Snorkelers who harvest scallops in Northwest Florida regard the tired eyes of Miss Beverlyn Hanson as beautiful jewels. Her summer weariness means she is awake and ready for honest toil.
She is an institution in this little Gulf of Mexico fishing town of 1,500. Without her, things fall apart. Miss Beverlyn, which is what everyone calls her, is the queen of the scallop shuckers.
Her clients bring her bay scallops by the hundreds, if not the thousands, every day for 10 weeks during the state's open season. She stays up all night, and the next night if necessary, and sometimes the night after that, to clean their scallops.
In Florida, there may be no more onerous job. Scallop shucking involves prying open a stubborn palm-sized shell with a special knife, yanking away the slimy guts and then slicing the thumb-sized dollop of edible muscle away from the shell — all in one quick motion. To understand the nature of the work, multiply the previous sentence by 1,500 or even 5,000. That's a day in the life of Miss Beverlyn, though we should also mention that mosquitoes and sand gnats bite constantly as she labors.
"If you swat 'em, you get scallop guts all over your face.''
Miss Beverlyn may be baggy-eyed, gut-smeared and bug-bitten, but she is used to it. During scallop season, which closes on Sept. 10, her pay works out to about $50 an hour. In return her customers get about 8 pounds of scallop meat. Eager to remain in her good graces, her clients often bring spaghetti and meatballs, fried mullet and angel food cake along with their cold cash.
"There are a lot of folks around Steinhatchee who will clean scallops for you,'' says fishing boat captain Jim Henley, ''and then there's Miss Beverlyn. She's the best there is. She's been cleaning scallops since Jesus was a child.''
For the record, Miss Beverlyn does not count the fisher of men as a peer. At 65, she has been wielding her scallop knife for a mere three decades in Steinhatchee.
On the Fourth of July weekend, when her town was bustling with scallop-laden tourists, heavy ice chests lined her driveway 100 deep. She shucked scallops between catnaps for 48 hours. With Labor Day approaching — her busiest weekend of the year — she is trying to catch up on shut-eye.
"Well, I'll tell you,'' she says, "sometimes I'm so overtired I can't sleep at night. A day or so ago I took an afternoon off and went to Lake City to go to the movies with kin. In the middle of G-Force I nodded off.''
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Miss Beverlyn, who has a thick bun of gray hair, rough hands and dark, penetrating eyes, is an old-fashioned country gal. Born in North Florida among the oaks and lakes, she learned to hunt and fish from a dad who "taught us kids how to survive under any condition.''
Once in a while, her daddy had a hankering to eat saltwater fish and drove with his little girl to Steinhatchee. They'd catch snapper and sea bass and pick up scallops. He taught her how to fillet a fish and how to shuck a bay scallop. A career was born.
Bay scallops, many old-timers insist, are Florida's most delicious gift. They're pink, delicate and sweet. They are much smaller and tastier than the larger and coarser sea scallops sold at restaurants. When sauteed in butter and garlic, a bay scallop is a melt-in-your-mouth food for the gods.
Bay scallops nearly vanished because of development, foul water and commercial fishing. But regulation and pollution laws slowly have brought them back, in at least a few places. From Hernando County north to Bay County, amateurs may legally pick them up one at a time, by hand, for their own use. It is against the law to sell them.
Unlike oysters and clams, duller mollusk cousins that rest passively like bumps on the bottom, scallops give a snorkeler a run for his or her money. A bay scallop lies in the shallow-water turtle grass, shell partly open, 30 electric-blue eyes scanning the surroundings for predators, which in Steinhatchee's Deadman Bay includes human hands. Bang! Scallop sees you sneaking up and slams shut. Expelling water through its hinge, scallop jets away from harm.
If catching a scallop is challenging fun, cleaning one is slow torture.
"All you got to do is clean scallops one time in your life,'' declares Jim Henley, the garrulous fishing guide. "That's enough for most of us. Then you find yourself a nice lady who has the patience and skill that a man doesn't have and pay her anything she wants.''
Steinhatchee's dozen or so scallop shuckers are usually women who set up come-hither cardboard signs all over town during summer. When it rains, the handwritten cardboard signs fall apart. After the downpour, new signs go up. "This is our time of year we can make real money,'' says Susie Grant, who cleans scallops at the River Haven Marina. Grant, 46, cleans motel rooms in the morning, then heads for the dock in the afternoon to shuck scallops. She's home by nightfall.
Over at Miss Beverlyn's yard on Ninth Street, the heavy action often begins around dusk. After a long day on the water, scallopers show up in force with buckets and coolers, money and kind words.
"I'll do my best,'' she says.
"You're an angel,'' says the scalloper, if he knows what's good for him.
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Miss Beverlyn sits under a canopy on a just-the-right-height stool next to buckets of scallops, fresh water, empty shells, guts and just-shucked meat on ice. Sometimes her adult son and daughter help, and sometimes neighborhood boys lend a hand, but often Miss Beverlyn works alone, admired by her son's pit bull, Malachi, who looks mean but isn't.
Sometimes a fisherman waits for her to finish shucking his scallops and feels the need to converse. He can talk if he wants — provided he requires no reply. Professional scallop shucking is unsociable work, for the most part, requiring Zen-like concentration.
"I try not to think about what I'm doing,'' Miss Beverlyn says. "Like, I don't think about how many scallops I have already done or how many thousands are waiting for me because it will overwhelm me. While I shuck scallops I put myself into a dream state. I transport myself into my garden, where I'm working on my beans and my tomatoes and my okra. Or I'm thinking about my bird feeders and my birdhouses. In my mind I'm getting ready for when the purple martins come in the spring. Or I'm filling my hummingbird feeders with sweet water. Honey, we got a lot of hummingbirds in these parts.''
At dark she switches on a bright light inside the canopy. Moths careen around like dodge-'em cars. Mosquitoes whine. She pulls on rubber gloves over majestic hands scarred and gouged but still capable.
Inside the house her second husband, Donald, 76, watches television in peace. A retired carpenter, he avoids anything having to do with what is going on in the back yard. On July 28, he poked his head out the back door and wished his wife a "Happy 19th anniversary'' before closing the door and returning to TV.
Miss Beverlyn, a factory unto herself, forged ahead as she does every day and every night. She poured scallop meat into a Ziploc bag and deposited the bag immediately on ice in a cooler on which she had written a customer's name. Then she began again, her knife clinking against shell like a gold coin on a front tooth.
Once she stood 5 feet 4. Bending over scallops for about half her life, she now believes she has lost at least an inch. No matter. She is tired, but she has no plans to quit and let customers down.
"I'm a tough old biddy,'' she says, "but sometimes on Monday morning I swear I'm so sleepy I can't remember my name.''
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at (727) 893-8727 or firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book is "Pilgrim in the Land of Alligators." For more information, go to jeffklinkenberg.com.