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once a reporter, always a reporter



but now I have a dog



island dispatches




Legends

    Legends are easily made on the Chesapeake Bay, filled as it was in the early 1980s, with lone fishermen upon emptying seas. Watermen even then were the last true hunters of the continent. They were weathered, muscled and independent.  If they’d kept up their dental work they could make for attractive legends.

    Those few remaining in 1984 were sons of women who in the 1960s still ordered chicks through the Sears & Roebuck Catalogue to hatch the egg money that ran their households between seasons. When their mothers were girls, at least on the Chesapeake’s islands, laundry was carried by boat to the nearest mainland high enough above sea level for hand-dug wells to reach freshwater.

    In the early 1980s Chesapeake Bay watermen still made plentiful livings from a diminishing wilderness.  Cash bulged in their pockets.  They still held unquestioned dominion over the water and the shore. They were wily but direct and somehow trustworthy despite the air of piracy that clung a bit to them all.

    Their sudden standing in a legislative hearing could quiet the room.  They could strike the room mute by striding down an aisle.  One alone could fill a bar with ambience, with the nearly sexual smell of oily fish and ammonia.

    Jackie Russell was the living embodiment of it all.  Articulate and, abnormally, college educated.  He claims an island lineage from the English no-goods and stow-a-ways traveling beneath the decks of the Catholics who in the early 1600s sailed to the Calvert’s Merrye Lande of tolerance.  He makes the claim, and plenty of others, with still a piece of an accent of that long-ago England.

    It was mightily picturesque in the waning of 1983 to stumble upon a living legend.  It was, in fact, irresistible.

    “I’ve never met a man so popular,” gushes a current-day client, trying to charm me into a better cruising rate.  “For all the places I’ve traveled and people I’ve known, I tell you, I’ve never met anyone, not anyone, there’s just no one more popular.”

    “Yeah,” I tell him, “I know.”


    It’s more than a quarter century now I’ve watched and written about this dwindling handful of watermen parading themselves and their vanishing culture, resignedly and relentlessly before governing councils, scientists and their incoming neighbors of far deeper draft boats.

    “Indeed by God!” and “Christ may kill me,” they’ll sing, their lilting vernaculars lifting even their cursing to Shakespearian levels.

    I have seen them fall to their knees their clenched hands raised in mock prayer. 

    Science, bureaucracy, progress and diplomacy fail to inspire in the face of a man resembling a Paul Bunyan icon with broken blood vessel cheeks crying and raising his calloused, stained and torn hands to the sky, “’Tis thee ways of my daddy and his daddy and his daddy as weil.”

    I have seen them sprawl across podiums, sweep chairs aside row by row upon their approach.  I scratched out quote after quote of their increasingly irrational pleas for reason.

    They make for incredible copy.  They say ludicrous things.  They say uncanny things.  They know things.  Things about natural order and secrets about nature itself, like where a spring of freshwater bubbles out of the bottom of the Potomac River. Really.

    They can make electricity from gasoline engines and from batteries.  They can put food in their families’ bellies.  Most can cook the meat, fish and fowl they bring home.  Most can cook it very well.

    They are dinosaurs.  But they are not reptilian in thought.  Even those not particularly clever are savvy.  Most of them, by the time I started taking notes, knew one another or knew of one another, or of a cousin, brother.  There weren’t all that many left, even then.

    Jackie Russell stood out among the pirates.  For pirates they were and they remain an uncooperative lot, distrusting, clannish, unforgiving and un-forgetting.

    “Quick, get that basket in the cabin,” Jackie hissed at me the day he first took me trotlining.  “In the cabin,” he hissed again and kicked the basket forward. Its lid bulged, the basket packed so full of jimmy crabs.  Tossing a basket lid on a partial basket of females he jerked his head to indicate I should lift it onto the full jimmy basket now secured in the cabin. When I did he shut the door with his foot.

    All this time he’s speeding toward another boat, the broad smile on his face never faltering despite his abrupt and impolite commands to me.

    “Latch the door,”’ he said to me, “ and don’t say anything about them,” he added before coming alongside the other man, who, as I thought to be the point, cased me up and down.  I smiled.  Took his photo.  Wrote his name down.  Jackie puffed up his chest.

    “Got a good run over at Tarkhill,” Jackie said, and shook his head toward the single partially filled basket in the boat and the one full basket toward the stern.  “How’re you doin’?”

    “Comin’ back from Windmill Point,” said the other man, shrugged over at a pitifully small catch and they pushed off from one another and went along.

    “That can’t be enough for him to keep crabbing?” I asked.

    “Hell, he had five baskets in his cabin.  I’d like to know where he’s been working.”

    “Windmill Point,” I offered, just as puffed up as he’d been.

    ‘He hasn’t been near Windmill Point all day.  Sonny’s workin’ over there and I just talked to him.”

    “Do you think this is why no one believes you guys when you tell them you aren’t going to take the last crab?  You think those politicians are right that you can be trusted to police yourself?”

    “What?” he looks up, sly, very blue eyes and a great grin upon his face.  Good dental work.  Caps.

    “Lying to one another about the size of your catch, for God sakes,” I say.

    “That’s not lyin’.  That’s fishin’,” he said.

    Indeed.  They could chat all day on their radios, but even the most longwinded talkers never told much and were apparently lying when they did. Or they could turn it off.

     “I like being where all I have to listen to are the gulls and an occasional lawman,” Jackie Russell would tell me in an array of tones expressing anything from deep contentment to a stinging rebuff.

    I met Jackie Russell as he turned 40, looking close to a decade younger. He dressed like Marlon Brando on the waterfront, only dirtier.  Fish guts, dried paint, sweat, the smell of crab crap or oyster mud, depending upon the season.  Like a mechanic, his hands never come clean. 

    He will grab your shoulder, open wide his eyes and poke their icy blue gaze into your face.  He can grin hugely or purse his lips tight when he tells you something in a high pitched laugh or in a hissing growl.  Regardless, whichever voice, whatever the tale, you believe him.  You believe him with all your heart.

    “He is just wonderful,” women gush to me as they disembark from one of his skipjack tours.  “What a great teacher.  He is always smiling, always upbeat.”

    “Yup,” I reply.   “He’s like that every day.”  And they believe me.


at the dock




How it Came to Be