Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Memories of Winters in old Chesapeake City, part 2

Part of the Chesapeake City Basin iced over, circa 1950. Note South Side ferry slip pilings. Area at far left is now site of the Chesapeake Inn.

Close-up of the Gotham ferry, circa 1946. The room on the top level had the smoke stack where riders huddled for warmth.

So, do you think it’s been a cold winter so far? Well, let me tell you what many of the older residents of Chesapeake City told me about the cold winters of years ago. Dick Titter starts it off with his recollection of the coldest day ever in our canal town. “I remember when the old Clayton house burned down. That's on Bohemia Avenue, where Birdy Battersby used to live. At that time that house was outstanding in Chesapeake City—a premier house so to speak; I was thirteen, and that night in1936 was the coldest on record for Chesapeake City; it was 16 degrees below zero. The weather had been bitter cold for quite a while, the canal jammed with ice and everything frozen solid. And I can remember going down there to see the house on fire.
“I was all bundled up and ready to see what was going on. Well, I was standing in front of Groom Steele's house—where Frank Ellwood used to live—watching the firemen with their hoses trying to do something with that fire. Well, Mr. Steele was out there with a bottle of whiskey, and he was giving shots to the firemen because it was so very cold. I was standing right next to them and I recall how their raincoats and boots were frozen stiff from the ice all over them.
Johnny Walter, Albert Beiswanger, and Dick Borger were there, as I recall, and Johnny Walter had to go down to the basin there, by the town wharf, and cut a hole in the ice to get water for the fire engine. And Johnny told me that he took an ax and measured the thickness of the ice with the handle. He stuck the ax head down the hole and it just cleared the bottom of the ice. So that ice was three-and-a-half to four feet thick. But, anyway, that was a famous fire, because it burned down the nicest house in town.” Dick Titter
“I recall how cold the winters were in those days. The ferry would have to fight its way through the ice in the canal. To get warm, everybody in the upstairs room would huddle together up against the wall where the smoke stack was.” Gary Tatman
 “May Briscoe Kane used to talk about walking on the ice. She said that she got out on a piece of ice and it floated on out with the current. I don't know how she got back to shore.” Earl Schrader.
“We used to really have some ice in the canal when I was a kid. There used to be enormous chunks of ice floating in the canal, and I remember how Walter Basalyga used to ride those icebergs up and down the canal. He would jump on one down where he lived, near Basalyga's Wharf on the South Side—past the Chesapeake Boat company—and ride it up to school. And then, at night, if the tide was running the other way, he'd catch one and ride it home. I have a clear memory of seeing him out on an iceberg. He jumped from iceberg to iceberg.” Joe Hotra
“Daddy (Capt. Ed Sheridan) used to talk about when he was on the tugboats. He told me about one severely cold winter when they were frozen in the ice. It was so bad that they had to get the fuel to the tug by rolling barrels across the ice. They needed the fuel oil to keep the tugboat running and to keep them warm.” Jeanette Miklas
“One time, when the ice was bad, one of the pilots lost control of the big ferry. My father said that the boat ended up way up there by the government plant. In fact, he had to grab one of the Losten boys to keep him from jumping overboard. He was going to jump off on the ice and walk to shore.” Ted Lake
“I think the biggest thing was being late for school in the winter because the ice would take the ferry down past Schaefer's. All of us kids would get excited. We'd say, "Oh boy, we’re going to be late for school!" Becky May
“I recall the bad winters we had in the forties on our farm near North Chesapeake City. As a boy I used to cross over the lift bridge by hanging on to the back bumpers of cars in a sled when there was snow and ice on the road. We kids did all of those bad things. I also remember something special that happened on our farm in March of 1941. My mother was at the end of her third trimester, and went into labor during a blizzard. Until the snow drifted across the lane, my father figured we could easily negotiate it with our three-year-old '37 Chevy and get to the hospital six miles away at Elkton with time to spare.
      “We all got up, dressed, and my father helped my mother to the car, wrapped her in blankets in the rear seat, started the car, and proceeded down the lane for about one car length. But the car came to a halt against the drifted snow and would go no farther. At this point, my father got the tractor out of the carriage house and we chained the car to it. While my father tried to drag the car down the lane, I jumped in to steer it. The rubber tires on the tractor spun down through the gravel and clay, which had just started to get soft, but the tractor stayed where it was.
“We were running out of time so Dad told me to harness our two best horses. We hitched the two horses to the car with a double tree and chain to the front bumper. Again, I steered the car while my father drove the team. The horses pulled that car across the top of the drift as if it were a sled, on out to the main road. My father then drove my mother on to the hospital, and just after midnight on the Eighth of March 1941, our brother David was born.” Paul Spear.
            The great town of Rising Sun sometimes had difficult winters also. Don Gifford recalls an especially big snowfall: “When I was five years old we had a snow drift that was as high as our barn. That was at about10 p.m. and by the morning the drift had blown off a bit but was still about 12 feet high. My brothers and sisters and I dug a bunch of tunnels all through that enormous drift.”
            Norman Astle, a nearby Rising Sun farmer, remembers hearing older folks talk about driving horses down the Susquehanna river from Port Deposit to Havre de Grace. “Sometimes,” he recalls, “after a bad blizzard we had to leave the farm by taking down the pasture fence and making a passage-way across the field with our tractor and loader. In fact, when we moved here in January of 1954, we had to use the tractor to pull the truckload of furnishings up to the farm house. Moving in and securing our small dairy herd was quite an order for a day or two.”
            I have a feeling that I’ve chilled you to the bone by having you read all this about those bitter-cold winters. And so, in contrast, I’d better tell you about the hottest summer we ever had when I was a boy on our farm. That summer it was hot. How hot was it? It was so hot one afternoon that both of my father’s fields of popcorn started popping and blowing up into the sky. And then, when it began falling back to earth, our poor chickens thought it was snow and froze in their tracks. It was bad. We had to take them into the kitchen to thaw them out. Well, impressionable reader, I sure hope that you’ve now heated up a bit and are warmly looking forward to my next week’s story on facebook.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Winter Memories in Chesapeake City

