NAHCOTTA - "I was 13 years old when I first worked on the oyster beds," Ray Martin says with his ever-present smile. "Several of us made up the 'kiddie crew' and we worked for Coast Oyster Company scattering oysters so they could grow faster. Jeff Murakami was our boss and he lived across the bay in a house built on pilings near South Bend."
Martin, who will turn 60 this August, still has the zest for working on Willapa Bay's oyster beds.
His present boss, Brian Kemmer, says, "Ray is our top 'busheler.' When we're coming in after four or five hours of picking, all the young guys on the crew sit down and rest, but not Ray. He's full of energy, always moving around and telling stories about how it used to be on the bay."
Martin tells of the time he and the other kiddie crew members got Mr. Murakami into a penny-ante poker game.
"We kept letting Mr. Murakami win a few pennies here and there and kept him in the cabin all through the tide," Martin says. "When he finally came top-side he noticed the tide was back in, repeated one of his famous sayings and told us to go home. We even got paid for the day."
Martin lived his first 20-plus years in Ocean Park and graduated from Ilwaco High School in 1966. He often went out with his dad, Jess, and picked oysters on the night tides in the winter. He watched his mom as she was "one of the top openers" for decades in the Bendickson Cannery.
"I didn't have a chance of getting out of the oyster business," he jokes. "The only time growing up that I didn't work in the oysters was when I was playing football. I played guard and tackle on both offense and defense for Ilwaco," he says. Martin was part of the undefeated 1962 Fishermen team, even though he weighed less than 150 pounds at the time.
After high school he worked on the bay for three or four years. His parents moved to the Poulsbo area and when his dad developed heart trouble and his mom was diagnosed with cancer, Martin left the beloved Willapa Bay to help them out. Naturally he found work in the oyster business.
"There were two big differences between Puget Sound and the Willapa. Puget Sound isn't flat like Willapa Bay is. The bank drops off more quickly and the bottom is more rocky," Martin explains. "The other difference, and you have to remember I was in my 20s when I worked up there, is there are a lot more bikinis on the shore in the summer. I liked that."
In 1972 Martin gave up the oyster baskets and bikini-watching for a job in a mill in Vancouver making sandpaper. "I pushed levers and got high pay, but all of a sudden in 1985 they shut down the mill. I didn't like city life that much anyway, so after selling Rainbow vacuum cleaners for awhile, I came home to Willapa Bay."
Bay in the bloodHe says, "The bay has always been in my blood. I read all the history I can about the bay and Ocean Park. I have four brothers and they live everywhere else, but I like it here." Martin went to work for Jolly Roger Oyster Company and Fritz Wiegardt. "Fritz was always bugging me about playing tennis and I told him I'd never played in my life. When I figured out all you had to do was hit the ball back I played him and won two or three times. I still make sure I bring that up whenever I see him."
Now that Martin is approaching his 60th birthday he works for Kemmer as a picker and also shovels oysters for "some extra money." Martin says, "I love the different moods of the bay. There is a different atmosphere out there every day, even from hour to hour. I just wish I was a painter so I could catch it all on canvas. I even love it when it rains and I can hear it beating on the back of my coat. While all the other guys are complaining and checking to see if the tide's coming in, I just laugh and keep working."
One tide in his younger days Martin picked an unbelievable 325 bushels of oysters (that's 19,500 pounds, almost 10 tons of the sharp-shelled mollusks) and last month he averaged 222 bushels for a week of picking and has 15 days of over 200 bushels already this year.
"When I first started I used to compete with some of the experienced guys to be top picker, but now I just compete with myself. I get a kick out of the young guys who start out like mad the first three or four tubs, but by the end of the tide I've passed them by working at a steady pace - kind of like the tortoise passing the hare," he laughs.
Martin has had a few close calls on the Willapa. "We used to walk out to pick at night and a couple of times I've had to cross a slough up to my armpits, while carrying my basket, a stake and a lantern. Since I can't swim, that's pretty scary," he admits. "I've almost slipped off the dredge a few times and when I was eight years old I almost drowned in Loomis Lake during one of the town picnics. A girl saved me and I never did get her name to thank her."
One of the oddest things he's seen was when the dredge brought up a woman's bowling ball near the new Naselle Bridge. "Someone's wife must have beat him in bowling so he tossed her ball into the drink," Martin surmises. He calls himself a bivalve extraction technician and his crewmates refer to him as Uncle Ray. "They don't call me grandpa, and that's a plus," Martin quips.
Martin collects movies from the 1930s and 1940s. "I have about 4,000 old movies recorded on tapes," he says. "I am a Yankee baseball fan and want the 'NY' symbol on my headstone when I pass. I can still remember Mantle and Maris many times hitting back-to-back home runs and I would listen to Vin Scully broadcast the Dodger games in my dad's car. Once in awhile I caught heck when the battery would be dead the next morning," Martin chuckles.
"I coached Little League in Vancouver and that was the best time of my life. We won two or three championships and two girls on our team went on to play in the nationals the next year. My son, Shawn, was an all-star. Of course, now all he wants to do is fish." Shawn lives in and fishes out of Ilwaco.
Another favorite of Martin's is his three dogs. "Gabby is a yellow lab-Springer spaniel mix whose name really is Gabriella, but she won't shut up. Elvis is a cocker spaniel and Bo is a town dog I inherited from Ocean Park," he explains. "I love dogs because they are always happy and I can count on them to be that way when I come home this afternoon." Martin is also an expert in remembering nicknames of high school sports teams. "You're a Bronco," he'll tell a guy from Ritzville without a second's hesitation. "I can't keep track of all the new private schools, though."
Industry improvesHe has seen the oyster industry improve. "It used to be we had to string the shells. We'd have a special hammer with a nail on the end of it to punch the holes and then we'd put them on strings, now we use bags. I used to have to punch 10 strings, which took a couple of hours, and then my dad would let me chase the summer girls around Ocean Park," Martin says with a grin. "The other change is in the dredges. Brian's boat is a pleasure to work on because of all the things that are automated that make our job easier."
Martin is concerned about the way the Peninsula is becoming more and more populated. "It isn't country anymore. It is getting too crowded," he says. "I guess I'll go until I'm 62 and then keep working part-time in the oysters," he explains when asked if he'd ever leave Ocean Park. "I've worked hard all my life and I know I can't just stop."
He says, "I have a bad back, two bad knees, and two hernias that need fixing, but I don't have insurance so I have to wait. I get a $54 pension from the mill so I can buy a loaf of bread and a couple pieces of meat each month. But I love what I'm doing and I love where I'm at."
Ray Martin, with his infectious smile, concludes, "I guess I've always been able to see the good side of the bad. Of course, that doesn't include the Red Sox winning the World Series a couple of years back." Spoken like a man who lives by the tide and dies a little every time the Yankees lose a baseball game.