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A slip, a shuck, a place in the sun

THE BALTIMORE SUN

GALWAY, Ireland - This 760-year-old city on the Atlantic Ocean is one of the last strongholds of Gaelic culture, and for centuries, no word has been more central to Gaels than "craic." Pronounced "crack," it means the magical kinship people feel when having a wonderful time. After a lively bash, locals will trade a thumbs-up, nod to one another and say, "The craic was mighty, my friend."

This week in Galway, at the 46th annual International Oyster Festival, the craic has been mighty indeed.

For many, it started Friday night, when thousands packed the tent on Nimmo's Pier for a kickoff party, Irish-style, that rocked till the wee hours. It surely made an impression on one Baltimore native, George Hastings. "I've worked a lot of oyster roasts," says the U.S. oyster-shucking champ, here to vie for the world title, "but I've never seen anything like this. I left early, and they were already dancing on the tables."

Now it's 8 o'clock Saturday morning, the tent is quiet, and Hastings is back after a good night's sleep. Beside him is a basket of oysters. He snags one with his left hand, skewers it with the Chesapeake stabber in his right, and leaves meat on the half-shell as neat as yolk in an egg. "Still getting used to these Irish oysters," he says over a shoulder. He snares another. Six hours till the world oyster-opening contest, and already he is in his rhythm.

George Hastings has his own brand of craic.

Love from home

They're here from all over the world - old and young, foreign and native, in tweeds and T-shirts, in blazers, baseball caps and gowns. They're oyster fans, every one, and thousands - noshing salmon and prawns, swilling Guinness stout and Irish Cream - buzz, chatter and flirt, packing the 200-yard-long, candy-striped tent like an Emerald Isle traffic jam. The 28-piece Band of Angarda Siochana, the Irish police band, swings through "Brown-Eyed Girl," "Tequila," and "California, Here I Come.".

Hastings wears his red, white and blue U.S. Champion's jacket, and it's a magnet for Americans. They're here from Florida, Missouri, Maryland, and all want to wish him well. The laugh lines crease his face. "Thank you, sir," he tells one man, pumping his hand. "When I'm up on that stage, I'll hear you cheering."

He's one of 14 contestants, each the champ of his nation. The names are like a roll call at the United Nations: Johan Schlag, Pepe Espinoza, Espen Nyvedt. They'll compete in groups of four, one right after another, each shucking 30 Galway Bay oysters as quickly as possible. "Speed is important," explains Vernon Johnson Jr., a boyhood friend of Hastings' who is here to watch, "but don't forget that neatness counts. They look for a good presentation. No nicks, no cuts."

The words will be prophetic.

Lots are drawn; Hastings is in the second heat. The first four contenders come and go: Singapore, Denmark, Australia and Sweden. The crowd, packing the front of the stage as if at a rock concert, roars as Per Olofsson, the Swede, finishes in less than three minutes. He snatches up his handbell and rings it. Two minutes, 37 seconds: the time to beat. It's a pretty clean tray of oysters, nicely arrayed. The others finish behind him, and each gets a raucous cheer as he rings in.

Hastings' group is next.

The rules of shucking are quirky, but they're based on the Galway tradition and similar the world over. Each shucker comes out and takes his place (there are no female contestants this year), a basket of oysters to his left, a wood block in the center, a square tray to his right. As each pulls the mollusks from his basket and spreads them out, an announcer with a mike beckons the crowd to shout out a "nom de plume" for each contestant. That becomes the name used in the frantic play-by-play. The first group became "Caesar," "Lewinsky," "Sam Maguire" and "Boskateer."

Once the contestants are named, the announcer tells them to raise their hands over their heads. He counts down from 10, the crowd hollering along with him. On "three, two, one: go!" the shucking commences, and hysteria is in the air.

