Way of Life Slipping Away Along Chesapeake's Edge
Residents, Economy Adapt as Bay's Health Devolves

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Chesapeake Bay is not tar-black and dead. It is not bright-green and toxic. It looks just as beautiful as ever, come a sunrise in Annapolis or a sunset over Tangier Sound.

What the Chesapeake has become is emptier.

It has fewer crabs, oysters and watermen than it did 25 years ago, when government officials first pledged to restore its health.

And without all that, the bay region is sloughing off the culture that made it unique. Fewer women know the intricate signals of a blue crab's molt, that a red-sign crab is two days away from "busting" and becoming a valuable soft-shell. Fewer men know how to find oyster bars, underwater landmarks such as Snake Rip, Turkey Leg or Old Woman.

Fewer people know their neighbors in a place where neighbors used to be all you had.

"It used to be when you saw a boat go by, you'd say, 'There goes Cap'n Anthony. He's going out to fish his crabs.' 'There's A-Boy,' " headed to collect fish from a pound net, recalled Ken Smith, president of the Virginia State Waterman's Association. "Now, it's like, 'Who in the hell's on that jet ski?' "

The water is still there, but The Bay -- the old, bountiful estuary -- is not. As the old industries have declined, they have been replaced by tourism, where the look of the water is all that matters. Or by trucking, or work in prisons, where the water doesn't matter at all.

This is the real cost of the cleanup's failure: People learning to live with broken promises.

These are three of their stories. One comes from an island still wedded to the old ways, another from a place trapped between the old bay and the new, and the third from a watermen's village that had to be killed in order to save it.

Deal Island, Md.

There was still a whiff of the bay -- salt and rotted shellfish -- coming off a pile of oyster shells outside the little building. Jeanne Webster Abbott was in the doorway one recent afternoon, holding a spare part to an old boat and sniffling so she didn't cry.

"I don't even know what this is," she said.

Then she saw what her daughter had found in the debris outside her late husband's abandoned crab shanty. It was a short piece of wood, notched to mark five inches. His crab-measuring stick, made specially after he had to become right-handed.

"Oh, Lord," Abbott said at last. They both began to cry.

Then, Abbott pulled the door shut. Carefully, as if the shanty didn't have a hole in the roof and a significant lean.

"I'm going to find a way to just keep this place up," she said. "Because he doesn't deserve it."

Deal Island is a legendary place. Joshua Thomas, the "parson of the islands," who brought fervent Christianity to the region in the early 1800s, is buried there. The island, about 2 1/2 hours south of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, was once home to a large fleet of skipjacks, the Chesapeake's iconic oyster-dredging sailboats.

The oysters died off, and the crabs began to follow, and soon a waterman's living wasn't enough. People went "up the road" to work on tugboats, in trucks, at the state prison. Deal Island's population dropped from 1,237 in 1930 to 578 in 2000. Only about 20 percent of households include children.

"I'm 60. Danny's 58. We're the young ones," said Grant Corbin, a waterman, pointing to another in the fellowship hall of St. John's United Methodist Church the same day that Abbott visited the crab shanty nearby.

The men were waiting for the lunch that followed the church's homecoming service, which brought 200 people to the sanctuary instead of the usual 20.

In the hall, it smelled like batter and hot oil. The women were making soft-shell crabs. That process starts with snipping eyestalks, apron, gills, gills. Then, batter and cook until the gooey "mustard" firms up, reaching a consistency that doesn't remind you it's guts.

Abbott, 60, with blond ringlets of hair and emotions very near the surface, was sitting a table in the hall, tearing up over the two soft-shells on her plate. She was talking about her husband Charles Abbott, voted most likely to succeed in the Deal Island High School class of 1962.

They had twins when she was 15 and another child later. But she found a good job in the finance office at the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore. He made enough money on the water -- crabbing in summer, oystering in winter -- to buy all three kids a Trans Am when they turned 16.

