Tuesday, January 27, 2009
The Ancient Mariner
This is a dock over on Gwynn's Island somewhere. Gwynn's Island is the home of the man highlighted in today's guest contribution from Mathews Mountain Man.
Poppa, Tribute to the Ancient Mariner
by Mathews Mountain Man
"As of the day that this Tribute to Aging Well was written, Poppa, Daddy Jim's son-in-law, was 97 years and 89 days old – or young, if you prefer. He is the oldest citizen living on Gwynn’s Island.
Poppa is a retired Coast Guard Commander, who in the last 89 days has used electric clippers to repeatedly trim the seemingly nautical mile-long hedge that encircles his home, climbed a ladder or two, cooked in his galley, swabbed his deck and eaten more “slivers” of pie and gallons of ice-cream than all the a la mode lovers attending the annual Cobbler Cook-Off sponsored by the Gwynn’s Island Civic League. He would have mowed the lawn too, but his daughter and son-in-law take care of that – somehow it’s not nautical enough.
Poppa’s long life started shortly before that famous iceberg-bound maiden went down in the cold North Atlantic, taking most of the passengers and crew with her. It may be hard to accept the notion that a nebulous anticipation of that pending calamity was floating about the room when Poppa was only a gleam in his father’s eye, or that foreshadowing anxieties were stirring in his mother’s womb between the time that he was conceived and the time he arrived, or that a mysterious cross-mingling of times had anything to do with the person that Poppa became, but, somewhere, somewhere in that history, I am convinced, there is a mystical link between him and the ship that met her demise one day shy of seven months after the day he was born. Perhaps he came to save her sisters.
Whatever the origin of his essence, it happened that his longevity germinated in a good set of genes and was fueled with a steady diet of seafood – boiled, baked and fried, the occasional glass of wine, hard work, enjoyable work and more work – if only done, at times, to occupy his soul. He has realistically high expectations regarding his own abilities, as well as a supportive network of friends and family. And, sometime between his beginning and now, sometime after he saved that iron maiden’s first offspring, he became, Poppa.
Any seafaring salt who lives for100 years is a rare fish indeed and we cannot know in advance if Poppa will make it that far, for he is now sliding down the steeper slope of senescence – but across the endless trajectory of time, what matters most? He is a timeless treasure, an ancient mariner with an abundant history that will live on as long as his descendants want him to live. For those who have listened, he has given much for others to pass on.
When engaged in conversation with him about the local waters in and around Gwynn’s Island, the many tributaries that empty into the Bay, or the greater waters of the Atlantic, one soon understands that Poppa is fluent in all the maritime languages. Whether it’s the details of stringing a gill net or the nuances of sculling a dead rise skiff, constructing a trot-line for catching crabs, or collecting oysters from 10 feet of murky, green water with a 16-foot set of shaft tongs, the minutiae is still as available to him as any boyhood memory.
When he talks about his service as a ship inspector, I envision him at the helm of a 900 foot ocean liner, nimbly dodging underwater mines and German U-boats lurking in the waters off the coasts of New Jersey and New York - he must have been one helluva helmsman.
Today you might find Poppa watching the barometer like a madman and obsessing over two thermometers – one on the north and one on the south side of his house. Ask him for a forecast and he glances at the sky, senses the humidity and notes the direction of the wind. He intuitively mixes a lifetime of experience with his up-to-the-minute data and predicts the weather as accurately as a meteorologist forecasting with the aid of some high-priced computer meta-model.
He loves maps, maps of any kind; give him a map, a compass and a set of nautical calipers and he will semi-circle his way around the globe. Only Neptune knows what he can do with a telescope, a sextant and a slide-rule; hell, only Neptune and Poppa know how to use all of those instruments at the same time anyway. We look at the stars and wonder; he looks at the stars and finds a pathway to wherever he wants to go.
“Can you see the Eastern shore from here, Poppa” I asked him once?
“If you go down to Tin Can Alley on a calm, clear day, you can see it,” he replied. And he is right; I have seen it, shimmering above the edge of the water on a cold, dry day when the wind and the gravity of other heavenly bodies weren’t lifting the waters enough to block the view of the distant shore. I’m glad Poppa’s the one who taught me that.
In the last 100 years, there have been many Poppa’s, but he’s the only Poppa I know, and I’m damned thankful to have made his acquaintance. He is a man of the maritime world and he will forever be my grandfather." - MMM
Chesapeake Bay Woman Again - I love stories like this and am so thankful we have people around to tell them. I want to document and preserve however many I can.
Speaking of telling stories, don't forget about the contest for writing about a lively, colorful or otherwise noteworthy character from your hometown. Mathews folks are especially encouraged to participate, although it's open to everyone. Entries are due February 4. Click here for details.