At 7:45 on Wednesday morning Wayne Brady was ready to start the day's work.
"Well, I better get down to the office," he told Carroll and Janie Thompson, who were helping him.
"Okay," said Janie. "We'll see you at lunchtime."
Brady took a last breath of fresh air and stepped off the edge of a boat named Promise. His office was the bottom of the Miles River and he had an early appointment with some oysters, some crabs and some mud toads.
The crabs and mud toads he could do without. The oysters are gold nugets as far as he's concerned.
"Wail till you get down there," he said. "You won't believe how loaded it is. Some people say you could feed the whole country off what's in the Chesapeake, if it's managed right, and I believe it."
Brady took a wire bushel basket with him to the floor of the Miles 12 feet down. The basket was attached to a rope that ran back to the boat, and in less than 10 minutes there came a violent tugging on the line, like a big fish grabbing a bait.
Carroll Thompson grabbed the line and started hauling in, and a few seconds later the basket came up, loaded to the brim with fat, muddy oysters.
Thompson threw a secon basket over to the submerged Brady, dumped the full one onto the culling board and he and his wife began hammering away at the booty, separating the three-inch keeper oysters from the little throw backs attached to them.
And Brady kept on picking.
The first oyster out of each basketfull was tossed up on the engine box to keep count of Brady's work. Three and a half hours later, there were 25 oysters on the box and 18 bushels of culled keepers in the hold.
About halfway through his morning's labor Brady surfaced and invited me to take a look down below. It was a treat I'll never forget.
The only scuba diving I've done was in a YMCA pool in Boston years ago when I earned my diving papers. It was so boring I never felt the urge to try again.
It's not boring in the Miles.
The water temperature was 25, and Thompson told me several times that if I could get pas the first few moments of body shock in my wet suit I'd be all right.
It didn't even take that long. The minute I got a look at the rolling countryside below I was entranced. The only reason I ever got out was because I ran out of air.
Brady works like a demon.He carries his basket to a pile of oysters, which lie on the sandy river bottom as if they were scattered by the winds. He hands suspended over the basket and picks away with both hands, tossing the muddy critters in a breakneck speed.
The law prohibits unlicensed people from assisting in such commerical operations, so I was free to watch and fiddle around.
There was a strong tide ripping, which kept the water clear, and the sunlight filtered through the tea-colored water from above. I found an angry blue crab and made him madder than hops.
While Brady picked away at the oysters I picked on the crab, feigning attacks on his domain among the rocks. He fiddled his feelers at me and made lunges with his big claw when I tossed rockes at him. As I advanced he'd hold his ground, then scurry away on nimble crustacean legs.
Brady turned over a big rock and a mud toad, ugiliest fish in the Bay, raced out and swam away.
It was a strange and silent world, where direction meant nothing and the only link to the real world was the rope on the basket. which led back to the boat. More than once Brady had to come find me, when I'd become so lost in my underwater reverie that I drifted off with the tide.
What a delightful way to make a dollar. It ended far too soon.
Over lunch of beef stew with sherry, roasted oysters in melted butter and fresh biscuits, all washed down with Johnny Walker Scotch, Brady explained how he'd helped pioneer oyster-diving 10 years ago. He said there are about 15 oyster-divers on the Bay now.
A decade ago Brady fell in with some scuba divers in Baltimore. They needed someone with a boat to take neiphytes out for a deep-water dive, which is one of the requirements for a diving license.
Brady agreed to take classes out for $80, and while he was out there he dove, too. When he got to the bottom he found acres of oyster beds.
As a third-generation Eastern Shore waterman, Brady couldn't bear to just leave them there. So he picked up as many as he could.
After awhile he stopped taking the scuba diverss and started taking along someone to stay aboard and cull oysters, and pretty soon he had a whole new business -- oyster-diving.
"There aren't many willing to do it," he said. "It's hard work and it gets cold as the season goes on," Brady said.
Hand-tonging is hard work, too, and Brady finds he can collect as many or more oysters down below as he could invading their turf with a pair of 28-foot tongs.
In addition, he needs not worry about collecting undersized oysters, rocks and other bottom trash. He can pick out what he wants and leave the rest alone.
"It's good sport and it keeps you in shape," he said. There's no fat on Wayne Brady.
After lunch he stayed above to cull and Thompson went below, wearing the same "dry suit" Brady had on all morning. This inflatable $800 diving suit keeps the water out and is good for extremely cold conditions. It's hooked by a hose to an $800 compressor on the boat, so the divers don't have to worry about getting tanks filled every week.
The only problem is getting used to the dry suit. "We'll put you in that one next time," Brady said, "and you can see what it feels like to swim around with your feet up over top of your head."
Thompson, a barber when he isn't oyster-diving, worked even faster than Brady and by day's end he had 35 oysters on the engine box.
His wife worked side-by-side with Brady, hammpering away at the culling board, mud spatter her face. Her full-time job as a beautician in Rock Hall, Md., where all three were born and raised. "The rest of the week I'm a lady," she said, her eyes bright behind mud-stained spectacles.
A hard northwest wind built all afternoon, the skies turned gray with a bank of winter clouds. Sea ducks, loons and seagulls wheeled and splashed to landings around Promise. Canada geese swept overhead in great formations.
As the sun sank over marshes and cedar trees, we swabed the boat down and headed home, tucked in the warm cabin, consuming still more roasted oysters and Johnny Walker Red.
The oysters piled high on the cockpit would bring about $350 at market that night. A good take for 14 hours of hard work.
Just another satisfying day in the life of a Rock Hall waterman.