THE GLEN L. MARTIN Aircraft Factory disappeared during WWII – from the air – thanks to the 603rd Camouflage Battalion. However, any Axis warplanes that might have flown over it wouldn't have had much difficulty aiming their bombs. The tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad and Middle River intersected forming an arrow pointing directly at it.
Although the plant produced many different types of aircraft during WWII and the Cold War, including medium bombers, it was most famous for its flying boats including the China Clippers and the PBM Mariner.
Patrons at the Baltimore Yacht Club bar looked over the backbar and through a solid wall of windows that provided a panoramic view from the Martin Plant on Middle River to Miller Island. Tolchester Beach and the Eastern Shore sometimes peaked through the mist directly ahead. Thus, we had a ringside seat to watch Martin flying boats taxiing to takeoff and returning to the boat ramp at the aircraft plant. The test flights of the Martin P6M SeaMaster jet-powered seaplane bomber were the most spectacular.
The first taxi tests were held during the winter. It was a winter during which the bay froze over completely and we enjoyed the side show of the Martin personnel attempting to keep a channel open for the big planes to taxi back and forth. The planes stood out starkly against the white background.
Martin P6M SeaMaster
When Spring came, they were ready for the first flight. We sat at the bar and watched it taxi across the bay disappearing in the east. The wind was blowing from the west and, although we weren't aviators, we knew that it would be flying directly towards us to takeoff. The first hint we had that the plane was coming was a distant puff of smoke. Minutes later, the plane appeared as a dot against the hazy Eastern Shore. When we were able to make out the hull, wings, and vertical stabilizer, water was spraying from each side. Obviously, it wasn't yet airborne.
The bartender was the first to become concerned. He began grabbing bar glasses, four at a time in each hand and set them on the floor. Periodically, he would swivel to the backbar, grab bottles, and set them on the floor. He stopped only occasionally to gauge the distance between the plane and the club house, then resume his work at a faster pace. Those of us at the bar climbed off of our stools and began backing up as the plane got even closer and was still on the water.
We don't know how high the plane had ascended when it passed over us, but it couldn't have cleared the club house roof by much. The whole building shook as though in an earthquake. The roar of the four huge engines was deafening. Later, the engineers discovered that the jet exhaust had burnt the paint off the plane's hull and they had to make modifications to protect it.
As Spring wore on, and we had readied our boats for their first cruises, we began chasing the SeaMasters whenever we had a chance. Picket boats enforced a safety zone around the flying boats and we had to keep our distance. Still, we found the water boiling in their wakes as the big engines belched flaming hot exhaust fumes behind them.
In the evening, we would steal past the Martin Plant, then past Ethel's Boat Yard on Frog Mortar Creek, and beach our boat at a drive-in movie theater nearby. The parking lot ran right up to the creek's edge. We brought lawn chairs with us and enjoyed free movies while a variety of Martin aircraft made their final approaches low over our heads.
I had my first hands-on experience with a computer at the Martin Plant when I was about 15 years old. They had set up a Tic-Tac-Toe game during an open house and invited attendees to play against a computer. Nine windows, about ten inches on each side, contained an “X” and an “O” shaped tube. The computer always went first placing an “X” in the center. A button was located below each window so that the human player could designate where to place an “O.” As I crawled forward in the line, I could see that every game ended in a win for the computer or “Cats Cradle” – a tie. When my turn came, I placed my first “O” in the upper left. The computer responded with an “X” in the window to the right of it. My game was about to end in a few seconds in another tie. However, glancing around I saw that the attendants weren't paying attention, so I pressed the two buttons below my “O” simultaneously and both illuminated. The computer responded dumbly with another X in the top right. I paused, admiring my handiwork, and then announced, “I won!” I don't know if the attendants ever figured it out.
I made a scene demanding my prize. Of course, none were provided inasmuch as no one was expected to win. They finally scouted up a ball point pen engraved with the company logo and shooed me away before I could cause any more trouble.
That was me – the trouble maker...
THE RADIO HOST left his microphone in search of a beer and the engineer was asleep at the switch when members of a yacht club from the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay came on the air.
Maryland Yacht Club
“We don't give a damn for the state of Maryland,” they sang. “We're from the Eastern Shore.”
I watched this tableau play out during Opening Day at the Maryland Yacht Club one June in the late 1950s.
Delaware as well as pieces of the states of Maryland and Virginia occupy the peninsula that separates the Chesapeake Bay from the Atlantic Ocean. It was built from silt carried down from the Piedmont Plateau over the millennia. Flat and featureless, it was fertile farm land. Its occupants used their boats to fish for crabs and oysters in the months with “r's” and carry produce grown there to Baltimore during the rest of the year.
Plantations dominated the Eastern Shore during antebellum days. Hariett Tubman and Dred Scott were both born their and escaped slavery to make their marks on American history.
