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The Tangierman's Lament

The Tangierman's Lament: and Other Tales of Virginia

Earl Swift
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    The Tangierman's Lament
    Book Description:

    Go where the story is--that's one tenet of journalism Earl Swift has had little trouble living up to. In two decades of covering the commonwealth, Swift has hiked, canoed--even spelunked--a singular path through Virginia. He has also stopped and listened. This collection brings together some twenty Virginia tales wherein hardship is revealed as tragedy, and humor appears as uncanny, illuminating strangeness.

    The Pulitzer-nominated title story takes us to the Chesapeake island of Tangier, home to a Methodist enclave over two hundred years old, with an economy almost wholly dependent on the blue crab. The gradual exodus of the island's young people and the dwindling crab hauls point to an inevitable extinction that finds a dramatic metaphor in the erosion of the island itself, which is literally disappearing beneath its inhabitants' feet.

    An epic piece of reporting, "When the Rain Came" revisits the August night in 1969 when Hurricane Camille descended on Nelson and Rockbridge counties, bringing with it a deluge of nearly Biblical proportions that killed 151 people. It was later characterized by the Department of the Interior as "one of the all-time meteorological anomalies in the United States." Swift looks beyond the extraordinary numbers to find the individual stories, told to him by the people who still remember the trembling floorboards and rain too heavy to see, or even breathe, through.

    Other stories include a nerve-wracking inside look at the Pentagon on the morning of 9/11, the travails of a failed novelist turned folk-art demigod, an account of a 1929 Scott County tornado (deemed the deadliest in Virginia history), and a profile of Nelson County swami Master Charles, who boasts a corps of meditative followers, a mountain retreat in Nellysford, and an incomplete resume. Each piece reconfirms Virginia as a land uncommonly rich in stories--and Earl Swift as one of its most perceptive and tireless chroniclers.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3720-5
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)

    The Appalachians are slump-shouldered and low by alpine standards, dwarfed by the Rockies, mere hills next to the raw and knife-edged heights of the Andes or Alaska Range. Used to be, it’s said, that these Virginia mountains towered highest of any on earth; they’ve dwindled to their present size simply because they’ve had the time to—being, as they are, among the oldest mountains around.

    Over the eons, their bones have been worn to sand by wind and rain, swept downhill into passing rivers, and carried hundreds of miles to the Atlantic. So nourished, the coastal plain has grown to...

  4. The Immortal Dismalites
    (pp. 5-13)

    Deep, deep, deep in the Great Dismal Swamp, we paused to gather our wits.

    The sky was low, its light weak, and we sat in a dusky gloom. The only sounds were our panting and the steady plink of rain on the prison of flesh-hungry brier around us. “I think,” George Ramsey said as he fiddled with his global positioning receiver, “that we’re getting just a little taste of what Byrd’s people went through.”

    “Probably so,” said Bill Trout, who sat beside me on a fallen tree, chewing a cookie. “Only they carried all that heavy surveying equipment. Imagine that.”...

  5. The Unexpected Artist
    (pp. 14-18)

    It was reading that got him into it. Eugene Abbott was in the army, bouncing around the Pacific—Honolulu, Okinawa, Saipan—and reading everything he could get his hands on. W. Somerset Maugham. James Joyce’sUlysses. For Whom the Bell Tolls.Faulkner.

    Somewhere in the pages of those great books, in the company of those great writers, Abbott detected an invitation, saw his life’s path laid plain before him. He decided to be a great writer himself. It was a career to which he’d devote his energy for more than a half century, that would hammer his ego and cost...

  6. The Tangierman’s Lament
    (pp. 19-40)

    In the beginning was Joseph Crockett.

    And Joseph Crockett begat ten children, who begat others, and they others, and so on through centuries.

    And one of these Crocketts married Ira Eskridge, and with him had a son, William. And Will Eskridge fathered seven children, the last of them a son, James. And on this spring evening forty-one years later, James “Ooker” Eskridge is crouched astern in a flat-bottomed skiff, hand on the tiller, ball cap pulled low, flannel shirt flapping in a stiff southwesterly.

    Off to his right, cordgrass lines the crumbling edge of his birthplace, his family’s seat for...

  7. Bang the Drum Loudly
    (pp. 41-47)

    The club is packed. Two hundred heads are nodding to a cover band’s take on ZZ Top’s “LaGrange.” It’s near the end of the song, the part where the tick-tick-ticking whirls into a sonic tornado. Guitars are screeching. The bass is thumping and growling. And the drums—the drums are totally out of control. You can hear them outside. You can hear them across the parking lot. Clear across Shore Drive you can hear them. Inside, you can’t hear your conscience. An artillery barrage is what it’s like, and ground zero is the concrete dance floor in front of the...

