Sunday, April 05, 2009

Why Folks Oyster

The Eastpointer

Why People Oyster

By Richard E. Noble

I met an old oysterman friend at the Piggly Wiggly the other day. Of course he wasn't all that old when I first met him. He told me that he would be retiring from his prison guard job in the morning.
"That's great," I said. "And now what are you going to do to keep busy?"
"I think I'm going to get me an oyster boat and do a little oystering."
As everyone knows oystering is hard work and no matter what anyone out there says, it really doesn't pay a lot of money and it never did. So why would anyone be excited about returning to a life of hard work and little money in their retirement?
Well, I must admit as we talked, I became somewhat envious. We started talking about oyster boat building. He also thought that he might like to build his own boat. Carol and I had bought some plans to build our own skiff many years ago.
After I left my old friend, I began thinking about why oystermen liked oystering. I have had a good number of different jobs in my lifetime but very few that I would want to return to. So what is it with oystering?
For one thing - you are self-employed. Being self-employed has its advantages - no boss, no pace, no time limits, no production quotas, and no annoying "fellow" employees. It is all up to you.
Of course, oystering involves being on a boat and working on the water. Some folks spend a lot of money to go play on the water every weekend. I remember on a hot day diving off the walk rail of my oyster boat and floating around in the water until I cooled down. That was fun. Can't do that in a steel mill!
It was a natural, honest and environmentally sound way to earn your keep. Tonging oysters the old fashioned way doesn't damage the beds. It cultivates them. It cleans them up, it spreads the oysters around. You never had to feel bad that what you were doing was harming anything. Like the man on the TV says, oystering ... is a good thing.
When you got out to the oyster bar, you could park next to a buddy and shoot the breeze, if you liked. In fact, you could chit-chat all day if you wanted to. There was no office manager or boss or owner to come walking by and give you a dirty look or order you to get busy.
You didn't have to compete against anybody. You could catch what you could catch. If somebody caught more bags than you it wasn't because someone gave him the best seat or a greater opportunity, or a better education. It wasn't a matter of opinion or favoritism.
If you felt like stopping - you could stop. If you felt like working until the sun went down, you could. You could stop for lunch whenever you felt like it. And if you wanted a few raw oysters for lunch, you had a hole full. I think my wife and I ate at least a dozen oysters every day we worked. Crackers and a bottle of hot sauce were necessary equipment on our boat. In fact, for a number of years we brought a bail bucket full of oysters home with us each evening and while we each took a shower we steamed those oysters - steamed oysters with melted butter every night for an appetizer - umm ummm! You can't get any of those benefits working at the hardware store.
We also brought a fishing pole with us every day. My wife would bait the hook with some small crabs she gathered off the cull board and then she would sit on the handle of the pole. When she got her butt tickled she jumped up and set the hook and we had fish for supper that evening. We caught flounder, spotted trout, and bunches of sheepshead.
Oystering was physical work - and that's a good thing. At the end of each day you knew that you had done something - your body told you so. By bed time you were always ready - and you slept.
There was no bull involved in oystering. As an oysterman you didn't cheat anybody - nobody was lied to. You never had to beat the other guy out of anything. You had nothing to be ashamed of at the end of a week. And you never had to feel guilty when you went to the boss's house or office to pick up your paycheck.
The saddest thing about oystering to me was that we were always fighting for our right to go to work. Can you imagine being forced to fight to go to work and do a back breaking job all day?
Being "oyster people" was quite an experience for Carol and me. When we finally quit Carol demanded that I sell my boat and motor. "You ain't going to push that thing back in the water ever again," she told me. "We're going to go get ‘real’ jobs."
Right! Like being an oysterman wasn't a "real" job.

Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother, Hobo-ing America and A Summer with Charlie are books written by Richard E. Noble who has been a resident of Franklin County for over thirty years. All three books are now available on If you would like to stock these books in your store or business call 1-850-670-8076 or e-mail me at