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just before it's gone
Hoot and Holler
How it Came to Be
Chinese Mud and Going Native
once a reporter, always a reporter
but now I have a dog
“My associates,” Jackie Russell welcomed me aboard his skipjack with a majestic sweep of his arm gesturing up the forward deck, just then being swabbed clear of the last of the oyster debris of the day. A half-dozen men, layered in rag-tag collections of shirts and jackets and rubber boots to their knees, glanced up from their task and acknowledged me with sudden grins, then looked quickly to the captain before returning to their tasks or sauntering off.
“I call them my Associates,” Jackie Russell confided to me, walking me aft. “It sounds better that way.”
Jack Russell was an egalitarian captain, well, as egalitarian as a captain can become. A huge snort of laughter bursts from him today as I write that.
“I can’t remember the name of the one who worked with Tynan Poe’s son, who, the two of them, beat up Eddie Poe so bad that time,” Jackie laughs. “He told me they were doing all the work and I was making all the money. He laughed.
It is two decades after that first Potomac River Fisheries meeting I attended with Joe Norris. Yet when anyone asks Jackie tells them we’ve been married 50 years. “Fifty-three,” he has taken to saying lately.
This day he is standing behind my chair as he changes quickly into shorts before his associates of this new day arrive; a girl scout troop out of suburban Virginia. He’s just taken a “whore’s bath” in our bathroom sink.
The bathroom sink two decades ago was a stainless steel bowl hung by a nail and secured with bungee cord to the side of the aft cabin he shared with Bones. “It’s a whore’s bath,” he’d described the bathing accommodations of the cabin.
Patting dry his underarms that he’d this day splashed damp with a smidgen of water from our sink he stops suddenly and flashes me another grin. “He killed hisself in a Leonardtown motel some years later. Wait a minute, his name will surface here. He’s the one who told me I was making all the money on the deal. ‘We’re doin’ all the work and you’re makin’ all the money Jackie Russell,’ he told me,” and Jackie chortles in delighted memory, picking up his feet one by one and drying between the toes. “I told him, ‘That’s not gonna change, you wanna go with me or not. You’re makin’ a wage and I keep you fed and put shelter over your head five or six days a week. Now, it’s your decision.’”
He laughs and sputters at the idea of making all the money and walks out of the room carrying the towel with him. He’ll drop it on a chair in the hallway or carry it down to the kitchen and drop it there. I will pick it up, later.
The aft cabin was an addition Francis Goddard made to the traditional skipjack design. While there is headroom to stand upright, it would not be confused with a stateroom. The two bunks tucked beneath decks on either outboard side of the cabin always look to me like slots for a six-foot wide, 12-inch high drawer. I did not identify them as bunks upon my first visit aboard. I have slept aboard, but never in the bunks. I have never even slid into one for the experience. They are the depth of a coffin.
Those days, back in the 1980s, Jack and the crew lived aboard Sunday night through a long Thursday workday and often through Friday afternoons, especially when the market was good through the holidays and New Year’s.
From a square cupboard in the forward bulkhead a small black and white TV continued to spew static with a strobe effect through the cabin: news, sports or weather. A daily and the local paper would have been at hand.
I was early on impressed at the degree he followed my business. I mean my professional business, the news business. I do not mean me personally. I confused that message in the early days, in the early years.
Starboard of the television sat a low, square table with stout legs and two corners sawed at 45 degrees to avoid catching hips. It is a solid table, heavy enough to withstand the rocking of the boat. It’s painted pink now and stenciled with morning glories and sits just beyond my desk on the sleeping porch. Then it was black and cluttered with dirty dinner plates, an alarm clock, a covering of paperwork ranging from junk mail to newspapers, charts and government documents.
The crew bunked in the fore cabin a farther cry from the comforts of the captain’s quarters as those quarters are from a stateroom.
The fore cabin consists of two passageways separated by the chest-high centerboard well running the cabin’s length. It appears as a thick, bulkhead of reddish wood, quite lovely, probably eight inches in width, smooth and solid. It is, in essence, a narrow, inverted well into the vessel. It cradles the centerboard when the skipjack is in shallows. The board pivots on an aft pin and is lower in deeper water to gain the vessel stability.
