The Stranger in the Shelter

5 Nov

Three people met in the Georgia woods. They were two young men and a girl not yet 18. They were a drifter and a pair who barely knew each other. They were, all three, green to the outdoors, new to the dragon-backed highlands near the southern end of the Appalachian Trail. One died in those mountains. A second forfeited any shot at a normal life. Just one of the three has outlived the story. Until now, 44 years after the fact, that survivor has shared it with few. Three people met in the Georgia woods, and this is what happened.

It begins with the girl.

A typical girl of the mid-seventies American South, in most respects. In love with her dog, her friends, and summer days wasted in adventure yarns and mysteries. In Jethro Tull records and card games and movie dates. In canoeing the pond out back of her family’s house in Sumter, South Carolina.

Sharper than average: Margaret McFaddin Harritt could dive so deep into books that the world around her disappeared, and she could apply the same focus to any task at hand. She finished high school in three years and turned 17 just days before arriving at the University of South Carolina.

She looked even younger than she was. But she was also a headstrong kid. Daring. Hungry for the new and exotic. South Carolina wasn’t much for counterculture in the fall of 1973, but she found a pocket of it a few blocks from USC in Columbia’s Five Points district. Hippie boutiques. Hole-in-the-wall restaurants. The Joyful Alternative, which sold incense, New Age books, and roach clips. A new outdoor shop called the Backpacker.

Margaret found a job in Five Points, waiting tables at a popular restaurant, Capri’s Italian. Which is what she was doing one night in March 1974 when in walked tall, long-haired Joel Polson.

He was slender, fit, and wore shorts year-round. His mustache and goatee signaled that he was older than Margaret—by nine years, she’d come to find out. But otherwise he seemed an unspoiled child of nature, a guileless friend to all.

And from that first night, Joel talked nonstop about a great adventure he had in the works. He planned to hike the Appalachian Trail, all 2,200 miles of it. It would take months. And hey, he told her, you should come with me.

Margaret laughed off the idea. She’d just met him. Besides, she was no athlete—she hadn’t intentionally exercised a day in her life—and slogging up mountains didn’t sound like fun. But Joel kept coming back, still talking up the trip. She ran into him at the Joyful Alternative, where he talked about it more. Before long, two thoughts began to crystallize.

One, she liked this Joel. Not in a romantic way; he was more buddy material than boyfriend. But she found that he was deeply interested in the world around him. He was relentlessly upbeat. Not least, he was generous: he wanted to pursue big, life-shaping experiences that he was eager to share.

And two, she would not be returning to USC in the fall. She felt out of place there, uninspired by her classes. She wasn’t sure what she would do.

Perhaps a long walk was just the way to work that out.

Margaret owed much to her DNA. She was fun-loving like her physician father, a hard-playing freethinker who friends called Wild Bill. And she was willful like her mother, whose childhood polio had not kept her from college and a career as a clinical pathologist, raising four children, and juggling a crowded social calendar.

Like both of her parents, she was intellectually curious. She devoured books on Eastern religions. And in their pages she detected threads that resonated with her—that time is vast and human life short. Death would come for her, as it did everyone. Fearing it didn’t make much sense. Fear in general didn’t.

The sum of all this: Margaret said yes. “I can remember sitting in her front yard and her telling me about the trip,” says Mary Jac Brennan, Margaret’s closest friend since first grade. “I’m sure I knew about the trail, but I’d never known anyone who did that kind of stuff.”

Margaret Harritt in the mid-'70s. (Jacquie Haymond)

In 1974, few did. The previous year, just 93 people completed a through-hike of the entire trail, and the feat did not yet inspire the public’s imagination. Margaret knew almost nothing about the AT. Still, in early May, she found herself 38 miles from its southern terminus at Springer Mountain, Georgia, beginning their first full day of hiking.

They’d started their journey the evening before, at a road crossing at Tesnatee Gap, but got such a late start that they were able to cover only a couple of miles, in darkness. Now Margaret got a first good look at her surroundings. In spring, the southern Appalachian forests are flooded with light (maples, oaks, and tulip trees are just beginning to bud) and wildflowers—buttercups and purple trilliums, toothworts and mayapples, the neat white radials of great chickweed. In every direction mountains form blue-gray ramparts against the sky.

It was stunning. But the view carried a price: the trail climbed steadily, unmercifully, and burdened by their overloaded external-frame packs, the unseasoned hikers felt every foot. It wasn’t long before Margaret had a blister forming on her heel. They paused to tape moleskin over it. About a mile on, they broke for lunch. They encountered a party of foresters armed with chainsaws, on the hunt for blowdowns, and stopped to chat. They rested once more a little farther on, and again after that.

Late in the afternoon, they were relieved to reach a long descent. At the bottom, a sign pointed the way down a 190-yard side trail to the Low Gap shelter. They’d covered just six miles but agreed: the day ended here.

Then as now, the shelter was a lean-to perched high on concrete pilings in a glade hemmed by a curving brook. There, under the hut’s gabled roof, they found another hiker already settled on the bare plank floor.

They must have made quite the first impression. Margaret had her hair in pigtails, looked barely into her teens, and was dwarfed by her enormous red JanSport pack. Joel wore a pith helmet, the headgear favored by olden-day jungle explorers, equal parts swashbuckling and absurd.

By comparison, the stranger was nondescript. He was a little older than Joel, by the looks of him, and much smaller—five inches shorter and slight of build. He had a wispy mustache and horn-rimmed glasses. What remained of his receding blond hair was combed straight back and fell over his collar.

As she shook off her pack, Margaret asked his name. Ralph, he replied.

Were there clues that something awful was about to happen?

No. None that Margaret detected, anyway. Ralph appeared harmless, though certainly down on his luck, with the dark, desiccated skin of a heavy smoker who’d gone awhile without a shower. In the shelter beside him was a meager pile of gear: blanket, leather jacket, canvas rucksack.

After a few minutes of conversation, Margaret crossed the clearing to wash up in the stream. Joel sidled up close. He didn’t know that he trusted this Ralph character, he told her, keeping his voice low. Surprising talk, coming from him.

Ralph didn’t look like a hiker, Joel explained—he was wearing suede crepe-soled desert boots, and didn’t have any proper gear. He glanced back over his shoulder toward the shelter. They’d left their packs right next to the guy, he whispered. For all they knew, he could be stealing their stuff right now.

They hurried back to the shelter. Ralph hadn’t moved. Their gear was untouched. He watched as, a little chastened, they strung up a clothesline and hung their socks and T-shirts. They started a fire and cooked dinner, offering him some. He demurred.

As they ate, Ralph left the shelter and wandered into the trees, returning with an armful of wood for the fire. He made another trip for more. Went back a third time.

Well, maybe he’s all right, Joel commented to Margaret while Ralph was gone. He’s probably OK. Still, he told her, they should leave first thing in the morning. He’d wake her, and they’d get hiking straight away. They’d have breakfast when they were a mile or two up the trail to the north.

Margaret crawled into her sleeping bag not long after. Darkness had yet to fall. As she drifted off, the men built the fire into a fierce blaze. Neither said much.

The Low Gap shelter today. (Earl Swift)
The Appalachian Trail in White County, Georgia. (Earl Swift)

She woke to Joel urging her to get moving. Margaret sat up in her bag. Morning had come, and he was already loaded up; his big green pack leaned against a tree outside, cinched tight. She watched as he walked to the stream, splashed water on his face, and doubled back toward the fire ring. At the same time, Ralph threw off his blanket and stepped out of the shelter.

She was lacing a boot when there came a loud, sharp noise, a blast, and when she looked up, Joel had dropped into an awkward crouch. His head rested on the fire ring. He was motionless.

Before Margaret had time to process the scene, Ralph was leaping into the shelter to stand over her. In his hand was an enormous ­revolver.

Wait, what? “Roll over,” Ralph said. “Be quiet.” He tied her hands behind her back with twine. What had just happened? He ordered her to her feet, then guided her up the narrow path that led to the privy and into the trackless woods beyond. “Is Joel dead?” she dared to ask.

“No,” Ralph told her, “he’s just hurt.” He said it quickly.

“Could you pull him away from the fire ring so he doesn’t get burned?”

Yes, Ralph said, he’d do that. He stopped her beside a slim hardwood, ordered her to sit on the ground, pulled her legs around the tree, and tied her feet together. He blindfolded her. “Do I have to gag you?” he asked.

“No,” Margaret replied. “What are you going to do with me?”

“I don’t know,” he said.

He walked off. Margaret sat on the forest floor, surrounded by the sounds of trees and birds, frantic. This couldn’t be real. She willed herself to calm down, to imagine that it was all a story, a fiction. She hoped Joel wasn’t badly hurt. Ten minutes passed, maybe fifteen.

Footsteps. Ralph removed her blindfold, untied her, and led her back to the shelter. Joel was nowhere to be seen. She asked Ralph where he was.

“I got rid of him,” he said.

Joel Eugene Polson: April 26, 1948 to May 9, 1974. Remembered today, when he is remembered at all, for his unfortunate place in history—the first documented murder on the Appalachian Trail.

In the decades since, seven other hikers have died in acts of violence on the footpath. Most of those crimes have attracted national attention, if for no other reason than the AT’s status as one of the safest places around.

A few southern newspapers wrote of his murder in the days after. But the story soon faded, and today Joel Polson’s life and death are usually dispensed with in a sentence or two. Who he was, and how he passed the 26 years before that May morning, are such a blank that many mentions of him in print and online misspell his name Polsom.

This much is known: He was from Hartsville, South Carolina, a paper-mill town 60 miles northeast of Columbia. The youngest of three children born to John E. and Bonnie Tedder Polson, a mill worker turned jeweler and a farm-raised homemaker.

