EIGHTY YEARS LATER
The talons of the osprey held fast to a small speckled trout while the bird made a final approach to her preferred place of feeding at the mouth of the harbor. Her target was the top of a large, blackened piling that stood four feet above the waterline, a remnant structure of an old wharf that long ago serviced the river boats and fish steamers that once frequented the shores of Mathews County, Virginia.
Fifty years ago, skipjacks full of oysters and scallops bound for the restaurants of Manhattan would tie up two abreast at the wharf, competing for dockage with the pound netters in their deadrise fishing boats which would be loaded to the gunnels with flounder, spot, croaker and striped bass. Hard shell blue crab also thrived in these waters and was the stuff of steamed culinary legend from Boston to Charleston while the sardine-like menhaden was netted in vast volume, processed for its oil with its desiccated remains used for fertilizer in farms across the country. Back then, the world of the waterman was in its prime. The bay was full of bounty, and prosperity was in abundance. Those were truly the times of the high tide.
But prosperity, not unlike glory, is often fleeting and, in time, the fish, the oyster, the scallop and the crab left the bay. The nets became less full, the tide began to ebb and gone were the boats that once overflowed with the best the bay had to give. The well of the harvest had run dry and now, only a hardy few remained to ply the trade of the waterman. The once busy wharf that bore witness to man's capture of nature's good work, had burned to the waterline long ago and was never rebuilt, and the piling that occupied the osprey's attention now stood in silent testament to the bygone days of the feast, charred evidence of a time when the enterprise of the Chesapeake Bay waterman was king.
The osprey landed upon the pilings aged and rotted pinnacle, and ripped into the flesh of its prey while keeping her sharp eyes attuned to the affairs of her mate who stood like a sentinel aside the couple's nest. A well woven hodgepodge of sticks, feathers and sea grass, the nest served as the nursery for the couple's lone chick and was situated between the top of a day marker and the solar light that illuminated the red and green sign boards that directed boat traffic in and out of Harper's Creek Marina.
She ate ravenously, relishing the opportunity to gorge herself without the attention of the seagulls that, like hyenas, excelled at separating the primary predator from their kill. Bothersome birds to an osprey, gulls would often attack her from all sides in hopes of getting the female to release her meal and then, abandoning all pretense of the camaraderie that garnered the catch, they would fight each other like rats over the unlucky fish. Squawking and diving with beak slashing against beak, the fish would be torn to pieces, with the victor, usually the largest of the gulls, feasting on the lion's share of the carcass while the lesser mortals fought over the smaller hunks of meat that remained of the carnage.
Today, however, was an exception to the usual contest and for the moment, the large bird ate in peace for the gulls had no need to ambush a fierce and vicious opponent like a mother osprey on her mission to provide food for her young. On this particular morning, the flock's conniving as to how to satisfy their endless appetite was intently focused elsewhere as a familiar predator of another sort had now captured their attention and an easier go of mealtime was at hand.
Entering the harbor that morning was the Bay Lady, a thirty-eight foot fiberglass-over-wood workboat in pristine condition from bowsprit to transom. A classic deadrise design from an era long past, the Bay Lady was one of the finest boats of her kind on the Chesapeake Bay. Gleaming white with a Confederate flag posted off the stern, she sounded her horn to announce her return from tending the nets of her Captain, Coles Howard and her decks were covered in fish.
As the vessel made her way up the channel, she glided past the two ospreys who were now perched together on the edge of their nest. With their fledgling chick at their feet, both birds watched as the gulls swarmed the fantail of the boat, diving at the culled trash fish and scraps of bait left in its wake as the first mate, Jimmy Jarvis, cleaned the deck from the morning's work.
"Stop fuckin' around, Jimmy and get the lines ready," his captain barked. "You can take care of that bullshit later. I want her tied up quick and these fish off the boat and iced down within the hour. Get some of those jacklegs at the dock to give you a hand. Tell 'em if they work, I'll pay 'em fair. I want her cleaned up and her tanks topped. We got business tonight and I don’t want any screw ups. Make sure she's right."