Several rivers, notably the Northeast, Chester, Wicomico, Wye, and Choptank, as well as major creeks such as Worten and Onancock, make deep cuts into it. We explored them all during my years sailing with the Sea Scouts from the Baltimore Yacht Club.
One of our most frequent ports-of-call on the Eastern Shore was Rock Hall, Maryland. We tied up at the nearby Gratitude Marina and walked the mile into town to attend the movie show. Films were presented in an old barn. The show began after sunset so that light that stole between the clapboard siding wouldn't distract the audience. The price of admission was just twenty-five cents for which you received a double feature, cartoons, serials, and newsreels. The show was free if you arrived more than a half hour late. The box office was closed by that time. There were no fixed seats. You picked up your folding chair from the stack along the back of the theater when you arrived.
As a group of teenaged boys we were frequently mistaken as a “gang.” Local toughs, thinking that their turf was threatened would sometimes come after us. Fortunately, we were better organized than most gangs and acquitted ourselves well, especially on the road between Gratitude and Rock Hall. I remember several occasions when we had beer cans thrown at us from passing cars. Actually, I thought it was right friendly of them. The beer cans were usually full.
Yes, the Eastern Shore wasn't just a tidewater region, it was full of backwater towns. In fact, I discovered that if I wrote a check on the Eastern Shore, it wouldn't clear my bank for several months.
Frequently, when we visited many of the small towns in the company of the fleet from the Baltimore Yacht Club, the local officials would welcome us with open arms. The local volunteer fire department might have their engine at dockside blowing its siren and ringing its bell to make us feel welcome. On one visit to Crisfield, Maryland, we found barrels of beer in ice and steamed crabs waiting for us on the dock. It seems they were politicking for something, nothing that the Sea Scouts could provide, but we enjoyed the treats.
Things began to change there in 1952 when the Bay Bridge opened to traffic. However, most of the motorists were just passing through from Baltimore and Washington on their way to Ocean City, Maryland. They didn't stop frequently enough to bring change to the rest of the region.
Ocean City, MD
Thus, the people of the Eastern Shore have never felt part of the rest of the state and separatist movements have sprung up regularly throughout history. The most recent was in 1995. The more modern proposals have attempted to consolidate the portions of Maryland and Virginia with the state of Delaware which probably makes the most sense.
POOLES ISLAND LIGHTHOUSE, the first lighthouse built by the United States government, is one National Historical Monument you never want to visit. Even the Sea Scouts weren't foolish enough to go there inasmuch as it is surrounded by a mass of unexploded ordnance. The reason is that Pooles Island, near the confluence of the Gunpowder River and the Chesapeake Bay, was the target of nearly continuous artillery barrages from 1918 until some time in the 1960s. Located just offshore of the United States Army Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Pooles Island was the impact area for shells fired to test artillery and mortars since the beginning of America's entry in the the First World War.
Pooles Island Lighthouse
The narrow passage between Pooles Island and the Aberdeen Proving Grounds on the Western Shore of the Chesapeake Bay was closed to boat traffic during test firings. Pickett boats patrolled both ends of the narrow strait. Our USAAF P-250 Crash Boat came to us from that service. It was stuck in ice one winter while attempting to return to its moorings. The crew walked ashore on the ice shelf and the boat was allowed to sink during the Spring thaw. Fortunately, the water was shallow and we were able to retrieve it without too much difficulty.
USAAF P-250 42' Crash Boat
We didn't have the funding to buy new or even used boats and had to take what we could get. The crash boat was an opportune find. It had a double-planked mahogany hull fastened over closely spaced oak frames. The crew who abandoned the boat probably could have forced their way home like an ice breaker. Luckily for us they didn't and we acquired the perfect vessel for our purposes. It was built to respond to emergencies. A continuous bilge ventilation system allowed us to fire up the engines at a moment's notice without worrying about igniting fumes.
The boat had two bench seats in the cabin forward of the bridge and two in the one aft that could be used as berths. We added three hanging pipe racks with bed springs and cot mattresses forward and converted the seat backs in the after cabin into berths that were hinged to serve as both berths and seat backs. This gave us a total of nine berths. We carried cots on board for two to sleep on the bridge and four in the after cockpit, giving us accommodations for a total of fifteen.
As I researched Castro's revolution to write Rebels on the Mountain, I learned that he had attempted to purchase a P-250 Crash Boat like ours to transport his group of 83 rebels from Mexico to Cuba. I can't imagine where he would have put them. Indeed, the cabin cruiser he used, the Granma, was only about twenty feet longer.
