A WHEELCHAIR, MEXICANS AND MOSQUITOES…Memories of My Last Trip to the Eastern Shore

| June 27, 2012 | Comments (0)

Drawn by an invitation to visit an old high school friend at his summer place in Onancock, Virginia, I plunged down  I-95 dodging  recklessly speeding twelve-wheeler cargo trucks – you just KNOW those wild-eyed drivers are popping amphetamines to stay awake day and night –  and found myself before long in the flat marshy country of my childhood, variously known as the DELMARVA (Delaware-Maryland-Virginia) peninsula or the Eastern Shore.

Stopping to gas up at a filling station, childhood memories came rushing back as I swatted swarms of bird-sized mosquitoes. I recalled July  evenings on my grandmother’s farm in Girdletree, Maryland more than half a century earlier where we would sit in the dark on the front porch of her clapboard house rocking and sipping iced tea. Grandmother said she kept the house dark to prevent the hoards of mosquitoes from invading and bothering us. When we adjourned to the kitchen for dinner, the only light in the room was a single kerosene lamp and the occasional lick of flame that could be seen dancing through the cracks in the enormous iron cook stove that dominated the space.

Later when we climbed the  creaky stairs to our bedrooms, lamp in hand, with our shadows dancing wildly on the wall, we would snuff out the lamp light and creep into bed hoping the mosquitoes would not find us, flying through one of the many holes in the ancient, rusted window screens that looked out on the tomato fields beyond the little red, rose-covered out-house.  Inevitably one or two – or more – mosquitoes would locate the apertures in the screen, buzzing and whining for hours as they circled our heads. This was the worst part of a mosquito onslaught, that horrible high-pitched whine and the teasing brush of your cheek before they settled in to bite and suck blood from another part of your body while you were frantically flailing and slapping at the wrong places, your ears or elbows.

My New Orleans mother, always contemptuous of what she considered the un-cultured Eastern Shore, sniffed that in the French Quarter THEY always dealt with mosquitoes by lighting citronella candles and fanning themselves with lavender-scented fans. Mother had other issues with the Eastern Shore aside from not seeing eye-to-eye with her mother-in-law,  my down-to-earth grandmother.  Mother considered the Eastern Shore fare which I quite enjoyed, the heaps of steamed clams fresh from the Chesapeake Bay and the mountains of buttermilk fried chicken that confronted us at almost every meal, as unsophisticated, unhealthy and oh so bland. “For heaven’s sake ! Where is the Tabasco sauce? ” , she would ask grandmother, who would feign not hearing her or from the pantry engage in loud stage  whispers, ” I don’t know WHAT your mother is talkin’ about, goin’ on about hot sauce ! Why that stuff’d kill a mule !” One evening their war of words escalated to the point where they never spoke directly to each other again after my mother characterized Eastern Shore cooking as death in a dish.

Actually keeping the house dark and using only one kerosene lamp for evening light because of the mosquitoes was just a pretext for not using the electricity my father  had installed in the 1930s when he had also  added indoor plumbing to the house. Neither were ever used. Grandmother simply could not fathom the utility of such “mod cons”, similar, I suppose  to my being unable to relate to Twitter and other frilly “apps”  we are confronted with these days…plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose !

Having filled my tank, I tarried at the gas pump chatting with the young pump attendant who still retained the now hard to find accent characteristic of the Eastern Shore, a mixture of Old English, flavored with a dash of African guttural and more than a dollop of salty air. Arriving at my highschool friend’s place on the water as sunset sparkled on the bay in a spectacular psychodelic  early evening performance, I was relieved to find that we could talk to each other easily after not having met in over forty years. Perhaps the yapping intrusion of several giant hounds slobbering by our side in the living room aided us in getting to know each other anew.  Their constant barking and howling filled what might otherwise have been awkward cracks of silence that inevitably creep into reminiscent conversations that try to re-capture the teenage rapture of senior class skip day and pranks that were played on our latin teacher.

The weekend passed pleasantly enough and on the second night of my stay new blood was added to the social mix in the form of Scotty’s gay neighbors, two friendly men in their late 30’s who joined us for dinner. They had “adopted” an elderly lady who was one  guy’s grandmother and it was decided that we would all go down to the water for sun-downers and sip our gin and tonics on the beach, wheelchair-bound granny included.

We must have been a happy sight, the eight us of – Scotty, his wife, the two boys with their granny and me plus the two Rotweilers – lined up on the sand at the water’s edge, numbed enough by the gin not to notice the buzzing raid of moquitoes that bombarded us. At one point, at granny’s request, one of the guys pushed granny’s wheelchair out into the water so the wavelets lapped at her ankles. As she shrieked and cackled with delight and the dogs bayed at the rising moon, I felt light-headed and happy, my urban cares swept away in the rustic gloaming. Suddenly a rise in the surf of the normally placid Chesapeake Bay slapped granny’s wheelchair with a furious whack and she tumbled over into the water. The boys were quick to the rescue, setting her wheelchair upright. Scotty and his wife rushed to the house for towels and blankets and in minutes granny was dry and chipper, laughing at her adventure with a fresh cocktail in her gnarled hand. Weeks later, in an email the boys shared with us how granny was still dining out on what had become  her evening’s brush with death and near drowning on a storm-tossed Chesapeake Bay !

On my final afternoon with Scotty I was shaken out of my siesta on the deck by his bounding up the steps followed by the panting hounds. “Something’s up and I gotta go check it out !”, he said to me, a note of urgency in his voice. “Somebody’s started a fire down at the end of the property !” Joining Scotty and the canines in hot pursuit, we headed down the beach at a half-trot towards a wisp of smoke curling skyward. Soon the point of our search came into view – five Mexican laborers circled around a campfire singing to the accompaniment of a guitar. As 6’4″ Scotty and the Rotweilers approached the fire, the smiles on the Mexicans’ happy faces faded into tight-lipped expressions of fear; the guitar fell silent and Scotty announced, “This is private property and you are trespassing !”  His pronouncement was met with blank, uncomprehending stares. Soon it became apparent that nobody had a language in common. The Mexicans spoke no English and Scotty no Spanish. In an aside to me, Scotty whispered, “They must be workers from the tomato canning factory across the railroad tracks. I get this kind of tresspassing problem a lot !”

Lacking words to speak, Scotty pointed to the road, gesturing that the Mexicans were to leave. In silence the young workers picked up their back packs, doused the fire and walked away, their shoulders sagging and faces sad. My heart ached at what had just transpired. As Scotty’s guest, I felt reluctant to speak out, but what I wanted to say to  him was: let them enjoy their hard-earned day off, be a generous host, show some kindness to the less fortunate, tell them they are welcome but to please clean up before you leave and put out the fire. As often happens though, I  remained inexplicably tongue-tied when I  should have spoken out.

Next morning just after light broke, I headed back to New York City crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to the “mainland”.  Although I talk about going back to the Eastern Shore again for another visit, I doubt if I ever will. There are times when you realize that a chapter of your life is finished and it’s time to move on. Besides, I recently heard that Scotty sold the place by the bay and that the boys had split up and their granny had passed away. But we did have fun together that evening of the “great Chesapeake Bay storm and near-drowning !”

As for the Mexicans, with the canning factory now closed, no telling what happened to them.



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