Early on the morning of Maryland Day, under a sky dark with the threat of rain, I drove into Lexington Park to Mister Donut. It was the last Sunday in March, and an hour when the parking lot that serves as the center of town was empty--as were other parking lots that hold the place together. No one at K-Mart, no one at Burger King, no one at the A&P.
"The Park," as we call it--or sarcastically, "L.P. City"--has a makeshift air, as if it were a frontier trading-post town, or the sort of commercial strip that sprouted haphazardly for the convenience of a nearby military installation. The latter case, of course, is true. Lexington Park gives shelter, clothing, entertainment and food to the Patuxent River Naval Air Station.
At Mister Donut, for example, just across the street from the base's main gate, you can get good coffee, in your very own mug--they'll number it for you and hang it up--so that when you come in you can feel a little bit like you belong to a private eating club. And then there are all those flavors: chocolate coconut, blueberry cake, honey dip, apple crumb, old fashioned.
I love to linger over the sticky names, as I love to read, in colonial narratives, those lists of natural blessings that the early settlers compiled to convey their admiration of the New World. "Corn-sallet, Violets, Sorrell, Purslaine," marveled one of the gentlemen adventurers who came here in 1634 with Leonard Calvert.
He was writing in a promotional tract called "A Relation of Maryland," in the chapter entitled "The Commodities Which This Countrey Affords Naturally." "Bufeloes, Elkes, Lions, Beares, Wolves," he went on. "Grampuses, Porpuses, Mullets, Trouts . . . Perch, Crabs, Oysters, Cockles and Mussles. . . . "
The Calverts had a vision of civilization--bountiful, thriving, harmonious. Social order would radiate from a network of manors, each of them ruled by a gentleman adventurer-turned-lord. At St. Marie's, a metropolis would arise to become the seat of government and trade.
Never mind that it didn't work out--that newly freed indentured servants scattered from the manors to set up on their own; that, once the capital moved to Annapolis in 1695, St. Mary's City came undone and disappeared. Never mind. The past seems to offer us a pleasing coherence: a remembered dream of communal enterprise.
Social order? Civilization? How remote from our own tangled time. The only manor today--summoning a great stream of automobiles every morning, dismissing them eight hours later--is the Naval Air Station. The base (or modernity, or television, or progress) has unsettled things. Once, we're told, there were watermen, farmers, merchants; there were gentry and poor. Now there are "countians"--and then, well, the rest of us: newcomers, transients, universal suburbanites.
Does the serviceman snicker at the county native, all the while envying his sense of place? Does the countian resent the newcomer--enjoying, however, the wealth he brought? Is every newborn baby a countian? Is every new settler a stranger?
Who owns the flatbed truck piled with tobacco? Who drives the Trans-Am with the "Jazzercize" sticker? Is the Navy base part of the county, or has the county become a weak graft on the base? Where, precisely, anyway, is this presence they call "The County"? Who, among us, belongs to whom?
By the time I got to St. Mary's city later in the morning, it was drizzling in earnest. The Maryland Day organizers had set up a big striped tent in the field beside the reconstructed State House. Around the tent, cars were drawn up, huddled, as in an encampment. The bivouac. The wagon train at rest.
I entered the tent and looked about to get the lay of the land. It took but a moment for the recognition to dawn. I was seeing the neighborly bustle of the County Fair. Or the Oyster Festival. Or, for that matter, Maryland Day of last year. Not that I knew the faces. But I knew, as it were, "the commodities which this countrey affords naturally."
Here were the Ark and Dove Quilters and the Association of Southern Maryland Beekeepers. The local museums and conservation groups had come to put their ideas on display. The local crafters had crowded the tables with their wares. Woodwork, needlepoint, stained glass, hand-spun yarn. Jewelry, pottery, trinkets, souvenirs.
Food abounded, of course, both in the big tent and at various smaller tents and booths out in other parts of the field. Before the end of the day, I had reinforced the morning's donuts with a cupful of fried oysters, a hot beef sandwich (courtesy of the "Bull Roast" tent), a bowl of Miss Vera's Secret Recipe Oyster Chowder (sold by the "Optimists Ladies of St. Maries") and a Southern Maryland stuffed ham sandwich, loaded with extra stuffing. It was only after protracted negotiations with my conscience that I decided to pass up the raw oysters, steamed clams and funnel cake.
I also consumed my share of rhetoric over in the auditorium of St. Mary's College. I wanted to hear the governor speak, but I didn't last that long. There were simply too many dignitaries bent on fulfilling their public responsibility to introduce one another. Presumably, the governor finally did make a speech, there being nobody left to introduce.
The rain was slanting hard, blown by a cold wind, as I walked back to the big tent. The place was crowded now--lots of kids, families, laughter. The grass underfoot had been trampled to mud. Gusts shook the canvas sheltering us. It was warm, though, thanks to the body heat and Vera's Oyster Chowder
Somehow, details stood out more sharply through the crowd. What struck me most were the cultural motifs. I saw crabs at every turn, adorning magnets, potholders, neckties. Greeting cards pictured Chesapeake lighthouses and local historic sites. One table held smooth pieces of driftwood on which tiny fragile shanties perched--tumbled-down watermen's shacks, in miniature, ready to wash into some toy bay.
We in the crowded tent, under the driving rain, found ourselves surrounded by consumable emblems of our heritage, fragments of which we might buy and take home.
Alas, we did have to go home soon enough. By 2:30, the wind had turned so bad that the organizers ordered us to abandon the tent, lest it topple and entangle us--cupcakes, quilts, chowder, crab magnets and all. The exhibitors and craftsmen began to gather up their goods. Tables emptied. Station wagons and vans filled. Orders were shouted. Final sandwiches were bought. Motors started up. We broke camp.