Memories of Winters gone by in Chesapeake City, part 1

The Lift Bridge with the canal filled with ice, circa 1940.

The clear ice of Bunker Hill Pond, with Liane Hazel Kropp in top skating form

In some ways it’s nice that our winters in the 21st Century are not nearly as cold as the ones I remember in the early and mid-20th century. But in a way our warmer winters are not nearly as much fun. I recall how we used to wait impatiently for the temperature to drop so we could ice skate on the Back Creek mill pond and especially on the Bunker Hill pond. That was back in the 1940s through the 1970s. The Bunker Hill pond was a wonderful place to skate. It was about 50 yard wide and 300 yards long, with over-hanging trees and, at the far end, an array of cattails interspersed with muskrat houses.
We played ice hockey with old soda cans and tree branches. Our toes would be numb from the cold until we warmed them next to the inevitable bonfire. Some times, when we skated down towards the end, we’d be the first to arrive there, and the ice would be clear and smooth as glass. At times, when we least expected it, the ice would emit a prolonged crack, with an eerie, hollow, echoing sound. And I would think, “Wow! I hope it doesn’t break through.” There were also frozen side streams to explore, always with a stimulating sense of adventure. It’s so different now; instead of a pond we have to go to an indoor rink and skate around in circles.
Many of the senior citizens whom I talked to over the last ten years also remember those icy winters of long ago and have told me about them. One person talked about how her grandfather used to race his horse and sleigh on the frozen canal. Another told about playing “crack the whip” on the ice and the time her father drove his car out over a pond. Still another explained how his father had to shovel snow off the Chesapeake City lift bridge so it would rise to let a ship pass through the canal. The span was piled so high with snow that it wouldn’t lift.
What follows are other memories by Chesapeake City folks who recall those harsh winters: “I remember how we used to bring our sleds to school and, after eating a quick lunch, we bundled up and took our sleds across the field as far away as we could. Our teacher, Miss Ferguson, had a large hand bell and she used to ring it at 12:50. Of course, we could never hear it! So she would bundle up and come across the field to get us. Several times, as I recall, we pulled her back to the schoolhouse on a sled.” Miriam Burris
“We used to ice skate on the Back Creek Mill Pond. Sometimes we'd skate right out here on the canal. When the locks were here the canal was all fresh water, and when it froze up the iceboats would come up and break up the ice so the barges could get through. Then, the next day, we'd go out and skate up and down where they had been. There were big chunks sticking out because of being broken up, but we'd skate around them. There were times when we'd skate down Back Creek almost as far as Welsh's Point.” Walter Cooling
“In the wintertime I would walk out on the ice. My father told me that years ago the ice would be so thick that you could walk to Baltimore.” Grason Stubbs. “I recall one time in the winter when the government had a big steam tug called the Deland, and they would come over and hook on to that ferry and tow her across the canal in the ice. The Deland would break up the ice as she went, drop the ferry off in close as it could to the slip, work her way around, and then push the ferry up into the slip.” Morrison Watson
 “I grew up in Port Herman and I can remember when the old steamers used to come up from Baltimore when the river froze over. One time a side wheeler came up as far as the Town Point wharf, and she would ride up on the ice until the weight of her would break through. Well, one day she rode up there and the ice didn’t break; she sat there for two weeks. They had to carry food out to the crew. My father used to say that he rode a team of horses across the ice there. Years ago, that’s how thick the ice got.” Frank Ulary
“I remember when the steamer, Annapolis, used to come up to break up the ice. It was an old side wheeler. I was just a teenager at the time, and in 1934, the year I graduated from high school, the canal was frozen over. We used to walk across the ice, right there from below the school to Schaefer’s.” Albert Clark. “Now, talking about ice, I remember when my brother pulled me up the canal on a sled, up to Schaefer’s from Hog Creek, which was down below the old Burnt House. That was back in 1934 when the canal was frozen over.” Pete Swyka. “One time we were late getting to school because the ferry had trouble getting through the ice in the canal, but when the ice got too bad it couldn't run at all. I remember taking pictures of the ships stuck in the ice. They brought ice-breakers up when it was that bad.” Merritt Collins, Sr.
“My grandfather Pyle had built an icehouse near Court House Point. He dug it into the North Bank, which kept ice solid for a long while. He walled it up with logs on top of one another. He then ran a long chute down the bank right out onto the frozen river. Then he took a long rope and a set of ice tongs and went out on the river and sawed a huge chunk of ice. He hooked the ice tongs into it, ran the other end of the rope through a hole in the back of the icehouse, and had a horse pull it all the way up into the icehouse.” Ralph Pyle
“I came to live in Chesapeake City in the winter of 1936, and there was so much ice that the canal was completely closed; no vessels could get through here. As a matter of fact, a tug sank in there trying to break the ice. I walked across the canal that winter.” Harold Lee. “The thing I recall best is how we used to ice skate on Mallory Toy’s fish pond. We'd walk or ride our bikes out there and skate all day. It was nice because you were protected from the wind in there because it was low and surrounded by trees. I also walked across the canal on the ice one winter. I started down there by the old lift bridge and walked straight across to Schaefer's. Winters were cold back then. I used to skate all around in the basin in those days.” Cliff Beck
        Oh yeah, it certainly was cold back in those days. I recall one of those bitter mornings when our cow was nearly frozen in her stall. When we milked her, instead of the milk tumbling into the pail it came down as icicles and we had to snap off the squirts. We had a devil of a time churning butter that evening. But it was especially hard on our laying hens. Why, every evening we’d have to place hot water bottles in their nests so we’d have eggs for breakfast instead of ice cubes. Well, anyway, I’m certainly sorry, imaginative reader, if I’ve made you shiver from reading these cold winter tales. But I know you’ll thaw out and get cozy when you curl up with my next week’s story on facebook.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Historic Photos of North Chesapeake City

