Baby Boomers '52

Born a third the way into the 18-year Boom

we 1952-ers travel just ahead of the crest of the wave . . .

. . . we're the froth.

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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Bricks & Beckley of Preservation Maryland

Preservation Maryland was founded in 1931 to preserve historic buildings, neighborhoods, landscapes and archaeological sites. In 2009 they included the yawl boat of the Dee of St. Mary's within their protective outreach. This year they joined again with the Chesapeake Bay Field Lab and added their support to a Maryland Heritage Areas Authority Capital Grant to further the renovation of the skipjack herself.

In addition to helping save the Dee just before she was gone -- and thousands of other historic resources in Maryland -- Preservation Maryland throws a great conference every year -- this past month convening in Easton at the very historic and thus very cool Tidewater Inn.

There were days of important sessions, some great eats and speakers, even another skipjack available for a spin about. I went to see how old bricks are made and laid today -- ala Jonas Miller & daughter Miriam Miller Maynard.

The program was put together by Preservation Maryland's Elizabeth Beckley, whose knowledge of how to build 'old' in the 21st century had preservationists clamoring for her to take a how-to-get-it-done show on the road.

Among the things I learned was that it takes five cords of wood in a kiln to heat 1,000 bricks. Lime is needed for mortar. It has something to do with making the mortar hot and thus allowing it to set up quick. Around the Chesapeake that means oyster shells.

The comfort of the mason is the condition of the wall. If the mason is hot and sweaty working on the wall, the wall is hot and sweaty. If the mason is cold. The wall is cold.

The time to begin working on a masonry wall, says builder Pamela Allen Lindsley, is the time of year to plant tomatoes.

"Timing is everything with mortar," Jonas said.

Thanks again to Elizabeth Beckley who left some on the excursion with this final thought. In Colonial times "everything was intentional. There was no waste. Siting was for the breeze. How to ventilate a house was a part of a Virginian ladies' housekeeping book."

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Sheltering the Skipjack

Carpenter Matt McFann made the decision simple. The reason to build a shed around the skipjack was "so this old boat doesn't turn to trash."

"She's drying out already," shipwright Benjamin Goddard said as he plucked chunks of loose paint from the stern where reconstruction is likely to occur. He talked about the boat and praised efforts (by the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority and the Chesapeake Bay Field Lab) to preserve the Dee as he walked beneath the growing canopy of plastic sheeting and pine framing.

"I didn't know boards came that long," said Carol Cullison, St. George Islander and still married to a member of the Dee's first working crew. The Dee of St. Mary's oystered with the last commercial sailing fleet in North America from 1979 to 1989.

The shed of pine and plastic -- which comes in a long roll and is draped and industrial-stapled to the frame -- is needed to shelter the skipjack from the sun and make work at her home port possible.

Maryland Heritage Areas Authority applauded Chesapeake Bay Field Lab's successful effort to keep the skipjack at her home port for her restoration. Already classes from Virginia and Maryland have seen the vessel closer than any of the prior 100,000 students estimated to have sailed the Dee during her 20 years of environmental education.

Both the nonprofit that owns th Dee and the many preservations helping to support the restoration, hope such immediate access to the year's effort will spur fund raising.

"It ain't that bad," said Ben Goddard as he peeled the paint and walked around her stern. Indeed, he concluded, a wooden boat that has put in 30 hard working years is due an overhaul. That she remains stout and secure to the shipwrights is testimony to a masterwork of ship building.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Skipjack on Land

Last week Keene Mill School in Fairfax, Va. saw a skipjack fly. One of their accompanying teachers was Robert Abell, former principal of Piney Point Elementary School and descendant of the Chesapeake watering industry.

The day began threatening with thunderstorms in the forecast. Before the Chesapeake Bay Field Lab teachers arrived a nervous captain paced the parking lot. The students arrived before the cranes.

It would require two cranes -- the smaller engined at the skipjack's bow the other at her stern. The boat's builder, Francis Goddard, arrived before the first crane. Next arrived was Charlie Knott, a man capable of inventing on the spot any necessary mechanical contraption out of the immediately available junk; within his realm he is a veritable Thomas A. Edison.

It is loud and then louder when the second crane appears. Holly Staats and John Fulchiron have joined the workforce in addition to the two crane operators, Mike Eagan and Aaron Mattingly of DirtWorks.

The cranes are in position quickly but it takes more than an hour for the men to satisfy themselves about which ropes and straps and hoists to use. They adjust, readjust, consider, reconsider, reconfigure.

Aubrey Mattingly was the only crane operator Francis Goddard permitted work on the Dee when her mast needed repair in 2001. With an ancient crane nicknamed Big Red Aubrey removed and then re-stepped the mast nearly a decade ago. His son Aaron inherited the touch and just as smoothly removed it again last month, April 23, 2010, preparing for this day -- May 12, 2010 -- when the skipjack would be lifted out of the water for restoration.