Cabin Cruiser Granma
I visited Aberdeen once with my junior high school class, about two years before I joined the Sea Scouts. The landscape was dominated by skeletal steel structures that held two electronic sensors. Canon cockers fired artillery and mortar rounds through them to measure the velocity of the shells. This data was transmitted to Philadelphia where human computers calculated ballistic charts, called firing tables, that soldiers used to fire accurately at the enemy. American Heritage
magazine recently featured a story about the women who were recruited during World War II to perform this duty, and who programmed the first digital computers.
We frequently observed the impact of artillery rounds on Pooles Island from a safe distance. However, there were times when a few rounds fell short of the island and sank a buoy marking the channel between the island and the mainland. The Coast Guard who had to maintain and replace these buoys were none to happy. They accused the Army of sinking them intentionally. If true, it represented an amazing feat of marksmanship.
As I learned later in my training as an infantry officer, artillery and mortars are principally used in batteries of three to four tubes. One tube fires a round for registration. A forward observer reports adjustments to a fire control team who calculate changes in the weapon's elevation and direction to hit closer to the target. In the case of mortars, they also have to calculate changes in the number of supplemental propellant packages attached to the fins of the mortar round to alter the weapon's range. Several rounds may be needed to bracket the target. When the observer believes that the registration round has impacted close enough to the target, he requests that the entire battery fires for effect. With three or four tubes firing simultaneously, chances are good that the target will be struck. If the target is a group of personnel, the combined bursting radius of all three or four rounds should spread a sufficient amount of shrapnel in their ranks to decimate them.
However, when we observed a buoy being sunk, the canon cockers at Aberdeen usually required no more than two rounds for registration and hit it squarely with the third round. Only later, when I studied artillery tactics, did I come to appreciate their accuracy. The buoys were no more than four feet in diameter!
I must admit to visiting Pooles Island twice. On the first occasion, the picket boat must have moved further up the channel, out of sight, and the firing hadn't commenced when we ventured into the channel. We got out of there just as fast as you can imagine as soon as the first rounds impacted. Luckily, they fired in trajectories that impacted towards the center of the island, away from the beaches. On the second occasion, we beached to bailout a small sailboat and, since they weren't firing that day, we explored a little. We hadn't heard of duds before and, fortunately, didn't encounter any otherwise my career as a storyteller would never have gotten off the ground any farther than an exploding shell could have launched me.
THE UNITED STATES COAST GUARD is a law enforcement branch of the Treasury Department. In time of war command and control is transferred to the United States Navy. In some quarters, they're affectionately known as the Hooligans Navy. I believe that the appellation applied because, although a quasi military organization, Coasties didn't adhere to strict regimens of military discipline. They were somewhat nonchalant in their uniform and didn't enforce strict military-like protocols. They had too many nonmilitary (police) concerns.
I don't think that the members of the Baltimore Yacht Club who considered the Sea Scouts to be hooligans intended it affectionately. They sincerely felt that we were some sort of street rabble intruding on their privileged sanctuary. To be fair, for those of you who are joining this conversation late, this group was a very small minority of club membership.
True yachtsmen tend to have a connection to any youth who demonstrate an interest in boating. There were many occasions when strangers at Dana Point would step up to help the boys I had recruited from the juvenile detention facility. If they were struggling with sailing or rowing a small boat, nearby sailors would happily provide them with help even though the boys wore gang tattoos and most were of noncaucasian origins. Yes, there were other boaters at Dana Point, just as there were at the Baltimore Yacht Club, who looked down on us, but I never counted them as true yachtsmen.
I suppose we came to embrace our status as hooligans in their eyes, just as the Coasties embraced theirs. And, like the Coasties, we proved our worth countless times saving sailors in distress, even those who looked down on us.
Interestingly, as my first summer with the Sea Scouts drew to a close, we had an opportunity to work on a rescue alongside the Coasties. We were shepherding a group of sailboats around a race course when we were suddenly overtaken by a squall. These storms can be terrifying. They strike suddenly and with just minutes of warning. Generally, they arrive within less than an hour after the tops of the clouds first appear above the horizon. Half of that time is needed for enough of the cloud to rise far enough to discern their telltale anvil shape. When the storm is less than fifteen minutes away, the bottom of the cloud appears above the horizon and you can see sheets of rain falling. In the most violent ones, you will see a rolling mass of clouds at the leading edge, along the base, appearing like the massive front wheel of a steamroller.
On this occasion, racers from the Baltimore Yacht Club were spread out over a square mile in front of us. We rushed forward when we saw the first ones being knocked over or losing their masts. We had seen a Coast Guard Cutter nearby during the day and requested their assistance by radio. As the youngest member of the crew and inexperienced, I was left to handle lines and assist sailors after they were brought aboard. It was mid-September and the water was cold, and the little clothing they had was soaked. The older members of our crew were jumping into the water to help the racers right their boats and tie them behind ours, and then help them aboard. Nearby, the Coasties could be seen doing the same. Within a half hour we had gathered everyone from the water and had all their boats in tow.
