Grand Opening

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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."

That's how it worked in contests, too. You shucked for time - 24 oysters, swift as you could open them - but also for quality. You could finish in two and a half minutes, but the judges would add time for flaws: three seconds for human blood in the meat, three for gritty bits, three for a dangling muscle. A missing oyster was a whopping 20 seconds. The goal: a clean specimen, restaurant quality, easily slurped from the shell. "To shuck a perfect tray in competition," says Hastings with a tug of his full brown beard, "is a very hard thing to do."

His call-up to the majors came in 1994. A friend had always represented Nick's Inner Harbor Seafood at the annual "Baltimore by the Bay" festival. When he moved away, Hastings was asked to go in his stead.

The crowd was large, and George knew most of the local shuckers. But he settled his aim, found his pace: 24 oysters in less than two and a half minutes, each fresh and sparkling, tiny pillows on the half-shell. There were faster times, but none better. He won first prize - his ticket to the big-time.

It's hard to believe you can drive so far south and still be in Maryland, but Leonardtown - the seat of St. Mary's County - is there on the lowest tip of the state, two and a half hours south of Baltimore. On the third weekend of October for the past 33 years, the Rotary Club of Lexington Park has held the St. Mary's County Oyster Festival to herald the opening of oyster season. "It's our way of preserving the heritage of the bay," says Jane Sypher, ex-president of the club and unofficial No. 1 booster, "and celebrating the watermen of the county. They're a part of the economy, a part of our history. That's important to our community."

The two-day gala has drawn 30,000 people some years, depending on the weather. "Every cent we make goes back into the community," Sypher says. How seriously do they take the gala? Officials keep an office open year-round.

The centerpiece is the Sunday shuck-off. Contestants from as far away as Texas, Florida and Washington State come to vie for the Leonardtown crown. In shucking circles - yes, there are shucking circles - the winner at St. Mary's has been considered the national champion since 1967. That's only fair, says Sypher: Leonardtown was the first - and remains the only - legitimate national shucking contest in the United States. The St. Mary's group has even trademarked the phrase "American National Oyster-Shucking Championship."

"Just let anybody else try to use that, buddy-boy," Sypher says.

The fest is as much bazaar as contest, a chance for shuckers to gather, gab and share notes. Oysters differ in size, shape and texture from region to region, and the competition exposes shuckers like Hastings to alien shells, styles and knives, not to mention personalities. "It's great to see everybody each year," says Hastings. "As you can imagine, it's a real cast of characters."

In the end, the Leonardtown champ wins a red, white and blue squall jacket, not to mention bragging rights at the local raw bar. And for the past 23 years, the Rotary Club has granted a far more dramatic prize: an all-expenses-paid trip to Galway, Ireland, for the Guinness World Oyster Opening Championships.

That's the reward Hastings dreamed of for more than 20 years. "It's not just the trip, it's not just the experience," he says. "It's your chance to compete against the best of the best." His 1994 win at "Baltimore by the Bay" earned him his first invitation to Leonardtown.

In five tries, Hastings never quite found the right cadence. Others were quicker, neater. The highest he finished was third.

In 1999, that all changed.

In a warm, steady drizzle on a Sunday afternoon, the Baltimore native locked in, shucking hard and smooth for two minutes, 19 seconds. "Who knows why, but for some reason, I was really 'on' that day," he says. "When I'm in a zone, every cut just seems to go right. That day it did." As the three judges met, conferring over the oysters, he wandered the fairgrounds for 15 minutes, barely conscious of the rain still falling. And finally, they announced it. After penalty time was tacked on, he'd topped the women's-bracket champion, Clementine Macon of Virginia, by seven seconds. "My oysters did look good," he says. "Man, was that a load off my shoulders."

If you didn't know him, you might not realize how proud he was. Sure, he got his brand new, extra-large winner's jacket embroidered - "U.S. National Oyster-Shucking Champion, 1999-2000," it read - and wore it once in a while, but mostly it stayed in the closet.

"I don't feel right blowing my own horn," he says. That's Hastings: a champ at what he does, humble to a fault.

How, then, did George Hastings, modest Marylander, end up a subject of debate? What placed him at the center of the hottest controversy in the annals of Leonardtown shucking?

The Guinness Corporation, the Dublin brewing titan, has long had an oyster tradition of its own. Every September for the past 45 years, Guinness has supported the International Oyster Festival in Galway. Regional champs from more than 20 nations have come there to vie for the world shucking crown. And since 1977, Guinness has kept up a special relationship with Leonardtown. The brewer has accepted the St. Mary's champ as U.S. representative. Win St. Mary's, go to Ireland - simple as a jig.

In 1997, though, the brewer began to play a different tune. The company decided to create a link in the American mind between oysters and its brew and, to that end, started shucking contests of its own. The maiden event, held in New York City, did so well the company rolled out fests in 10 more cities, from Charlotte to Santa Monica. For two more years, the St. Mary's winner continued to represent the U.S. in Galway. But the ultimate goal was to send the Guinness winner - not the traditional Leonardtown champion - to Ireland to compete for the crown.

