The dock behind the rental house only stood over water at high tide. At low tide, it stood over mud. We checked the time of the tides constantly all week while we were there, as we were going to have a good time even if it killed us. So with that in mind, one or the other of us would ask periodically:
“What time is the next high tide?”
As luck would have it, high tide would come the first night before three O’clock in the morning. So I woke by instinct to walk out to the dock and set the crab traps. I think I took a flashlight with me, because I didn’t fall off the dock into the water. I remember hearing them go “sploosh”, then I walked back to the house and crawled into the bed thinking I would jump back up in a couple of hours to check the results. But the sandman had me, and the ocean didn’t wait around for me to wake up.
As the sun peeked over the horizon, high tide had slipped back out to sea leaving the crab trap and dip nets resting on the muddy marsh bottom. Besides covered with some reeds, a few were courting nearby oyster beds to make retrieval a bit of a chore. One small straggler remained in the trap even though the rest of his company had joined ranks with other crabs at the edges of deep water piers further down the Beaufort River. In spite of what some folks think, if a crab can get into the basket, he can also get out, except for the few who have not been regular about doing their crabanomics homework.
The smell of the ocean and the brackish water of the marsh bordering the river bank caused me to take a deep breath. I was happy to be enjoying such aromas which brought back memories of recent years as well as many all the way back to childhood. I loosened the top of the trap to let the lone crab who was not quite legal from point to point be allowed to return to the water. He hissed and spit showing no proper gratitude, and motioned with his pinchers that he’d gladly take me on if I’d risk to reach a hand towards him. I did not.
Not yet having had coffee, I made quick work of pulling all the crab-catching equipment up on the dock. There’d be time to deal with it later, as I intended to lower them all back into the water with the next high tide. It was a private dock behind the house we were staying in, so I figured the stuff would be safe enough for a while. However, when they were disturbed a little later, it was not human hands making mischief.
From the window of an air conditioned den, I saw the buzzard. At first I didn’t realize he’d already taken care of the chicken backs and necks in the dip nets. What I saw was this large raptor tugging at the big trap, and had pulled it about three feet if not four further down the dock than where I’d left it. Seems the column of bait in the center of the trap can’t be accessed from the top, so the buzzard was trying to find a way to somehow turn the cage over to improve his reach. With all of his full and devoted attention given to the crab trap, the buzzard could not manage to turn it over, but turned it around several times, never improving access to the coveted delicacies packed in the bait column.
As he tried to pick up the cage, his wings were employed in the process almost as if they had fingers. I say “almost”, for if they did, the crab trap’s position would have been no obstacle to the bird. He was using every engineering tool in his head, but without fingers and thumbs the best strategic maneuvers still resulted in no tactical satisfaction at all. I think I saw him shrug his shoulders a couple of times and appeared to be mumbling something that would be congruent to his frustration. I’d imagine by then the buzzard’s muttered utterances would’ve challenged even his breath for a horrendous lack of social propriety.
It was time to continue Lila Bea’s and Sir Benson Zipper Dee Doo Dah’s education, as neither one had ever seen a buzzard up close, so I called them to come take a walk with me. At first they took no notice of what was going on out on the dock. There were things to smell and pee on, which is the whole point of a walk as far as a dawg is concerned.
A buzzard’s business is no less intense or purposeful. This particular buzzard was so well absorbed in his occupation that the dawgs and I were able to walk more than halfway out onto the dock before having our presence acknowledged. The acknowledgement came on the heels of our announcement, a courtesy handled by the dawgs so that I’d have no need to ring a bell or say a word.
Zipper, though large for the Boston Terrier breed, is a small dawg. Yet he cranked up a deep baritone growl that sounded like a V-twin motorcycle engine idling sans mufflers. Lila, almost twice the size of Zipper, responded in a higher Soprano pitch she often uses when excited. Lila Bea seemed to recognize the bird. To my surprise, she began calling his name loudly:
“Hey, Ralph! Ralph! Ralph, Ralph! Ralph, Ralph, Ralph! Hey, hey, hey, hey! Ralph!”
That must’ve been his name, because he turned around sharply to look at us directly. From the glare in Ralph’s wide open left eye, it’s possible that he was not expecting company, and up ’til that moment, had been completely unaware of our approach. He turned to give us a gander with the other eye, and also to step back a bit from the two approaching dawgs, when one of his feet got tangled in a dip net that moments before he’d been using as a place mat or salad bowl. While graceful in the air, buzzards on land are seldom asked to choreograph a ballet. And when tethered and tangled, they can take clumsy to a whole new clownish level. I’ve never seen a dance quite like it, or at least not a sober one.