Joel was intrepid as a kid, into scouting, playing soldier. Then, when he was 13 or 14, he suffered a mysterious accident. “Joel climbed up a tree onto the roof of the garage, and he apparently fell down,” says his brother, Johnny. Their parents, who’d been out for the day, returned to find Joel dirty and discombobulated. “We never got a clear story of what happened, because Joel didn’t remember,” Johnny says. “He was thrown off by some sort of mental thing from that fall.”

Whatever his condition, by the time he was able to return to school, he was two years older than his classmates. Even so, he seemed “childlike, kind of naive,” a friend, Kenneth Krueger Jr., remembers. “Not of the world. He didn’t see people as threatening.”

He was also shy and nerdish, clumsy in his interactions. Photos from his high school yearbooks depict a bespectacled straight arrow with a mission-control haircut and a fondness for cardigans and chinos. “He didn’t have that many friends,” his brother says. “And of course, talking to girls, he didn’t have any skills there.”

Joel Polson in 1971. (Courtesy Johnny Polson)

Still, Joel was difficult to overlook at Hartsville High. He got into photography, and he and his camera became fixtures at every campus event. Classmates nicknamed him Flash.

That primed him for further involvement. By his senior year, he’d been active not only on the newspaper and yearbook staffs, but in student government, a slew of clubs, and the junior and senior class plays. He was president of the Photography Club, was a DJ on the school radio station, and worked the counter in the student store.

Flipping through the yearbook, you’d think that awkward Joel Polson was among the most popular kids in school.

At the shelter, Margaret was numb with shock. Joel was probably dead. It made no sense. The men had not said a word to each other that morning.

Ralph ordered her to eat and drink while he went through Joel’s pack. He asked whether Joel had any money. Traveler’s checks, she managed. Where? She pointed out where Joel stashed them. She had change in her pocket. She handed it over.

Pack up, Ralph told her. He led her back into the woods—deeper this time, 200 yards from the shelter. She asked whether he was going to kill her. “You really don’t have any reason to,” she told him. “I didn’t do anything to you.”

“Well,” Ralph said, “neither did Joel.”

He had her again sit facing a tree and once more positioned her legs around the trunk, binding her feet together. He tied her hands behind her back. He covered her backpack with leaves and wedged his own rucksack behind her as a backrest. I’ll leave you here, he told her. I’ll leave a note in the shelter saying where you are.

Ralph had brought Joel’s pith helmet along, and now he turned it upside down, filled it with water, and placed it beside her. He dropped a bag of granola in her lap. He had her demonstrate that she could reach both with her mouth. It could be that somebody will come in an hour, he said. Then again, it might be tomorrow.

This time he dispensed with the blindfold. Instead, he balanced Joel’s watch on a log so that she could read its face, then stalked off through the trees.

Margaret watched the sweep of the second hand. It seemed preternaturally slow. Minutes crawled by. She strained her ears, dreading the sound of footsteps, certain that if Ralph returned it would be to kill her.

After fifteen minutes, here he came. Being dead didn’t frighten her. Getting that way, she realized, did. She found herself thinking, with eerie calm: OK God. Here I come.

Ralph surprised her. I can’t leave you here, he announced. What if it’s days before anyone shows up? You’d die, and I don’t want that.

I didn’t want to kill Joel, he said. I just wanted his gear. I had to do it because he was such a big guy. But, he said, he had never “whacked a chick before.”

So you have a choice, Ralph told her. You can stay here if you want. Or you can hike out of the mountains with me. When we get to the next highway, I’ll let you go home.

Margaret did not dwell on her options. She did not want to sit tied up in the woods. She wanted to get away from the shelter and out of Georgia, and yes, she’d be walking with Joel’s killer, but that was secondary to getting out of there.

“Untie me,” she told him.

A few minutes later, they were packed up and headed back to the AT, Margaret in the lead, Ralph and his gun a pace behind. At the junction, they could have turned south, backtracking to a road less than five miles away. Instead, Ralph ordered her north.

Listen up, he said as they walked. I’m going to let you go. But if we run into anyone before we reach civilization, and you say anything—or do anything to signal that there’s something wrong—you’ll all die. And I’ll kill you first.

After high school, Joel continued to hone his skill behind a lens. He landed pictures in the local papers and won first place at the 1970 Darlington Arts Festival. “If he had lived, he would have been an outstanding photographer,” his friend and distant cousin Myra Polson says. “I mean, he would have been going to National Geographic.”

Joel hiked frequently into a local arboretum to photograph flowers and the blackwater swamp at its heart. Perhaps the beauty he found there kindled his interest in the natural world, because during a stint at Hartsville’s Coker College, he immersed himself in “trying to save the planet,” Krueger says.

Polson in 1970, about the time he rode from Hartsville, South Carolina to Kent, Ohio. (Courtesy Johnny Polson)

He took up cycling, too, and invested in a lightweight road bike he took on marathon rides across the coastal plain. Around 1970, he pedaled from Hartsville to Kent, Ohio, and a couple of years later, says his brother, he set out to ride across the country.

Joel’s trip ended in Texas. “He got hemorrhoids,” Johnny Polson says. “He came back on a Greyhound with his bike.”

Inevitably, his interest in the outdoors and arcane gear fused into a new passion: Joel started talking about hiking the Appalachian Trail.

You set the pace, Ralph said. If you need to rest, stop. Anything you need, we’ll do it.

His kindness chilled Margaret. She believed none of it. She was the only person who could link him to a murder. Surely he planned to kill her.

But for now she was still alive, and she recognized that staying that way meant doing everything he said, buying one minute at a time.

For nearly four miles out of Low Gap, the trail followed an old roadbed ruffed with ferns. On their left rose dark stone, bearded in moss and punctuated with small waterfalls. On their right the ground fell sharply away. Margaret expected at any moment that Ralph might shove her over the precipice or shoot her in the back and kick her down the mountainside. She was certain he’d do it. It made sense that he would.

She steadied her nerves by talking. She said it seemed like he was running from something and asked what it was. He’d been in and out of the pen, he replied. The FBI was probably looking for him.

He was preoccupied. He was wearing ­Joel’s heavy pack, which was sized for a man with a longer torso. The straps carved into his shoulders, and he couldn’t get the hipbelt to ride comfortably. It was he, not Margaret, who needed to stop every few minutes.

They were resting not far into the hike when two men with chainsaws came into view, one of them the same forester she and Joel had spoken with the day before. Margaret panicked. This was no chance for rescue. Just the opposite: if the forester saw that she was hiking with a different man, she was sure Ralph would start shooting.

And in fact, the guy did notice. “Oh yeah,” he said. “We saw y’all yesterday.” She held her breath.

He said no more about it. They couldn’t dawdle, he said. Their ride was picking them up miles to the south later that afternoon.

Ralph asked about the next road crossing to the north.

It’s a long way, the man replied. A good hike.

The men hurried off, unaware of their luck, leaving Margaret with a deepening dread that she and Ralph would spend the night in the woods.

Five years out of Hartsville High, Joel bore scant resemblance to the clean-cut kid in his old yearbook photos. He looked like a hippie out of central casting—beard, granny glasses, hair spilling past his shoulders and held in place with a headband.

But appearances aside, he was out of step with the Woodstock generation. He lived with his parents. He remained a quiet misfit. Though he was good-looking—“beautiful,” Myra Polson says—no one recalls him having a girlfriend. “He was just a friend to everybody,” says a college buddy, Marguerite Ewing. “He was happy to be by himself, and he was really happy to make other people happy.”

He continued to dive deep into hobbies: He took a liking to bluegrass tunes and built his own washtub bass, carrying the unwieldy instrument wherever he went. He bought a fiddle, too. Family and friends never heard him play it, but it ranked high among his possessions.

In time, Joel moved to Columbia and was hired on as a night watchman at the Joyful Alternative. The post included a cot in the back, which is where he was living when he first walked into Capri’s and met Margaret.

By then he’d read everything he could find about the Appalachian Trail and was a regular at the Backpacker, where he made an impression on the owners, brothers Lewis and Malcolm Jones. “Joel Polson was one of the most gentle persons I’ve met through the years,” Lewis says. “A true gentle person, quiet and trustworthy.”

He was also broke—he didn’t earn nearly enough to cover the cost of gear. All he had to offer was that fiddle. “He said that if I would let him get some equipment and sign a note, he would leave the violin with me, and when he got back from his adventure he’d pay us back.”

“He outfitted himself with a tent, sleeping bag, all the equipment he’d need,” Lewis says. “And he went on his way.”

The old roadbad ended, and Margaret now led Ralph over a narrower, more arduous path. It was studded with rocks and knuckled with roots, and it rode the knobby spine of a ridge high above the infant Chattahoochee River. She spurred their ­conversation as they tackled a series of short but steep ascents. He told her he’d busted out of jail. She learned that he was born “up north” but had been “out west,” up in the mountains. There he could scratch by with just a pocketknife. Not so in these southern Appalachians: here he felt out of his element. He wanted to get back west, which meant moving light and fast—which meant stealing Joel’s gear.

The afternoon sun crossed the sky. The AT traversed several slides of jumbled boulders, and the hikers’ progress, never brisk, slowed as they picked their way across. Just beyond, they came to the Rocky Knob shelter, where they rested before descending a steep, 150-yard side trail to a spring.

After filling his canteen, Ralph pulled a trail map from Joel’s pack and was surprised to find that the next road crossing was less than three miles away. Even they could cover the distance by nightfall.

Joel asked many to join his hike—friends, acquaintances, and, as in Margaret’s case, near strangers. All but Margaret dropped out as the time to leave approached.

He arranged for his mother to mail-drop supplies and, miffed that the only available AT patch bore the legend Maine to Georgia, carefully embroidered his own reading GEORGIA TO MAINE. Margaret had never met a man who could embroider. She was impressed.

