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To get my point, you’ll need a boarding-house reach

Call me anything, but don’t call me late for supper.

–Old boarding house quip

Many a truth is spoken in jest, and the above line is one of them. Only once in my life did I call a boarding house my residence — and then only for a couple of months. In that short time I must have heard those words a dozen times.

How true they were.

For three semesters in the mid-1940s I attended Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont. It was among the few schools in the nation that practiced progressive education. It surely was different.

For three months there would be classes, then a three-month period in which we’d go to work, ideally in the field we were studying. Then it was back to the campus for classes for three months, followed by three months off for traveling.

In my first year, I headed for the Big Apple and got a job as what today we’d call an intern, at PM, a new daily newspaper that flaunted its practice of no advertising: It didn’t want readers to think it could be influenced by those who forked over the big bucks. Subscriptions and newsstand sales were to pay the bills. During all its several years in business, it was on the financial edge.

I was paid $30 a week, which wasn’t much in NYC, where a cold-water flat (no hot running water) cost 50 bucks a month. So I lodged in a YMCA, the William Sloan House where I had a small single room for $15 a week — and two roommates also from Goddard. I was the only one to get a job (who wanted to hire someone who’d be around for only three months?), so I had the only single bed. Dick Riley and Ed Rice barely found enough room to lay sleeping bags on the floor. Each contributed $5 a week — when they had it.

I loved my job, and it was in my intended field. But I had to walk 17 blocks to work and back to the Sloan House to save subway fare, and things at the Y were getting claustrophobic. So after several weeks, I packed up and headed for New Bedford, Massachusetts, on a hunch I could sign aboard the commercial fishing fleet for a few trips, make a few bucks — and have a unique resumé when I returned to Goddard.

The skipper of an old tub, the name of which I can’t recall (it had Star in it) gave me a choice of a small percentage of what the catch brought on the market or $40 a week with food and quarters when fishing. Seeing I had a dingy room at a big old sailors’ boarding house close to the docks for $20 a week, I figured I was in heaven.

The meals weren’t bad, many fish stews and codfish in various forms — if I got to the table in time, which I didn’t always. The work was hard, and the few evenings when we weren’t at sea, I’d flop on my bunk and sleep through supper. The lady who ran the boarding house gave only one loud shout at the bottom of the stairs when a meal was ready. When I didn’t hear it, I’d go hungry or head to a nearby dockside saloon for a big 35-cent bowl of stew. Other boarders wouldn’t wake lodgers; the fewer at the table, the more for them. For 20 bucks a week, the proprietor didn’t offer a big spread.

I soon leaned the old saw call me anything, but don’t call me late for supper was much more than a joke. Snooze and you lose.

Back to Where I Meant to Go

I’m way off track here. My intention is to inform readers who fish how to avoid the embarrassment of being tabbed a tenderfoot at the sport by giving erroneous names to fish. The general rule of thumb is if you don’t know the right name or nickname of the fish at hand, just call it a fish. Everyone should know what you’re talking about.

Within the month, Chesapeake Country will be visited by a species of fish whose name is mistaken by more than half of those who catch it. They will refer to it as a skate, which it isn’t. It’s a cownose ray. There’s a big difference. Rarely does a fisherman appreciate a ray or skate on the hook. Neither is of much fight or taste, so why bother with what it’s called?

Both the ray and skate are armed. Be their victim and you will have unbearable pain. Chances are the ray will add insult to injury by injecting venom via its tail. When sports fishermen hook one, they usually cut the line off the boat rather than risk injury hauling in the beast. That thin tail once in an arc can be of lightning speed.

The few fishermen who eat the flesh of the flat flippers on each side of the ray swear that when prepared and cooked right, it can’t be distinguished from scallops.

About 50 years ago, ray fins were often referred to as Chincoteague scallops. Never have I found them anywhere near palatable. Some cut the flippers (also called wings) into chunks and fry them. I’m not among them.

The skate is not as wide as the ray; it’s more fiddle-shaped, and the tail, which has a couple of sharp appendages midway, is thicker. Step on a skate barefooted, and you can get a nasty cut or worse. Both skates and rays are like sharks: They have no true bones; instead cartilage and gristle are skeletal support.

It is not unusual to catch skates from the surf at Ocean City and Assateague Island. I’ve never seen one in the Chesapeake, nor have I ever heard of one being used as table fare hereabouts, though I’m told that in Europe they’re considered a delicacy and often sold as rays or rajafish. They’ve got things backward, too.

The skates of our Mid-Atlantic Coast can grow to six feet and weigh 35 pounds.

I’ve seen Chesapeake Bay rays that were nearly three feet across and weighed 60 pounds or more, but they can grow to seven feet across in some waters and weigh over 700 pounds. The giant stingarees of Australia have been recorded at 750 pounds.

Many a beach roamer has come across skate egg cases that have washed ashore and taken them home as souvenirs, not knowing what they are. The case is black and about three to five inches wide with a body similar to that of a crab except that instead of claws it has a couple of stiff pointed skinny horns on each side. Inside are the protected eggs. You’ve probably seen them and didn’t know what they were; they’re referred to by beach combers as mermaid purses or mermaid pinboxes.

As for our rays soon to be with us, under no circumstances try to handle one. Roman naturalist Pliny wrote: Nothing is more terrible than the sting of a stingray … Driven in the root of a tree it will kill the tree. It pierces armor like an arrow, and to the force of steel it adds the venom poison.

So beware of handling rays. Also beware of calling them skates. A knowledgeable fishermen will promptly know you’re a tenderfoot. Enough said.

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