All appears ready. The cranes are revved, their arms extended and their back wheels off the ground allowing the legs to compensate the weight. Aaron yells above the noise into his cell phone, "I don't want to be the one breaks it in two."

As the straps tighten and the men jump off the boat and the hull is no longer floating but cradled, a loud creaking begins, louder than the cranes.
It was the straps, I am later told.
"I thought it was the wood," I said. Francis overheard and whipped his head around. He scolded in a single sputtering sound, walked on without pause, behind him he raised then dropped his long expressive arm in disdainful dismissal of such an impossible consideration.

Later I bring Francis a ladder. Of course the nervous captain wouldn't have thought to have one handy, I told Francis.
"You leave off him," Francis scolded me again. "Jackie Russell's doing fine. Just fine."

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Tensions Are High

All in all things aren't floating too well around this place, at this time. The winds have blown all the water out of the creek and the de-masted skipjack lists in the mud.

A group of Merchant Marines in-training at the Harry Lundeberg School of Seamanship in Piney Point came down a week and a half ago on a high tide and helped Jack nudge the skipjack into the bulkhead. This is so the cranes can reach it and swing it onto shore.

The cranes are due today. They say.

For a week Jack has hunted down huge wooden blocks and more importantly lifting straps that can nestle the boat as the cranes lift it from the water. There will be two cranes. The boat might be as heavy as 30 tons, Jack says. Francis shakes his head and shrugs his shoulders. "Twenty-two?" he says.

Other men help locate the blocks and jacks. Danny Holden leaves a half-dozen nice solid blocks at the dock as his contribution.

Jack finds heavy rope and threads it through the sleeves in the straps he borrowed from St. Mary's Yachting Center, Brandywine Motors and one from David Adams. The rope he finds in the infinite stores of the endless rigging snugged somewhere within the dark and cavernous attic above the oyster house.

And on another high tide he slips the straps beneath the bottom of the skipjack the Dee of St. Mary's and pulls the ropes onto her deck.

There is a late call Monday night and a date given for the cranes to arrive. The date is set and rain dates aren't an option. There is a flurry of paperwork. The wind blows harder, the skipjack is immobile in the mud. Our daughter who is teaching the Wooden Boat station at the Chesapeake Bay Field Lab this semester reported to me last week, "The skipjack is on the ground."

When Jack and I agreed to create a nonprofit to continue the life of the Dee of St. Mary's beyond our own we spoke with our daughters --- Hoot and Holler -- about their loss of inheritance, that the boat would not pass to them.

"Whoo - hoo," they both cried and pumped their arms in the air. Despite their hooting and hollering and the one who dramatically flung an arm to her forehead at the tragedy of such a loss, they made it clear that neither were considering the life of a waterman.

Yet the day she reported, "The skipjack is on the ground," she didn't think to mention until later that a tool at her teaching station needed to be replaced. She shrugged that she could use something else in the meantime.

"It's on the bottom," I said.

"It's on the ground," she repeated.

So Jack stalks the waterfront, snaps at the wife, has no chance to kick a dog because none cross his path, instinctively smart enough to stay out of his way as he waits for the cranes to arrive.

"Well if they drop it, it drops," he says during his 90 seconds sitting at the kitchen table this morning. He leaves his coffee to chill and curdle.

Right, I think. And the boat is on the ground. Nobody's worried at all.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Launching the Skipjack

“We had about 3,000 head down here that day.”

Jackie Russell’s face lights up still today, remembering that day in 1979. He’ll draw himself from the peace of sleep, from even the fury of interruption and turn immediately back to that most exhilarating of days nearly half his lifetime ago.

“ ‘National Geographic’ was there, but the fella who’d followed it couldn’t be there that day and the pictures got rejected and that was why we never got in ‘National Geographic’ magazine.
“All the politicians were there, big hoop-de-la for Piney Point. And of course after they couldn’t get the boat off everybody went up to Swann’s and got smothered drunk. Except me. I slept on the boat that night.”

A roughly treated, large color photograph of that day is perhaps one of those rejected. I found it at the bottom of one of the drawers of Dee memorabilia in the trailer’s closet-bedroom. I can't find it anymore. It must have been shot during the smothering. Jackie Russell is alone on the stern of his new boat, looking down at her V bottom wedged in the muck of a low tide. Aground. He is centered in the heart of the photo, small aboard his big boat. A cap pulled hard over his head. An arm checkered in a woolen jacket dangling from the rail. He does not see the photographer.

You want to think it is a funny picture, but of course it isn’t. But it isn’t foolish or pitiful either. The most appropriate caption would seem to be, “What is wrong with this picture?”