But then, in the '70s and '80s, the bay turned for the worse. Their story turned into the Book of Job.

First, the oyster harvest crashed. They had to sell his family's skipjack, the Thomas Clyde, in 1991. Sold it to a waterman up the bay in Tilghman Island, far away so they wouldn't have to see it again. As the boat motored away, a seagull that the Abbotts used to feed followed it out to the bay. "It was like a funeral for my husband," she said.

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.

Geographically, Tilghman Island is at the end of something: a lobster-shaped spit at the tip of a curved peninsula, roughly across the Chesapeake from Calvert County. Culturally, though, it's a place in the middle.

The island is just 15 miles from St. Michaels, and its affluent culture is spreading this way: The Tilghman Island Inn offers tennis courts and sweetbreads in puff pastry and water-view rooms for $300 a night.

On the other hand, there are these guys: some halfway retired and most all-the-way morbid about the bay's future.

"The onliest way they'll ever save the bay now is to give everybody a mallet and a cork," said William Roe, 74, who has lived on Tilghman long enough to live on Willy Roe Road. "And you know where that cork goes?"

It was a suggestion, let us say, for stopping sewage pollution at its original source.

"All in favor, say aye!" one of the other men in the tackle shop said.

But that sort of cynicism only goes so far here. It goes about five blocks, actually, to a skipjack docked at Tilghman's Dogwood Harbor.

Skipjacks are floating loopholes, built when Maryland law allowed only sail-powered boats to pull metal "dredges" across the bottom and scrape up oysters. Then, in the 1960s, as the oyster harvest fell, skipjacks were allowed to attach a motorized "push boat" two days a week. The number of skipjacks has fallen from more than 300 a century ago to fewer than 10 today.

But Lawrence Murphy, 54, was taking one out oystering.

"She's big. She's heavy," said Murphy, a beefy man with a cigarette who speaks the crayubs-and-orstirs dialect of the bay in a deep, scratchy voice. "She lays there good." Meaning she doesn't sway too much in heavy weather.

This is a living that doesn't make sense, but Murphy doesn't do it for sensible reasons. He does it because he likes to get away: He used to have a bait-grinding business here but left it after his 14-year-old son was killed by one of the machines.

He does it because he doesn't mind the cold and knows where the oysters are, or at least where they were. And he does it because his father and grandfather worked a skipjack.

"I just always wanted one," he said.

He bought his in 1991, from a heartbroken couple down the bay in Deal Island.

The Abbotts.

St. Michaels, Md.

"Two minutes, ladies and gentlemen," George Dabrowski said into the microphone. "Warm your little daubers up."

Saturday night bingo in St. Michaels. A glimpse inside one of the bay's strangest and most successful places: a real Chesapeake town that has thrived by playing a fake one.

"This is worth 238 bucks," Dabrowski said, bewildered, as he described the prize for one bingo game. It was a white leather purse from Coach. The players pored over their cards, holding fat markers to daub the numbers. "I never knew that a 'Small White Flap Soho' would be worth so much."

Bingo here used to mean a $5 entrance fee, a small crowd of parents and die-hard bingo ladies, and modest gift baskets as prizes. Then, a couple of years ago, an idea: Parents donated money to buy Coach and Vera Bradley bags to give away as prizes, and they upped the entrance fee to $15.

More than 400 people showed. The Parent Teacher Organization's take zoomed from $1,200 to $12,000.

"We all kind of went, 'Huh,' " said Lisa Hayes, the PTO president. It was a different town out there.

To a casual observer, this appears to be the history of St. Michaels: In 1813, townsfolk hung lanterns in trees to trick attacking British ships, causing most of their cannonballs to miss the town. Then, everyone painted their house pastel and began selling knicknacks and espresso.

For decades, though, St. Michaels was like dozens of other places on the Eastern Shore: "a jerkwater crab town," as somebody in Tilghman said. Oyster-shell streets. Fighting in the bars. It smelled like funky marsh mud and the pickled bull lips that watermen used for bait.

