It won't be long now before Pearl West and her family move off Big Island into some apartment, and then Truman Smith's wife Edla Mae, known by everyone as Goat, will make Truman take her and the kids off, too, and that'll mean Tom Owens, 85, and hard of hearing and real frail, will have to leave 'cause he can't live there alone.
And so, just like that, Big Island, the heart of Gloucester County's Guinea Marshes, will be empty, and the last of the old-time Guinea watermen will set about learning to drive and complain about taxes, worrying about unemployment and crime and end up living in houses with toilets. Just like everybody else.
"I been here long enough," declares Pearl, mother of 15, as she sits on a doorstep basking in the thin spring sunlight of the island glade. "Anytime you come here at 14 and stay until you're 51, that's enough."
For longer than anyone can remember--and there are memories that span 90 years and more here--Big Island and southern Gloucester County, at the southwestern edge of the Chesapeake Bay, have been peopled by Guineamen. Since before the Revolution, say those who've studied the matter. But as with all things in the Guineamen's past--like how they got here, where they came from and why they came to be called Guineamen--the best anyone can do is guess, because they made no records and often buried their dead in unmarked graves until well into the 19th century.
"Buried 'em in fish boxes," Goat says of her ancestors who lie in sandy, anonymous graves at the southeast end of Big Island, near where the York River glides into the Chesapeake.
"No! Goat! They buried in wood coffins!" blurts out her shocked but laughing 29-year-old sister, Mary Ruth West.
Goat, born on this 10-acre island 25 years ago, is embarrassed. "That's what mom tells me," she says.
No, it won't be long now. Because every year there are fewer and fewer in Gloucester County who call themselves Guineamen. Not that they are moving far away or dying off. It's just that some see their Guinea Marshes heritage--laced with tales of violence and ignorance--as a disadvantage when trying to slip into the Gloucester economic and social mainstream, where some still regard Guineamen with disdain. Ask many if they are Guineamen, and you're likely to offend.
"Guinea starts here," says one man with a Guineaman's family name and roots to match as he studies a local map--and then draws a line showing Guinea's boundaries ending just before his own community.
"I'll tell you a story," says 41-year-old Raymond (Kenny-man) Kellum, a Guinea Marshes waterman, as he sits on an upended roll of crab pot wire in Ferebee's general store at the crossroads called Severn. "I went with my mother to a store just along the road here to pay a bill once. When we got there the owner was gone, so we asked where he was. His wife said, 'He's gone down to Guinea.' "
Kellum's eyes flash. "My mother looked her in the face and said, 'Now, where the hell do you think you live?' "
Today, just under 4,000 people inhabit the 20 square miles of pines and golden marsh that Kellum calls Guinea. Maybe half of them are of Guinea stock--a far different mix than existed before the York River was bridged in the 1950s and outsiders began to pour into the sandy neck. Perhaps fewer than 50 still speak the rapid-fire, cockney-like dialect that was once the only language here.
Even so, much remains unchanged in the Guinea Marshes. Around Severn and Maryus, two Guinea communities near the marshes, the old names--Belvin and Bonniville and Rowe and Hogge and Deal--all apparently of Welsh-English origin, still dominate the roadside mailboxes.
And beginning each February, the men still run their small one- and two-man boats out into the bay and down the tidal streams, laying out nets to catch rockfish and shad. And when the crabs start coming in March, they catch them, too. And oysters. And clams. And in the summer and early fall they take trout, spot, croaker and flounder, until only the depths of winter freeze them in, and then they gather around the stove in the general stores or dance at the Moose lodge or mend nets, which are called seines, and make new crab pots to save a few dollars.
"When these long, haul seines go t' work and the people come in heah with the boat-loads a fish, it's a pretty sight," says Sam Hogge, 60, a Guinea clammer for 35 years, as he walks down Brown's Bay dock. "I like to stand heah and watch 'em come in. It's powerful nice to see."
Hogge was born in Guinea. "I didn't go too far in school," he says. "Sixth grade. But I liked history right smart. I studied it all I could." That he never finished school could hardly matter here. Hogge knows the currents and the tides, and he knows where to find the best clams, and he knows the weather. That knowledge has kept him alive and earning a living where others have failed.