Ralph’s beak was fully cocked as he quickly lifted his wings in the manner you’d expect from spinnakers of sailing vessels in a strong downwind. He lifted his untangled talon assuming momentarily the position of a martial arts expert, which I’m sure he was. This visualization caused both dawgs to put on the brakes just long enough to give ol’ Ralph the precious time needed to free his other foot from the strings of the netting, and took to the air with such ease and gracefulness that it would seem anybody could do it.
Zipper was so impressed with the apparent simplicity of flight that I had to give a firm tug on the leash to keep him from flying off the end of the dock in pursuit of Ralph. Lila was pulling hard too, but was trying to mount the side rails of the dock hoping to grab the bird by the tail as he went by. She had him in her gaze, and followed his movements as he circled around to take a safe perch in one of the live oak trees behind us.
Ralph peeked through the curtains of Spanish moss, thus giving away his position. Lila made a bee-line to the base of the tree to announce his presence. The barking must’ve been sufficient to warrant Ralph leaving his perch and again take flight. He swooped down onto the top of a dock running out from the adjacent property. But there was no stealth in the maneuver, as both dawgs spotted him right away.
Lila went on perfect point due to ancestral traits, and Zipper used her as a guide to determine which way to dash off in hot pursuit. He wanted that bird as much as he’d want a tennis ball thrown anywhere, which is to be expected of the breed. Ralph saw us all coming towards him, but by the time we reached the other dock, he’d glided back over to ours. Both dawgs shifted gears and took off after him again, sending Ralph back up into the live oaks. The camouflage kept me from spotting him right away, but Lila knew exactly which tree limb he was on, and did her best to try to climb up after him. Zipper was temporarily distracted by a squirrel, but I’m sure the buzzard could still hear his motor running.
The ping-pong tournament between the two properties continued for a while. I took to hiding behind the house with the dawgs until he got close, then let them go running out onto the dock to flush him airborne again. Finally, Ralph decided to go somewhere else, perhaps to get a rest. I went out to look at my crabbing gear. The dip nets were stripped of any sign of bait other than a couple of chicken bones polished so cleanly you’d think they were put to a buffing wheel. The bait in the big trap was intact, but something else caught my eye.
The old cage trap used to belong to my father when he lived just across the river from where I was now staying. I stood there staring at the weathered old trap and thought about the many seasons it has sat in my back yard seeing water only when it rained. The chicken wire construction is coated with a black rubbery skin to protect it from the salt water. It’s bent up in a few places, and near one corner the black coating shows a bit of red paint, faded now over the years, but still noticeable.
Just as I now store it outside, so did my father when he didn’t have it in use. It’s usual place to rest in his back yard was under a live oak tree right behind his workshop. One autumn, a good many acorns had accumulated all around and under the trap, and a squirrel managed to get himself turned around in it and couldn’t figure out how to get out again.
Dad had been doing long term battle with the squirrels over matters concerning bird feeders, so this fella was a prisoner of war. And as a prisoner, he had to be marked in some way. Having just finished putting a coat of bright red paint on a toolbox he had repaired for a neighbor, Dad decided–since he still had the can of spray paint in his hand…well the squirrel was soon sporting a bright red high gloss glow-in-the-dark bushy tail.
As soon as Dad was sure the paint was dry he released him, and for the next several weeks enjoyed hearing the neighbors give report of seeing a most unusual squirrel with a red tail. He took pleasure in leading them to believe he doubted their tail tale, and suggested it was just an angle of the light, or that they must be hallucinating.
The buzzard incident taught me not to leave baited crab nets on the dock, so from then on at low tide I’d carry them up to the house and hide them in the trash can. You can imagine the smell, so I’ll not describe it to you. With them secure, I’d be able to rest between tides and even sleep some at night.
That very evening in the middle of the night we heard what sounded like a herd of deer galloping across the roof, and knew it was way too early in the year for Santa Claus. But other than that seasonal oddity, deer don’t generally run on the roofs of houses, and additionally they don’t go about knocking over trash cans to get to rotting chicken parts, either. It is just not their custom. But raccoons will do both.
Thank goodness the dawgs were kenneled safely inside the house, otherwise I’m sure we would’ve made the six O’clock news. Later in the week we took Lila and Zipper to the beach to see how they would like surfing. The Yellow Lab was cautious. She managed the breakers timidly, but the Boston Terrier thought I was trying to drown him, and said so.
All in all it was a good week, and in spite of a few crazy moments, it was one of the more restful periods I’ve had in quite a while. As is normal, you hate for a vacation to end, but it’s always good to get back home. The next morning, hoping to coax me to get out of bed early and make a pot of coffee as I’d been doing on vacation, Brenda asked in a calm voice:
“What time is high tide?”