Side-by-side with the Coast Guard Cutter, we delivered everyone safe and sound to the Baltimore Yacht Club.
One of our greatest detractors at the yacht club, who shall remain nameless though many years have passed, inherited his yacht and his membership from his father. I believe that he also inherited his father's money and business. I could fill pages with the many instances when we had to save him from his own folly. However, there was one occasion when I failed him and the memory of it still rankles now almost fifty years later.
We were on a cruise to Norfolk, Virginia. Our starboard transmission sprang a leak in its cooling system as soon as we departed the club and we had to turn back to make repairs while the fleet continued on to St. Michaels, Maryland, the first overnight stop. I worked all night with my father's assistance to fabricate a replacement part and reinstall the transmission. We left the next morning as the yacht club fleet departed St. Michaels, about fifty miles ahead of us, headed for Solomon's Island, at the confluence of the Patuxent River and the Chesapeake Bay.
We ran into severe seas just after catching them and my crew became seasick. Just one boy and myself were left to operate the boat. Shortly thereafter, the man who shall remain nameless lost his engine and we turned to take him into tow.
I maneuvered our boat while my lone crewman accepted the towline from the disabled vessel. I then turned the helm over to him and secured the towline to a bridle that I fashioned to spread the load between two samson posts in our stern cockpit. His was one of the few yachts in the fleet that was heavier than our crashboat and I was concerned with the strain that towing him would place on us, especially in the heavy seas.
We kept him under tow for about two hours as we continued on to Solomon's Island. It was the nearest port, but unfortunately required that we tow him into the teeth of the oncoming waves. As I had feared, the tow was placing enough strain on the samson posts that they began to complain with creaks and pops that I never expected to hear from them. My only option was to rig a bridle completely around our boat to spread the load from stem to stern. Unfortunately, I would have to accomplish this feat without help inasmuch as all my crew save one were disabled.
I called the vessel we had in tow to explain the problem and coordinate the maneuver. Unfortunately, his wife was on the radio with a friend in the fleet ahead arranging a cocktail party, and refused to get off the air. Finally, exasperated, I cut the tow. I secured a spare anchor to my end of it and tossed it overboard so he wouldn't drift onto the lee shore. I then called the Coast Guard with his position and proceeded to Solomon's Island alone.
As I said, it is the only rescue that our ship ever failed and I was the man in charge of it – well, an eighteen year old Coast Guard licensed skipper, not much of a man yet.
So, yes, we were hooligans. We weren't a spit and polish Boy Scout group. We gambled, chased girls, and even broke the law at times – minor laws to be sure. I have even admitted to having a shot of moonshine during a cruise. But, we were useful hooligans and I never felt the need to ask any man's forgiveness except that one occasion. I don't know why it still bothers more than fifty years later.
WHAT ELSE EXCITES young men, especially teenagers, more than girls? Young boys, unprepared for the first assaults of pheromones, succumb like ducks sitting under the business end of a punt gun.
Okay, let's pause here a moment. Punt gun: a large caliber shotgun mounted to a small boat -- a punt -- that is rowed near a flock of waterfowl and discharged. Used on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay to supply Baltimore restaurants with large quantities of ducks and geese.
Yep, that's a pretty good metaphor for the effect that just one girl could have on the whole Sea Scout crew.
Unfortunately, there weren't many young ladies in evidence at the Baltimore Yacht Club. Pre-teen girls usually weren't of much interest to the boys, and once they became teenagers, the girls rarely wanted to hang around a boat all day with their parents. Of course, when one put in an appearance, their parents weren't enthusiastic supporters of our pursuits of them. To most of the parents of young girls, we were a bunch of hooligans. Probably a fair assessment.
As the child of an abusive parent, I was fatalistic about the girls. It's hard to muster up much faith that anyone will find you loveable when the people who should love you, your family, don't. However, that didn't keep me from becoming involved in everybody else's flings.
[Note: This will be the first time that I won't mention names to protect the innocent.]
On one cruise when I was skippering the boat, the preteen daughter of a yacht club member became enamored of a fifteen year old boy on the crew. She was seriously enamored. On one occasion, I received a radio call from her mother asking me to call the boy inside from bow watch. Her father needed to use the binoculars and he couldn't get them away from her while he was visible on deck. Unfortunately, the boy in question did not reciprocate her feelings. Inasmuch as her family was very supportive of the Sea Scouts at the yacht club, I felt it was in our best interests to keep the relationship under control. Things came to a head on the last night of the cruise. There was a dance and she wanted to go. The boy complained that he couldn't afford the price of admission, so I loaned him the money. Word reached the girl that I had paid him to take her. That didn't end as well as I had hoped.
