How Vic's Clam Beds Made Flying History

THINGS happen in spite of you. One of my early entanglements with gainful employment had to do with the North Atlantic Fisheries. I dug clams at Flying Point, Casco Bay, for Vic Coffin, who paid me 50 cents a barrel - a barrel being 2-1/2 bushels dry measure.

Vic was a buyer of clams, which he shipped to Ipswich, Mass., where clams from Freeport, up in Maine, became Ipswich clams at a much improved price. I'm thinking of 1924.

Today, the boys get something like $30 for a half-bushel of clams. They go to dig them in rusty old 1954 pickup trucks that salt water isn't going to wreck further, and they save their Mercedeses for Sunday pleasuring and going to the bank. Times certainly have changed.

In 1924, clam licenses were yet to be thought up, and flats were closed neither for conservation purposes nor because of pollution. Vic was good to us boys, and discouraged older folks from digging "out front" of his home at Flying Point, keeping the flats for us. He had no official authority, but people liked Vic and would hark when he suggested they move down along the flats and "let the boys have their spots."

Clamming waits on a low tide, so there are no regular hours. Spring and fall, with school keeping, we could sometimes get both morning and evening ebb tides, but with school-time tides we didn't clam at all. In winter, floe ice spoiled digging, but in summer we had "a good chance."

So on an afternoon ebb tide, Sept. 5, 1924, just before schools kept for the fall term, some of us money-hungry boys were on the Flying Point flats and Vic was supervising us from the rocking chair in his big barn door.

It was a fine August sort of day that had lingered languidly into September, and folks who know about our Maine coast will understand how the fog snuggled in. Our Maine poet "Alphabet" Coffin (who was distant kin of Vic), wrote that "cows in pasture fade away to bells," and so does all else disappear as the heavy-laden atmosphere nestles in close and thick as burgoo. (That's thicker'n pea soup, even.) During our August and September fogs, clamming is about the only kind of fishing we do, and on that afte rnoon we could just make Vic out in his barn door, maybe 40 yards from us.

Then we heard an airplane. We boys looked up, but there was no penetrating the fog. We thought there were two airplanes. The passing rumble ceased; the plane or planes flew by.

In that fog?

It was hard to believe - first, because in 1924 an airplane was still an infrequent oddity, and second, at any time a pilot should stay out of a Maine coastal fog.

History was about to make a landing.

These were the US Army aviators who had left Seattle, on our Pacific Coast, to start the first around-the-world flight - our Magellans of the air. Honored in every country as they went, they had now come over Newfoundland, sighted Seguin, and had been taken in by an eager Maine fog that baffled them. Lieutenant Smith, commanding the squadron, decided that Boston wasn't worth an extra 75 miles, so the three planes veered and tried to find a hole in the fog. That was to appear as they made their second pas s over Flying Point - that is, Vic's clam flats.

On that second pass, low enough to shake hands, Vic had appeared to wave at them.

So did we.

For years after that, the story in Freeport was that Vic waved them off, thinking they were coming in to dig clams on "his" flats. Common poachers. But Freeport was always a fertile nursemaid for stories, and all Vic did was wave without significant meaning. In those days everybody waved at any airplane.

But the fliers dropped into United States territory just as soon as our low tide gave them water, and their pontoons coasted across Maquoit Bay, out of Freeport and into Brunswick. Folks at Mere Point rowed out to welcome them, and the first flight around the world was completed.

When the fog scaled off, the planes went on to Boston, where a delayed reception was waiting. Pontoons were changed to wheels and the flight continued to Seattle.

So why didn't history pick Flying Point? Why Mere?

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