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Friday, May 11, 2018

A Place from my past in First Person

Deale, Maryland is a precious antique.  A treasure from a bygone era where change comes slowly.  A place where party line phones and rural route mail delivery lasted until the 21st century.  I spent my summers there, twenty miles south of Annapolis, on the Chesapeake Bay.  I stepped back into the past each June into a peaceful village to emerge each September well-rested.  Most folks in southern Maryland during the last decades of the 20th century still made their livings on farms or fishing and oyster boats.  Their speech was laced with a southern accent and the pace of life was slow and steady and folks waved and called each other by name.   The town sits on Rockhold Creek about a mile upstream from the Herring Bay Inlet of the Chesapeake Bay.  It was originally owned by the Gott family who purchased land from Lord Baltimore.  They farmed 600 acres and over time sold off the land closest to the water to retiring ship captains.  Captain Deale brought the largest property and his descendants still live in the area.

                My best memories of the town were from the 1970s when I could ride my bike everywhere.  The center of the village was a crossroads with several businesses patronized by Deale residents.  The local post office delivered mail and gossip just like all small towns.  Everyone was recognized or checked out by the locals.  Next door was the local quick mart called Highs where I rode every day to buy a rootbeer float.  There were two gas stations at either end of town where in 1980 I sat in line for several hours with all the car owners in Deale waiting for the rationed several gallons of gas during the national gas crisis.  Only in a small town, it was more like a party - everyone sitting on their car hood shooting the breeze and enjoying the day.

                There was a small store for boating supplies called Brown Boys, a pharmacy, and a dry goods store called the Deale shop run by the owner and her 3 daughters.  The bookmobile was a van that brought collections of books into town several times per month to check out and read.  They came from the county library system out of Annapolis.  A library building wasn’t put up until 1968.  A Mr. Smith ran the grocery store in across from the Deale Shop and he got to know his customers by name.  Credit was never a problem if you ran a little short.  Outside of the village center were two marinas: Gates and Berlitz‘s, and two liquor stores: Parks and Captain Kidd’s, satisfying both the daytime and nighttime activities of Deale’s residents.  Unfortunately in 1974, the national legal drinking age was lowered to 18 and all the young folks in the town took advantage of it.

                The real center of the town was the fire hall where most of the males over the age of 16 hung out and waited for the alarm. Each summer the backyard of the fire hall was turned into a wonderland at night of hanging Christmas bulbs that lit up booths for games to win stuffed animals, glass plates, or goldfish.  The carnival rides ran late into the night and the trash from hot dogs and popcorn-filled dumpsters all over town.  Wednesday night of carnival week was parade night.  We set up lawn chairs before dinner and ate sandwiches from a cooler saving the best seats for a front-row view.  The bands and baton twirlers paraded for hours coming from all over the state and walking over a mile ending at the firehouse.  I practiced twirling and high kicks for weeks after the parade every summer.

                The Methodists set up churches near the coast for watermen in the 1800s and the Episcopal Churches were populated by the large landowners who farmed.  Deale center had the simple wooden buildings of the Cedar Grove Methodist Church where I attended the vacation Bible School.  St. James Episcopal was several miles away and had the oldest dates in their graveyard.  That church was a fancy brick building with pretty windows and a nice church hall.  Outside of town near St. James were farms where my family bought sweet corn and fresh tomatoes all summer.  Along the road stood tobacco barns and horse stables all in disrepair.  Only in recent years have the old buildings come down to make way for sod farms.

                Because the drive to a movie theatre or bowling alley was 45 minutes, the kids in Deale hung out at Highs parking lot in town.  We bought sodas and snacks and sat on the car hoods gabbing all evening.  Someone would chase another around the cars until they tired and of course, then worked up a thirst for another soda.  Adults never bothered us, I wonder if they thought it was good to keep us in sight.  Sunday afternoons we met behind the elementary school and played baseball or football.  I always watched - yelling for everyone equally.  It was great fun just hanging out.           