This wasn't the only occasion in which I found myself in the middle. A woman and her very attractive daughter cruised with the yacht club fleet to Norfolk, Virginia, during one of the years when I was ship's boatswain. In an age when male chauvinism was rampant, I may be excused for being impressed that they would attempt the journey without the benefit of a male companion. However, the mother was an excellent sailor and they did just fine until we reached our destination. As soon as we arrived, their engine gave up the ghost and we had to tow them back to Baltimore. They were guests on our boat for two days and the daughter began to take an interest in one of the crew. I was a little ham-fisted on this occasion and “ordered” the boy to escort her to the final night's dance. Lacking any way out of the “assignment” he walked off the dock as he led her to the dancehall. Again, I was confronted by a woman scorned. He had spilled the beans. Seriously, thinking back, I still don't get it. She was crowned Princess of the Baltimore Yacht Club the following year. Did I mention that she was very attractive. What was his problem?
JUST ABOUT EVERY yacht club in Maryland had slot machines during the 1950s when I was a Sea Scout. You could also find them in stores and bars in the out of the way places around the Chesapeake Bay even though they had been outlawed some time after World War II. I'm not sure when. I haven't been able to find any citations to help me along in my research.
I don't think there was ever a time that Maryland didn't have parimutuel betting. The race tracks at Pimlico, Timonium, and Laurel are historical institutions. But, the state also had casinos. The corridor along US 301, between Baltimore and Washington was an east coast version of Las Vegas.
The law seemed to look the other way at private clubs when it shut down operations at the public establishments, for a time. I didn't see any slot machines after 1962. I remember that year specifically because our pre-law class once partied at Kurtz's Pleasure Beach at the confluence of the Patapsco River with the Chesapeake Bay. (I was surprised to find it on Google, still in operation.) One old lady, not a member of our class, nearly knocked me to the floor with her hip when I accidentally stepped up to play one of the four one-armed bandits that she was playing simultaneously.
We also found an occasional pinball machine that paid back coins instead of free games for large scores. They were distinctive in that they didn't have legs. The base extended to the floor and contained the payoff mechanism. One of our crew, Jim Urch, seemed to have a real talent for them. There was one at a dockside store on Deal Island that he played from the time we arrived until we left except at night when the store was closed. I loved the sound of it paying off. Cachunk-cachunk it spit out the coins, nickels, one-at-a-time. Jim ignored it and let them accumulate in a bin at his feet. He was a young man with a purpose and I think he may have emptied it.
No one seemed to care that a bunch of teenaged Sea Scouts played the slots. We waited for the adults to tire of them and then stepped in. Dunaway Walker, the yacht club's resident storyteller, who frequently cruised with us, would stand at our backs lecturing on the evils of gambling as we played. I liked his company. I invariably won under his scrutiny. He was my good luck charm, I guess. It must have vexed him, especially when I would leave and he would step up after making sure not one was watching. He would feed a couple of coins, lose, and then stalk off certain that no good would come from playing them.
My most intriguing experience with the slots came one year when a guest on one of the yacht club boats won a jackpot at every port. We became his stalkers trying to figure out what he was doing. We discussed the way he put in the coin and pulled the lever. We watched what he did with his hands as the dials were spinning. Nothing. Finally, I happened to be waiting on the porch of the boathouse at Solomon's Island, for my turn in the shower, when he arrived and won his usual jackpot. He then placed a long distance telephone call using the pay phone. He talked a long time and the operator frequently interrupted him to insert more money.
Let me pause to explain something for those of you who have never used a phone in the days before cells and direct dialing. My mother was a long distance operator and had explained this to me. The money he was depositing was being held until the operator sent a signal for it to drop into the coin box. This man struck the phone on the dial, just so, as he hung up and all his money came spilling out the coin return slot. He collected it and left.
The phone rang shortly thereafter. It persisted ringing until I went and answered it. It was the operator asking for the man who had been talking on the telephone. I'm sorry, I didn't know where he had gotten off to. He definitely knew something about coin-operated machines.
CHERRY BOMBS. M80s. Helicopters. Sky rockets. Roman candles. Cracker balls. Mortars. Our mouths watered. We couldn't buy these things in Maryland. But, this was Virginia. The Old Dominion State. Sic Semper Tyrannis. Mother of Presidents. Virginia is for lovers. Yeah, and teenage boys with gunpowder dreams.
We had walked from the mooring in Onancock, Virginia, down a long, dark country road, flat as a pancake, straight as a Baptist preacher's bourbon.
"There's a store down that thar road, boys. Hell, ain't nuthin' else out that way 'cept the Higgins' place and you can't see that from the road. The store's right along side it. Y'all can't miss it."
After an hour walking in the muggy heat of early evening, we were beginning to fear that we had missed it. But, there it was at last. It didn't look much like a store in the distance. Just a silhouette in the twilight. One light burning in a window. An old man wearing bib overalls, sitting on a porch, rocking, holding a glass of iced tea in his lap, cooling his privates with the condensation dripping off it.
