A Southern Maryland Trilogy

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Part 1 – Traveling to Southern Maryland

Southern Maryland is a peninsula bounded by the Potomac and Patuxent Rivers and the Chesapeake Bay. It is a land of coves, bays, inlets, rivers, creeks and marshes. The air is fresh. Tidal breezes are constant. You can still see all manner of wildlife. The sunsets are the equal of those anywhere – all in all, not a bad place to be. We are fortunate enough to have a vacation home in Southern Maryland and we drive there quite often. And therein lies my tale

The amazing thing about Southern Maryland is that while it is quite lovely, a virtual haven for water sports enthusiasts, and potentially, a rich area for marinas, few people in Washington, only an hour and a half away, have any idea it’s there. “Where is that,” they ask. “How far is it once you cross the Bay Bridge?” “Is it near Atlantic City?” “Is it near the outlets?” It doesn’t have the draw of the beaches and boardwalks of the Eastern Shore, but neither does it have an hour tie-up waiting to cross the Bay Bridge or the hell of creeping down Route 1 on a Saturday before check-in time, needing to pee badly.

Attempts to reach  Southern Maryland played some odd roles during the Civil War.  General Robert E. Lee, who really doesn’t deserve his reputation as a military genius, (he did lose the most decisive battle of the war at Gettysburg) came up with the idea of sending General Jubal Early (no genius, he) and his troops across the Potomac, through Maryland, and down the Southern Maryland peninsula to its tip at Point Lookout, where the North had a prisoner of war camp for Southern soldiers. It was a brilliantly chosen  location. The theory was that if the prisoners escaped, they would never find their way home – lousy signage, no better today. The point of Lee’s scheme was for Early’s force to liberate the captives, arm them (although with what has never been satisfactorily explained), and march their dysenteric bodies up to Washington and attack the capitol from the South. Early’s men did cross the Potomac, spent the night in Silver Spring, immediately north of the city, raided a basement full of liquor, got drunk as lords and were shooed back home by the Federal troops at the “Battle” of Fort Stevens whose canon apparently made too much noise for the hung-over Confederates.  Early and Lee were quite a team. I think the South lost the war, not because of the North’s material advantage, but because the South had generals too.  I am happy to report that the POW camp at Point Lookout is closed and while there may still be some  Confederate sentiment in Southern Maryland, it poses no immediate threat.

On a road near our property, there is a sign that reads, “Port Wicomico, Established 1683, now Bushwood Wharf, a steamboat wharf until 1930, occupied by Union Troops, during the civil war.” This tells you a little bit about Southern Maryland. New Jersey wasn’t “occupied” by Union troops.  Rhode Island wasn’t “occupied” by Union troops.  Southern Maryland was. During the Civil War, much of Maryland rested on a precipice, always ready to fall into the Confederacy. There was a reason why it had to be occupied.

All the more peculiar than that, after creating such a fuss at Ford’s Theater, John Wilkes Booth attempted to escape Washington by riding across a bridge into Southern Maryland. Booth, possibly deranged, perhaps just a fanatic, was certainly an idiot. Southern Maryland may have been a hotbed of Confederate sympathizers, but Union troops were stationed in and around every hamlet. There weren’t a lot of hamlets then, (and there aren’t a lot more now), so he wound up having to hide in a swamp. He crossed the Potomac in the wrong place and was captured by Union soldiers who had adopted the clever stratagem of asking whether anyone had seen Booth. Someone said yes,  and that was that. Police work really hasn’t changed much. 

You have to figure, if Booth made it with a broken leg, on horseback, we can certainly make it in expensive cars loaded with coolers of beverages, entertainment systems, and a week’s worth of provisions from Whole Foods.  And, in the final analysis, you can always rely on your navigation system which will sometimes get you right to our house.  Sometimes not.  I don’t know why. The point is, finding Southern Maryland isn’t difficult.  Getting there is another matter.

Anyway, once you have learned that Southern Maryland exists and how to get to it, you may think no further obstacles remain. Wrong. Enter the disruptive mischief of Charity Events (which is what I intended to talk about in the first place. See how context helps. You wouldn’t have known about Booth.). 

On any given weekend we are now confronted with marches or walks “for” various diseases. We don’t march against them. For some strange reason, we march “for” them.  (People who want to do good seem to have a problem with prepositions),  We have Marches for Breast Cancer, Walks for Autism, a Colon Cancer Awareness 5k Run,  a Sprint for Priapism (awkward, given the condition, but, bless their hearts, they still try), the Lope For Leprosy, and then rallies to combat whatever else you can imagine. 

It used to be that events, whether political or charitable, used to take place on the Mall, as God intended. Now we are in motion and have to run, march, or walk. All these events close down the major thoroughfares in downtown Washington, D.C. I’ll bet if Lee had attempted to attack Washington on a weekend, he would have been thwarted by a thousand women marching to alleviate the discomfort  of sagging breasts – or proclaiming their right to have sagging breasts – whichever.  The point is, he would have had to sit astride his horse, fuming, until the breasts had passed.