And with that, Captain Coles Howard returned his attention to the Bay Lady and expertly brought her starboard to dockside. First mate Jarvis was faithful to the instructions of his captain and the lines were secured within seconds of the boats arrival at the dock. Coles Howard, six and one half feet of third generation waterman, leaped from the boat and walked towards the metal roofed building that served as ships store, wholesale fish market, purveyor of general merchandise and beer hall for the old timers. The sign above the door said "Harper's Creek General Store," but to the locals it was just "Harper's" and for the old watermen, it might as well have been the center of the universe. This is where life took place and if Harper's didn’t have it, well most folks said that you just didn't need it.
As he walked towards the old store, the soles of Howard's white rubber boots crunched against the sun bleached oyster shells that served as paving stones around the parking lot of the marina. It was a sound he'd been hearing since birth. He grew up at this dock, knew every inch like he knew his mother's face and had walked many a mile across these shells, first as a barefoot child and later while wearing the white boots that marked the waterman profession of his forefathers. For him, Harper's Marina was home.
His grandfather and his father before him had worked the water all their lives and docked their boats at this very same locale for generations. Howard had worshiped his grandfather and spent many an hour at his side, pulling crab pots, mending nets and cleaning the old man's boat from bow to stern. From his grandfather, he learned the importance of taking care of that which takes care of you. "Forget about your boat and she'll forget about you" the old man would say "and her memory has bad awful timing." A fifth grade education was all he had, but his grandfather was the wisest man in the world as far as the captain was concerned. Dead for twenty years, Howard could still smell his scent in the wind as the old man's mix of Old Spice after shave and Redman tobacco lingered indelibly in his memory.
Howard's older brother and their father had chosen a different path, but for him, the way of the water was something he couldn't resist. It was in his blood, having the freedom to be a man and to do man's work. That's what brought him to it. Hard and dangerous though it was, given that twelve foot waves and sixty knot winds can be on you in a second. But that’s when you feel the most alive. That's when you find out what you're made of.
The water was no place for the unsteady or for the uncertain and the graveyards of the local churches were keen testament to those who had tried and failed, at least to those whose bodies could be found. Many more were those who never came back, lost at sea with their stories untold. But dying at sea wasn't a deterrent for him. Better a risk it was to face death on your terms and at the helm of your boat than to face the prospect of no life at all behind a desk; and with all the certainty of time, tide and taxes, a shackled life of pushing paper at a desk wasn't going to happen to Captain Coles Howard.
For Howard, going through the front door of Harper's was like going back in time. Since he could remember, the store had never changed and sometimes he still felt like the seven year old boy who would sit beside his grandfather and the other old watermen who gathered at the store every day of the week, listening to the old men talk while drinking an ice cold Dr. Pepper.
Seating arrangements at Harper's was a carefully orchestrated affair. The younger men would usually stand or sit on one of a number of beach chairs the store's owner collected each year that the tourists would leave behind at the end of the season. The eldest, however, were given the privilege of sitting in the rocking chairs that held center stage in the legendary establishment. Equipped with cushions to comfort the spines of men for whom back breaking work had been a daily affair, the arms of the chairs bore the fine patina of wood made smooth by a thousand rough hands and the rockers themselves were worn thin by many a back and forth made to the tune of politics, weather, fishing, the local gossip of who was cheatin' on who and how much they missed the company of one of their own who passed away not long ago.
In the summertime, the conversation was often muted by the sound of the window unit air conditioners that ran continuously to dampen the intensity of the long bay summer. In the wintertime, however, the men would sit around an old wood stove that glowed red from burning the logs that were stacked in neat rows along the outer wall of the store.
