Soft Shell Crabs


Blue fin crabs are bottom feeders and scavengers from the Chesapeake Bay and brackish backwoods waterways indigenous to Maryland’s eastern shore. Steamed and doused heavily with “Old Bay” seasoning, they’re absolutely delectable, especially when washed down with cold beer, while sharing them with a group of friends, or family. Picking and eating crabs is a social event.

As a crab grows it will shed its smaller hard shell so a larger one will form. During this stage, the crab is vulnerable to predators, hence the name “soft shell crab.” Fried this way, they’re eaten whole and are a delicacy. However, they’re particularly hard to harvest in this condition.

But this isn’t the soft shell crab I’m writing about as I lay my latents on the keys of my laptop. The soft shell crab I’m talking about is the first responder to catastrophic events, whether man-made, or natural disaster. Policeman, firemen, EMTs, or our military, the ones who run toward gunfire, danger, or other conflicts — not away from it. They have one thing in common. They suck in their emotions to do what has to be done to stabilize, treat and rectify any conflict or problem they’re summoned to.

This is not done without affect. Soon, they start to develop a strong, hard, outer shell enabling them to deal with anything they may face, without showing outward regard. That way, they can be more effective doing their job. It instills confidence in the victims if their guardian angels in uniform handle things with seeming effortless efficiency. Sardonic senses of humor are developed — amongst themselves, that is — as a coping method for those who see the ugliness society offers. After 20 or 25 years this shell can get pretty thick.

Crumbling Shell

Once retired, these salty, crusty crustaceans start another metamorphosis. Minus constantly released jolts of adrenalin, shift work and exposure to society’s dregs, the shell starts to crumble. All the emotions once choked down start to ebb their way out, usually to the bewilderment of the people involved. Happy, touching moments seem to trigger these events. Suddenly, the once hard-shelled crab starts choking up as their eyes betray them, flooding with solvent emotion. For a fleeting second, speech is impossible as this could cause the whole dam to burst. It vanishes as fast as it strikes, but it’s real. What the heck is going on here?

Old school gun’riter Skeeter Skelton touched on this, blaming it on “dust in his eye” as he drove away from his latest adventure with his fictional best friend, Dobe Grant. I started noticing it toward the end of my police career. As if on ninja tiptoes, the feeling creeps up on you, taking you by total surprise. Maybe it’s a middle-age thing?

After years of stuffing and ignoring emotions, the wave of held-back salty, corrosive tears has rusted our innards from the inside, clear through our tough outer armored shell. This is a good thing, as we’re starting to become “human” again, whatever that means.

We become sentimental saps, occasionally getting lumps in our throats when we experience something touching. These sudden leakages cleanse those toxic experiences bottled up inside us for so long, where they’d been fermenting like homebrewed beer. After years of holding them in, the noxious emotion needs release and sometimes it doesn’t take much to pop the top.

It’s not a bad feeling, and actually feels good in a peculiar kind of way. Each episode shows us it’s all right to enjoy the simple things life has to offer. Every occurrence replaces a bad memory with a newer, better one. When I mention the phenomena to friends I used to work with, guys my own age, they all get silent, as if deep in thought. Then, to a man, they all deny it. I chuckle, saying, “Yeah, I really had you guys going, didn’t I?”

Don’t fret though. Many consider soft-shelled crabs a delicacy and one of the finer things in life to enjoy.Like oak-aged bourbon, you’ve mellowed over the years. You’ve solved everyone else’s problems long enough. Now it’s time to bask in the after-glow of a job well done and enjoy the finer things life has to offer.

Good Excuses

Hell, one of the reasons I like eating steamed crabs doused with spicy “Old Bay” seasoning is the obvious excuse sticking to my fingers. If by chance I fall victim to sentimentality and someone notices my eyes welled up, or a lone tear rolling down my cheek after a particularly touching moment. “Darn, musta’ got some Old Bay in my eye” works like a charm. I Usually follow it with, “Boy is it hot in here! I’m sweating like a pig.”

And for those of you too young to understand this, or it went over your head, or through your ears without fathoming the meaning — maybe I pulled a fast one on you.

Or maybe not.

Oh, hang on, I musta’ got some Old Bay in my eye there …