I don’t mean to demean the fine organizations who organize these events, and I certainly don’t mean to deprecate those who are trying to solve the problem of sagging breasts.  After all, Washington DC is our nation’s capitol and there is a certain publicity to be gained by racing past the famous streets and  monuments, breasts held high (or however high they can be held, and by whatever means). But every weekend? Isn’t there someone empowered to say, “No, not this weekend.” Perhaps there is some other use for the streets or  perhaps marching on the major thoroughfares could be reserved for the major medical complaints, like the guys who’ve started to “drip a little.” Surely, some illnesses are less worthy than others? Personally, I think the “March for Canker Sores” would be silly but, thanks to social media, I’ll bet you could round up 25,000 committed people to clog up the street and litter Constitution Avenue with empty Blistex containers. I wouldn’t allow it. 

These walks, runs and stumbles don’t really end. They have an afterlife, thanks to the sales of T-shirts and wristbands.  People actually collect these wristbands.  “Let’s see, the red one is for hemorrhoids, black for the bubonic plague, of course, yellow for jaundice – remember that march? Everything was yellow? …. I’ll trade you my extra COPD for your Whooping Cough….”  This paraphernalia is intended to convey the message that all these people with blistered feet and itchy groins are better than we are, more empathetic, more concerned. And, of course, because they are better, they have the inalienable right to stop me from getting to Southern Maryland by closing down the most obvious route.

Isn’t it possible to give people the opportunity to avoid gridlock by simply making a donation to the obstructive charity?” Hell, I’d write the check if it meant I could use the streets. For God’s sake, spare me your cause.  Blackmail me. I’m easy.

Here’s another idea. Why not devote a percentage of our taxes for charitable purposes? It could be called a charitable deduction.  It could be used to fight disease and, with a little left over, to fix the potholes.

Part 2 – Chryssa’s Ospreys

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Off our dock in Southern Maryland there’s a pole with a plywood top that supports an Osprey’s nest.  I don’t know who put it there (it certainly pre-dates us), but there are poles just like it all around the river and bay, so there must be some group, perhaps a secret society, maybe even the freemasons, who sneak out in the off-season, and plant these nesting poles.  The object seems to be to give Ospreys places to build their nests and raise and feed their young, free from attacks from tree-climbing predators like raccoons but it makes you wonder what they did before we provided them with supplies from Home Depot.  A full-grown Osprey has no natural enemy, but for eagles that attempt to hijack their fish in flight.  It seems to me that putting a pole in the middle of a river, exposes the eggs and young to more danger than a nice, leafy bower, but perhaps flying predators are not as serious a threat as something that crawls up a tree.   Anyway, either to protect them, or because we like Ospreys and want to increase their population, we have festooned the tidal waters of the Chesapeake Bay with Osprey homes.  Not a bad deal for the Ospreys and not a bad deal for us.

The Ospreys gather sticks and twigs and branches – big sticks and twigs and branches – and intertwine them on the plywood platforms. The brighter of the Ospreys probably hire contractors to do it for them.  No one seems to know what keeps the nests sitting on the platforms.  There are serious breezes here and if you or I laid a few twigs on a board and held them into the wind, they would surely disappear.  Ospreys’ nests, however, seem to survive gale force winds with little damage. Perhaps they manufacture some unique, sticky saliva, Osprey Spit, that binds their nests to the platforms and the twigs to each other.  It strikes me that this could be a substance akin to “mussel goo” that every once in a while we read dentists are planning to use to hold our fillings in place.  (Have dentists ever really done this? And shouldn’t we have given informed consent for it?)

Anyway, Ospreys are big birds – I don’t know how big — as a city person, my standard of bird measurement is a  pigeon and they’re a lot bigger than pigeons. Nor do they strut around, bobbing their heads and making those endearing cooing sounds.  When they decide to express themselves at all, they shriek – most un-pigeon-like. They will protect their young by flying aggressively close if you seem a threat,  but, on the whole, they mind their own business and are pleasing to watch gliding through the air, unaccountably changing direction, swooping, diving, soaring and other bird verbs, not to please us, but to catch fish.  Fish are apparently all they eat and they’re very efficient at catching them.  Wings and claws help a lot. They grab a fish and carry it, still wriggling, to the nest where their voracious little velociraptor-like children wait impatiently, shrieking for their meal. 

Both parents seem to share the hunting, egg sitting and nest protecting. Maybe they think that if they double up, it will be sooner before they don’t have to listen to the babies.  They share these duties until the little Ospreys fall, or are pushed out of the nest. By Summer’s end, the children have soloed and the entire family migrates to some distant, more clement clime, which if it’s worth the trip, seems like a nice place to have lived in the first place.  Why they return is a mystery.  Anyway, that’s the sum total of an Osprey’s life.