A corporate advertising campaign, it appeared, would bring St. Mary's link with Ireland to a screeching halt. And so it was that in 1999 George Hastings became the first Leonardtown winner in memory not to have a crack at the oysters of the Emerald Isle

Officials at Guinness left it to the Irishman in charge of the Galway festival to explain. It was pretty much black-and-white. "Guinness is our major sponsor," Paul Faller wrote, "and he who pays the piper calls the tune."

Hastings was crushed. By his standards, his response was an outcry. "I was looking forward to the experience," he told the press. "It's a shame for the St. Mary's contest, which is a tradition. It's a shame for Maryland. It's a little frustrating."

Hastings is anything but the squeaky-wheel type. Sypher is another story. "How can they do this to a festival this important?" she said. "That decision has consequences for our community, for our tradition. They didn't even have the decency to explain." She and Dave Taylor, the Leonardtown administrator, set forth on a letter-writing binge.

Months went by. "They're a huge corporation, and we're a tiny community," said Sypher. "They think if they just ignore us, we'll go away. But we're the legitimate championship. And we're not going away."

Local newspapers and television, including a feature in The Sun, framed the drama as a David-and-Goliath story, pitting down-home custom against the fiat of a distant corporation. Sypher and Taylor kept sending letters.

Hastings went on with his life, raising two kids with his wife, shucking for Nick's Inner Harbor Seafoods and events around town. He checked in with St. Mary's officials every few weeks, letting them know his interest was still keen. After nine months, though, he all but gave up.

"It looked like nothing was going to change," he says. "I decided to forget about it, but as soon as that idea entered my mind, the letter came."

The missive in question, from Dublin, arrived in July. It was two sentences long. "I never saw it," says Hastings. "I got a phone call from David [Taylor]. Basically it said, 'George is the guy; send him over.'"

Oyster opening (Europeans don't use the word "shucking") is serious business in Galway. Parades and ceremonies, an oyster tasting, a black-tie ball and the contest overtake the town for four days. Lore holds that the first oyster was eaten -and, of course, shucked - in Galway Bay.

It's still a mystery why Guinness changed its mind, but on Wednesday Hastings arrived in Ireland. With him is an entourage worthy of Mike Tyson, including his wife, Vicki, and Vernon Johnson Jr., the son of Hastings' onetime mentor. "I may win and I may lose," says George, "but at least I'll have an American cheering section."

Three days of pub-crawling began yesterday. Shuckers are invited, per tradition, to engage in "revelry, music and song" and to elbow their way to the raw bar to practice on Irish oysters.

Hastings has shucked every kind of American oyster, but has never seen an Irish one. Colleagues "tell me the oyster is smaller and flatter than the Chesapeake Bay oyster," he said last week. Reports on the shell are mixed; some say it's thin and papery, others call it hard. A tough one would be better. "If it's a brittle shell," he says, "it's a very unforgiving oyster."

He plans to use "pub trail" time to meet fellow shuckers from 15 nations, including Denmark, Singapore, Finland and France. But mostly he'll zero in on the feel of the local mollusk. "I'll let my American friends hoist the brew for me," he says. "I learned in my younger days to watch my 'P's and 'Q's. And by that I mean pints and quarts. I don't mix beer with the knife."

While Hastings is boning up, St. Mary's officials will focus on the big picture. No one knows what Guinness plans for future festivals, so with tradition hanging in the balance, administrator Taylor will talk with company officials. His goal: to invite the Guinness champ to St. Mary's every year to shuck for the American crown. "I'll be doing my best Henry Kissinger," he says.

The winner of the Galway showdown will take home a crystal trophy and "sum of cash," says Paul Faller, the fest administrator. The champ's name will also be engraved on the perpetual trophy, which stays in Galway.

Shuckers will be broken into three groups, each competing one after another. They will open not 24 oysters, as per American custom, but 30. Hastings figures 13 oysters a minute (a bit more than his average) will keep him in the running.

He's heard that hundreds crowd the shucking tent and that, unlike in the States, there is copious heckling. "Everybody says the crowd will be slamming Guinness, hollering and standing just a few feet from the shucking table," he marvels. "They're loud and boisterous. If you don't happen to be the Irishman, they're going to get in your face." To add to the mayhem, an announcer with a microphone will bellow a play-by-play. "Talk about a home-field advantage!" says Hastings with a laugh. "I'll just have to keep my concentration."

For the opening ceremonies, he'll don his red, white and blue Leonardtown jacket and carry his nation's flag. "It may sound funny, but when I march in that parade, I'm going to feel just as proud of the Stars and Stripes as those Americans in Australia," he says. "I have a soft spot in my heart for that kind of thing. After all, this is our Olympics."

Can he win it all? Hastings is of two minds. "It doesn't matter where I finish," he says. "I'm thankful to have made the trip." He'd be happy with a top-five finish.

Beneath that genial exterior, though, lurks the confidence of a man who may be rising to the moment for which he was born. "You know what?" says the U.S. champion. "If I can keep a straight head about me, like I did at Leonardtown, I just might do all right.

"With a little bit of luck, and the good Lord willing, it's anybody's contest."

Tomorrow: The U.S. champ meets the enemy - and sizes up the Irish oyster

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