Volume 16, Issue 25 - June 19 - June 25, 2008

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The Kindness of Strangers

On some voyages, you can’t get home alone

by Al McKegg

I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.

–Blanche Dubois, in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire

Because I trailer my sailboat to launch sites — sometimes as distant as the Florida Keys — going sailing can include long periods when the hull is dry. Often I travel Eastern Shore roads, heading to Atlantic coastal bays or remote parts of the Chesapeake. There is no water or land more beautiful, and the folks I’ve met are among the kindest of strangers. If, in fact, you can call someone who treats you like family a stranger.

By and large they’re working-class folk: watermen, farmers, tradesmen, small merchants, veterans. People who know about being down on their luck, who fight the odds despite holding a poor hand, who’ve been stomped on by technology and the international economy. Some who’ve been exploited by their own country.

People who sometimes depend on the kindness of strangers.

This Side of Heaven

For anybody who loves the natural world, the Nature Conservancy’s Virginia Coast Reserve — a cluster of uninhabited barrier islands, bays, and marshes south of Chincoteague — is about as close to heaven as it gets.

One June, my wife Janet and I headed there in our old truck on U.S. 50/13, boat in tow, for a five-day cruise. The tank was gassed, motor tested, icebox iced, pantry provisioned. Except for fresh fruit.

Along the Salisbury bypass, the exit for Fruitland beckoned. We’d never been in Fruitland, but we figured a place so named had to have fresh fruit. As I coasted up the exit ramp in neutral the truck stalled, so I put it in third and let out the clutch. The engine started with a jerk, but as I accelerated up the ramp, a cloud of white smoke appeared in the rearview mirror.

According to my good friend Milton, a specialist in computers and solid-state circuits, electronic devices depend on the smoke in the transistors. When it gets out, the device stops working.

It’s not good when the smoke gets out of a truck either. We came to a stop at the top of the exit ramp, accompanied by a huge cloud of it.

I got out to investigate. Black rubber streaked the pavement behind one of the trailer wheels. The wheel leaned at an inauspicious angle against the side of the boat, which was also smeared with black rubber. The axle had broken at the hub, leaving the wheel attached by a remnant of twisted metal.

A hundred and twenty miles from home, I stared glumly at a boat that a minute ago had been galloping along the interstate bursting with an adventure’s beginning. Now immobile, it listed to starboard, oozing disappointment.

We were in pretty much the middle of nowhere, but across the road was the office of the Tidewater Supply Company, a supplier of water treatment chemicals operated by one EJ Gibbons. My funk was interrupted by EJ’s voice.

“Looks like you got a problem there, Cap’n. Can I help?”

“It would make me real happy.”

EJ had to leave, busy with business, but he phoned his buddy Dennis Lokey, who he reckoned would be glad to help out.

“Dennis is a Vietnam vet,” EJ cautioned. “He carries a little card in his wallet that says something like ‘The docs say I’m recovered from PTSD, but you should avoid annoying me just in case I’m not.’ Mind you, he’s OK as far as I know, but still …”

When Dennis showed up, I saw no hints of PTSD, but I was careful not to annoy him anyhow. Using his equipment, we jacked up the trailer and unbolted the sick wheel, revealing a large hole, ground through the hull by the wayward tire.

On this voyage, the hull would definitely stay dry.

I can’t claim that Dennis and EJ managed to turn that day and evening into a vacation. To me, a vacation doesn’t include hours under a trailer by the roadside, gravel denting your back as you heft a borrowed wrench. Nor does it include replacing a marine trailer axle with one from the Salisbury Tractor Supply (yes, they pretty much fit).

But those two strangers stood at my side at a troubled time and made my predicament far less costly than it could have been. Thanks to their tools and knowledge, by noon the next day Janet and I were on our way home.

I rescheduled our trip to the barrier islands for the next week. On our way we met EJ, Dennis and Dennis’ wife Gail at Waterman’s Cove, a restaurant on the outskirts of Salisbury. They, of course, knew just about everyone in the place and made us feel as if we did, too. EJ teased a pretty young waitress; she teased him right back.

It Happens Every Day

A year later, on a trip out of Oyster, Virginia, we came close to running out of gas on the way back to port. To economize on fuel, we were using sail as much as possible, even in situations where it bordered on unwise, such as heavy winds and shallow water.

As I wrestled with a sail change near Man and Boy Marsh, five miles from port, a waterman’s boat roared up behind us and closed the throttle, pitching in three-foot waves. Hearing our situation, Ray Crum passed us a tank of gas.

“I’ll see you back at Oyster,” he said. “If I miss you, give the tank to my nephew. He’s got a boat docked there.”

And during my most recent trip, the truck refused to start after we stopped for coffee at the Cambridge KFC. By chance, we were next to a well-worn RV, home to Jim Arney and his dad. Jim is an ex-Marine with two tours in Vietnam and 16 months as a POW. He came home without his left eye and with an ankle broken and permanently twisted from torture. Jim tried to start us with jumper cables, then diagnosed the problem as a dead starter motor.

“No matter,” said Jim. With the RV, he pushed the truck backwards, boat still attached, and I popped the clutch in reverse. The truck started and, once again, we were bound for home on the kind act of one no longer a stranger.

Fruitland exit: Long 75.60384 West; Lat 38.30650 North

Cambridge parking lot: Long 76.06284 West; Lat 38.56281 North

Man and Boy Marsh: Long 75.82343 West; Lat 37.27771 North

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