Historic Photos of North Chesapeake City

1830 sketch of Back Creek & canal – note Back Creek at East end, no Basin at that time but Back Creek was marshy and much wider.

Very old photo (1840?) of the lock and Back Creek – looking west. Note lack of trees, just bare ground. Joseph Schaefer’s ships’ chandlery was to be at the area at top right.

Steam tug, Startle, headed East through High Bridge – North Side at right. It was the most active tug servicing the Chesapeake City segment of the canal.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Steamboat Days on the C&D Canal

Steamboat Days on the C&D Canal

The General I. J. Wister, a wooden, steam-powered tug owned by the Back Creek Towing Co. Inset: Capt. Jacob Isaac Truss, master of the Wister.

The Startle, emerging from the Chesapeake City lock with a schooner in tow. Note Masonic Hall in distance, circa 1910. Inset left: The steam whistle off the Startle, courtesy of Harold Lee.  Inset right: Capt. Ed Sheridan, master of any craft on the water.

The Lord Baltimore, the most popular day boat of Ericsson Line fleet.  Inset: John Sager, about the age when he sailed on the steamer to Baltimore.

It was the mistake of my life that I was born too late to have enjoyed the escapades aboard the various steamboats that puffed their way through Chesapeake City’s canal. But I’ve been blessed over the last several years by being able to talk with folks who were born early enough to remember the glory of those extraordinary times. I do recall seeing the old Wilson Liners, and even sailed aboard the City of Wilmington on its voyage to the great Riverview Amusement Park on the Jersey side of the bay. I also talked with Jim Peaper, who ran a concession stand aboard the Wilson Line steamer, Mount Vernon. Edna, Jim’s widow, remembered putting her three-year-old daughter, Susan, up on a table so she could sing for the admiring passengers.
But I like to think that living during the earlier days of the steam vessels—the days of the tugs and Ericsson Liners—would have been even more delightful. With this in mind, let me take you back to those days via the memories of those chosen ones who talked with sparking eyes as they relived in words those youthful, enthusiastic times. And, by the way, hand over your TV remote and iPhone. I promise to return them after the steamboats glide by, trailing their pitch-black smoke, phantom-like, in the distance . . . until the air clears and returns us to the sanitized year of 2013.
“My father was master of the steamboats.” That’s what my grandmother used to exclaim with pride when I was a boy in the forties. She told about Capt. Jacob Truss, pilot of the General D. J. Wister, one of five wooden tugboats powered by steam. The tugs worked the waters of the Chesapeake and Delaware bays and their tributaries. My grandmother told me that Capt. Truss sometimes saw Civil War battles in the distance when he steamed along on the Potomac River. Capt. Ed Sheridan explained further: “My great-grandfather, Capt. Jacob Truss, moved to Chesapeake City in 1852 when he was 18 years old. He became captain of the old side-wheel tug boats, towing barges down the bay, then up the Potomac River. It was while he was going up the Potomac toward the end of the Civil War that he had a four-legged stool shot out from under him.”
          The most popular and most recently-seen steam tug in the canal was the Startle, which can be identified by a statue of a horse on the bow. Capt. Stanley Benson was its pilot, Nobe Benson its engineer, Groom Benson its fireman, and John Sager its cook and deck hand. I believe it was the Startle that was pulling a barge through the canal when the barge sank.  John Loveless remembered: “The barge was loaded with a 65-foot whale, weighing 75 tons. They had the whale’s mouth propped open, which was about eight feet long, and inside the whale they had laid a floor with a carpet, a small table, and four chairs. When the barge sank, the whale was loaded onto another barge and taken to Tolchester and displayed for sightseers. After that it was made into fertilizer.”
          The other very popular steam vessels were the ones in the Ericsson Line fleet. Capt. Ed Sheridan remembered them well. He explained: “The route to Philly is the same that was taken by the Lord Baltimore and the Penn, which have long since been turned into scrap. Those steamers used to make stops in Chesapeake City when the lock was operating, before 1927. When I was a boy I used to go to the lock at noontime to meet the two steamboats as they stopped on their way to Philadelphia and Baltimore. There were dining rooms for their use on both boats. A pianist and often a band played waltzes and fox trots for dancing during the trip.”
