Hated light becomes a savior on dark race to aid child

ON THE BAY

September 19, 1992|By TOM HORTON

It was a dark and stormy night, which is more than a trite description when you are living on Smith Island in the middle of Chesapeake Bay and your son is unable to breathe.

It was 9 p.m., and I was working at Tangier Island, Va., when my wife, Cheri, reached me on the marine radio. Tyler was having an attack, and for the first time she could not control it with our ample stock of inhalants, vaporizers and steroids. I had better get home immediately to take him the 12 miles across Tangier Sound to the hospital at Crisfield.

It was the worst fear we had when we moved to Maryland's only inhabited offshore island in 1987: Were we being irresponsible to take a severely asthmatic child to a place with no doctor and no nurse, with access to the nearest hospital nearly an hour distant, even with the state's MedEvac helicopters?

All the good reasons for moving to that charming community would amount to so much self-indulgent smoke weighed against our boy's death.

Tangier Island lies about seven miles south of Smith. Within a minute of Cheri's call, I was streaking north in my 24-foot boat. I seldom ran its big 200-horsepower outboard at more than 4,000 rpm, but now I jammed the throttle at 5,500, screaming at 40 mph into pitch darkness.

It was not the second leg of my route that night, the run to the emergency room in Crisfield, that concerned me. The ER even had a dock attached to accommodate the business that came by boat from Tangier and Smith.

I had made that journey before under difficult circumstances: once when my own bursitis got so painful that I took off, one-armed, at 3 a.m. on a February morning; another time carrying a kid with shattered bones poking through the skin of his arm.

The route from Smith to Crisfield was well-marked, but not so the several miles of marsh and water I must now traverse to reach home.

Usually, I savored this run, precisely because it was so unmarked by any sign of human presence. It was where I once took a BBC film crew shooting a documentary on North America as it looked before Columbus arrived.

On clear nights, the absence of human lights made the run a virtual planetarium for stargazing; but now, with a wind-lashed drizzle setting in, the virgin wilderness I gloried in was merely dark, forbidding and unfriendly.

Racing north on a compass heading for Tyler Creek, the quickest way home, I realized I could not even think about risking that route. I could never follow the narrow, twisting channel, marked only by the casual wooden sticks of crabbers. The tide was dead low, and at 40 mph I would certainly run aground.

Waves were beginning to break over the bow, drenching me and wrenching the bow several degrees off course every time we pounded into a trough. In such conditions in a small boat you cannot operate a searchlight or a marine radio, or even flick a bilge-pump switch without extreme effort.

The boat's strong fiberglass hull could take the ride, but I couldn't. I throttled back to 4,000.

My best option to the perilous back route required steering a fine line, navigating close enough to the eastern side of Smith Island to stay out of the fierce bow seas, but staying far enough offshore to avoid running aground.

Meanwhile, I had reached the point I dreaded: where the last glimmer of Tangier's lights was gone and Smith's were still several minutes away in the drizzled gloom. It was wet, cold, rough and utterly dark.

Intellectually, at such times, you know you are pretty much where you are supposed to be; emotionally, tossed like a chip in the wind and sea and darkness, you feel absolutely lost.

Then, well before I should have seen the lights of Smith, I saw a blinking red light.

It was a radio-telephone tower on the island, erected so recently I was not even used to keying on it for direction. Instantly I knew where I was and made a critical course adjustment, pushing the throttle back up to 5,500.

An hour later, 10-year-old Tyler was in the emergency room in Crisfield and the whole family was breathing easier. Long after midnight I headed back to Tangier. Halfway there, a big moon broke through the clouds, and with a fair wind quartering off my stern I put the canvas top down and luxuriated in feeling like the only craft abroad on the whole Chesapeake.

It can be so good in this crowded world to be alone, but a little light is always welcome.

The truth is, until that night in 1989 I had been bad-mouthing Smith Island's new tower. It was the only structure higher than the church steeples, and its blinking lights, visible everywhere, marred the wilderness sanctity of the night canoe trips I loved.

By contrast, the island watermen had welcomed the tower as a superior beacon, and now I could see why.

I began recalling their stories about the old days: how they used to run aground trying to negotiate the unmarked channels from the island to Crisfield. A boatload of fish -- a long day's work -- would spoil while the islanders, bone-tired and dispirited, waited for the tide to float the boat free.

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