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In crabbing or baseball, streak takes willpower


It was timely that I happened to run into Ed Harrison down on Smith Island as Streak Week built to a fever pitch around Cal Ripken.

In the hard-working world of Chesapeake watermen, Ed redefined the work ethic in a way that surpasses even the Oriole star's accomplishments to date.

Ed's season ran roughly equivalent to Cal's -- April through September, and occasionally into October.

That is when the bay's crabs are shedding their shells, and when the islanders catch a good portion of the entire North American harvest of them by dragging heavy iron "scrapes" through the underwater grasses where the crabs hide.

Watermen, of course, never know the appreciation of the thronged stadium. In these days of stressed natural resources, they are more likely to be pressured to perform less effectively.

But they have their fans -- all those who ever enjoyed a crab or an oyster. I calculate that Ed, in a career that lasted from the 1920s to the 1990s, personally accounted for something like 3 million soft crabs.

That is a mountain of sandwiches and platters, of which it is safe to say almost all were warmly applauded.

As for Ed's "streak," no one keeps stats on soft-crabbers like they do on baseball stars. Cal, we all know, is at 2,132 consecutive games and climbing.

But allowing for Sundays off and bad weather, it's conservative to say Ed had at least 6,000 possible workdays in a career that spanned half the history of commercial soft-crabbing on the Chesapeake.

Ed said I should ask his "coach," his wife, Ella Marie, how many of those days he missed because of sickness, injury or just wanting the day off.

She said she could not speak for his whole career, they having only been married for the past 57 years; "but to tell the truth, I can't think of a day he didn't crab."

"A lot of times, he went sick, and with a bad back or a muscle tore. There was the time he fell overboard [1990] tryin' to lift a scrape full of grass and crabs, and he was caught in his own scrape with his boat still going forward.

"I guess he would have drowned if our son hadn't seen him and helped him get out. He was pretty bruised and sore, but next day he was back out crabbing.

"And then he had the stroke that winter [1991], and all the doctors said it would probably kill him to go back to pulling those heavy scrapes all day at his age; but he did anyhow."

'Always blessed'

A doctor who served the island years ago thinks he recalls treating Ed once for a severe injury -- a biceps muscle that tore loose on one end from overexertion.

"It should have finished him for the season, if not for life -- he was in his 70s at the time; but not long after, I saw him out there, ## somehow, crabbing again," the doctor said.

Ed simply says: "I was always blessed"; also this:

"I believe 50 percent of the people in the world give up work too early, 'deed I do. Once you get used to workin', why, it's a bigger job to give it up."

We once talked about how, in slow crabbing times, it might make more economic sense to stay home and save the gas you would never recoup by going out.

It might, Ed said, but he never could approach it that way. "When you're out there, you always got a better chance to catch a crab than when you're home," he explained.

Conservation award

Durability and longevity alone should not be enough to qualify as the Cal Ripken of the water business. But Ed was good, too -- maybe the very best ever.

We can get a rare insight into just how good because of an extraordinary effort he made to gather data on the crabs he and several colleagues caught from 1946 until 1972. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation later recognized Ed as its "conservationist of the year" for his work.

Compiled by Dr. L. Eugene Cronin, retired director of bay research for the University of Maryland, the data covers more than 300,000 crabs -- weighed, sexed and measured.

Unmatched skills

Researchers trying to understand the bay's most valuable natural resource, the blue crab, still use this trove of information.

The data also shows how Ed compared with several other good crabbers. Here are a few samples, based on the average catch of soft crabs and peelers per day:

1957: Ed, 679 a day; all others, 415 a day.

1963: Ed, 609; others, 164.

1969; Ed, 1,215; others, 688.

Smith Island is the major leagues of soft-crab scraping, and there were certainly others operating at Ed's level in any given year; but never anyone to match him in the long run.

Compulsion to perform

Partly, as with Cal Ripken, he was lucky to escape crippling illness and injury; and he obviously had good genes.

His brother, Daniel, a few homes away, has crabbed almost as long as Ed; a sister lives nearby; and another only recently died.

But there is more to ballplayer and crabber than luck and durability. The rest of the equation has to do with sheer willpower, a compulsion to perform bordering on obsession.

Ed is a man, after all, who once walked the 11 miles from Crisfield to Smith Island in a freeze-up just to get back to court Ella Marie.

I watched him come in one day in 1991, the beginning of his eighth decade of crabbing, and his last summer on the water.

It was nearly 97 degrees. He had been out since before dawn and, as usual, had stayed until midafternoon, an hour or so longer than any other crabber.

Dreams of crabbing

He tied his old wooden scrape boat, the Margaret H., to the dock. He could not climb out of the boat; but he got his thick upper body on the dock and rolled until he was back on land. Then, rising slowly, he climbed aboard his single-speed bike and rode up the lane to his home.

This week he said he still feels like "from the legs up, I could go back out there."

"Very few nights that I don't dream of crabbing," he said; "either that or oystering" -- he and Daniel from 1936 to 1971 were among the bay's top skipjack captains with their boat, the Ruby Ford.

This summer, he said, he went to a spot on the island where the Margaret H. rests, beginning now to split at the seams and rot.

"I climbed aboard and put my hand on that tiller and, boy, I'll tell you, for a minute there I almost cried," he said.

Readers can write to Tom Horton, c/o 6633 Oak Ridge Drive, Hebron, 21830.

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