Helen Chappell - July 2010


Helen Chappell


“No, you turn the wheel, then turn the truck around. Hello, Helen? This’s Mark. We got the truck jackknifed, hold on. Listen, you wanna go to Petersburg tonight? To Dill’s Livestock Auction? Meet me at the Pincushion at a quarter ‘til four. I gotta get off work, get cleaned up. I’ll meet you there.”
“Hey, Helen. This is Mark again. If you can’t come, call me on my cell phone.”
So, there I was on a fine spring evening, sitting at the Pincushion when my friend Mark Connolly pulled up in a beater pickup, loaded down with strange odds and ends of galvanized piping and other esoteric stuff.
“It’s the farm truck,” he grinned. “You ready for a low end experience?”
I am not only always ready for a low end experience, I am eternally ready to go anywhere with a good-looking guy with a pickup truck and a mission. This is the Eastern Shore. I cover the waterfront. This is my life and my beat, but when it comes down to the truly arcane, Mark has it all over me and he knows it.
“That’s some pieces of a grain grinder,” he tells me as I examine what looks like a dismembered Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz back in the flatbed. “I’m gonna auction it up there. Come on, let’s go.”
I climb into the passenger seat. Mark puts on his shades, shifts into gear and off we go, roaring up the road in a cloud of the kind of dust and exhaust you can only get from a genuine farm truck. It’s a beater so old and ridden so hard and put away wet so many times it smells faintly of mildew and old lube oil.
“Your brother Curt was by earlier today, and I asked him what to wear to a livestock auction, and he said, ‘don’t wear sandals,’” I tell Mark as we roll through rush hour Easton and out the Cordova Road.
Mark grins the grin of the initiated. “We’re gonna fit right in, Helen,” he tells me, approving of my jeans, skank tank and sturdy shoes. “You’re gonna love this. The people watching is great.”
The sun is drifting lower in the sky as we ride through small towns. Queen Anne and Hillsboro fly past us, drowsing in the late afternoon sun, and we cross the river, on through Ridgely, then I’m sort of lost on roads I’ve never taken, past places only vaguely recalled from another lifetime. Up here the towns grow further apart, and the open fields, ploughed up and waiting for corn and soybeans and milo, grow larger and wider until they stretch to the horizon without a house in sight.
Forsythia blooms in people’s yards, and small kids on plastic trikes stare absently at us as we roll up the road, through Greensboro and Goldsboro. Up here, the Choptank is so narrow you could toss an oyster shell from bank to bank, and the teenage girls roam the afternoon streets, pushing their babies along in bright plastic strollers, staring at tan, blond Mark as if he’s fresh meat.
“Helen, I can promise you, you’ve never seen anything like this,” my friend tells me. Mark’s roots are deep in this region, much deeper than mine, and his kinship ties far more complex and netted. Land and family, and family and land; these bonds own him here. He’s comfortable in his own skin here. What knits our friendship is an abiding love of this place.
We stop at Cindy’s outside of Oil City and get a seven-course meal; a six-pack and a sub, check the cargo and move on.
We pass a great-uncle’s farm, talk about a brother who works for Perdue, an uncle in the tire business. He points out fields that belong to cousins and step-relations and more uncles. Mark wanted to be a farmer; the land is in his blood. He’s a waterman now, and a caretaker, and a diesel mechanic and a lot of other things. Like most watermen, Mark knows how to do a lot of different things. He’s never still, always working, always busy doing something. He seems to be incapable of stillness or indolence. Unlike me.
Mark and I never run out of stuff to talk about. On the Eastern Shore, the old Shore, the ability to tell a story, and tell it well, is a prized talent. I really try very hard to shut up and listen, because I like to hear Mark tell stories and talk about his life, which has been an interesting one.
As the land slowly begins to wrinkle, then roll, then turn into hillocks and freshwater streams and old growth forest bright green with spring leaves, we talk about his big garden, about his boats, his clam rig, his rents.
We talk about the netting he and Curt did early in the spring and the plans he has to build a house and plant fruit trees and nut trees. The guinea hens he used to own. The chickens he owns now, that free range over the farm where he lives, and how they lay wonderful, delicious eggs that don’t taste like store eggs. Mark and I talk about when he was up in Rock Hall, oystering, and we talk about how we both like Rock Hall, his hitch in the Navy and all kinds of stuff.
Meanwhile, the houses get shabbier, and the kids get dirtier and people stare at us for being foreigners, from away, and the landscape gets more beaten down and turns to pine barrens and old growth and isolation. And somewhere along the line, Maryland 287 turns into Delaware 10, past the rusted iron gates of Mt. Olive Cemetery and I have no idea where the hell we are.
“I could live up here,” he says of the Sandtown-Petersburg territory, and I understand what he means. Away from strip malls and housing developments and encroaching civilization and strangling order.
A few more miles, and Mark brakes. “See that?” he asks, pointing to a road sign.
“You couldn’t make that up!” He is clearly delighted, hanging a left as we bounce down a rutty road. “Hollering Hill Road in Sandtown, Delaware, Helen!”
The sign says Dill’s Auction Service. I think. It’s kind of weather-beaten.
We are there.
