19 July 2008

Taking a Claw to My Fears

I am not a man who is defined by his phobias, but I certainly struggle with some.

My greatest fear is heights--something that has dogged me ever since I was young. Fortunately, it doesn't keep me from going to the tops of tall buildings (we visited the Top of the Rock at Rockefeller Center in our 2nd Day in New York--as Jonah demonstrates in the picture at right, that is the Empire State Building under his left elbow). I have climbed my share of canyons and seen plenty of mountain tops despite this malady.

A close second is a pretty strong fear of crabs.

When I was five, I remember walking out on a pier during a visit to my grandparents on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. We found a man there hunched over a plastic bucket. One by one, he pulled crabs out of a trap, nonchalantly snapping off their claws and dropping the bodies into the bucket. I can still her the snap, snap, snap of the claws. My fear of crabs is caught up in those terrible claws.

Once, right after I had met Jenny, we stopped during one of our hitchhiking trips at a tidal estuary in Wales.

Jenny was in one of her mad fits (a craving to exercise), so she decided to swim out to an island in the middle of the river, about 100 yards away. I waited on the shore and guarded our stuff.

As Jenny started to swim, I waded a little ways out in the water. I needed my exercise, after all!
Standing in the water, I felt something tickling my ankles. I looked down to see dozens of small, sand dollar-sized crabs scurrying all over my feet.

I screamed like a little girl and raced back to shore. By the time Jenny got back, I was ashamed--not only for failing to meet her physical challenge, but also for getting chased out of the water by a combined posse of crabs that weighed less than one pound.

But travel has ways of liberating one from his phobias.

At the Mystic Aquarium, I came face to face with crabs, and I finally overcame my fears.

The Mystic Aquarium is a wonderful place with a surprising array of experiences available in an aquarium dwarfed by others I have visited in Chattanooga, Boston and Atlanta.

One of the big draws for me was the aquarium's connection with Robert Ballard, the submariner par excellence who located the sunken Titanic and who has found shipwrecks and signs of ancient civilizations from Lake Huron to the Black Sea. An exhibit featured his many explorations.

The animal exhibits were fascinating, too. An aviary let the kids get up close to Australian parakeets. Belugas swam for us--I had taken care to copy the classic Raffi song, "Baby Beluga," to our summer soundtrack.

A display showed "mermaids' purses" or sharks' eggs. Part of the black, leathery shell had been stripped away, and we could see the embryos growing at various stages right before our eyes.

The highlight for me, however, was the hands-on pool. There were two crabs there: a huge crab, which huge claws (like the one Jonah stares at in the picture at side) and a spider crab (smaller claws but creepier looks).

In the full spirit of adventure, I reached for the crab.

"Pick it up from the back," the guide told me. "It won't be able to pinch you that way."

I reached in from behind and grabbed the crab. It jerked its claws and dangling legs back and forth helplessly. I felt such a surge of power and pride! I couldn't believe my fingers.

Next came the spider crab. It was easy. Those tiny pinchers were no match for my bravery. I was in command of the crabs--and my fears.

A few days later, we stopped in North Carolina's Outer Banks. What looked like a short hike from the Cape Hatteras light house to the beach turned into quite a trek through scrub and sand dunes.

I stepped over a pile of scrub, only to hear a haunting clicketty-clicketty-clicketty sound.

"A crab!" Owen yelled, pointing to a small crab now cowering in the shadows.

"Cool!" I answered.

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