I didn't like Donnie Shifflet much when I first met him—no one did. It took some time to get beyond his brutal language and rough manners, but once you came to know him, you never had a better friend and you soon understood the real meaning of the word obsession. See, the thing about Donnie, the crux of his personality was that he was a man of severe passions. He was one of those rare people, maybe one in a million, who know no normal bounds to the pursuit of a goal. Nothing came by measure with him; it was either all out or nothing, so once he got an idea stuck in his head he attacked it with the force of a raging hurricane. He became so consumed by his goal that it eventually defined him, and so he pursed it regardless of cost or sacrifice, or ultimately even its worthiness. Perhaps it was this quality, the one I lacked most within myself, which drew me to him like a moth to flame. Though I did not know it at the time, he was not my deliverer, but rather a desperate dreamer prone to leaving behind him a debris field of ruined lives in the wake of his tempestuous deportments.
I first met Donnie the summer after I graduated from college, a summer long past now and one whose events have caused me many sleepless nights since. No, this is not just a story worth recounting; it is unfortunately my darkest confession. It was 1974, Vietnam was winding down and there was an electricity in the air as if some great, world altering event might soon take form, much in the same manner air holds still for a millisecond just before lightning strikes, only more prolonged. I had graduated with a degree in sociology but I was not interested in counseling troubled teens or worse, hopeless adults. I had enough problems of my own to worry about: my mother a closet drunk, my father a habitual adulterer and my older sister who'd run off with some loser she'd met at a Grateful Dead show. I really had no clue what I wanted to do with my life. My folks wanted me to go to graduate school, a proposition I dreaded. So realizing that this was likely the last summer break I would ever enjoy, I wished to spend it wisely. I wanted to do something different, to expand my horizons in some endeavor totally out of character, so while flipping through a magazine one morning I got the idea to become a commercial fisherman—at least for the summer anyway.
The next day I searched the help-wanted ads in our town paper, but there were no openings for aspiring watermen. We lived in a small community not far from the river where I knew there were working crab boats that cruised out to the bay. I decided to drive down there and poke around to see if anything would turn up. At school I had grown my hair down to my shoulders which was common enough for young men at that time, but I knew the people in the small riverside village I was about to meet might well have another impression altogether, so it was with some trepidation that I made the visit, intense trepidation, actually.
Here I must take a moment to describe the fishing hamlet. Three hundred years ago a wave of frontier Englishmen traveled north from Jamestown up the Potomac in search of fresh waters and abundant fisheries. Having found them here, they settled along the banks at the mouth of a wide creek and named the place Possum Nose. In 1974, residents of the village were nearly to a person all descendants of those early pioneers. Isolated in their self-sufficient community, they rarely traveled far from home. The only interaction my friends and I ever had with them was in high school where the boys from Possum Nose had a well-deserved reputation as thugs and hooligans. They always traveled in groups, never alone, and if any of them were to enter into a scrape with another boy, the lot of them would descend upon him with the savage fury of a pack of wolves. We soon learned to fear the wild boys of Possum Nose and if possible to keep our distance.
Accessed only by a single road that wound deep into wooded hollows, there were no sidewalks, no new cars in driveways with above ground pools shimmering in back yards above manicured lawns. Here there were grimy trailers and shacks with rusty old pickup trucks parked in front and at least, it seemed to me, two boats per residence. However, they were not the type you may be familiar with, shiny cabin cruisers and sleek runabouts. No, these were flat-bottomed johns and center console v-hulls built to work and pull a meager sustenance from the dark, tidal waters. Though Possum Nose was a mere ten miles from my house, in truth it was a world apart.
I pulled into the gravel lot by the docks around eight AM, an early hour for me, and in retrospect, it was ridiculous, but I actually expected the place to be swarming with salty captains and their brawny crews. What I found was a line of four piers, vacant docks, the fishing crafts having long since departed, most before the day's first light. I parked my mother's Plymouth and surveyed the desolate scene. There stood a row of sheds and barn-like buildings abutting the empty docks, so after a few minutes of collecting my courage I left the car and walked out to them. A rickety boardwalk made more for utility than aesthetics led to the row of shacks and as I trod past their open doors, I spied within them stacks of wire pots, coils of rope and buoys and met the stench of rotting horseshoe crabs, the stuff they often used for bait. Halfway down the walk I was surprised to find a tiny general store with an OPEN sign hung on the door. A tattered and faded rebel flag blew from a post outside. The elderly man behind the counter was startled as I entered, and ogled me as though I had just climbed out of the swamp. I told him I wanted a job on a boat. Reluctantly, he directed me to the Juanita, the only big boat still moored on the wharf. "Jest ask for Donnie," he added as I turned to leave.
