An Interview with Two Old Baymen

“Two Old Baymen – An Interview” – Grove Conrad

Each day we see and hear history often unknowingly but  yesterday knowingly and at the urging of my dear wife Kathryn, we peered into a wonderful verbal history of The Bay –as two men, each  enjoying the eighty-something year of their lives, recalled it.

Arthur “Opie” Speck and Harry Disbrow Sr. were born in 1932 and 1933 respectively each coming into this world on the bay, our Bay, and save for a few years serving their country each spent their lives making a livelihood from what Barnegat Bay had to give them. In Mr. Specks case the Bay gave him fishes, boats, ducks along with riding the trucks of electric companies and electric plants ; while Mr. Disbrow chose to ride the waves of the summer indian invasion by buying and selling our version of Manhattan to the summer savages for the currency of the land – such wampum as he needed to breathe the bay-mud breeze he  thought was perfume.  Each of the two, along the way, managed to raise a family that, too, will be a part of what’s left.

Six of us sat and talked in the Seaport’ shanty, Hester Sedge, around an oak 30’s vintage dining room table. The original Hester Sedge is still standing as a gunner’s beacon out there west of Holgate. The Seaport’s Hester Sedge is a replica, restored and re-restored, a very appropriate setting for the us-six.  The six were Opie and Harry plus Opie’s wife Nancy (I ain’t getting’ another), me , Kathryn  ( I ain’t either) and whippersnapper Harry Jr.   Harry Jr. is the real deal and a Seaport founder – as for his credentials we learned during the table  tales  that “Young Harry”  dropped two blackducks back in sixty-eight with one shell out of his bolt action single barrel 20 gauge enough said !  When the story was told Harry “The Kid”, sitting across from me, just grinned like it was yesterday.

Harry and Opie each brought notes and squinted into them every so often as if the pages would improve hearing and memory – these scrawled words didn’t help their hearing but they sure brought “the memory movies” back.

What Kathy and I heard will be for the most part recorded in the Seaports three volume pictorial and annotated history of Barnegat Bay gunning clubs – an updated and tenfold larger work similar to Pat Burke’s little green book printed thirty years ago and still pretty cool.  Much of what we heard around the oak table will be a fill-in-the-blanks of Burke’s book. There are some take-aways that I will share with you now. Perhaps your Dad or Grandad might enjoy the tales, so pick one or two and sit around your table . Or as Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus would describe them: “Dey jes’ sot der talkin’bout ol’ times.”

Opie………okay, now the other shanty was called Star Shanty and it was owned by a politician, Steelman Mathis I think. It was on the meadows between Cape Horn and the mouth of Big Crick. Regularly, I would take four guys from Toms River out there late Friday afternoon with their 20 year old “wives”; drop them off with a case of whiskey and food for the week-end. I’d pick them up on Sunday and one of the politicians would give me a ten-dollar bill and put his finger to his lips “shhhh.”  I don’t think they shot many ducks.

…….anyway , on these ( near  the Fish Factory)  islands there were an awful lot of broadbill, my brother and I were gunnin’ in the two man box there and shortly we had 19 in the boat and here comes a redhead – bam! My brother asked “is that legal?” We also had lead shot in our lunch pail. What we didn’t know was that there were two or three game wardens watching us with binoculars from the Coast Guard station; they came fast to us in a black hulled boat. Well, it cost my brother $200 and me $250 because I had the lunch box.

……now, on Johnny’s Sedge, years ago, Rocky Wycoff put a six man box in there. I knew it was there and I cleaned it all up and we started hunting in there. Somehow Rocky found out we were gunning there and he went out there and knocked it all to pieces – nobody was going to hunt in his old box.

…. well, I guided for Shackleton (Sandy Island), he had fired his old guide because there weren’t no ducks and he said “I want you to get the ducks in.” I put out 600 pounds of cracked corn every day before season and before long we had 3,000 broadbills on the north end and 2,000 on the south end.  I’d take my party out and tell them not to load their guns until I got back in from setting out the decoys, Many mornings  as I was setting the  decoys a hundred or so broadbills would light in among me and the decoys and we didn’t want to get shot !. By seven in the morning we would have 38 ducks and when I said “one more round and that’s it” they would piss and moan and holler to stay out but we came in anyway with our 40 ducks limit.

Harry …….I got to tell you something you (Opie) forgot. You were gunning for Bill Inman (Loud Bill) and you took us out and, my god, we had 30 or 40 ducks. They never stopped. Star Shanty you talked about but north of that was a shanty that we called Conklin’s shanty and maybe 30 years ago Gormley’s and my son fixed it up, it was a good spot.  Well, I called it Miami Vice when four of them (wardens) came at us and I had no plug and lead shot and thank goodness we only had one duck. And up on the Wading River back in the 50’s – walking on the banks and holy hell – there were hundreds up there. Wood ducks, mallards, swans were all over the place, Not now.

And so it went for another hour.  Two and a half generations between us six.  The dozen shantys we talked about are gone, the ducks and the decoys are gone but Harry and Opie’s eyes still misty shine and their memories can smell the Bay and feel the cold and shoot the ducks.