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Sad Story


    Somewhere there is a black and white photograph of Jackie Russell taken the first day I met him. In this old black and white photo self-consciousness shows in his eyes which are averted from the photographer. Otherwise it is an unusual photo of him. He wears a sports coat, no hat and holds a pencil with its eraser touching the perfect bow of not quite pursed lips.

    For a newspaper, the description of a photograph is in the present tense. The cutline sustains the action. Even if the photograph is centuries old, its description is of its current depiction, even if that which it depicts no longer exists today.

    It is perhaps merely this that makes old photographs seem poignant. Makes us keep them. Makes them worth a thousand words.


    “His is a sad story,”  Joseph Norris intoned the day that photo was taken. We sat side-by-side in cold metal folding chairs. He looked up at Jackie Russell. First time I’d seen Jackie Russell. Joseph Norris hung his head. His arms draped over his thighs and he looked at the lean reporter’s notebook held in one and a pen held in the other of his dangling hands.   “A very sad story,” he repeated and slowly shook his head.

    Joseph Norris is an authority on local sadness.  He sings woeful ballads of the disappearing Chesapeake culture and munificence.  He writes prodigiously of St. Mary’s County’s losses. He calls it The County. He carries about himself a moroseness and appreciation thereof. At barely 30, he was a tradition, under his belt a decade in local print on the subject of all that was gone or headed that way. History.  Regina Combs Hammett in an uncharacteristically vague statement of pedigree in her inestimable History of St. Mary’s County, Maryland 1634-1990, describes Joseph Norris as a man “whose genealogical roots reach back to the colonial period of St. Mary’s County history.”

    Joseph Norris is indexed four times in her History. Jackie Russell once. I am not mentioned.

    Nevertheless, the November Friday that Joseph Norris, Jackie Russell and I attended the Potomac River Fisheries Commission was history of a sort. It was the only day that WPTX radio station paid two news department salaries. Half day for Joe, outgoing news director. Half day for me. Incoming. The promos flipped at noon. “She is Southern Maryland News,”  blared across the Potomac into the Happy Clam restaurant where the luncheon debriefing quite naturally followed each quarterly meeting.

    Joseph Norris was returning to print on Monday.  “To the Enterprise,” he moaned, “like I said I’d never do.”  He continued chewing the tortuous decision over again and again. Demanded by fiscal necessity, wresting in his first divorce, debased into philosophical crucifixion.

    The Beacon, I learned from Joe, was The County’s true paper, The County’s first paper, the Mother County’s only paper in what passes as continuous operation since 1839. I learned this that day from Joseph Norris and it is all confirmed in Hammett’s History. There has been a bit of name changing for The Beacon and if the true facts were told, there were publishing gaps for various financial and legal circumstances. Not even the Civil War and the two-year imprisonment of its editor for treason had destroyed The Beacon. It took the Enterprise and investors from what was still considered in the 1980s nothing more than an upstart community – Lexington Park.

    “They bought it to shut it down,” Joe’s voice rose, “Kill the competition.”

    The culprit company from up-the-road had purchased both papers, The Beacon and the 50-year younger and more profitable Enterprise and briefly published both. Within a year they would fold the gentler one, the older one, the one that still paid homage to the roots of the county.

    “The Beacon,” Joseph Norris said the name softly. “Killed for profit.”  He took a bite from his soft crab sandwich and chewed and chewed and chewed.

    Little fried legs stuck out around the bun and when he bit far into the sandwich the mayonnaise squeezed out around his mouth and their crotches. I looked away, trying to see if Jackie Russell sat in the other room.

     None of the county’s many historians took the death well.  “The final issue of The Beacon was dated August 9, 1984,” Hammett wrote in her History. “This issue contained no notice that it was the final issue. Neither was its demise noted in the pages of its rival, The Enterprise. The death of St. Mary’s County’s oldest newspaper, that had survived for 145 years, went unannounced.”

    Even if that ancestral grievance could be put to rest, the Enterprise’s mutiny of 1952 was still fresh in living memories of the 1980s. That was when the county’s second oldest paper left the county seat of Leonardtown and headed for the new money flowing from the U.S. Navy into its newly minted surrounds: Lexington Park. This was the first new money to flow through St. Mary’s County since the Storm of ‘33 knocked out the steamboat wharves and the peninsulas’ economy.

    Hammett calls Lexington Park the “godchild” of the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, quickly nicknamed Pax River without any sense of irony whatsoever. The base, built to train the Navy’s first test pilots, was commissioned in 1943 on Cedar Point where the U.S. Navy commandeered 6,400 acres of fertile farms and forests at the mouth of the Patuxent River and the Chesapeake Bay.

