Smith Island Tales

December 25, 1993|By TOM HORTON

Hear Dallas Bradshaw of Smith Island recall a bitter cold Christmas of 50 years ago that still warms his heart:

There came a freeze-up so bad the whole Chesapeake threatened to ice over. Smith Island, nine miles from the mainland, would soon be cut off.

Tylerton, the town where the Bradshaws have lived for the last couple of centuries, was itself islanded from the other communities of Smith by a broad, deep channel -- that was turning as solid as any other town's main street.

The ice had forced Dallas' dad and other island men to beach their "drudge boats" where they were oystering, across the bay on the Potomac.

There would be no familiar Christmas-week sight of the skipjacks' tall, raked masts returning home, "when you knew Santa Claus was comin'," an islander reminisced recently.

Mayor Jackson of Baltimore sent a bus to bring the stranded watermen around the head of the bay and down to Crisfield, Dallas remembers.

From there, they boarded the old Island Belle, the wooden ferry that served the island from early in the century until the mid-1970s.

Breaking ice, she made it, trailed by another boat, to within sight of Tylerton, where they stalled in the snowy darkness, still nearly two miles from town.

The oystermen walked home, across marsh and ice.

Come with him the next morning and help unload supplies he had left aboard, Dallas' dad told him.

"I was 12," he says, "and before it was even light we headed straight up the channel in my grandfather's sleigh -- that's how thick she was froze.

"Dad said to climb up on top her pilot house; there's a sack of potatoes and something else. Well, it was a second-hand bike. I never had a bike in my life. She cost $5, which was a lot of money then.

"You talk about happy. I laid that sack of potatoes across her basket and handlebars, and I rode that bike right down the middle of the channel-- come clean into town just like that."

Tylerton memories

This is the nature of islands, to focus, concentrate and heighten the human experience. Their special energy, combined with that of Christmas, can be transcendent.

Few of my holidays were as memorable as Christmas seasons in the 1980s when we lived in Tylerton.

On one 15-degree December afternoon, I bundled Abigail, 6, and Tyler, 9, into the skiff. We beached it along the same channel where Dallas rode that bike. We hiked into the marsh to cut a small cedar and pick up ornaments for it -- summer's shed crab shells, bleached bone white by the sun.

Returning, with dark and the mercury dropping, we found the skiff nearly full of water, turning to ice so fast I could scarcely bail it out. The school boat, returning home from Crisfield, had swamped us with its huge wake.

Another Christmas season I got lost in a fog, boating home late from a party in another town. (Yes, some of the fog was in my head.) A breeze parted the mists long enough to get bearings on tiny Tylerton, ablaze with Christmas lights, which never seemed more glorious.

"You ARE going to put up Christmas lights," a neighbor lady told us our first winter there. Such edicts were unusual. It is not by chance the island has had no elected government for about three centuries. They are not big on anyone telling anyone what to do.

But Christmas in Tylerton was a very big deal. It was the polar opposite of summers, when crabbing drove the islanders at such a frantic pace they scarcely had time to pause for a chat.

A time for yarnin'

Around Christmas the ferries cut back to once a day, or not at all. The men were back from oystering in Rock Hall and Annapolis and Solomons.

It was a time for sleeping in, for potluck dinners and parlor games, for "progueing" the marsh banks for arrowheads; for the homecoming of departed islanders, and for duck hunting and lounging around the store to hear Dallas and other accomplished storytellers at their "yarnin'."

In their isolation, the islanders had remembered how to entertain by celebrating themselves, telling and retelling shared experiences of generations present and past.

All year they would gather up the stuff of new yarns like firewood, seasoned and stockpiled for winter's telling, to be broken out around Christmastime like rare gifts.

The short days and long nights around Christmas were the peak of winter activity. Christmas Eve was the children's play, and every child in town -- 16 total during our residence there -- had a part.

And words can conjure only a wraith of the spirit that was there, or what it was about this joyful, amateurish little production that attracted 118 of the town's 120 residents into the cramped church basement to see it.

It had a lot to do with the nature of islands, and with everyone knowing every child, and their parents, knowing of their parents' parents, and so on, back through the yarns and the generations.

The greatest highlight, however, was the Christmas pageant, held in the church on Christmas night-- held every Christmas for more than a century, the islanders say.

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