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Way of Life Slipping Away Along Chesapeake's Edge

Watermen along the Chesapeake Bay face difficult times -- as dwindling crab and oyster populations leave many without enough to make a decent living, and forcing changes within the communities that reside along the bay.

Then, four years later, Charles -- who smoked heavily and worked from 3 a.m. to 8 p.m. some days -- had a series of strokes at 51.

He fought through rehab, learning to use his right hand instead of his left. Jeanne and their son C.P. tried to do what Charles couldn't, buying "peeler crabs" and waiting for them to molt into soft-shells.

Mostly, the crabs just died.

Charles, who could barely speak, would watch her and shake his head. "We found out fast that we didn't know anything."

Charles died on Father's Day 2002. The shanty where he worked has been empty since then.

For Jeanne, the lowest point of life without him came on a cold day this September. She turned the heat on in their old house. No heat. She looked in the tank. No oil. Charles had always taken care of that.

"I cried and I cried. I felt so hopeless and helpless. I didn't know of anybody else to call," she remembered. She asked God: "I prayed so hard for Him to send me somebody."

Tilghman Island, Md.

Inside the Fairbank Tackle shop, men stopped in to grab Tastykakes, cigarettes and long rubber gloves. Others sat down on buckets of Castrol Assuron motor oil, talking politics, crabs, tall tales and old lies. It smelled like Vittorio House Blend coffee, like the dog that people feed Slim Jims and, suddenly, like the worst low tide in history.

"What did y'all get into?" somebody asked a fisherman who just walked in, taking a mid-workday break.

"Lot of dead fish." Mud shad, he said. They were dead when they pulled up the net.

"Everybody wonders why I keep the fan on," said Charlotte Fluharty, moving from the counter to flip the fan switch.

This was a waterman's happy hour. It was 6 a.m.


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