Just north of Little Heaven, Route 9 swings down from the north and around the back of Dover Air Force Base to join Route 1. It was here on a September morning that I first swung my motorcycle onto a narrow course of pale macadam. The sun shone low in the south, giving the day a crisp autumn light. The air, however, held the lingering warmth of summer. It was a good day for a ride.
I took my time weaving north through the farmland. I followed the contours of the western shore of the Delaware Bay past quiet towns surrounded by fields of soybean. I rolled over creeks and through deep cuts in the marsh, until, all of a sudden, Salem nuclear power plant sprung into view. The monolithic silhouette of the cooling tower grew until, at Augustine Beach, just past where the shoulder of the road drops into the river, I had to pull over and stare at the thing. It loomed on the water, jutting into the sky like the smoking top of a big genie’s bottle beached on the Jersey shore.
Then I turned around and, for the first time, caught sight of the Augustine Inn.
It’s a magnificent old hotel built of Flemish bond, with a long wooden porch and a sweeping view of the Delaware. The building dates officially to 1814, though in fact, it comprises several buildings, the oldest belonging to the 18th century. First it was a customs house, then an inn. Now it’s a biker bar owned and run by Harry, a Vietnam veteran and master mechanic. His age is no more certain than the age of the inn; he possesses two birth certificates and five death certificates. Precision on the matter doesn’t seem to bother him much, and that’s a little odd since he loves history and otherwise insists on accuracy. But Harry, like his building, is something of an enigma.
Pushing open the heavy wooden door, you’ll find yourself in a cavernous room dimly lit by windows that are shaded by the porch. Lying about is an assortment of tools, scaffolding, landscaping tools, catalogs and paint cans. The area around the pool table, however, is kept clear. Just inside the door is a hand-lettered cardboard sign: “If I’m not here, yell down the steps. If you want a beer or soda, help yourself. Coolers are marked.” FYI, the sign has since been changed.Â It now begins: “Talk to the dogs firstâ€¦”
Farther back and to the right is a bar covered with hunting catalogs, newspapers and sundry items a bachelor might keep about him in his den. Above, two stuffed geese, wings spread wide, swing from the ceiling. A moose head looks out from one of the tobacco-stained walls. Other walls are papered with assorted newspaper clippings and Harley posters. Over the bar is a tide clock. When the water is up on a spring or neap tide, Route 9 is often impassible in spots for a motorcycle.
On this particular day, as I walk in, Harry moves with the methodical care of a man guarding his bones.
“How’ya doing Harry?” I call out.
“Crippled,” he deadpans.
Harry moves slower than usual today. His arthritis is acting up, and his back is out from loading the beer cooler. Yesterday was busy. Down the road, the Vietnam Vets Motorcycle Club had held its annual Outlaw Lawnmower Races. As usual, Harry had hosted the preliminary festivities.
He bends carefully to pull a cold Rolling Rock from the cooler. His scarred and furrowed brow is conspicuous beneath his black wool watchman’s cap, and his beard shows salt and pepper. His eyes seem alternately angry and surprised.
But it’s his voice that truly captivates. It growls and sputters like an old Sportster with a dirty carb. Maybe it’s due to all the years he spent around bikes, or maybe it’s the filterless Camels. Whatever the cause, his rumbling baritone gives his narratives a true gravitas.
If you sit at Harry’s bar, sooner or later you will get one of his stories. He gives them away with the casual generosity of a friend offering his cigarettes. Harry punctuates his tales with sips from a can of Schmidt’s and interjections of “ya gotta get the whole story,” and “here’s what ya gotta understandâ€¦” When he comes to an important part, Harry stresses his point with a meaningful caesura, a fierce, wide-eyed stare, and a long, slow drag of his hand over his eyes, face and beard.
Harry’s stories meander, much like Route 9, drifting from point to point, always going somewhere, but in no rush to get there. As he speaks, it becomes easy to lose track of time. Harry talks about bikes and his years as a mechanic. And he talks about his service in Vietnam. “Ya gotta go see the Huey,” referring to the Vietnam-era helicopter at the Vietnam Veteran’s Motorcycle Club. “Just ask for Leatherneck when you get there. He’s good people.”
