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Chinese Mud and Going Native
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once a reporter, always a reporter



but now I have a dog



island dispatches



    Chinese Mud and Going Native

    I took a picture of Jackie Russell the day he took me oystering on Chinese Mud.  Black and white.  That’s all we shot back then. Reporters took their own photos. They were of uneven quality.

    It was, of course, raining.  “Of course,” because there was a woman aboard, so naturally bad luck.  While this was early, very early in Jackie’s and my romantic relationship – perhaps so early he didn’t yet know it was romantic – it was long enough into our professional relationship that my luck on his boats had thus far involved unrelenting fog and a hurricane.

    In the photograph he is grinning.  Of course.  He’s peeking out from under a flopping sou’wester’ and otherwise covered in his oilskins. The photo could be titled, Paddington Bear Goes Oystering In the Mud.

    But, also, of course, this is only a photograph.  Its action is an immortal present tense, the pursed lips, the mastery of a dream, a huge and encompassing freedom. It may well be worth a thousand words, but it is not the story.

    It is a moment which will exist for as long as memory can hold it, may even eternally exist, who knows.  But it is merely a moment in the story.  For the story is not only glorious and grand, it is also a story of insurmountable loss.  The story is more akin to a keening for the last hunters.

    That is what Butch Cornelius called them. Himself for awhile. He’s left the business now. Of course. For there is no business. There are few men younger than Butch still in it and he’s close to two decades younger than Jackie.

    It wasn’t like that when Francis Goddard built Jackie Russell’s famous boat. Oystering was damn lucrative in a cash and hard working kind of way. Hard, physical work for as long as there was light. That was what he liked. In his prime, Jackie Russell commissioned the first skipjack to be built in 150 years. “Hell,” he told an oral historian at the time. “If those Eastern Shore men can do it, I can do it.”

    Francis Goddard built Jackie Russell’s skipjack the same way he builds all of his boats. “Out of my head,” he told me two decades later, trapped mid straddle around the huge mast he was repairing. He endured my questioning and deigned elaboration.  “Once I dream it, I can build it.”  And then he swung his leg over the prone mast and walked away.

    Skipjack formulas are exact.  The height of the mast is the sum of her beam and her deck.  Francis searched the Eastern Shore for the 76-foot tree needed by the Dee.  Only certain woods would do.  I would think a loblolly.

    “I would think,” Jackie Russell corrected me, “a spruce pine.  More dignified sounding, anyway, than an ole loblolly that’s everywhere.”  He explains this warily from our bed, not sure how bad or how good my writing of this story will be.  “For one, a spruce pine is a tall tree with relatively few knots, relatively slow growth.  You want it to have grown in dry times.”

    I get it.  “The rings are closer the smaller the annual growth?”

    “Yes.  Francis said it had to be thirteen rings to the inch to be strong enough,” he rolls over, I assume collusion is finished for the night but he surprises me and says, “Mine had seventeen,” he said without a hint of levity in his tired voice, “which makes for a good stiff pole.”

    That good stiff pole started out as a Virginian pine. Francis had been looking for one tall enough. Tight enough. George Bean towed it home to Piney Point behind the Kathy Lynn, also built by Francis Goddard.

    They tied the tree to the stern to float it home, unprepared for its great dives when it disappeared from view entirely for seconds that felt like minutes as they waited to see where it would rocket out of the water only to plunge again and again.

    The boom was a laminate. Jackie made the second boom in the back yard. It took ten men to carry it next door to the wharf. The old boom had two aluminum casts when decommissioned.

    The mast had one the first year we tried to hand the vessel over to a nonprofit. According to Jackie, clinker bugs had snuck beneath the metal and eaten at the heart of that pine. It was a dreadful discovery, trees of such size being rarer today than twenty years ago.

    Aubrey Mattingly’s son Travis plucked the Dee’s mast out of its 20-year cradle with a crane that looked the age and size of a brontosaurus. He plucked and laid it down in a horizontal cradle Francis had prepared.

    Small as a jockey, feet dangling, Francis straddled the Dee’s huge mast plucked from her heart and laid prone.  Jackie Russell turned his back as Francis dug the first clawful of rotted wood.  He came to the house and sat silently at the kitchen table before returning.

    Francis cut deep that day and day after day until he was barely shaving sawdust from the lengthening, but no longer deepening gouge. The rot fell short of the heart of that old spruce pine. Francis healed it and saved it.

    The boat sailed without a mast the first season of its transformation out of private ownership.

    “Clinker bugs,” Jackie sparkled at his classrooms, their parents, the teachers, the church outings that had sailed spring after spring, summer after summer for more than 15 years, since the Dee had turned from exploitation to prostitution. “Clinker bugs,” he said over and over the summer the skipjack, the Dee of St. Mary’s  the youngest remaining in a fleet of less than two dozen of the vessels, virtually all that remained turned finally to begging.

    “It was ate up with clinker bugs after 13 years workin’ her in the Chesapeake, out here in the wet and salt and sun year after year.  She just got clinker bugs, snuck in under the cast.  I had an aluminum cast put round her here at the foot of the mast,” and he’d strut up to the gaping hole where the mast was gone, and the diesel’s roar almost inaudible now that he had the crowd in the palm of his hand.

    He’s doing it now.  A woman’s, what, sobs? Her ecstasy floats into the window as I sit now, these twenty years later remembering and writing the rest of the story.  I get up and look out.  The Dee is whole again.  She sailed whole by the autumn term, but today is docked by wind. Still her party of failed cruisers gather around Jackie Russell.  He shows them Tommy Crowder’s winning 4-H exhibit of a pound net.  He throws his arms toward the creek and I hear him lilting, “I ain’t no damn smarter than those crabs,” and the women’s moans and groans blend with the men’s deep growl laughter.

    Paddington Bear Dances for the Crowd.

    I remember the day I took that photo another shot I failed to capture. I came home to Marisa’s house from that wet cold day of oystering, muddier I’m sure than ever Jackie Russell. The fire was roaring – it was the house’s only heat. I came down the hall to find her cute brother moving his head out of the refrigerator and into my surprised line of sight.

    “Hi,” he said. “I hear you’ve gone native.”

at the dock




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