A Man in a Boat, in the River of Time

November 21, 1993|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace.-- By contemporary standards, the waterfowl have been thick lately. Several hundred geese have been dropping into our farm pond every night, and there's been a lot of life on the river here, too.

The other day late in the afternoon I was fishing off Perry Point. Between me and the shore was a flock of at least 100 coots. A dozen buffleheads flew by, their splashy white markings bright in the low orange light of the setting sun. Then to my pleasure I saw four canvasbacks -- two ducks and two drakes.

The canvasback is a symbol of another era in the rich history of Havre de Grace and the Susquehanna Flats, and I stared at these for so long I forgot I was supposed to be fishing. Their presence on the river suggested that things are as they used to be. But of course they're not; a century ago, four canvasbacks would have been nothing to gawk at, and a flock of 400 would have been unremarkable.

On the day the duck season opened in November 1893, gunners killed an estimated 5,000 ducks on the flats. Jesse Poplar of Havre de Grace, shooting from a sinkbox, accounted for 235, reported the next edition of The Aegis, Bel Air's newspaper. That was still well short of the 509 shot by William Dobson 14 years earlier, also from a sinkbox. The majority of those ducks were canvasbacks.

A lot can happen in a hundred years. The days of abundance ended for ducks, just as they did for shad and rockfish. Havre de Grace market gunners and New York sports reduced the duck population so much that federal bag limits were established, and in 1934 the sinkbox, a coffin-shaped floating blind, was outlawed. No doubt local waterfowlers considered these restrictions oppressive, and blamed the shortage of ducks on the government.

Other causes besides over-hunting contributed to the decline of the ducks, but whatever the reasons, the population crash was certainly precipitous. For a time the season on canvasbacks was closed entirely. Only recently have they begun to make a modest comeback.

A century's a long time, while 30 years seems but a flicker. It was 30 years ago tomorrow that John Kennedy was assassinated, as we have been incessantly reminded this past week. Of late, events that took place in November 1963 have been replaying themselves vividly on my cerebral screen.

I was in the mountains of Peru, a Peace Corps volunteer working with livestock. Peru is in the same time zone as the eastern United States, and in mid-afternoon on November 22, 1963, I stopped at the hospital in the little town of Carhuas to see Lela Chavez, a Peace Corps girl who was assigned there as a nurse. A Peruvian nurse with whom Lela worked came running out. She was crying.

''The president's been shot!'' she told me. I thought she meant Fernando Belaunde Terry, the president of Peru, but she had been listening to the Voice of America and told me what had happened in Dallas earlier that day. Then she asked me if I thought Lyndon Johnson was behind the assassination. From a Peruvian perspective it was not an unreasonable question, but I remember that it shocked me almost as much as the news itself.

For the next several days, the handful of Americans in that part of Peru met every evening to listen to the short-wave radio and wonder what on earth was going on at home. There was no television available, so we missed the live coverage of Lee Harvey Oswald's shooting and the funeral services for the President.

All we could do was listen to the VOA and speculate. We'd all been out of the United States for more than a year, and for most of us this was the first time we really felt isolated. Frank Mankiewicz, who was in charge of the Peace Corps operation in Peru, drove up into the mountains from Lima and spent a few days with us. He seemed truly shaken. Later he would serve as press secretary for Robert Kennedy.

To those who were children in November 1963, or who don't remember that time at all, it must seem ancient history -- no closer, for practical purposes, than 1893. And whatever we who do remember write or say about it seems hopelessly inadequate. At the same time, though, we feel in a way privileged, for we were there, and we do remember.

Mulling that over, as I came in off the river after spotting the canvasbacks, I imagined another man in another boat, on these same waters a hundred years before. I saw him very clearly. He was in his early 50s, coming in at sunset on the first day of the duck season, his boat full of birds and his head full of images 30 years old.

It might have been that 30 years before, as a young man, he had been at Gettysburg. The roar of the waterfowlers' shotguns out on the flats might well have reminded him of the cannons booming on Seminary Ridge and the rifle fire on the two Round Tops. How much the world has changed since then, he might have thought -- and yet for those of us still here who do remember, how recent and how vivid it all seems.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer. His column appears Sundays and Thursdays.

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