Home > About > Bill Peak's Library Column > Legendary Waterman to Visit the Talbot County Free Library
When Melissa tells the story, she always makes a point of letting people know how she was dressed. We had just moved to the Eastern Shore and it was her first day in her new job at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, so she wanted to make a good impression: her best skirt and blouse, a pair of small, tasteful earrings, a touch of make-up, and the Ferragamos she'd bought herself for Christmas. The museum's director at the time was John Valliant, and he began the day by taking Melissa on a tour of the campus, introducing her to the people she would work with. Just outside the boatyard building, they came upon a large wooden sailing vessel resting high and dry up on the museum's rails. A burly-looking fellow who was pulling at a line up on the deck, dropped the line, strode over to starboard, and nodded a greeting.
Indicating the man with a tip of his head, John told my wife, “This is Captain Wade Murphy, skipper of the Rebecca Ruark.” Then, shading his eyes against the sun, he looked up at Murphy. “Wadie,” he said, “I'd like you to meet Dr. Melissa McLoud, the new director of the museum's Center for Education and Research.”
Captain Murphy looked down at my beautiful wife with her golden-red hair, cocked his head, thought about it for a moment, and then declared, “I know you. Didn't I meet you in the drunk tank in Cambridge?”
And so, in a trice, Melissa was introduced to both a legendary waterman and the Eastern Shore tradition of never taking anything (including a newly-minted museum official) too seriously.
I first met Captain Murphy a few years later, when the museum hired me to write the script for its oystering exhibit. Wanting this landlubber to at least have some idea of what he was talking about, it was arranged for me and a filmmaker to go dredging with the good captain. Around 5 a.m., on a frigid day in January, I arrived at the docks in Cambridge to find the harbor still sunk in darkness, a lone lozenge of light floating off at one edge of it. As I drew nearer, this spot of light resolved itself into the deck of the Rebecca Ruark, her surfaces bright and unreal-looking beneath electric lamps, Captain Murphy and his crew already aboard and readying their ship to sail. Later, as we made our way out into the open waters of the Choptank, I remember a dull salmon glow just beginning to trace the lower edges of the eastern sky.
That was far and away the coldest day of my life. I wore thermal long-johns, two pairs of woolen socks, two flannel shirts, two sweaters, wool pants, the down coat (with hood) I use for winter camping, a Thinsulate® stocking cap, and a pair of thermal gloves specially purchased for the occasion. And still I spent much of the day shivering with the cameraman below deck in the skipjack's tiny galley, the two of us taking turns sipping coffee that seemed to go from piping hot to dead-cold the moment it was poured from the thermos.
The Rebecca Ruark worked her dredges from sun-up to sun-down that day—as she did most days during the season—and Captain Murphy, who must have been in his sixties by then and, in my memory, wears only a jacket and woolen hat to ward off the cold, spent the entire day at her helm, shouting orders to his crew, monitoring his canvas, calculating his position over the bar, keeping a weather-eye on a leaden sky, while all the while—whenever I ventured above deck—regaling me with tales from his lifelong career working the water.
Somewhere up in our attic, I still have the notebook I used that day. It is full of great stories (some of which you will hear if you listen to the soundscape we created for the museum's oystering exhibit, and some of which you won't—as we knew there would be visitors to that exhibit whose parents would think them a tad young for several of Captain Murphy's more scandalous observations)—all of them recorded in a hand that grows increasingly difficult to decipher as my fingers grew stiff with cold.
But you don't have to visit the Maritime Museum to listen to my poor renderings of Captain Murphy's tales, you can hear the originals themselves straight from the horse's mouth. On Monday, February 11, at 6:00 p.m., Captain Wade Murphy will take up a position at the helm of the Easton library's main meeting room and, steering a course for the oyster bar known as memory, dredge up some of the best stories you will ever hear. I hope to see you there.
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