In the spring of 1957, my maternal grandmother bought a large ramshackle beach house on the northern shore of the Patuxent River approximately thirteen miles due south of Prince Fredrick. The closest town was a little hamlet called Broome?s Island. Her purpose was to provide a cheap vacation spot for her extended family. The two bedrooms and the attic loft could sleep fourteen people at a time. My grandmother?s two daughters had five sons and a daughter; her sister Carole had three daughters and a son with their children. Including all the spouses and their guests, this constituted a real tribe with complicated connections. During summer vacations, the assortment of occupants was rotated to provide recreation for all.
Though the house was situated a hundred yards back from the shore, the property included access to forty yards of sandy beach. However the river bottom was pure Patuxent muck with sea weed and jelly fish as ever present hazards. For the children, this mattered not at all. The summer was spent joyfully swimming, water skiing and picnicking on the sand. However the most enjoyable past time was fishing and crabbing. Large flounder and striped bass were plentiful as were the renowned Chesapeake blue crabs. Seafood feasts were a weekly festivity. The canasta craze was currently sweeping the country and epic tournaments transpired nightly on the screened-in front porch. My father was a Naval Reserve pilot who flew a four engine P2V Neptune patrol plane out of Bolling Airfield in Anacostia. When flying near the Patuxent, he always diverted to buzz the house at low altitude to give everyone a thrill.
Another highlight of the vacation was piloting the runabout a few miles down the coast to Broome?s Island to gas up the outboard motor at Markwood?s Boathouse. This establishment was a one-stop shop for anything a person might need: fishing license, hardware, groceries and lunch counter. It even had a slot machine featuring mechanical race horses running around a track. I don?t recall anyone ever beating this game. Mr. Markwood was a prototypical Patuxent River inhabitant: blunt and beefy with gnarled hands and a silent taciturn demeanor. However for all the children in the area, the true delight of Markwood?s was the twenty foot long display case of penny candy: tootsie roll pops, jawbreakers, root beer barrels, fireballs, candy canes, licorice whips, bubble gum, squirrel nut zippers, Pez, Lik-A-Maid, too many types to remember them all. My father would give each of his three sons a quarter to stock up for our stay at the beach house.
There was a very special place we used for crabbing, a large circular bay that was only two feet deep. At low tide, all the crabs in the area would migrate into the bay to settle in this warmer water. The entrance to the bay was only thirty yards wide and when the tide turned, literally thousands of blue crabs would scuttle through the channel. With a line of four or five kids strung across the mouth, you could fill up the runabout in an hour. The dinner table that night would be a mountain of delicious crabs. In early June of 1962, my cousin Barry spotted a humongous crab nearly a foot wide clinging to a nearby dock pier. The crab was so old, his shell was dusky black and he had a dead barnacle on his left claw. Of course we named him Barnacle Bill. We saw him several times that summer but never managed to catch the wily beast.
That summer there was an empty fuel drum on the property and I taught myself how to roll the drum by walking on top of it. I had great fun learning to roll uphill and down. My next door neighbor Danny accompanied us one weekend. He climbed up a walnut tree and started pegging walnuts at the rest of the kids. I caught one right in the eye! That was a fine summer I?ll never forget. On Labor Day when we were closing up the beach house for the season, I was walking along the shore while Barry was back by the tree line. Then I noticed Barnacle Bill in the shallows and I called to Barry to alert him. He came charging towards the shore like a mad bull, scooping up a crab net on the fly, splashing into the water and snaring Bill with expert finesse. Oh, Bill was a magnificent crab! And oh, he was so delicious! I?ve never tasted crab that good before or since.
Approximately twenty years later, I turned on a PBS documentary about the efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay estuary. The opening theme music for the show was an acoustic guitar song by an obscure Takoma Park musician named John Fahey of whom I was a fan. I thought how odd that someone else would know Fahey?s music. The show was hosted by a local farmer that had been instrumental in getting laws passed to restore the Bay?s vitality. The scientific analysis was indisputable that the rate of decline of sea life in the Bay was inversely matched by the rate of increase in agricultural and residential runoff. I was greatly heartened by the results of these efforts. At the end of the show, this farmer waded out into the water, reached down and pulled up a handful of seaweed. He exclaimed that this was the first time seaweed had grown in the Patuxent in twenty years. In the background was Markwood?s Boathouse. Curious about the Markwood/Fahey connection, I sat through the credits to see who had written the show. It was written and directed by a high school friend named Mike Fincham. We were both long-standing Chesapeake Bay and John Fahey fans.