It wasn’t an auspicious start to the day, being first driven all the way under the covers and then into the shower by a cloud of no-see-ums.
Those little biting midges make the full range of human activity completely unbearable and it seems like they’re fiercest at the crack of dawn. Even now, as the New Haven winter is delivering its first frosts, I find it hard to look back with nostalgia on summer mornings and the bugs they bring.
My father had insisted on sleeping with the air conditioning off Memorial Day weekend this summer. It was unseasonably cool at night, but the no-see-ums are darn small — certainly tiny enough to ignore a silly human contraption like the screen window. And he claimed that, “like the local people”, he didn’t even notice bugs anyway. After a few days in the summer on the lower Eastern Shore of Maryland, you couldn’t tell if that man had chicken pox or if it had just been time to cut the grass.
That weekend, he had invited me to accompany him from Baltimore to Fishing Island, a piece of property he owns with three of his hunting buddies from high school, though this was nothing like the ice fishing lakes in maine to which we went the previous year but I was interested to see what this place was to offer. The place is a 410-acre peninsula on the Manokin River. You get there on the road to Crisfield from Salisbury, passing old signs for places like Chance and Champ. To get to high ground and the house itself — a little modern retreat ripped painstakingly from yellow pine — you must carefully follow from the tree line a two-mile lane of hard-packed oyster shells. The lane winds its way through tidal marshes and the only hint of it, or the residence at its end, is a zigzag of battered telephone poles carrying electricity out into oblivion.
Since the group from Baltimore bought the place, we spent winter weekends there, eating crab cakes prepared by a local picker and rising before dawn to shoot black ducks and canvasbacks from shoreline blinds.
On that summer day, my father and I intended to shore up the lane at washout spots by piling cinderblocks and bricks. He also wanted to use the large red Massey-Ferguson we had there to reclaim from high grass a piece of land that might make a nice little bull’s-eye of a cornfield for Canada geese.
While he bobbed and weaved bare-chested on the tractor, I replaced the rusty hardware on several old martin houses, then slopped a new coat of white paint on them — hopelessly swatting a gathering cloud of green flies, dragonflies and mosquitoes the whole time. I had set up shop on the windward side of the garage, futilely surmising that the meager breeze coming off the river might keep the bugs at bay.
From that spot, I looked out over the brown water while I worked. When the no-see-ums had driven me from sleep at 5 a.m., I had noticed three or four bass boats bobbing on the near side of the river in the shallow water. Now I saw them quite clearly — each one buoying a whole family: Mom and Dad, the kids, Grandpa and the dog. And everyone had a line out.
As my work wore on into early afternoon and I acquired a sunburn and a wicked batch of bites, I watched the boats more and more intently. None of them moved, they were consistently pulling in fish; probably croakers and maybe a few trout or spots. They all sipped cool beers.
It seemed, too, that they gazed back at me with equal interest. All were just far enough away for me to be unsure, but it bugged me nonetheless. They were out there, working our shoreline, pulling in dinner and staying clear of the insects. No wonder they stared, I was probably the only guy on the whole Lower Shore who wasn’t out on the water — except for my crazy father, who was a glutton for punishment anyway.
I looked back at him on his cherry-red steed; he was oblivious and content as ever, even though I knew there was a potpourri of ruthless bloodsuckers swarming his head, too.
He waved and smiled.
Freak, I thought, abandoning my post to seek asylum inside the house. I shut all the windows and turned on the air-conditioning.
By dinnertime, I had cooled off and so had the conditions outside. The breeze quickened slightly and the bugs relented. I told my father of the fantastic success of the fishing right off our beach. I promised him the next night’s dinner.
So we lugged two old lawn chairs, two long rods, a six-pack of beer and some bloodworms through the marsh grass to the water’s edge. It was well after nine when we cast out into the river, but a generous moon illuminated our efforts. The river, though, wasn’t nearly as generous; our poles stood full still as even the cattails fluttered under a light breeze.
As we finished the beer and packed up our rig, the yellow moon shone down on us from near overhead, exposing the whole fruitless operation. It occurred to me then that the river knew well what the locals must have suspected: we were damn fools.