Comment: Mike Rowe picnic table story on facebook.
I wrote this a few years ago. It's still mostly true.
A Father's Day al Fresco Fiasco
When I was eight years old, my Father bought a picnic table at a yard sale
for a dollar. A whole picnic table, complete with two separate benches.
For one dollar.
He brought the thing home in the back of the old station wagon – the one
with fake wood paneling on the side – and summoned his wife and sons to
examine another tangible expression of true thrift.
“Gather round boys and have a look. They wanted twenty-five dollars for
this down at The Sears. Can you believe it? Twenty-five dollars! Your old
man just picked it up on the street for a buck. See what happens when you
keep your eyes open?”
My father was always keeping his eyes open for this or that, and lately, a
picnic table had been on his radar. This one was made of a suspicious
pine, soft and light enough for an eight year old to carry across the
front lawn. It was held together with glue and staples, but the price was
right, and somehow, it was still standing two years later under the old
Maple, dry-rotted, and listing badly to the left. It was also missing two
planks on the surface, making it less of a table and more of a sieve.
My Mother had grown tired of watching hamburgers and hot dogs slip through
the cracks, and desired a table with a solid surface. “Am I asking too
much, John? I know it’s terribly unconventional, but really, couldn’t we
just try eating on a table without any holes in the top?”
My father maintained the table was just fine the way it was. “What’s the
big deal? It’s not like we entertain out here.” With a staple gun and
three roofing shingles, the offending gaps were covered, as my mother
looked sadly on.
“There you go, Peg. Good as new!”
The next time my father took his usual seat next to my youngest brother,
the moldy bench collapsed beneath him with a loud crunch, sending him
straight to the ground, and launching Phil skyward. Phil was only three at
the time, and skinny. He seemed to hover in midair for a moment, before
crashing to earth. “For God’s sake John, the boy could have landed on a
fork! We need a new table!”
The following day, my father shored up the broken bench with two by fours.
The original wood was too rotten to hold a nail, so he wrapped everything
together with duct tape. When the other bench crumbled a week later, it
was Scott who plunged downward with a muffled scream and a mouthful of
partially chewed chicken. He hit the ground hard, knocking air from his
lungs and chicken into his windpipe.
“He’s choking, John! Do something!”
Grabbing one of Scott’s ankles in each hand, my Father held him upside
down, and began to shake him over the table. When the wad finally broke
free, it exploded in a spray of poultry, most of which sailed through the
air and landed in my mother’s hair.
“Nice try John, but your son’s still alive. Why don’t we just eat on the
interstate? It might be safer.”
Under increasing pressure, my Father grudgingly began the process of
“pricing” new picnic tables. (My father does not shop. He “prices.” Rarely
is anything actually purchased.) He began with flea markets and yard
sales, canvassing the area for bargains. When that yielded nothing, he
made another pilgrimage to Sears, Montgomery Ward, and the local hardware
store, where his combined lifetime purchases added up to a grand total of
nothing. “It’ll be a cold day in you-know-where when I give Monkey Wards
good money for a picnic table we don’t even need. We’ll make do.”
And so the days progressed, until the contrivance in our front yard could
no longer be confused with an actual table. New additions included a car
jack, for supplemental support, and the front seat of a pick-up truck
brought in to replace one of the original benches – perched optimistically
on several cinder blocks. It was actually kind of comfortable, but had a
tendency to flip backwards if you rocked on it. In this way, dining al
fresco became a kind of adventure, a sort of ‘musical chairs’ in reverse.
Gathered around the doomed and rickety buffet, ears cocked, my brothers
and I waited for the ultimate crack! that would send us all plunging to
the ground under the weight of some dubious pot roast, or unnamed
The final meal around the old table took place on a muggy Father’s Day in
1972. Interestingly, it was the day President Nixon signed into Law a
proclamation declaring the third Sunday of every June to forever be
celebrated as Father’s Day. My father greeted this news with complete
indifference. We celebrated the occasion in true Baltimore style, with the
ritualistic sacrifice of several dozen Maryland Blue Crabs. My father
brought them home in a bushel basket and steamed them alive in crock-pot
full of onions and Old Bay seasoning. Now, they were spread across the
surface of the decomposing table. Knives and forks were replaced with ice
picks and wooden mallets, and the promise of calamity loomed higher than
Much has been written about the dangers of crab fishing, but in my
experience, eating them is far more hazardous than catching them. They’re
served at roughly a thousand degrees. They scald your fingers when you
snap their backs off and start digging around in their molten guts. Their
edges are razor sharp and pointed, and the Old Bay seasoning, while
delicious, feels like gasoline in the inevitable cuts and puncture wounds.
