Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Catching a Conch

I lived in Hawaii for a couple years and I would go diving every free moment I had. One day I was diving in Pokai Bay and found a large Conch shell—called a Pu in Hawaii. The Pu is actually a large seashell played like a ceremonial fanfare trumpet. It is capable of emitting a loud sound carrying as far as two miles. The volume depends on the style of blowing rather than breath volume capacity. The shell is still used to announce the opening of the Hawaii State Legislature.
I decided I should not only have a conch shell but learn to play it. I never mastered the piano, I'm not half bad on the guitar—so I thought maybe my real musical talent was lying here at the bottom of the ocean just waiting for me to discover it.
I had no idea how I was going to get the present occupant out of my new musical instrument. I asked a local and he said to hang it over a bucket of water at night. The muscle would hang out of the shell to reach the water. He suggested I get up in the middle of the night, sneak up on the shell, grab the tangling muscle and yank it out of the shell. It all made sense to me.
I put a bucket of water next to my bed with a coat hanger across the top and a couple inches of water in the bottom of the bucket. I set the shell on the coat hanger facing down, set my alarm clock for midnight and went to bed.
When the alarm went off I climbed out of bed, beamed my flashlight on the bucket and that muscle was hanging down to the water just like my conch coach predicted. I quietly reached in the bucket and that muscle went back in the shell faster than a retractable window shade with a broken clutch.
I now realized I was not dealing with some stupid muscle with no brain. This critter was quick, sensitive and cunning. I crawled back in bed and let my eyes adjust to the dark room. The moonlight coming through the window allowed me to view the bucket with my good eye. I could see the muscle peeking out but he was in no hurry to get back in the water.
I fell asleep on guard duty. When I awoke, there he was again hanging down, deep into the bucket. This time—no flashlight, no alarm. I slowly pulled back the covers, slid out of the opposite side of bed and slowly moved around to the bucket. Like a cat pouncing on a surprised rodent, I dove my hand into the bucket spilling water all over my room. I never even grazed that slippery mass of mollusk. He was lightning fast and I was thunder frustrated. I was being outsmarted by a seashell.
Okay, I was in the Marines, I knew how to handle this. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. There is more than one way to skin a conch. There was plenty of night left for another try. I set everything back up. This time I made a lasso and carefully placed it around the shell and gently arranged it on the top of the coat hanger. I wouldn't even have to get out of bed. Once that thirsty little bugger dropped into the bucket I could yank on the rope and pull him right out of my new horn. A couple hours later, there he was tangling way out of the shell and taunting me to lasso him. I was patient. This might be my last shot. I waited for just the right moment. I didn't move a muscle until I was ready to go into action. I didn't know if he could see me, hear me or feel my vibrations but this time I would give him no notice of eviction. I pulled on the string as hard and fast as I could falling out of bed and again upsetting the bucket full of water. I switch on the light to see my prey and could not believe my eyes. There at the end of my rope was a frayed knot. I was amazed. This critter was fast. I had invested a whole night in trying to pull him out of his shell and I had not even come close to touching him.
The next morning I told my story to several neighbors who all had solutions. One suggested I freeze him out. Another suggested I boil him out. Still another gave me instructions on how to drill a whole between the third and fourth ring and insert a knife. This would cut the abductor muscle inside and I could remove the meat through the large opening in the shell by pulling on the claw.
It was too late. By this time I had already formed a relationship with this cagey conch. I developed an appreciation for his tenacity to stay up all night and deal with some nut sneaking around a bed in the dark trying to bushwhack him. Instead of spending the day freezing, boiling or drilling my conch I decided to take him diving. We went back to Pokai Bay and I deposited him near where I found him. I never learned to play the conch but both the conch and I now had a story to tell.
Like so many other creatures in the sea there are not enough conch left in many parts of the world to cook up a bowl of conch chowder. I'm glad mine is still in the South Pacific and not sitting on my shelf collecting dust because blowing the dust off would most likely have been the only time I would have played my conch. —Keep Smilin', Dick E. Bird

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