This story, linked to an earlier story posted in December (Angel on an Island) takes place in the early 1970′s on the island of Nantucket. If you haven’t read the previous story I suggest you do. It is posted in the “Articles” section of this website (top, left), go to December 2012, and then to the title of the story. These two stories are two separate chapters in a book that I am writing. We’ll have to wait and see if I finish the book and publish it. Only time will tell. In the meantime enjoy. It may bring back memories of your younger days.
The pain was pretty excruciating for the first few days. The cast that the doctor put on my leg, broken both above and below the knee, extended from my ankle to my crotch. It was very uncomfortable between its bulkiness and the sheer weight of the plaster of paris contraption. The most difficult task was getting around. I lived by myself on the outer side of an island. My two dogs needed both care and company. I had very little money and no transportation.
The accident in the cranberry bog had seemed bad enough when it happened. An old iron 5000 pound tractor bouncing off of your leg after it flipped over was encough to ruin anyone’s day. I had been miraculously rescued by an angel named Clare. And because of this of luck I felt that I had no reason to complain.
I was given a pair of crutches at the hospital. I was no stranger to their operation and adjusted to them pretty quickly. The most difficult part was making sure the dogs and I didn’t get tangled in such a fashion that I would go crashing to the ground. My dogs had grown up wrestling with me and at first they could see no reason that this should not continue.
On the first morning after the accident I woke early. The pain in my leg was off of the medical charts. My room was freezing cold and the howling wind outside forced cold air into the cottage through every uncaulked single pane glass window and every nook and cranny on the outside of this old building. The old rickety cottage was built about 500 years before Columbus wandered into the New World. Although it had withstood the test of time thus far, the shanty was shaking like a leaf from a strong off shore wind. I don’t think there was any insulation in the walls save a couple hundred years of mice turds jammed between the studs. Still, the old pot belly stove could keep the place at a whopping 45 degrees on a winter day when the temperatures climbed to 20 degrees and there were 40 mile per hour winds.
The previous day, December 10th, the day I had dropped a tractor on my leg, was quite a bit warmer. I’m thinking it might have even gotten above freezing that day. Some time during the night a cold front from the northwest had stormed in and this day was an entirely different meteorlogical event. Cold, windy, and sandy. That’s right sandy. Sand just loves to go airborne when the wind exceeds 40 mph. Not that this is bad. Sand blasting is useful in car repair work, restoring antiques, and smoothing out glass. Just look at some beach glass some day and you’ll get the picture.
Hopping around the house on my crutches, avoiding a tangle of dogs, I wandered over to the refrigerator and opened the door. It was kind of empty. It contained two eggs, about a cup of milk in a gallon glass bottle, and a two quart container of ketchup. Must be one of my former room mates was planning on eating a lot of hot dogs. I knew I was out of dog food. I was going to hitch hike from the bog to town after work yesterday and get some but those plans kind of got altered by a large hunk of iron landing on my leg.
So I fried up the eggs, added the cup of milk, and squirted in a generous portion of ketchup. I split this into two portions and put it into the dog dishes. I knew it wasn’t enough to last them the day, but what the hell, beggars can’t be choosers! Being a dog lover my motto was always dogs eat first but I didn’t really think it would ever have to apply to a real situation. Besides being hungry, I reasoned, might keep my mind off of the pain in my double fractured leg. The dogs gobbled this down like it was there last meal. It occurred to me that unless I came up with some food it might be just that.
My thoughts turned to the old freezer in the mud room. It was generally empty but I decided to check it anyways. With some agility I hobbled through a series of doors. These old rickety cottages were built one generation at a time. Each new group of people adding a room horizontally; the result being that the cottage looked like a train with a bunch of passenger cars attached. When I arrived at the most southerly partition which was a combined woodshed/mudroom I found that the light wasn’t working in that room. The dark room had no windows. Without any light I fumbled around, located the old chest freezer and opened it. A wave of cold air sordidly battled the already cold room as I lifted the heavy top but at least I knew that the freezer was running. Of course the little light bulb that is supposed to come on when you lift the lid of the feezer wasn’t working so I fumbled around and mostly discovered that there was three or four hundred pounds of frost in the relic freezing machine. This would have been very useful if, for instance, I needed a huge block of ice to practice ice climbing on. This not being the case I was immediately discouraged. I continued to rummage around and felt a corner of a large plastic box. It was frozen into the 400 pounds of frost in the freezer like a mammoth locked up in an ancient glacier. I took my pocket knife out of my pocket and began to chip away at the frost. It only took me a minute before I jammed the blade of the knife into my left hand. Chipping away at ice in the shroud of a dark and confined space is never a good idea.