For my Father, retrieving the savory meat from this nautical Rubik’s Cube
is a highly personal, epicurean sacrament. He sees himself as an Indian
skinning a buffalo, or an Eskimo flensing a whale. Ignoring the heat, he
grabs one bare handed, flips it over, and slides a bloody thumb under the
“apron,” a piece of cartilage that extends from the crabs outer shell down
onto it’s belly. Once situated, he rolls his hand backward, removing the
shell with a grisly “pop,” sending contrails of boiling fluid arcing in
all directions. Into the shells cavity, he dumps the lungs, which he
scoops out in one easy motion.
Then, he snaps the body in half, exposing a maze of honeycombs and secret
chambers, each concealing tiny pockets of hidden goodness. Yellow
“mustard” oozes from unseen compartments, which he licks away without
hesitation. The large claws are quickly detached and set aside in a
special pile, “for later.” Then he removes the back fin, a large hunk of
white meat that comes loose with relative ease.
Most people eat the back fin the moment it’s freed from its nook – they
simply can’t help themselves. But my father places it gently off to the
side, a golf ball sized hunk of succulent temptation. Then, the work
begins. With surgical precision, he maneuvers his ice pick into every
hidden chamber, removing tiny pieces of unseen booty, and stacking them
neatly in separate piles. Nothing is wasted. A lesser enthusiast might
ignore these smaller bits, but not my father. While others eat while they
pick, my father waits until the crab is cleaned and gutted completely.
Only then will he enjoy the fruits of his labor.
For my brothers and me, the best part about eating these prehistoric
bottom-feeders is the temporary suspension of etiquette. Spattered with
random bits of flying fodder, we swing our mallets and slurp out the meat
with no fear of reprisal. Even my mother, who can make Emily Post look
like a drunken crack whore, will pick at her teeth with the tips of claws,
and spit tiny bits of shell back onto the table without apology.
Aside from the normal bleeding, there was nothing remarkable about our
last meal around the doomed table. No one fell on an ice pick. No one
smashed his finger with a mallet. In fact, the table was still standing
when the rain started, forcing us inside, and making June 18th, 1972 a
rather forgettable afternoon. Far more memorable, were the events
surrounding the day in question. Because fifty miles down the road, and
several hours before President Nixon’s First Official Father’s Day began,
five burglars were letting themselves in to the Democratic Headquarters in
The Watergate Office Complex. And even more interesting was another heist
that was about to occur in our own backyard - a spectacular felony that
freed my mother of the old picnic table once and for all.
It rained all afternoon, harder by the hour, and that night in bed, the
sound was so loud against the roof I had difficulty eavesdropping in my
usual fashion. Often, sounds and conversation from my parent’s bedroom
would filter up through the laundry chute, but it was hard to make out
just what I was hearing over the downpour. My father said something about
a “nasty looking broad named Agnes making her way up the coast.”
I took this to mean that another mysterious relative was dropping by for a
surprise visit. My Dad had one regular brother, three half-brothers, three
regular sisters, a step sister, a father, one regular mother, and a step
mother. Naturally, they all had wives and husbands and cousins twice
removed, giving me a family tree that looked more like a wall of ivy.
Agnes however, was not some long-lost Aunt. She was a tropical storm,
recently upgraded to a hurricane, and apparently headed our way.
The next morning, the sun didn’t rise. Black clouds and lightening filled
the sky, which seemed an odd thing to see while eating waffles. When the
wind began to blow, I had questions. “Dad,” I asked, “why are hurricanes
named after girls?”
“Go ask your Mother.” My father was glued to the TV, where a somber-faced
weatherman was discussing the possibility that Agnes might “make the
turn,” and enter the “mouth of Chesapeake Bay.” If that happens,” he
intoned, it’s “Katie bar the door!”