    Oystermen called this bay shore “the Gold Coast.”

    Indeed.

    The federal money proved steady. In 1963, four years after Charlie Molitor bought the Enterprise, he moved it into one of the first of the retail strips destined to define Lexington Park and ultimately the skeletal highways of all rural America. In 1984 that little strip with its bowling alley, construction company and newspaper perched almost alone among farm fields. Charlie’s office, and the newsroom at the time, looked out upon the spine of St. Mary’s County where the highway engineers sited the road destined to carry the largess of the U.S. Treasury into Pax River.


    The loss of The Beacon was as raw to Joseph Norris the day that photo was taken of Jackie Russell as was the day 350 years before when Lord Leonard Calvert’s family and friends stumbled off their ships after seven months at sea and fell upon an island in the Potomac, onto the land of the Free World. It was salt in the wound to local historians that the death of The Beacon would coincide with Maryland’s celebration of the 350th anniversary of the Calvert gang’s arrival in the Mother County of Maryland.  

    When The Beacon’s staff was expected to transfer to the Enterprise, Joseph Norris had quit in protest and become news director – that would be the entire news department – at WPTX. He had explained a surprising amount of this – including the details about the Calverts – that morning at 4 a.m., while he showed me how to work the audio switches in the closet where he broadcast the news. And where, on Monday, I would broadcast the news.

    It really was a closet, lined in orange shag carpeting. Standing at the opened door I got my single demonstration of the broadcasting portion of the job. Half the seat of a metal folding chair stuck beyond the doorway, its back snugged into the closet’s right port. A microphone and mini-panel sat upon a shelf set up in the left port. With the door shut it was the broadcasting booth of Southern Maryland News.

    The radio station had not been all he’d been promised, Joe explained to me, shaking open the Wednesday edition of the Enterprise and preparing to read the news on the upcoming hour’s report. And the money couldn’t support a single man. His ex-wife, he explained, had a much better paying job at the local nursing home. All that was over.

    Bowing to financial pressures, he was heading back into print. He pulled his knees into the left portal and shut the door behind him.

    I stood in the hallway and heard him read and turn the pages of the two-day-old newspapers. While I have no idea what the stories of that day were I can pretty much guarantee there would have been a fire or fatal automobile accident and at least one other police report of some kind, a story about a local county commission vote approving more land for construction, either a good news or bad news school story and, since it was Joe, an ag report of some kind off the wire. Or fish. This day it was likely the announcement of the upcoming fisheries meeting.

    “It’s good on Wednesdays,” he told me when the closing bars of the “He IS Southern Maryland News” promo played and he opened the door, unfolded himself from the closet and joined me in the hall.  Wednesday was the day the Enterprise published so the local stories were fresh. “But you’ll have some good local stories for Monday,” he assured me. We were to meet up again at 8 a.m. for the Potomac River Fisheries Commission meeting held in Colonial Beach, Va., a two-hour drive but right across the river as the radio beams fly. “Probably the most important story you’ll face,” Joseph Norris told me.

 

    I located Joe in the first row. Sliding into a seat next to him I jumped when my skirt slid up and my thigh made contact with the cold metal folding chair. I realized I was the only woman in the room. At the far wall a bank of white men faced the room. They sat across the width of three tables pushed together end-to-end. Behind them, sitting off to the side next to the wall, I spotted one other woman. She was also taking notes.

    Behind us sat 40 or 50 men, mostly with their hats in their hands but a few with caps affixed atop their heads that they’d methodically take off, punch or fold about a bit with their hands and replace. They wore mostly old clothes, outdoor clothes, long-sleeved shirts and heavy woolen vests.  Some held thick coats in their arms wrapped tightly around their chests. They were brightly clothed above their underpinnings of gray and brown and scuffed workpants, creased and greased.  Their shirts and coats and hats filled the room with tufts of bright red, faded hunter green and flecks of yellow-gold.

    I wouldn’t have noticed that day, but there would have been no blue. No blue beyond faded denim.  A bad luck color aboard a boat, blue is.  As bad of luck as carrying a women aboard I have had occasion to learn since.


    The watermen were all a sad story, Joseph Norris had told me before we left The County. Their way of life was disappearing. The oysters were dying. None of the fish populations were what they used to be.

    “Who’s that?” I asked Joe, squirming to warm the seat.

    “Jackie Russell. He’s one of the saddest stories yet.”