He smiled. “Yep, dis ere's da place y'all lookin for,” he informed us before we could ask. “C'mon in.”
“Where's y'all from?” he asked over his shoulder as he led us inside.
“Balmur,” I replied. Baltimorese sounds like that, really.
He chuckled and looked at me. “Sounds like it,” he responded.
He gave us lots of room and let us gawk. There it was. Forbidden merchandise stacked on wooden shelves nailed to every wall. Cherry bombs and M80s – Hammerheads, we called them – in boxes of seventy-two.
“Twelve bucks a box,” he said seeing in which direction our eyes were bulging.
We couldn't believe our ears. Dick started to say something to confirm the price.
“Ya heard me,” the old man cut him short. “Twelve bucks a box.”
Good Lord! The corners of my mouth were getting sore from the grin that stretched them to unaccustomed distances.
We pulled out our wallets and began calculating our purchases. I didn't see any need to buy both the cherry bombs and the hammerheads. They're about equal in power. Others just grabbed a box of everything.
The walk back to the boat began cheerfully. We were too wrapped up in visions of mayhem to consider the discomfort that would soon afflict us from embracing our contraband during the long walk back. There was a lot of shifting of loads and stops to rest. It didn't matter. We were too excited to care.
We didn't even give ourselves a minute to rest when we climbed aboard. The skipper was at dinner with the other members of the yacht club fleet. We began tossing cherry bombs and hammerheads into the water, cheering each explosion.
The boatswain disappeared inside when the novelty began to wear off and reemerged with a roll of electrical tape and a box of spare hardware: nuts and bolts. He taped a cherry bomb to one, lit it, and tossed it over the side. We watched expectantly. A flash of light. A muffled wump. A stream of bubbles floating to the surface followed by a school of stunned fish. Dinner anyone? We followed his example. Hell, he was the leader, wasn't he.
We recreated the Battle of the Atlantic during the trip back north, launching depth charges port and starboard, two and four at a time, all the way home. No u-boat was safe in the Chesapeake Bay that summer.
Fortunately, we were always at the last boat in the fleet and the skipper usually stayed on the bridge making sure we didn't run into something. Thus, all the adults had plausible deniability.
Back home, the Baltimore County police got wind that someone had invaded their territory, armed to the teeth. I suspected that the busybody who lived next door had ratted me out. I watched a squad car parked at the end of our street one day. They were there a long time and there wasn't a donut shop within a mile.
I sneaked out the back door. Crossed the stream behind our house and cut through a narrow strip of woods that separated us from the sand lot where we played ball. I used one of my dad's cigarettes as a delayed fuse and attached it to a mortar. I ran back home and was sitting on the front porch in full view of the police when the charge was launched high above the trees and exploded.
The cops peeled out to investigate the scene of the crime. I was still sitting on the front porch, sipping on a Coke, when they cruised by about ten minutes later. I waved, friendly like. They scowled.
WITH THE ADVENT of steamship service on the Chesapeake Bay in 1825, citizens of Baltimore began cruising to escape summer heat and humidity on the beaches of Tolchester and Betterton on the Eastern Shore also known as the DELMARVA Peninsula – All of Delaware and portions of Maryland and Virginia were located there. Amusement parks were built for their entertainment and Annie Oakley gave frequent exhibitions of her world famous talent for sharp shooting.
The amusement park at Tolchester was still in operation when I was a Sea Scout, and it was located just 12 miles across the Bay from the Baltimore Yacht Club, making one of our favorite day trips. The Skipper trusted us with the Gig whenever we wanted to make the hour and a half cruise. We would drop the anchor about a hundred feet from the wooden pier. We would then backup until the stern gently touched and tie up. We had to use the end of the pier inasmuch as an excursion boat might arrive at any time while we were there.
I remember the boatswain taking me under the roller coaster after riding it for the first time. Chunks of wood began falling as a roller coaster passed overhead. On closer inspection, I found that its wooden structure was rotting away and that maintenance personnel had been hammering it back together with ten penny nails for decades. The ends of cross bracing were splitting from all the nails driven into them. What the hell, it made the ride all the more exciting when you knew that it might collapse under you at any time.
The place may have been going to seed but the food was still excellent. The funnel cakes were memorable although the fryers looked as though they may have been using the same oil that Annie Oakley had sampled there decades before.
On my last visit there when I was boatswain, about 1960, we ended the day by bowling a game of duckpins in an open air pavilion. Duckpins are like ten pins only much smaller, and the balls weigh only three pounds. The game was invented to be played on smaller alleys than ten pin alleys, that bar owners in Baltimore and Washington had installed.
Pin boys sat above the pit where the pins collected when they were knocked over. They would jump down and clear away any pins that remained on the alley after you bowled – you played three balls in duck pins. Then they would launch your ball on a track that carried it back to you behind the foul line. After your bowling three balls in each frame, the pin boys would set up the pins for the next player.
