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.
Around World War I, grandpa Sam moved his family north, up the western shore of the Chesapeake to Annapolis. What with the war, there was work aplenty up there for shipwrights and house-builders. That’s when grandpa morphed into a full-time contractor.
You can drive around Annapolis today, especially its Homewood section, and admire dozens of houses grandpa built, including the white-shingled, slate-roofed home in Murray Hill that he built for Anna and himself. My dad was born in that house. And so was my brother, since it was the Depression and he and his own new wife were briefly sharing lodgings with his parents. (I got born some years later — in still another house grandpa built for my parents, right next door.)
When the World War II years came, grandpa shifted back into shipwright work, reporting to work every day at Trumpy’s Boat Yard, converted to the building of wooden-hulled torpedo boats. All the skilled shipwrights of the area worked there, five hundred of them; my brother and I are proud that grandpa Sam was among them.
Grandpa and all his workmen brethren were building 110-foot wooden sub chasers for the U.S. Navy, plus 70-foot Vosper PT boats for the British Royal Navy, plus 70-foot Vosper-powered PTs for the Russian Navy.
Those shipwrights worked on six boats at a time, side by side in Trumpy’s big loft, which extended out into the Annapolis harbor on pilings. By the war’s end, they’d sent 1128 boats down the ways and off to battle the Axis navies.
Oh, and what are we hauling down too Shady Side? Why, the very tools that grandpa Sam used through all his years, including his time fighting the war from Trumpy’s Boatyard.
When he died suddenly in 1948, grandpa left all his tools in the basement of that slate-roofed house in Murray Hill, Annapolis; and there they stayed through grandma’s long, long widowhood.
About the time I, a widower myself, was packing up to move north to Fly Creek, my brother and I were clearing out grandma’s basement. We decided that, since he did little carpentry and I was moving to a very old farm, I should take the tools with me. And so I did and have put them to great use over my 20 years of farming.
But now all those tools and their handsome handmade chest are going back to Shady Side, where they got their very first use. The Shady Side Historical Society is delighted and will house them in their Captain Salem Avery Museum. (You can check out that fine museum’s website.) My brother and I agree. That’s just where they belong.
I used almost all the tools over the years — clamps, saws, hammers, pry bars, awls, hand drills, draw knives, rat-tailed files, and much more. I even used his beautiful transit, complete with tripod and plum bob, laying out lines for sheep fencing.
Whenever I used the tools, I always felt grandpa at my shoulder. And when I wielded the heavy hammer he used with such zest, I could almost feel his energy in my shoulder and arm, slamming away with me.
On setting nail that finished a job, I always shouted his words with, I hope, something of grandpa Sam’s energy:
“There!” BANG! “Now stay there, damn it!”