Sometimes, in mid-story, Harry locks his knuckles across his belly and leans back reflectively on his barstool. Or he reaches over to pet his Portuguese waterdog, Pollywog, who sits faithfully on the barstool next to him.
To be sure, Harry can teach you a lot about riding a motorcycle—about keeping the thing “shiny-side-up.” He’s wrecked more bikes than most people will ever ride, so he’s quick to tell you exactly what will get you killed.
Some of his advice can seem at first a bit Zen: “Look out for snakes, and I don’t mean copperheads.” (Snakes are swaths of rubber laid down by skidding tires. They create sudden changes in traction on the road surface.)
Some is a bit more clear: “Stay away from the yellow line. If you’re leaning into the oncoming lane, and you meet a car that’s drifted over the lineâ€¦”
He pauses, dragging his hand down over his face and beard. His eyebrows go up, his eyes wide with that almost angry look.
“â€¦you’re lookin’ at grill.”
But Harry has one piece of advice he gives most often and with the most emphasis: “Ya gotta take Route 9 slow.”
South of Old New Castle, Route 9 rolls through a stretch that looks like a Mad Max wasteland of smokestacks and fuel tanks. But the apocalyptic snarl of refineries soon vanishes, giving the landscape back to soybean and corn before dropping down toward Delaware City. It then climbs steeply on concrete stilts into a green canopy of elm and sycamore, until it brings into full view the Reedy Point Bridge.
Erected in 1968, the span is a long, slender ramp peaked with a steel superstructure. From the top, the view to the south is an arresting patchwork of shimmering water and sunlit verdure or, depending on the season, fiery gold. Broad pools in the tidal flats reflect the sky in silver sheets. Below, the road stretches into the salt marsh and cuts a perfectly straight line through patches of woods and farmland.
Down on the flood plain, the road rolls over soft rises, giving the sense of floating through the fast run of a river. A few miles ahead, Route 9 will turn left toward Port Penn.
If you drive slowly through town on a pleasant day, you’ll likely get a smile and wave from Thelma Bendler. She often relaxes in the shade of the home where she has lived for 65 of her 90 years. Her house, built in 1787, sits tight up against a corner and is bordered by a small, smartly kept yard. The narrow clapboards are painted a crisp white, the brick walk and front steps neatly swept and trimmed with flowers and stones.
I met Thelma when I had stopped to look for a unique piece of granite that resides in her yard. Thelma was sitting in her chair on the front walk. Her legs crossed casually and her hair loose in the breeze, she had the air of a young girl.
Thelma told me about her life in Port Penn, about meeting her husband when he was a lifeguard at Augustine Beach. When he became a captain on the river, they moved into the house for $750. When Thelma lost him to cancer, she went to work as a hostess at the ChesDel diner on Route 13. She hardly thought she’d last in the job when first she walked up the steps, but all of the people and all of the hugs comforted her. She stayed for 20 years.
Thelma watched Port Penn change over the years. There aren’t any more stores and it’s a bit less in the center of things. “We’ve got two churches, a bar, and a post office,” she says with a chuckle. “And everybody looks out for one another.” Her voice has in it real affection for her town, and she tells her stories with the easy smile of someone whose life has been a celebration of the world around her.
Around the time of the gold rush, Thoreau wondered why Americans were so eager to uproot themselves and hurry off to the faraway hills looking for riches. He felt that if only they would take stock of the world around them, they would find their fortunes. “Is not our native soil auriferous?” he asked. Thelma is one of those rare Americans who believes it is, believes that you can find gold in your own backyard.
Which brings us to the piece of granite planted in the soil and leaning against the corner of her house.
“It’s in the shape of Delaware,” Thelma says.
The stone is one of two taken from the steps of the original Reedy Point lighthouse. Harry had told me the whole story. Thelma, however, didn’t know the stone’s origin. She knew only that her in-laws, who originally owned the house, told her “never get rid of it.”
In a culture defined by mobility and speed—by hasty transition from one way of life to another, by long commutes and cross-country moves—here was a woman at rest in her own place and on her own little piece of land. Here was a woman every bit as much of a cornerstone as the block of granite in her small green yard.