They refined their timetable: Joel would attend a fiddling convention in North Carolina and from there make his way to Springer Mountain. In the three weeks before Margaret’s last exam, he’d bang out the trail’s 76-mile Georgia section, then he’d tell her where to meet him and she’d take a bus from Columbia. They’d hike together from there.

One logistical hurdle remained. Knowing that her parents would never let her hike alone with a man, Margaret concocted a lie: she would be one of 15 college students Joel would lead on the trip. She enlisted him as coconspirator and introduced him to her folks in mid-April 1974.

Her father, an avid hunter, was excited by the adventure and evidently satisfied that Joel was fit to lead it. He bought Margaret the gear she’d need and snapped a Polaroid of her wearing her oversize pack. She looked tiny and impossibly young in the image—slight, baby-faced, feigning hardy courage with one foot propped up on a chair.

Harritt at home before the hike, spring 1974. (William L. Harritt)

The night before Joel left, he and Margaret stayed with her elder sister, Polly. Joel spread his sleeping bag on the kitchen floor. Polly’s young daughter had received baby chicks for Easter, and the bright yellow birds “drove him crazy all night,” Polly remembers. “He was a lovely young man, and he made light of the fact that he slept with the baby chicks.” In the morning, he was off.

A week later, he was back. Once again he’d developed hemorrhoids, and he’d made it only to Tesnatee Gap. He killed time while Margaret wrapped up her classes.

On Monday, May 6, the two left Columbia by bus for Atlanta. The next day they took another bus into the mountains and caught a ride to the trailhead at Tesnatee.

Change of plan, Ralph announced. He would not let Margaret go when they reached the road. He needed time to work out his next move, and he wanted her with him. They would hitch to the nearest town and get a motel room, and he’d let her go in the morning.

It was good news and bad. The good: Ralph might not kill her here and now. The bad: Ralph would kill her just the same. And first she might have to actually hole up with him in a motel.

They clambered out of the hollow, up a series of short, steep climbs, and then down the rocky, hourlong descent into Unicoi Gap. They heard passing cars long before they saw Georgia Route 75 through the trees. Ralph repeated his warning: say anything and ­everyone dies.

A few minutes after they reached the blacktop, a young woman pulled over and offered them a lift. Once in the car, Ralph told her they had traveler’s checks but had lost their IDs. Did she know of a place that would overlook that?

She might, the woman replied. Nine miles south of Unicoi Gap, she stopped the car outside a restaurant in the north Georgia burg of Helen.

The name of the place—Wurst Haus—­offered a clue to what set Helen apart. Facing the decline of its logging industry, the town had reimagined itself as a tourist draw: a storybook Bavarian village, its every building revamped with towers, chalet rooflines, and alpine gingerbread.

It was into this discordant setting that Margaret and Ralph now stepped. In the restaurant, with Ralph holding his gun a foot away, Margaret asked whether she could cash a $20 traveler’s check. Of course, she was told. Where in town could they stay? Just up the road, came the reply.

The Chattahoochee Motel was an unassuming place, with six rooms facing the road and its namesake river chattering fast out back. Ralph did the talking this time. He asked for a room, handed over $10, and signed the register Mr. and Mrs. Joel Polson.

Margaret entered their room with a fast-beating heart. She fully expected he would rape her. Just as likely, this is where he’d kill her. But once he’d closed the door behind them, Ralph was interested only in whether the TV carried word that Joel’s body had been found.

Nothing appeared on the local news. At a restaurant next door, they bought food and beer and brought it back to the room. They watched an Elvis Presley movie. Ralph practiced Joel’s signature, so he could cash his traveler’s checks. He told Margaret that if she wanted to keep a memento of Joel, she was welcome to go through his pack. She left it as it was.

She asked to take a shower. It did not give her the brief peace she’d sought: Ralph followed her into the bathroom, ushering a fraught moment. But he didn’t lay a hand on her, didn’t so much as look at her—he was there, it seemed, solely to keep her from climbing through the window.

You know, Ralph told her, I could tell you were scared when we were hiking. You kept turning around, like you thought I was about to shoot you. I almost gave you the gun just to calm you down.

It’s too bad, he said, that we didn’t meet under different circumstances.

If all this hadn’t happened, I could have really liked you.

Margaret drifted off, exhaustion overpowering her fear, as Ralph sat alert in a chair, the gun beside him. Though it might seem impossible, she slept through the night; it was well past sunup when she opened her eyes to find him still sitting there. They packed and walked to the Wurst Haus to cash more traveler’s checks, Margaret amazed by every new step he allowed her to take. The restaurant had no money in the till. At a gas station up the street, Ralph forged Joel’s signature, and they walked out with $20.

They returned to the Wurst Haus for coffee. He was still going to let her go, Ralph said. But he couldn’t think of allowing her to hitchhike home to South Carolina—there was no telling what sort of person might pick her up. So they’d find a bus station, and then they’d go their separate ways. Ralph had a map of Georgia and figured they could get a bus in Cleveland, nine miles to the south. They started through town, thumbs out. A car pulled over.

At Cleveland’s Trailways station, Margaret asked the man at the counter for a ticket to Columbia. Well, he said, from here you’d have to go to Atlanta first. But Cornelia, a town to the southeast, has a Greyhound station. You can catch an eastbound bus there.

They hitched another ride. The Greyhound station occupied a downtown storefront, and when Margaret and Ralph arrived shortly before noon, they found the door locked and a sign on the glass: Gone to the doctor. Be back afternoon.

They walked to a nearby bank to cash more traveler’s checks. After a quick lunch at a restaurant around the corner, they returned to the bus station, where the manager appeared and unlocked the door. Margaret bought a $10 ticket for Columbia. Ralph stepped up to the counter. He was still keeping Margaret at point-blank range, so he couldn’t very well hide where he was going: he paid $3 for a ticket to Atlanta.

His bus, due in first, was running late, so Ralph talked. He’d probably been stupid to let her live, he told her. He knew she’d go to the police and that the cops would be looking for a man with a big green pack. He counted on having a few hours’ head start.

I promise you, he said, that if you call the police as soon as I leave, and they’re waiting when I get to Atlanta, innocent people are going to die. I’ll start shooting, and I won’t care who gets hurt.

You should write a book about this, he said. You could make some money.

Then his bus arrived. His pack was loaded into the cargo hold. He climbed aboard. Margaret watched the bus pull away.

She sat in the waiting room, awed that she was alive, scared that he’d be back, and wanting nothing but to get home to her mother. She sat, immobile, until her own bus arrived a short time later.

It was dark when the Greyhound reached Columbia. From a station phone booth, Margaret called her elder brother, who lived in the city, but got no answer. She called her parents in Sumter. No one picked up.

So she dialed the Columbia police. Someone’s been killed in Georgia, she said, and I need to tell you about it. Could you come get me?

The Low Gap shelter stands just within White County, Georgia. At 11:15 that night, the sheriff’s office got a call from a police captain in South Carolina relating that a teenager in hiking boots and pigtails had just told him what he’d later describe as “a right weird story”—that a homicide had occurred at Low Gap and that a body could be found nearby.

Sheriff Frank Baker summoned backup from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. In the wee hours of Saturday, May 11, GBI special agent Stanley L. Thompson was roused from his bed and dispatched to White County. Well before dawn, Thompson joined Baker at the crime scene. The sheriff had ­already found Joel.

He lay covered with leaves and sticks, across the stream from the shelter. His clothes were in disarray, suggesting he’d been dragged by his armpits. “The subject’s head was in a plastic bag and the bag had been tied around his head with a piece of string,” Thompson wrote in his report. “This was done apparently to keep the blood from being strewn around the area.”

White County sheriff Frank Baker. (Courtesy White County Sheriff's Office)

An autopsy found that a .38-caliber bullet had entered Joel’s skull just behind his left ear, ripped through his cerebellum, and come to a stop beneath his scalp above and behind his right ear.

That was a break for investigators. They had the bullet.

Margaret described her ordeal in an hours-long interview two days later. She was as confused as her listeners about one piece of the narrative. “It was just strange that he knew the whole time that it would be because of me that he would get caught and all [but] was still letting me go,” she said.

“I don’t know what his motive was or anything, but he was unbelievably kind to me. He really was.”

While she gave her statement, Joel’s family and friends gathered in Hartsville for his funeral. Just after, his distraught mother had to be hospitalized.

A week after the killing, on May 16, the Atlanta Police Department received a telephone tip: a woman said she’d met a man matching the newspaper’s description of the Appalachian Trail murder suspect. She knew where he lived.

Agent Thompson and Sheriff Baker drove to Atlanta, where police obtained a search warrant for the man’s apartment. He wasn’t home, but inside they found Joel’s backpack, his clothes and camping gear, and a revolver containing four live rounds and one empty cartridge. Thompson waited inside for the tenant to return. Late that afternoon he did. “He was just meek as a lamb, from what I remember,” Thompson says. “He had no choice, because I stuck a .357 right in his nose.”

Police identified him as Ralph Howard Fox. He was 31, born and raised in Detroit. Like Joel, he was the youngest of three children in a solidly middle-class household. The similarities ended there.

“He started early on getting into trouble,” his sister, Corrinne, says. In his teens, Ralph kidnapped a girl from a party he threw while his parents were away, she recalls. At 17, he was arrested for car theft, and again a year after that for breaking and entering. In 1963, when he was 20, he ran off to New Mexico with a teenage girl and was arrested for statutory rape and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Her name was Ann. He married her a few months later.

In March 1964, with his 16-year-old wife expecting their son, Ralph forced a Detroit high school junior into his car at gunpoint, then drove her 13 miles to a wooded lover’s lane in Troy, Michigan. An alert cop came upon them as he was tying the girl’s hands behind her back.

