It was nearly noon here on the Potomac flats, 56 miles upriver from Washington. An almost empty six-pack of beer sat on the stoop of the trailer overlooking the river. Inside, the television was playing to an oblivious audience: Newton (Catfish) Burkhart, slumbering deeply, his chin propped on his hand.
Soon enough, Burkhart arose to greet the day and survey his wild kingdom.
"I was out all night catting around. Just got in a couple of hours ago," said Burkhart, 61, whose tiny trailer park has survived numerous floods and determined government efforts to evict him and his tenants from the riverside.
"I'm on vacation here all year round; I mean I stay on vacation," he said. Retired last year from 40 years in the railroad yards of this hard-scrabble town that rises above the river, Catfish Burkhart is the last holdout against government ownership of the entire 184-mile length of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park between Georgetown and Cumberland, Md.
Catfish has been the bane of the National Park Service, which administers the canal environs. He refuses to accept the $10,447 government check the courts have held is a just payment for his property, or to remove the few trailers the government regards as an ugly intrusion into the park setting.
The government, in turn, refuses to recognize his claim but, rather than forcibly remove him, has let him stay.
"I'm hoping for a miracle, I guess," said Park Superintendent Richard L. Stanton.
"It's not compatible with the park to have the trailers there, but I'm an easy man to get along with . . . . One of these days, he'll leave."
But not just yet, thank you.
Armed with a fifth grade education, Catfish came here in 1945 from his home town of Martinsburg, W.Va., to work on the railroad.
He said he lived "up on the hill" for a couple of years, then moved down near the river, where he stayed in an old school bus for a while.
In 1967 he set up his riverside camp, which has some picnic tables, a dock and a half-dozen flat-bottom "john boats."
When the freight trains pass nearby, the fishing poles and hunting rifles inside his trailer shake, but the noise doesn't bother him.
"I wouldn't trade the life for anything," he said.
Catfish said that between here and Harpers Ferry, seven miles upriver, are 10 "fish pots," rocks that Indians laid out years ago in a "v" formation to trap the fish. Fall, when the leaves are turning and the fishing is best, is his favorite time, he said.
The road to Catfish's roost is a mile of rutted former tow path. After the canal closed in 1924, the area between it and the river became crowded with people camping, fishing and living in summer cabins along the bank.
When the park came along in the 1970s, it acquired the land and leased back a few houses to their former owners. Mostly, though, the people and their places are gone.
"This used to be the most beautifulest place," Catfish said.
"There were thousands of people, poor people, working-class people like me. It was the most beautifulest river. The river was put on Earth for people . . . . "
He regards his little acre as an oasis where the people still reign supreme.
"Many times I wake up, there are 20, 25 people sitting here at three in the morning," he said.
"The beer joints close up, you can't sit around on the street.
"I say, 'Just don't bother my tenants.' Hell, half the time, my tenants are out with them. It's okay as long as they don't bother my tenants or fight or steal, because there's no other place to go on the river."
He blames the government for a lot -- even the many drownings downriver at Great Falls.
"The reason so many people drown down there is because the . . . government got all the good places locked up . . . . You can walk all the way across the river here. There are just a couple of holes."
Last week, the river was slushy and, near the bank, only a foot or two deep.
But, as Catfish knows, the normally calm river can also rage.
"You got to respect it," he said.
Last November's flood was the worst, he said.
A few miles downriver from the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac, Catfish watched the water rise, then tried, without success, to move his trailer to higher ground. He said he managed to move two of his three late-model Cadillacs (he says his belly is too big for smaller cars), then went to a motel in town where he spent two nights.
His four tenant trailers were flooded, turned topsy-turvy and left with a residue of mud, askew and scattered about the property. He brought in a new trailer for himself and some temporaries, camper attachments that usually sit on the back of pickup trucks, for his tenants: construction workers who commute to jobs in the Washington area, and two welfare families.
They all make do with portable toilets, and the demand for cheap housing is such that, Catfish said, "I can rent my outhouse if I have to."
Said Brenda Hunter, 33, welfare mother of three, including a 16-year-old daughter expecting a child of her own, "I love it here, and my kids, they tell me there's no way they want to move." Her landlord, who charges her $200 a month, she said, is "the greatest man I ever . . . and the kindest . . . . "
Catfish talks tough, except around kids like 4-year-old Jodie Lynn Hunter, whom he calls "Little Catfish." Big Catfish has five grown daughters, who live in Washington, Baltimore and West Virginia, and 15 or 16 grandchildren; he's not sure of the precise number.
Numbers aren't always critical in his scheme of things. On an end table next to his couch was a sweepstakes message saying he was one of three persons who had won $125,000. But Catfish, explaining that his ex-wife had sent in his name, said he wasn't interested. "I'm just a poor S.O.B. I worked on the railroad. Worked all my life."
But now he's on vacation, all year round.