“Dad,” I asked, “who is Katie?” Anthropomorphisms confused me, as did
metaphors. Bays have mouths? Since when? Is this “Katie” friendly with
My father was not taking questions, and when Agnes finally arrived, there
was no time for answers. She was a most unusual June hurricane, and
indeed, a very nasty broad. She made the turn as feared, sliding into the
mouth of the Bay, slipping down her throat, and then, shooting over to
Trumps Mill Road, across the old wooden bridge, and straight up the hill
to our backyard.
For three days, the rain came down in buckets. I know this, because an
actual bucket blew through our front window. The babbling brook that
bordered our property no longer babbled; it bellowed. It seemed to be
saying, “I’m coming to drown you all, and wash your house away.”
On the second day, the creek jumped its banks, and slowly crept up the
hill, surrounding our farmhouse with brown, churning water. From the top
of our hill, we could do nothing but watch the floodwater rise. When the
electricity went out, our sump pump stopped working, and my father bolted
into the cellar, and began to bail furiously. I suppose we should have
been scared to death, but with my mother playing the piano upstairs, and
my father singing, “What Will We Do With a Drunken Sailor?” as he bailed,
things were more weird than frightening. Late that night, the rain let up
and the water started to recede. And when dawn finally arrived, we
ventured outside to see what Agnes had left behind.
Imagine a junkyard, inverted, and shaken. There were chests of drawers
with clothes still inside, and an empty cash register. An Oriental rug
dangled from the mulberry tree. We were entirely surrounded with flotsam
and jetsam, swept up from towns and neighborhoods north of Baltimore, and
dumped in our yard. Scott found a pogo stick and a naked mannequin, which
freaked him out. There was a bag of golf clubs in the flowerbed, and a
dead pig in the driveway. But it was my Mother who first spotted the
phenomenon in the front yard. There, beneath the old Maple, was a brand
new picnic table.
It was enormous – a majestic assemblage of white oak, painted a sensible
forest-green, and held together with man-sized bolts and twelve-penny
nails. Around one of its muscular legs was wrapped a heavy chain, which
stretched out behind it like a prehensile tail, giving it an animated,
renegade quality – a fugitive picnic table, on the lamb!It was quite
simply, the picnic table of my mother’s dreams, squatting serenely in the
surrounding detritus, inexplicably delivered to the precise spot last
occupied by its dilapidated predecessor.
The reality took a moment to comprehend, and judging from the way my
Mother’s mouth kept opening and closing, she was still in the moment.
“Michael. Go get your father.” I found my Dad on the other side of the
house, trying to explain the actual purpose of mannequins to my weeping
“Hey! Dad! Come quick! There’s a giant picnic table under the tree where
the old picnic table used to be and this one is really big and it’s gotta
chain hanging from it and you gotta see it!”
My enthusiasm must have intrigued him, because he left Scott with the
naked mannequin and followed me back to the Maple tree, where his wife
continued to regard the unlikely sight in much the same way that Moses
might have beheld the Burning Bush.
“John, can you believe it? It’s a miracle.”
Skeptical that a Higher Power would choose to bless him with outdoor
furniture, my Father approached the table warily, kicking its legs like
the tires on a used car. He appraised the attached chain, then spied the
stenciled lettering burned into the wood. Property of The Department of
Recreation and Parks.
“Don’t get too attached, Peggy – this table is Baltimore County Property.”
“Are you kidding? It’s in our yard, John. It’s under our tree. What do you
want to do, drive it back to its rightful BBQ pit?”
My mother understood the statistical improbability that such a weird
coincidence could occur in her own front yard. Given her daily prayers for
a new table, the sudden presence of this one suggested the work of a
Higher Power. If not delivered by the hand of God, it had clearly been
sent by somebody, and rejecting a heavenly favor or cosmic endowment
Alas, my father was not predisposed to consider the possibility of divine
intervention. Nor was he persuaded by my mother’s fallback position, which
argued that possession was nine tenths of the law. After much debate, he
called State Police with “information on the missing table.” Shockingly,
the officer who answered wasn’t up to speed with the specifics of this
“I’m sorry sir, did you say a picnic table washed up in your yard?”
“Yes, that’s right. A large, green picnic table. It’s very nice. I think
it belongs to one of state parks north of town.”
My father was perplexed by his lack of urgency. “Look officer, I don’t
think you understand. This is an expensive item. It’s also brand new, and
constructed of the very best materials. Somebody’s going to want it back.”
My mother weighed in from the other side of the kitchen. “Maybe the police
are a little preoccupied John - what with all the looting going on?”
