America: Oldest Tangier waterman floats in God’s hand

TANGIER ISLAND, Virgina. Water and marshland surround the remaining streets of this centuries-old community. The island is eroding, but the white building at left is a new combined K-12 school. To the right of the water tower is the historic United Methodist church. Photos today: David CrummTANGIER ISLAND, Virginia. This tiny island in Chesapeake Bay is famous, these days, for sinking and shrinking, but most residents insist that their way of life will never vanish because the entire island rests in the hands of God.

TANGIER ISLAND, Va. Norma and Preston “Pres” Dize sit in their kitchen preparing for a daily Bible reading. Every page of their Bible is highlighted from frequent readings.“The Lord will never let this island go,” said Preston “Pres” Dize, the oldest crab fisherman on Tangier at age 84. His comments are brief but are delivered with the force of a sermon in the island’s trademark  Cornish-Southern drawl. The accent echoes both the American South and Cornwall back in England, the ancestral home of these isolated families that have lived off the bounty of Chesapeake Bay since before the American Revolution.

Norma Dize, Preston’s wife for 65 years, nodded affectionately as her husband spoke. Then, she added, “And, everyday I pray for Pres, putting him in the Lord’s hands as he gets up at 3 a.m. and goes out on the water again, all alone.”

Such faith may sound wistful or nostalgic, but the booming drawl of these watermen, as they prefer to be called, makes it clear that faith is their cast-iron anchor. Most are quick to point out that Tangier’s first claim to nationwide fame was due to a courageous clergyman nearly 200 years ago.

Here’s the short version of that heroic chapter in U.S. history: In the darkest hours of the War of 1812, the British fleet preparing to attack Baltimore formed up around Tangier, then marched all the men ashore for what officers assumed would be an inspiring open-air Sunday service. Thousands arrayed themselves in straight lines, hats neatly tucked in their left arms. But, instead of blessing the fleet, the local preacher delivered a shocking sermon declaring that Baltimore never would fall to the British. The Rev. Joshua Thomas said later that he fully expected an officer to draw his sword and cut the sermon short. Instead, the British sat in stunned silence and later attacked Baltimore, despite the prophetic warning. As they say on Tangier to this day, “the rest is history.” If you don’t recall what happened next, just sing the National Anthem again.

Our father-son, 9,000-mile American journey detoured to Tangier via an hour-long ferry ride from the Maryland shore. We included Tangier because the journey we are retracing, David Crumm’s first circle of the U.S. in 1976, included a week on the island. Sometimes described as “mysterious” and even “fabled” by other journalists throughout the 20th Century, Tangier is an ideal spot to explore the values that contribute to survival despite the greatest challenges our nation has faced.

“The answer to what you’re asking is simple: prayer,” said Norma Dize, opening her leather-bound family Bible listing all her ancestors on Tangier since the 1700s. She proudly ticked off a few branches of that family tree, then unfolded this week’s prayer list issued by Tangier’s historic United Methodist church. The latest edition contains 300 prayer requests blanketing the entire island of less than 500 residents, detailing concerns from cancer and chronic illness to the security of the island’s vital western seawall and “traveling mercies for watermen.”

Using colored pens, Norma Dize had turned her list into a rainbow for special emphasis. “That’s because no one can pray through every single request every single day, so I highlight the ones I know best and the needs that are greatest to make sure I don’t miss a day on those.”

Tangier’s challenges can seem overwhelming. Not only are the economics of commercial fishing forcing most young adults from Tangier into jobs on the mainland, but the island itself is disappearing beneath the feet of the remaining residents. Today, the island has eroded to less than a third of the more than 2,100 tree-shaded acres that stood above the Chesapeake waters when the Rev. Joshua Thomas preached to the British. Tangier’s famous pine groves are gone and the only trees left on the island stand in some residents’ cramped yards. The fewer than 700 acres that remain above water include a large portion of marsh. Most of the land is only a foot or two above sea level, so Tangier regularly floods. Even on a good day, a walk along the remaining streets reveals water rising around the foundations of many homes.

TANGIER ISLAND, Virginia. Waterman Denny Crockett shows why the island’s lifeline is called the Atlantic Blue Crab, because of the rich hue along the inner legs and claws. Formally the Callinectes sapidus, the name means this crab is a “beautiful swimmer” with a “savory” flavor.Nevertheless, every morning Pres Dize climbs out of bed at 3 a.m., eats a modest breakfast, reads from the Bible, prays, walks down to the docks and steps down into a little motor boat in the pitch dark. He fires up the engine and heads to his crab shack among a forest of small wooden barns that stand on stilts not far from shore. At the shack, he sorts through big tanks of Atlantic blue crabs that are within days of slipping out of their hard shells. Any crabs that have broken free of their shells are valuable “soft shells” and Dize packs them into cooler boxes that he ships to wholesalers on the mainland.

That’s when Dize’s real work begins. By dawn, he’s out in the bay in a bigger boat, repeatedly throwing out and pulling in two heavy nets for the next four or five hours. The nets scrape through the water and grasses in the bay, hoping to snag at least a few crabs close to shedding their shells. The work is so grueling and sometimes even life threatening that the other watermen on Tangier honor Dize’s longevity each spring. At the annual blessing of the fleet, the other watermen invite him to lay the community’s memorial wreath on the waters of the bay to remember all the watermen who have lost their lives.

Despite his age, Dize also maintains one of the island’s essential funds, a collection taken up at the church for the welfare of families facing crises. “That’s for things like people who don’t have enough money to pay for fuel to keep warm in the winter or they have to go to the hospital and they need some help for their families,” he said. “We dig into our fund to help one another.”

“We got helped, too, when Pres broke his collar bone and couldn’t work for a while,” Norma Dize said. “People were so generous while Pres was healing up.”

Among the many challenges the Dizes face is planning for what happens to them after their lives inevitably end on Tangier. With the shrinking of the island, there’s a shortage of family plots. For centuries, families traditionally buried relatives in above-ground crypts in their yards, much like in New Orleans, but there’s almost no land left for graves and many families now are forced to bury their loved ones on the Maryland mainland.

“I don’t think the Lord will ever let this island go, so I’m not concerned about my future at all,” Norma Dize said, waving her hand dismissively. “We’ve got a seawall protecting the western side of the island now and there was a long time that no one thought we could raise the money for that. But, God’s been good to us. We’ve got that seawall now. God will keep leading us in the right way. Tangier has served God for years and years and years and years, so God himself will hold us up.” And, she patted the cover of her family Bible as evidence of generations of preachers and Sunday school teachers.

“Even when Pres broke his collar bone, I didn’t worry. We prayed, had faith in God and now he’s back crabbing again,” she said. “That’s how it is for watermen and their families. We’re like farmers. There are years when the crabs are plentiful and life is good and years when we barely survive. We face it all and we go on.”

Pres Dize cut in again: “But we’ll never leave this island. No. Never.” There wasn’t a note of doubt in his voice. “I’ll be buried here and she will, too.”

“We don’t know quite where they’ll put us by that time,” Norma Dize said and chuckled. “You know they say we’re all filled up for burials. But just like God holds this island, I know God will find a spot to tuck us in when we need it.”

To that, her husband thundered one last time: “Yep. That’s right.”

(Today’s photo and story by Editor David Crumm and his son Benjamin who are devoting 40 days and 9,000 miles to circling the United States and talking with Americans about what divides and what could unite us.)

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