But as the Chesapeake declined, St. Michaels found a way out: It built an economy that relied on the bay mainly as scenery.

After the first span of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge was built in 1952, it drew in tourists with the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum and the Crab Claw restaurant. Then the real estate agents descended, and this became the capital's Cape Cod, a getaway for the likes of Donald H. Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney.

But walk around with a native, and it's obvious: The Town That Fooled the British is now fooling itself a little bit.

"This . . . building right here used to be the town five-and-dime," said Virginia "Ginny" Adams, 74. She was standing in front of a "home decor gallery," with an metal sculpture of a giraffe out front. "Now it's filled with all kind of junk holes."

The old barbershop is an art gallery. The funeral parlor is an inn (they get a kick out of that one, tourists sleeping in those rooms). And the grocery store, where it smelled like wood varnish and a quarter bought 25 pieces of candy, became an antique shop . . .

"Junk store," Adams said.

. . . and now sells rugs.

"If people come here thinking that these stores were here . . . no," said Hayes, who is Adams's niece. "There was stores here, but I don't think they were the kind of stores that would have drawn people from D.C."

Hayes sees the bigger picture here, realizes that her own kids missed the childhood she had. They didn't, for instance, learn what to call water that is untroubled by wind. The old folks here don't say "calm": The Chesapeake pronunciation rhymes with "jam," with no hint of an "L."

"I said, 'It's cam, honey. Remember that,' " she said.

But the new St. Michaels paid for college scholarships for her two girls and provided the kind of jobs that will allow them to come back. "It's not a bad change, because it kept our community alive. It kept our schools open," she said.

To Adams, a slim, sly woman, the changes are just humorous. She and Hayes stop in front of an old building that has been a funeral parlor, a restaurant and now sells . . .

Well, it sells antiques.

"It's just junk," Adams said. "I would have thrown it away."

Epilogue

In these three places, life goes on despite the bay's condition. The trick is learning to live without it.

Jeanne Webster Abbot now works as a geriatric nursing assistant at Deer's Head Hospital Center, a state long-term care facility in Salisbury, Md., 29 miles inland.

One recent day, patients were wheeled into the dayroom, where a sign reminded them: "The season is AUTUMN. The weather is COOL. The next holiday is THANKSGIVING."

"Is your tummy better?" Jeanne Webster Abbott, in nurse's whites, asks an elderly man in a wheelchair. "Yeah," he says softly.

Abbott said this is how her prayers were answered. She's living in Salisbury with her fiance, a retiree named Ron Goodwin.

"It's what God made me to do," she said. It smelled clean, like hard scrubbing. . . .

A few days later, Murphy and his five-man crew got to the Thomas Clyde after 5 a.m., smoking cigarettes, almost asleep. Then they set out on the bay in darkness, scrambling eggs for breakfast on a propane stove below-decks, nursing instant coffee.

It smelled like cigarette smoke -- puffing from their Marlboro Lights and breathing out of the cabin walls below. After the dredge started and the oysters started piling up, the air on deck was scented with brine.

By 6 p.m., Murphy had reached his limit: 150 bushels. They sold for $32 each. A good day.

"It's been a good year. Better than last," he said later. . . .

. . . On another day in St. Michaels, Captain John R. Larrimore was scolding the crew on his own skipjack.

"My old daddy used to say he'd rather you walk on his head than walk on his oysters!" he said.

But the boat, the E.C. Collier, was on dry land. This was an oystering exhibition at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. Larrimore died in 1983: That was a carved wooden mannequin at the wheel, and the voice was somebody else's, a recording made from a script.

The exhibit's few visitors filtered out, and the room was empty. Outside, a chilly wind made little whitecaps on the Miles River. It smelled like . . . nothing.

Staff researcher Meg Smith and http://washingtonpost.com videographer Whitney Shefte contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company