With the sky still dark and the town fire truck nearby, Lewis Blow and William B. (Buddy) Savedge struck matches to a kerosene-soaked rag and paper bag and dragged them 200 feet over three rows of pine needles and leaves.
The predawn teamwork of Blow, 75, and Savedge, a 37-year-old insurance broker and civic leader, kicked off the Wakefield Ruritan Club's 38th annual shad planking today in rural Southside Virginia.
By 6 a.m., the sounds of nails being driven into oak planks, axes splitting logs, and sparks snapping from the fire resounded through the piney woods on the grounds of the Sportsman's Club.
Two dozen men busily began preparing for a Virginia rite of spring at which nearly 4,000 people pay $10 each for the opportunity to eat a bony, oily fish that was disdained by the first settlers who pulled the silvery shad from the James River.
"This is not an ideal cooking day," said Richard Andrews, a 50-year-old peanut farmer and cochairman of this year's cooking committee, as he surveyed the gray sky and put his finger to a northeast wind that blew the smoke toward a screened pavilion where the corn bread committee soon would go to work.
It may be the political influence that inspired the Ruritans, a rural version of the Rotary Club, to divide the chores into committees. There are the nailing and scaling committee, the sauce committee, the cleanup committee and the committee to cook for the cooks. The cooks and other workers are served a total of three meals during the two-day preparation, including a Tuesday night dinner featuring roe, the caviar of the shad.
By 7:15 a.m., the last of the three- to seven-pound shad had been nailed to the boards -- five nails to a fish, two fish to a board. The four-foot-long oak boards then were carried to the fire and placed against pipe railings, fish-side away from the heat.
Shortly before noon, after the heat had forced the oil out of the shad and seared the fish to the wood, the boards were turned so that the fish faced the fire.
Enter the sauce committee, led by E.C. Nettles, an 84-year-old retired dentist and inventor of the secret sauce. "Doc" Nettles is going soft in his old age, however, freely revealing his recipe: Eight gallons of Worcestershire sauce, 20 quarts lemon juice, 10 pounds black pepper, three pounds red pepper, 12 boxes salt and 48 pounds margarine.
The sauce committee basted the shad, which hung like Smithfield hams from the boards, until serving began, about 3 p.m. today. The guests, many wearing suits and ties, slogged through the mud and cold drizzle to claim their plates of fish and corn bread.
Despite the popularity of the event, many of those who attend, including some of the cooks, deride the entree.
"You oughta throw away the shad and eat the plank, cuz it's smoother," observed Jimmie Savedge, whose son Buddy was this year's general chairman.
The first committee to go to work on the event was the "getting committee," a two-man band composed of peanut farmers -- Wakefield bills itself as the "peanut capital of the world" -- J.C. (Boots) Whitmore Jr. and Vernon (Vet) Clarke.
They made the 35-mile trip to Suffolk on Tuesday morning to pick up 3,111 pounds of shad, plus 1,200 pounds of red snapper and 100 pounds of winter trout, from the Leggett Fish Co.
Owner Jack Leggett apologized for the quality of the shad, but said he was lucky to have gotten any at all.
"I almost called and said 'buy small nails, because you're going to be nailing hot dogs to those planks,' " he said.
"We used to be able to go to the James river and get all the shad we wanted," Leggett said. But this year's supply is so bad that "I had to put the word out from South Carolina to Connecticut" to fill the club's huge order.
As late as Friday night, Leggett thought he might have to buy shad from ocean fishermen, whose catch would not include the highly prized roe. Shad swim inland to spawn, and the farther they swim, the bigger their eggs.
Then he heard about a face-saving catch on the bay side of Virginia's Eastern Shore. (The shad plankers still grumble about the year they had to resort to fish "bought in Baltimore.")
With that, the getting committee got going, arriving at precisely 3 p.m. Tuesday at the Sportsman's Club grounds, where the scaling committee awaited.
The truck was quickly unloaded, and a production line went into action, with club members and their friends scaling and trimming the shad while Blow and two dozen other men hired for the occasion carted off buckets of shad heads and guts.
George Marshall Jr., 37, a shift supervisor at Virginia Power's nuclear plant at Surry, was the acknowledged champion shad cleaner and cutter. "When I get going I can do one every 15 or 20 seconds."
Ruritan President Sam W. Purviance said he was troubled by the racial divison of labor, in which blacks handle most of the menial jobs while whites take care of the more desirable tasks. He said the division is indicative of a larger social segregation in the community.
But Purviance, 37, who operates a funeral home in town, said he is pleased that the club has changed its policy and now allows blacks and women to attend the festival. The Ruritans raised an estimated $20,000 from today's shad planking and plan to divide the money among various civic activities in the town of 1,200.
Lyle Pond, who has cooked one thing or another at every one of the 38 official plankings and is chairman of the corn bread committee this year, attended his first shad planking in 1945.
He remembers those early events as being strictly for eating and drinking. The politics didn't come along until the party grew so large that it needed an official sponsor. Pond credits, or blames, former delegate George Munford for inviting some of his political pals to make the 70-mile trip down from Richmond.
From that point it followed as naturally as chasing shad with bourbon that the politicians would make speeches.
Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, who was the featured speaker at this year's festivities, saluted one of his predecessors, former governor J. Lindsay Almond, who died this week, as one of the great stump speakers at previous shad plankings.
Some pols are better remembered for what they did than what they said. One old timer saw then-governor Bill Tuck "fall flat on his face in a creek."
It was Tuck, in 1957, who warned that federal officials, forcing racial integration, were "trying to come down here and mongrelize our schools."
The color barrier was broken in 1977, but the five blacks who attended were subjected to repeated renditions of "Dixie" as the master of ceremonies entreated the crowd to "stand up for our national anthem."
In 1982, Gov. Charles S. Robb used the Shad Planking to lecture his audience about the plight of unemployed black teen-agers.
A year after the first blacks were admitted to the event, Megan Rosenfeld, a reporter for The Washington Post, using a ticket provided by a Tidewater legislator, became the first woman to attend. It was another five years, however, before women officially were invited, the delay attributed to a "lack of facilities" on the grounds of the Sportsman's Club.
This year, a group of women chartered what one participant, Beverly Diamonstein, called "a good ol' girls' bus" to attend the fete.
But old habits die hard.
State Attorney General Mary Sue Terry, along with Lt. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, sat on the platform today along with a dozen other honored guests. At the conclusion of the introductions, Sussex Commonwealth's Attorney E. Carter Nettles Jr. asked the crowd to "give all these gentlemen a hand." Terry shook her head in amusement.