Here we are, deep in the "R" months, and half the people who love fresh oysters are passing them up because they can't get the ornery devils open without stabbing themselves.

Do not be intimidated into buying shucked oysters. If Mother Nature did not intend the oyster to be eaten fresh (let's be frank: alive ) she would not have put him in such a durable shipping carton.

Torn rudely from his bed in Chesapeake Bay, or Long Island if you must, the oyster clamps down and hauls his environment along with him. Kept cool and moist, he'll stay plump and happy as a clam for weeks.

(Cool because it slows his metabolism and anyway that's how he was raised: moist because from time to time he has to open the shell a crack to replenish his oxygen, and dry air will dessicate him. To be absolutely correct, store oysters on an even keel, rounded side down, so that the water doesn't drip out when they breath. Better vet, buy them off the boat and slurp them before sundown.)

Forget everything you've been told about how to help the little fellow out of his coat, unless your source was "The Joy of Cooking," in which case you're wasting you then reading this because that's where I learned it too, one night after I had stabbed myself through the palm and fainted dead away on the kitchen floor to the shock of my wife and little children and the amazement of our New Year's Eve guests, one of when said it sounded like the refrigerator had fallen into the basement.

This debade followed my graduation from the Herman (Hardtimes) Hunt Academy of Clam Stomping & Oyster Shucking at Oyster, Va., down the road a piece from Possum Hinman's Beanery. (I am not making this up, as anyone who knew Times, God rest him, will testify.)

Hunt, who was a Virginia tourism promoter ("Virginia is for Lovers"), wit, and asparagus thief, delighted in instructing newsmen (and especially news1 women ) in the follies of government and the usufruct of the Eastern Shore, near the very tip of which the tiny town of Oyster sits, you could look it up.

The Academy was housed in a mansion somewhat sunk in desuetude and held irregular sessions that often detoured into highly irregular subject matter, but Hunt was serious: he thought life was too short to waste time not eating oysters.

He didn't eat oysters himself unless under duress, but he wanted everyone else to gobble them "so they'll get the damn things out of the water and make room for the clams." Actually, he admitted, there is room in the Bay for both, but, "When a man goes stomping clams and hits oysters, Law, it plain tears his feet right up." Clam stomping is a separate discipline and will not be discussed here.

Hunt lectured and demonstrated for me all through a long lazy afternoon. Shucking an oyster is the easiest thing in the world, he said. Why, the beast is shaped so that the only way it will fit in your left hand is the right way, he said. "Only a righthanded man should take it up, though," he said. "There is no student less promising than a lefthanded oyster shucker, and I send all such applicants straight to the clam seminar. Clam don't care which foot you stomp him with."

With oyster in left hand, he said, insert oyster knife - nothing else will do - into the edge just rearward of the curve of the shell, run it along the inside of the top (flatter) shell ans slice away the adductor muscle. The shell pops open and it is a simple matter to sever the other end of the muscle, having a care not to spill the liquor, then tip the shell up and suck in juice and all. (Purists say wiping away the mud diminishes the flavor.) He demonstrated (with me eating all the victims) until I was awash in oysters and had performed the operation myself some dozens of times.

I went away under the illusion that I had learned something. Many nicks and cuts and one fainting fit later I came to the conclusion that it doesn't work. You can't find the place where the knife should go in, and when you try to force it the knife slips and stabs you. Finding the right crack is a skill vouchsafed only to sons of watermen's sons.

Go with Edith Rombauer's method. Buy an oyster knife (but cut off half the blade with a hacksaw and file the stump to the original contour). Hold the oyster as it naturally fits in your left hand with the hinge toward the heel of your palm. Stick the rounded point of the knife into the center of the hinge and twist.

The oyster will pop open and the shell halves will be forced out of alignment, so that there will be an opening through which the adductor muscle is easily reached. And there you are.

For lefthanders there is no hope.