A Floater in Oysterback


June 09, 1993|By HELEN CHAPPELL

OYSTERBACK, MARYLAND — Oysterback, Maryland.--Deputy Johnny Ray:

When he didn't come in by seven o'clock, his girlfriend called us. She was scared; we could hear the kids crying in the background. Chief Briscoe called the fire company and the Coast Guard. The DNR boys, they come on in off their radio when one of the boys from Oysterback called in he'd found Devlin Dean's boat adrift off Log Cabin Point.

There was no sign of Devy, just everything the way you'd have it patent tonging, and his boat was out of gas. That was a bad sign right there. We looked all night and didn't find him.

Next morning, Chief put them big old grappling hooks aboard his boat and a couple lengths of line, and I knew, by the look on his face, that he'd done this before. You could tell he didn't like it none. I was new then, and didn't know that much about the water. My people were all Wallopsville farmers, so I was used to a different set of troubles.

Don't you see, it can happen to anyone out there. All you need is a high wind, some big swells, a careless move. You just don't know what, all the things that can happen. Hell, some of these older men, they don't even know how to swim, as crazy as that sounds.

It was the day that big storm blew through the Carolinas; all we got up here was high wind and big waves. When you're young, you think you're going to live forever. You take risks. You do things on impulse, like climb up on the washboards after something that needs straightening out.

They were saving to buy a house, you see. He didn't want to pay the culler's shares. If he'd had a culler, maybe he would have been all right, another man could have fished him out.

You see them great big old tongheads, the size and the weight, swinging on a big swell and you could see how they could knock you overboard if you looked away for one second. You have to watch everything all the time. Since then, I been out a couple of times, and I seen for myself what it's like for a waterman. Overboard, them rubber boots can fill up with water and drag you right down; that time of year, hypothermia can hit you before you work them big ole boots off and get up to the surface.

When Chief threw the grappling hooks over the side, the splash they made was so loud; there was lots of boats out, but they were all going real slow, dragging the bottom. Over to that place on the bay they call the Stones, you could feel them hooks dragging, and the boat just sort of jerked and hauled. Back and forth we went, not saying much. There wasn't much to say.

I heard someone on another boat make a joke about trolling for big bluefish. He didn't mean nothing; it was just so bad. We all do it to ease it up, make some bad joke to cut some slack. Otherwise you couldn't bear it, you see; it would break your heart, the stuff you see. No one said drowned or dead, but the thought hung in the air like a bad smell.

The sun was setting when he come up, still with one boot on him. That's why they call 'em floaters, you know. The corpse gas brings 'em up.

Funny how you remember the little things, how it was flat calm, the way the sunset shone on him as he lay on the boards, the water running out of him. He'd been all chewed up by crabs, all swollen up. I watched a crab let go of Devy's finger and crawl across the deck, drop right into the bilge. It made a little splash. One boy puked over the side. The sunset was the color of blood.

Isn't it funny, the little things, the details you remember after all these years, and the big things just pass you by.

?3 Helen Chappell is the amanuensis of Oysterback.

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