          Other residents who were lucky enough to have sailed on those luxury liners remembered: John Sager: “I remember riding from here to Baltimore on the Lord Baltimore. I went with my mother; we boarded just below the Pivot Bridge, near the Pumping Station, at the Ericsson Line Wharf on the North Side. I recall how much smoke those steamers put out, and how narrow they were—about 20 feet wide. Sometimes we'd sail on the day boats and sometimes on the night boats. If we were going down at night we'd get on in the evening at 8 or 9 o'clock. We went to see my aunts in South Baltimore and stayed about a week before returning on another steamer. The steamboat docked at Pratt and Light Streets, in the last berth up in the harbor. At the stern of the Ericsson Line Berth was an area where the banana boats used to come in from South America. They were boarded-up high. I remember that if you wanted to be brave you could go down and throw a pack of cigarettes up there and they'd throw down all the bananas you wanted.
Bill Briscoe: “When I was a kid we owned the farm that went right down to Hollywood Beach. I remember when the Ericsson Line steamers used to stop at the Town Point Wharf. In fact, we used to ship tomatoes from that wharf. Yes, I watched those steamers run up and down the river. We used to go to Philadelphia on the Night Boat. We'd board at the wharf in Chesapeake City at 10:30 and get to Philly real early in the morning. I wasn't tired when we got there because we always got a berth.” Bob Nichol: “I used to ride up on the Chesapeake City lift bridge. On Saturday evenings the steamer, John Cadwalader, would pass under and many people would sometimes ride up so they could look down on it and all of the passengers aboard. Sometimes there would be so many people on the bridge that the tender would come out and chase some of them off. Two of the bridge tenders were Friday Rhodes and George Knott, the boss. They didn’t care if we rode the bridge.”
          Edna Gorman: “I still remember when the steamers stopped at the Ericsson Line Building to load and unload freight and a few passengers. I remember when they closed the lock. I used to swim down there. I never rode the boats, but in the evenings I used to go down there and watch them. The smoke used to just pour out of them.” John Reynolds: “I remember the steamer, John Cadwalader. My grandmother and aunts used to come up from Baltimore on those steamboats. They'd get off at Schaefer's in the morning to visit us, and then get back on board in the evening to return. I never rode the boats, but I used to ride up on the old Lift Bridge and look down on them as they passed under. That was in 1934 or 1935.”
Walter Cooling: “I recall the steamboats that used to come through here. As a kid I used to jump off them into Back Creek. You see, we kids used to swim off the V, which was a wharf area at the entrance to the Chesapeake City Lock. The lock was next to Schaefer's old store. Well, if we saw the Penn or the Lord Baltimore in the lock, ready to drop into Back Creek, we would run up there, climb aboard, ride it a short distance, and then dive off into the water. Nobody on the boats ever objected.” Lucy Titter: “Miriam Watson told me that when she and Helen Titter were teenagers they rode with Mrs. Titter to Philadelphia on the steamer, Penn. Miriam recalls getting a bloody nose when the upper bunk collapsed onto Mrs. Titter, who was sleeping below.”

The steam vessels are gone, as are the locks, the lift bridges, and the pivot bridges. The canal is now a 450-foot wide, sea-level waterway. But older residents whom I talked with took great pleasure in reminiscing about the lost days of the steamboats.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Return of the Chesapeake City Snakeheads

Return of the Chesapeake City Snakeheads

Mules ready to pull schooner through lock. Inset: Harry “Hat” Borger, one of the last mule drivers to work the canal’s towpath

Lift bridge that connected George St. with Lock St. Note Rio Theater at left and part of Shine’s Gulf service station at right. Inset: Kaky and Shine Crawford.

Early, wooden pilot boat alongside of tanker to exchange pilots. Note pilot climbing ladder to assume command, circa 1943. Inset L: Marty Poore, one of the operators of the early pilot boats. Inset R: John Schaefer, owner and principal operator.

