A bronze plaque bolted to the wall of Fairbanks Tackle Store on Tilghman Island on Maryland's Eastern Shore reads: "In memory of the Hayruss IV, lost off Tilghman Island February 9, 1979. Capt. Garland C. Phillips, George Cummins, T.R. Cummins, Rusty Cummins, Muir Cummins.
"Who were dedicated to conservation and the restoration of rockfish in the Bay. May all who read this tablet be inspired to carry on their work."
Five watermen, working Chesapeake Bay on one of the largest, newest, best-equipped power boats on the Eastern Shore. Yet the Bay never hesitated. Backing to the northwest, the wind pushed at the bay's shoal waters with all its winter fury. Snow piled from bulging, black cumulus that brought the wind; seas made up so quickly there was no running from them.
Watermen say one of the seas broke over the stern of the Hayruss IV, swamping her, killing her engine. Another sea, and another. The boat lay dying, then she sank, sliding into water so cold a man could not survive more than a few paralyzing minutes.
Larry C. Chowning, a reporter for the Southside Sentinel in Urbanna, Va., probably heard about the sinking of the Hayruss IV, and it must have occurred to him that even in 1979 life as a waterman on the Chesapeake Bay had not changed much over the centuries. It is a life as elemental as any in the nation, framed by the absolutes of the bay, its creatures, its weather, its boats, and the natural cycles that determine the abundance and scarcity of the living crops harvested from the bay's depths, its bottom, its creeks and its marshes by a group of commercial fishermen refined to rare purity by the bay's winds, tides, squalls and snowstorms.
Chowning would have heard about the Hayruss IV because in those days he was talking with his friend Elmer Crockett, a native of Tangier Island. And Crockett, a waterman for all his 80 years, was telling Chowning the stories that are collected in the pages of this slim, intense book that rings with the rhythm and the simplicity of the bay's fishing community.
Chowning acts as a transposer, not an intruder. There is no hint of his presence anywhere in the pages. He listens hard to Crockett, stays true to the unaffected poetry of the waterman's narrative and gathers the tales like shad from a net, piling them silver-bright and fresh into the small basket of this book.
Crockett talks of his days as a young waterman in the '30s; "times were hard then" is a phrase that appears often. And the topics taken from the '20s and '30s and beyond are the same as those reflected by the plaque in Fairbanks Tackle Store: life and death, the weather, the catch and the tapestry of wild and natural presences that include watermen as well as waterfowl, fish, crabs and oysters.
Crockett's recollections sail on the lilt of his language, the liquid simplicity of his vision. He does not qualify, does not complicate or rationalize. He and his fellow watermen have the unaffected integrity that comes at once from their isolation as islanders, as watermen and as the maintainers of a relationship with the bay and its natural presences that has spanned a dozen generations and has persisted in the face of pressures for change that would long ago have overwhelmed a community of lesser values.
Life and death are interwoven, inseparable. Recalling a hard winter on Tangier, Crockett says: "The only one to get real sick was old Uncle Dick Spence. He was my granddaddy's gunning partner. He died toward the middle of the freeze. The ground was frozen solid. They couldn't bury him. Some men took Uncle Dick and put him in an old deserted house in Canaan, where he kept until the ground thawed."
On watermen and the weather: "Part of being a waterman in those days was to have to contend with the weather. In time of tragedy everybody was your friend on Tangier. We all tried to look after one another."
And on the bay and its beauty: "The moon was full. The rays were sparkling across the water. It was the kind of night that made your mind wonder . . . By golly, it was a free life."
Elmer Crockett talks in a voice seldom heard in America these days. We owe Larry Chowning our gratitude for what he has done to catch the words for all of us. For even the bay, and its watermen, now, at last, seem to have come to a beginning of their end. The waterman's ways of life and death can sink like the Hayruss IV, and we'll need histories of what once was, histories as true as "Barcat Skipper."