  8. When the Rain Came
    (pp. 48-81)

    The drought has gone on for two summers now. All along the Blue Ridge, stands of maple and sycamore, of ash and old man’s beard, sag in the thick August heat. Pastureland crunches underfoot, baked as dry as a snake’s rattle. Corn is stunted. Hay won’t grow.

    On the range’s eastern face, the rust-red soil is parched hard, like concrete, and the streams that tumble from high on the ridges do nothing to slake it. They have no water to spare: The Rockfish River is half its normal size. The Tye’s baring its bones. Davis Creek is so low the...

  9. Playing the Last Round
    (pp. 82-86)

    They were bringing up the rear, the Lunch Bunch’s last threesome to tee up on this raw, runny-nose afternoon. They waited until the group ahead was better than halfway to the hole before they stepped up to drive. Cold or not, it was best to savor these final hours.

    Stewart Womble swung. The ball whistled hard and flat toward the crowns of some big Virginia pines he remembered as saplings, then arced back into the fairway’s middle and fell to a bouncing roll. Thomas Boze Kellam, defying the chill in just a V-neck sweater and a worn pair of cords,...

  10. Where Is the Fabulous Dewey Diamond?
    (pp. 87-93)

    Somewhere out there, in hands unknown, is a relic of Virginia that once amazed and excited all who beheld it, and which provoked an exchange of money such that only the rich might contemplate, and which moved journals of the day to wax of its charms in long, convoluted sentences fairly abloom with words and phrases aflowered.

    It was a diamond, found against all reason among the streets of Richmond—a gem of fine clarity, and the subtlest green hue, and a size not seen before that day anywhere on the continent. Such was its fame, and so singular its...

  11. In the Radiance of Master Charles
    (pp. 94-102)

    Alan had a Mercedes and a backyard grill. Murray balanced a company’s books. Carol was a Jewish housewife and mother. Steve taught college in Indiana. One by one they left their pasts to seek Truth and Beauty and meditative bliss. One by one their quests brought them here, to an oakshaded enclave in the Virginia Blue Ridge, and to the side of its spiritual leader.

    He was a master of meditation. A swami who’d once worn saffron robes and lived on an Indian ashram. A mystic who’d wedded modern technology to the wisdom of the ancients, and so blazed a...

  12. Ricochet
    (pp. 103-112)

    It takes him a minute to get his bearings. It’s been fifty years since he last stood here.

    This spot, Earl Whitehurst finally sighs—this is where he parked his car that night. And this building: This is the apartment house he and his buddies visited, and where one of them started mouthing off.

    There, in the dirt at the foot of the front steps, is where words gave way to fists. Used to be some cottages across the street, in that patch of tall weeds, and that’s where he was, Whitehurst says, when he heard the first shots.


  13. Meat
    (pp. 113-118)

    They stood aft as the boat thundered nose-high into the Atlantic, studiously nonchalant as wind-whipped hair stung their eyes, and the deck under foot lurched and yawed like a surfboard. Behind them Rudee Inlet had dissolved into the predawn black, and Virginia Beach into a string of sodium-yellow pearls. They watched the lights wink out of sight, and they talked about meat.

    Meat—as much meat as the box at the stern would hold. They’d motor out sixty miles, out over the edge of the continental shelf, out to the curb of a highway of fish that runs off the...

  14. Flush with Success
    (pp. 119-122)

    It happens every day, often several times a shift : Winfred L. Griffin will be piloting his big tanker truck through traffic, or stop to pick up payload, when a passing stranger will read aloud the slogan painted down the truck’s sides and stop to ask: Is that for real? Griffin will smile, and nod, and say yes, that really is the motto of the E. W. Brown Septic Tank Service. Has been for decades, since just after the company’s creation in 1945.

    So it is on this raw February morning: Griffin stops at a 7-Eleven for ice water, and...

  15. A Song of Sorrow
    (pp. 123-128)

    There are some who say the wind blowing into Rye Cove carries the sound of wailing each May 2. Listen close, they say, and you’ll hear the cries of those who died that strange and terrible afternoon in 1929.

    Young voices, mostly. Even those who don’t believe in ghosts and such will tell you that this speck of a settlement is still haunted by the cyclone that tore through it seventy-odd years ago, and that a big piece of the reason is that all but one of the lives it snatched away belonged to youngsters.

    Rye Cove saw the deadliest...

  16. Love and Justice
    (pp. 129-131)

    The hall outside Judge M. Randolph Carlson II’s courtroom is crowded with old lovers this Valentine’s morning. Most are wearing their coats, speaking quietly with attorneys. The lighting is harsh, the tile cool and hard, the mood, apprehensive. No one holds a bouquet or a box of chocolates.

