Saturday, February 22, 2014

Wreck and Salvage

"Good afternoon, young lady," calls Captain Roy from his perch on the wood deck of the big barn at Pickers near Milestone as I make my way through a field of rusted hulks. I am almost 54 and still look pretty good, but I wonder where the tipping point is when "young lady" stops being a flirt and starts being patronizing, ironic.

Captain Roy is neither patronizing nor ironic. His left leg is in a white plaster cast, and purplish toes with sharp, long yellowed nails are sticking out the end of the gleaming white exoskeleton that's holding his leg together; the skin above and below the cast looks angry, wasted.  I ask him how he broke his leg, and he doesn't say, just says, "They almost cut it off last year." Beat. "Hi, I'm Captain Roy. I'm a tugboat captain." And he extends his hand in greeting.

He is a tugboat captain. (D.P. Snyder)
"There was this little thing called Hurricane Irene", he says with a getting-underway tone of voice, like an old train gathering steam. "Took out the first floor of our house, took out my trucks, too,"  he says, gesturing vaguely across the huge field of rusting equipment at two large, white panel trucks sunk deep in the muddy stubble about 75 yards away. "Had to take out the motors."

Captain Roy tells me that his wife Angie runs the place, but he's watching it for her today. "She's young, like you two", he remarks as my husband walks up behind me. Captain Roy is not young and this business of the leg has made him aware that he is, in fact, old. It's three years since he messed up the leg,  since an accident the details of which he does not reveal, but which must have happened right before Irene. There's a big, beautiful old Harley Davidson motorcycle parked inside the barn; its black metal skin and Cyclops eye are gleaming from inside in the half-light.

"After the accident, the hospital cost 50 thousand," he says, and they wanted to cut off the leg to here," he says, marking the spot with a swift cutting gesture on the shin where a whirring saw would have severed bone from bone. But the surgery, the prosthesis and the rehab would have cost a million dollars, so he found "these two doctors at Duke", and they put his leg back together for him. "I still work the tug boat," he tells me. "Can't afford to stop working, so I just stump around on this," he says giving the plaster cast a playful whack.

American Pie (D.P. Snyder)
From where Captain Roy sits on the raised platform in front of the old barn, he can see pretty deep inside where mysterious, frayed, and rusted objects are stacked in a thick but orderly succession, like with like. He can see out, too, across the vast stubble field where rusted stoves, grills, tractors, tools, sailboats, and even a lime green Gatorade go-cart sit in quiet meditation under the fragile, white February sun. "Tug boat got beat up pretty bad, too," he says. "She was out there in the water when Irene came." And then he goes quiet.

Irene. Did a lot damage down-east, a lot of damage. Homes gone, boats gone, lives gone. Lives just broken badly, too, and then left to rust.  "Damn shame a man has to end his life with nothing," says Captain Roy. "Damn shame." I want to ask him what he thinks of universal healthcare, but I don't.

In a bin full of pocket knives, I find a vintage one made in Pakistan in the 50's. The bolster is green and long, curved just right to fit in the palm of my hand or slide slick as a salamander into the pocket of my jeans. It's got two blades, one long and sharp, and the other one serrated like a saw with a bottle opener on the end. Handing him a ten, I tell Captain Roy it was in the $5 bin. "Shouldn't have been", he says, "that's a vintage knife," and he hands me my change. There's no way to hand him back the $5 without insulting him, so I buy a weird little green plastic rake with an aluminum handle instead; I'll use it to rake the dunes on our strip of beach.

Amid the broken machines and objects of a happier time, Captain Roy sits in his old wood chair wearing a camouflage cap that shows he's a Veteran. The bill of his cap casts a sharp shadow across his face so that the only features you see are the white Papa Hemingway beard and his wire frame glasses floating in the penumbral space between beard and hat, seeing everything, reflecting the pale, late winter sky.

Shovels, Pamlico County, NC (D.P. Snyder)

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