Undeterred, my father left a detailed description and added, “I just
wanted you to know that your picnic table is here. And that we didn’t take
The cop took our address, and told my Father he’d pass the information on
to the park service, who would no doubt drop whatever they were doing and
send a couple of Rangers over at the first available opportunity to
retrieve the table.
“Yeah, well, you better send four,” he replied. “The thing weighs a ton.”
The next day was clear and beautiful, the way it often is shortly after
Mother Nature tries to kill you. Our house was trashed, and our yard
looked like an upside down dump, but underneath the lopsided Maple, there
was little to complain about. The Hurricane Agnes Miracle Table had been
scrubbed clean, and it was magnificent. My father conceded that using it
in the short-term was ethically acceptable, so five days after President
Nixon’s first official Father’s Day was rained out, we picked up where we
left off. My mother covered the smooth oak planks with pages from The News
American, onto which my father dumped a bushel of steamed crabs, piping
hot, and smelling of Old Bay.
For once, there was space to spare – and not just for the crabs. There was
room for potato salad and ears of corn and thick slices of ripe tomatoes,
fresh from my grandmother’s garden. There was also room for my
grandmother, and my grandfather, as well as my brothers and me, a
second-cousin whose name I don’t recall, and a mannequin named Molly that
Scott had grown weirdly attached to.
And of course, there was room for my Father, who sat uneasily at the head
of our new table, waiting for the park rangers to come speeding up the
long driveway to reclaim their missing property. Naturally, the rangers
never came, and over the years, he would come to see the table as his own.
But 37 years ago, his good fortune was tempered with worry and gratitude –
two qualities that continue to define my Dad.
That’s how I’ll remember the third week of June, 1972. Steamed crabs, a
flooded basement, a break-in at The Watergate, and a picnic table that may
or may not have been sent from above. It was a confusing time for a
ten-year old, but thankfully, my father was there to explain it all as his
family dined al fresco, in the style to which we had become accustomed.
This Father’s Day, another table full of steamed crabs will mark the
occasion. And even though I can’t be there with him, it makes me smile to
know that each one will be picked clean, and not one morsel left behind.
Father’s Day, 2010
Cute story, but Fathers Day was Sunday June 18, 1972.
Hurricane Agnes did not hit Baltimore until June 21/22.
Frankly, the father in this glurge comes off as a total jerk. You'd think he spent more on repairing the dangerous table than he would have on a new one, and he's so indifferent to his family's feelings.
ETA: In fact, he says the day after the hurricane was five days after Fathers Day, which would make it the 23rd.
Well, he also says it rained for three days, and I looked up a retrospective and it said that we did not have rain here until the 20 or 21st. (ETA: As you point out, it could have been the worst on the 21 and 22m, and then they find the table on 23.)
But anyway, the thing was so long, that I did not mean that as "no way, could not have happened," but rather that the story was embellished, memories filled in. Mike was 10 that year. Maybe it rained on Father's Day, maybe not and he is combining memories of dinner two day's later being rained out. It would have been summer vacation, so a 10 year old would not have had the cue of school days to keep track of what day it was, especially in a distant memory. A bit of a joke- there''s this long story and I'm all "Sorry, it did not rain until Wednesday."
Not very glurgy, even when you consider the "heaven sent" table that came in on the tide.
Yes, there's memories of the dad's ramshackle table that he kept "fixing up" but no real sentiment over "oh how I treasured that old table more than the shiny new ones of today!" just family reminiscences and frustrations. Sure the dad keeps trying to repair his run-down table, but it's told in a believable if light-hearted way. Even the father's concern is honest, don't know how much a public picnic bench costs but it can't be cheap; the family gets to keep their find not because "God Will Provide If You Just Let Him!" but probably bureaucratic oversight/lack of interest.
About the only thing even close to glurge are that the memories of the slapdash table are unique, and that the dad's reluctance to buy another table until the flood let the replacement one be all the more fitting. But there's no appeal to JAY-zuz, no puppies or rainbows, no last-minute rescues in the storm. And he described the last picnic without sentiment, just remembering the food, yum!
Whether all the details are correct or not doesn't worry me. It's a nice story, sort of, hardly worthy of being glurge. Anyone wanna try to rewrite it as such?
Steamed crabs, mmmm.
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