In the last quarter of the 20th century St. Mary’s County Maryland still had outhouses, tobacco farms, fishing villages and plantations. One of the last live radio stations in America carried the only available daily news. There were a couple of traffic signals, a couple of dress shops, small community grocery stores and a Navy base that most military personnel considered a hardship posting.

Still, just as the first English settlers had determined 350 years before, there were always some who saw the remote and marshy peninsulas for what it is: a marketable paradise.

Sunday, April 1, 2012


     It’s more than a quarter century now I’ve watched and written about this dwindling handful of watermen parading themselves and their vanishing culture, resignedly and relentlessly before governing councils, scientists and their incoming neighbors of far deeper draft boats.
     “Indeed by God!” and “Christ may kill me,” they’ll sing, their lilting vernaculars lifting even their cursing to Shakespearian levels.
     I have seen them fall to their knees their clenched hands raised in mock prayer.
     Science, bureaucracy, progress and diplomacy fail to inspire in the face of a man resembling a Paul Bunyan icon with broken blood vessel cheeks crying and raising his calloused, stained and torn hands to the sky, “’Tis thee ways of my daddy and his daddy and his daddy as weil.”
     I have seen them sprawl across podiums, sweep chairs aside row by row upon their approach. I scratched out quote after quote of their increasingly irrational pleas for reason.
     They make for incredible copy. They say ludicrous things. They say uncanny things. They know things. Things about natural order and secrets about nature itself, like where a spring of freshwater bubbles out of the bottom of the Potomac River. Really. It is as David Sayre said, a mason jar could catch a fresh drink midst crabbing if you timed it right.
     They can make electricity from gasoline engines and from batteries. They can put food in their families’ bellies. Most can cook the meat, fish and fowl they bring home. Most can cook it well.
     They are dinosaurs. But they are not reptilian in thought. Even those not particularly clever are savvy. Most of them, by the time I started taking notes, knew one another or knew of one another, or of a cousin, brother. There weren’t all that many left, even then.
     Jackie Russell stood out among the pirates. For pirates they were and they remain an uncooperative lot, distrusting, clannish, unforgiving and un-forgetting.
     “Quick, get that basket in the cabin,” Jackie hissed at me the day he first took me trotlining. “In the cabin,” he hissed again and kicked the basket forward. Its lid bulged, the basket packed so full of jimmy crabs. Tossing a basket lid on a partial basket of females he jerked his head to indicate I should lift it onto the full jimmy basket now secured in the cabin. When I did he shut the door with his foot.
     All this time he’s speeding toward another boat, the broad smile on his face never faltering despite his abrupt and impolite commands to me.
     “Latch the door,”’ he said to me, “ and don’t say anything about them,” he added before coming alongside the other man, who, as I thought to be the point, cased me up and down. I smiled. Took his photo. Wrote his name down. Jackie puffed up his chest.
     “Got a good run over at Tarkhill,” Jackie said, and shook his head toward the single partially filled basket in the boat and the one full basket toward the stern. “How’re you doin’?”
     “Comin’ back from Windmill Point,” said the other man, shrugged over at a pitifully small catch and they pushed off from one another and went along.
     “That can’t be enough for him to keep crabbing?” I asked.
     “Hell, he had five baskets in his cabin. I’d like to know where he’s been working.”
     “Windmill Point,” I offered, just as puffed up as he’d been.
     "He hasn’t been near Windmill Point all day. Sonny’s workin’ over there and I just talked to him.”
      I met Jackie Russell as he turned 40 looking a decade younger. He dressed like Marlon Brando on the waterfront, only dirtier. Fish guts, dried paint, sweat, the smell of crab crap or oyster mud, depending upon the season. Like a mechanic, his hands never come clean.
     He will grab your shoulder, open wide his eyes and poke their icy blue gaze into your face. He can grin hugely or purse his lips tight when he tells you something in a high pitched laugh or in a hissing growl. Regardless, whichever voice, whatever the tale, you believe him. You believe him with all your heart.

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