Monday, June 16, 2008
By Richard E. Noble
"Well, I'll tell y'all," declared the elderly lady ringing up our groceries at the local store. "I was born and raised here in Eastpoint and I've seen a lot of hard times but no matter how hard it got, I never got so bad off that I had to shuck a darn oyster. And I'm mighty proud to say that!"
I didn't know how to take that remark since I had just told the lady that my wife and I would be starting our first day of oyster shucking in the morning. The bay had been closed after a hurricane and we needed some way to get by. How bad a job could shucking oysters be?
Well, let me tell you, it was pretty bad. My wife and I both shucked them oysters as fast as we could and I don't think we earned $25 between the two of us on that first day. An old woman standing next to us had shucked 15 gallons by herself. She complained that the oysters weren't fat. She said she usually did better than only 15 gallons. I remember thinking, resentfully, if she is so good at shucking and makes so much money, why doesn't she have any teeth.
Halfway through the morning we were both suffering from a severe case of "chicken back."
Chicken back is a condition we discovered snipping gizzards and livers in a chicken factory in Arkansas. It is caused by holding your arms and hands up in front of your chest for several hours at a time. We determined that this was an ancient Chinese torture, like thumb screws and getting stretched on "the Rack" or water-boarding.
Oyster shucking involved this very same torture technique. Once that knot tied the ligaments between your shoulder blades in a great big painful ball, there was no getting rid of it. You could twist and shake and jiggle yourself up and down but it would still be there. Imagine someone sticking the tip of a knife into your back one millimeter at a time - all day long!
So half the morning and all that afternoon we suffered through the Chicken Back. Then our legs and feet began to ache and cramp. We noticed that all the other shuckers were standing on a wooden stool rather than on the hard concrete floor. We found ourselves two wooden stools pretty darn quick. It helped a lot.
We were trying to shuck the oysters the old fashioned way - with a hammer and a block. You would bust the bill end of the oyster on a slim metal wedge that rose up from the steel block and then you would dig your knife into the crack in the oyster and pry it apart. It takes more than that to shuck a "pretty" looking oyster but since I doubt that any of you who are reading this will ever be applying for such a position, I'll skip the details. A pretty oyster is an oyster that isn't all hacked up and butchered. It should be whole - with no puncture wounds releasing all the juices.
Once you get the technique of shucking a pretty oyster, then you have to develop speed. When you get good, it appears to the observer that the shucker is popping that oyster from between those two shells with one fluid motion.
It takes a whole lot of oysters in the shell to make one gallon of the shell-less kind. When the oysters are fat (during spawning seasons) you might get one gallon per each bag of approximately 300 oysters. When the oysters are "poor and salty" it could take many, many more. In any case, if you are expecting to make any money don't plan on going home early.
After the first day we didn't have much more money than we did the day before we started - but now we had a plan. The first part of the plan was to get ourselves electric shucking machines. The basic machine was simple enough and the first one was actually invented by a couple of fellows from Apalach. We went over to this guy's home - as I remember his name was Segree. He and his partner once had an oyster house in Apalach and they supposedly put the first shucking machine together. This old man who was now growing hydroponic tomatoes in his greenhouse, had a number of these shucking machines. We bought two of them for $150 each. I still have one that I use to shuck my oysters when I buy them downtown and we gave the other one to a friend who was going into the shucking business a few years back.
The shucking machine doesn't actually shuck the oyster for you, it simply breaks the bill and replaces the block and hammer. Once you get accustomed to operating the machine, it improves your speed appreciably.
I think the most that I ever shucked in one day was 15 gallons. But after awhile both Carol and I were able to shuck between 10 and 15 gallons a day each. I think the most we ever got paid was $4.50 per gallon.
Both Carol and I have discovered from our careers at hard labor and physical work that when you earn your money by the sweat of your brow, it actually becomes heavier in weight. Sometimes it becomes so heavy one can hardly get it from his/her pocket. It is true! It might have something to do with gravity, the speed of might or air pressure. But I know that it is true.
Hobo-ing America and A Summer with Charlie are books written by Richard E. Noble and for sale on Amazon.com. Richard is a freelance writer and has been a resident of Eastpoint for 30 years. If you would like to stock his books in your store or business contact Richard at firstname.lastname@example.org