The kitchen nestled between the well and port bulkhead. I can’t remember. “A camping stove?” I ask.
“What we didn’t put in there, stoves, ovens,” Jackie tells me today, searching his memory, prepping for the Girl Scouts. “We ate good. We could bake chickens in there. Danny George was a wonderful cook. His mother used to make some of the best lasagna we ever tasted.
“Danny George was a good man aboard the boat. He really was. All of them was good. If they could stand what pressure we put on ‘em on they was good all right. Danny George, Tommy Blazer,” and he pauses searching for more names. “Tommy Blazer, good man, good man.”
There are also stories of men who threw their gear ashore as soon as the skipjack reached the dock after their first day aboard.
Up to six crew members could sleep in the trio of bunks lining the port and starboard bulkhead, head-to-foot from the forward bulkhead and running aft beyond the hatchway stairs and out of sight into the dark hold of the Dee’s mid-section where the rocks that gave her ballast were stowed among the hydraulic system that pulled her dredges aboard.
I recall only once glancing inside the forward cabin during the years the skipjack dredged. I looked quickly away. Although it was empty my glance felt immediately intrusive, as though I’d pulled open the wrong locker room door. I have a mental picture of food boxes and can goods and utensils resting on the top of the well and a collection of damaged pots and pans wiped clear but gleaming with remnant grease. Perhaps clothes hung about drying?
The next time I looked inside the forward cabin was after the Dee had turned whore and the kitchen replaced with a Sears & Roebuck camp toilet. Clean and Coast Guard certified by then. My mother sewed the tiny apricot curtains for the pair of portholes on either side. Within six years they mildewed and rotted and were never replaced.
Back when she was a working vessel, Bones, Jackie’s first mate, shared the captain’s cabin. In searching his memory, waiting for more crew names to surface, Jackie would never think to list Bones. Bones was the mate. Two children and 50 years of marriage later, I don’t come so close. Bones reads Jackie Russell two steps in advance without question or judgment.
Jackie named him. Bones was and remains a sack of bones strung with sinewy muscles capable of scampering up the bowsprit in January ice and in a ballet of improbably balance releasing a tangled jib line. He can still today swing sixty-five feet aloft with the same grinning disaffection. Longish blonde hair scattered around a beatific face full of too many teeth and complete sincerity.
“Yes ma’am,” he’d say to any question I asked. “Yes, ma’am.”
And as for Jackie, “He’s been good to me. He’s been real good to me. Give me a chance and I’m always ready to go when it’s time. I’ll always work on this boat. I’ll always help Jackie. I’m always ready. Yep. Yes Ma’am. Jackie’s been real good to me. Yes ma’am.”
Quickly giving me his seat at the black table, Bones swung up the hatchway steps from the cabin to the deck with the ease of a monkey. I gaped after him then turned to Jackie Russell’s voice through the static. “Can I mix you a smile?” he asks, gesturing toward bottles of vodka and pink grapefruit juice sitting on the shelves starboard of the stairs.
“Do we sail the boat on weekends,” he asks with his top pitched squeal and turns to plow through the basket of clean clothes upon which his dirty clothes rest. “Hell no,” he reverts to his captain’s voice. “If you’re a welder you don’t bring your welder home Saturday night.”
But of course, by this time, the time of the Girl Scouts, he works Saturdays. He works every day the skipjack can earn a dime.
“Only the strong survive,” he concludes, heading out the bedroom door.
“And dumbest?” I call after him. “Thickest headed?”
“Maybe only the thickest,” he says, acknowledging the cut. “Enough of that chapter,” he says, heading down to greet the Girl Scouts. “Write that down.”
It was a cold day and raining. Jackie was working solo. He was working Chinese Mud, named for the slick and sticky bottom below the Patuxent under Scientist Cliffs. I was working for the paper by then. I culled for him and took diligent notes and asked whose life was the harder, the waterman’s or the farmer’s?
