In 20-plus years of writing about the outdoors I've had a chance to recreate with some powerful, famous people. I've bass-fished with a president (George Bush), shot skeet with a war hero (Norman Schwartzkopf), chased bluefish with a basketball giant (Gheorghe Muresan), hunted and fished with congressmen, governors and executive-branch poohbahs, paddled whitewater with a White House press secretary (Jody Powell), talked yacht racing with a Supreme Court Justice (Sandra Day O'Connor) and rode the western range with a senator (Larry Pressler). Well, okay, we didn't actually ride together, but we did have dinner at his house to discuss separate high-country horseback adventures.
These brushes with glory left their marks, but never in a memorable career did I guess I'd have the honor that came last weekend, when my crabbing partner and I took a distinguished guest on our homemade rowboat for a morning of trotlining for crabs in the Severn River. Who was this special guest? The very guardian of our physical well-being, the Health Officer of Anne Arundel County, Frances B. Phillips, in the flesh.
Impossible, you say? The truth is, powerful government officials are no different from you and me. They put their pants on one leg at a time, brush their teeth with a firm, up-and-down motion and can accidentally clang the wire dip-net off the back of a fat jimmy crab and send it scurrying to freedom in the deep. They do not, however, swear when that happens.
All these things and more I learned from my day with the Health Officer, who took time away from a busy schedule of restaurant inspections, septic tests and budget meetings to experience first-hand the pleasures of the little people who depend on her for their safety.
It was no small comfort that at the end of the day we had a bushel of crabs that were "government inspected" in the keenest sense. And the whole complicated exercise paid off when my crabbing partner, Gene Miller, stuck his bare paw foolishly into the basket to extricate an undersized she-biddy and was viciously nipped.
He held up the damaged digit. A tiny ribbon of blood formed where the hard crab had struck. The Health Officer leaped to action, coolly dispensing medical advice. "Put it in your mouth," she said, "and suck on it till the bleeding stops."
The hardest thing about crabbing with the Health Officer was getting her up. You must rise early to catch big jimmies, which feed at the crack of dawn. She rolled over with a moan at 5:15 but shook awake 15 minutes later after more prodding and was dressed and ready at 5:45, when Kramer the Wonder Dog announced Gene's arrival outside by racing up and down the stairs barking insanely.
We pushed the wheelbarrow to a neighbor's dock and off-loaded the bushel basket, two thermoses of coffee and the trotline, freshly baited with salted bull lips. It was a gorgeous morning with light southwesterly winds, but a ring of haze outlined the nearly full moon, suggesting Hurricane Dennis was on the move north.
We set the trotline out along the channel edge leading into our creek and watched the sky turn orange over the Eastern Shore. Gene took the first run with the dip net while I drove. He caught a dozen keepers, mostly females. Then it was the Health Officer's turn.
She took up station in the middle of the boat, poised and ready to dip. She snagged the end of the trotline and ran it up over the roller arm. I cut the motor back to ultra-slow and the line came up and over, baits dangling enticingly every two or three feet. And here came the crabs.
"Oooh!" said the Health Officer, stabbing away. "Aaah!" Let's just say that by the end of the 1,000-foot run she'd made it clear she was a better administrator than crab-dipper, but crabs are so abundant this time of year it hardly mattered.
"She has an interesting approach," said Gene. "She kind of snatches at 'em." Indeed, several fat keepers scampered over the top of the net and back in the water like rats fleeing a fire and others were flung wildly into the boat nowhere near the catch basket and scampered around underfoot, waving pincers menacingly. They had to be rounded up afterward.
But it was the Health Officer's first time. By the third run she was deftly tossing keeper jimmies into the basket like an old pro and the bushel was fast filling.
We had to take her in early so she could make an 8:30 aerobics class, personal health being her life, but by 9 or so Gene and I had the basket full and were organizing the afternoon feed. It was a good one: All the steamed crabs you could possibly eat and plenty left over to pick out for crabcakes. The Health Officer herself prepared those cakes for supper, with just a hint of mayonnaise and bread to hold them together.
Crabs for lunch and crabcakes for dinner--what could be better?
That night the wind from the advancing hurricane whistled in the trees when we cut off the lights. The Health Officer stuck her chin into the hollow of my neck. "Thanks for taking me crabbing," said my wife of 20 years. "That was fun."
And so it was.
CAPTION: The Health Officer of Anne Arundel County, Frances B. Phillips, with a healthy collection of crabs taken from a trotline in the Severn River.