    Inside, the every-Monday business of Norfolk’s Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court begins. Ernest and Diane are called. They were living together last October, they testify, when she came home from an all-night birthday party. Ernest was in the kitchen, cooking breakfast. They started to argue.

    “She would say something, and I would...

  17. To the Lighthouse
    (pp. 132-147)

    From the top of the tower the western horizon is stratified, ruby and amethyst and hematite layered beneath a great moonless sky turning to coal. The day’s last light glimmers weakly on the Atlantic, silhouettes the wispy curves of offshore sand spits. It sets pale gray fire to the marshland. Glows ghostly on white clapboard and concrete.

    At the tower’s base, 154 candy-striped feet below, nightfall has blackened the forest’s pine-needle carpet. Any minute now.

    Within the glass encircling the tower’s crown, sharp-edged shadows fade to gray, sun-warmed air is swapped for midwinter’s chill. I breathe jets of steam, pull...

  18. At a Fork in the Trail
    (pp. 148-153)

    Here she comes—an indistinct dot cresting the West Norfolk Bridge, a blue-spandex blur as she speeds down the near side. Look now: She’s sharpened into a choreography of pumping legs and flashing spokes, hard skinny tires hissing on asphalt like fat in a hot skillet.

    Seven minutes into a four-hour ride, Kristy Mantz glides westward at an unvarying 19 mph, the cadence of her pedaling as steady as a metronome, eyes focused on the road ahead, back bent and helmet tucked to cheat the breeze. A container truck rumbles past three feet from her left elbow, spewing grit and...

  19. History Floats
    (pp. 154-162)

    Ahead and behind, the river purls empty in the yellow light of early morning. ThePride of Campbell Countyis alone, ghosting silently past elder-berry blossoms nodding on the bank, over smallmouth bass and yard-long gar cruising in the shadows. The breeze dies suddenly. The leaves of drooping sycamores and maples fall silent. And that eerie, unmistakable hiss reaches the boat.

    Around a bend on the seemingly languid James River, danger waits: a bank-to-bank nest of dark rocks—age-old rocks with green-slimed knuckles thrusting from the water, splitting the river’s flow into dozens of foaming, fast-moving braids.

    David Haney, the...

  20. The Race Is Off
    (pp. 163-172)

    Ricky Rudd’s in his F150 on a sun-dappled two-laner between Cornelius and Concord, North Carolina, aiming, as he is wont to do, to work past other drivers on suburban Charlotte’s gummed-up roads.

    His son, Landon, sits yawning beside him. “Dad, do we have my binder?” the fifth-grader asks.

    “Yeah,” Rudd replies. He tilts his head toward the back seat, to Landon’s book bag and packed lunch. “It’s there behind your pack.”

    Landon nods and settles into a sleepy stupor. Ahead, brake lights flash, and Rudd swings the truck right, onto a gravel lane that doglegs among hayfields and hardwoods. He...

  21. Tory Terrorist
    (pp. 173-178)

    The terrorists struck civilian targets, dissolved into the countryside, materialized elsewhere to visit fear, fire, and death on new victims. They relied on a network of associates to hide them from their American pursuers. The authorities, stymied by intelligence failures, seemed powerless to stop them.

    Until, in a gambit to safeguard liberty, they denied it. They slammed a Draconian fist upon their foes: They put a price on the leader’s head and declared his cohorts guilty without trial. The campaign succeeded, but Americans wondered: At what price is terror quelled?

    They still wonder, more than 225 years later.

    In a...

  22. Out of Nowhere
    (pp. 179-214)

    Up at 5:30, Army Lieutenant Colonel Marilyn Wills grabbed a shower, got her two daughters out of bed, and jostled her husband, Kirk, for a place at the sink. She pulled on her uniform, packed lunches, hurried the girls to dress and brush their teeth. There wasn’t time for her family’s daily Bible verse that Tuesday, nor the prayer the four usually said together, nor even to see Portia and Percilla off to school; Wills doled out quick kisses instead, and was out of the house before the sun came up.

    In the car she sang along to a gospel...

  23. Claimed Only by the Flood
    (pp. 215-222)

    They found the first of the nameless far downriver: a teenage boy, handsome, with high cheekbones and a wispy blond mustache and longish, light brown hair. He looked to be blue-eyed, but they couldn’t be certain. Four days had passed since the flood. Four days of summer heat, and water, and flies.

    A younger boy turned up a day later, not as far downstream. An old woman was next, then two little girls, then the truck driver. Searchers found the headless corpse on the twelfth day. They pulled a manicured young woman out of the mud five days after that....

  24. Notes on the Stories
    (pp. 223-230)
  25. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 231-232)