My left hand was bleeding profusely and I wrapped it in an old, not so clean, bandana that I used to tie back my long hair. It may have not hurt as much as it would have otherwise because I was taking prescription pain killers for my broken leg. I kept my left hand behind my back from that point on while I chipped away at the frost with my right hand. To an outsider it might have looked a bit strange; a man in a pitch black room, with a bloody left hand wrapped in a dirty bandana held behind his back, leaning into an old freezer chipping away at a ton of ice. Add the obvious cuss words that were flying out of my mouth at nearly every breath and I bet you can get a pretty clear image that sets the mood.
The plastic box eventually came loose. I lifted it out of the freezer. My right hand was now eligible for a frost bite claim if I had insurance which I did not. As I pulled my right hand out of the casket of ice I felt a second item; apparently a plastic bag that I could investigate later.
Limping back through the various partitions through this old delapidated cottage I found my way back to the kitchen. I put the plastic container, about the size of a 5 gallon bucket and shaped like a cube, into the sink. I pried off of the lid and lo and behold there before me was about 30 pounds of frozen scallops!
Two of my former room mates were “sort of” scallopers. They went out scalloping when their hangovers weren’t too bad. I remembered that there had been batches that had been found to be unacceptable by the scallop buyer. This was typically because there was too much milk, a white juicy substance that oozed from shucked scallops, revealing that they were not adequately fresh. The story behind this was that after the scallops were shucked the boys often got drunk and seldom made it to the docks to sell the scallops. They sometimes went the next day, quite late in the day, and the shell fish were usually deemed not to be of market quality. They then would bring them back to the cottage and stick them in the freezer and usaually went out drinking again. I didn’t say they were profitable scallopers! In fact, they eventually went broke and moved back to the state of New Jersey. That’s how I ended up living alone.
The scallops didn’t look so bad in their frozen solid condition. I really didn’t know if the boys had waited a week before they froze them or had done it straight away but I figured I’d give it a chance. I pryed a few loose using my trusty pocket knife, I mean what could go wrong? Knives aren’t dangerous are they? Surprisingly about a dozen popped off with only modest pressure. They came off in one lump and I realized they might have come off easily because they were added later; perhaps from a second rejected batch. Really, how bad could they be?
I pulled a large cast iron pan out of the old gas stove oven. The cupboard space was limited in this galley style kitchen so the oven was used for storing pots and pans and maybe a jar of peanut butter. I found some old vegetable oil on a pantry shelf that was built into the wall. You could see the mice had been trying to gnaw their way into the plastid oil bottle but they had been unsuccessful. I poured some oil in the pan, put the pan on a burner and turned on the range top. I then attempted to put the lump of frozen scallops into the pan but they slipped, or should I say squirted, out of my hand and on to the very grubby kitchen floor. The dogs lunged for them, apparently they were still hungry, but even on crutches I managed to snatch the icey mass of scallops away from the dogs by swatting at it with a crutch. It slid across the floor like a hockey puck, bounced off two right angle corners and ended up righ in front of my left leg. The dogs looked at me like I was Bobby Orr. What a shot! I mean that was the left leg that I could actually bend! I lowered my self on the one good leg, grabbed the frozen scallops with one hand, and tossed them into the iron pan.
The scallops sizzled and popped as ice, oil, and scallops sorted out their differences in the cast iron pan. I figured I would leave the arrangement alone and give it some extra time considering its recent intimate exploration of the dirty kitchen floor. As the ice melted I could smell scallops. Yep. Real seafood. Straight from the sea, the freezer where they may have been for a couple of years, and the dirty kitchen floor. For a moment I fancied myself to be a rival of Julia Childs although she might not have liked the dirty kitchen floor hockey slap shot routine.
When the scallops turned from translucent to white I took the frying pan off of the burner and slid the sea fare onto my plate. Given that I had no butter and had cooked them in oil I immediately added a little salt. I stabbed one of the scallops with a fork, held it front of my eye, and examined it with some trepidation while squinting to get an extra good look. Seeing no major flaws I took a bite. I was surprised that it tasted like a scallop. It did not taste fresh but it had no foul taste either. It kind of fell into the not too bad category. This was a good thing considering my financial state and inability to get around.
While I ate the plate full of scallops I leaned on my crutches and I fried up some more for Max and Scruggs. The aroma had them by my side as I stirred the scallops. Both dogs looked hungry but I wasn’t sure if they’d like seafood. On the other hand it had to taste better than the ultra inexpensive kibble I typically fed them.
