A Stranger in my own Backyard: Cambridge, Maryland

As Editor of Delmarva Quarterly, no small part of my job is to strike out into the Delmarva peninsula, the soggy little morsel of land that hangs between the Chesapeake and Delaware bays, and find our stories in the wild.  For all intents and purposes, I grew up here, on a little spit of sand called Cape Henlopen.  I left for boarding school at 17, taking with me an obligatory disdain for crabbing, duck hunting, pickup trucks and the acres upon acres of soy beans and cornstalks that lined the highway.  At 23, having settled in for my first Delaware autumn in over six years, I find myself in the awkward position of getting to know my homeland again.  Sitting on a deck chair with a gin-and-tonic and a copy of Independence Day in my hands, I think: when did those pines get to be so goddamned huge?  I’m a stranger in my own backyard.

Last Saturday I traveled to Cambridge, Maryland to attend a press preview of Chesapeake Classics, a small storefront cum museum dedicated to the carved duck.  Like Easton, north, and Chrisfield, south, Cambridge is a Chesapeake town that carries itself with pride and majesty.  Crossing over the Choptank River on the Rt. 50 bridge, I see its houses perched on the river with half of their lights on.  I imagine residents brushing aside old lace curtains to peer at the tangled mess of clouds above, giving way in long tears to a violently blue sky, and closer to the horizon, gradients of sunset.  Boats come into the harbor with their running lights on, cutting white v’s in the water.

I walk in and immediately feel overdressed in a blue blazer, khakis and a shirt that seems overenthusiastic among the more muted tartants, checkers and plaids.  I feel alienated and fear that someone will tag me as a resort-town interloper, which I am, and block me out of conversation.

The gallery is plesantly cluttered, feels warm and lived-in rather than confusing and overwhelming.  The blonde wood makes you feel at home, and the high ceilings give you room to breathe.  Older decoys are lovingly mounted and well-lit inside glass cases, while spares – runoff from founder Jeff Pelayo’s personal collection – squat on shelves.  An old railboat divides the room, filled to the gunnels with decoys.  Pelayo is short, of a vaguely Asian extraction, and speaks with an electric haste, clearly thrilled by the crowd.  And he should be.  One man came from Arkansas to see Pelayo’s gallery.

“Our primary purpose is education, definitely,” says Pelayo.  He holds a beer and rocks on his heels.  The gallery’s back room is more carefully arranged, placing choice picks from the famous wooden flocks of Charlie Joiner, Ralph Murphy and Benjamin Dye behind glass.  On one wall, a comically oversized muzzle-loader is mounted on hooks.

“That’s Ralph Murray’s punt gun,” he explains.  “Well, a replica of it, anyway.”  Punt guns, he explains, were basically six-foot smooth-bore barrels crammed with shot and powder, pointed in the general direction of a cluster of waterfowl, and fired.  The resulting explosion would almost topple the hunter’s skiff, but also kill a lot of ducks.  These were the days of market hunting, where the name of the game was not sport, but efficiencey.  Mouths were fed from the barrel of the punt gun.

It wasn’t until after the introduction of Federal preservation acts (which, by the way, damn near saved the Canvasback from extinction) that duck hunting became a sport in its own right, more about the kill than the harvest.  With a dip in demand for decoys – less of them were being blown to spliters by punt guns – their carving and painting became an art.  And Jeff Pelayo became a collector.  And he gave us Chesapeake Classics.

Speeding back across the Rt. 50 bridge, Crambridge had all its lights on behind me.  A few straggling boats were still cutting up the Choptank, running lights bucking against the dark water.  Warm air came in the window in great thumping gusts.  There was that smell, that sharp, sulfurous smell of marsh at low tide; that smell I’ve always called home, no matter where I was.

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2 Responses to “A Stranger in my own Backyard: Cambridge, Maryland”

  1. I enjoyed the piece about your visit to Cambridge. I too left Delmarva behind me with much disdain when I graduated from College. After years of dislocation, I returned and found that my disdain had turned to deight.

  2. Chesapeake Classics Says:

    Thanks for the nice words. CC

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