Crabbing With Your Toes
N W Garrett
You never forget someone who saves your life, especially if they do it twice on the same day.
I turned nine years old in the summer of 1947. We lived in Ida Vesper, Georgia and my family went to Florida on vacation for the first time since before the war; my first time ever.
Aunt Nelle and Uncle Pete lived in Panama City. My uncle’s momma didn't name him Pete but that’s what everybody called him. He and my aunt moved there shortly before World War II and over the years owned and operated a number of small businesses. Though not a large man from a physical standpoint, Uncle Pete’s personality and sense of humor completely filled whatever space he occupied.
Uncle Pete’s eyes didn't smile - they laughed out loud. His voice, gruff and gravely in the manner of old time movie actor Wallace Beery, enhanced his penchant for dealing with adversity and for that matter, everything else with humor.
An avid outdoorsman and fisherman of note, when he growled out that we were going “crabbing” at Mexico Beach, everybody loaded into cars and off we went. To do what - most of us had no idea.
Mexico Beach seemed a long way from Panama City in the days of automobiles without air-conditioning. The highway ran along the coast nearly all the way. In the back seats, the children crowded over to the right side of the cars to stick their heads out the open windows to smell salt air and to look through the coastal dune forest at the waves rolling in.
Uncle Pete parked his big Packard on the shoulder of the road only a few yards from the water. The other cars did the same. All the kids piled out and headed for the surf, only to be called back just short of getting our feet wet.
“Plenty of time for play later,” he said, “First, you must gather enough drift wood for the fire. We are going to have a crab boil right here on the beach. Find as much wood as you can but be sure not to bring any that has creosote in it. Sticks and small logs are generally alright but look at any planks or pieces of timbers that you find carefully. If it is dark like a railroad tie, leave it be. Smell it if you are not sure. If it smells like tar, don’t put it in the pile. Burning creosote will make you cough and cause your eyes to water. We don’t need that. There is plenty of the good stuff along the beach, go get it.”
We did and in no time had enough wood to boil half the ocean.
A large cast iron pot appeared from somewhere. A couple of the grown - ups took it into the gulf to wash it out before placing it on rocks high enough to allow a fire to be laid underneath. Fresh water and a sack of “crab boil” mix went into the pot. A match lit the fire to start heating the water.
We seemed to have everything for a crab boil except crabs. Not a crab in sight anywhere.
“Where are the crabs?”
Uncle Pete smiled and pointed to the surf. “There are plenty right there. You just have to know what to look for. Come with me.”
He handed each of us a stick with a net on one end as he led us into the water.
“See those dark spots, like shadows on the bottom – those are crabs. Put your net behind them, crabs swim backwards.”
He maneuvered his net in a backhand motion, catching a crab each time he swung.
“Can you do it,” he asked, “are you ready?”
“Yes!” we shouted.
“Go get ‘em,” he said with a laugh as he walked up the beach to join the other adults settling into beach chairs to watch the mêlée.
Kids and crabs were all over the shallow water breakers, fleeing and pursuing amid squeals of delight and frustration. Gales of laughter from the watching adults rounded out the cacophony.
The local kids in the group, some who had been crabbing before, began to have success with their nets and started bringing crabs up to the now boiling pot.
A table had been set up to hold all the fixings – cole slaw, baked beans and “made from scratch” cakes for dessert. A smaller pot on another fire sizzled out hushpuppies.
Eventually all of us inland kids got the hang of catching crabs. Together, we caught all the crabs the assembled group could eat plus more to ice down and take home for crab salad later.
I quickly learned how to sneak up on the crafty critters and contributed more than my share to the communal pot. I never made a dent on the eating side.
Try as I might, I could not catch on to the technique of how to get anything to eat out of a crab shell. I cracked and pulled and picked and poked to no avail. Nothing, zip, nada did I get to eat from a single one.
The exercise and salt air had made me the hungriest ever in all of my nine years.
Having no success eating crabs, I knew I would soon be in the final stages of starvation.
Resigned to my fate, I sat and stared at the unyielding crustaceans on my plate waiting for the end. I would surely perish from not knowing how to eat crabs.
Just in time, Uncle Pete came to my rescue with a platter of chocolate cake and hushpuppies. I knew how to eat chocolate cake and hushpuppies.
Somehow in his wisdom, Uncle Pete knew that a nine year old boy can live on chocolate cake and hushpuppies.
That was the second time he saved my life that day.
My first brush with death occurred in mid-afternoon.
While splashing through the shallows after a skittering quarry, I stepped on a piece of discarded crab claw driving it deep into my big toe.
Likely a remnant of a previous crabbing expedition, the blue and white pincher part impaled in my foot appeared to be about six feet long and not quite as big around as a telephone pole.
At the very least, I knew that I would never walk again even if I didn’t bleed to death first.
On one leg, I stood in the surf holding my injured foot in my hand howling as I stared at the huge, venomous claw sticking out of my toe.
A gentle touch made me think that the Angel of Death had laid hands upon me to take me away.
Instead, Uncle Pete’s hand steadied me up while he perused the terrible appendage ensconced in my foot.
I expected soothing words of sympathy like in the movies when some poor soul gets ready to kick the bucket. Soft words, soulful music and maybe a few tears as I slowly faded away.
Instead, in his gravelly voice, he scolded, “What in the world do you think you are doing? You can’t catch crabs by stomping on them. Didn't you pay attention to anything I told you? Why didn't you use your net instead of your foot? That won’t work. I thought country boys knew how to catch stuff.”
So shocked by being fussed at instead of commiserated with, I didn't even notice when he pulled the pincer from my foot.
With my mind reeling over what he said, my big toe forgot to hurt anymore.
In the process, he managed to shrink that terrible impaling object down to a little piece of crab claw not quite a half inch long.
Placing it in my hand he said, “Is that what prompted all that hollering? Doesn't look like much, does it?”
His mouth smiled; his eyes laughed
I threw it away quickly so no one else would ever see how tiny it had become.
He washed my foot in the salt water and pressed down on my toe with his thumb for a moment to make sure that there would be no bleeding.
With a stern look and a twinkle in his eye, he handed me my crab net.
“Now listen up – this is a crab net – use it, not your foot, to catch crabs. Put a smile on your face and get back to work… no more crabbing with your toes.”
Wayne Garrett grew up on buttermilk, sweet tea and South Georgia sunshine. A retired resident of Panama City, FL, he is a member of the Panama City Writers Association and is one of the Bay Storytellers. His work has been published in The Sea Oats Review, Sand Scripts, The West Florida Literary Federation‘s Emerald Coast Review, City Limits and other panhandle publications. Humor is his genre; a laugh or a smile his reward.