Ann divorced him. The state gave him 15 years, but he served only a fraction of that before he escaped from the Michigan State Prison in Jackson. Details of his breakout are lost—Michigan prison officials say his file was destroyed years ago—but in October 1969, he was recaptured in Miami and returned to Jackson.

“He was never out of prison very long before the next thing happened,” Corrinne says. Indeed, she says, while out on parole he broke into Ann’s apartment and lay in wait for her. When she walked in, he opened fire with a rifle. He missed.

Ralph eventually fled the state. He bounced around New Orleans for a while, then Fort Lauderdale, and later Atlanta. He stepped onto the Appalachian Trail for the first time five days before killing Joel.

Margaret picked him out of a lineup. He admitted owning the gun, which he said he’d bought on a Florida beach; it was later matched to the bullet taken from Joel’s head. He confessed to stealing Joel’s gear. He described tying Margaret up, returning for her, and their hike to Unicoi Gap. “I was just trying all the time to keep her scared, you know,” he told Thompson after his arrest, “so that she wouldn’t run for help or anything like that.”

Ralph did not explicitly confess to murder, however, or explain just what had happened that morning at Low Gap. When Sheriff Baker asked him whether Joel was “a friendly type of fellow,” Ralph replied: “I didn’t talk to him much.”

Thompson: “Did you need the gear, the camping equipment and all that—is that the purpose?”

Ralph: “No.”

Thompson: “Did you get into an argument, some kind of argument, or anything?”

“No,” Ralph told him, “just something—I’ll have to wait for a lawyer.”

He said no more. When he was indicted for murder the following October, Ralph pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to life in Georgia State Prison.

Ralph Fox, a.k.a. Inmate D-21795, spent most of the next 17 years behind bars. But when his older brother died, in July 1991, he was granted a one-month reprieve to attend the Michigan funeral. That furlough morphed into parole, with his supervision transferred to Michigan authorities.

And so Ralph gained a tentative freedom, and he moved in with Corrinne in Lapeer County, Michigan, about 50 miles north of Detroit. He could have made a new start. He could have demonstrated that his behavior at Low Gap had been an aberration and that the mercy he showed to Margaret Harritt, while unsettling in its own right, was truer to his character. That in his middle years he was a wiser and better man.

At first it seemed he might. He came home deeply aged and depleted by prison. He was quiet, agreeable. “I thought he had totally changed,” Corrinne says.

But after seven months of liberty, he failed to appear at a meeting with his parole officer and didn’t turn up at home or his job. About a week later, on March 5, 1992, police were called to a muddy field in rural Lapeer, where they recovered the nude body of 29-year-old Diane Good of Detroit. She’d been strangled.

They also found evidence that a car had recently been mired in the mud. Canvassing local towing companies turned up a driver who recalled pulling a blue-gray Mercury Cougar from the field. Its owner had given his name as Ralph Fox.

Police issued a nationwide alert for man and vehicle. Two days later, Ralph was arrested in Skagit County, Washington, as he tried to break into a parked car. A Lapeer jury convicted him of murder that November. Ralph did not take the stand. His only statement on the matter came at his January 1993 sentencing. “I’d just like for the record to know,” he said, “that I did not have anything to do with the murder of Diane Good.”

Circuit Judge Martin E. Clements wasn’t having it. “Mr. Fox, you were convicted of murder before in another state,” he said. “You are now convicted of two murders in your lifetime. I am satisfied that you pose a substantial risk to a free society, and that you should never be let out of prison.

“Ever,” he added. “For any reason.”

Thus it went. Some years after Ralph was again locked up, he was diagnosed with lung cancer, and in June 2003 he was transferred to the state prison hospital. He died there the following month.

Corrinne has not been able to reconcile the “very soft-spoken” brother she knew with the killer he was. The summer after he died, she and Ralph’s son took his cremated remains to a swinging bridge over eastern Michigan’s Rifle River and dumped them into the water.

By that time, traces of Joel Polson were becoming elusive. His parents were dead. Friends and relatives had scattered, and his simple, flat gravestone in the family plot provided no information beyond the dates of his birth and death. No marker bore his name at Low Gap or anywhere else on the AT. Of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of photographs he took, few survived outside of the yearbooks he worked on.

The Backpacker store in 1973. (Courtesy the Backpacker)

His fiddle endured, however. When the Jones brothers back in Columbia heard that Joel had been killed, they were “just devastated,” Lewis says. “We went over to Joel’s funeral, my brother and I.”

“I wanted to give them this violin,” he says, but the Polsons said no—Joel had made a deal with the store, which the family felt it should honor. “They said they would like me to keep it.”

And he did, for more than 40 years. “I had it refurbished,” Lewis says. “And my granddaughter was interested in playing the violin, so I gave it to her.”

She “stuck with it very diligently for a couple of years,” he says, then lost interest. If she did not resume playing, Lewis planned to get it back. “I’ll always have that violin. It’ll be in the family,” Lewis said this spring. “This is a special instrument.”

Lewis didn’t know at the time that his granddaughter had quit playing for good and that her family had stashed the fiddle in the attic. That a leaky pipe had dripped water on it until the seams burst and the wood turned to mush. That it went out with the trash.

Three people met in the Georgia woods. One died there, leaving scant trace of his decent and well-meaning life. A second followed nearly thirty years later, with little but heartache to mark a squandered existence.

But this story ends, as it began, with Margaret. She turned 62 not long ago. She is married, with two children, three stepchildren, and two grandkids, and lives in southern Europe, where her husband was based when they met. Their hilltop home, fringed with palms, olives, and citrus trees, offers a sweeping panorama of rolling grassland studded with Bronze Age megaliths. She passes afternoons tending to an ambitious herb garden.

Her thoughts rarely wander back to May 1974. When they do, she can revisit those days with almost clinical detachment. “I’ll explain to people that it almost feels like it happened to somebody else,” she says. “But that’s not exactly accurate. It’s very much a part of me, but the whole thing is so surreal that it almost feels like it’s a movie.”

More than forty years passed before she decided to share her story—first with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, in 2015, and now for this article. Time has brought her little clarity about why it happened. Who steals a backpack by walking up to its owner and, without so much as a word, shooting him in the head? Who lets the sole witness get away? Why did Ralph handle her with such fraternal care when he’d brutalized others?

Harritt today. (Polly Harrell)

Perhaps even more, she is amazed by her own behavior. She had always assumed that if confronted with violence, she’d “scream and fight and get crazy and run away.”

“But a person does not know how you’re going to react in that critical moment until you’re in it,” she says. “I had this calm. Adrenaline—who knows what it was? But I was calm.”

“I am not a passive person. But I was passive then, and it probably saved my life.”

The arc of that life has been a rebuttal to her two days with Ralph. Later in 1974, she got her own place outside Sumter and found work at an orchard, overseeing its production of tree seeds. The job, solitary and outdoor, appealed so much that in 1975 she enrolled at Clemson University and took up forestry.

She did a lot of thinking. “I decided I’d start being and doing what I was supposed to,” she says. “I was a teenager hanging out, smoking pot, and doing the things you do at that age. Within a year or two of this experience, I had quit all drugs, all alcohol. I was much more serious.”

“It was almost as if God took a big old branch and whacked me across the head and said, ‘Wake up. Don’t wait forty years. Don’t wait five years. Wake up right now.’”

Any other person terrorized in the woods might avoid them. Margaret went on to get her doctorate, which required several years in the tropical forests of Brazil. She joined the U.S. Agency for International Development, managing projects in Honduras, Nicaragua, and Bolivia. She spent much of a decade in jungles. She was twice posted to Pakistan and worked in five former Soviet republics.

Once, years after he’d been locked up, Ralph mailed Margaret’s parents a copy of the Georgia State Prison newspaper he edited, and she worried that he knew their address. Another time, a friend remarked that killers in Georgia could expect to serve just seven years, and she was again anxious that he might be free to hurt her loved ones.

But those episodes aside, her hours with Ralph, certain that she was about to die, seemed to have inoculated her against fear.

Today, post-retirement, she continues to visit the world’s hot zones as a contractor with her old agency. “She doesn’t mind wearing bulletproof vests and being delivered by Marine helicopters,” her sister, Polly, says. “It’s not as though she’s throwing herself in the face of danger, but at the same time it doesn’t scare her.”

Margaret herself is matter-of-fact about her life’s trajectory. “I wouldn’t say I’ve done anything all that extraordinary, but I have very much taken it to heart that I was spared for something,” she says. “Maybe this experience helped me see that life is a fleeting moment, so grab it and go.”

Most days, she is quick to point out, do not require bravery. She wakes up surrounded by beauty. She digs in her garden. She roams the countryside around her home.

Hiking out there is calming, restorative. A reboot. The light looks different in that part of the world. Everything is suffused with gold.

And the grasslands are wide open. You can see for miles.

Nothing is hidden. 

Earl Swift (@EarlSwift1) is the author of Chesapeake Requiem: A Year with the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island. He wrote about the wreck of a ­tangier fishing boat in June.

The Incredible True Story of the Henrietta C.

20 Jun

That Monday opened with winds coming steady out of the east-northeast at 20 to 25, or kyowking, as they say on Virginia’s Tangier Island.

It’s one of many old and strange words used by the people there: kyowking, or blowing hard. A day unfit for pleasure craft and weekend sailors.

But April 24, 2017, was also a workday, and for 72 of the island’s watermen, that meant venturing out into the Chesapeake Bay to harvest its famed blue crabs. The people who came down to the docks that morning lived on a lump of mud and marsh about 12 miles from the mainland. It was, and is, one of the most isolated communities in the East, marooned from the rest of America by 18 trillion gallons of tempestuous water. Tangiermen had braved the bay’s moods since the American Revolution. They knew wind and waves.

