Everyone calls him Captain, and Alex Kellam is proud of it: “Yes sir, in my day it took a damn good man to be cap’n of a sailing boat. “A retired Chesapeake Bay waterman, Kellam came of age during an era when sailing was a means of livelihood rather than leisure. These days true-to-life salty dogs like him are a vanishing breed.
At 76, Kellam still steps mighty sprightly. Rough-hewn in both manner and speech, he is wiry and wily enough to face down men half his age. But he is also a man of remarkable gentility who in mid-conversation will suddenly recite a poem appropriate to the occasion. “How do I know my youth has been spent?” Kellam asks with a twinkle in his baby-blue eyes. “Well sir, my get up and go has got up and went.”
Happily married for 51 years to Dorothy Schwtka, a retired schoolteacher, Kellam lives in Crisfield, Md., the self-proclaimed “seafood capital of the world.” But his roots are on Smith Island, a tiny community of crabbers and oystermen, just offshore. During a recent visit to the marshy island, Kellam reminisced about his childhood among men of the sea.
I come along during the time when you sailed or you didn’t get there. Us youngsters on Smith Island all had our own little boats when we were 8 or 9 years old, and come summertime we’d be out in the Chesapeake Bay a-crabbing. Man, we used to beat them boats up and down, even when it was blowing a gale. We thought that was something then. We were way out there, and the farther away we got, the bigger it made us feel.
Everybody on the island made their living from the water. It was crabbing in the summertime. Then, come November, the men would go dredging for oysters up on the Potomac River. They lived right aboard the boats, except for Christmas and a few weekends. While they were away, the women would spend the nights with each other to fill the emptiness.
I went to the fifth grade in school, but my mind wasn’t much on it. That year—1922—my stepfather bought a beautiful old skipjack [sailboat] called the Ruby G. Ford, and I couldn’t wait to get aboard her. So after Christmas they took me oystering on her. By Jesus, it was cold. In them days we didn’t have the insulated boots and rubber gloves they got now, and we had to beat our hands together to keep warm. The old guys would say, “It’s kinda warm by the old potbellied stove in the school-house, you know.” They kept rubbing it in on me, and I didn’t want to give in. But I was a-thinking the same thing.
I remember one particular week we worked Monday through Friday, and we never saw the sun the whole time. The ice must have been two inches thick on deck. I can still see the look on my stepfather’s face when we sold our catch in Baltimore. It was 37 bucks apiece for all hands on board. That was bragged about. That was good money.
Yes sir, that was a hard life. But it taught me how to survive, I can tell you that. Of course, what you learn on the water, you don’t get out of books. It’s experience learning. Like sometimes we’d be lying in a calm, and my stepfather the would say, “Watch them green eyes.” Sure enough, you’d see them dark greenish streaks a-coming on the water, and that was a sign a lot of wind was a-coming. If it was blowing hard enough, the old man would holler, “Get it off her.” Man, we knew just what to do when that came. We had to get the sail down as quick as possible, before it really started to blow. Whoo-ee, sometimes the wind would pick the water right above your head, and every wave that come would sweep that boat from stem to stern.
From a very early age my stepfather let me handle the jib on the Ruby G., and I tell you I could stand my own up there. I knew just exactly how to make that boat skip right along. At the end of a long day of oystering, we’d pick out another boat to race back to harbor and, man, we’d go get them. There were many occasions when I had them old captains cussing me. They’d say, “Look at him, that young bastard thinks he’s smart.” Fact is, I could beat the pants off of them sailing. Yes sir. And there weren’t many of them liked the idea too much of getting beat.
Come April we’d bring the Ruby G. home and put her up for the summer. Then we’d pull out the smaller flat-bottomed crabbing boats. Crabbing was hard work, but at least the weather was more tolerable than for oystering. Of course, you had to know a few secrets. For example, when a crab starts to peel out of his shell, he don’t stay right in the open; he hides in the grass, and you had to know where to look for him. The main thing was you had to be out on the crabbing grounds before dawn. That meant getting up by 2:30 or 3 in the morning. But we were usually home by midafternoon, in time to knock the ball around the baseball diamond.
Besides baseball, the only form of entertainment I can recollect was congregating. On a blowy day, when they couldn’t go to work, folks would gather in the old country store and tell stories. Most of them old people believed in ghosts, and I’ll be damned if they didn’t actually see a few.
There were certain areas where the ghosts were plentiful, you know. There was this one place called Over the Gut, where they say a man cut his wife’s head off. Every September, on a full moon, people saw this woman walking around without no head. In another place called Flat Cap Marsh, one lady got her dress afire and was burned up. For many years a light would come up and bolt around that marsh, and they called that her ghost.
I come close to seeing a ghost myself one night. This old lady who was a miser type died, and about six months later I was down in the marsh a-hunting ducks, and I saw something that looked like the spitting image of her. My first impulse was to run, but I said, “Hell, nothing like this can buffalo me.” So I went down in there further and found my cousin in a black dress, white blouse, and one of them old homemade bonnets. If I had run, I would have believed it to this day.
I’ve seen the changing of an era, let me tell you. Back then it took all day to get no place. I remember as a youngster spending many a lonesome hour off the bay shore in a sailing boat waiting for the tide to come in. You could only get the boats in at high water. But as soon as the tide started shifting, a whole crowd would come to help you pull your boat to shore. Nowadays all that has changed. Boats come and go all the time, but people are no longer as dependent on each other as they once were.
Looking back, it wasn’t a bad life. We all had time for each other. Oh, you had a few scalawags. But most people were as good as their word, and if you questioned anybody on it, you better be prepared to fight. Only a few of my old friends are still alive. But you take any of them old watermen and, man, he’ll starve you and ground you and he’ll walk your legs off. He knows how to take care of himself because he come up the hard way.