Should you ever need a model for a portrait of a Delaware waterman, look up Clarence Donovan of Little Creek. He has gotten his living from the bay since he was 14. He’s often down at the end of Port Mahon road, past the pier and the abandoned bait shop at the boat ramp where the crabbers come in.
The pleasure of the ride down there is reason enough to go looking for him. Soon after you turn onto Port Mahon Road, the yellow lines disappear and the bleached asphalt begins to wind through a vast expanse of phragmites. The curve of the road ahead is marked against the sky by two slender wires held above the marsh by tall creosote-stained poles. When bay appears, only a narrow rock groin holds it off of the road, which is being reclaimed by spits of sand. In the water, rusting remnants of steel bulkheads and groins testify to the bay’s unrelenting erosion.
What gets scraped away from the land is filling in cuts in the marsh, so the port is becoming hard to navigate, Donovan says. Crabbing boats used to tie up to wharves, but now they anchor in the channel, their crews ferry from ship to shore in light skiffs. Even then, watermen are often at the mercy of the tide. “I’ve seen ’em up on their keels like this,” Donovan says, tilting his hand to 45 degrees.
Standing by a dock, we watch the boats come in. He wears a pair of soft leather boots. His jeans are deep blue and freshly laundered. He wears a green and brown checked button-down and a camouflage baseball hat that says Alexander Farms. His eyes stand out on his deeply lined face, like turquoise on tanned leather. In spite of his 66 years, Clarence stands as straight as the pilings of the wharf.
He sips from a can of Coors Light that sweats in the afternoon sun.
“My grandfather used to come all the way out here in a horse and buggy to cut salt hay,” he says.
I look out over the spartina trying to imagine what it might have been like then. There is little sound but the whisper of grass in the breeze. The gulls and terns on the pilings face into the wind like sentries. Far out on a mud flat stands a great blue heron. Menhaden are throwing themselves out of the water, flashing silver, making soft splashing noises that accentuate the silence.
“That’s where the oyster shuckin’ house was,” says Clarence, pointing back down the road. “It was owned by Wiffy Hand. A restaurant was there too—Jenkins’.”
It turns out that Wiffy’s son started the volunteer fire company after his house burned down. He’s the man who bought the town its first fire truck. Donovan is a life-long member of the fire company.
We talk some more about crabbin’ and oysterin’, and Clarence tells me if I want to hear more, I ought to go over where the boats have just come in. “That’s one of Wiffy’s grandsons over there,” says Clarence. “He can tell you all about it.”
Wiffy’s grandson introduces himself by his full name: Willus C. Hand Jr. But most folks call him W.C. He stands on an old hulking dock that’s taken on the dull gray of pulverized oyster shell. His partner uses a forklift to load 20-bushel steel cages, weighing 2,400 pounds each, onto an 18-wheeler that will cart the day’s haul down to Kinsdale, Virginia. There are no more local shucking houses like the one his grandfather owned.
Hand is tall and slender, his tan dark and ruddy. He wears a Daytona Bike Week T-shirt, jeans, and the rubber boots ubiquitous among local waterman. There’s a red Marlboro pack peeking from his T-shirt pocket. He wears the wire-framed spectacles of a scholar. The logo on his cap is almost obscured by grime and wear, except for the singular outline of a blue crab.
Hand gestures toward his boat, one of only two that go out of Port Mahon now. It hangs off a dock just north of a small bight in the marsh, a sharp looking vessel with a high wheel house and low gunwales. Bright white in the afternoon sun, it seems to radiate against the dark water.
As the last of the oysters are being loaded, Harvey, the driver of the 18-wheeler, walks over to one of the cages on the dock. He produces a shucking knife from his back pocket and deftly opens an oyster. He slurps it down and tosses the shell into the bay.
“That’s a good oyster. Nice and salty,” he says, starting into another, a heaping tablespoon’s worth.
Hand nods in agreement. “Nothing against the Chesapeake,” he says, “but I find the oysters bland. These are better.”
When I finally caught up with Leatherneck down at the Vietnam Veterans’ Motorcycle Club, I foolishly neglected to ask him about his name: “How’d you get a name like Leatherneck?” Thinking back on it now, it doesn’t seem like the kind of question he would have answered. He’s a bit laconic. When I first met him, I wasn’t sure he would talk to me at all.