Stories from the Great Loop
St. John's Creek, Patuxent River, Chesapeake Bay
Solomons Island, Maryland
May 21, 2019
I think there is a sweet spot somewhere in everyone’s memory lane, probably in adolescence when life was simpler. My spot is the summers I spent at our ‘shore’ near Solomon’s Island on St. John’s Creek – pronounced 'crick' in southern Maryland.
It was hot and sweaty for sure with hordes of mosquitoes. Everyone looked forward twice a week to the mosquito spray truck that came around spraying something I’m now sure wasn’t very good to breath but dialed the mesquites back for a bit. I learned that I didn’t much like either poison ivy or rattlesnakes. The only chore I remember is cutting the grass. The guys peed out back with a little lime to sprinkle because the septic system was easily overloaded – or was it that that’s just what we did in those days? We made sure there was no poison ivy in that area!
The house wasn’t anything special, a small, one floor with two sleeping rooms with curtains, not doors. No air conditioning, but a great screened porch which caught the breeze from three sides. Dad designed and built a cinder block bunk house addition for my brother and I and the friends we would bring from Baltimore. I fondly remember netting blue crabs, steaming them with a heavy dose of Old Bay and savoring them with my Granddad. Sorry everyone else on the east coast, there's no crab better than the Chesapeake Bay blue crab.
Otherwise, I was free to play with my toy soldiers and army trucks among the roots of a big pine tree. I test drove my first battery driven toy tank there. Wow, you don't have to push it! But the batteries sure didn't last very long. When I got a bit older, Dad bought me a bad ass wooden plank rowboat. I distinctly remember sitting in the back of that rowboat proud as a peacock as we towed it home from the local boat builder. I’m sure Dad said something profound like “Don’t fall out”. Mom did what Moms do: she watched me like a hawk.
I would often pole it around the shoreline netting crabs. Or I would row it to the general store in Olivet where I could buy some ice cream or a cold soda with my own charge account, written down on brown meat wrapping paper. That’s where my black – ‘colored’ in those days - friend and I would turn in coke bottles (this was before aluminum cans) we collected from the side of the road for spare change.
My oldest brother Diehl was already out on his own but Tom, six years older than me, had a runabout with a 15 horsepower outboard that he used mostly to commute to his dock jockey job in Solomons. Occasionally we’d try to water ski behind it, hoping like hell it wouldn’t drag us through too many sea nettles as it strained to get us up. Pretty much every American old enough can tell you where they were when they heard John Kennedy was shot. I was in our car with Dad listening to the radio on the way back from closing the ‘shore’ for the winter.
I’ve dreamed about motoring up St. John’s Creek again even before I thought about boating the Great Loop. Today was the day.
Yes, it’s changed. But maybe not as much as I expected, perhaps because I’ve seen so many rivers, creeks and canals like it on my Great Loop journey. Fewer trees than I remember, but not stripped bare solely for a view like some along the ICW. More bulkheads so less of the constant erosion and trees falling in that we had. More piers, some with fun lights. More and bigger houses for sure, but not too many overly pretentious ones. More ducks, geese and deer, a tribute to getting the Bay cleaned up. A 6 mph speed limit, so no more water skiing.
One of our neighbors had a basketball net nailed to a pole in their yard that I took full advantage of. By the end of any summer, I'd pound out a good size semi-circle of bare dirt (which grew bigger each year as I got older) in their otherwise well tended yard. I'd feel guilty - well, as guilty as a young teenager could feel - but they assured me they enjoyed growing kids more than grass.
I wonder if there’s still planks nailed across logs through the marsh that served as our shortcuts, along with neighbors’ lawns, to nearby Olivet? Probably not. Too many fenced yards now to keep kids in or out as deemed necessary. Different decades, different values.
There is a ‘Lusby Cove’ with houses where I remember only forest. I wonder if any belong to the Lusby kids I played with in Olivet. There was a whole passel of kids in that family, all with names starting with ‘J’. I can only remember Jim, John and I want to say Jean. In Solomons, there’s a treed island built from dredge fill where there used to be a sneaky sandbar that grounded our Aloha more than once.
My brother Tom had told me that our old place had been subdivided, so I wasn’t surprised to see two docks where I had known only one. The weird part was that the new lot had our old pier, down a gentle path beside my tree root tank course. The house that replaced our old house had steep steps down the bank to its (new) pier. Everyone straight on that?
The Shore is on the right in the shadows. '4' is new. St' John's Creek didn't merit markers in my day.
The one on the right might be our original pier.
This replaced our house. I'm happy for whoever owns it. Enjoy it like I did!
Over the years I’ve been tough on my Dad for reasons I choose not to get into. But motoring by the old ‘Shore’ brought back a flood of good memories. Dad was my stepdad, a role that found me as well. I can only hope I’ve done as good a job as he did.
He taught me to plan and to be careful, but not afraid. He gently steered me into college instead of volunteering for Vietnam. The draft persuaded me to sign up for R.O.T.C. to stay in college so I did my service after Vietnam, mostly thanks to Dad. As a high school teacher and counselor, he was always on the side of the kids who had been dealt a bad hand. I’ve tried to embrace that as well and am a better person for trying. He taught me to navigate around the blowhards of the world; they’re seldom worth the effort to confront, and sure enough, I've occasionally wasted a lot of time and effort not following that one.
Above all, I think, he taught me to not follow the crowd and to not be intimidated by big ideas.
L.T. Looper is my new rowboat, as well as the Aloha, the 39 foot ketch I knew as a kid. Dad didn’t much believe in an afterlife but still, I hope he is somewhere looking at my Great Loop adventure and in his dry humor is thinking “Not bad, kid. Don’t fall out.”