Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Handsome One

There are signs that you're winning over a man.

It begins when you're introducing yourself and he continues to hold your hand long after we've exchanged names. It continues when you're talking for hours and he stops in the middle of a story to ask my age, only to respond, "Well, you don't look it." And it goes on right up until you get ready to leave and he suggests you get together again soon, preferably over lunch.

"But you'll have to drive," he says. "I don't drive anymore."

No real surprise there. He's 87.

One of the things I love most about what I do is going to places I've never been and meeting people I'd otherwise never meet. Today's road trip took me to Mathew's County to spend time with a retired waterman who spent over half a century fishing in the summers and dredging for crabs, oysters and scallops in teh winters.

Driving there took me back to a world where you see signs for Standard Oil Products and S & H Green Stamps and where lots of houses have simple wooden signs out front advertising "Clams/Oysters for sale."

The plan was for me to meet his daughter at the high school where she works and then follow her to "Daddy's house," as she put it. But after waiting half an hour, there was no sign of her. What to do?

Spotting a couple of girls in the parking lot, I explained that the school nurse I was meeting hadn't shown, and since I had no cell phone, could they tell me where the school office was so I could use that phone.

"You don't have a cell phone?" one of the girls asked incredulously. "How do you get by?" I manage.

As the other girl was pointing out the door to the office, the first girl sought clarification. "But what if you have an emergency?" she asked in a stricken voice.

Then I figure out how to handle it, like people did for centuries before a decade ago, I tell her. Like I'm doing now.

"Wow," she marveled. "But how do your friends get hold of you?" Sweetheart, I don't have time to give you a lesson in the 20th century. Go home and ask your parents about life before cell phones.

Luckily, the waterman's daughter showed up and we drove to her Daddy's house, to find him standing in the garage door waiting for me with a big smile on his face.

I say garage because there was a vehicle in there but really, it was a shrine to his years as a waterman as well as the workshop where he now plies his trade.

On the walls were pictures dating back to his grandfather's time (sepia-toned late 19th century photographs), plenty of himself (when he points to a group shot and I ask which is him, he responds "the handsome one" and it's obvious), all the boats he's ever worked on, fellow watermen ("Those three are all dead now"), fish processing plants and I don't know what else.

On shelves were binder after binder of more photographs and memorabilia related to his life's work. A model fishing boat made by hand in 1941 sat on a display shelf. A board showing every kind of knot that had been given to him by a former captain. A wooden boat ladder was nailed to the wall.

He is in his element and he's set up a table where we can chat, making sure the temperature is comfortable enough for me with just one heater on. When he senses I'm getting chilly, he turns on a second one.

Mostly, though, he just talks, spurred on by my curiosity about a life I can't imagine. A three-room schoolhouse with seven grades and a wood-burning stove he helped chop wood for every morning. Leaving school after 10th grade to live on a boat and fish full time, giving most of his $7 weekly pay to his mother.

Thirty years of spending summers in Louisiana working the big fishing boats, eating conch cakes and cornbread with molasses. Winters spent dredging for crabs and oysters in Mathews with other men from the county.

He wants me to understand why Mathews' economy has always been dependent on the water. "We're really an island, just barely attached to the mainland. That road you came in on? That's the only part of the county not surrounded by water."

As we ease into our second hour of talk, it's obvious he's getting a little hoarse. Gesturing at something behind me, he says, "I might need a little whiskey for my throat," as if to gauge my interest but continues to talk when I don't take the bait.

I'm amazed to learn that after he stopped fishing 20 years ago, he took up making chain mesh oyster and crab dredges, beautiful inter-connected assemblages of metal pieces he fabricates and then lines with fish nets he weaves by hand with rope and needle.

To prove his point, he grabs some twine and using the boat ladder on the wall, begins to weave a medium-gauge fish net while I watch dumbfounded at how quickly it comes together.

"My hands used to move so fast you couldn't see 'em when I did this," he brags. As it is, they're moving incredibly quickly now and in what seems like a minute, he's on his fourth row of evenly spaced mesh.

My heart aches a little when he tells me that due to his macular degeneration, he can no longer even go on a boat because of balance issues. "Last time I tried, I was holding on the side with both hands, my sea legs completely gone."

I feel sure this is why he's taken up making dredges and nets, a way to still be connected to that community in a very real way. It's bittersweet.

By the time he finishes giving me the lowdown on every picture on the walls, daylight is gone and he's insisting he could talk to me until the sun comes up.  I demur and it's then he decides I need to come back for more interviewing over lunch, preferably at Linda's Diner.

He hints that there's lots more to tell me and that I wouldn't want to miss all the good stuff he's saving for our next meeting. I have no doubt he could regale me with stories for days.

As I back out of the driveway, he stands in the garage door waving at me. "Drive safe so you can come back again!" he calls out.

I've won him over, all right, but he's done the same to me. I'm already looking forward to our lunch at Linda's...and maybe even sharing a little whiskey with him.

Wouldn't want to make him hoarse again.


  1. ...my family bought a summer cottage there & we never let it go. that was forty years ago. changed some but still a nice place. K..you're a real romantic when you want to be.


  2. Why, cw, I thought you knew I was a romantic at heart! Nice to hear from you.