Small town, big send-off

Crisfield: As soldiers based here are called to duty, this Eastern Shore town rallies behind them.

March 02, 2003|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

CRISFIELD - Tomorrow, this town of 2,880 will send its soldiers off to war.

Crisfield will say farewell to the men and women of the 1229th Transportation Company with a ceremony in a packed school auditorium. The band from Crisfield High School will play patriotic music. The student government president will speak, as will county dignitaries.

The guests of honor will be 60 men and women - bus drivers, prison guards, mechanics, a heating and air conditioning contractor. They are Maryland Army National Guard truck drivers who, like more than 100,000 of their comrades across the country, have been called for at least a one-year active-duty hitch.

Soon, the former civilians will be hauling food and medical supplies, equipment and ammunition, pretty much anything the Army will need in what most of them figure is an inevitable war in Iraq.

In cities and towns across the United States, citizen soldiers are heading out. Though they will be missed by their families, their co-workers and their neighbors, in bigger communities their absences may not always draw much notice. In a larger place, the city hardly stops to say goodbye.

Crisfield, however, wouldn't think of letting its soldiers go without some fanfare.

"We had this kind of tribute when the Guard got called up for active duty in the gulf war - it's just something we do," says Pat Carson, Crisfield High School Class of '64, a 34-year biology teacher who is organizing the fete.

"In some ways, I think our kids are more attuned this time than their parents because they know people who graduated in the last few years who are already in the service," says Carson, pointing to a "Local Heroes" bulletin board outside the school office.

The 1229th is based in this Eastern Shore waterfront town. On Thursday, the guardsmen are scheduled to head south in two dozen rumbling green diesels for Fort Lee, Va., the first stop on what they expect to be a trip to the Middle East. Uneasy about the threat of chemical or biological weapons, some of the soldiers hope they will have time for more practice using protective gear such as gas masks.

A couple of years ago, Michael Wigglesworth Jr., who had been out of the Army for 13 years, had little interest in further service in the Guard. Then came the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

"I was at the recruiter's door that day," says Spc. Wigglesworth, 35, who lives in Crisfield and works at the nearby Eastern Correctional Institution. "I felt it was my duty. It just sparked something in me."

His father, Mike Sr., a former Navy submariner, says he has some fear for his son's welfare in the event of war, but he thinks military action is necessary.

"No one with common sense wants war," says the elder Wigglesworth. "But this town is 100 percent behind the Guard. I know my son and all of them will do a wonderful job. It's a job that's got to be done."

Much has changed since previous generations went to war from this town. Much has changed since Crisfield was king of the Chesapeake Bay's seafood industry.

Most of the dozen processing plants that once provided jobs and a ready market for area watermen stand idle. Main Street is a tattered shadow of its glory days, a symbol of hard times in the largest town in Maryland's poorest county. Nowadays, people are hoping a proposed bay ferry service will help revive the place.

Even in the 1229th, things are different. Now, there are only about a half-dozen soldiers who live in town. A few others who grew up here come back as weekend warriors. Most of the rest live within driving distance in Salisbury, Delaware and Virginia's Eastern Shore. One or two live near Baltimore.

Nevertheless, Crisfield wouldn't think of letting the Guard go without some pomp and ceremony. Retirees here recall an almost festive atmosphere when the old Company L infantry unit was called up in February 1941.

Down the street from the high school, where the 80 members of this year's senior class are contemplating their future in wartime, is the veterans' cemetery. The 200 or so graves of servicemen who fought in two world wars, Korea and Vietnam are lined up under the watchful eye of the "Doughboy" statue erected in the 1920s.

A block in the other direction stand the twin brick turrets of the Gen. Maurice D. "Dana" Tawes Armory, named for the boy from Crisfield's most prominent family who started out as a buck private and wound up serving in the Guard for 38 years. He is a veteran of the D-Day invasion, one of five or six still living in town. His brother, Robert, and three nephews were also military officers.

Tawes spends most of his time now down near the harbor in the oldest hardware store in town, the one his grandfather built in 1883.

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