“It floated off,” Jackie Russell continues. “It was three days later. We got a high tide, a sou’ easter’ and a high tide. It was lightly snowing and the fellow who was married to Anita Evans, I can’t remember his name. Doug. He was at the school and got a wet suit and cut the chains loose and pulled them loose from the fifth wheel and the boat floated off. We got her off December 19th and it was lightly snowing. I think we tried to launch it the 16th and we couldn’t get it off.

The deal was, I think the deal was, the wheels were all in a line.” He sits up in bed, staring into middle space, seeing the scene yet again. “Really why we couldn’t launch that boat, all the wheels were in a line and there was an old boat ramp there at Swann’s and somebody had been digging some manoses out of that boat ramp, that concrete boat ramp. And as those wheels went off the boat ramp one behind another she bogged down right at the end of that ramp. And it might have even been an old piece of concrete at the end of that ramp got caught up.

“And the tug boat the Susan Collins couldn’t pull her off. They had the tug boat up at Lundeberg School and the tug boat couldn’t even pull her off into the river.”

He falls backs and shuts his eyes. "Enough," he says. "Go on to another chapter."

It was more than 25 years ago I had the first of what sometimes feels a lifetime of ridiculous interviews with Jackie Russell. This night, when he tells again of that day, towel abandoned on the floor, dirty clothes resting on top of clean, it doesn't feel particularly different.
Back then I hadn’t any idea what his business was about. I mean his professional business. I did, finally, notice his eyes.

Almost every woman I met those early years, if Jackie Russell dropped into the conversation the next sentence had to do with his eyes. They possessed the cinematic trick that forced a comic book twinkle out of Tony Curtis’ blue eyes in one of the celebrity vehicle movies of the 1960s. The leitmotif gag played for the duration of the movie whenever Tony Curtis’ character’s blue eyes met the camera.

Jackie could do it, can do it, without the cinematic assist, without the gag. “Jackie is genuine,” one of my least demonstrative girlfriends once gushed in a moment of appreciation. I grunted. Somehow I still suspect something of the trick to it. I can see the glint looking as far back as that first interview when he opened his arm wide to introduce his Associates. “My associates,” Jackie Russell welcomed me aboard his skipjack with a majestic sweep of his arm gesturing up the forward deck, just then being swabbed clear of the last of the oyster debris of the day.

A half-dozen men, layered in rag-tag collections of shirts and jackets and rubber boots to their knees, glanced up from their task and acknowledged me with sudden grins, then looked quickly to the captain before returning to their tasks or sauntering off.

“I call them my associates,” Jackie Russell confided to me, walking me aft. “It sounds better that way.”

Jack Russell was an egalitarian captain, well, as egalitarian as a captain can become. A huge snort of laughter bursts from him today as he reads over my shoulder.

“I can’t remember the name of the one who worked with Tynan Poe’s son, who, the two of them, beat up Eddie Poe so bad that time,” Jackie laughs. “He told me they were doing all the work and I was making all the money. He laughed.

He welcomed me aboard the skipjack, that first time, with his wide open arm, such a smooth gesture that it goes unnoticed once his eyes get you.

He draws that inclusive arm back, his left arm, and then brings it forward to grasp your forearm in a near embrace, then suddenly blocking that embrace he swings his right hand around and reaches for yours and grabs that handshake to pull you in closer. He holds you face to face, and he’s just a little bit too close but he stays too close, shaking your hand, close and tight. Without quite knowing how, you’re too close for refusal, too off-balance to step back.

Before you know it, you’re aboard, you’re a pirate too, you’re in his world and pleased with yourself. You’re possibly even lost to yourself.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Gene Weingarten Is Not My Friend. Yet.

That's what the inestimable Southern Maryland journalist Michael Gray would say when a story's subject didn't like the story line.
Boohoo, Gene Weingarten with your promiscuity and too many friends on Facebook. Come on, man, you are a journalist. You are the only columnist left standing at The Washington Post Magazine. What exactly did you think would happen making blind liaisons with people you didn't know, who held motives you couldn't divine? I suspect you thought -- what a wealth of story ideas.
Or maybe you were just not thinking, Gene. Well, think now. Take a breath and listen to your tech people. They are breaking you in slowly. And you need to be broken in if you're boohooing about 1,400 friends.
The woman trying to market my blogs would scoff at your tech people's suggestion of fans -- she wants followers. Do you know what she would see in 1,400 friends? A toe in the door of the long shot opportunity to make money on blogging.
I don't mean to frighten you, Gene, but this is in some shape your future.
Your column came to me via e-mail from one of my semi-gainfully employed journalist friends. That's professionally better standing than about half of us who have lost our gainful toeholds in the biz. We're print refugees, Gene. We have seen the future. And for most of us it looks more like Facebook than The Washington Post Magazine.
Trust me on this too. No matter how much your tech people pimp you out, you aren't going to ever feel like Justin Bieber. You're a writer. Albeit you write for one of the best newspapers in the world, probably might not even know the names of the ad reps hawking you, but consider, this might be the best paying gig you'll ever get by written word.
Indeed. Only 1,400 friends? You're the columnist for The Washington Post Magazine! If that meant what it used to mean maybe you could feel like Justin Bieber. But as it stands, newspaper readers are disappearing faster than the dinosaurs split.
So "boohoo."
Un-friend who you want -- though your suspicions are correct, it is not pretty. Turn them into fans to make your tech team happy. Whatever. But if the problem is simply that your choice of friends are boring, maybe you need to pep up your own postings to attract a more fascinating crowd.
And I further suggest, whatever you do with your friends, keep in mind that one of these days you and your ad rep might have the same social security number. And when that happens, you're gonna want every friend you can get.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Why Are We So Rude?