    He didn’t look all that sad to me. He looked, actually, to be in pretty good shape.  Jackie Russell had the round face of a little boy with a couple broken blood vessels to enhance rosy cheeks.  A small curl actually did curl down the middle of his forehead. As I believe I mentioned, he had lips like a bow when he pursed them together in a pose of attention. But usually he was grinning. He had a quick smile and bestowed it widely, speaking to nearly everyone in the room. He moved smoothly through the rows of chairs, suddenly up from his seat at the front table to grab a man’s upper arm and clasp his hand in a pumping shake, then startling me only a row away, pulling another man near to whisper something short before leaning back with a guffaw. Straight, white teeth. He’d throw his head back when he laughed. He’d reappear behind the table, his arm around yet another man. Shaking hands. All the while smiling, laughing.

    “He doesn’t look sad,” I said to Joe.

    “He’s from The County,” Joe said in a mournful tone.  “He’s local,” Joseph Norris said of Jackie Russell.

    “Oh yeah?” I said. “Local, like St. Mary’s County?”

    “Oh yeah. More than that. St. George Island. He built a skipjack.”

    “Uh, huh,” I said, looking finally from Jackie Russell and registering a blank look for Joe Norris.

    “A skipjack,” Norris said, lifting his arms up from their dangle in a struggle to convey to me the colossal nature of such a thing. “First one built in half a century. The Dee of St. Mary’s. A boat. A big boat. A big working boat.  A wooden sailing boat.”

     Joseph Norris was upright in his sea. “She’s the youngest vessel of the last commercial sailing fleet of North America.”

    “Uh, huh,” I said, looking back at Jackie Russell, who was still not looking back at me.

    It’s even possible Joe Norris told me the whole skipjack story that day, that first day I saw Jackie Russell. But I don’t remember Joe telling me the story of the skipjack. I only remember Jackie Russell telling that story.


    “We had about 3,000 head down here that day,” Jackie Russell’s face lights up still today, remembering that day in 1979. He’ll draw himself from even the peace of sleep from even the fury of interruption and turn immediately back to that most exhilarating of days nearly half his lifetime ago. “ ‘National Geographic’ was there, but the fella who’d followed it couldn’t be there that day and the pictures got rejected and that was why we never got in ‘National Geographic’ magazine.

    “All the politicians were there, big hoop-de-la for Piney Point. And of course after they couldn’t get the boat off everybody went up to Swann’s and got smothered drunk. Except me. I slept on the boat that night.”


    A roughly treated, large color photograph of that day is perhaps one of those rejected. I found it at the bottom of one of the drawers of Dee memorabilia in the trailer’s closet-bedroom. It must have been shot during the smothering. Jackie Russell is alone on the stern of his new boat, looking down at her V bottom wedged in the muck of a low tide. Aground. He is centered in the heart of the photo, small aboard his big boat. A cap pulled hard over his head. An arm checkered in a woolen jacket dangling from the rail. He does not see the photographer.

    You want to think it is a funny picture, but of course it isn’t. But it isn’t foolish or pitiful either. The most appropriate caption would seem to be, “What is wrong with this picture?”

    “It floated off,” Jackie Russell continues. “It was three days later. We got a high tide, a sou’ easter’ and a high tide. It was lightly snowing and the fellow who was married to Anita Evans, I can’t remember his name. Doug. He was at the school and got a wet suit and cut the chains loose and pulled them loose from the fifth wheel and the boat floated off. We got her off December 19th and it was lightly snowing. I think we tried to launch it the 16th and we couldn’t get it off. The deal was, I think the deal was, the wheels were all in a line.”

    He sits up in bed, staring into middle space, seeing the scene yet again.

    “Really why we couldn’t launch that boat, all the trailers were in a line and there was an old boat ramp there at Swann’s and somebody had been digging some manoses out of that boat ramp, that concrete boat ramp. And as those wheels went off the boat ramp one behind another she bogged down right at the end of that ramp. And it might have even been an old piece of concrete at the end of that ramp got caught up.

    “And the tug boat the Susan Collins couldn’t pull her off. They had the tug boat up at Lundeberg School and the tug boat couldn’t even pull her off into the river.”


    I didn’t get the story that day. I couldn’t even pull that glad-handing man’s eyes to mine that day. That day I was too far away to get the story. To get that story. But I got the drift, which was more than Jackie Russell got as I tried again and again to catch his icy blue eyes and suspected for the first and not for the last time that he might be pointing them steadfastly away from me.  “Well,” I said, determined, not for the last time, to not take it personally, “he doesn’t look sad at all to me.”  

    “But it is a sad story,” Joseph Norris insisted with his hanging, shaking head. “He built this beautiful boat and then him and his wife split up.”

    “Well,” my head jerked up and I tried yet one more shot at those icy eyes. “Well break my heart.”


at the dock




Powerful