I stood on the dock alongside the Juanita for what seemed an eternity. I didn't know the protocol for boarding a craft. There was no door to knock upon, nor a bell to ring, so I stood there for a moment feeling foolish. Before long, I heard rustling in the pilothouse though I saw no one.
"God damn son-of-a-bitch!" a voice thundered from within. "Where'd that dumb-ass leave the key?"
I cleared my throat as loudly as I could to make my presence known, and instantly a head popped up and peered out at me through the grimy window.
"Yeah, what the hell do you want?" The man who barked at me, I was much pleased to note, had long brown hair (much longer even than my own) and bushy sideburns which framed a face not overtly handsome, yet made pleasant by its rugged confidence.
"I'm looking for a job," I said.
His brown eyes scanned me over for a moment and then an odd expression of ridicule formed in his deeply tanned face. A most horrible laughter erupted from the depths of his soul, one both haughty and condescending at the same time. I don't know exactly what it was about my appearance that set him off so, but in those few seconds he summarized my station in life with the pecuniary accuracy of a seasoned bible peddler.
"Son, your daddy aint got enough money to buy you a job on this boat," then he bellowed more of his terrible laughter as I stood there dejected. "Why don't you go on home and git you a job at the country club or somethin'?" His head disappeared again and he commenced to rummaging through his gear. I had never felt the sting of rejection so severely in all my life, but for some reason, I suppose it was something in his manner, that indescribable quality he had, I could not force my feet to carry me away. Minutes passed and I still hadn't moved an inch. I wanted to leave; knew I should leave, but I couldn't. "Ah-ha," I heard him exclaim, "Here they are, that lug-headed turkey!"
His head popped up again and he stepped out of the pilothouse and onto the deck, walking right past me as if I were invisible. He bent to pull open the engine port door and began tinkering with the inboard. I waited. The morning sun was making me sweat already, and then just as I thought I was about to turn to leave he spoke.
"You still here, college boy?"
"Yes," I answered, although he still refused to look at me. How the heck did he know I went to college? I wondered.
"What in hell you want to work a crab boat for?"
"I don't know. I thought it might be interesting."
He laughed his tormenting laugh again. "Oh, it's interesting alright, that's for damn sure!"
He rose to walk past me again, still pretending I was not there. I felt as if I was watching a one man play in some third-rate theatre, only it was audience participation night, and I was playing the role of the dunce. He turned the engine over and it started with a cough. Dark smoke erupted from the engine compartment, and from the stern I heard the churning of water used to cool the engine. He raced back over to the bay and tinkered with something, which made the smoking cease, and the boisterous power plant purred with a throaty hum. He rose again and finally looked me in the eye.
"OK college boy, answer me this. If you was to go for an office job, what'd ya have to do?" His question caught me off guard. I stammered but had no reply. "You'd go for a interview wouldn't ya?"
"Yeah, I suppose so," I conceded. This was the part I was dreading. I had laid awake imagining this trial; being asked to tie some impossible nautical knot or having my hands examined and pronounced as soft as a baby's bottom and unworthy of real work. Instead, my interview went as follows:
"You got any weed on ya?" asked the man. "I sure could use a joint right about now." "No, sorry, I don't smoke the stuff," I lied.
"Ya just passed your interview. I don't want nothin' to do with that fuckin' hippy shit! Cast off them lines and climb aboard."
My dishonesty was a gamble which had paid off, and that's how I got my summer job as a commercial crabber. We set off for the bay, and in a half hour I was learning to pull and set pots. My instructor's directions were harsh, relentless, and generously adorned with expletives and personal insults. I knew next to nothing about boats or crabbing and to a man from Possum Nose that was just about the most pathetic state of being imaginable. I soon grew used to the look of utter disbelief, which overcame his face often as if to lament, "How could anyone be so stupid!" until finally it had no effect on me. Once I got the hang of it though, the work was easy but terribly repetitive and by day's end horribly exhausting. I'd like to tell you I'd relished the romantic sights and sounds of the bay; the salt air and the fickle call of gulls as they hovered over the Juanita, but the truth is the work was so relentless I hardly noticed my surroundings at all.
I recall it was just past noon, after Donnie had ceased cursing me for not knowing port from starboard for the fifth time, that he first mentioned the Mud Rat. At first I had no idea what he was talking about so I simply listened as he rambled on about it, but nothing he said seemed to make any sense to me. Before long, I realized he was talking about a truck, a mud'n truck at that, and the last thing I wanted to do was admit to yet another area of complete vacancy that inhabited my cranium. So, foolishly perhaps, I pretended as if I knew what he was talking about, which only served to egg him on the more.
