Years ago, when Brownie Brown was strong and young and could run a scallop dredge all day, inflation got out of hand and there was a drought and finially the bottom fell out and everybody went broke.
"We all had jobs with the WPA," Brown was telling his Nantucket cohorts on the dock the other day. "That's where I first saw scallops 'clapping.' Have you ever seen that? That's how a scallop moves. He's got a muscle that comes out of the shell, and he claps himself along the bottom.
We used to come down here for work every morning in August and that's what we'd do all day. We'd watch the scallops clapping. That's what we did during the Depression."
"Yeah," said an unimpressed listener. "That's why it never ended."
Brown is 64 years old now, white-haired, white-bearded and as picturesque as the island he calls home. He hasn't the strength to haul for scallops anymore, but there are plenty around to take his place.
One of the wonderful things about islands, New England islands in particular, is that things change slowly. There were 5,000 year-round residents of Nantucket 200 years ago, when it was a whaling port. There were 5,000 when Brownie Brown was a young scalloper in the Depression, and there are 5,000 today.
It has long been a tradition for islanders to go after bay scallops in the winter, after the summer people abandon the island to the ravages of Northeasters.
It is, like most winter fisheries, a hard way to make a buck. Now, there are about 50 small boats rigged for bay scalloping, and the scallop fleet sticks together in the broad Nantucket Bay. They work the grassy shallows, dragging steel scrapes along the bottom and keeping an eye out for one another.
"Years ago," said Brownie Brown, "we went whatever the weather. And it was hard work, too. We'd be out there when it was zero."
State law now bans the scallopers from working if the temperature is below 28 on the theory that seed scallops dragged up when it's colder than that will die before they are dumped back in.
The scallopers don't believe it, but they live with the law, giving them an excuse to stay home when they ought to be.
When Brown was a scalloper the men did all the work. They trailed six scrapes behind the boat and hauled each one up by hand to check it. Nowadays the boats are rigged with power pullers, approved by the state three years ago.
It makes it easier, but it's still no picnic. "Everything is work when it's cold like this," said Ernie Whelden, a native Nantucketer who drives a cab in the summer. "You're hands get so cold you can hardly move them. Then a line fouls and you've got to clear it. It's agony."
Welden pulled in just before dusk one day last week. His start that morning had been delayed by the weather. It didn't hit 28 degrees until 11 a.m.
He followed the other skiffs out into the protected bay and worked the bottom for five hours. His catch: one box of scallops, or one-sixth of his daily limit.Still ahead was the task of shucking. He expects about five to six pounds of meat from a box of scallops, and the meat sells for $4 a pound.
"Twenty bucks," said Whelden. "Well, it pays the heat bill at the house."
Of course there are other, gentler days when the fleet leaves early and everyone comes home with a limit. Six boxes at $20 or better a box makes a good day's pay.
That's the perfect day the scallopers dream of. For fellows like Brown whose busy days are behind them, dreams are easier fulfilled. Happiness is any days the sun shines, when he can sit on the dock, facing south, protected from the wind, and watch the strong young men file out to the cold scalloping grounds.
And be there waiting when the men come back.