Hastings is stage right - a comfortable spot, with room for his right hand. Under hot spotlights, he distributes his oysters in neatly measured rows, already in a rhythm as he does so. The crowd is buzzing. A group in front chants "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" You can feel Hastings, his blue eyes gone steely with concentration, tuning out distractions. He tugs on his cotton shucking gloves like a surgeon preparing to operate. The raucous scene seems to go blurry, then fade. In front of thousands, he's as solitary as he was six hours ago.

His competitors are Rambo, Terminator, Loistag. Hastings is renamed "Hannibal." He doesn't seem to care: His eyes bore in on his board. The show begins.

Tension drives the shuckers as they search out a rhythm - driving the knife in, cutting, passing the oyster across, placing it, snaring another. Hastings has said the key, for him, is to stay slow: cut each one clean, move it along, locate it, keep going, stay within himself. As the upper body moves, he defines a rhythm and keeps to it, and he seems almost still, alone, enveloped in calm. "Rambo has three, Terminator has three!" hollers the PA man. "Terminator has four! Hannibal has four!" Hastings doesn't hear. He keeps moving.

He places the first oyster in the upper left corner of his tray and moves across, building a row of six. Then he starts his next one. The pattern is planned, part of his strategy, and now he is merely completing it, like a man placing pegs in rows of holes.

He shucks another, and just as he severs meat from shell it slips from his fingers and starts to fall. He tries to snare it midair - misses. It bounces on the floor. A missing oyster is 30 penalty seconds - end of story, that would be - but as he bends, scoops and retrieves, the motion seems a part of his rhythm. He fills out one more row, then another, building his tray with clarity. He has mastered panic. He keeps going.

Names and numbers can be heard - "Rambo has 27! Terminator has 22!" - but not by Hastings, whose concentration seems like a force-field around him. He's hurrying and slowing at the same time: the shucker's paradox. Twenty-seven? 28? 29? 30! He's done.

He snares his bell - it has a leprechaun handle - and rings it once, calm but loud. He plants hands on table, straddling his creation, relaxes.

Three minutes, 24 seconds - a good time. His tray is immaculate. George Hastings is done.

A clean job of it

The third and final heat plays itself out - Urkel, Monica, Rocky and Bill Clinton - and the Canadian shucker, wearing a red-and-white hockey jersey, is a demon of speed. The Dutchman finishes slow, like an old nag crossing the line. The crowd roars its lungs out for both. In this contest, a willing effort really is as good, in its way, as a victory. Almost.

Hastings has made his way off the stage and into the crowd. He wipes his hands on his U.S.A. apron. It isn't quite a smile he wears - that would be less than modest - but he shows relief. He has come all this way, jumped this many hurdles, dreamed about this moment for so many years, and now it's over. That in itself is an accomplishment. "Not too bad," he says. "Not too bad. The tray was pretty clean."

Now, the wait. Each shucker has his own judge, and the trays have all been whisked backstage. The Swedish man's time holds up as the fastest, but in the next 45 minutes, judges will add penalty seconds to each shucker based on imperfections in the oysters. A minute, and more, is common.

The crowd seems anything but nervous. An Irish fiddle band rolls off some reels. Young women with flushed faces, and old men in tweed, stamp out the rhythm. A group of six girls in traditional dancing garb - tight tops, billowing skirts - taps through two "Riverdance"-like routines. George is with his entourage. His fourth day in Ireland, and he still isn't having a beer.

A hefty fellow with white hair approaches and launches into a dreamy soliloquy. "I want to tell you something about that Baltimore boy of yours," he says with a Dutch accent. "I've been eating oysters for 40 years. I'm a gourmet from Holland. Your friend shucked before the dinner last night. And I want to tell you, he shucks the most beautiful oysters I have ever seen in my life. His oysters are clean, smooth, balanced, perfectly centered. He is good. Not just fast - good."

The gourmet, who is also a gourmand, tells an astonishing secret. "I never eat more than 50 oysters at a time," he says. "But because of your Baltimore boy, I ate 80. And if he were serving tonight, I would eat 80 more. I've never seen such wonderful oysters."