He droned on about intakes and u-joints and torque ratios, which sounded like some sort of advanced arithmetic. I had no clue what any of it meant so I continued to play along, acting as if I understood and was interested. It was too late now to come clean with him. He went on and on about that truck for the rest of the day, stopping only occasionally to correct whatever boneheaded thing I was doing with his colorful verbiage. The work was so engrossing the hours passed by unnoticed and before I knew it, it was nearly dark, I was sunburned and we were done for the day.
"So ya wanna come over and see it after we unload?" Donnie asked.
"See what?" I wasn't paying attention.
"The Mud Rat, ya lug-head, what the hell ya think?"
"Oh that. Yeah, sure." I had no other plans. Most of my friends were still at school or off working in the city. In truth, I was a little curious to see the machine that so enthralled him. Maybe it was the process of osmosis, but there was something in the way he spoke about it, that intangible, infectious passion that had seeped into me and generated a small but genuine interest.
I followed Donnie to his house, which was not far off and was set back no more than twenty feet from the narrow road that led to the wharf. It was built of concrete block painted lime green, had no landscaping and a lawn composed mostly of weeds and dirt. The driveway was of crushed oyster shells, or had been once long ago, and it curved behind the tiny home to the garage out back that was actually larger than the house proper. All about the yard, if one could call it that, was strewn trucks in various states of disrepair. A huge oak grew in the middle of the clearing and an oily, black engine hung from its lower bough by a noose of rusted chain. I must admit I felt a little uneasy there, the place looked like a junk yard, but the unease I felt at that moment paled to the discomfort I met when I saw the group of ruffians and rednecks amassed outside the double bay awaiting my new boss. There must have been a dozen of them, smoking cigarettes and drinking cans of Black Label, Lynyrd Skynyrd blaring in the background. I worried about the reception I might receive.
Donnie was already inside looking over the Rat when I parked, and I sat there for a moment watching as the men greeted him with hearty laughter and a reverence that bordered on worship. They were dressed in overalls and fishing boots. Many were shirtless in the summer heat, tattoos glimmering under a greasy film of sweat and dirt. Their faces turned sour as I approached the garage and to my dismay, I noticed one of them was Clem Davis, a boy I had gone to high school with. I hoped he wouldn't give me up. He glared at me with narrowed eyes as the others fell silent. I stood there awkwardly just as my eyes fixed on the behemoth truck within the shed.
"Boys, this is my new hand," Donnie said. "Don't know his name yet, I call him College Boy. He's a dumb-shit, but I'm workin' on him." A few of them managed to chuckle. "Here College Boy, have a beer!" He reached into an ice-filled cooler and tossed me a can.
"Hey," I said sheepishly to the men with an awkward raise of my hand. A few of them mumbled a word or two, but my reception was a resounding dud. It is my belief, well founded I think, that had I arrived there in the company of anyone of lesser stature than Donnie Shifflet, I would have been greeted in a much less hospitable manner. I pulled off the tab of the can, which popped and sprayed a bit of foam. Maybe it was because I was dying of thirst from the heat or the fact that I was dead tired, but that cheap beer was the coldest and the best I ever tasted.
Eventually, things returned to normal among them, their awkward stares curtailed and I blended into the background as best I could, quietly observing as the group of men conversed in their thick, twangy accents, which only grew thicker and twangier the more, they drank. They spoke of boats and crabbing, and of the buxom women they lusted after. Several of them were busy with Donnie working on the truck.
After twenty minutes, I was ready to leave. No one had said a word to me and I was hot and tired and voraciously hungry, the sort of hunger which only comes from hard labor. Just then, Clem walked over and stood before me. He was a big kid, with sandy brown hair cropped short and piercing blue eyes.
"Don't I know you from high school?" he asked with those squinted, unfriendly eyes.
"Yep," I replied, hoping he wouldn't hold it against me, but to my surprise he reached out a bulky hand and we shook like old friends. We stood there talking for an hour or so and over that time, I came to learn the legend of the Mud Rat. We walked over to it and he described its many wonders and innovations. The truck was even bigger up close. The floorboard was nearly over my head and the tires came up to my chest. They were forty-four inch tractor tires, something no one had ever tried before. The truck had been built from the ground up for its sole purpose—to run through mud. Donnie had paid a fortune for a Corvette 427 engine and mounted it to the old frame of a Blazer four-by-four. The body was a '65 Chevy, beautifully painted a dark metallic brown with a red lettered moniker. He built it three years ago in pursuit of the county championship, his great quest and deepest desire. The first year he'd come in fifth in the standings due to engine problems and too much weight on the chassis, but last season he'd finished a promising second. After spending the winter making more modifications, it was his great hope and the hope of all Possum Nose that this year he might win it all. The county fair was held at the end of August, a perfect ending to a long summer, so with only three months left to prepare, Donnie and the boys would have to work feverishly to have her ready for the contest.
