With 'Juney,' everybody was crabbing

ON THE BAY

September 26, 1992|By TOM HORTON

Peter Crockett, a crab and oyster inspector for the state of Virginia, died too young, but fittingly, while ticketing a Maryland waterman last Sunday for crabbing illegally across the state line.

A heart attack struck the 65-year-old officer near Fox Island south of Crisfield as he kneeled in his patrol skiff to steady his hand -- it was a rough day -- to write that last citation.

In his time, Mr. Crockett had busted a healthy majority of the watermen who work the rich waters of lower Tangier and Upper Pocomoke Sounds. That included virtually all the able-bodied men on Maryland's Smith Island and on Virginia's Tangier Island, where Mr. Crockett was born and lived.

It was a rare week in the summer that you could not hear his nickname, "Juney," mentioned on marine radio Channels 68 or 78, those used by watermen. The comments were never flattering, and sometimes were downright threatening.

Yet it was no surprise that a number of crabbers took time off in peak harvest season to attend his funeral on Thursday. He had earned their respect as few people in his profession ever will.

"People he caught have been phoning all week, and two things keep coming out in almost every call," said Denny Crockett, Juney's son and principal of the Tangier Island school.

"They say they almost never got a ticket from him for something they didn't do; and they say he was fair . . . Smith Islander or Tangierman, Maryland or Virginia, he'd write 'em up just the same."

Juney had, arguably, the toughest job on the Chesapeake, which he handled with uncommon, folksy grace and unfailing good temperment. He showed more sense than higher government officials.

In addition to the normal enforcement duties of every Virginia crab and oyster cop, he was charged with patrolling the location of what might be the nation's longest-running border war -- the line crossing the bay between Maryland and Virginia.

The line was first set in June of 1632, when King Charles I of England granted the Maryland colony to Cecil Calvert. Wrangling over the line's position began almost immediately.

It was reset in 1785, and again in 1877. Each change settled some problems at the time, but usually ended up creating others. For example, the earliest disputes involved land at the line's Eastern Shore terminus. Later the line was moved for shad fishing interests (including George Washington) on the Potomac. The 1877 relocation was driven by oysters, then the king of bay seafood.

In this century, oysters and shad have declined. The big money is in crabbing, and it just so happens that the state line, where it crosses above Tangier Island, bisects the richest soft crab and hard crabbing areas in the universe.

History shows that the bay's ebb and flow, and the quirky comings and goings of its seafood, have always mocked attempts at artificial boundaries. Watermen, too, have resisted the imposition of static borders.

Gunfire and bloodshed have occurred. Maryland watermen will show you the grave of a Smith Island teen-ager, shot in the back by Virginia policeman "Buck" Savage in August 1900 as the youth fled back across the line with a pitiful catch of crabs.

Virginians tell of the July week in 1926 when Marylanders put up signs in the marsh announcing that, legal or not, they planned to catch crabs or die trying. "Somedays we have to use two or three boxes of cartridges . . . to clear the creek for our crabbers," a Virginia policeman wrote in requisitioning more armament.

In July 1949, a Crisfield crabber, Earl "Pete" Nelson, was fatally wounded in the back by a Virginia policeman just south of the state line.

Such is the legacy that greeted Juney Crockett in 1978 when he was sent to monitor crabbing along the line.

The potential for violence was the highest in decades. The bay's underwater grass beds -- necessary for good crabbing -- had declined to an all-time low. To Maryland crabbers, the grasses that still flourished across the line in Virginia looked greener than ever.

Juney had to stop them, and his baptism was not long in coming. Eight big workboats surrounded his 17-foot outboard in a diamond shape, coming closer and closer, as if to crush him between their hulls.

"I told 'em the only way they would run me off was to kill me. I called in more inspectors on the radio and we arrested all eight," he recalled recently.

It was no amateur the Marylanders had tangled with. Anyone who could thrive as a marine policeman while living among Tangier watermen had to be tough.

"When I first took this job," recalled Juney, "I had to deal with my own family. I've wrote tickets for my first cousin, for my four brothers. I've wrote tickets for 'em all. If you can't do that, you might just as well forget this kind of work.

"Sometimes the crabbers would ask me did I want a little gift of fish or oysters. I told 'em all at the restaurant one day, damn if you bunch feeds Juney. If I want a mess of crabs or oysters to eat, I'll buy 'em.

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