The scallops were done. I left them in the pan to cool. The dogs paced around the kitchen. Somehow they knew these were for them. Once they were cool to the touch I put half into each one of their bowls and sat them on the floor. The dogs dove into the scallops like they were being served prime rib.
Thank God for not quite empty freezers I thought. This moment of thanks reminded me that their was another mystery bag still in the freezer. I hobbled back to the mud room that housed the old freezer. Once again I opened the old metal box to a view of the last remaining glacier on Nantucket. I dug through the ice, located a corner of the plastic bag, and began chipping away with my knife.
I managed to dislodge the plastic bag without gouging my hand which had managed to stop bleeding from the earlier stabbing it received. The thin plastic bag was frozen to its contents so I could not determine what it was although it looked like it might be a whole chicken. I hobbled back to the kitchen where I filled the sink. I plunged the plastic bag into the water and put a cast iron pan on top to keep it submerged. I knew it would unfreeze enough so that I could at least determine the contents.
I cooked some more scallops for both myself and dogs while I waited for the plastic bag to unfreeze from its contents. The dogs, still hungry, waited somewhat impatiently. I caught Max, my labrador/hound mix, staring at my crutches and cast. He couldn’t figure out why I had all these things attached to me but he knew it could not be good. This made him a little antsy. Max liked every thing to be predictable. Scruggs never noticed a thing. He was the ever loving collie/shepherd. In his mind every moment of every day was wonderful. Scruggs knew only one emotion and that was full scale happiness. The dogs and I had a second round of scallops. The dogs were finally content. Not only did the have their bellies full, but they were full of gourmet food. Not too shabby for a couple of beach dogs living in a coastal shack.
I maneuvered over to the sink. The plastic bag, held down by the cast iron pan, had separated from the contents. I grabbed the bag and took it out of the water. I rolled back the plastic and low and behold there was a naked duck, completely devoid of feathers with the head still attached. It had been gutted and cleaned. I could tell by the head, still adorned with black and white feathers, that it was a pin tail. What I did not know is how long it had been in the freezer.
I put the still frozen duck into a pan, slid it into the empty fridge so that it would thaw slowly over night. I knew that I would need more than scallops for the dogs and me. It occurred to me that my hunting license was still valid and that I had a federal duck stamp. I had a single shot 12 gauge shotgun and some bird shot shells. I lived about 200 yards from an empty beach that looked out over the Atlantic Ocean looking east. Max was a retrieve, although not really trained in that regard, but I knew I had all of the necessary ingredients for a potentially successful duck hunt. Hunting without a duck blind with a cast on my right leg that went from my hip to my ankle would be a handicap but I was game and I knew Max would be too!
A couple of days went by. The dogs and I ate scallops. I was waiting for my leg to stop aching and to heal a little before a romp to the beach in search of water fowl.
The next day I woke up before sunrise. The only breakfast was a cup of black coffee (there was no cream or sugar in the cottage) and some leftover scallops for the dogs. I skipped my prescription pain killer as I would be handling a fire arm that day. While feeding the dogs I noticed a patch of fur missing from Scruggs back. It seemed odd but I didn’t focus on it because I had to figure out how to get myself, on crutches, and my shotgun and ammunition to the beach. My shotgun did not have a sling so I used a piece of clothesline to fashion a temporary sling that I could throw over my shoulder and neck. I tied one end of the rope to the gun barrel and the other end around the gun stock, leaving enough slack to comforably put the rope over my head, neck, and shoulder. It wasn’t very comfortable. The weight of the old gun on the thin rope bit into by shoulder blade. It did serve the prurpose though and I did not have to travel far.
Hobbling on my crutches with the two dogs beside me we slowly ambled down to the beach. There was no one else inhabiting the east end of the island this time of year so I knew I would have the sandy shoreline to myself. The wind blew from the northwest. It was colder than hell with the strong breeze. Max ran ahead while Scruggs stayed dutifully by my side. When I arrived at the beach the sun was just coming up. An orange and yellow horizon screamed GOOD MORNING! Waves beat against the sand fiercely. The constant pounding of the surf was exhillarating as was the cold bite in the air. I found a dune to rest my back against, called Max to my side, and we all sat and waited. While we waited we withstood a serious sand blasting, you know, the kind that can smooth glass or remove paint from metal.
In my mind flocks of ducks would be flying along the water’s edge. It’s kind of funny how the mind always paints a picture of the way we wish things were, In reality we waited and waited. The cold did not lessen as the sun rose over the water in the east. The wind blew harder and we got colder. The dogs obediently stayed close by and huddled against me. Every once in a while they’d look directly into my eyes. It was if they were wondering what the hell we were doing! Max was growing impatient and I held on to his collar.
