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November 15, 2012

Hauling history home

Anne and I have a trip ahead of us. We’ll be trundling south in our bought-used-but-still-great Mercury Mountaineer SUV. 

We’re going to be heading for Shady Side, Md., birthplace of a least five generations of Atwells, all we have on record before my brother and me.

We’re taking the SUV instead of the gas-easy Prius because we’ll be hauling freight. In the back of the Mountaineer (which, because I love good food, I always think of as the “Marinara”), we’ll be loaded with about 300 pounds of stuff. It’s all Atwelliana — artifacts related to my grandpa Sam Atwell, the reason I’m named James Samuel Atwell. 

I’ve written about that grand man many times in this column and in my books, especially about his astounding gift for creative profanity. He died when I was only 10, but I can recall with absolute clarity his bear hugs, his raucous laughs, his howitzer-like sneezes that made China rattle and pictures slip askew. And his colorful, almost poetic language that poor, long-suffering grandma say, “Sam, please don’t say such things in front of the boys.”

The boys, of course, absolutely loved what he’d come out with. He once told me about a man “so low that he’d have to stand on a brick to kiss a duck’s butt!” Except he didn’t say, “butt.” 

“Please, Sam! Not in front of the boy!” Poor grandma.

But grandpa had more gifts than scatology. He was a master woodworker, and he and two of his brothers made their fame early in Shady Side as shipwrights. 

The Atwell brothers built sloops and dories and long, narrow boats for the oyster tongers (powered by one-cylinder engines—“one-lungers.) And they even built even the magnificent 50- and 60-footers called “log canoes” (the keel was a single log, mind you!) These were wide boats and shallow of draft, and from the most skilled of watermen dredged for oysters while under sail.

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