“Oh, the farmer,” he said without hesitation. His arms and feet maintained a rhythm among a series of hydraulic lifts and machinery. A foot pedal raised and lowered a split cylinder, toothed and hinged. It opened and closed at the operation of a different lever at his feet. Using its upward momentum as the hydraulics snatched the full and latched cylinder from the water into the air, Jackie would reach out from the boat and swing the claw to the stainless steel culling board where yet another movement from his foot let loose the jaws.
A short bushel of oyster shells and other bottom dwelling junk dropped onto stainless steel counter between us. We faced each other all day in the rain, grinning and plucking legal-sized oysters from the pile as he danced with the hydraulic cords, the positioning of the boat, the raising and swinging of a boom full of a deadweight of iron and oysters, swinging it aloft and dropping it hugely and grandly over and over between us.
I was asking smarter questions by this time. I knew, for example, the difference between patent tonging and hand tonging. This was patent tonging which was merely cold, wet and mechanically dangerous.
Hand tonging was killing work. Brutal work. Solo work. A man would spend a day hand-tonging standing on the washboard of his fairly small work boat lowering a scissor-shaped apparatus with the half-cylinder claw at the business end of the sticks. The lowering required open and extended arms to keep the cylinder halves apart until they reached bottom. Pulling the sticks together drew the cylinder closed capturing a lick of oyster. Hand over hand he would pull the tongs to his knees, holding tight to bring the cage aboard and open the claws onto the culling board.
Men worked tongs 16 to 25 feet long from sunup to sundown sometimes as early as September until well into March. They worked from their teen years until they couldn’t work any longer. The night Snoopy sunk at the dock Jackie woke himself and me by whimpering in his sleep from the shooting circulation pains running through his arms.
Over-developed shoulder muscles. Over-developed hands and wrists. Circulation closed to a trickle as his over-worked body dropped night after night into deep and exhausted and nearly motionless sleep.
“Easier than farming,” Jackie insists. “The farmer’s got his land. A waterman can pick up and go if he can’t make a lick. A farmer can’t leave his land. Not for drought or rain or nothin’.”
He had slept the night Snoopy sank rather than return to the island, even though when the whimpering woke us he knew the wind was blowing harder than he’d expected when he’d docked the boat earlier that day. He said he should go and I set my pattern for a lifetime and said nothing.
I still thought I was smarter than I was. I didn’t understand why he’d named the boat after a cartoon character. He didn’t know what I was talking about.
“Snoopy,” he said in that tone that suggests I’m deaf, that my own bull-headedness is in the way of me getting the point.
“Yeah,” I said, bullishly. “Yeah, Snoopy, you know, the dog?”
“I don’t know anything about a dog. Snoopy, like snooping around, a quick little boat snooping around? Snoopy.”
He didn’t know anything about a cartoon character.
Jackie could do it, can do it, without the cinematic assist, without the gag. “Jackie is genuine,” Marisa once gushed in a moment of appreciation. I grunted. There is something of the trick to it. I can see it now looking as far back as that first interview when he opened his arm wide to introduce his Associates.
It is a smooth gesture that goes unnoticed once his eyes get you. He draws that inclusive arm back, his left arm, and then brings it forward to grasp your forearm in a near embrace, then suddenly blocking that embrace he swings his right hand around and reaches for yours and grabs that handshake to pull you in closer. He holds you face to face, and he’s just a little bit too close but he stays too close, shaking your hand, close and tight. Without quite knowing how, you’re too close for refusal, too off-balance to step back. Before you know it, you’re aboard, you’re a pirate too, you’re in his world and pleased with yourself. You’re possibly even lost to yourself.
“Welcome to St. George Island,” I hear my husband booming. “Come right over here, right over here, Eliza-breath. That’s okay, that’s okay, I call all of ya Eliza-breath.”
And pretty soon they’ll board his boat and he’ll regale them with stories, let them help raise the sail, clutch their leaders hands and sparkle his eyes at them all. They will forget the long drive and the misunderstood directions. They’ll come back next year.
He’ll take them out into the river and they’ll hear about Indians and oysters and the Chesapeake and St. Mary’s County. They’ll catch a glimpse of a place apart from all others, just before it’s gone.
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