About two hours into our sit we were veritable blocks of ice sitting against the dune. I then heard geese honking and looked over the water. About 5000 feet up in the air I could see about 100 Canada geese flying south. This was way out of the range of my shotgun. I was wondering if this was another bad idea. We waited about another hour. The three of us had molded into one form, a frozen ice sculpture, as we all relied upon each other for body heat. I looked down a line of breaking waves along the sand. A lone duck was flying parallel to the shoreline about 50 feet in the air. It was headed our way.
I grabbed the shotgun with my frozen hands and dusted the sand off of the hammer and trigger. The duck continued to fly in my direction. I could see that it was a pintail by its silhouette. I knew I only had one shot at this bird. There would be no time to reload the single shot gun. When it was about 40 yards away and still flying towards me I pulled the trigger.
With a loud bang the duck tumbled down into the water. Scruggs jumped straight in the air when the shotgun blasted and landed in my lap knocking me onto my back and brying me in the sand. Max ran around in circles not knowing what to do. I pushed Scuggs off of my chest, he was now shirvering from fear. I was covered with sand, looking a bit like Lawrence of Arabia and I grabbed my crutches and hoisted myself to a standing position. I yelled for Max to follow me to the water’s edge. Max followed me and Scruggs ran around the beach like a crazy dog barking because he didn’t know what else to do.
I pointed into the water and told Max to fetch the duck. He just looked at me! I told him again to get into the crashing sea and get the duck. He stood there like I was a big dummy! I grabbed a piece of driftwood and threw it out towards the floating duck. Max knew what this was about and dove into the waves, the first one flipping him completely over. The aquatic acrobatics did not deter him and he swam against the current into the waves once again. He managed to get over a big wave and beyond their breaking point. He swam furiously directly past the duck to the piece of driftwood and grabbed it in his mouth. He swam towards shore proudly. His mission completed he came ashore and dropped the gray driftwood stick at my feet. He wagged his tail begging me to throw it again. Scruggs ran back and forth along the edge of the water barking like a drunken seadog. I think he was cheering Max on.
OK. I knew this had not worked. The duck was floating further away from shore as the tide pulled toward the depths of the Atlantic Ocean. Not knowing what else to do I grabbed a sea gull feather that was laying on the sand. I showed it to Max and praised him. He looked at me as if I was totally nuts and begged me to throw the driftwood. I showed him the feather again and praised him. Then I picked up the piece of driftwood gave it a mighty heave. The energy from throw almost knocked me over backwards as I was still a bit wobbly on the crutches. Miraculously the driftwood landed almost on top of the dead duck. Max threw himself into the surf, Waves pounded at his 75 pound frame as he braved the frigid waters. He swam right out to the driftwood floating in the salty sea and grabbed it, totally ignoring the duck. As he swam towards shore I was totally discouraged. I was yelling and waving my arms about while leaning on the crutches. Max looked up and started swimming back out to sea. He looked like he was tiring and I began to question my judgement. Having one of your best friends drown over a meal was not what I had in mind. Max swam directly back to the dead duck, spit out the driftwood, and grabbed the duck. He started to swim towards shore. I could see he was struggling. He was about half way to shore when he circled back around again. He was now headed back towards the driftwood. He swam back to the driftwood, grabbed it by one end with the duck in his mouth, and again headed towards shore.
Max swam, with great determination, but still struggled. When he got to where the waves were breaking he went under water. A few seconds passed and he was still completely submerged! My heart sank. I dropped my crutches and hobbled into the water with a 30 pound cast attached to my right leg. Just as I was about to dive in head first Max reappeared out from under a frothy wave. He pulled himself on to shore. He was half frozen. His belly dragged in the wet sand as he tried to stand up. The duck and piece of driftwood were still in his mouth. He struggled over to where I was standing knee deep in water. I hobbled back to dry sand and he followed me. As I grabbed my crutches he dropped both the duck and piece of driftwood at my feet. He wagged his tail as I touched his head. And then without any warning he walked up towards the road, Scruggs was now by his side barking up a storm, and headed towards the cottage. Evidently that was enough for him!
As the dogs went ahead I gathered up my crutches and gun, stuck the duck into a large pocket in my jacket, and moved slowly towards the cottage. My cast had soaked up about a gallon of salt water and felt like an anchor attached to my leg. I was wet past my knees and extremely cold. Water slushed around in my leather ankle-high boots. I knew that I had probably ruined the cast on my leg and would have to get it replaced. All in a day’s work for a meal. Thanks to Max we would have a little variety in our menu.
