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.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Jackie Russell Saga . . . continued . . .

.... additional episodes posted March 10, 17 and April 6, 2010 of this saga of two dinosaurs - waterman and print reporter .... I went searching for this particular piece from thinking about when watermen were watermen:

When I merely had designs on Jackie Russell, my Cape Cod brother-in-law told me,
"Fishermen don't know the difference between a woman and raw liver."

Indeed, women don't reckon for much on the Chesapeake Bay. To hear a waterman tell, they're bad luck aboard a boat and figure prominently in the three worst calamities to befall man: A leaking boat. A smoking stove. A nagging wife.

In self-defense, I'd heard only about the luck and the liver the day I endorsed gender bias for my editor.

He had walked past my desk and said, “If she asks, you have to tell her there are no waterwomen.”

“Waterwomen?” I trailed him across the bluish, threadbare, indoor/outdoor carpeting glued to the cement floor. “Who asks?”

"Mary Z."

The latest publisher. I joined the county’s newspaper of record in 1985. The buying and selling foretelling the end of what was then called legitimate journalism was well underway.

Mary Z had offered her initialized name acknowledging an awkward pronunciation. The newsroom had merely eyeballed one another. We'd never before dealt with last names, initialized or not. Or unless it was to denote by single name some so-christened reporter.

“Only if she asks,” my editor said. He was using his hands by now. They'd fallen naturally on top of an array of scribbled notes which he swept into a pile of privacy. These were the confidentialities he’d guaranteed safely ensconced, responsibly distributed, facts to be investigated. He expected his reporters could read upside down. When he opened his palms he offered a tight shrug. “I told her there were none. Absolutely none. None. Not a single woman working as a waterman on the Chesapeake Bay.”

The newsroom gauges the editor’s anxiety by the tightness of his squint. “There aren’t any, are there?” he asked. You could have blinded him with tooth floss.

“Why does she want to know if there are women watermen?”

“She wants to call them fisherfolk,” he said.

“Fisherfolk?” I squinted.

“Fisherfolk,” he said.

“She wants to call female watermen fisherfolk?”

“She wants to call all watermen fisherfolk.”

“No,” I said. No doubt a nervous giggle escaped. Or an expletive. “Oh, no. She wasn’t serious was she?”

“Yes. She was serious. She was very serious. Yes she was. I told her it was impossible, it was a traditional name of centuries, and she asked if there were any women.” He paused. “I told her there were absolutely no women working on the water. Not one in the entire Chesapeake Bay.” He paused again. "And that I would check with you."

I would never have another date with Jackie Russell if my newspaper called him a fisherfolk.

The editor was silent and we looked at one another with narrowed eyes.

“Jackie Russell would agree with that,” I said.

“Yes. That’s what I told her,” he said.

Everyone in the newsroom heard this. The editor’s office consisted of four partitions, a door and no ceiling. The box sat in the cavernous back stocking space of a cinder block retail shopping strip.
No one said a word when I returned to my desk, nor for the months that followed of Mary Z's tenure. But when Mary Z stepped foot for the last time out the glassed front door the whoosh of air hadn't yet reached the far back newsroom when a reporter called out, "She wanted to call watermen fisherfolk!" The newsroom cracked up.

Jackie Russell didn’t think it was funny. We would have seen one another the following Saturday night -- date night -- from whatever day it was my editor had sought gender guidance. Like poking at a loose tooth I naturally told him about saving the paper from fisherfolk. He didn't think it was funny at all.

Back when journalism was rated legitimate or non- we were the keepers of a very non-virtual century of our community's yellowing and crumbling archive of a world almost fully disappeared. We strove to shield the paper from ridicule from its loyal readers – the vanishing natives of St. Mary’s County – although few of them would believe such a thing of us. Many of our vanishing readers still considered “The Enterprise” the bastard paper. Thankfully indignation and outrage spurred them to plunk down increasing amounts of silver twice a week for the privilege of hating us.

We all understood why Jackie Russell wouldn’t think it was funny. Extinction isn’t funny. Coating a tradition as steeped in lore and legend as Chesapeake Bay watermen with something that sounded like a new display at the Small World ride in Disneyworld wasn’t going to translate well.

Back then the newsroom kept a bank of old filing cabinets with two drawers dedicated to the black and white photographs of people who made news. Many of the photos were still attached via rubber cement to stiff layout paper where every sentence and photo was arranged by hand less than five years earlier.

Back there, rifling through the "R" manila envelope, looking for a Raley or Ridgell, Jackie Russell manifested. The photo had been taken that first day I had met him, when I‘d just begun at the radio station, before I’d run thousands of miles away from St. Mary’s County and he'd called me back.

Later I would take the whole envelope back to my desk until finally I left the photo there. I eventually took it home. It was too old a photo by then to be newsworthy. By then Jackie Russell and I shared a home. I didn't write about the fisheries anymore. It’s probably still around here, somewhere. That photo.

When I first wrote down this fisherfolk story, during the years Jackie Russell turned from waterman to educator, I didn’t ask him again about fisherfolk. He can laugh about it now, the insult so far away the humor is more accessible. Still, I told him about the photo.

There was no point saying it was the day we met. Tell him instead the boat is leaking you want a reaction. “It was when you were chairman," I prodded, pushing at that loose tooth.

He thought back to the days he cast judgment upon the fisheries of the Potomac River and the watermen who made their livings from them.

“And we really thought we were doing something,” Jackie Russell said of that day, the day of that photo. He exhaled a heavy sigh before turning his back and asking to be spared any more narrative tonight, asking, instead for the peace of sleep.

“We really thought we were doing something,” he repeats and heaves his great sigh again, without self-consciousness, without awareness of his own melodrama.

“Trying to prevent this day from ever coming,” he says. “Right now.”