                The most popular businesses in Deale on weekends in the summer were the seafood restaurants.  There was Happy Harbor on the creek in town that had a busy bar area, Skippers Pier near the mouth of the creek with a view of the Bay, and the fancy SkipJack restaurant named after the working sailboats on the Bay.  I loved to order dozens of cooked crabs with my friends and all sit around a very messy table cracking crabs and drinking soda or beer.  We sometimes sat out on the dock till the mosquitoes got bad.  The smell of gas and oil mixture from the docking boats and the screaming of gulls fighting for leftovers combined with the chirps of crickets from the marshes trigger wonderful summer memories.  I had a friend who worked in the kitchen of Skippers and drove his small boat to work from his home across the creek.  One night he gave my friend and me a ride home and realized he didn’t have enough gas to get home himself. He put straight oil in the gas tank, somehow getting home, but ruined his motor.  He hadn’t wanted two girls to walk home in the dark, but his gallant efforts cost him a fortune in repairs.

                My home was a mile from town set on a peninsula jutting into the Chesapeake Bay.  Herring Bay Inlet was to the West and the mouth of Rockhold Creek to the east divided by a long stone jetty.  The rocks had been laid by the federal government as a breakwater in 1939.  An old duck blind was constructed near the end of the jetty years ago by the local watermen who also liked to hunt.  The house is a gabled, white, wooden farmhouse with green working shutters and sagging doorways.  Some of the windows have old glass with waves running through and the shutters close up in the winter and during storms.  A real estate agent some years ago said the land was worth a fortune but the house was worth nothing.  I tend to think it just has a worn, well-used look.  Additions and levels were added over the years and storms have taken things away.  We lost the old dairy and the lawn mower barn in 2003 with hurricane Isabelle.

                Each summer first thing my cousins and I got out the crab nets and made repairs.  We placed a wooden bushel basket in an old inner tube and tied it to our waists with a long cord. We made our way down the stone steps of the bulkhead out front and stepped into the water at low tide.  The bottom of the Bay was thick black muck and our feet stuck to the bottom and made sucking noises as we walked looking down through the seaweed for crabs.  Doublers were best and my grandmother liked it when we found soft shells - crabs that had just lost their shell and could be fried and eaten whole (by the older folks in the family…)  I loved catching the crabs and playing in the water and of course eating them, but I hated to listen to my Aunt Mary cook them live as they scratched the lid of the pot.  She shook Bay seasoning into the boiling water and dumped in the crabs.  I always had to catch at least a dozen crabs to make it worthwhile cooking them up.  When the sea nettles got bad with their long stingers as the heat of the dry summers made the water salty, I switched to catching crabs with metal traps baited with chicken necks and thrown overboard off our pier.  Sometimes we sat in the rowboat and crabbed overboard using our nets.  Our big thrill when we were young was packing a picnic and rowing to an old dock a short distance up the creek.  We were never out of sight of the house but felt grown up and adventurous.  

                My father bought an old tent at an army navy store and we put it up in the yard for a playhouse.  Rain or shine my cousins and I set up our Barbie doll houses in the tent and played dolls for hours.  We had two playsets with swings and climbing bars and a much-used sandbox with a heavy wooden lid.  The box was built next to the old wooden tool shed that housed my great-grandfather’s ancient collection.  It was never saved for show or antique value but was really used by all the family when repairs were needed.  My great-grandmother always had a garden with corn, cucumbers, peppers, and tomatoes.  Years after she died and no one planted anymore we still called it the garden, now just a field of grass along the waterfront.  There were several old trees with a wire line between them that was used as a dog run for my uncle’s golden retriever, Sam.  I disliked the holly tree because the dropped leaves pricked my bare feet.

                My favorite spot on our property was the old wooden pier that stretched out from the land into the mouth of Rockhold Creek.  Boats go by that pier all day in the summer to get from the secure marinas on the creek into the Chesapeake.  I especially loved the sailboats with colored sails that whipped wildly as the boats rounded the stone jetty and headed for deep water.  Whitecaps would crash into the rocks shooting spray and seaweed.  I often saw osprey nests in the buoy light in the creek.  The birds were fiercely protective of those nests diving toward anyone who came too close.  Teachers over the years would ask for essays about a favorite place and I always wrote about the peace of sitting on that pier feeling close to nature, watching the sunsets, and praying.  Many times I have gone back to visit and never leave without a walk to the pier which is where I established a relationship with God and go back to reconnect.