The other day my wife and I joined a group of friends at a restaurant that served lobster bakes. It came with a lobster, potato, half an ear of corn, and a lot of butter. Everyone at our table loved the meal. I, on the other hand, went back into a memory of my past I hadn’t thought about for too long.
My uncle used to own a fish store in College Point, New York. I loved going to his store. The air was filled with the sharp smell of fresh fish that had just been delivered from the docks of New York City.
I remember the black and white tiled floors and the counter being sparkling clean and my uncle, wearing a white apron, talking to his customers while he arranged the catch of the day in a glass display case filled with crushed ice.
One day my father said they needed my help with the clambake. Wow! I could tag along with the men because they needed my help. I can’t tell you how important that made me feel. At first I didn’t know what to make of it because what had become a tradition in my short life was about to change.
The clambake was held at a small airport called Roosevelt Field. Today it is a gigantic mall of stores but back then it was an open field that went on forever. My father and my uncle met with a bunch of other men in the middle of the field to dig a giant hole.
They didn’t need my help for this because the shovels were bigger than I was, so I sat on a rock and watched a couple-of-dozen shirtless men work and sweat in the hot summer sun. I remember my father pausing to lean on his shovel and shooting me a big grin. It made me feel proud because I was there, ready to take my turn doing ‘man’s work’.
When the hole was dug the men dragged over a bunch of rocks, including the one I had been sitting on, and arranged them in the giant hole. I remember the grunts and groans of the men as they pushed and shoved the big rocks into place.
The next step was filling the hole with logs, 8 to 10 feet in length, most of them with the bark still on them. The logs were dumped into the hole by trucks that had rumbled up while the men were still digging the hole. After piling a giant mound of logs on top of the rocks my father and uncle doused the trees with gasoline. I remember the smell caught in my throat and made my eyes water.
My uncle told everyone to stand back while he lit a corner of the hole. The explosion that followed was like a nuclear blast. I watched, hypnotized, as a red and black cloud boiled up into the sky. It was early evening at that point and starting to get dark but the blaze that erupted turned the areas around the fire pit into daytime again. It was then time to leave. I was told the fire would be left to burn all night.
When we arrived, busloads of people were settling in the field all around us. Tents magically appeared and what seemed like thousands of tables and chairs were distributed under and around the tents.
I never knew whom all the people were who brought the tents and the tables and chairs, or where they came from, because I was mesmerized by the way fire could split rocks. I found out later that an average-size clambake put on by my uncle consisted of over 2000 people.
These people were strangers to me but they all seemed to know each other because they all seemed to work for the same company. Another thing I noticed was that the kids these people brought wouldn’t talk to me; they would just look at me like I must really know what I was doing to be part of something so impressive.
Then my uncle gave fresh directions to his helpers again and the same men who had dug the hole the day before began dumping onto the white-hot rocks great mounds of seaweed that had been brought in trucks from the beach.
I didn’t know that much seaweed existed in the ocean. The first shovelfuls of seaweed thrown onto the rocks vanished in a hiss of steam but, gradually a great green steaming volcanic mound was built up that generated a huge pungent cloud that drifted out among the gathered crowd.
This was when meshed cheesecloth bags filled with lobsters, clams, mussels, chicken, potatoes, corn, and fish of every kind would come out to be thrown on top of the steaming seaweed. As soon as the last bag was on top of the seaweed two rows of men quickly dragged a giant tarp over the whole thing to trap the steam.
I remember staring at that tarp, with the steam pouring out from the corners, thinking of the heat underneath and wondering how long it would take to cook a small boy who accidentally fell in and wasn’t noticed before the tarp was dragged across!
Not long, I guessed, because after just a few minutes the tarp was removed and a wave of steam rolled out filled with a scent I will never forger; sweet and pungent and filled with the smell of the sea.
The long rows of tables that surrounded the hole were then filled with bags of cooked fish, vegetables and chicken to be distributed to those who had witnessed the miracle of the clambake. As everyone enjoyed the feast, I was given my first job.
My uncle handed me a rake and it became my job, along with my older cousins, to rake the seaweed off the rocks so that it could be hauled away. It was a hot and dirty job I absolutely adored.
I now understand how past memories seem better than present realities.
Have you ever wondered why past memories seem better than present realities?
By Jim Fabiano
Jim Fabiano is a retired teacher and writer living in York, Maine.
You can contact Jim at: firstname.lastname@example.org