I’ve been concerned recently about a report describing an undesirable creature called the snakehead fish. It seems that they have been seen and sometimes caught in certain streams and ponds on the East Coast. They were brought here from another country and have the potential for rapid reproduction and thus could threaten the native fish. They are especially resilient, even having the ability to navigate on land with their flippers. These facts are upsetting because they remind me of a story told to me by my reliable Uncle Ernest when I was nine years old. Apparently these resourceful snakeheads have returned and again could cause big problems. That’s right; I said “returned,” because back in the early 1900s, according to Unk, there were many, many more of them and they were a force to reckon with.
It was 1945, and Uncle Ernest was visiting our farm, and as usual he brought along his best friend, Jack Daniels. I remember the evening well; it was dusk, after a warm day for early November, and as we watched the darkness squeeze out the last filament of light beyond Dave Herman’s immense oak tree, and as we eyed a mated pair of bluebirds flitting back and forth to snag bugs from mid-air, Unk told me his incredible tale. I had just brought home an ugly catfish I had caught in the canal, and that was what reminded him of the ugly fish that besieged Chesapeake City in the early 1900s.
Back then our canal was not sea-level; it was a long, narrow pond that ran from Chesapeake City to Delaware City. It required locks to raise and lower vessels as they entered and exited the canal. There was a pump house (now part of the Canal Museum) with a forty-foot water wheel that transferred water from back creek into the canal when it needed replenishment. Back then the tugboats and Ericsson liners were steam-driven. Large sailboats and barges had to be pulled through the canal by mules. Operations were much different back then before the Corps of Engineers bought the canal in 1919 and eventually widened and deepened it, thus making it sea-level.
But now, let me take you back to 1945, when I was a boy and thrilled to Uncle Ernest’s snakehead story. Here is what he told me in his own special way: “Well, Moose the Goose,” he said, swirling and clicking the ice cubes against his glass, “what I’m about to tell you I’ve remembered from the account your grandfather, Harper Hazel, told me when I was about your age. You see, he lived here on the farm in the early 1900s and had a clear recollection of the shenanigans that went on back then. Here is his story as I remember it: ‘You know, Sonny,’ Grandfather Harper began, ‘Chesapeake City was a quiet fishing town in 1915. The area was surrounded by farmers who came to town for supplies and for church and other activities. It was right about then that weird things started happening. Repulsive part-fish, part-snake creatures called snakeheads got into our canal and evolved at rapid speed. These crafty critters did it all practically overnight.
“ ‘That’s right, in a short time they undulated up the canal banks and began walking on their flippers all around the streets, especially the South Sides’ legendary Bohemia Avenue. Their numbers multiplied and they matured early, enabling them to establish institutions of all kinds. They had their own schools (underwater of course) not far from the Canal Museum. They even started their own church on the grounds by the old High Bridge. I recall being in the area one time and being touched when I heard the congregation singing their favorite hymn: Slithering to the Sweet Bye and Bye. Their nasal, out of tune voices brought tears to my eyes.
“ ‘Also remarkable was what they accomplished as individuals. One brave, young snakehead attached a line to the pilot boat and could be seen tubing back and forth in front of the Hole-in-the-Wall. Another learned to ride a motorcycle up and down the streets. It was so neat to see how he gripped the seat with his little back flippers as he worked the accelerator with his front ones. Soon many other young snakeheads took to riding motorcycles and even formed a club. And they all let their head scales grow long so that they could tie them into attractive pony tails. Yeah, it sure was heartwarming to watch them speeding along with those scaly pony tails flopping in the breeze.
“ ‘Some of them tied camouflaged bandanas to their heads, which made them even more appealing. And my but it was entertaining to watch and listen to them roaring down George Street—past Foard’s Hardware Store, past the Church of the Good Shepherd, past Beiswanger’s Ice Cream Parlor, past Shine Crawford’s gas station, and eventually across the lift bridge to Lock Street. But, of course, the sensible folks of the North Side always got together to drive them back across the bridge, where they could frolic as they pleased. Most of the townspeople, besides me, were delighted by the spectacle while others were unexplainably disgusted by it.
“ ‘Some of the other equally flamboyant snakeheads used to frequent the famous Hole-in-the-Wall bar to entertain and be entertained by Birdy-the-Bartender. One especially large one, named Allen, used to sidle in and bite the customers on the tops of their heads. Sometimes Birdy had to throw certain over-zealous revelers out the screen door, which meant that Birdy’s brother had to fix it the next day. Anyway, this snakehead named Allen, who had grown to the height of 6’8’’ and, by the way, walked on the tips of his tail like a clown on stilts and whose voice reminded me of John Wayne, sometimes threw Birdy out the screen door. This same Allen used to bite the beer glasses to pieces, and over the Christmas holidays would always eat the red Christmas lights as they hung on the tree. One time, and I witnessed this, Sonny, Allen removed one of Ralphy’s new boots.
“ ‘Ralphy was a whimsical Hole-in-the-Wall fixture who was known for his beer-drinking marathons. Most people drank their beer from a mug, but Ralphy drank his from an oft-filled pitcher. Anyway, Allen snatched off one of Ralphy’s boots, filled it with beer, and made everybody take a swig from it. Ralphy had just bought the boots that day, so they were brand new, and the comical part was that the beer began leaking out of the one like a sieve. Another time when I was there Allen came swaggering in with a 20-pound large-mouth bass. He made Birdy open its mouth and fill it with beer. And, you guessed it; everybody had to take a drink from it, including me. What a nasty-tasting mixture! Take my advice, Sonny, and don’t ever try it.
“ ‘But listen, I don’t mean to give the impression that the snakeheads were all playboys without respectability. Certain groups were inspired by cultural refinement. Why, some performed in the town’s minstrel shows (being naturally dark made charcoal application unnecessary). Others participated in the annual Chautauqua presentations. Oh yes, some were extremely bright. I became personal friends with a bright one named Oscar, and I know for a fact that he used to help Birdy’s son, Chuck, with his homework, which improved the lad’s grades considerably. Oscar became so respected that he even ran for mayor. He ran under the slogan, “A Flounder in Every Pot,” and he was only five votes shy of winning. My word, Sonny, imagine how different things would be if he had won.

