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.


Val said...

what a talented bunch of writers you are - and i love all these stories. When you put the book together please let me know!

Bayman said...

MMM, that was one great tribute. You are so lucky to have him around. It made forgotten memories of my own Grandfather come flooding back. He went to sea as a teenager. I can remember the two of them talking when I was younger. I wish I had listened more.

Ann Marie said...

MMM... can't talk... must get tissue... be back.

Anonymous said...

Must be something in the water, maybe adding special nutrients to Mathews diets, to generate such wonderful story telling.

Unknown said...

It's amazing how he brings the past into the present. I loved that story...except eh murky green water part.

question. Is the water salt or fresh?

Anonymous said...

That should have come with a warning. Granny lived to 103 and just passed away on the 9th.
She grew up on the island and I loved hearing her stories. They just don't make them like they used to.
Beautiful tribute!

pjhammer_1965 said...

Great story MMM - makes this reader want to read more. Hope he makes it to 100.

Anonymous said...

What an amazing tribute! Well done. The only problem? I want to know MORE:)

Mental P Mama said...

What a gem of a man. And a wonderful post. I think I need to read my Strunk and White before the blogfest....

Anonymous said...


Words fail me.

That's an incredible tribute.


Chesapeake Bay Woman said...

Thanks to two kids being sick, I got to leave work early and can now play on the computer the rest of the day. Oops. I mean tend to kids with sore throats....at home. While periodically enjoying a break in front of the computer.

I'll let Mathews Mountain Man respond to your wonderful comments, but I agree with all of you about how good a writer he is. We have many from Mathews (myself excluded, I can only produce rambling rantings). Must be the fact that there was nothing else to do around here growing up other than be introspective and reflective and contemplative and whatever other words you can come up with that sound better than "bored."

What a great story. Maybe I should let MMM do all the writing and I'll take the pictures. He says, however, that he can't provide any new material for another 8 weeks or so. I have one (or two?) more he's sent me that I will post over the next week or so.

Perhaps he could be pressured by his fans to produce something sooner.

MMM - Do you think you could crank out Chapter 2 to this story by next week?

foolery said...

Exquisite. I heard music playing the whole time. I think MMM is actually a songwriter, because that tripped the music in my head the way poetry can. And I know that makes sense only in my head, and I'm sorry, but the music in my head is quite loud and I'm distracted by visions of sea captains on their decks, tasting the wind and squinting at the horizon.

It's time for another big ugly cry, *sigh*.

Anonymous said...

Thanks everyone for your kind remarks. I called home today and Poppa answered the phone (really) - he lives with my parents. When I said his name he responded, "I didn't do it." Which means he's doing fine.

Have a good evening. It's cold here, in the mountains. We had about 2 inches of snow today and are expecting ice tonight.


tj said...

...What a neat story! It's folks like that you wanna meet once, if not more, in your lifetime... :o)

...Poor CBKids - hope you both get to feeling better soon! Enjoy your 'puter time there Mom! ;o)

...And Miss Fool'ry, it's okay as long as it's music and not voices...lol

...Blessin's all... :o)

Karen Deborah said...

WOW for a moment I thought you totally changed your writing style and increased your vocabulary! Shades of Debbie in CA. Shazam!
nice picture!

Anonymous said...

There must be something in the water there in Mathews...it certainly produces some amazingly gifted writers.

MMM, what a beautifully detailed tribute. I almost feel as if I were to instantly recognize Poppa, even though I've never had the fortune of meeting him.

Chesapeake Bay Woman said...

TJ - I't's always so good to hear from you, I hope you have July 16-19 penciled in on your calendar for a trip east. Kids are on the mend. One will definitely go to school tomorrow, the other, we'll see (where "we'll see = if that child doesn't go to school, CBW gets to stay home from work. CBW likes staying home from work.)

Yes, Karen D., the vocabulary and non-rambling style is a dead give away that a real writer did this one. Yet another reason for me to stick to the photography and encourage others to write.

I've received the first entry in the contest, and it's a good one. Not even from Mathews either, this one's all the way over on the West Coast. I'll definitely be sharing this one.

Sharpen your pencils and get to writing, y'all. You still have a week to enter.

Chesapeake Bay Woman said...

Grandma J. - Salt water. There are certain places further away from the bay that turn fresh, such as the Piankatank River towards Dragon Run, but for the most part we're as salty as a blue Morton's canister.

Val said...

noooo `I love your writing toooo - dont handover completely!!!

Anonymous said...

I can confirm that both the subject and the author of this tribute are pretty terrific.

MMM's "other half"