This was always a special time for Howard. The pungent scent of the burning wood added to the already rich character of the old place and seeing the men sitting up close to the warm stove, spinning their yarns and offering their opinions on the issues of the day made him feel like he was part of something special. It was dear to him then and his love for the old store had never diminished over the years. Harper's was his link to the past, a place where he could always go to become immersed in the tradition of the waterman, and he often wondered if he too would one day be one of the old timers sitting around the woodstove with some young kid, perhaps his own grandson, paying rapt attention to the conversations of his elders.
Because it was mid-May, the store's proprietor, Willie Minter, had yet to put in the air conditioners and the windows were wide open, allowing the salt breeze to flow across the counters, shelves and tables that held such merchandise as fishing tackle, rods, reels, line, crab pots, engine oil, repair parts, knives, rope, wheel bearing grease, orange life preservers, bottle openers, laundry detergent, white rubber boots, Dickies dungarees and a variety of dry goods including ample supplies of House of Autry seafood breading and can after can of Old Bay seafood seasoning.
In the back were several glass front coolers with eggs, butter, milk, soda, beer, bait squid and bloodworms. More coolers were up front, old style sliding top units, where waxed cardboard boxes full of clams, crabs, oysters and fish were kept cold and fresh.
Minter usually did his business while standing behind a counter that held a cash register, a display case of Schrade knives, fishing license applications and stacks of free real estate brochures with million dollar waterfront homes adorning the covers. A calendar from 1962 showing a busty blonde holding a can of Texaco motor oil still counted the days from its place of privilege on the same wall behind the counter where Minter kept an enormous rack of spare keys to locks long lost and to boats of former slip owners who haven't been around for decades.
"Willie, you got over a thousand keys there, I reckon, and you don't have a goddamn idea what any of 'em fit," Howard said. "Why don't you just throw all that shit away along with that stupid calendar. Chicks got on one of them bras that make her tits all pointy. She looks like Madonna did in one of them music videos she made."
"Well, I think her tits look just fine," said A.J. Morgan, one of the old waterman seated in a rocking chair next to an old Formica and stainless steel dinette table that held a napkin dispenser, packets of mustard and ketchup, bowls of relish and onions, and a bottle of Texas Pete for the hot dogs that were constant fare for the regulars.
Howard quickly replied, "I can see why you would think her titties look just fine because the last time you saw a pair of tits was the same year as that there calendar!"
The other retirees seated alongside A.J. laughed hysterically while the old waterman blushed at the sexuality of the humor and the fact that Howard's observation had more truth to it than the old man would like to admit. Howard slapped A.J. on the back and hugged the old man. He'd known him since birth and had worked for a spell on his boat. Like an uncle he was to him, as were so many of the other watermen, a brotherhood carved from the wood of ships and the love of life lived on the open sea.
Howard walked to the back cooler, grabbed a single can of ice cold Pabst beer and then helped himself to a steaming bowl of the clam chowder that Minter dispensed from a large pot on an old Sears Kitchenaide stove behind the counter.
"You gonna pay for that?" Minter asked.
"I reckon I have to or else you'll call the house and then I'll really pay for it," Howard said with a smile while reaching for his wallet. Howard was married to Minter's daughter, Ann, and the give and take between father-in-law and son-in-law was part of their daily routine. Minter liked Howard. He was a hard worker who provided well for his daughter. Gave her a nice new home with all the fixings. Howard even bought Minter a new truck for his 70th birthday. All things considered, Willie Minter had no complaints about Coles Howard.
Howard wolfed down the chowder, gulped his beer and then lowered his voice. "Willie, I might be going out tonight, head over to the Bay Bridge, do a little fishing for grey trout. When I come back, I might not be as legal as I should be if you know what I mean. Would you have any heartburn if I lock the gates to the place before I leave so that the Marine Police can't drive in here for a little late night surprise? I'll be back around 4:00 am."
"No problem, Coles," Minter said, "do what you have to. If you need a key, let me know. I've got plenty," Minter said with a smile and a look over his shoulder at the mound of keys hanging on the wall. Howard just grinned, waived his own key ring in return and headed out the door.