Progress marches on: Conference calling comes to Smith Island crab shanties


I had been meaning to get a phone installed, and as luck would have it, while floating down main street this summer on my way to fish, I saw Henry sitting on the dock of his shanty, fixing a crab pot.

I put in my order: "Hey Hen, hook me up down to Paul and Mabel's house this week."

Paul and Mabel have been dead awhile; but before I and a group of friends bought it, it was their house for 40 years, and before that Mabel's dad's, and her grandad's and probably her great-grandad's.

Also Henry's mother-in-law, Lil, lives one house away, and grew up with Paul and Mabel. So we still call it Paul and Mabel's, and probably always will.

Henry is the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co.'s sole representative on Smith Island, a broad skein of marsh in the middle of Chesapeake Bay, where main streets are boat channels, and there is just enough high ground to support three hamlets of watermen.

Phone service came to the island's 500 or so residents in the early 1950s. The only local exchange, HA 5, commemorates Hazel, the hurricane that blasted up the bay around that time, wreaking havoc on the community.

Like most aspects of life on the island, insulated as it is from mainland Maryland by nine miles of open bay, phone service always has marched to its own tune.

A few years ago, when I was a permanent resident there, running education programs for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, I asked Henry whether C&P; could do something about the huge old cedar whose limbs were pressing perilously on the phone and power lines in front of my house.

Indeed they could, Henry said, disappearing inside his shanty. He returned with a murderous-looking pole saw, about 15 feet in length, which he put in my skiff. Keep it as long as you need, he said, "and watch out for the limb when she falls."

Another time my phone went on the blink the same week the channel froze between Ewell, where Henry lives, and my village of Tylerton, accessible to the world only by boat.

Touch-tone service? It was simply not an option. To this day, I grate at those chirpy recordings that make owners of rotary phones wait through instructions: "To reach accounting, just touch 1 . . ."

Still, phone service was Cadillac compared to electric power. Energy came our way via the Accomack-Northhampton Electric Co-op (ANEC). It began near the lower tip of Virginia's Eastern Shore, and traveled underwater a few miles to an uninhabited island where it emerged into a vine-covered metal box (some sort of power booster) in the middle of a heron rookery.

It then plunged to the bay's bottom for several more miles, surfacing at Tangier Island, Va. From there it traveled six miles north to Smith on poles sunk into the shallow waters of the mid-bay's rich soft crabbing grounds.

By the time it reached Tylerton, ANEC's voltage was often too exhausted to spin the hard disk in my computer. During one particularly stultifying heat wave, the preacher admonished us all in church not to use air conditioning -- the watermens' pumps that kept their soft crabs aerated and alive in their holding tanks would need all available electricity for the next few days.

In its own funky way, phone service on the island had its charms. DTC It was an ancient system, mechanically switched; and often when there was a problem, Henry could just go out to the little phone building beside his house and jigger the switches around and make it right.

And of course, getting a new hookup was as simple and as friendly as my hollering across the channel to the phone man this summer.

But something was wrong. Henry was flagging me down, trying to explain that we could not have these intimate conservations anymore; could not go on meeting like this.

I must, he said, go through the C&P; computer. But who would hook up my phone at Paul and Mabel's? Oh, he would, same as always, Henry said; but until the computer told him I was interested, he couldn't make a move.

I called the computer. A lady at C&P; answered, very nice, very sympathetic, very patient.

She would need the address of my house to enter in the computer, she explained. But I had no address. No one on the island used addresses. The little lanes that passed for streets had no names. It was a small place where everyone knew everyone.

I told her how when we lived there, we had great sport making up addresses. I received mail variously at Waterview Boulevard, Bay Acres, Chesapeake Estates -- once I got a letter addressed to Tom Horton, His Own Way.

Just tell the computer to send Henry to Paul and Mabel's house, I told the lady, adding that his mother-in-law, Lil, lived just one house down.

Perhaps I could give the address of the house next door, she suggested. Well, that would be Marsha and Brov's house. No, I didn't know how to spell Brov. It wasn't his real name, come to think of it.

Come on lady. That computer is not going to install my phone. Henry is. And he doesn't need a printout to find my house.

Round 1 ended in a draw. The next day the computer lady called back. Good news: We had an address. Civil Defense in the past year had numbered every house and named every lane on the island -- something to do with the 911 system.

Now, an ambulance could find you if you were sick, she said. I didn't mention that the streets in Tylerton aren't wide enough for an ambulance to travel.

Meekly, I received my address from the phone lady. I now live on Marshall Street. That seemed fair, since five of the seven families living on the street for most of this century were named Marshall. My house number was five digits, which seemed excessive, since there are only 67 houses in the whole town.

But never mind. Henry was duly dispatched by the computer, and he found Paul and Mabel's, he said, with no trouble; visited his mother-in-law, Lil, on the way.

And the whole phone system has been modernized. We got digital switching now, and something called "memory administration" that runs the whole show out of Baltimore. We even have touch-tone.

People are upgrading their phones all over the island; trading in their old HA 5 exchanges for 968 (Crisfield) prefixes, so they can call toll free all the way to Salisbury.

One lady has even put a two-line model with conference-call capability in her crab shanty. Every morning in the summer at about 3 o'clock, when Smith Island women begin picking crabs for the freezer, she dials up friends in two other shanties and pushes the conference call and speakerphone buttons.

They stay connected all through the morning, talking occasionally, other times just listening to the sounds of their friends smacking and cracking hard crabs across the speakerphones.

It is hard to argue with progress like that.

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