If you are ever on Smith, It is almost a must To see a huge mountain Of nothing but rust. -- Tim Marshall, resident
The island poet who also manages an oyster shucking house here, has contributed his share of auto carcasses to the growing mountain of rusted hulks piled high on the windswept marsh 11 miles from the mainland.
"This is may 23rd car," said Marshall, 30, as his 1971 Buick maneuvered across the island's only thoroughfare, a 1.5-mile road linking the tiny town of Ewell and the tinier town of Rhodes Point. The others, he said, "just died, and I run 'em in the ditch."
This island in Chesapeake Bay has four junked cars for every man, woman and child. It has infected itself with an unlikely case of urban blight.
Islanders, of whom there are 565 by the latest count, pay $50 apiece to bring used cars that they call "mainland rejects" over here by barge. They drive the cars mostly without license tags, inspection stickers or insurance until they fall apart. Then, rather than pay to ship the clunkers back to the mainland, the islanders leave them on their lawns or dump them in the once pristine marsh.
It has become an unpoliced paradise lost, and the islanders, who acknowledge responsibility for the more than 2,000 rusting relics, now want government funds to remove the mountain of metal from their shores.
One night last week, 150 islanders eagerly signed petitions they hope will bring $20,000 in taxpayer funds to clean their fouled nest once and for all. in the general stores, where watermen congregate in the evenings, at the fire house, at Francis Kitching's Island Gift Shop and at the school, where the PTA was meeting, everyone agreed that something had to be done. It was a shame they said, for the summer tourists to see such a sight on their daystrips from the mainland.
"They're an eyesore, ain't no question about that," said a man named Evans, the commonest surname on the island.
"We don't get other than what nobody else wants," said Frances Kitching. But it wasn't always a used car dealer's paradise on Smith Island, where residents still live behind unlocked doors on streets without names and continue to converse in the lilting Elizabethan accent of their Cornish ancestors.
Including the narrow lanes where people live, there are five miles of road on Smith Island. Residents insist they need cars here to travel from one end to the other, and many keep tagged cars on the mainland for more extensive trips.
Forty years ago, a Model A Ford and a Chevy truck made up the island's entire motor vehicle fleet. "It was mostly muscle power then, " recalled another Evans, known as Elmer L., a retired waterman and one of four Elmer Evanses here. Today, there are an estimated 100 cars in working order.
Back in the 1940s, a guidebook noted, "'She's the first girl I ever walked with'" was "said naturally in a place where taking a girl for a walk is the chief available means of courting." The current car population, however, has served to replace the quaint courting custom with scenes more reminiscent of "American Graffiti."
Nowadays, dating teen-agers talk of "taking a trip," which means cruising back and forth in cars without mufflers, noisily and endlessly, between the two connected towns, and then parking by the dump, another garbage-strewn section of marsh, or at the Rhodes Point marine railway.
"What kind of an atmosphere is that to court in?" said the Rev. Henry Zollinhoffer, the island's circuit-riding Methodist minister.
Only Tylerton, the third town on the island, accessible exclusively by water and without roads of its own, remains aloof from the ritual.
The cars brought over from the mainland are frequently driven by underaged and unlicensed teen-agers. Accidents occur but often go unreported in a self-contained society where neighbor is loath to offend neighbor.
"I wouldn't want anybody to get tangled in law," said Eddie Evans, whose tagged and insured car suffered damage costing $250 from another islander driving without such legal niceties. "You just wouldn't want to get your neighbor in a whole lot of trouble for a couple of hundred."
The resident deputy sheriff, who is also the fire chief, says he is neither empowered nor inclined to enforce the motor vehicle laws. "I wouldn't have the job if I had to enfore the law with tags and insurance," said Otis Ray Tyler, "because I live here and they're my relatives and friends." o
State motor vehicle inspectors and troopers make occasional forays onto the island, but have netted few scoff-laws. The last ditch effort a few months ago ended when one of the troopers was bitten by a Smith Island dog.
"They come over once in a while with mopeds and helicopters and sneak attack us," said Tim Marshall. "Everyone can hear the helicopters. They figure either someone's sick or it's the state police. Ain't no big deal."
