The gentlemen of Virginia with politics on their minds and whiskey in their hands, assembled here this afternoon in the piney woods for the 32nd annual shad planking, a one-day festival of bony fish, speech-making and the search for ice.
The barriers that for years kept women, blacks and Republicans away from the picnic supposedly have scarce as abolitionists; blacks mostly tended the fish, and the Republicans, according to many longtime shad plankers, now sound so much like old-time Virginia Democrats that they are indistinguishable from the regulars.
A shad planker is a man, a member of the local Ruritan Club in this town of 1,000 located about 60 miles southeast of Richmond, who got up early this morning, took a galvanized, sheet-metal nail and a hammer, and struck a cleaned shad to an oak board. The shad then was smoked for nearly six hours over an oak fire.
The salty taste of that bony fish -- along with the appeal of Virginia's top elected officials and a sunny afternoon -- drew nearly 4,300 people, almost all white males.
The record crowd that paid $7.50 per person for a ticket to the picnic, impatiently listened to the traditional patriotic speech that briefly interferes with the drinking here. Virginia Lt. Gov. Charles S. (Chuck) Robb of McLean, considered the likely Democratic nominee for governor next year, even prefaced his speech by saying, "Nobody comes to shad planking to hear speeches. We come here to quench our thirst."
But then Robb went on with his speech anyhow. In an appeal that pleased many of the conservative peanut farmers and Southside Virginia businessmen in the crowd, Robb called for a reinstatement of the military draft. The former marine condemned those who demonstrate against registering for the draft and said he was "concerned about our ability to defend this nation today."
Before he mounted the wood-plank podium for his speech, Robb acknowledged a change in the shad-planking crowd in recent years. With a Republican governor, Republican attorney general and more Republicans in the state General Assembly than ever before, Robb said he "was glad to see all the Republicans turn out here.
If we just had Democrats now, we'd have a right small group," Robb said.
When the shad-planking picnics began more than three decades ago, political control of Virginia was in the hands of Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr. and his political machine. Conservative political power in the state, for the most part, is now held by the Republican Party.
Gov. John N. Dalton, who spoke briefly at today's picnic, didn't let the opportunity of promoting his party's strength slip away.
"When I first came here in 1969," said Dalton, as the afternoon sun filtered through the pine trees, "I bet more than 100 people told me I was the first elected Republican figure ever seen at the shad planking."
Up until this year attendance at the picnic was by invitation only. But 4,000 tickets went up for sale to the general public late this winter, and they were all purchased within a month.
Despite changes in the political labels of the politicians who run Virginia, one thing that has remained constant at the shad planking is the sauce.
Dr. E. C. Nettle, a 78-year-old Wakefield physician who stands 6 feet 5 and today wore a bright red sweater, plaid slacks and a tan wool coat, is in charge of the sauce. It is said here that the best way to know the sauce -- which is poured over the shad several times -- is to stick your finger in it, that is, if "you got a finger you don't much care about."
Dr. Nettle, who knows the sauce better than any Virginia, enumerated the potent ingredients:
"We got eight gallons of Worcestershire sauce, 45 pounds of butter, 18 quarts of lemon juice, 13 pounds of black pepper and four pounds of red pepper," Nettle said there was also about 18 pounds of salt in the sauce. When the sauce is poured on an open fire it bursts into flame.
Before most of the men had a chance to taste Dr. Nettle's sauce on the 700 pounds of flounder, 400 pounds of rockfish and 2,900 pounds of shad, they sampled some of their own -- mostly out of the tailgates and trunks of their cars.
Spencer Perkins, 72, an optometrist from Petersburg, parked his green 1972 Dodge in the pasture parking lot about one-half mile from where the speech-making took place. He and three of his friends broke out a fifth of Jim Beam bourbon, opened an ice chest and gathered around the rear of the car for some conversation. "When you come out here and have two or three drinks, you love everybody, everybody is your friend," said Perkins. "Of course," he said, "you'll find a few blacks and ladies here now, too."
But their numbers today were few, Lyle Pond, 62, a peanut, hog and soybean farmer, said he wouldn't want his wife to come to the shad planking because of the lack of "facilities."
Pond, a member of the Wakefield Ruritan Club who was in charge of cooking 500 pounds of cornbread, said men had a much easier time at the woodsy party because they "can go out behind a tree."
Before today's picnic in the woods, there was a smaller gathering for Republicans only at the Wakefield Inn, where women were invited. Jean Barker co-owner of the inn, came up with the idea for the cocktail party three years ago as "something for the ladies."
Gov. Dalton and State Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman, who hopes to succeed Dalton as governor, gave the cocktail party something to applaud by bringing up rumors that Dalton may be a vice presidential running mate for Ronald Reagan.
"I would be willing to let the nation have the benefit of a great leader," said Coleman, referring to Dalton. Coleman then alluded to his own aspirations for winning Dalton's job next year.
It is very flaterring to even think that you're even being considered" for vice president. Dalton said. However, he added, "You don't run for vice president."
Back at the shad planking, Dr. Nettle said he had figured out why all the politicians show up here every April.
"The pols like to get a crowd, see. Whenever there is a crowd they like to come and pump hands, see." said Nettle. And for politicians, Wakefield never looked as good as it did today.