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The Mast-Head: Mystery Solved

Thu, 06/22/2023 - 09:21

It had been missing for nearly a year, so when I found my wallet at the bottom of a bag of life jackets earlier this week I felt like a dope. The credit cards in there had long since been replaced, but there was $18 in bills — faded and stiff and with a light coating of yellow mold. It was nothing that a little white vinegar could not handle, so I misted the bills and the wallet inside and out and set them on a workbench in the barn to dry then foisted the cash off on someone or other.

The scenario that I had come up with to explain the wallet’s absence is that it had fallen overboard in Napeague Harbor while I was on my way back from clamming last summer with a group of friends. This was after retracing my steps, including scouring a spot near the Lazy Point launching ramp where I had changed into dry clothes that afternoon. I wrote about its loss the following week, likening it to my growing need for reading glasses and dental work.

My father would tell a story about an aged Bonacker who had lost all of her choppers, the punch line of which was something along the lines of, “She may not have no teeth, but she sure can gum them clams!” Taking this to heart, dining in my own dotage does not trouble me so much.

Staying on the subject, my brother makes a convincing argument that all we really need to survive is a diet of brown rice and clams. “It’s all there,” he says, “and when you are done eating, you can leave the pot outside for the raccoons.” This seems to me a valid variation on a phrase sometimes heard in the tropics, “Where there are coconuts, there is life.”

Our earlier ancestors on this continent are thought to have perhaps expanded out of their natal home in West Africa, following coastlines with high-protein shellfish sources of food, to expand north and east and across into present-day Alaska and Canada. Plucking limpets and mussels from the intertidal zone is considerably more dependable than hunting Ice Age megafauna, and clams don’t fight back. Most of them, anyway.

Near where I used to keep a boat at Three Mile Harbor there was once a massive shell midden, or trash heap, left by the native people who were here first. It was described in an early-20th-century account as the largest known on Long Island. Accounts from the early days of European colonization described how the people tended to move to waterside camps during the summer months, shifting back to more sheltered places as winter approached. I have a general idea where the midden was and am saddened when I think about it that the site is occupied by houses.

How my wallet ended up in the life jacket bag I don’t know, though my guess is that I did it, thinking that it would be a good idea at the time. It is fitting, too, that it turned up now that the water is warm and it is time again to take friends clamming.


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