Oregon Magazine

The Subject was Crabs
by Paul Pintarich, author of  "History by the Glass"

“. . I should have been a pair of ragged claws/ Scuttling across the 
floor of silent seas. . .”  -- T.S. Eliot: “The Love Song of J. Alfred 

There are three species of creatures who when they seem coming are 
going,/ when they seem going they come: Diplomats, women, and crabs.” -- John Hay: “Distichs. II”

Dungeness crabs; more specifically, those grouchy crustaceans of Pacific Coastal waters whose waving ragged claws recall the protestations of an ancient Greek chorus in a play by Euripides.  Technically, the critters belong to “section /Brachyura/ (short-bodied) within the order /Decapoda/” (having 5 pairs of “locomotor appendages”)  Photo is a hotlink to the Oregon Dungeness Commission.

Or more simply, “/lunch./”

The name comes down from Middle-English “crab(be)”, and from the 
Swedish, “Skrabbe.”  There is the “Crab Nebula” in outer space, crab as a symbol of cancer in the zodiac; Roman Legionnaires might well have said, “Hey, Octavian. Pass the /carcinides maenas./

And let’s not forget Buster Crabbe, (who played Tarzan, Flash Gordon and 
Buck Rogers)--as well as a former wife who was crabby as hell. Some years back, however, when we rented boats from the now-disappeared George’s Dock and passed time dropping crab pots into a more bountiful Nehalem Bay, we ignored all romantic references and plopped the freshly captured critters into a kettle of boiling water. Immersed, they would scuttle their death throes while turning red, their anger dissipating without laments in either Latin or Greek.

The dock was co-owned and operated (sort of) by two retired Navy chiefs 
who passed the time merrily drinking whiskey from coffee cups, and whose 
perpetually red faces aptly fit Joseph Conrad’s definition of “rum 

As cheerfully practicing alcoholics, the pair ran what the Navy would call a “loose ship.” For ten dollars you could rent a rowboat, a couple of crab pots, and for several hours mess around in the bay. And if you returned late, when the two ex-chiefs were well into their cups, they might blearily dismiss your tardiness with a cup-raised “To hell with it!” then lurch about helping you boil your catch.

A former colleague, an ex-priest whose chronic bad luck may have been 
the result of divine intervention (or a crabby first wife who personified “diabolical”), came to Oregon from the Midwest; a place known more for walleyed pike, Stizostedium vitreum, certainly, than a crab fishery. Eager to learn about those delectable critters scuttling over the silent bottom of Nehalem Bay, James and his wife met us at George’s Dock, their arrival announced by a tire on my Volkswagen bus going immediately flat. (Previously, riding with James and his wife in Portland, we were hit and 
sent spinning through an intersection, causing me to mouth oaths James 
had probably never heard serving Mass.)

Early that morning it was a clearer-eyed proprietor who launched us 
aboard a small green rowboat provisioned with two oars, four baited crab 
pots, an ample supply of beer and some lunch. And, of course, two 
skeptical, eye-rolling wives (my first as well) who seemed to anticipate 
impending folly.

Our day was sunny and bright, bay calm and wind light, and we rowed 
about dropping pots at respectable distances, then took a break to allow 
time for the crustaceans to scuttle into our traps. Intervals of waiting 
were filled with reporters’ tales (lies?) enhanced by beer, until it was 
time to pull the pots, marked by their bobbing buoys.

Strong as a bull, as I was then, and well lubricated, I attempted at one 
point to row the boat single-handedly across the bar and out into the 
broad ocean, an exercise dissuaded by surprisingly high waves and the 
women expressing their concern by suggesting, “We’re all going to die!”
While James was reevaluating his tenuous relationship with a Higher 
Power, I laughed carelessly in the face of Neptune’s frothy challenge, 
though secretly holding back an urge to relieve myself.  Beer will do 
that to you.

(I remind that I haven’t had a drink in 25 years.)

After everyone calmed down we pulled the boat ashore on Nehalem Spit, 
there to frolic, picnic and eventually watch in dismay as our little 
green boat, lifted by the incoming tide, drifted blithely (and quite 
swiftly, mind you) to the center of the bay.

Advising the women to cover their eyes, I was first off with my clothes 
and hit the brackish water in a flat racing dive. Though the day was 
sunny and bright, immersion into the bay could only be described as 
breathtaking, so it was difficult for me to holler at Jim, now down to 
horn rims and running awkwardly in his jockey shorts, to go back.
Boat-less now, and with two eye-rolling wives, we sat wetly, drank more 
beer and discussed the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune, the 
day having lost its potential for merriment. Eventually we were spotted, 
and one of the chiefs fired up an outboard, retrieved our boat and 
greeted us with comments unique to Navy boatswain’s mates and unsuitable 
for family newspapers.

As you can imagine, by now our crab pots were overflowing with 
crustaceans grumpier than our wives. And when loosed over the bottom of 
our boat their angry claws snapped about dangerously, resembling the 
chorus in Electra.

After apologizing to the chiefs ("To hell with it!" they said), our catch was boiled to a bright shade of red, my tire changed and our goodbyes said to Jim and his soon-to-be former wife.

It would soon be goodbye to George’s Dock as well, since the place washed out to sea during a flood late in the last century; the chiefs probably saluting their disappearing establishment with raised coffee cups and a final, “To hell with it!

Nehalem Bay photo is a hotlink to the Neahkahnie Net information page.  Click on it and you will have all the directions you need.

Original text © 2008 Paul Pintarich