So it was that at five o’clock that blustery morning, Edward Vaughn Charnock and his son, Jason, slacked the lines on Ed’s workboat, the Henrietta C., and chugged west from the harbor in the predawn dark. They motored out past the protection of the island’s low, crumbling shoreline, leaving behind a homeplace with traditions of long ago and a style of speech that harks back to Cornish settlers two centuries past.

They left behind a village of 460 residents, with small weatherboard houses and lanes no wider than sidewalks. A place without mobile-phone service or a resident doctor. A near theocracy of old-school Christians who don’t allow the sale of alcohol and believe themselves an anointed people, armored by faith against the hurricanes that often pass near. Rising in the gloom behind the Henrietta C. was the town’s water tower, emblazoned with a bright orange crab facing east and, to the west, a Gothic cross.

(Petra Zeiler)

The Charnocks had little reason to think their faith would be tested that day, or that the hours ahead would call on Tangier Island’s proud traditions of courage and selflessness. They knew that the conditions, already brisk, were expected to sour—that the afternoon spoke of wind, as Tangiermen say, and would “breeze up” to 30 or 35 miles per hour. But father and son planned to quit before the weather turned mean. They’d fish up 300 pots or so, more if they had time.

They’d fish up their pots and be home in time for lunch.

The Chesapeake Bay is America’s largest estuary, a mixing bowl of oceanic salt water and the flow of the mid-Atlantic’s big rivers—the Susquehanna and Potomac, the Rappahannock and York, the James. It stretches 200 miles south from Havre de Grace, Maryland, to a gaping junction with the Atlantic at Virginia Beach. The bay’s Maryland waters are never so wide that the far shore isn’t visible. But near the zigzagging imaginary line that crosses the bay and marks the Virginia border, the Chesapeake broadens to 30 miles. It’s here, dead center, that Ed and Jason Charnock lived, and it was into the big water west of the island that they pressed that morning.

Ed Charnock—Eddie Jacks to his friends—was cousin to most of his neighbors, and like them descended from a single family, the Crocketts, who arrived in 1778. Like most island men his age, he’d quit school in his teens to follow the water. He had since lived a virtually amphibious existence, chasing crustaceans prized for their sweet, juicy meat, from a village famed for catching more of them than anywhere else. No community in the bay is so identified with the blue crab, so economically bound to the small but com-bative creature, as Tangier.

At 70, Eddie Jacks looked like a character straight out of Coleridge: six feet tall and powerfully built, with a square jaw and a face lined and chapped by sun and salt. He was one of the most capable watermen on an island of experts, but he was shy and laconic, predisposed to spend his tight budget of words poking fun at himself. He joked that he was flat broke, near starving. He brushed off talk that he could think like a crab, claiming he was no wiser about the animal than when he’d started crabbing 54 years before. All he knew for sure, he once said, was that “she’ll run from you, and she’ll bite.”

Jason Charnock had grown up working summers and Saturdays with his father, and had been Ed’s full-time mate since graduating from Tangier’s K-through-12 school in 1994. Stocky and strong at 40, he lived with his wife and four young children in a toy-strewn house 400 feet from Ed’s.

The Charnocks ranged far, farther than many a crabber, and they did today. They had their 425 pots arranged in six rows on the bottom of the bay. The first two ran in parallel lines near a submerged wreck about seven miles southwest of Tangier—the U.S. Navy’s oldest battleship, the Texas, later renamed the San Marcos and parked there in 1911 as a gunnery target. The rest of their pots were five miles farther southwest, near the channel used by big ships plying the bay to Baltimore, a dozen miles from Tangier and a long way from anywhere else.

Eddie Jacks and Jason were undaunted; they knew their business and drove a time-proven craft. The Henrietta C. was a classic Chesapeake Bay deadrise and, at 43 feet long and 13 wide, big enough to handle a choppy day. Like all of its kind, it had a small cabin positioned up near the bow, a long open-weather deck aft of the cabin, and steering consoles both inside and out, so a captain could control the boat while tending to pots. In profile it swooped from a high bow to a stern that rode low, just two feet off the water.

The Henrietta C. had been hand-built for Ed by one of his closest friends, Jerry Frank Pruitt. Pruitt never wrote down a measurement—he kept them all in his head—and had built some of the strongest and most well-mannered wooden boats on the bay. Made of fir and southern yellow pine, the Henrietta C. was a visual song.

Ed had named it for his first wife, Jason’s mother, later lost to cancer. Twenty-eight years he’d had the boat, and he wasn’t one to baby it: he’d driven it hard, in all kinds of weather. The Henrietta C. had always been up for it.

It was just shy of sunrise when they reached their first pots and stepped into their oilskins. Ed, working the outside steering console, would sidle the boat up to a foam buoy linked to a pot resting on the bay’s floor, lean over the starboard side to snag it with a hook, and feed the line into a motorized pot puller. With a few seconds of spinning, the device would haul the pot to the surface.

Pot is a misnomer. They’re traps: wire-mesh cubes two feet to a side, with four tapering “throats,” or funnels, opening to the interior. Crabs crawl through the passages to get in, but they can’t easily find a way back out.

Once a pot was aboard, they’d dump the catch, close and rebait the trap, and toss it overboard. In the minute it took them to putter 30 yards to the next buoy, they would cull the catch, sorting by size and sex. This time of year, the biggest males, or “jimmies,” would bring $100 a bushel.

chesapeake bay
The Amanda Lee, a typical Tangler workboat (Matt Eich)

They tried the nearest two rows first, close to the San Marcos. The results were disappointing. After checking 30 pots and finding few crabs, the men decided to head for the four outer rows, which sat in deeper water. On the way, they passed Paul Wheatley in the Elizabeth Kelly. He was Ed’s son-in-law, married to the eldest Charnock daughter, Kelly. Ed’s grandson, Jonathon, was his mate. Everyone waved.

Out by the shipping channel their luck improved. The pots came up loaded, and they filled one bushel basket after another. But as they worked their rows, the wind picked up. By midmorning it was blowing 25 to 30. It had a lot of fetch before reaching the Henrietta C.—a lot of room, unbroken by land, to push water around. To build waves.

The seas sprang to four feet. Spray blew off their crests; the wind swept cold over the boat, and the deck pitched under the men’s boots. It was becoming the kind of morning that islanders, prone to saying the opposite of what they mean, summarize with: “It ain’t blowin’ none.” The Charnocks stayed alert to the weather but kept to their work.

Another man of 70 years might have found a reason to stay ashore that day, and Eddie Jacks wouldn’t have had to look far for one. He was nursing a hernia, for starters. And then there was Annette.

Two years after Henrietta’s death, Ed married island-born Annette Pruitt Beatty. Living on the mainland since leaving for college in 1970, she had married a mainlander, raised three children, taught first grade, divorced. Then, after 36 years, friends set her up with the quiet, deeply religious Ed. Their courtship started slowly—it took him weeks to work up the nerve to call her—but by their third date they were already talking about marriage. Annette had moved back, and they’d been together ten years.

Annette was Ed’s opposite—daring, outgoing, opinionated, with the laugh of an optimist and a fondness for dancing. She lured him onto his first plane ride, to Mexico, and talked him into a cruise around the Caribbean. She introduced him to fine restaurants and big cities; he told her he felt like Crocodile Dundee. The whole island thought she was good for him.

Annette wasn’t keen on Ed working in rough weather. But all who knew him knew that the man loved crab potting. Once, when he heard the Virginia Lottery was offering a jackpot in the hundreds of millions, he deadpanned: “If I won that, I could buy a lot of crabbing supplies.”

There was another reason Ed was inclined to take the boat out. Having raised four children, he understood the money pressures his son faced, and worried that if they stayed in, it might be a hardship for Jason. That was one of the reasons he’d put off surgery to repair his hernia—the Henrietta C. would be idle while he recovered.

So out they’d come, father and son, and the crabbing was good. By late morning they had fished up only two-thirds of their pots, yet the open deck was crowded with 36 bushels. At that point, the wind still rising, they decided to pack it in.

They set off to the northeast, against the building seas, Ed pushing the boat. It was slow going, especially with something like 1,400 pounds of crab aboard. They were halfway home, moving just past the San Marcos at about 12:45 p.m., when they noticed that the boat felt soft. It wasn’t quick to answer turns of the wheel; it seemed lazy, wallowing.

The Henrietta C. was taking on water. This in itself was no cause for alarm—water finds its way into a wooden boat as a matter of course. Still, they needed to address it. With water in the hull the boat sat lower, which slowed it down, forced its diesel engine to work harder, and made it more susceptible to waves over the stern.

Jason guessed that they had taken on quite a bit. As they dived into troughs, he could sense weight shifting to the bow, driving it down. When they rode a wave up, he could feel the heaviness slide aft.

A workboat relies on two pieces of equipment to clear water from its bilge, the dark space below deck. The first is a bilge pump, which operates like a basement sump pump: tripped on by the presence of water, it runs until the water’s gone. The Henrietta C. had two of them, one on its port side, another starboard. The starboard pump had been busted for a while, but the port-side machine was working fine.

The second piece of equipment is an automatic bailer, a device with no moving parts. It’s essentially a short brass pipe, 1.5 inches across, that passes straight down through a boat’s bottom. The vessel’s forward movement creates a vacuum at the pipe’s lower end, which sucks water out and overboard. Bailers are capped when not in use, and usually reached via a hatch in the deck just aft of the engine.

Ed told his son to take the helm while he uncapped the bailer and kept it clear. A day’s crabbing dumps all manner of debris on the deck—bits of crab shell, sea grass, splinters from wooden bushel baskets—and some of it inevitably works its way through the deck and into the bilge, where it can clog a pump or choke the bailer. Ed opened the hatch, got on his knees, and reached almost shoulder-deep to unscrew the bailer cap. Most of his arm was in water.

