THE FIRST TIME I met the bedazzlingest crab I ever saw was an afternoon in the mid-1980s, just off a flight into Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
There in the main concourse, large as a small car, it balanced delicately on claw tips and the points of its swimmerets.
The afternoon sun streamed warmly through the creature's jewel-like body, kindling olive and ivory, cerulean blue and jade and ruby-red.
The stained-glass creation was an accurate crab, faithfully rendered down to the differing serrations of either pincer - the one adapted for slicing you up (for indeed, one felt like prey in its massive presence) the other for crushing you.
But it also illuminated and ensorcelled in a way that went beyond nature - like all fine art, a statement unto itself.
And then the great jeweled crab, fractured by careless handling, dulled by accumulated grime, disappeared into the darkness, where it has languished for six years.
Those captivated by the crab over the years were legion, however, and scarcely a month went by without phone calls, e-mails and letters demanding its return.
Reinstating the crab became a campaign pledge two years ago for Janet S. Owens, elected to head the government of Anne Arundel County, which owns the mega-crustacean.
The county, wanting an eye-catching tourism display, commissioned the crab's creation more than 15 years ago, from Shadyside artist Jackie Leatherbury Douglass and her husband, John.
Originally, Jackie Douglass recalls, "they wanted a 30-foot crab, which was just impossible." The three-dimensional, 10-by-7-by-5 1/2 - foot blue crab they settled on took the Douglasses more than 5,500 hours to assemble, with John welding the steel frame and Jackie performing the stained-glass work.
The result was more than just a fitting icon for Anne Arundel County, with 550 miles of heavily crabbed waterfront, and a capital city known as Crabtowne, and a newspaper nicknamed the Crab- wrapper.
Baywide, the crab is our most ubiquitous seafood, caught from Norfolk to Havre de Grace, from the loneliest Eastern Shore marsh to the Hanover Street Bridge, taken by pot and scrape, by dredge and trotline, by collapsible trap and chicken neck.
No creature is more deeply embedded in the bay region's economy, culture and ecology. Watermen's communities, from Rock Hall to Tangier Island, would disband in a year were blue crabs to desert us.
Blue crabs eat everything from worms and clams and periwinkles to oysters, plant matter and, in large numbers, each other.
In turn, the crab feeds eels, rockfish, cobia, drum, sharks, rays, speckled trout, catfish, largemouth bass, loggerhead turtles, herons, diving ducks and raccoons, to name a few.
And without crab feasts, would Maryland politics and family reunions survive another summer? What would we do without the Crisfield Crab Derby, highlighted by the crowning of Miss and Little Miss Crustacean?
So for many reasons, it's happy news that the marvelous stained-glass crab has been repaired, cleaned and unwarehoused and is coming back to BWI.
Next Thursday night, workmen will begin remounting it, and at 10 a.m. Friday, Anne Arundel County and airport officials will hold a rededication ceremony.
The crab's creator, Jackie Douglass, plans to attend, but with mixed feelings. The crab's 32 stress fractures were "patched" by another craftsperson, she says - not the total rehabilitation she was hoping the county would hire her to do.
"It's not a sculpture anymore, but it's not bad. I don't think most people will notice," she says.
Nor is the crab being returned to its original place of glory in the sunny main hallway. It will be in a lounge with 9-foot ceilings, by the Burger King between C and D terminals.
Though the county has an understanding with BWI to display the crab there, "the location is up to the airport," says Jerry Klasmeier, the county's chief administrative officer.
Still, it will be good to see her creation live again, Douglass says: "I don't think there was a night I went to bed that I didn't think about that crab, locked up in a dark warehouse."
My guess is that the saga of the great jeweled crab will not end next to the Burger King. In all of Chesapeakiana, there is likely a more perfect spot.
There has been some talk about a display somewhere in tribute to the late Dr. L. Eugene Cronin, an eminent bay scientist and scholar of the blue crab, who in 1992 wrote:
"I have been doing research on the blue crab for more than 50 years, and have been interested in artifacts representing the crab in metal, marble, glass, plastic, ivory and jade, as well as in paintings and drawings.
"That large stained glass crab is the most impressive such artifact I have ever seen ... unusually correct in attention to detail ... most pleasant to look at, worthy as art."
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