Later I will find out that the business is owned by Mr. Gene Dill, who sits on the Board of the Delaware State Fair. But, right now, what I see is a weather-beaten old barn, a house or two, a paddock with some horses and a mule and a lot of old lead sleds and pickups. And a lot of carb-craving folks sort of milling around, the way people mill when they’re waiting for something to happen. Like a riot or an auction or the food to be put on the table.
We’re here. Oh, are we here. It’s everything Mark promised and then some. Mark never lets me down on things like this.
I look over at the paddock and see a horse, lying on its side, all four legs stretched out straight. I wonder if it’s in rigor mortis, but before I can say anything, Mark tells me, “I think that horse is asleep.”
It occurs to me that he’s trying to spare my delicate sensibilities, even though he knows me well enough by now to know I have no delicate sensibilities.
Mark pulls the truck into a line of similarly hard luck pickups, right beside the biggest pile of rusty old junk I’ve seen in a long, long time.
“I’ll take care of bidness, you can go take a look around,” my friend commands me.
I do as bidden, and take a walk. Around the front of the barn, a couple of hard-bitten old women with support hose rolled down around their ankles are sitting in yard chairs, eyeing the passersby as if waiting for someone to look at them cross-eyed. That someone is not me. Nor am I especially interested in the beery old guys next to the snack stand who want me to know they think I have a nice rack. I avoid the zitty young man who wants to sell me a mangy-looking pit bull puppy and find an entrance into the barn.
The smell of livestock and poultry hangs heavily in the air. It’s a smell I like. It reminds me of my childhood on a farm, when my father raised Herefords. I’ve always liked the hay and manure and machinery smell of barns.
It’s sure an interesting crowd in there, too. Many, many large, pale people strolling around in Metallica t-shirts and overalls, and Harley-Davidson tattoos, looking at poultry in the stacked wire cages. I avoid human eye contact as I stroll along assessing the avia. The sullen beady glare of nasty-tempered geese is plenty for me.
There are pigeons and doves, guinea hens, Yokohamas, Rhode Island reds, aracunas, buffs, Plymouths, so many kinds of chickens, even a set of peafowl. I consider chickens, remembering how I used to have a few way back when, and how a weasel picked them off before I could pick him off, and how that was the end of my chicken keeping.
I’d sort of like some guinea hens, but I’ve been told if I come home with something that noisy, I’d better be prepared to pack up my stuff that very night. Guinea hens eat ticks. Peafowl can take a liking to you and follow you around, waiting patiently by the back door if you go into the house, admiring their own reflections in the glass.
I watch an Amish guy smoking a cigarette, which he knows I know is not what Old Order Amish are supposed to be doing, even when they are out among the English.
Then I climb the rickety stairs to a gallery overlooking the animal pens.
A thin light, filtered through the ancient dust, casts a golden painterly light across the scene below me. Black Angus calves are herded into one pen. In another are goats. Sheep are herded down the narrow chute by two teenagers, and into an enclosed area where a prospective buyer or two studies them with interest.
From up in the gallery, I might be looking at a Rosa Bonheur painting. Or I might be in a William Faulkner novel. Or, looking at my fellow humans, I might be on the boardwalk in Ocean City. Or on a literal cattle call for a living nativity pageant. Everyone’s here but the Elko Everlite Xmas Holy Family, and they might be downstairs in the yard sale stuff.
“Having fun?” Mark joins me in the gallery. He offers me warm peanuts from a bag. We chew and stare for a while. “See those Amish, Helen? I’d like to live like that. Keep everything simple.”
I think about my Amish grandfather, and almost say, no, it’s much, much more complicated than you think, being Amish, but don’t say it out loud. Instead I say, “Do you think if I bought that little Guernsey calf, I could keep it out on your farm, if I took care of it myself?”
“No,” Mark replies matter-of-factly. “Let’s go look at the pigs.”
And the pigs are, of course, darling. I already know pigs are both smart and clean, but I like to hear Mark tell me these things as we pass between the pens where the little porkers snuffle at us. Mark feeds them peanuts. I want one of them to take home, too. Let it grow to be a one-ton sow and sic it on those who annoy me. Here comes Helen and her irritable pig ... yeah!
“They make good eatin’ at that size,” a teenage swineherd in a Skoal t-shirt tells us. And, of course, it’s true. They are the perfect size for a pig pickin’. And I do love a pig pickin’.
As we review the chickens again, we run into a friend of Mark’s. “I’m not here for me,” he tells us. “My wife and daughter raise these chickens.” He indicates the woman and child with him.
As Mark and his friend talk man talk, the wife and I grin at each other, then burst out laughing. We both know what the other is thinking, and we’re both thinking the same thing. Men. Another kind of livestock entirely.
“About ready, Helen?” Mark asks me after a while.
As we walk around the building, two very large, very butch women back a camper truck up to the livestock barn. The larger and more masculine of the two women reaches into the camper, and with the same ease I’d pick up a book, hefts a squalling full-grown sheep down to her partner, who hands it off with equal ease. The first hammer hasn’t come down yet, but suddenly, I’m ready to rock and roll.
“You know,” I tell Mark as we find the truck, “I think what we need to really fit in here are some tattoos.”
“Let’s go home, Helen,” Mark sighs.

Jim Crothers contributed to the background research in this report, but all mistakes are the author’s.
Dill’s Auction Service, 501 Hollering Hill Road, Wyoming, De.