Last year's county budget hearing shocked me. Teachers, traditionally crying the loudest for tax hikes, were applauding the Constant Yielders.

The CY-ers are, in essence, our local version of the Tea Baggers. There are a parade of new faces over the years, but they all stand on the shoulders of a long-line of St. Mary's CY-ers entrenched long before I arrived in 1984.

Constant yield translates into a property tax mechanism that saves a homeowner of today about $170 a year. It saves a great deal more for the owners of super-duper homes, owners of multiple properties, commercial building owners and owners of large tracts of land zoned for development.

It doesn't save people who don't own a home anything at all. In fact, it can directly translate into service cuts to the poor.

So for public school teachers who depend upon taxes for their livelihood and upon the basic health and welfare standards of their community for the general well-being of their students, opposition to the Constant Yield Rate was an historic no-brainer.

So last year was weird.

So I sat before the television again this year, popcorn in lap, and was comforted in that sick-kind-of-way to see the teachers had returned to their traditional tactics. For hours they stood to ask for more money, many taking the opportunity to belittle, mock and insult the five county commissioners in charge of granting close to half of the schools' $177 million budget.

Don't get me wrong. I am certainly no foe of the mockery of public officials. It is often how I manage to sit in front of the television watching democracy unfold.

But even back when I had to attend in person I was amazed and confused by the technique at these county budget hearings. I'm sure I've more than once already quoted my mother's warning, "Honey attracts more flies than vinegar."

Well, I never much listened to my mother either.

So the insults are as traditional with county teachers as is Guerrilla Theater. This year they offered wieners in front of the school where the commissioners held the hearing. (Get it?) And they wore big carnival eye glasses to emphasize the short and long views. For me, the television audience who didn't see the wieners or the signs outside, the glasses provoked thought about the broad and narrow views.

Today I can more personally empathize with the rocks and arrows -- the spouse of a sitting commissioner, no longer a legitimate reporter -- but I confess, for as far back as when the county commissioners were my weekly fodder, I felt sorry for them at these budget hearings. No matter how short or long visioned they were -- or are, the bottom line is, at these public hearings they're simply sitting ducks. And they really don't have millions of dollars left to deal with.

It's not like stones and arrows have anything to do with the building of a public budget. And why would teachers complain of unpaid overtime to lower-paid sitting ducks who are similarly belittled at least monthly over matters equally beyond their control? It just doesn't make good sense if your goal is relief. Surely a teacher grasps the irony of the bumper sticker slogan, "The floggings will continue until morale improves." You do, don't you?

Then again, it's not like comments at budget hearings ever addressed the economics of running a school system, actual personnel and service losses associated with the constant yield tax rate or really anything other than each speaker's personal priority.
Budget hearings are more similar to petitioners coming before the king than the art of balancing a budget.

The months leading up to the hearing are when the dollar by dollar budgeting is largely completed for the pragmatic reason of needing a budget to have a hearing about. This budget document is typically crafted in cooperation and collusion with some of the very people who then stand red-faced and arms waving before the sitting ducks and spew their ire to -- nowadays -- the camera.

Sitting back with popcorn and history, it is great theater. In that sick-kind-of-way.

But to put it on TV next to all the other reality shows makes it much less humorous and much more obvious that it isn't confined to St. Mary's Constant Yielders or Constant Yellers. This is the style of contemporary public discourse. It fills every level of governing and of society.

Even our organizations form around central themes of common enemies: Cancer, the Republicans, the Democrats, Reproductive Rights, Women, Men. Even churches and parishes are selected by common enemy themes. And teachers have long complained that attitudes of disrespect and exclusion fill their classrooms.

I've got to think that turning St. Mary's County Budget Hearings into back-biting and finger-pointing reality television isn't helping.