Back at the cottage we stepped into the warm living room where the woodstove was still burning. I put the duck in the sink so I could clean and pluck it later. Max immediately layed down in front of the hot metal stove soaking up the heat from the stove. Scruggs layed behind the stove to warm up as well. I took off my wet pants put my right leg up on a hassock with the wet cast dripping onto the old blue and gray leather cube. The bottom of the cast was a little mushy and I was hoping that when it dried it would not be badly misshappened. Getting back to the hospital would be an ordeal, although I did have a friend who had offered me transportation whenever I needed it. As I sat there I could see steam rising off of Max as the salt water evaporated from the heat of the woodstove. He shivered as he warmed up but I knew he’d be alright in a few hours. As I looked at him I noticed a bare spot on his hind leg. I remembered the bare spot that I had found earlier on Scruggs. I hobbled over to examine it. It looked as though a clump of hair had just fallen out. I went over to Scruggs to examine him and found several more areas that no longer had fur. I pulled at Scruggs pelt as he lay there and a handfull of fur came out with a gentle tug!
I tried the same trick on Max, although his fur was much shorter. Sure enough it came out easily. At that point I knew I had a problem. My first thought was they both got into something, some chemical that was used on the nearby cranberry bogs or God knows what. I hobbled down to a nearby corner where there was a seasonal store that was closed but had an outdoor pay phone. I called my friend and asked her to give the dogs and me a ride to the veternarian.
Sue showed up. She was a friend who wanted to be more than a friend. Given I had only stopped living with my girlfriend a month ago I thought that another relationship was just a bit premature. Anyways, she was happy to take us to the vet.
I had no appointment but I knew the veterinarian pretty well. I had played pool with him many times at “The Airport”. This was a bar at, you guessed it, the local island airport. We got to his office just as he was getting ready to close. I asked him if he could look at my two dogs and told them their hair was falling out.
Without even looking at them he asked me if I had been feeding them large amounts of scallops (after all this was one of the primary industries on the island) to which I replied in the affirmative. He laughed. I didn’t know what he thought was so funny! Maybe he was picturing my two dogs completely naked and devoid of fur. He told me to stop feeding them scallops immediately and that their hair would fall out for about another week. He looked quickly at both dogs and laughed again. The vet implied that they were going to get pretty funny looking.
“You’d better buy them a winter coat!” And he laughed again.
We never even got into his office. At least I knew what the problem was. Sue and I loaded the dogs back into her old beat up Dodge Dart where she noticed several clumps of hair on the car seat, both of the long hair and short hair variety. She laughed. I kind of had the creeps imagining my two dogs both bald running around on the winter beach. Maybe the vet wasn’t joking when he told me to buy them a coat!
Sue took me out for a sandwhich. She left the car running to keep the dogs warm while we went in side to eat. We had a seat in the cafe near a window where I could keep an eye on the dogs.
Sue laughed, “No one is going to steal two bald dogs you know.”
She probably had a good point, however, I kept a watch over them anyway.
After a bite to eat Sue dropped the dogs and I off at the cottage. My cast was in pretty bad shape. The narrow bottom section near my ankle had kind of come apart and the cast had slid down my leg. It was biting into my ankle bone and very uncomfortable. I didn’t want to call Sue again to take me to the hospital. She had just left. I reasoned it might seem better tomorrow.
The dead duck was still in the sink. I boiled some water and dipped it in to scald the feathers and ready the bird for plucking. Ducks are tough to pluck, it took about 20 minutes, but eventually all of the feathers came off. Unlike my dogs this duck seemed to have a semi-permanent covering; armor made out of feathers. It occurred to me that the next time I started a garage band I might call it” Feathered Armor”. A random thought for sure but one that would stick with me to this day.
After I gutted the duck I put him in the oven. It would be tonight’s dinner for the dogs. At least it wouldn’t contribute to their fur falling out.
The next morning Max and Scuggs woke me up at sun up. They were both anxious to go out and do their business. I immediately noticed that Scruggs was now about half bald, most of it on his back above his tail. Max had lost a significant amount of fur on his rear legs. He somehow looked like he was wearing tights. I never said this out loud. I was afraid I’d insult him.
When I let the dogs out I noticed I couldn’t hear the surf pounding at the beach. This was a good sign. I grabbed my cutches, my trusty gun, and called Max and Scruggs. With some luck we’d harvest breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Post Script: Max caught on to retrieving ducks and braved the cold seas despite having only half of a fur coat. We lived on ducks and food Sue brought us for several more weeks. Finally we abandoned ship and headed for the mainland where I would heal, their hair would grow back, and we would reunite with our good friend Jeff.
Written in April of 2013.