UNTIL last October, the clammers in this marshy delta lived with a freedom rare in modern life. ``I enjoy my independence,'' says Randy Bell, whose relatives have been farmers and fishermen along this part of the North Carolina coast ``since before this place was a nation.''
Scattered back along the creeks with their families, men rose in the morning to pursue the mud-burrowing clam. They wrested a living from nature, surviving through their strength and their knowledge of seasons and tides.
Calling no person boss, they worked from their own boats, set their own hours, and sold independently to small packing houses. Unfettered by paper work, many never even filed income tax forms.
Then fickle nature changed the conditions of their lives. From the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the toxic marine algae that cause red tide silently drifted up along the North Carolina coast.
Lodging in shellfish, the toxin forced state biologists to close oyster, clam, and scallop beds for 300 miles along the coast. Some 10,000 North Carolina shell fishermen lost $5 million in four months. The red tide became one of the worst disasters shell fishermen faced in the century.
Here in this quaint 200-year-old town of 1,225, about 100 full-time fishermen clam year-round for their major source of income. Few had more than a couple of weeks' savings set by.
``It's been a trying time,'' says clammer Randy Bell, summarizing the crisis in gentle understatement.
Accustomed to a frontierlike independence, the clammers struggled to survive on their own.
But before the stinging, hazy red tide finally began to wash away in March, once-proud shell fishermen saw their self-reliance vanish. They accepted charity for boat and utility payments, and their families received handouts of food and clothing.
At its best, clamming is a challenge. Prices can vary between 14 and 8 cents a clam in one season.
Some days, says 34-year-old Mr. Bell, he has made $75 to $100 in the creek. But ``if you get in 20 days, you've had an outstanding month.''
In the tidal creeks that ebb and flow with the sea, the clammers crawl and scoop and pull their livelihood from the mud. There are flood tides, lightning, and storms.
In winter, clammers wade in the cold creeks, tonging or raking the mud-burrowing shellfish off the bottom. In summer, many crawl on their hands and knees through the water, digging the clams with gloved hands.
``You get way down in the creek, and your boat's about a mile away, and you got 100 pounds of clams. It's not easy,'' says clammer John Pongratz, a father of four. ``And there's mud out there like quicksand.''
But despite its difficulty, clamming is a life the fishermen cherish.
The Bells are better off than some of the fishermen's families, because they own their 29-year-old house trailer near Bear Creek.
``On rainy days, I can stay home with my children, see them grow up,'' Bell says, watching six-year-old Danielle figure her math homework in the family's tiny living room.
``If I want to take my children out there with me, I can take them.''
Many clammers' sons work with them in the creeks. ``You put some gloves on and start digging,'' says Adam Pongratz, 14, who makes money in the summer by clamming with his dad.
Some women dig the clams, too.
``Put on some old clothes and get down on your hands and knees,'' Judy Pongratz remarks with a smile. She works at a grocery store in Swansboro during the week and does clamming with her husband John on the weekends.
Out in the brackish creeks, ospreys dive, porpoises jump, and sometimes there are alligators.
``The birds come right up to you,'' Mr. Pongratz reports. ``You wouldn't believe it. It's so peaceful. Freedom.'' He throws out his muscular arms. ``I love it.''
When the red tide washed up last fall, state marine biologists believed the poisonous microorganism would soon die out in cool waters. But by Christmas the citizens of Swansboro had set up local programs to aid the fishermen.
Stories about the clammers' pride and stubborn self-reliance quickly became legend among the civil servants and retired couples of the town.
``One man was three months behind on his mobile home payment and would not ask for help. He was trying to make it on his own,'' says Steve Marshburn Sr., manager of consumer loans at First Citizens Bank of Swansboro.
``They are independent people. They went out and did their work. They were loners,'' says Lee Miller, head of White Oak Ecumenical Council and a member of the Shellfishermen's Committee, which solicited donations of food and money for distressed fishermen.
As the tide lingered, clammers who had pitted themselves against nature for a living and never before asked for help found themselves struggling to justify their need in food stamps and welfare offices.
Those inexperienced with recordkeeping confronted a baffling and seemingly endless array of paper work needed for Small Business Administration loans.
``Quite a few of them, because they felt they didn't know how to fill out applications, just wouldn't come in. They had too much pride,'' says Mr. Marshburn, who helped shell fishermen fill out the SBA forms.
Only slightly easier was working in jobs created by a sympathetic business community. Randy Bell was one who got temporary work picking up trash on a building construction site.
``I felt like I was stealing the man's money,'' he recalls, referring to the $5 an hour he was paid for unskilled work.
As the tide showed no signs of abating, the state Division of Marine Fisheries began a program of moving oysters from contaminated beds to clean areas for later harvest. Shell fishermen working for the program could make up to $500 a week.
But the clammers had long been suspicious and resentful of state fisheries officials. Some now chafed at working for them. Others considered the oyster program make-work, equivalent to being on the dole.
Now, as water conditions slowly return to normal, some clammers are wondering if their primal independence is worth the vulnerability.
There is talk of a change in the fishermen's lives. Fisherman Bell is among those who would like to see an organization to bring fishermen and their families together.
``If anything comes out of it we'll get some unity,'' he says. Bell believes the shell fishermen should maintain an emergency fund for distressed fishermen's families, and organize a political voice to carry clammers' concerns to state officials. Others like the idea of trying to get group insurance rates.
Regina Sewell, founder of the Shellfishermen's Committee and mother of two clammers, would like to see fishermen hold regular meetings. She envisions classes and social opportunities for fishermen's wives, many of whom are isolated in rural areas of this tidewater country.
``People became more aware that if they were to survive, they had to help each other,'' she says. ``They need more security in today's hard world.''
Jerry Schill, executive director of the North Carolina Fisheries Association, a trade association representing larger commercial fishermen and seafood businesses, has come at the fishermen's request to Swansboro to talk to clammers about the importance of group insurance and some sort of political involvement.
But Mr. Schill is unsure what will come of it.
``These little guys have never joined anything. They don't see themselves as businessmen, members of a group,'' he says.
But the clammers say the days are over when each man thought only of his own family, the creek, and the sky.
``I think people came a little bit closer together,'' says John Pongratz, referring to the winter's crisis.
``Everybody is trying to help each other out.''
``We've got people talking who have never talked before,'' Bell notes.
``The big question is, Is anyone going to stay together, or is everybody going to fall right back into their own ways?''
The clammers are aware now of their concerns for unity and security, he says.
But their livelihood is returning.
As it does, many of them will live again as free as the frontiersmen who settled the untamed West.
Life will return to normal for these courageous fishing people of North Carolina's shore. They will continue to call no man boss.