In the cabin, Jason recalled the many times he and his dad had found themselves in heavy weather. They’d seen worse, for sure—but not by much. The seas were running five feet now, and the marine radio crackled with watermen talking about how rough it was. One was Jason’s father-in-law, Lonnie Moore, an able and aggressive crabber headed for Tangier with his limit of crabs. Lonnie’s boat, the Alona Rahab, was also riding low under its load, and he was having to take his time crossing Tangier Sound, on the island’s east side. Rocking and rolling, the radio chatter went. She’s a-blowing out here. These waves ain’t big at all.

If you think it’s rough there, Jason radioed, you ought to see how nasty it is over this way.

Supposed to be even rougher tomorrow, someone said. Ain’t no way, Jason replied. You won’t see me out here if it is.

Out on deck, Ed still had an arm down the hatch. The bailer wasn’t pulling any water. Slow as they were moving, the pipe wasn’t creating a vacuum under the boat.

They knew what to do: turn from the wind, get up some speed, get the suction going.

It was counterintuitive, to steer away from home, but with the wind hitting them “right in the painter holes,” as Tangiermen say, they were crawling anyway. Still, Jason hated the idea of surrendering all the progress they’d made, so rather than put their tail full to the wind, he decided they would run solid to it—turn to the northwest, with the wind hitting them abeam.

With Jason at the helm, Ed out on deck, the Henrietta C. swung wide and put its starboard side to the wind. They got up some speed. The bailer pulled water. Lonnie Moore, reaching the safety of the harbor, radioed: Are you OK?

Yes, Jason replied. Everything’s fine. We got some water in, but no concern. We’re going to run solid to it until we got it out.

For a while after that exchange, the going was smoother. The waves pounded a little less stridently on the hull as they labored to the northwest. They might get home late, but they’d see Tangier before dark.

Except that the Henrietta C. wasn’t clearing the water in its bilge, even as the boat gained speed. The bailer was working, sucking water at a furious rate. The sole bilge pump was drawing hard. But the flooding in the boat’s bottom was as bad as ever: Water seemed to be piling in, and the pipe and pump couldn’t keep up. What was going on? Where was all this water coming from?

It was then, as the boat slogged heavier through the chop, that Jason noticed something he’d never seen before: water was seeping into the cabin, collecting on the deck. He checked the windows. No leak.

It took him a moment to put it together. It was coming up through the floor.

With that the bilge pump died, and their situation shifted from inconvenience to emergency. Now the bailer was the only route for all this water to leave the Henrietta C., and it was clearly no match for the load.

Jason tried an emergency maneuver. He turned the boat away from the wind and opened the throttle wide. The Henrietta C. surged westward, running with the storm. So it ran, right up until the engine quit.

The deadrise fell weirdly quiet, the only sound the pounding of water on wood. Ed shouted from the stern: Jason, you better holler for somebody. And get your oilskins off. Take them off right now.

Eddie Jacks: nicknamed for a character on the old TV melodrama Peyton Place—a sinister character, which didn’t fit Ed in the least. He’d been raised in a household guided by scripture, had spent his childhood Sundays in the austere New Testament Church, a renegade splinter of the island’s Methodist majority. Even on devout Tangier, members of the New Testament flock were called

Holy Rollers.

Ed still went to church every Sunday, only these days he did so at Swain Memorial United Methodist, a grand old wood-frame structure that served a congregation dating back to 1807. He could quote Bible verses off the top of his head. Was known to say, “If you don’t pay attention to those red-letter words in the Bible, there ain’t no need to worry about everything else.”

His time on the water had reinforced his faith, as it is wont to do, for a Tangierman encounters nature at its capricious worst. He chases blue crabs from March to November, dredges oysters December through February, and braves rough conditions throughout. The Chesapeake Bay is shallow, with an average depth of only 21 feet, but its temper can shift from one minute to the next, and among those who work the shallow-draft boats suited to crabbing, its waves can inspire real fear. “You better know what to be afraid of,” Ed once said, “or you get drownded.”

Dredging oysters (Matt Eich)
Standing water near a Tangler home (Matt Eich)
Worshippers at Swain Memorial United Methodist Church (Matt Eich)
An island channel (Matt Eich)
Loni Renee Charnock with two of her kids (Matt Eich)
An island cat on the prowl (Matt Eich)

Coming ashore doesn’t completely safeguard the waterman from the bay’s muscle. Tangier Island itself is sinking, actually subsiding into the earth’s crust, as the water around it rises. Two-thirds of the island has washed away since 1850. Now it’s been whittled to about a mile wide by three miles long, most of that marshland that barely clears the tide. Most years the island’s edges recede by 15 feet or more. A 2015 study reckoned that the rising waters might well produce the country’s first climate-change refugees; its lead author thinks the island will probably be uninhabitable within 25 years.

So Tangiermen pray. On the Henrietta C.’s cabin wall was a framed print of “Christ Our Pilot,” painted by a Chicago artist in 1950. It depicts a young mariner at the wheel of a sailing ship in the grip of a terrible storm. A ghostly Jesus stands behind him, one hand on the sailor’s shoulder, the other pointing the way to safety. The image is standard equipment aboard Tangier workboats, an acknowledgment that faith is sometimes the best protection a waterman has.

Sometimes it’s all he has.

In the cabin, water sloshed around Jason’s ankles. He tore off his oilskins and reached for the radio. He knew it was past workday’s end for most Tangier crabbers, who would have turned off their two-ways. Even if a few boats were still out, they were miles away—and, with the storm raging, probably beyond range. Still, Jason keyed the mike. Does anybody hear this radio? he shouted.

No answer. Water swirled cold around his legs, creeping higher. Does anybody hear this radio? he yelled again.

A squawking voice: Yeah, I hear you.

It was Billy Brown, a Tangierman bucking the wind into Crisfield, Maryland, with his day’s catch of crabs. He was 16, 17 miles to the northeast. Amazing that he’d heard.

We’re in trouble, Jason told Billy. Taking on water, a lot of it. We need help. Better get ahold of somebody.

Billy, against a background of static: Who should I call?

Lonnie, Jason said. Call Lonnie.

He had no time to say more. The water leaped to his waist.

He heard his father’s voice from out on deck: Get out the cabin, Jason!

A thought intruded: the life jackets. There were two aboard, stashed in a storage space in the boat’s nose. Jason took two steps that way, spotted one jacket, reached for it. But just then the water jumped chest high, and the PFD slipped from his grasp. He felt around for it under the water, found a strap, pulled the vest close.

His father again: Get out the cabin!

Jason turned for the door. His first step sent him under. A floor hatch into the bilge had floated free, and he was in the hole. It took him a moment to find the hatch’s edge. He clambered back on deck, pushed for the door. In a second, no more—not even time to take a breath—water filled the cabin to the overhead.

Billy Brown was close enough to Crisfield to use his phone, and his call came into the Tangier Oil Company, a.k.a. “the oil dock.” A combination fuel pier and marine supply store on the island’s waterfront, it served as a clubhouse where watermen gathered after work to chew over crabs, boats, the weather, and wrongheaded state fishing regulations. On this afternoon, they’d come and gone—only one crabber was on hand when Sandra Parks, working the counter, heard Billy’s report that the Henrietta C. was in trouble.

That crabber was Andy Parks, one of Ed’s closest friends. When Sandra told him what Billy had said, Andy was alarmed: If an experienced captain like Ed Charnock calls for help, you know he’s already done all he can do for himself. The situation had to be very bad indeed.

Andy grabbed the phone and called Ed’s daughter Kelly. Listen, your dad’s boat is taking on water, he told her. Is Paul home? Yes, she replied. Her husband, Paul Wheatley, the crabber who’d exchanged waves with Ed and Jason earlier in the day, had just come in from his boat.

Tell Paul he has to go back out, Andy said. He’s got to go help your dad. Andy’s voice was cracking. Kelly had never heard him so agitated. She thought he might be crying.

Down in the boat stalls lining Tangier’s harbor, Freddie Wheatley, first cousin to Paul, was about to step off his boat, the Cynthia Lou, when Jason’s call to Billy Brown came over the radio. He heard Jason’s plea for help, and he could hear Ed’s voice in the background. He was shouting, It’ll soon be too late!

Freddie yelled over to Dean Dise, who was tidying up his own boat in the next slip. Eddie Jacks is going down, he said. Without further discussion, both men started their engines and threw off their lines.

Minutes later, Paul Wheatley and his son Jonathon arrived at the Elizabeth Kelly. They fired it up and headed out. Word reached Tangiermen aboard other boats around the harbor and they pulled out, too. Meanwhile, news of the emergency was spreading by landline among the island’s 210 households.

It didn’t reach Lonnie Moore. Exhausted after eight hours of crabbing in Pocomoke Sound, Jason’s father-in-law had changed into pajamas and fallen asleep on his sofa, the ringer on the house phone switched off.

Springtime has always been rife with hazard for the watermen of the Chesapeake. The season lacks the abrupt violence of summer squalls, full of lightning and waterspouts, but many a March and April morning speaks of wind. The seas can build high. The water runs cold.

In conditions so unforgiving, minor problems cascade into major threats and can get away from the most experienced captains. “I’ll be fine out there, even in six- or seven-foot seas, as long as everything works the way it’s supposed to,” Tangier skipper Tommy Eskridge once put it. “But if my engine cuts out, or my rudder breaks, that changes all the rules.”

So it was that veteran Tangier waterman Harry Smith Parks died one night in April 1989, after reporting engine trouble in his boat while motoring up the bay. Likewise, a fierce March 2005 nor’wester claimed James Donald “Donnie” Crockett, a Tangierman who’d spent more than half a century on the water. Crockett left Crisfield in blinding snow and spray that turned to ice on every surface of his boat. Not far out, he disappeared without a trace.

As of April 2017, one living Tangierman more than any other could speak to the dangers of spring weather. Lonnie Moore, alone on his boat one day in April 1991, was underway at a good clip when he went to check something aft, tripped, and plunged head-first over the stern.