The Dutchman confirms what seemed true. When Hastings first landed in Ireland on Wednesday, he appeared tentative, nervous. With practice and exposure to the other shuckers, he grew more at ease. And this morning, as he shucked in the all-but-empty tent, he seemed to have found his rhythm, his place. He knew he belonged.

George's time is more than a minute behind the Swede's. It's a lot to make up. But as Johnson said, neatness counts. The possibility is real: Here in Ireland, an alien land in which he has slowly made himself at home, George Hastings has shucked with the best of them. And he has a chance to win. A good chance.

And the winner is....

A buzz swells through the crowd as officials call the shuckers to the stage, where they line up like Olympic athletes on the winners' blocks. The man with the mike has a list in his hand. He knows the results. And he announces the shuckers' names in reverse order of finish. The poor Dutchman's name comes first, at 8 minutes 11 seconds, then the Northern Irishman at 4:57, the Australian at 4:11. He reads more: Denmark, the U.K., Switzerland.

No George Hastings.

It's down to the last four. The Irishman's name is called: He's at 3:58. Raucous cheers. Hastings is still in it; he must have had very few penalty seconds. Then comes the Canadian: "Patrick McMurray, three minutes, 55 seconds," says the announcer. McMurray was a crowd-pleaser: He gets a full roar.

You can't wait to hear what's next. It's down to two: George Hastings, the Baltimore boy, and Per Olofsson.

Up on stage, Hastings, grinning, turns to the Swede and grips his hand. They shake a hearty shake. Olofsson laughs. "It's either you or me," he says with a blissful shrug. "One of us is the winner."

Now the announcer slows for emphasis; these are the real shuckers, the elite, the kings of the planet. "At three minutes and 54 seconds, George Hastings, the United States of America!"

And there, in the spotlight, wearing a broad smile, is a man utterly at home in his time, his place, his moment. Hastings steps forward and pumps the man's hand. A stupendous cheer goes up. "U.S.A! U.S.A!" The American group, in the middle near the back, hops up and down. Their man almost made it. He almost won. He almost won.

Then the Swede's name is announced - his final time: a scintillating two minutes, 45 seconds - and it's pandemonium. Hats go up in the air. The rangy Olofsson raises his arms like Rocky on the museum steps. He hoists a Guinness high in the air. More cheers. He downs it.

And as Olofsson shakes a bottle of champagne, pops the cork and sprays the bubbly over the crowd, Hastings looks happy, almost as happy to place as he would have been to win. The humble Marylander has traveled far and found what he may have only dreamed: that he's one of the best in the world, that he belongs at the top, or very nearly. George Hastings, Baltimore born and raised. At the top.

"No. 2," he says, shaking hands and smiling. "Not bad, I have to say. No. 2 ain't bad." He holds in his hands the basket from which he drew his oysters. He is a man who invests objects with meaning. "Thought I'd take this home," he says. "A pretty good souvenir."

He wonders what might have been had he not dropped that single oyster. But there's no hint of disappointment. There's only, as usual with Hastings, fascination - fascination with the process. Curiosity, amazement, wonder.

In fact, he seems almost thankful for the mistake that may have cost him the crown, or thankful at least for the way it happened. "Just think what would have happened," he says, a quizzical look in his eye, "if that sonofabugger had rolled under the table where I couldn't get it. You lose an oyster, man, that's 30 seconds on your time. You're finished. You're done. I put my hand right on it. I was lucky."

The true champion, it seems, may not just be the one who looks within himself and sees skill, achievement, glory. He finds those, but he's also humble enough to see other things - to make a friend of his own mistakes.

As George Hastings casts his thoughts on future competitions - he thinks, maybe, he can come back here and win someday - he knows that on this trip to the Emerald Isle, he came not just to win, not just to conquer, but to look, quietly and clearly, within himself. And it was better, a whole lot better, than any trophy or title he'll ever win.

The craic was mighty, indeed. He liked what he saw.

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