A tribute to a `blessed' crabber

ON THE BAY

Legend: Edward Harrison, whose career on the water reached into eight decades, brought a gracious spirit to laboring on the Chesapeake.

February 26, 1999|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

IT WAS A CALM, golden February afternoon when they buried Nut Sundae. Mourners gathering at Ewell Methodist Church on Smith Island didn't even wear overcoats.

To one end of his casket, a model of his old skipjack, the Ruby G. Ford, pointed north under full canvas, as if to sail past the floral displays and out the Bayside jetties to dredge once more. A model of his soft-crabbing "scrapeboat," the Margaret H., anchored the other end.

His real name was Edward T. Harrison. From 1922, when they pulled him out of school in the second week of fourth grade to help provide for his family, until 1991, when even Edward's enormous will couldn't overcome the failing legs, he crabbed and oystered this bay with legendary skill and dedication.

I once estimated he had shipped about 3 million soft crabs to market in a career on the water that spanned eight decades of this century; and oystering -- the Ruby with Edward and his brother Daniel sailing her, was among the Chesapeake's top dredge boats for about 40 years.

But more than the catch statistics, one recalls the remarkable, gracious spirit that Edward brought to a life of labor.

He told me once he "never craved the world," meaning material things. But a nut sundae, now that was something, ever since he was little, he could never get enough of. It stuck as his nickname.

At the funeral his family recalled that all his life, Edward would give thanks, "no matter how many times he ate during the day."

That was doubly impressive if you knew how much Nut Sundae liked eating. When I lived on Smith Island in the 1980s, I could spot him a long way off by the twin coolers on the Margaret's stern, packed by Ella Marie, his wife of the past 61 years.

In midmorning, Edward would open the first cooler for a "snack" -- a two-handed scrapple and scrambled egg sandwich, a fist-sized chunk of cheese and a fat slice of Ella Marie's seven-layer chocolate cake, all washed down with sweet, black coffee.

His main lunch might be a thick stack of clam fritter sandwiches, more cheese and a slice of coconut layer cake so big and good it almost made you forget the chocolate one.

Edward was not just thankful for his food. I never saw him when he didn't seem purely grateful just for the opportunity to be out there, year after year, dredging and scraping.

I remember him, approaching his 70th year on the water, coming to tie up after a 10-hour day in July, barely able to climb out of his boat. He laid his powerful upper body on the dock and rolled out. Then he climbed aboard his single-speed bike and wobbled down the lane to his house.

Even then, he would say "blessed" to be able to keep going. And after a hearty supper, he would often be back down on the dock, patiently answering tourists' questions about crabbing.

"I do believe 50 percent of the people in the world give up work too early," he said. "Once you get used to workin', why, it's a bigger job to give it up."

He left school after his mother died. With a father who was disabled, Edward, 11, had three younger brothers and sisters to care for.

He had always loved "studyin' on things," he recalled, and "I knew I would not ever have the chance for more schooling, so I put my whole mind on studyin' the water. Very few nights in my life that I have not gone off to sleep thinkin' about where I am going to crab or to dredge the next morning," he said.

No one worked harder. But no one ever had more time to pause and talk about working the water to the boatloads of school kids I would take out from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation education center on the island.

I thought of Ed after a day aboard another, younger waterman's boat down the bay in Virginia. He was a top crabber, too, but seemed always stressed and sour.

He had a sticker across his cabin window: "You work hard, then you die." That was Edward's life, too. But his take was so different: "I've been blessed."

Even the best crabbers on Smith Island say they just aren't making 'em like Edward anymore. For all his dedication to work, however, I've always suspected Ella Marie was the tough one in the family.

In the 1940s there came a crabbing year so bad that even Edward couldn't catch enough in a 12-hour day to make gas money, and that with gas at 10 cents a gallon. For the first and only time in his life, he lost the will to crab, and prepared to join the exodus of islanders seeking alternative work in Baltimore's shipyards.

But his wife, he said, told him she would "just as `liv' starve" as live in Baltimore, "and I said, well, we'll starve it out together, and come August some crabs hit, and we made a fairly good season's work."

At the funeral, Jack Dize, a Tangier crabber, sang "The Lighthouse," a beautiful hymn, and Terry Laird, the Smith Island ferryboat captain, followed with "Peace in the Valley."

On the ferry back to Crisfield, we passed across the broad shallows where Edward spent all his summers dragging the bottom for soft crabs from the 1920s through the 1990s.

The water was perfectly calm, devoid of boats. I recalled an old poem of the late Gilbert Byron's, about watermen:

Men who never wrote a line

Are the greatest poets ever

Verses of love

Inscribed upon the bottom

So what is left of that remarkable career now: Edward dead and buried, the Ruby rotted away up on Tilghman Island, the Margaret H. burned?

Maybe, ultimately, art -- crabbers and dredgers, on days when sky and water take on a monochrome color, appearing to float, suspended, between heavenly skies and muddy bottoms, between beauty and labor.

If all the bay's a stage, no one ever performed there better, more nobly, than Edward.

Pub Date: 2/26/99

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