At the end of the game, you rolled a quarter down the gutter to pay the pin boys for their service. Unfortunately, we had spent our last money to play the game and had nothing left to pay them. We shrugged our apologies and began to run when we saw that they weren't in a forgiving mood.
We grabbed the stern lines and cast off as soon as we jumped aboard the Gig. Two boys on the foredeck began hauling in on the anchor line as I started the engine, and the pin boys gave us a hearty farewell by heaving loose boards from the dock at us.
Those who could not afford the price of a ticket on the steamship rode the trolley from Baltimore to Pleasure Island where a less elegant amusement park waited. The trollies sped along Sparrows Point where the British had marched to attack the city while their ships bombarded Fort McHenry. They rolled past the Bethlehem Steel Works and Sparrows Point Ship Yards, crossed a narrow wooden trestle bridge and discharged their passengers on the island.
I only visited there once when I was about five or six years old. I still remember standing beside my mother, hanging onto her skirt, as the trolley rocked from side to side. There were no seats for us until the workmen disembarked at stations along the way. These were the old-fashioned trollies with a pantograph at each end that connected to the overhead wire. They also had couplers like railroad cars. The one we road that day was joined to another for the trip to Hart Island. I don't remember anything about the park itself – just the trip there and back.
The amusement park was closed and abandoned in 1960 after storms washed away the bridge and damaged the park beyond repair. I passed the island many times but we never stopped. After 1960, there was no reason.
MY MOM WENT to work at the telephone company when I was about eleven years old. She would call and have me begin preparing for dinner so she could begin cooking as soon as she got home. Pretty soon, I was cooking for the family. Inasmuch as she was an operator and worked shifts, it wasn't a daily chore, and I enjoyed it. I've been cooking all my life now.
Ship's galley with 2-burner propane stove (ours wasn't this large)
When I became a Sea Scout, I discovered that the Ship was in need of a cook and it was the fastest way to get some sort of rank to get me out of some of the drudge work, at least when we were cruising. It didn't help on ordinary work details when we weren't cruising.
In all modesty, my meals became legendary. I could work miracles on a two burner propane stove in a four by four galley, while cooking for as many as fifteen teenagers and accompanying adults. There were times when I inadvertently cooked for a significant part of the yacht club.
I made French Toast one Sunday morning and sent a plate to the Eblings who were among the best friends the Sea Scouts had at the yacht club. We were tied up dockside in a small town on the Eastern Shore. The boy I had sent returned with an empty plate and a woebegone look. “It didn't make it.” Another member had intercepted him and eaten it. I made another and it too was intercepted.
Decadent French Toast
[Note: Incidentally, my secret to making decadent French Toast is to soak the bread until it is thoroughly saturated in egg mixture so that it becomes like a custard in the frying pan. Too many people merely swipe the bread through the eggs and the middle is dry and nasty.]
A spaghetti dinner once got me into trouble with one of the yacht club wives. I had made too much and the boy on galley police (think KP – Kitchen Police – in the Army) who was supposed to toss the left overs into the trash was intercepted by a yacht club member who had grown impatient waiting for his wife to get ready for dinner at a dockside restaurant. By the time she left the boat, he had consumed the equivalent of three or four servings. I happened to emerge from the boat just as she confronted him. “Have some,” he offered extending the pot and ladle to her. “It's really delicious.” She attempted to murder both of us with a look.
[Note: My secret to making an authentic marinara sauce is to saute the tomato paste and herbs and spices to intensify their flavors. A little wine is needed to dissolve herbs and spices that are not water soluble. Lastly, for some reason known only to the great chef in the sky, marinara sauce improves in flavor each time it is cooled and reheated.]
The only downside to having been the ship's cook is that I know better than most, the effects of inflation. Remember, I was purchasing provisions for as many as fifteen for a nine day cruise. For a hundred dollars, I would fill several shopping carts with my staples. Think about that. These days, you can carry a hundred dollars worth of groceries in one hand.
My pancakes (made from scratch) were very popular and we used real maple syrup – around $.30 for a bottle then, around $10.00 today if you want the real thing.
[Note: I don't know why people use pancake mixes. Sift together the “dry” ingredients – 240 grams of AP flour, 50 grams of cake flour, 3 tsps of baking powder, 1 tsp of baking soda, and 1 tsp salt. Blend the “wet” ingredients – 2 cups buttermilk, 1 whole egg or 2 egg whites (save on the cholesterol) 1/3 cup of vegetable oil, ¼ cup sugar, and 1 tsp vanilla. Mix the wet and dry, and stir for about 30 seconds (don't over stir – it should be lumpy and a little dry flour is okay). Cook on a cured griddle wiped clean of any excess shortening or oil.]
