The Bayman
A Life on Barnegat Bay

by Merce Ridgway

222 pages, 23 chapters,
38 photographs, index.
$24.95 hardcover
ISBN 0-945582-62-5
excerpts

review

description


‘The Bayman’: Sensitive and Memorable

This review appeared in The Beachcomber, 8/04/00, and is reprinted with permission. ©2000 Jersey Shore Newsmagazines. It is reprinted in its entirety.

By JUSTIN ALAIN

During the ’50s and ’60s, when I was a suburban Philadelphia kid fortunate enough to summer at the Jersey Shore, I wondered about the lives of the people around me who worked while I played, and didn’t return “home” after Labor Day weekend, because the shore was their home. Having grown up in a family with local ties in past generations, I was curious about the lifestyles of Island residents in those bygone days portrayed mutely in sepia-tone photographs of familiar places.
This past year, I returned to the Jersey Shore for my first visit in a quarter century, having moved to the West Coast as a young man. In June, I celebrated my birthday at the Surf City Hotel with LBI friends — one of whom, knowing my penchant for local history and culture, presented me with a copy of Down The Shore Publishing’s newest offering,The Bayman: A Life on Barnegat Bay .

Its author, Merce Ridgway, is the genuine article; a Renaissance Man of the Pine Barrens, wetlands, and local waterways. Born into the life of a bayman —rough translation: one whose livelihood was sustained by harvesting the bounty of the bay and the resources of the lands around it — he learned and grew at the feet of his father, an equally remarkable man who, despite the rigors of the bayman’s life and the responsibilities of paterfamilias, still found time to distinguish himself as a local musician sufficiently enough to represent New Jersey at the National Folk Festival in 1941, the year of our author’s birth.

Merce’s formative years encompassed the twilight of that now-vanished era when “the boats were of wood and the men were of iron,” and the Jersey Shore was still first-and-foremost a life-sustaining natural resource for its permanent inhabitants; and only secondarily a vacation resort for my forbears and other city slickers eager to escape the heat and luxuriate in the sea breezes and salt air of South Jersey’s pristine shoreline.

Boatbuilder, fisherman, shellfisherman, hunter, woodsman, naturalist, ecologist, environmentalist, historian, homespun philosopher, folk musician in the tradition of his father, outspoken critic of ham-handed bureaucracy, devoted family man, and first director of the Pinelands Cultural Society — the author recounts a life and a life-style, an era and a heritage, with that rare, eminently readable combination of rich, colorful detail and plain-spoken brevity. In just over two hundred pages, which seem to slip by far too quickly, he left me charmed by his sensitivity and memory for detail; and at the same time, educated, engaged, and well-informed about an ecosystem ravaged by encroachment and pollution; and a folk culture subverted by all that passes for progress in these times when the region is so readily accessible from anywhere as to be irresistible to throngs of carefree vacationers as unaware of the “real” Jersey Shore as I was during the summers of my youth.

The Bayman provided an enthralling diversion from the monotony of the 5 1/2 hour flight home to San Francisco following my June visit to LBI. Indeed, as I became absorbed, it transported me from seat-belted confinement to a guided tour of the gorgeous locale I’d just left behind; plus an intimate glimpse into that life-style which I was vaguely aware was happening around me during those seashore summers long ago.

Beginning appropriately with vignettes from a childhood more closely resembling Tom Sawyer’s than mine, Merce’s “tour” continues with the celebration of his father and other legendary baymen who shaped and inspired his own life; and of the various forms of marine life from which they earned their livelihood.

Merce introduces us to the evolution and construction of the Barnegat Bay garvey — those distinctive, traditional homemade wooden workboats all the baymen captained — and of their navigation in all kinds of weather.
Though seriously educational, his crash-course in the lay of the land, the environment, the encroachment of developers, and the often misguided policies of government “experts” reads as easily as a yarn heard over softshell crab sandwiches while catfishing in the moonlight.

Having brought his reader up to speed about his concerns for the future, and the lifetime of firsthand knowledge which has prompted them, the author takes us home with him and offers up a potpourri of traditional recipes, song lyrics, and tales of the manmade “treasures” he’s plucked from the bay. (He particularly cherishes the stone tools he’s occasionally dredged up, which he believes to have been the possessions of his Lenape Indian ancestors.) Taking a break from his duties as host, he cedes the “floor” to his wife, Arlene, who details a family tree which traces its European-descended roots in New Jersey back to the 17th century.

This slim volume is a happy example of the absence of literary polish working in the author’s favor. Too often, privileged glimpses into regional Americana are presented to the reader “as told to” a journalist, with the inevitable loss of reality in the translation. Not so The Bayman. Its workmanlike, conversational intimacy is exactly what allows it to read so well. Merce Ridgway’s loving memoir offers a footnote or two for each of a hundred different interests; and enough charm, wit, and warmth to draw its readers into the whole story, no matter which specific facets might originally have piqued their curiosity.

Justin Alain is a native Mississippian who grew up in suburban Philadelphia and the Jersey Shore. A San Francisco resident for most of his adult life, he is a freelance writer, historian, bibliophile and vintage car collector.

 

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