"I'd guess that few here ever get beyond the fifth or sixth grade," says Jennie Handley, a former local elementary school teacher. "So that part of the stories about the marshes is true. But that really doesn't tell you much, because they're as fine a people as you could ever want to know."
In Guinea, people are accepted at face value--and their day-to-day behavior simply added or subtracted until their reputation is established. Guinea women, who are often as brash as their men are shy, and Guineamen seem without artifice--quick to welcome and quick to anger, little tolerant of pretense or deceit, subscribers to their own code of unpolished justice and fair play.
"They were their own law for hundreds of years," says Charlie Ferebee, a retired Air Force master sergeant who bought the Severn general store two years ago. "There was no one around to come in and make arrests, so they had to look after their own."
So from time to time, the old standards of justice resurface, as in the story they tell of a Guineaman who was found shot to death along the roadside after his release on a technicality for killing another Guinea resident.
"It's just that they can be killin' people all night over in Newport News or Hampton and not think anything about it," says Kellum. "But if they kill someone down here, they all say, 'See what happened down in Guinea?' "
"We never have any more trouble down there than anywhere else in the county," says Catesby Jones, former Gloucester commonwealth's attorney. "I'd say they're pretty nice people."
The centuries of Guinea's isolation have produced a handful of medical anomalies, such as premature aging in some families and unusually long lifespans in others, says Dr. Henry C. Rowe, a local physician. Very rarely have local medical authorities had to caution Guinea families in the most isolated pockets of the community to be on guard against the genetic dangers of intermarriage.
Johnnie Haywood, at 96, comes from a Guinea family in which long life is common. Just about every day, this waterman, who first began fishing with his father in 1896 at age 10 and retired only six years ago, rides to the Severn general store on his lawn tractor. His 92-year-old brother, Coleman, still drives a car. They had an older sister who lived to 104. As Johnnie Haywood talks of the time in the 1920s when the Guineamen had to fight off outside oystermen, the little-heard Guinea dialect fires his speech:
"Two orster boats come up deh-ah," he recalls of the confrontation on the York River. "Two hunnert, three hunnert watermen went down deh-ah. An' some went on bo-ahd with exes and one says, he says, 'What you gonna do heah?' 'Well, we gonna plant dese orsters.' He says, 'No, you ain't.' An' the man says, 'Hold on, we'll leave.' " Haywood laughs.
"Fact of it is," he says with a broad smile, "Oi went across deh-ah, too. An' dey neveh came back."
Few mainland Guineamen ever set foot on Big Island anymore, their lives and business having taken them elsewhere. All the same, most see life on the island as the nearest thing to the way it used to be in the marshes.
On Big Island, about a mile off the mainland, the Smiths and Wests live on a diet of seafood and poultry and marsh-fed cattle. Fresh oysters lie on the sandy shore ready for eating and mussels cling to the mud-marsh banks and figs fill old trees during summer. The workday begins at 3 a.m. when Truman Smith, 34, motors his boat out to bait the crab pots he made himself. It ends at noon when he returns with the day's catch. John Kennedy West, 16, shyly courts a mainland girl with flaxen hair and runs inside blushing wildly when his father Jesse, 50, teases him about it. And always, the salt air rings with curses and teasings sung in a vanishing tongue.
But as much as it is a paradise, Big Island and the old life of Guinea is also a prison. In the winter the island can freeze solid for a month and more, denying residents mainland food and fuel. Last winter they tore down an old house to have enough wood for heat, and in heavy storms the island can flood. But for Pearl West and her daughter Goat, hardest to bear is the isolation.
"Those men, they can get away, but us women folk, we're stuck here," says Goat. "When they take the boats to fish, theah's nothing we can do. When one of them little young ones git sick, Lord knows what we'd do."
For that reason, and because her husband has a heart condition, Pearl West this year asked the county to find her family a subsidized apartment on the mainland. Goat says she and her family will follow shortly, as her husband, Truman Smith, dressed in rubber waterman's gear from head to toe, falls silent.
"I don't like havin' to be bothered with no one else," says the last of Big Island's old-time Guineamen when he finally speaks. "I like it heah better than any other place."