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
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
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
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
“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