I replenished our ice at the stops we made during our cruise, and I bought perishables as I needed them. Ground beef cost $.30 per pound – around $4.09 today. We used butter, $.75 per pound – around $4.00 today. Milk was less than $1.00 per gallon – around $5.00 today (and you can imagine how much milk fifteen teenage boys would drink!).
I was overly ambitious one Sunday and made fried chicken and candied sweet potatoes for everyone. The yacht club members got wind of it but the boys kept them off the boat. They were extremely disappointed when they discovered that there would be no leftovers.
[Note: The secret to great fried chicken is, of course, marinating the chicken in buttermilk overnight. The dredge can be your favorite blend of herbs and spices in flour. However, you must not skip the buttermilk.]
Although I rose in rank to ship's boatswain and only served as ship's cook for two years, I was required to supervise my replacement.
I TOOK MY FAMILY and fled Los Angeles when the Summer Olympics came to town in 1984. I took them to Maryland to introduce them to my birthplace and the Chesapeake Bay where I grew up as a Sea Scout. I shared with them one of the Bay's special treats: Boarding house meals.
Hilda Crockett's Chesapeake House
Wherever we cruised the Bay, up every river and backwater creek, we were bound to find a widow woman and her daughters serving amazing home cooked meals at prices that Sea Scouts could afford. There was the added benefit that every meal that we ate on someone's screened-in porch was one that I didn't have to cook on a two burner propane stove in the confined spaces of the galley, and that someone else was going to wash up afterwards.
Every meal began with the “tease.” You were expected to arrive early and sit outside the dining area, on the lawn if the weather was favorable. There was a dog – there was always a dog, usually a Chesapeake Bay Retriever – happy to play with you. You tossed the sticks, it retrieved. Two by fours, it retrieved. Logs, it retrieved. You couldn't tire the damn thing out. He probably would have retrieved a nearby dock if we could have figured out a way of tossing it for him. All the while, one of the daughters would rush to refill the pitcher with iced tea and bring a waft of the kitchen with her, where fresh bread was just out of the oven, cooling. It was tormenting.
I remember lunch one Sunday afternoon on the porch of Hilda Crockett's Chesapeake House on Tangiers Island. The “island” is actually comprised of many small ones adjacent to the Bay's eastern shore, just south of the Maryland/Virginia line. It was a summer retreat for the Pocomoke Indians, but occupied by the British since pre-Colonial days. It is so isolated that its inhabitants still speak the same dialect that their forebearers brought with them.
We arrived at Hilda's wearing our dress white uniforms and gob hats. Our shoes were shined and our hands washed. Hilda insisted that we clean up after playing with the dog. There was an awkward pause after we sat at the long table on the screened-in porch as Hilda and her daughters hovered over us with their hands folded over their aprons. Our boatswain, Terry Feelemyer, deserved his rank. He was the first to figure out the problem and led us in grace. Hilda and her daughters disappeared as soon as we uttered “Amen.”
They returned with steaming plates of fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, and corn on the cob. There were potatoes: mashed and roasted as well as boiled with butter and parsley. There were countless vegetables. I seem to remember garden fresh peas, snap beans, and okra. The rolls were fresh from the oven and smelled of yeast. We watched all this pile up in the center of the table as we whetted our appetites on crab soup and crab cakes. Should I mention dessert? Can you bear it? Apple and peach cobblers with (I swear) home made ice cream.
You may wonder how a crew of Sea Scouts could have afforded this banquet. You needn't fear. It was only $2.75 per person. Granted, that was worth more than today, but we gladly forked it over.
Visit the website
for Hilda Crockett's Chesapeake House. You may be surprised. Adjusting for inflation, the price is just about the same today.
I can't remember the name of the establishment, but a similar boarding house on Onancock Creek, farther down the Eastern Shore from Tangiers Island, boasted a selection of fifty-seven dishes served buffet style when boaters visited. Dunaway Walker – the yacht club's resident storyteller and frequent guest of the Sea Scouts on cruises – was a man of great appetites, as well as the possessor of a glorious baritone voice. I remember watching him circle that buffet table with a plate in each hand and a third balanced in the crook of one arm. I have never experienced anguish as deep as the emotion that played on his face when he had filled all three and realized that he had only sampled a quarter of the delights on display there. He returned after emptying all three and took a stance like a bare knuckle pugilist, determined to conquer the whole feast.
During our vacation on the Chesapeake, I rented a home on Smith Island, midway between Tangiers Island and the mouth of the Potomac River. Our first meal there was at Mrs. Kitchings Boarding House. My wife was concerned that the experience could never match my memories of it. She had nothing to fear. After twenty minutes, she looked up from her plate with a grin that split her face and announced, “I didn't know that food could taste this good.” I had to buy a copy of Mrs. Kitchings cookbook so I could keep her happily fed in succeeding years.