Ospreys are Raptors – flying leopards. Their claws are fiendishly pointed ( the better to grasp, my dear).  Their beaks are curved and sharp, designed to tear flesh. Their eyesight is acute, the better to spot prey. They fly, catch fish, feed and protect their young, and that’s it for them. There’s no hint that they hold nest seminars or discuss where they came from or where they may be going. I’ve never spotted any of them reading.   It seems unlikely that they have a concept of God  (or anything else, for that matter).  Perhaps during those long days of nest sitting, they engage in introspection.  How would we know? Their entire philosophy can be summed up, “I shit on your windshield ergo sum.”

Can you imagine how the National Geographic Channel or worse, the Disney people, might anthropomorphize the life of the Osprey? “It’s Spring in Saskatchewan.” That’s how it would start. Next would be some interminable scene of a little Osprey – Ospreyette, perhaps – punching its way from its shell. The mother and father bird would now be shown going through the drama of catching a fish. Will they get it back to the nest in time? Will the gathering storm stop them? Will the Komodo Dragon reach the little birds before the mother and father return?

And through all this drama, we will be conditioned not merely to hold these birds of prey in high regard, but to love them; to want to cuddle them.  Can you imagine how an Osprey reacts to cuddling?) We want to feed them by hand, to stroke them and pat them. As the background music takes an ominous turn, we hate that Komodo Dragon or weasel or whatever the hell eats Osprey eggs. We want it to die. Forget its own travails and the burdens of raising its own young. That was last week’s program, “Our Vanishing Ferrets,” the second of a two part series. (The first was “Whither the Weasel?”) I hesitate to mention that Ospreys mate for life. Can you imagine what Disney would do with that?

We have a telescope in our window, and my wife, Chryssa, loves watching the baby Ospreys. She thinks they’re cute and, like most young, I suppose they have some appeal – although, of course, not like a puppy or kitten. They seem to have an innocent energy, looking around for their mother and father to bring a fish or learning to watch the world around them. I’m sure Chryssa doesn’t contemplate that they shit where they eat, but only that they are God’s Creatures and we should be grateful for the opportunity to see them. My wife is a nice person.

Without dwelling on Ospreys as God’s Creatures and forgetting the unmitigated treacle of the Disney approach to nature, I find it much more instructive to simply sit on my porch and watch the Ospreys; to see what they do;  to see what they eat and how often they catch fish;  to wonder what they think or whether they think at all; to note when they have abandoned their nest in the Fall and flown who knows where and, best of all, to mark a new season upon their return.  And, if while doing this, I enjoy a good bourbon and a rich cigar, how utterly civilized is that? Maybe this is what God’s Creatures were meant to do.

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Part 3 – My Dog Fell In The Septic Tank

My dog fell in the septic tank.  Not a bad name for an off-Broadway show, don’t you think? But, in fact, my dog did fall in the septic tank. A more adroit animal – say, a goat, would never fall in a septic tank. Dogs, however,  are very un-goat-like. French Bulldogs are singularly un-goat-like. Why, you may ask was there an open septic tank for my un-goat-like dog to fall into? Aha!  For just as dogs do not have the agility of goats, builders in Southern Maryland, well, tend not to think ahead. (Opposable thumbs aid in the task of grasping the lid of a septic tank, but they play no role in knowing when not to leave one opened.) According to the builder,  his minions knew that the next day, the septic tank was to be flushed or emptied or whatever one does to a septic tank, so they thought it provident to uncover the tank a full day in advance, thus giving some small un-goat-like animal an opportunity to fall in and drown unpleasantly. The builder, of course, wasn’t there to provide his usual wise counsel. Once a Southern Maryland Builder finds minions, he joyfully disappears to go eat fattening foods. It has come to my attention from the minions, that they were told by the builder to leave the tank open, so there is a conflict, unheard of in the construction industry.

So there I was, watching my other dog, Stella, lying like the dead in a carefully selected beam of sunlight and wondering what the splashing sounds were, when I suddenly realized Max – the un-goat – was in trouble. I ran (to the extent I still can) around to the side of the house and there was his little head stretched above the water, paws thrashing for all he was worth. This is, unfortunately, a French Bulldog’s way of swimming, one reason why they are not used to retrieve ducks. I got down on my knees reached down over the disgusting lip of the septic tank, grabbed his collar, and pulled Max out of the “water.” In profuse gratitude, he shook himself dry right in my face. I now have Cholera.  Max is fine.

When I told my wife what had happened, her first question was, “Did Stella push him in?” That tells you all you need to know about Stella, known affectionately by her nickname,  “The Bad Seed.” Actually, if she had thought about it, she would have pushed him in. But at the time, and throughout this little drama, Stella was still basking in the Sun, probably calculating that with Max gone, she could be the pack leader.  Of course, with Max gone, there would be no pack to lead, but, in addition to being very un-goat-like, French Bulldogs are poor planners.

I grabbed Max’s powerful slithering little body and rushed him to the bathroom.  The shower with Max was delightful.  He doesn’t like showers and so attempted to claw his way through my leg to escape. I don’t like showering with dogs so I gave vent to unspeakable curses. I could swear that Stella, who had followed this little drama, was  standing on the other side of the shower door, smiling. TC mark

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