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Land Line
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once a reporter, always a reporter



but now I have a dog



island dispatches



Land Line


    I left Joe Norris mid sentence as my first fisheries meeting adjourned. I stumbled over chairs to reach Jackie Russell, introducing myself and asking if I could call him to learn more about all that had gone on that day. His fellow commissioners and watermen made no effort to step beyond earshot, relishing his discomfort.   “I’m workin’ out of Solomons’ next week,” he said. “I won’t be home much next week.”

    “Solomons? Great. I live right across the river.”

    The men yukked it up some more and he grinned some more. “Well it better be early. We go to bed early when we gotta set out by 3 or 4.”

    “I’ll find ya,” I told him.

    It was a pathetic interview. Conducted from the cabin of his skipjack that had a small TV sunk into the bulkhead blaring static non-stop. I clutched a Radio Shack tape recorder the size of War and Peace and an old microphone that looked like something from the Ed Sullivan show. I hadn’t the faintest idea what to ask. I was from Colorado.

    “It’s my middle name,” I chirped about the name of his boat. He didn’t respond. I left after a few hopeless attempts at conversation, common territory. It was an interview made for radio. Accented sound bytes apropos to nothing in particular. It delighted the new general manager.

    I kept it up when I could. I once interviewed him about something trumped up after finding his trailer on St. George Island and working up the courage to go to the door. I’d awakened him from a nap on the porch he was so proud of.

    “Just this one day of oystering these,” he said, sitting across from me on a picnic table that shared the porch with a single cot. He hefted gently and held hovering above the tabletop an oyster shell overfilling his hand. A few others of the shell’s remarkable size were prominently placed. “I built this entire porch from one day working on a single lump of these oysters. One day, a lump of oysters this size. Lick after lick. What a day. In the Choptank. Never could repeat it.  Went back time and again. Never had a solid day of oysters like this before or since.”


    More often I’d arrive at docks where and when I thought he would be off-loading and was wrong. I attended environmental summits where watermen were likely to appear. I got nowhere.

    I was approaching a year with the radio station when Governor Harry Hughes came to town and took a couple local fishing boats into the Potomac to dramatize the declining health of the Chesapeake Bay. Jackie Russell was on the Kathy Lynn with the governor. I was on the Mopey Rose.

    “Pull over there,” I told Mopey Smith and called out to the governor’s handlers.

    “Excuse me, excuse me. Sir?  Will all of the media have an opportunity to sail with the governor or only those you’ve picked?  I’m with the local radio station….”

    “Local” and “radio” are public relations code words for soft interviews reaching folks not necessarily captured in the daily press. The daily press’ job is not to accommodate the official line, editors want something outside the press release. General managers of radio stations just want the voices, official lines are fine.

    When I clambered aboard, the governor was at the stern of George Bean’s Kathy Lynn, built by Francis Goddard. Reporters and photographers were clustered around him. I headed forward and in the cabin found George Bean at the wheel. I walked over and stood next to him, looking out at the empty bow. Next to us I could clearly see the Mopey Rose’s crew grinning at George and me from across the washboards. George Bean is a man of a large grin and was holding it steady that day.

    “I thought Jackie Russell was aboard this boat,’ I said. George Bean threw back his head and laughed and laughed and laughed.

    “You did, huh?” he asked, finally catching his breath and wiping his eyes. He picked up a nearby net, rammed its end three times into the ceiling of the cabin. Jackie Russell’s face appeared upside down in the window next to George. “She thought you’d gone overboard,” he said.

    “Not me,” Jackie Russell grinned and swung to the deck, reaching out and grabbing the governor’s hand to welcome him to St. Mary’s County and the contagion began. First the governor, then the handlers and even the press corps were preening under his handshakes and back pats and his general ballyhoo.

     “She jumped ship on me,” Mopey told the bar that night.

     Kate Meatyard claims she has a photo of me in short-shorts and laughing while perched upon a bar stool next to Jackie Russell. It would certainly have been that night. Before I’d left for Mexico. That night he’d repeatedly asked if I could drive home all right and I assured him drink after drink that I could. And when the party broke up, late, I drove home convinced the courtship had begun.

     The next morning I ripped and read copy from the wire, unable at 4 in the morning to craft a story from my prior afternoon in time for the 5 a.m. report. It didn’t matter, the general manager never caught the 5 a.m. broadcast. I had the governor saying something running by 6 and was still glowing when the office secretary arrived at 8.

     “So you went out with him?” 

    “Not really a date, it was that governor boat thing.’

    “Yeah but was he there?”

    ‘He was there and I spent the night drinking with him in the bar.  I didn’t get home until after midnight.”

    ‘You went home?”  Shirl dropped her purse and nearly spilled her coffee as she fell into her chair and looked up at me in disbelief. “You went home?”

    ‘Yeah,’ I said. “Yeah, I went home.”

    ‘To your house?”

    “Yeah, I went home.”

    “You mean afterwards?”

    “No, that’s not what I mean. We partied at the bar, and I went home. We laughed and laughed and drank and I went home and he went home. Separately.”

    “Honey,” she’d turned from me and started off-loading lunch, magazines and sundries for the upcoming day. “County boys don’t ask you out again if you don’t spend the night.”  She clucked with genuine sadness. “Too bad, honey,’ she said as she sat, ready to start the business day.

    As a matter of fact, he did not call. Marisa did, however, in November with unexpected traveling plans. I considered. I considered into the week the Potomac River Commission was scheduled to hold its rockfish moratorium hearing.

    The hearing was a big deal, held at night and not in the commission’s office, but in a nearby high school auditorium large enough to accommodate an anticipated rowdy crowd of watermen, environmentalists, scientists, reporters and minor celebrities associated with the Save the Bay campaign of Maryland’s Governor Hughes.

