By Bruce Mastracchio
“Uum, yes, here it is. Guess I dozed off there for a bit.”
“I guess you did. Have a nice trip. Sorry I disturbed you.”
“No bother, I wanted to see some of the scenery anyway.”
The train wound down into Connecticut and was making its way past the outskirts of Bridgeport. As we breezed past that southwestern Connecticut city, I gazed out to my right at Long Island Sound. Even through the glass enclosure I thought I could smell the salt air and feel the sand. If I missed anything about home it was the ocean and all the sights, smells and the foods associated with it. It was the scene of many of our youthful adventures and the source of a ready and steady supply of income when we were growing up. Some gotten honestly and some in a more nefarious manner.
The ocean was our frontier, our great plains, and we were like those buckskin men of yore whenever we were on it.
“The Deps are coming! The Deps are coming!” Bubba Joe Guardino was yelling, and running at the same time. He was our lookout that day as we dug for quahaugs by the boatyard. Digging for quahaugs was a profitable pastime, but you were not supposed to dig in the polluted areas. Of course, the polluted areas were where most of the quahaugs were. Naturally, that’s where we went to dig them, picturing ourselves as all the rogues who ever lived. Modern day Robin Hoods.
Our natural enemies, the game wardens (called Deps) always checked the popular polluted digging spots, and it became a game of cowboys and Indians between us. The wardens always trying to catch us while we used all our wits and resources to evade and escape, make our catch and cash a profit for the day.
In those days a fast worker like Batman, or myself, could make $15 with an hour’s work and then either rest or resort to one of our other money-making schemes with what was left of the day.
The take was good money for a kid back then, and it was not unusual for us to take in $30 to $40 a week back then between ‘haugging, caddying and soda bottle schemes. After yelling his warning to us, BJ took off like his pants were on fire.
My bag was almost full and resting on the muddy bottom hidden from the sight of anyone on shore. Now I worked to get away from it, so after looking for a spot on shore that lined up with my bag, I took a deep breath and dove underwater, It was not easy to see in that brackish salty soup but I knew where I was going and how many strokes it would take me to get there. I kept calm and kicked and pulled ‘til I could make out the form of the dock poles in front of me.
I was under one of the boat ramps and had the whole scene in front of me. The black car with the Rhode Island State logo was on the dirt road just behind the boatyard beach and when it stopped three deputy wardens got out. I looked around for Batman and Deacon and then their heads popped up a short distance from me.
Now it would be a waiting game. The Deps would try to find us, or our catch, or both. We would try to stay out of sight until they tired and left. You had to be careful though as those Deps had all kinds of tricks up their sleeves. They were a wily bunch they were and it was a pleasure doing battle with them. It honed us for other things in life.
They would get in their cars and drive away, but one of them stayed behind with a radio and binoculars to catch us coming out of hiding. Or, they would drive away and circle back. They would even wait for us on the road to Quahaug Haven where we would cash in our catch.
Those Deps were shrewd. They knew how to play the game. It wasn’t easy making your money with them around.
That’s why we had lookouts.
The three wardens climbed down the bank and stood on the small beach. One of them took off his shoes and socks and rolled up his pants legs. I swore silently to myself. They had been watching us! They were probably at the park on the other side of the cove. It was one of their favorite spying spots. They had seen us through their spy glasses. Watched our every move.
Of course in driving over here they had to break contact so they probably hadn’t seen BJ, or seen us move our catches from their original spots. The one with his shoes off was in the water now looking for our bags. He methodically moved back and forth the breadth of the beach scruffing his feet trying to hit one of our bags, or, all of them!
“I’ve got one!” he yelled to his companions on shore as he held up a brown burlap bag bulging with quahaugs.
It wasn’t mine. It looked like it was in the area where Deacon was working. While their partner searched for the bags, the other two Deps were walking up and down the beach looking in and under boats and out at the docks in an attempt to catch some of us in hiding. As they drew near to the dock and ramps where we were, we took deep breaths and slowly submerged, pushing against the poles and lying on the bottom while we began a slow count to 120. All of us could hold our breath for quite some time. It was a trick you learned early, especially if you wanted to keep from getting caught. Most of us could stay down for well over a minute. Two if we were in a tight spot. Maybe a little longer than that.
Satisfied that no one was around and that we had fled, and happy they had confiscated at least one catch for the moment, the deputies made their way back up the bank. They would be back later but hopefully we would have our catch on our “ponies” ( our 26″ bikes) and be gone.
Meanwhile, we stayed where we were, waiting for BJ’s return to signal the coast was clear. Sometimes the Deps would circle back in hopes of catching us emerging from our hiding places. Once they figured out where we liked to hide they would always check those spots. Thus, they checked the boats and the underbrush. One thing you could say about the Deps though, and that was, they sure were creatures of habit.
The other thing was about the quahaugs they”confiscated.” Everyone down on the docks knew that they, or, one of their cronies, used to bring the confiscated bags into a dealer and cash them in, keeping the money for themselves. A little “bonus” money for themselves or COLA before COLAs were in existence.
It might have been the “innocent” ’50s, but we learned early on how people took care of themselves, especially those who were supposedly on the side of the establishment, and law and order.
A shrill hawk whistle broke through my thoughts. BJ was back and signaling that the wardens were gone. We had to hurry so Bats, Deacon and I quickly swam back to our spots. After a brief search we found our day’s work. Two bags full of quahaugs.
We would split our share with Deacon as that was always part of the agreement and the known downside of working this side of the water. BJ also got a couple of bucks for standing watch. That was how it worked and nobody ever questioned it.
We got the quahaugs onto the beach and then up the bank and over to where we had hid our bikes. For some reason the Deps never found the bikes ever in my knowledge. Maybe they didn’t look for them.
Balancing the bags on the handlebars and crossbar, we mounted up and rode off to get our reward. The payoff for our adventurous day!
Check back next Saturday for Part 4.
Bruce Mastracchio grew up in East Greenwich, where he experienced those 28-hour days and 8-day weeks that contained the magic that made his hometown so special.