Latter-day Crusoes discover there's no reason to be crabby

September 08, 1996|By ROB KASPER

SMITH ISLAND -- WHEN adversity strikes, you find out what matters to you .

Take, for example, what happened to me a few weeks ago. I missed a ferry boat and spent an unexpected night on Smith Island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. Immediately I realized I was in danger of missing a meal. "Holy mackerel," I said, or something like that, when I understood my predicament. "What about supper?

I got in this situation because I thought the 4 o'clock ferry boat left at 4 p.m. It really leaves at 3: 30 p.m. This bit of time twisting is understood by regular riders on the Captain Jason, the ferry that regularly makes the 40-minute trip between Smith Island and Crisfield, on the mainland.

They know there are three small communities -- Ewell, Rhodes Point and Tylerton -- on Smith Island. They understand that in order for the Captain Jason to reach Ewell in time for its scheduled 4 o'clock departure to the mainland, it has to leave Tylerton at 3: 30. Almost everybody on Smith Island knows this. I do now.

I learned this when I was stranded on the dock at Tylerton, where I'd gone for an overnight getaway at a friend's cottage. With me was my brother, who was visiting from Kansas City, my 11-year-old son and my son's buddy Hugh, also 11. On the horizon I could see our boat heading at full throttle to the mainland. We had a canoe and some paddles, but I didn't think we could paddle fast enough to catch the ferry.

I asked around the dock, hoping to hitch a ride with a waterman who might be headed to the mainland on an errand. I couldn't find any. It was late, and all the errand-running had been completed.

One fellow said that if we really needed to get back, he could take us to Crisfield for $100. At that price, I decided we could spend the night and catch the early-morning ferry, at $7 a ticket.

Missing the boat hurt my pride. I was the "responsible adult," the Marylander in charge of making things run smoothly. I had failed. But beyond ego, I was concerned about my stomach. What were going to do for grub?

There are no restaurants in Tylertown. I had to cook. But cook what? The four of us had already polished off the provisions we had carried over to the island the day before. We had also devoured all the saltines and the bag of Goldfish crackers we'd found in the cottage, which belonged to a family friend who lived in Baltimore.

As a service to the friend, we had eaten virtually everything we found in the kitchen. Ants might be attracted to this food, we told ourselves.

Acting under the ant-prevention theory, we had "secured" the fridge just before closing up the house and walking over to catch the 4 o'clock ferry.

When I realized we had missed our boat, I mentally checked our larder. There were six soft crabs, wiggling in a cooler. I had acquired them a few hours earlier from a Tylerton waterman. My original plan was to carry these beauties back to the mainland, saute them in butter and enjoy them with a plateful of sliced tomatoes and a bottle of white wine, a Muscadet.

That plan went overboard. I would still saute the soft crabs in butter, but I would have to do without the wine and the tomatoes. The folks in Tylerton have a high opinion of Methodism, and have no need for wine shops. As for the tomatoes, I couldn't get my hands on any.

The kids were not interested in eating the soft crabs. They wanted to use them for fish bait. So I sent my brother and one of the kids over to the one small store in town to get something I could feed the kids for supper.

They came back with a can of tomato paste and a couple of ice cream sandwiches. The tomato paste, my brother explained, could be heated up and served with some pasta shells that had been found in the kitchen. Somehow, they had survived our clean sweep of everything edible. The ice cream sandwiches, my brother said, would be for dessert.

Most cooks know the difference between tomato paste, a thick tomato mixture used in cooking, and the much thinner tomato sauce, used to pour over pasta. But to my brother, who is a bachelor, and his 11-year-old sidekick, all cans of tomato stuff look alike. By the time I realized their mistake, the store was closed.

So I served the pasta covered with heated-up tomato paste. The kids took about four bites, said they were satisfied and polished off the ice cream sandwiches. Then they raced outside and went fishing with leftover parts from the soft crabs. One of the kids said he had hooked a sea trout, but it had wiggled off the line.

Fresh trout would have been a wonderful supper, I thought. As it was, my brother and I had to make do with sauteed soft crabs. For some reason, my brother had not bought any ice cream sandwiches for us. It was a long night. After fishing, the kids played with the island's many cats. They said they wouldn't mind missing another ferry, and spending even more time on the island.

The next morning, however, I made sure our crew was up at dawn. We were the first ones to hop aboard the 7 o'clock ferry, which, for the record, leaves at 7 a.m. Soon we were back on the mainland, eating fast food for breakfast.

In the days that followed, I told everyone within earshot the tale of how we had been stranded on an island and survived. They listened. But somehow they didn't seem to think that eating soft crabs sauteed in butter was much of a hardship. Even without the wine.

Pub Date: 9/08/96

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