“ ‘Eventually, though, despite the good intentions of the conscientious ones, the snakehead episode turned sour, because when the young, male snakeheads started dating the eligible daughters of  the town, the influential leaders had all of them rounded up and banished to a swampy compound somewhere in the wilds of Southwestern Cecil County.’ And that, Moose, is the end of Grandfather Harper’s story as I remember it. And now I have some serious partying tonight at Dolph Wharton’s tavern.”
So off he trudged, and as I watched him descend our field towards town, fantastic images of humanized snakeheads cavorted in my brain. And even now, 68 years later, snakeheads are on my mind. You can understand, concerned reader, the seriousness of our situation today, because somehow some of those dreaded buggers have apparently escaped captivity after nearly a hundred years and may be headed for our canal and town again. And we certainly don’t want a return of the problems cited by my grandfather’s historic, eye-witness account.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Model A Memories—A Love Story

Model A Memories—A Love Story

The Milk Bar (now site of Baker’s Restaurant) on Rt.213 at Brantwood, circa 1950.

Hanging Deer at Schaefer’s Wharf, with well-liked bartender, Uncle Frank Smith—circa 1950.

The John Schaefer House, designed by architect, Armond Carroll, and built by Harry Pensel in 1953. Inset: Master Carpenter, Harry Pensel in circa 1950.

