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For the fun of it

His lineage is impeccable, this homarus, traceable back to the ancients and possibly beyond the dawn of human beings. My Norse ancestors named their beloved sea ''the path of the lobster.'' Living here in this New Hampshire millhouse so near the coast, I have come to know the lobstermen and their tales and have begun to collect some of the best for a book. When my friend Oscar asked me some years ago to venture out in his boat, I anticipated a lark. This energetic grandfather had come into lobstering late in life, and his enthusiasm was like a boy's. He loved to tell of those daily jaunts at dawn, and so one spring morning I set forth with him before the sun had quite come up.

Early spring in New Hampshire conjures up warm visions of field flowers and lambs, but at this rocky coast on a gray morning the wind can blow frigid. Oscar hadn't warned me to wear boots, and when I saw his knee-high waders it was apparent my loafers were a mistake. He wore a heavy winter jacket and knitted cap pulled down over his ears, while I was hatless and my jacket felt paper thin.

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We drove in Oscar's truck, loaded with odoriferous fish bait he'd caught and stored all winter, to a cove where his ancient rowboat was moored.

''Doesn't leak much,'' he said with a grin as my loafers were submerged in ice-cold bay water at the bottom of the boat. He rowed us out toward the rising sun where his small lobster boat was anchored. Small is a comparative word. Oscar's boat is intended for one man and allows for no sitting accommodation or refuge from the sea spray. My seat was a keg of his strong-smelling bait, and it took leg work to keep the keg and me upright when Oscar revved up the engine.

I commented on the choppy waters, reminding Oscar that I couldn't swim. He laughed. ''Call this rough! A few days ago it was so bad I couldn't hold the boat in place to unload my lobsters!''

I'd taken along considerable photographic equipment, thinking to capture some romantic shots of a lobsterman at sea. Oscar was a fine subject, granite-jawed and eyes squinting into the sunrise, but he moved briskly and the craft was bucking like a bronco. Salt spray was threatening the lens, and my hands were too numb to cock the shutter. After an hour I gave up on photographic artistry and concentrated on survival.

Without complaint Oscar time after time hauled his heavy wooden traps out of the icy sea. Lobstermen become impervious to cold and wet. Red knuckles are a badge of honor, and after some years their hands resemble the bulky-clawed creatures they search. Oscar was having a disappointing morning, but his grin never wavered as he steered to the next marker. Each stop he'd catch the pot buoy with a boathook, feed the heavy line through a catch pulley, and bring it down to the winch. While the rotating winch brought up the fifty-pound trap, he had to watch carefully the swiftly uncoiling rope that slithered like a striking snake. More than one lobsterman has been caught in that treacherous rope and swept overboard, leaving an empty boat for the Coast Guard to find. At first, most of Oscar's lobster traps came up empty or with ''shorts,'' the undersize lobsters that by law must be returned to the water.

I rocked numbly on the bait keg and through frozen lips asked him how many more traps were yet to be emptied. He calculated we'd be out another couple of hours, and I calculated I couldn't last. Finally, things were looking up for Oscar, a bit. He'd caught a few good-size lobsters, pegging their claws to keep them from eating each other. I knew that, thus immobilized, they couldn't bite me, but the crabs that Oscar had also caught were zeroing in on toes hardly protected by sopping shoes. I kept moving my feet out of their way, but this was hampering my balancing act on the bait keg.

To keep my mind off cold toes, and crabs, I asked Oscar how much he'd get on the market for this morning's catch. ''About twenty dollars,'' he figured, and I wondered aloud how all this labor was worth it. He hooted. ''I'm in this business for fun!'' My mouth was so numb I couldn't smile along with him, and I was trying to figure if the smell of old bait would ever leave my clothes.

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An eternity later, the last trap was lowered into place, and we headed home with Oscar as fresh as when we'd set out. ''Wasn't that great!'' he beamed, and my frozen lips tried to open, but I didn't have anything suitable to reply so it was just as well I couldn't.

After my lobster book had been published, telling the long history of homarus and even longer tales of lobstermen, a kindly gentleman from Nova Scotia who'd read it wrote to invite me out on his lobster boat anytime I was in the vicinity. If he reads this, he'll understand why I haven't taken him up on the invitation.

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