    The hearing was merely theater, like hearings are. But the debate and show of the vote would prove a bellwether of the Save the Bay movement. Would the Potomac close its river to the premier recreational and commercial fin fishery of the Chesapeake? Maryland had. Virginia had not.

     It didn’t really matter, the vote count.  The National Fishery Service was expected within months to prohibit the taking of rockfish in the Mid-Atlantic region. What mattered was if the vote would split the tenuous alliance between watermen and conservationists. It did. Twenty-five years have produced little balm.

    The vote was inevitable; nevertheless, the caption for a photo taken of that stage in 1984 could have then and would still read, “The Potomac River Commissioners Take Pivotal Vote on Future of Chesapeake Bay.”

    In 2001 Maryland legislators discussed a blue crab moratorium in a hearing that did have some immediate economic relevance. Maryland Waterman’s Association’s long-time president reminded the delegates of the rockfish moratorium of 1984.

     “You brought back the rockfish, all right,” Larry Simns told them. “You might even be right that it was your moratorium that did it. Brought back the resource. But do you remember Rock Hall?  That’s where the men who used to catch rockfish sold their catch. That’s where the fish were processed and shipped. Rock Hall. Rock Hall, Maryland. Well, today, Rock Hall is a yacht basin. There is nowhere for that waterman to take his catch. You may have brought back your resource. But the fishery is gone.”

    The resource isn’t the same either. Rockfish returned to a life so stressful increasing numbers of those landed are covered with lesions.  Mercury levels are so high the health department recommends limited consumption.

    Twenty-five years ago the rockfish flashed briefly as a symbol for the suffering of the great Chesapeake Bay. On this one particular night it fell to Jack Russell to decide one river’s brief course of action. Save the men or save the fish. 

    There were late fall electric storms. It was raining and it was cold. The schism between the watermen and all the others – the scientists and environmentalists and bureaucrats – flashed and flickered like the phosphorescence in the nighttime wakes. There was eeriness. There was an ambience of embarrassment, an avoidance of eye contact.

    Suddenly a clique of people gathered, spoke too loudly and dispersed into an equally sudden vacuum of silence. Then another would form and fall away the same as the other. A silence fell as the commissioners entered from the wings and took their seats at a table center stage. Jackie Russell took his seat without a smile. They stared straight ahead and took testimony.

    Proponents. Opponents. One after another came to the microphone. The electricity sizzled. Unlike most public hearings the droning repetitions fueled the tension instead of burying it in tedium.

    It came tied, Virginia against Maryland, to the chair. Jackie Russell said little to explain himself. He could not vote against his brethren. He cast his vote with the Virginians, with his own species.

    Watermen stood and whooped and caterwauled to one another. Scientists shook their heads in a pitying manner, knowing they would win the day. They were quoted as sympathetic to the braying infidels, viewing them as unaware that they were only hurting themselves, seeing only the immediate consequences. Not planning for the future.

    Small verbal fights broke out. The reporters waded deeper in. Even for the reporters, back then, it was a great deal more than good copy. There was still time to Save the Bay. There was still time for watermen to redeem and revive themselves. There was still so much more to study and so much more to write about. There was still so much more time.

    There was not, however, much time left for me to let Jackie Russell know I was soon to sail out of his life, down the West Coast as it were; and to find out if this mattered at all to him.

    I’d seen him slip into the wings. I took a side door out of the auditorium and caught him in a back, beige hallway. There was a door at the end and I could see the rain was turning slushy.

    “Isn’t it a bit exhilarating,” I asked him, probably with no further preamble, “to be right there on the edge, looking at the fine line when a species goes extinction, to be last in line? I mean the watermen, not the rockfish.”

    He stood stock-still. People were loudly filing out the front entrances and their excited voices were somewhere in the distance, out of sight.

    He was so perfectly cast as the lone hero, cutting a swath through this great natural abundance of the picturesque. Photos from that time bear me out. I was poised with my tape recorder. My tingling anxiety at asking the question was spreading down my arms into my legs and starting to numb me.

    He gave me a dumbfounded look. The grin was not there. The eyes were not icy blue but starting to squint. It was as if he was in a kind of shock and transferring it into my increasingly tingling arms and slightly weakening legs. I was paralyzed by the transfixing silence surrounding his person and couldn’t take the step backwards I so desperately wished to take when he suddenly and simply said, “No,” and walked out the door at the end of the hall and was gone.


    I had first met Marisa on my solo-relocation trip from Colorado to Florida. She was vacationing with her cute brother and her Merchant Marine boyfriend who was upgrading in Florida. We’d traveled up the coast to her home town – St.  Mary’s County, Maryland, where I’d landed the radio job. I’d been at it for little more than a year when she invited me to fill-out a sailing crew for the maiden voyage of her and her boyfriend’s ketch.

    After the rockfish hearing I called and accepted. I met up with her in San Francisco within the month. We set sail for Mexico. Filling out the crew were a couple of yachtsmen down on their finances and up on their liquor. We made Cabo San Lucas by Christmas when the second one jumped ship. Marisa, her boyfriend and I sailed across the Sea of Cortez beneath a vast and empty sky.

    I soloed to Mexico City on buses. Saw the pyramids. Lost my paperwork and had to bribe my way out of Mexico City where I flew back to the States in March, to Phoenix, where my parents had retired.

    “Some man called for you,” my dad said. “He didn’t leave a name, just asked for you. He had, well, a Scottish accent.”

    I was on a plane to Maryland within the week. Jackie Russell took me to dinner and dancing the next Saturday and then every Saturday night for the next year and a piece.

    “How did you ever get my parent’s phone number?”  I asked at that first Saturday night dinner.

    Jackie smiled. All those pretty caps. “I just thought I’d throw you a land line,” he said.


at the dock




Fisherfolk