“Fifty dollars,” he said. “I’ll let it go for just fifty.” That’s what I heard Nip Pierce say in Foard Brothers’ Hardware Store back in the Chesapeake City of 1950. Nip worked on the widening of the C&D Canal in the 1930s, and he was one of several older men who gathered at Foard’s to reminisce about their lives in the water-divided town. I was a skinny 14-year-old and worked in the store for a couple of summers. I soon found out that it was Nip’s 1929 Model A Ford that he had for sale, and right away I told him I wanted it.
Oh yes, 1950—It was something special. So sit back, put your feet up, and let me return you to those days, those days of hard work, hard play, and memories hard to forget. In the news, North Korea invaded South Korea (which led to war), President Truman approved the production of the hydrogen bomb, the first credit card was introduced, and we laughed at the first “Peanuts” comic strip. In the movies, Gloria Swanson and William Holding entertained us in “Sunset Boulevard.” In pop music, Bill Haley energized us with “Rock Around the Clock” and Elvis pulsated to “All Shook Up.” In sports, golfing great, Ben Hogan, won the U.S. Open and Boston’s Ted Williams became the highest paid baseball player at $125,000 a year. And in the World Series the Yankees beat the “Whiz Kids” of Philly in four straight.
Anyway, returning to my impatient, adolescent yearnings, I just had to have Nip’s Model A and, despite Pop’s objection (“Just too much for that worn-out jalopy”), I bought it with a combination of my money and his. I swayed him by whining that I had worked hard for that car. With Clint Foard as my boss I took care of the gas pumps as well as the whole general store. And, believe me, Foard Brothers’ sold practically everything: gasoline, kerosene, motor oil, linseed oil, farm implements, pen knives, boots, candy bars, sodas, and chewing tobacco—to name just a fraction of the merchandise.
And so, with the fifty bucks hot in my hand, I gave it to Nip for the jalopy, and I report with pleasure that over the next three years I derived a thousand dollars worth of fun from it. I still recall what it was like to sit at the wheel of the ancient buggy. One’s senses were overwhelmed with an emanation of rust, grease, stale gasoline, mildew, and fragrant, damaged upholstery that must have been comfortable lodgings in which field mice had set up housekeeping. But to me it was as good as a new Cadillac, because it took me wherever I wanted to go—over roads, fields, and through the woods. It even started sometimes without having to crank it. And if you ever have to crank a car, concerned reader, you’d better hope it doesn’t back-fire and break your arm the way my Model A almost broke mine. But once started I was able to travel to see things and talk to folks I had not known before. I wish I could report that I sputtered down the roads legally, but you must know that I had no driver’s licenses and the heap was not tagged. I’m counting on you, faithful reader, to keep my recklessness under your hat and not hold it against me.
My first journey was to pick up Cousin Dick Sheridan and buck and backfire over the bridge to visit Mayor Harry Griffin, who was standing outside Chesapeake City’s first firehouse with Johnny Walter, a respected waterman who worked on the canal. The old firehouse served as our town hall since it had been replaced by a larger, more modern firehouse located on Lock Street. Then we drove up Biddle Street to talk to master carpenter, Harry Pensel, who showed us the unique house he had build for John Schaefer. After that we chugged around to Schaefer’s wharf to see a hanging deer bagged by avid sportsman, John Schaefer, as it swam along his pilings. Frank Smith, John’s uncle, said that venison would be on the restaurant’s menu for the next two weeks. On one of my last Model A jaunts (I drove around in it for about three years before it broke down), I took my girlfriend to talk to Capt. Ed Sheridan, the competent former pilot of the Gotham ferry. At the time, “The Captain” was master of the luxury-liner, Port of Baltimore. He delighted in telling stories about his incredible career on the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.
But now let me take you forward in time to 1952, when our over-head bridge was three years old and I had my driver’s licenses. In those times most families had only one car and our family was no exception. So, when I borrowed our 1948 Ford, my folks stayed home and watched Milton Berle, Arthur Godfrey or some such on our 12-inch, black and white TV. I begged the keys from Pop often for many outings, but mainly to speed over to Cecil Street on the North Side to pick up my girlfriend. And I have a clear memory of one hapless evening during that humid-hot summer of 1952.
We watched a horror movie at the drive-in, cooled off at Brantwood with a milkshake from the Milk Bar (now Baker’s Restaurant) and, nestled as one driver, cruised down Route 213 towards home. Little did we know that it would be quite a while before we reached our respective houses. I, of course, was anxious to get home, but my girlfriend pleaded for parking at the gravel pit on Knights’ Corner Road. Once settled we turned on the radio and deployed our air conditioning by opening all the windows. We watched mesmerized while the plump moon panned leisurely overhead on its nightly journey, as midnight gave way to the next early day.
By now, gentle reader, you must suspect how hard this was on me because, naturally, I was concerned with the grandeur of the stars and that intriguing moon, never mind the glory of those soothing, early-fifties’ songs flowing softly from the radio. But when Jo Stafford sang “You Belong to Me” and Tony Bennett crooned “Because of You,” well . . . how could I enjoy those sensuous wonders with all of the kissing going on? As distracting as it was, however, I endured the smothering until well into the night, at which time I switched on the starter only to hear a click and a buzzing noise. Oh yeah, the battery was dead all right! And, unable to crank the newer car, we walked hand-in-hand all the way down 213 to Cecil Street and her doorstep. Then I jogged across Sisters’ field, up the long bridge steps, and eventually to my farmhouse. I woke up Pop and we borrowed a neighbor’s truck to jump start the battery and bring home the family car. As you might imagine, I couldn’t borrow it for quite a while after that.
        Since that nocturnal excitement, my girlfriend has kept me around for the last 61 years, and in late summer we take mini-vacations to the Ocean City area. Even now, when the time of night is right, she still pleads to park . . . but this time at the ocean’s edge to watch the moon puncture the distance darkness, and rise to color the glistening waves with breathtaking shades of gold. And, reclined there, it’s then that I secretly thank whoever invented those snuggle-restricting bucket seats, because regular breathing is important at my age. Now our embraces make up in contentment for what they lack in fervor. After a while, when the splendor wanes and I switch on the ignition to leave, the car never fails to start, so that we miss the dubious adventure of a long, exhausting walk in the dark.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Day the ship knocked Our Bridge Down

The Day the ship knocked Our Bridge Down

There was not much clearance for ships to pass between the lift bridge towers. Inset: Link from the chain that raised and lowered the span. Link measures 13x8x7 inches and weighs 100 lbs

Scriver’s Marina at Court House Point, second site of Cecil County’s court house. Our first court house was at Ordinary Point.