When I came home later that night, my mother asked me to sit down at the kitchen table while she warmed a plate of food for me. It was late and long past dinnertime. I did as she asked while she busied herself with the food and asked about my day. I recall telling her about my unusual boss and his boat, but beyond that, I have no recollection—I had fallen asleep at the kitchen table and my father had carried me to bed. The next day the alarm clock woke me at five thirty, an hour I found absurdly early, but with the help of my mother, I was at the wharf with a full belly before six thirty, my arranged start time on the Juanita.
That day and those that followed throughout the summer passed much in this same fashion; I rose before dawn, crabbed the bay till dusk and then hung out with the men of Possum Nose until late at night. We worked in all weather, Donnie and me, rain, sun or heat. He paid me cash each Saturday (we worked six days a week with no overtime) and each night we'd drink beer while the boys worked on the Mud Rat. By mid-summer, I felt almost a part of them. They had adopted me, it seemed, the poor, ignorant College Boy, as one of their own. During that time, I gained a certain respect for those simple but deceptively wise folk. True, they were ill mannered and poorly educated, but once you came to know them, they revealed a deep-seated kindness inherent within them and an unwavering devotion to one another.
One evening I dragged my tired feet into my parent's home and while my mother fixed a late night dinner for me I noticed on the table a stack of papers and a form with a pen beside it. It was an application to graduate school.
"I don't know, Mom," I protested. "I don't think I want to go."
"So what are you going to do with yourself?" she snapped, "work on that silly boat for the rest of your life?"
I had no response. The summer was flying by and I hadn't really given it any thought. Since I had no other plan, and to be honest I was too tired to argue, I filled out the form and went to bed.
The next day it rained from dawn to dusk so I took shelter within the pilothouse on our way out to the pots. It was my first time riding alongside Donnie in the cabin; I usually made the trip on deck enjoying the scenery. Between my chair and the captain's was a small storage compartment with the door open. I could see it was full of gear and I noticed an odd metal object that looked like a big steel ball sitting half concealed beneath a tarp.
"Hey, what's that thing?" I asked.
"Oh that? Just a little somethin' I brought back from Nam." I was shocked at the revelation. I had no idea Donnie had been to Vietnam.
"You were in the war?" I asked incredulously.
"Yep, I volunteered," he affirmed. "I figured this was my war, just like my daddy had his, so I might as well go get it the hell over with. Went into the Navy. They put me on one of them little plastic riverboats. Man we shot the hell outa that place." I listened intently as his eyes lit up. "See, them little bastards would lay these mines in the water so as to blow us up. I lost a friend that way. Pretty soon we figured how to find 'em first, and then we'd rearm 'em and put 'em back where they wouldn't expect it. Shit, you know what happens when one of them sampans hits one of these?" He laughed sinisterly.
"I can imagine," I said.
"Aint nothin' left but splinters!"
Now I was against the war as much as anyone at that time, but I had to admire his bravery. It was then I knew he had me. I had become his disciple.
The summer wound on and I grew muscled and tanned. It actually occurred to me at one point that my mother's rhetorical question was not that absurd after all. I could have stayed on that silly boat for the rest of my life. It was hard, honest work—the kind you felt good about when you dragged your lifeless body to bed at night. Before I knew it, the County Fair was upon us, we loaded the Mud Rat onto a flatbed trailer used to haul construction equipment, and I joined a caravan of Possum Nose men in pickups out to the fairgrounds.
Now most stories worth recounting have a protagonist and an adversary who come to odds in some great struggle whereby the champion inevitably prevails and in so doing reaffirms our fragile belief in good over evil, but this is not that type of story. My boss, Donnie Shifflet, in so much as he was capable, is in fact the protagonist of this tale, but his adversary, a man by the name of Hoss Wagoner was no evildoer. Hoss was just another crab boat captain from a town down river who had won the Mud Bog three years running. He was a family man with a wife and kids, and his truck, the Grave Digger, was the meanest machine in the Tidewater and the bane of Donnie Shifflet.
