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just before it's gone

Hoot and Holler
Albert Poe

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Just Before It's Gone

   In 1984 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 many considered a hardship posting. Still, as the first English settlers had determined 350 years before, some saw the remote and marshy peninsulas as a marketable paradise.

 A parade of those visionaries appeared every other week before a  volunteer planning commission winning land-use approvals that would virtually erase that bucolic world within a couple of decades.

Those were the decades I wrote about St. Mary’s County, the years just before it disappeare
d.



Hoot and Holler

         Jackie Russell tagged his daughters Hoot and Holler the day the younger came home from the hospital. He’d bundled the infant and toddler into the skiff and carried them across Island Creek to introduce the new one to his brother.

        By the time Hoot and Holler could balance on a step stool Jackie Russell stood them at an old kitchen table set up on the screened porch off his aging trailer. There the girls began by wrapping and worked their way up to cleaning the freshly shed soft crabs their father carried up from the coppered lumber floats he tended fifty feet from the kitchen door.

        In just that snippet of their young lives it became clear that they would be the last native-born St. George Islanders to live upon the waters that surrounded them.

        This isn’t to say they couldn’t return to St. George Island. Raise families. Bestow the lineage unencumbered. But it would not be the inheritance Jack Russell passed on to them. It would be only the legacy. The traditions, they are already gone.

 

Albert Poe

It is their father’s maternal grandfather, Albert Poe, who conveys sixth generation indigenous stature to Hoot and Holler. Though buried decades before their birth, Albert Poe lived vividly through their childhood, still able to fuel vibrant family feuds in the kitchens and boats of their aunts and uncles and cousins and grandmother.

Albert Poe’s fame grew as they approached middle school, when oral histories came into local vogue. The pioneer of these histories dubbed Albert Poe a “legendary character” who peppered a wide array of stories from St. George Island.

Among the wide array, old timers on the island agreed, Albert Poe was odd.

For one thing, Albert Poe could read. That was at least unusual in the first third of the twentieth century on St. George Island. And each week he read aloud the newspaper to his neighbors.

Most everyone liked him, it seemed. Even more important he knew things, important things. Like where best to lay traps for meat and skins, where to drop crab pots for the best catch, where to drag chain for oysters. He knew when and where to dig a mess of piss clams, if anyone should want them. He knew when it would rain to harm a day’s work and when it would only hinder. He knew when the fish were in and where they would school. He died in the state mental institution in 1963.

        “Vitamin deficiencies,” his eldest daughter would say with a shrug two decades later and keep on with whatever chore occupied her. “They didn’t know about any of those things back then.”

        A framed, black and white photograph of Albert Poe, skinning something spread across newspaper upon a kitchen table, sits on my husband’s dresser.  He is an older man in the photograph.  Not too old.  He is smiling a small, nice smile.  He looks nice.

        His daughter called him Daddy to her last breath.  Her youngest son is his embodiment.  So goes the talk.  So grows the legend.

at the dock




Legends