Tide and wind propelled him southward, toward the bay’s junction with the Atlantic. Numbed and befuddled by the cold, losing strength by the minute as he treaded water, he had no choice but to go with it. For two hours he drifted, until, hallucinating and unable to move his arms, he surrendered himself to death.

Then, in an occurrence that defied all odds, two Tangiermen making a surreptitious beer run to Crisfield happened to notice something afloat in the rough water, and swung around for a closer look.

On Tangier, Ed’s daughter Kelly, frantic to reach her younger sister Danielle, found her at the Tangier Combined School, where she was filling in as a substitute teacher. Jason’s wife, Loni Renee, also worked there, teaching special ed. Soon after Kelly spoke to the office, just before 2 P.M., the principal pulled Loni Renee out of class.

She greeted the news calmly. The Henrietta C. took on water all the time, and her husband and father-in-law knew how to deal with it. Between them they had 75 years on the water. They’d be fine.

Then she heard that no one had been able to raise the boat by radio and that the bay was in chaos. Her calm turned to worry, then dread, and finally panic. Unable to reach her father by phone, she sprinted the 250 yards to her parents’ house. By the time she burst into the room where Lonnie lay sleeping, she was winded and crying. Dad, she told him, Jason’s boat is sinking. You have to go out and look for him.

Lonnie was up off the sofa, throwing on his clothes, firing questions. Where were they? How much water was aboard? His daughter knew nothing, but Lonnie, like Andy Parks, had to assume the worst. He was out the door before Loni Renee caught her breath, running for his boat. Bring Jason home to me, she called after him. Please.

The Alona Rahab was tied up at the end of a long, curving dock. Lonnie had just reached it when Michael Parks, a bearish tugboater and the island’s volunteer fire chief, yelled to him from one dock over: You want me to get a pump from the firehouse?

No time for that, Lonnie hollered back.

Do you need help?

Yes, Lonnie said. Come on.

Michael leaped aboard as Lonnie started the boat’s diesel, threw off the lines. The Alona Rahab tore down the channel, nose high, and ran full throttle past the island’s western edge and into the storm.

Jason Charnock was underwater. More than anything he felt surprise: How could this have happened so fast? How could it be happening at all? He hoisted himself past the doorframe, kicked clear of the wreck, and broke the surface. His father was treading water a few feet away, thin hair plastered to his balding head.

The Henrietta C. was standing up on its tail, about four feet of its bow rising from the water, suspended there by air trapped in its forepeak. Jason was dumbfounded by the sight, shocked by the cold, unable to move. His father snapped him out of his stupor. Come on, Ed yelled, and he led the way, swimming to the boat. They crawled onto the cowl beneath the front windows, searching for handholds. Ed latched on to the bowline. Jason wrapped an arm around the stem.

The boat’s topside faced east, flat to the wind. Both men wore what amounted to a cool-weather uniform for Chesapeake watermen, who have not adopted the wools and polyesters favored by modern outdoorsmen—cotton blue jeans, cotton socks, cotton underwear, cotton shirts. Ed wore an additional layer, a cotton sweatshirt. The air temperature was about 55 degrees, the water about 60. The Charnocks were soaked, and there was no way to gain cover from gusts that tore at them and doused them with spray, and from great wind-driven waves that crashed in, pounding them against the wooden decking. Hold on, Jason, Ed shouted over their roar. He put an arm around his son, pulled him close.

Lord, it was cold. Jason had never felt so cold. His wet hair, trimmed short, was like ice against his scalp. His neck and arms and hands ached. His shirt clung sopping to his back, and with each gust he was nearly robbed of breath. I ain’t going to be able to take this, his father said. A while later, he said it again.

Six miles from the nearest land, the Henrietta C. bobbed with the waves, and as it dropped into troughs a heavy, shuddering thud ran through the boat. I think she’s hitting bottom, Ed said.

They were in 40 feet of water. The stern was bouncing off the mud and sand on the bay’s floor. Every time it hit, a little air would burp from the boat’s nose, and the vessel would settle an inch or two lower. The water covered its front windows now and, with each thump, crept higher up their legs.

Lonnie Moore pushed into the storm at 20 knots, about as fast as his boat could manage in the heavy seas west of the island. At 32 feet, his Alona Rahab was among the smallest workboats in the Tangier fleet and could almost fit inside the Henrietta C. But it was a light and speedy craft, built sturdy of fiberglass. He had named it for two of his four grandchildren. Jason’s daughters.

chesapeake bay
Passengers aboard the ferry Sharon Kay III (Matt Eich)

Lonnie employed two mates to help fish up his pots, and their oilskins and rain jackets were piled in the cabin. Get this gear on, he told Michael Parks. I’m going to stay to the wheel, and I’ll need you out on deck to get a view of whatever you can.

They joined a growing armada of Tangier boats searching for the Henrietta C. Within a half hour of Jason’s radio call, 20 boats tossed their way westward. Most had two or three men aboard. One had five. They ventured into a storm that, for all they knew, had already claimed one of the most experienced and capable captains among them.

The men set out with only guesses as to where the Henrietta C. might be found. Eddie Jacks, like most Tangier crabbers, had not fitted his boat with an emergency position-indicating radio beacon, or EPIRB, a device that automatically sends a satellite signal when a boat is in distress and pinpoints its location for rescuers. Big commercial fishing vessels plying the open ocean are required to have an EPIRB aboard. Not so the small deadrises on the Chesapeake, and Tangiermen are disinclined to spend the few hundred dollars they cost.

The bay west of Tangier, immense on any day, seemed even bigger in the wind and high seas of that afternoon. Freddie Wheatley and Dean Dise, knowing that Ed had been fishing pots far to the southwest—and figuring that he was inbound from there when he ran into trouble—made for the spar, a buoy out toward the San Marcos wreck. Several more boats headed that way, too. Others ran blindly for points north of the San Marcos, informed by little more than instinct.

Lonnie Moore, meanwhile, replayed his last radio conversation with Jason in his head. He knew the Henrietta C. was homebound when it started taking on water. He knew that Jason turned the boat solid to the wind. With the gale coming from the east-northeast, that meant he had tracked northwest. The time between their conversation and Jason’s call to Billy Brown had been—what, an hour? Eddie Jacks and Jason could have covered miles in that time.

The Henrietta C. was a good five miles to the northwest of the San Marcos, Lonnie decided. It was likely up near what Tangiermen call the corn buoy, about six miles west-southwest of the island. So called because it was planted near a spot where a barge full of corn had gone down, decades in the past.

He steered the Alona Rahab that way.

Back home, Kelly phoned Annette Charnock. Daddy and Jason are taking on water, she told Ed’s wife. They might be sinking. Annette’s first reaction was much like Loni Renee’s. They’ll be fine, she told Kelly. Even if the boat was taking on water, this late in the day it was bound to be close to home.

No, Kelly told her. It’s bad. It’s real bad. She told her stepmother all she’d heard. Lord, Annette whispered.

Danielle arrived at Kelly’s house, and the sisters rode their bikes up the island’s narrow main road to their father’s place, where they sat with Annette and fretted. Kelly placed a call to one of Tangier’s two state marine policemen, asking that he notify the Coast Guard. When the women stepped outside, the wind was blowing hard. A crowd had gathered up the road—islanders with their own men out in the storm, too agitated to wait for them at home. They were huddled in the chill beside the bait dock, where they would see the boats as they returned.

After a while, Kelly walked up that way, which took her past Lonnie’s house. His golden retriever, Progger, was in the yard. The dog rarely barked, but as Kelly passed, Progger threw back her head and howled.

The Henrietta C.’s bow continued to slip into the water. Ed and Jason rode it down. Look for a helicopter, Ed told his son. That’s our only hope. Keep looking for a helicopter.

They saw no helicopter or boats. They could see little at all, except seas that seemed to defy every norm. The tide was outbound, running with the wind, but waves seemed to be raging every direction at once. They collided in fizzing geysers, parted to open deep holes, and ambushed the men from all sides. Heavy tongues of water sledged them, loosening their grip on the boat and each other. With every passing minute, their wet clothes leached more of their heat and strength.

You better get right with the Lord, Ed told Jason. Call unto the Lord, because he’s the only one who can get us out of this situation.

A while later, as Ed looked to the east, he said: I don’t guess nobody’s a-coming.

A little after that he said: I didn’t think I would go like this.

Then: I’m scared.

Jason realized that his father was crying. He was too stupefied to do so himself. A blank. None of this seemed real. And the cold was so intense that it erased any but the simplest, lizard-brain thoughts. The bow was almost submerged, the water up to their chests, and Jason remembered that he still had the life jacket, draped over his arm. He released his hold on the stem long enough to hand it to Ed. A wave ripped the vest from his father’s grasp and carried it away.

Forty-five minutes after the men took hold of the bow, the last few inches of the Henrietta C. slipped under. Treading water now, untethered in the chop, they were almost immediately torn in different directions. Eighty feet of water opened between them. Across the divide, Jason could see his father staring at him.

An hour after Jason’s call to Billy Brown, the Alona Rahab and several other Tangier boats converged on the corn buoy. Pressing farther to the northwest, they came upon a debris field floating on the water—the big plywood lid from a workboat’s engine box, empty bushel baskets, others still full of crabs, and a tote labeled with Ed Charnock’s name.

So they weren’t looking for a boat, Lonnie realized, but for two men in the water. As the searchers split up, he began to appreciate just how high the seas were running. Five to six feet now, and there was no flow to the waves—they were crazed, anarchic, running every direction.

