Brant Beach
by Grant MacLaren

The war was over, gas was no longer rationed and that made for summer vacations away from home in Drexel Hill. We had a black four-door Plymouth, soon to be replaced with a handsome green 1948 Chrysler Windsor equipped with Fluid Drive -- and, a radio!

Atlantic City was a favorite summer destination for many residents of suburban Philadelphia, but my folks thought it was rather tacky. The big Atlantic City attraction was its Steel Pier and board walk; its salt water taffy, skee ball arcades, diving horse show and a diving bell at the end of its pier made it certifiably tacky. So, we and three other families rented a place fronting the Atlantic Ocean on Brant Beach, a 75 mile drive from 916 Collenbrook Avenue.

The gray shingled beach house had four apartments, two up and two down with an interior center stairwell to reach the upper two. The Pearsons, Greggs, McIntoshes and MacLarens would stay for two weeks, so routines were established.

Kites, paper Hi-Fliers, could stay aloft for many hours in the sea breeze. All kids my age flew "Playmates of the Clouds" and all knew how to attach the bridle, adjust the belly band and add a tail for good performance. Unlike flying them at home on the Aronomink School playground, where the 10 cent kites might last a few minutes or a few hours, on Long Beach Island a bright red Hi-Flyer might stay aloft over night, its string secured to a balcony railing. Amazingly to me, a kite could be flying to the west at sunset, then east on a land breeze the following sunrise.

Swimming in the surf, racing sand sharks and flying kites were fun, but crabbing was my favorite activity. As soon as I finished my Wheaties, I'd be off to great teams of commercial fisherman landing wooden double-enders through the surf, laden with fish netted early that morning. (Tell me we have not screwed up the fish habitat.) Some of the fish -- most of them -- were trucked to market. But some found buyers right there on the beach. The fisherman would clean them for customers. Screeching seagulls hovered and dove for fish guts; a kid like me could walk away with a few large heads to be used as crab bait.

The island was maybe two city blocks wide, with only one "busy" road to cross to get from the ocean to the bay. 'Busy" meaning more than two or three cars per hour, and "the bay" being Little Egg Harbor, although I probably didn't know it by that name in the late 1940's. It was just "the bay."

The fishermen landed their boats about a quarter mile north of us, so after collecting a few fish heads, I'd trudge through the sand, and wade through the shallow water's edge back to the house to pick up a length of stout cord, a crab net, some lead weight and a bushel basket. The crab net was made with a heavy wire loop on the end of a six-foot long wooden pole. The loop supported string netting -- real string, not the green stuff used today.

Crabbing required a little skill, easy to learn by a ten or eleven year-old boy. Even girls could learn, I was sure, but I don't remember any girls crabbing. The best chances for success depended on the tide -- incoming and high slack were sure-fire times to snag a dozen or more big blue crabs in less than an hour, and a pier was the best place for crabbing. Ours was a public one, smelling of creosote and fish, and located on the bay, at the end of our street.

The first thing to do was to tie a lead weight and a fish head to the end of the cord, then lay down out near the pier's deep end, on its north side, near a piling. Next, I'd drop the weighted line down along the piling and wait a few minutes, watching for a hungry crab, maybe two, to appear and grab the bait with their claws. The pier's shadow made it easier to spot them, headed to feast on the fish head. You know, of course, that crabs move "sideways." With the crab attracted to the fish head, it quickly became firmly attached to its intended meal.

Now I'd use my free hand to grab the net and envelop bait, weight and crab, bringing all to the water's surface. When the crab figured out he was headed to the stove, he might release his claws from the bait. Too late. I'd carefully bring everything out of the water and on to the pier's deck, then grab the crab and drop him in the bushel basket. If you don't know how to handle a live crab, you'll learn pretty quick. Thumb on top, forefinger on bottom; approach from its rear, grab it at the base of its swimming fin -- right where it connects to the body. Held at its center, you'd get pinched by one of its sharp claws. And that hurts. I'd drop the line again if there was still some fish head remaining. If not, I'd use another of the ones I'd brought along.

On one occasion, I brought home a mess of crabs, too many to boil at the moment, so I offered them to the Greggs. Only-child Betsy was an annoying brat. She and Mr. and Mrs. Gregg were on the second floor, directly over our place. When I delivered the crabs, I kept my basket for the next day's crabbing. It was suggested the crabs be housed in sea water, in the large stock pot used for crab boils. Betsy insisted on putting them in a cardboard carton, out in the hallway at the head of the stairs.

Later that evening, my folks heard scratching and clacking. Betsy must have heard it too. She stood at the head of the stairs screaming "Turtles! Turtles!" as the dozen or so ungainly critters tumbled down the stairs, headed for their ocean home.

Sand shark racing can't be done by kids today. Ever hear of sand sharks? The skinny fish with a large dorsal fin have no commercial value, are not dangerous to humans, and are on our list of endangered species. In addition to fish heads and guts, commercial fishermen would pitch sharks about 12 or 18 inches long out of their boats. Besides not having sand sharks to race, efforts to control Atlantic beachfront property with man-made jetties have eliminated the places we raced them -- the troughs formed and filled by high tides. Kids today don't have the fun of prodding and chasing sand sharks up and down the beach before returning them to the ocean. Too bad.