440 lb sturgeon, with victorious anglers: Arch Foster, John Schaefer, and Eddie Taylor, circa 1939

            Up until a July morning in 1942 things had been pretty quiet for most of us in our little town along the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. Pop worked for the Corps of Engineers, my mother was heavy with child (not to be light until late October), and at six years old the most important thing I had to worry about was how often I could hit a telephone pole at fifty feet with stones from our pot-hole dominated lane. But then the spectacular happened. At 11:38 AM, after negotiating the curve near the pump house, the tanker, Franz Klasen, sheered uncontrollably to port and crashed into the south tower of our lift bridge.
            From our farm about a quarter of a mile away, I heard a sort of dull clanking sound coming from town. I looked over towards the sound and saw that the bridge had disappeared. In those days the fields between our farm and the bridge were dotted with saplings, not the tall, dense trees that now block the view. Back then, I could always see the black lift bridge looming in the distance, outlined against the sky. My grandmother came outside and I pointed and yelled. She said, “My word, where’s the bridge?” She then told me “not to fret” but to wait till my father came home.
            When Pop did come home that evening he took me to town to see what happened. He drove down Bohemia Avenue and turned left on the dirt street that ran between the canal and the Hole-in-the-Wall. He stopped the car just before we got to Mallory Toy’s building (now the Shipwatch Inn) and we looked out at all of the wreckage. The big ship was where the bridge used to be and the black steel from the bridge was strewn across its bow. The steel was twisted out of shape, with some of it jutting high out of the water. I was excited and started jumping around in the car. Pop explained that the bridge was constructed between 1924 and 1925, was opened for traffic in 1926, and served our town for only sixteen years.
The bridge excitement had just died down when Uncle Ernest came for a visit and told me about the exciting time he once had in the North Atlantic. “Well now, Moose the Goose,” he began, jostling the ice cubes in his glass, “a while back, after those Delaware Park ponies let me down, I went fishing off the coast of Maine to make some money. Taking with me my best friend, Jack Daniels, I sailed pretty far off shore in my run-about and just started landing some big trout when a tornado blew me far out to sea. After a while, I saw something large floating in the water. When I paddled up to it I saw a sorry-looking, water-soaked guy hanging on for dear life to a log. He must have had a strong will to survive because he clutched the gunwale and flopped aboard before I could help him. His name was Chuck and, after a long pull on my bottle, he explained that his ship, the H.M.S. Bagel, a majestic Jewish steamer, had foundered in the Bermuda Triangle on its way from the Galapagos Islands to England.
“I got the impression that Chuck was some kind of important person because he said that he had written a book called The Origin of the Spacies, a science fiction story I assumed, but to tell you the truth I thought he was some kind of kook, because every so often he would raise his fist and yell, ‘Only the fit will survive.’ Geez, Moose, he was overdosed on salt and sun. Anyway, he blabbed that he was a scientist and had been studying the animals around Ecuador. I couldn’t understand most of the stuff he talked about but I think he believed that all living things, over a long, long period of time, could somehow change into other, different living things. At any rate, I needed somebody to talk to and help with the boat so I kept him aboard. He said that if he survived he would return to England and write more books, which I would never want to read because he admitted that none of them would have any pictures in them.
“But staying afloat wasn’t easy, Moose, because the weather turned really dirty. A vicious, driving storm drove us north, and then we began seeing larger and larger ice chunks in the water. A while later Chuck pointed to a gigantic iceberg off our bow and we both were shivering something awful. Soon after passing the iceberg we saw a deadly sight. A mammoth ship, an ocean liner, was half submerged in the sea, its stern under water and its bow jutting straight up into the sky. The liner looked almost new, and its name on the bow was scraped off except for the last four letters: ‘---anic.’ And, Geez, I’d give anything to know that poor ship’s full name.
“This is the part of my story that I don’t like to tell, because people were screaming and crying something awful. It was about this time that we saw a man bobbing in the water. I reached down and pulled him aboard. The fellow was almost an iceberg himself, so I gave him a hefty shot of Jack Daniels to warm him up.
“And then, luck must have been on our side because a strong current and warm breeze carried us west towards the good old U.S. of A. We sailed into the Chesapeake Bay, passed Scriver’s Marina at Court House Point, and made our way beyond Schaefer’s Wharf to the yacht basin. We arrived just in time to see John Schaefer land a 440 pound sturgeon. The giant fish almost caught John, whom we watched struggle at the line for about an hour. Finally, with the help of Arch Foster and Eddie Taylor, the exhausted sturgeon was hauled aboard John’s boat. Then they hung the fish up for display at Schaefer’s Wharf.
After that excitement we learned more about the little guy we had rescued from that icy water. His name was Al and he sure was an odd looking bird, with an unruly mustache and hair that was fluffed up on the sides of his head. He told us that the first time he ever did anything for fun was to sail on that ill-fated ocean liner, and then he started telling us about himself. Laboring with the English language, he told us that he had come from Germany, and although he had had trouble with math in school, he was relatively sure that he knew some new theories about the universe that no one else did. But he made a funny statement that gave him away. He said, in his stilted English—now, Moose, I think I’ve remembered it right; he said something about an E equaling a square MC. And when he went on about relatives in space and warped time and all, I knew that we had rescued a goofball and, I swear, I almost booted him into the canal.
        “I restrained myself, though, because I’ve always felt sorry for slow learners. And it made me feel good when he told me that he had managed to get a job at an obscure college in New Jersey called Princetown. For all we know, he may be performing his janitorial duties now, even as we speak. And I wish him well because some people say that I’m not that smart myself.” But, dern, I sure thought Uncle Ernest was smart, as well as brave, never mind lucky to have survived such a dangerous adventure.