to Montauk Highway for two bottles of wine. Back at the house George made the call to his friend and got to work at the stove.
What followed later that evening was probably the best meal I’ve ever had. We ate and drank together, seated at the small Formica table in the kitchen. Steamed in a dented aluminum pot and then sautéed with butter in a dime-store skillet, the clams tasted like lobster from another dimension…
“Dad, are you all right?”
Shaken from my trance, our eyes met. She was less interested in the pitchfork now, more concerned that I was okay.
The pitchfork. And the sounds of the bugle, George. That’s what I remember most.