What is a big deal, everyone agrees, is the automobile junk pile -- and the road that islanders say compounds the problem. At high tide, inches of water cover the highway, requiring the old cars to function a bit like amphibious landing craft. The combination of salt water and slow driving speeds car decay, the islanders say.
Furthermore, both cars and carpets have been seriously damaged by a road repaving two years ago after the county laid sewer lines here. During summertime, Smith islanders say, the tar melts almost to a liquid consistency. s
"A maintenance problem is what it is," said Thomas B. Bourne IV, the county consulting engineer, who also acknowledged that the surfacing is inferior to most mainland roadways.
Those inclined and able to fix their cars say there is no place to jack up a car where the jack won't sink. Instead they turn the car on its side to get underneath.
For spare parts -- tires, transmissions and such -- the islanders turn to the auto junk pile, where more recent wrecks sit close to the road and the older cars from the 1950s are set back where a Navy crane piled them several years ago.
Smith islanders, whose land is threatened by storm-driven bay waters, are nearly unanimous over how the junked cars could best be used.
"Here's my opinion about the cars," Gene Somers said the other morning at Lee Roy Evans' general store. "If they put 'em on the bay side, they wouldn't have so much erosion. It should've been done years ago. But the environmentalists said oil [from the cars] would go in the bay. It goes in the bay anyhow, by the tide [sweeping over the marshland junk pile]. They ain't got nothing in the crankcase and it's as dry as this floor. They know it and we know it, but they think we're as dumb as clams."
"There's not enough oil in there to make a fiddler drunk," agreed Elmer F. Evans.
An attempt to get the Navy to take the cars to nearby Bloodsworth Island for target practice also failed. Naval officials last month ruled them "unacceptable for naval gunfire exercise evaluation because of poor spotter visibility, rapid deterioration and lack of any survivability to direct or near hits."
Current efforts are being made with a mainland barge owner and a scrap dealer who have agreed to remove the cars at what they say would be a "marginal profit" for $15,000 to $20,000.
Hoping to obtain funds from a state or federal agency, some half-dozen Smith islanders met in the preacher's offices in Ewell last Monday night to plan their petition drive. "I can remember before the cars and the dump," said one of them. "In the summer that marsh grass was just as clean and pretty as could be."
The island barometers, which are read here as religiously as the Bible, predicted stormy weather for the next day. That meant most of the watermen would gather early on wooden benches at the rear of Lee Roy Evans' store in Ewell, where the petitioners decided to meet Tuesday morning.
Come daybreak, however, the winds were northeast at only 10 m.p.h., and the signature drive had to be postponed until the evening. Nearly everyone approached signed, with the notable exception of Gene Somers, who grumbled, "If the environmentalists had something to do with it, I ain't signing it. I ain't interested. If they put 'em to the place where it does the best, on the bay side, I'll put three pencils to it."
The petitioners' prospects for success will ultimately rise or fall, however, on the largesse of mainlanders, one of whom wrote the Salisbury Daily Times last week: "I suggest they clean up their own island with their own money."
Even if the cars are removed the underlying problem of untagged, uninspected cars will remain. One proposal that many agree on would require islanders importing their cars to pay money into an escrow account to remove them when the autos expire.
To tag or not to tag, however, remains as controversial as ever. "It would cut down on the number of cars," said Elmer W. Evans Jr., president of the Tangier Sound Watermen's Association. "It would bring in a better class of automobiles and you wouldn't have all this junk coming to the island."
But over at Smith Island Seafood on Rhodes Point, Tim Marshall said, "Most people don't want it. It's just a certain few Ben Cartwright people. "They're in with the Masons or something."
The half-dozen oyster shuckers, who make $120 in a good week and say they cannot afford expensive cars and insurance, wholeheartedly agreed. "We don't need nothing like that over here," one said, and all nodded agreement. "Damn the tags."
As Marshall, the poet, put it, "Our roads are nothing but dirt and slag. The tide comes over them and they want us to get tags."
And, when the state police arrive, "The traffic stops moving. People can't go to church or to work. The no-tag paranoia makes me mad but alert."