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

Sad Story

Somewhere there is a black and white photograph of Jackie Russell taken the first day I met him. In this old black and white photo self-consciousness shows in his eyes which are averted from the photographer. Otherwise it is an unusual photo of him. He wears a sports coat, no hat and holds a pencil with its eraser touching the perfect bow of not quite pursed lips.

For a newspaper, the description of a photograph is in the present tense. The cutline sustains the action. Even if the photograph is centuries old, its description is of its current depiction, even if that which it depicts no longer exists today.
It is perhaps merely this that makes old photographs seem poignant. Makes us keep them. Makes them worth a thousand words.

“His is a sad story,” Joseph Norris intoned the day that photo was taken. We sat side-by-side in cold metal folding chairs. He looked up at Jackie Russell. First time I’d seen Jackie Russell. Joseph Norris hung his head. His arms draped over his thighs and he looked at the lean reporter’s notebook held in one and a pen held in the other of his dangling hands. “A very sad story,” he repeated and slowly shook his head.
Joseph Norris is an authority on local sadness. He sings woeful ballads of the disappearing Chesapeake culture and munificence. He writes prodigiously of St. Mary’s County’s losses. He calls it The County. He carries about himself a moroseness and appreciation thereof. At barely 30, he was a tradition, under his belt a decade in local print on the subject of all that was gone or headed that way. That morning at 4 a.m. he showed me how to work the audio switches in the closet where he broadcast the news. And where, on Monday, I would broadcast the news.
“It’s good on Wednesdays,” he told me when the closing bars of the “He IS Southern Maryland News” promo played and he opened the door, unfolded himself from the closet and joined me in the hall. Wednesday was the day The Enterprise published so the local stories were fresh. “But you’ll have some good local stories for Monday,” he assured me. We were to meet up again at 8 a.m. for the Potomac River Fisheries Commission meeting held in Colonial Beach, Va., a two-hour drive but right across the river as the radio beams fly. “Probably the most important story you’ll face,” Joseph Norris told me.

I located Joe in the first row. Sliding into a seat next to him I jumped when my skirt slid up and my thigh made contact with the cold metal folding chair. I realized I was the only woman in the room. At the far wall a bank of white men faced the room. They sat across the width of three tables pushed together end-to-end. Behind them, sitting off to the side next to the wall, I spotted one other woman. She was also taking notes.
Behind us sat 40 or 50 men, mostly with their hats in their hands but a few with caps affixed atop their heads that they’d methodically take off, punch or fold about a bit with their hands and replace. They wore mostly old clothes, outdoor clothes, long-sleeved shirts and heavy woolen vests. Some held thick coats in their arms wrapped tightly around their chests. They were brightly clothed above their underpinnings of gray and brown and scuffed workpants, creased and greased. Their shirts and coats and hats filled the room with tufts of bright red, faded hunter green and flecks of yellow-gold.
I wouldn’t have noticed that day, but there would have been no blue. No blue beyond faded denim. A bad luck color aboard a boat, blue is. As bad of luck as carrying a women aboard I have had occasion to learn since.

The watermen were all a sad story, Joseph Norris had told me before we left The County. Their way of life was disappearing. The oysters were dying. None of the fish populations were what they used to be.
“Who’s that?” I asked Joe, squirming to warm the seat.
“Jackie Russell. He’s one of the saddest stories yet.”
He didn’t look all that sad to me. He looked, actually, to be in pretty good shape. Jackie Russell had the round face of a little boy with a couple broken blood vessels to enhance rosy cheeks. A small curl actually did curl down the middle of his forehead. He had lips like a bow when he pursed them together in a pose of attention. I mention this only because of the photo mentioned above. Because, actually, usually he was grinning.
He had a quick smile and bestowed it widely, speaking to nearly everyone in the room. He moved smoothly through the rows of chairs, suddenly up from his seat at the front table to grab a man’s upper arm and clasp his hand in a pumping shake, then startling me only a row away, pulling another man near to whisper something short before leaning back with a guffaw. Straight, white teeth. He’d throw his head back when he laughed. He’d reappear behind the table, his arm around yet another man. Shaking hands. All the while smiling, laughing.
“He doesn’t look sad,” I said to Joe.
“He’s from The County,” Joe said in a mournful tone. “He’s local,” Joseph Norris said of Jackie Russell.
“Oh yeah?” I said. “Local, like St. Mary’s County?”
“Oh yeah. More than that. St. George Island. He built a skipjack.”
“Uh, huh,” I said, looking finally from Jackie Russell and registering a blank look for Joe Norris.
“A skipjack,” Norris said, lifting his arms up from their dangle in a struggle to convey to me the colossal nature of such a thing. “First one built in half a century. The Dee of St. Mary’s. A boat. A big boat. A big working boat. A wooden sailing boat.”
Joseph Norris was upright in his sea. “She’s the youngest vessel of the last commercial sailing fleet of North America.”
“Uh, huh,” I said, looking back at Jackie Russell, who was still not looking back at me.
It’s even possible Joe Norris told me the whole skipjack story that day, that first day I saw Jackie Russell. But I don’t remember Joe telling me the story of the skipjack. I only remember Jackie Russell telling that story.

I didn’t get the story that day. I couldn’t even pull that glad-handing man’s eyes to mine that day. That day I was too far away to get the story. To get that story. But I got the drift, which was more than Jackie Russell got as I tried again and again to catch his icy blue eyes and suspected for the first and not for the last time that he might be pointing them steadfastly away from me. “Well,” I said, determined, not for the last time, to not take it personally, “he doesn’t look sad at all to me.”
“But it is a sad story,” Joseph Norris insisted with his hanging, shaking head. “He built this beautiful boat and then him and his wife split up.”
“Well,” my head jerked up and I tried yet one more shot at those icy eyes. “Well break my heart.”

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