My father was an oysterman just like his father before him—and just like I would have become had things not turned out the way they did. By the end of the sixties, the Bay was in poor shape, and the men who worked the water and drank at the bars at the marina could see the writing was on the wall. Action groups were starting to form around the idea of “saving” the Bay—whatever that meant—and the careers it sustained, but by the time “environmentalism” entered the popular imagination, after decades of industrial pollution and runoff from local steel factories, the Chesapeake had seen such a decline in oysters, crabs and rock fish that most of the old dredgers were already out of business—and those of us who weren’t would soon be driven to retirement by mechanical dredging.
I spent most of my childhood riding in my father’s skipjack with my brother Glen, watching the tongers gather the catch from the floor of the Bay and haul it up and dump it on the culling board to be sorted. When I was old enough, I kept my tan by working on the boat alongside the men. By then, my father was reluctantly using the dredge to work the deeper waters—“Life has a way of sucking you in,” he liked to say, meaning if you weren’t willing to improvise, you’d have to compromise. “You’ve got to learn to adapt,” he said. “Just look at the Indian. He didn’t vanish. He just changed colors.” My father claimed to be one-eighth Indian, which would have made me one-sixteenth Indian had it been true, but I don’t think it was. He used to tell me our ancestors were outlaws, that they’d belonged to a war loving sub-tribe of the Algonquin on the Eastern Shore, a tribe that shared with their northern neighbors a love of fishing and of fighting—only one of which I had done well. I was not much of a fighter. When U.S. troops invaded Cambodia, I joined the reserves before the draft could take me—no one was getting 4-H those days, and blue-collar boys from the Bay were among the first to ship out.
The year Hurricane Camille devastated the oyster population, my brother died in a boating accident—one that had nothing to do with oyster dredging and everything to do with diving into Stoney Creek at low tide. After Glen’s death, my father stopped asking me to join him on the boat, didn’t want me thinking about becoming a dredger—didn’t want me on the Bay, period. He started drinking more, working the water less. He spent his time at the Pearl down at the marina, bitching about mechanical dredgers and Nixon, buying rounds for his friends when he could, and selling a little pot to make ends meet—but he was slowly falling into a blackness that would last throughout the winter.
The following spring he asked me to join him on a road trip to Texas. It was a rare invitation—I had long known him to vanish for weeks at a time without explanation—and it was an invitation that I accepted if for no other reason than to change the scenery. The sameness of Silver Sands had begun to make my brain go flat, in eighteen years I’d never been farther south than D.C., and despite our differences I was still willing to follow my father anywhere he wanted to go—whether out on the Bay or over the Allegheny Mountains. So we drove together, father and son, down through West Virginia, and we stopped over in Tennessee where he had some friends who ran a small motel and diner called the Royal Arms. He was “checking on his orders,” he said. He planned to make another stop here on our way back north, but for now our destination was Laredo, on the Rio Grande, where we were going to see an old friend of his, someone he wanted me to meet.
Twenty hours later, the road had taken its toll and the vastness of the desert was making me dizzy just to look at. The emptiness on all sides was like something out of an old western, the scrub brush and clumps of ponderosa pine, the sage brush-dotted gullies and zigzagging gorge dissolving into the Technicolor distance. I knew I was out of my element, but I put my trust in my father, for whom this was no strange territory. I knew he had been here before.
The first bales we brought back from the ranch in Laredo had been humped across the border by young boys barely in their teens—the so-called “Acapulco Gold” they carried, with its bright orange hairs, resembling gold nuggets that had been compressed into solid bricks the size of shoeboxes and wrapped in burlap and tied with twine. The bales filled the flatbed of my father’s Chevy and stayed lashed down with a length of tarp that snapped in the wind all the way back to Tennessee—where we unloaded half the product as planned—and then on again to Maryland.
Though I did not realize it at the time, a new family business was being forged, one that didn’t require long days on the water and one that would eventually prove quite profitable for me—though it was not without its hazards. Eventually, I would serve ten years of a twenty year sentence for possession and distribution. But going to prison was just another matter of learning to adapt. I’d learned that from my father, a man who made one thing clear to me on that trip all those years ago, something he advised me to chew on a while before I made up my mind. After all, becoming an outlaw was not for everyone, and it was a hard truth—one you could really break your teeth on if you weren’t careful—one that he had come himself to believe as the only logical solution to a problem that he had not caused. All the way to Baltimore, he repeated it like a theme: There was no future in oysters. Marijuana, however, was a different story.
JohnMancini’s fiction and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Akashic Books online, Natural Bridge, Pindeldyboz, Flash Fiction Magazine and elsewhere. He received an MFA from San Francisco State University, an MA from the University of Southern Mississippi and a BFA from Rhode Island School of Design. He recently completed a novel.