Grand Opening

Aw, shucks! A modest Marylander finds himself in the contest of his dreams.

September 22, 2000|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

The hours, the weeks, the years he slaved for this: It all paid off. The practice, the sacrifice, the highs and lows and in-betweens, the labor and loyalty and love of the game. George Hastings, Baltimore legend, pictures himself in the opening ceremonies and takes it all in.

His mind goes back to the hours he spent after school, the Saturday mornings eyeing the masters, captivated by their grace and skill. It goes to those evenings as a young man, learning the subtler talents - aim and rhythm, pacing and style - that one day brought him win after win. Yes, it all paid off, he thinks as he imagines himself in the parade, hoisting the flag - the Star-Spangled Banner - for the people of many nations to see.

George Hastings, mild-mannered highway engineer from Severn, doesn't pole-vault or sprint, doesn't hurdle or swim. He's not in the streets of Sydney, marching with the U.S. Olympic team. No, the best oyster shucker in America is on the chilly shores of western Ireland, at the summit of his craft: the 46th annual Galway International Oyster Festival.

The games commence tomorrow. He'll shuck, as always, in the steady Chesapeake style. But this time he won't be facing the best at Cross Street Market, the best in the mid-Atlantic, even the best in America. He's past all that now. He's facing the best from 15 countries and six continents.

He's on a global stage. Come Sunday, the burly man with the nimble hands, Maryland's own George Hastings, could be the best in the world.

It never came easily, but it started innocently enough. George Hastings grew up in gritty Southwest Baltimore, a kid much like any other. By his 15th birthday he had a steady girl - as steady, at least, as a big, shy fellow could want. He hung around her house a lot, goofing off, nothing special in mind. He didn't know at first that her dad, Robbie Robbins - and Robbie's best buddy, Vernon Johnson Sr. - were local celebrities, men who took the scooping and serving of oysters to the level of art.

The kid watched them shuck. He watched them in the neighborhood, at picnics, on street corners. He watched them Saturdays at Lexington Market, where they schmoozed with customers, ribbed each other, and laughed as easily as they freed mollusk from shell. "They were magicians," says Hastings, 45, blue eyes glinting. "Just like magicians."

Maybe it was the physical sense of it - those cotton gloves drenched in ice water, those callused watermen's hands on stony shells. Maybe it was the peril - the piercing Chesapeake stabber knives, popping open each oyster, always one slip away from self-inflicted bloodshed. Maybe it was the feel of tradition - the way these men had learned from their elders just as George was learning from them. Or maybe it was just the banter, the jokes and patter that made an awkward boy feel at home.

One way or another, it all felt right to George. He forgot about the girl in time, but he'd found the passion of a lifetime. "All I knew," he says, "was I wanted to do what they were doing. I thought I'd become a shucker, too."

Shuckers come up through the oyster-roast circuit like ballplayers through the minors. It's a Baltimore tradition, those hearty suppers with slabs of beef and piles of shellfish, those parties at the dinner hall, the firehouse, the lodge. Good fellowship, charity and fun: All of it was a wonder to George.

The atmosphere was raucous. There might be two shuckers on hand, there might be six; it depended on the size of the crowd. Always, though, there was that banter. If the first guy heckled, the next one joked. "Hey, bud, I'm in line for 20 minutes!" "I got some shell in mine!" "Keep your eye on the oyster!"

George tried not to laugh too hard. He watched the length of his line, compared it to the next guy's. He put his head down. He kept shucking.

And he learned. Speed, he found, came not from working faster but from working smarter. Relax, set up a rhythm, keep it going. Aim the knife, pop the shell open, sever the muscle, turn it over, place it on the tin. Five seconds an oyster. Next!

Half a decade of that, and Hastings belonged. His style was as modest as he was. Some shuckers are so fast they cut themselves - on their knives, on the shell's sharp edges - or nick the meat. Others are so careful their oysters shimmer like gems on the half-shell, but those had the longest lines of all. For Hastings, the answer lay in the middle: rhythm, focus, steady motion. "You want to go as quickly as you can," he says, "but still serve a good-looking oyster. You want to strike that balance."

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