- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 29, 2003

CRISFIELD, Md. — Binky Dize has a story to tell. Now he has an audience to hear it.

“My daddy, when I weren’t big as a minute, he always told me — he said, ‘Don’t ever be afraid of the water, but respect it.’ I tried to.”

So begins the story of Mr. Dize, a 67-year-old Crisfield waterman whose family dates to the 1600s on nearby Smith Island.

The Library of Congress sent researchers last week to collect stories from Mr. Dize and other longtime Crisfield residents, children and community leaders. The Smithsonian Institution will use part of the exhibit in next year’s National Folklife Festival, held on the National Mall.

Crisfield is one of about 15 communities to be featured in the Smithsonian’s 2004 festival, “Mid-Atlantic Maritime Culture,” said Betty Belanus, the program’s curator. It’s the first time Library of Congress folklorists, who are cooperating with the Smithsonian, have worked in Maryland.

“Crisfield has had a lot of changes in the last couple of generations, with the decline of commercial fishing and new people moving in, and some of the fish-processing industries moving out,” said Miss Belanus, also an education specialist for the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

“These are communities that are on the verge of losing some of their traditions,” she said.

Crisfield, with its own heritage foundation and museum, is trying to preserve its 340-year-old history while looking toward economic rebirth. The tiny town at the end of State Route 413, more than a two-hour drive from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, may soon be welcoming a fast ferry service connection to Reedville, Va., that would expose it to the world.

Mr. Dize enjoyed the attention from the researchers and quickly settled into the interview last week, adjusting his dirty billed cap and leaning back on a bench in the comfortable shade just feet from the Chesapeake Bay. Researchers from the Library of Congress’ Folklife Field School sat on the opposite side of a picnic table, a microphone perched between them.

They asked him what being a waterman meant to him.

“I wouldn’t trade it for nothing in the world,” Mr. Dize said. “It is the best life I can possibly think of.”

Pointing toward the Bay, he tried to put into words what he loved about the water.

“Have you ever been out on the water before the sun comes up? The water, there’s not a ripple. It’s like a mirror, and then you see the sun peeking up.”

The researchers are quiet when he adds, in a whisper: “And there’s nothing else like it in the whole wide world.”

Mr. Dize has been a waterman long enough to remember when boaters didn’t have radios on board in case of trouble. “If we got in trouble, we waited for somebody to miss us and come looking for us,” he said.

“Our kind of work is dangerous,” Mr. Dize said. “We’re out in all kinds of weather. Whether it’s raining or sunny, or a foggy day or a blowing day — or whatever kind of day it is — we went anyway.”

Mr. Dize, 5 years old at the time, stood on a box so he could see over the wheel. His father taught him how to steer, and Mr. Dize dreamed he was on a luxury liner.

He still works as a crabber, but he also volunteers at the Crisfield Heritage Foundation, telling tourists about life as a waterman. He thinks it’s important to share the stories of Crisfield and Smith Island, he said, even though he sometimes struggles to articulate the value of his heritage.

His only regret is not getting more education, he said. He is grateful he never had to leave the water, because he doesn’t have the skills to get what he calls a “j-o-b.”

“The first thing they’re going to ask me is, what can I do? What am I going to put down on that piece of paper? Nothing. ‘Cause I don’t know how to do nothing.”

Mr. Dize didn’t leave Smith Island, a collection of low-lying islands 12 miles into the Chesapeake Bay, until 10 years ago, when his wife became sick and needed to see doctors and stay in a hospital.

He still calls Smith Island home and said he likes Crisfield because the people here are just like those with whom he grew up. He returns often to the island, which is accessible by only boat.

“These communities need their traditions acknowledged,” said Wendy Clupper, a student of the Folklife Field School who interviewed Mr. Dize. “They’re giving a voice to a community, and they’re doing it on a national stage.”

Besides photos of Mr. Dize and other subjects, the field school researchers recorded their interviews.

“What we’re doing represents a snapshot of time, of right now, that we think will be useful,” said David Taylor, a folklife specialist with the Library of Congress who helped organize the field school.

Researchers also hope their work will give Crisfield preservationists an outside perspective, a new lens with which to view their history, they said.

Mr. Dize shrugged off suggestions that he is now part of history, something he always has thought of as precious writings pressed into a family Bible.

But if he can, he said, he wants to let Crisfield’s future families know “how we lived and how we survived — the good times and the bad.”

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