It was Hoss that Donnie would have to beat if he wanted to win the county championship. The competition spanned five days, the race being the main event of the county fair, and ran under lights from eight to ten at night. The bog was one hundred-fifty feet of Virginia red clay, tilled three feet deep and let to soak for a week. If you stepped in it, it could easily come up to your waist. Whoever won the most rounds by going the farthest in the shortest amount of time was the winner. After the fourth night, it was plain that Donnie was going to come in second place again this year, second to Hoss, and he was none too pleased about it.
The final match occurred under a cloudless, sweltering hot night. The bleachers had been full all week, but the crowd that night was so huge there was standing room only, and not much of that. People lined the fence all around the track and stood on a hill behind the bleachers. There were throngs everywhere as far as the eye could see. As a special favor to me, Donnie made me a part of his crew for his final run, which meant I was allowed to go down on the track and act as if I had something important to do. Looking up into the crowd under the blazing lights, I listened as the announcer introduced my hero. His engine roared, almost drowning out the thunderous applause of the audience. In the air, the smell of exhaust fumes, corndogs and cotton candy all meshed into a delicious motorized olfactory bouquet.
The other trucks tried their best but none of them made it through the bog. Watching the rigs get pulled out was a laugh, because race rules forced drivers to get in the mud themselves and attach the tow cables or face disqualification. When it was time for the Mud Rat to run, the crowd clamored wildly. The green flag waved and Donnie slammed the gas pedal to the floor. The Rat's powerful engine screamed and when the tractor tires bit into the mud they sent a shower of muck fifty feet into the air. The crowd went wild as Donnie made his best run of the season, hitting the ruts just right and keeping the tires on the surface to increase his speed. He raced the length of bog in record time on a track that few even finished. Even mud-spattered I couldn't contain my joy. I jumped up and down in celebration and turned to admire the raucous crowd as they cheered. I noticed a girl I had dated in high school in the bleachers. She looked directly at me so I waved to her, but she simply rolled her eyes in disgust and turned her head the other way. My transformation was complete; she hadn't even recognized me.
The Grave Digger had won three of the four previous races so even with Donnie's record setting time there was no way he could win the championship, that is unless Hoss Wagoner did not race. The rules stated that a driver had to compete in all five races to win the championship. As fate would have it, Hoss did not show that night and Donnie finally won his much-desired title and all bragging rights which accompanied it. The crowd was filing out as he mounted the tiny stage and received his prize money (I think it was two hundred dollars) as well as a cheap plastic trophy to remember the occasion by in his later years. We stayed there long after the crowd had left, receiving congratulations from the other drivers and all of us wondering what had become of Hoss. I was so happy for my friend and mentor I could have busted, but when I finally had a chance to speak to him, he was oddly somber.
"So what now Captain? Should we take the Rat to Richmond and win the state championship?"
"Nah," he said, "I done what I set out for. I'm finished!"
Later that night he sold the truck for fifteen hundred dollars, a fraction of what he'd invested, not counting the hundreds of hours of labor he'd put in it. I drove home dumbstruck and shattered.
The next day, Sunday, my one and only day off, I awoke late and reanimated with a cup of coffee. My folks had slept in as well and were only just beginning their morning routine. I stepped outside to get the paper laying in the driveway and the thick, humid air engulfed me like a sauna. The morning sun was blazing and a cacophony of cicadas emanated from the verdant tree tops rejoicing in the zenith of summer. It felt like diving into a cold pool as I reentered the air conditioning, yielding the paper to my half asleep father. He was paying for it, so naturally he had first dibs. I sat down to a bowl of cereal as my mother busied herself with the eggs and ham.
"My Lord," father exclaimed, "on the front page it says that man Hoss Wagoner is missing with his boat. They're dragging the bay for his body. Some kind of freak accident."
My spoon fell into the bowl with a splash of milk.
"Wasn't that the man who was driving the Grave Digger son?"
Father was correct, but I never answered that question. I never told him anything about it. Later that day they found the corpse, only his fate was no accident. Yes, it was I who helped Donnie lay the mine beside one of Mr. Wagoner's pots that awful day before the final run. He had assured me it would only put a small hole in the hull, delaying Hoss just enough so he would miss the race. Somehow I convinced myself to believe him. I never even questioned it.
That fall I went to grad school like my mother wanted, then later to law school and eventually became a defense attorney. I heard Donnie Shifflet became a guide to fat, rich men seeking trophy fish. I never went back to Possum Nose.
BIO: John Aleknavage is a small business owner who resides in the tidewater of Virginia. His writing has been featured in the Greensilk Journal, Gryphonwood and in the forthcoming anthology Legends and Fables printed by Gallery Seven Books.