Lonnie saw that wind and tide were carrying the debris to the southwest, and fast. He pressed the Man Overboard button on his GPS console. It would enable him to cover the surrounding water in loops, always returning to the same spot to start again. He knew, from his own close call in 1991, that a man treading water doesn’t drift as quickly as flotsam. That meant that Ed and Jason were likely upwind of the debris. He turned to the northeast. Out on deck, Michael Parks climbed onto the engine box. The Alona Rahab was tossing like a cork, but the big firefighter somehow kept his feet—surfing, in effect, while he scanned the surrounding water.

Lonnie ran up the debris field until it ended, then circled back to the point he’d marked on his GPS. By this time, a Coast Guard rescue helicopter had flown the 90 miles up from Elizabeth City, North Carolina, and another Tangier waterman was on the radio with its crew. Get him to find the debris field, and fly against its flow, Lonnie told the waterman. Ed and Jason, they’re going to be lagging behind the debris.

Lonnie made another looping search to the northeast. Light and lively as his boat was, the deck swerved, dipped, and tilted under his feet, and the storm was strengthening—he reckoned it was blowing 35 now, gusting to 40. Tangier boats had fanned out to the north and south of him, and he could see them tossing. The Coast Guard chopper roared low overhead, circling. Lonnie’s wife, Carol, hailed him on the radio from back home—like many Tangier families, the Moores kept a two-way in their house.

Lonnie, do you see anything? she asked.

Nothing yet, Carol.

Do you have hope?

He didn’t answer. As the chopper made another pass, a terrible thought began to grow. He might have to tell his daughter that he couldn’t find her husband. That his four grandchildren had lost their father. He did not share his worry with the other boats. To the contrary, as he made another circle in the Alona Rahab, and another, always returning to that spot he’d marked on his GPS, Lonnie tried to encourage their crews. I know they can still be alive, he said into his radio. I know because I’ve been there.

Ninety minutes had passed since Jason’s call to Billy. Carol called again. Anything yet, Lonnie?

Nothing yet, Carol.

He made another circle, and suddenly Michael shouted, I see something! From his unsteady perch he was peering over the cabin at the water ahead of the boat. It’s right smack over your bow! Lonnie turned the wheel as Michael yelled, I think it’s Jason!

Dead ahead the waves had parted to reveal a man neck-deep in the water. He’d stripped off a pale red T-shirt and was waving it over his head. Michael heaved a life ring to him and pulled him to the Alona Rahab. He came up ghostly pale, almost blue.

Which way is your dad? Lonnie asked him, looking around.

Jason was trembling, barely coherent. I don’t think Dad made it, he said.

The Coast Guard called off the search the next morning.

Two nights later, when Pastor John Flood opened the Wednesday evening service at Swain Memorial, no sign of Ed Charnock had been found. “Dear Heavenly Father,” he prayed, “as we gather together as your people this evening, we are hurting. And Father, we’re trying to comprehend everything that has happened this week.”

Swain Memorial is the centerpiece of Tangier life, the repository of collective memories spanning more than a century—christenings, graduations, marriages, and funerals; prayers as babies were born and neighbors ailed; celebration and grief across generations. The sanctuary’s high ceiling and walls are sheathed in stamped tin overpainted in ivory, its interior illuminated by immense stained-glass windows.

It is more church than the island needs, built when the population was more than twice what it is today. Tangier is also eroding from within, its young people moving away after graduation for the opportunities, and relative ease, of life on the mainland.

Flood paced the altar. “You have to wonder, where is God in all this? What happened here?” He gazed at his congregation. “I found out that there were two blessings right immediately. That Ed, in that crisis time, in that stormy sea, hanging on, he told his son: ‘This don’t look good. You have to get right with the Lord. You need to accept him as your savior right now.’ And then Loni Renee told me that she made a deal. She said, ‘God, if you will only bring Jason home safe, I’ll serve you the rest of my life.’ ”

With that the preacher outlined how the island would process the tragedy. That Ed was a Christian mitigated the pain of his loss. That his death led Jason and Loni Renee to salvation was cause for rejoicing.

Left unaddressed was a remarkable element of that Monday: that 50-some of Ed’s neighbors and kin had risked their lives trying to rescue him. That they’d done it without pause and hadn’t much talked about it after. That this dying island is a place apart.

The entire congregation stood and, holding hands, formed a circle. It enclosed most of the sanctuary. Marlene McCready, wife of a boat captain, offered a prayer. “Please, Lord, watch over our watermen, our men who make their living on this great big bay, and protect them,” she said.

“And Lord, if it is your will, please bring Ed’s body back to his family.”

In the days that followed, the weather turned balmy as islanders searched for Eddie Jacks by air and sea. Beneath a Cessna circling southwest of the corn buoy, the vastness of the Chesapeake glittered benignly. The spotters saw nothing but water. Forty-odd islanders on 15 workboats spent days dragging the bottom but pulled up only algae and sea grapes. Finding the body preoccupied everybody. Without it, Ed’s family and friends were in limbo, unable to commence the public rituals that attend death, unable to get on with the private phase of their grief.

A week passed with no sign, but it did bring one form of closure. Four days after the sinking, a young islander named Thomas Reed Eskridge dived on the Henrietta C.

The boat had been surprisingly easy to locate. Shortly after it went down, a Tangier waterman came upon an oil slick and marked the location on his GPS. Another islander ventured to the spot and scanned the bottom with sonar. It showed the boat in profile, 38 feet down. Now came Thomas Reed, 20 years old and trained as a commercial diver, descending by umbilical to the bay’s floor.

It was black as pitch down there. He didn’t see the boat until he was within ten feet of its starboard side. From stem to stern, it was without a blemish. The deadrise was sitting upright, so Thomas Reed vaulted its gunwales and walked up its deck to the cabin. Inside it appeared much as it had been. “Christ Our Pilot” framed on the bulkhead. The throttle wide open. He found Ed’s keys and pried a big domed compass from its mount. He would take those to Annette.

He climbed back over the rail and walked the length of the port side. The boat was fine at the stern, solid amidships. But farther on, up under the cabin, Thomas Reed found a crack—a broken seam where several boards forming the bottom had been pulled loose by their nails. He squatted to eye the hull beneath the crack and was surprised to find an enormous hole. Six or seven boards, each 7.5 inches wide, were staved in—still nailed in place at their ends, but cracked in their middles and shoved inward. Some of the boards had snapped outright. He panned a video camera over the damage, and in its light the broken planks revealed themselves in cross-section. They were honeycombed, more air than wood, chewed hollow by worms.

What had brought down the Henrietta C. was no longer a mystery. The wonder was that it had lasted as long as it had.

Eddie Jacks came up ten days after the sinking, not far from the boat he’d followed to the bottom. His remains went to a mainland medical examiner first, then to a funeral home. It wasn’t until May 17, 23 days after he’d left the island, that the mail boat brought his closed casket back to Tangier. The town ambulance carried it to Swain Memorial.

The Henrietta C.'s compass (Matt Eich)
A crab shanty in the island's harbor (Matt Eich)

That afternoon a half-dozen old-timers met for their daily coffee klatch in a tile-lined room of Tangier’s defunct health center. “Ol’ Ed’s gonna be missed,” said Leon McMann, at 86 Tangier’s oldest active waterman.

“I’ll tell you something else about him.” This from Jerry Frank Pruitt, the boat builder, who in 70 years had never lived more than 400 feet from Ed. “There weren’t no more honest a man in all the world.”

“That he was,” Richard Pruitt murmured.

Then Jerry Frank broached a subject that had been the stuff of island rumor. “About four year ago,” he said, Ed pulled the Henrietta C. out of the water at the boatyard, and “they found a place in the bilge, up under the cabin, where the wood was eaten with worms. Not the kind you get overboard, but the kind that get in trees, that kill trees.”

“A dry woodworm,” Jerry Frank called it. Park your boat or a piece of onboard gear under the trees and the worms would drop in. They ate a boat from the inside out. He suspected they came from trees in Reedville, on the bay’s western shore, where Tangiermen had been known to store equipment.

“I’ve taken them out of quite a few boats around here,” he said later. “They’re hard to see. That hole’s so small you’d better look very close. The worm gets bigger as he eats. When he first goes in, he’s a little thing.” The boatyard might not have noticed the infestation, except that the affected boards wouldn’t hold paint, he said. Repairmen scraped out the damage, filled, and painted, and told Ed he’d need to swap out the wood.

Ed had loved that boat. He’d been a stickler for maintenance. He’d replaced several boards since, at the starboard stern where he fished up his pots, a high-wear region of the hull. The previous November he’d had the Henrietta C. in a Smith Island boatyard, getting the hull sanded and filled and painted, zinc applied to its rudder and prop shaft, a new seat installed in the cabin.

But in that and several other repairs, he had not replaced that weakened section of the bottom. The work would have kept the boat

out of the water. Would have kept the Charnocks from working.

He and Jason had gone out last April 24, a punishing day, and likely cracked one of those worm-tunneled boards early in the run home. And after one went, so did another, and another, like a zipper pulled.

So it happened that 24 days after the sinking, all of Tangier crowded into Swain Memorial for Ed’s funeral. His casket was up in front of the altar, flanked by glass-shaded torchères, surrounded by flower arrangements. One, four feet long, was in the shape of the Henrietta C.

Ed’s son-in-law, Denny Crockett, delivered the eulogy. He talked about how Ed, quiet though he was, could tell a good story down at the oil dock. How he’d get everyone laughing by casting himself as the butt of those stories. How he’d paint himself as destitute, courting starvation, when all in the room knew he was among the most successful captains around.

Denny didn’t mention it, but Eddie Jacks was also known to lament the state of the Henrietta C. in those conversations.

“That boat is going to be the death of me,” he’d tell his fellow watermen.

He meant that keeping a wooden boat is an expensive proposition, that he had to pour money into it.

He meant it as a joke. 

Earl Swift (@earlswift1) is the author of the forthcoming Chesapeake Requiem: A Year with the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island. He is a fellow of Virginia Humanities at the University of Virginia.