Misspent Youth: Kent Island Memories

What with the holiday and all, I don’t have time this week to do the background research for the scheduled article. So instead, another Special Article Day. This time, I’d like to try out some rambling about something more personal. I’d intended to go somewhere specific with this, but I got halfway through and decided it was better as a more philosophical meander. If you like this sort of thing, I’ll try to do more in the future.

Chesapeake Bay Bridge
It has been a quiet week on Kent Island, my home town. I guess. I don’t really know. But it’s pretty much always a quiet week on Kent Island. The Long & Foster at the Thompson Creek shopping center is running a Toys For Tots drive through December 18. Veteran’s Day events were held at the local middle school and two of the three local elementary schools, including the one which existed at the murky dawn of time when I was in elementary school.

My relationship with my home town is a little bit fraught. On paper, Kent Island sounds like it could be one of those neat old quirky backwards little communities full of local color, but anywhere can seem boring if you’re living in it unless you’re the right sort of person, which I wasn’t. Besides, I lived on the south side of the island, which put seven miles of residential neighborhoods and farmland between me and what passed for civilization, so all those fun adventures you hear about kids having in quirky backwards little communities were sort of off the table, since even the playground was about 40 minutes away by bike, if your mom even let you bike on the Big Road, which she really shouldn’t because it’s incredibly dangerous. The bike path that ran parallel wasn’t added until the 21st century. If you were a little older, of course, you could drive to town, where, I am told, the major pastime of young people was smoking backs of pick-up trucks in the parking lot of the Acme, the island’s only grocery store, located next to the island’s only fast food joint, a Hardee’s, and the island’s only pizza place, a Pizza Hut that was run by the family of the girl I went to prom with.

Kent Island was first seen by the early explorers of the Chesapeake bay in the 16th century, unless you count its discovery by the indigenous Matapeake tribe twelve thousand years earlier, which those intrepid 16th century explorers didn’t. In 1631, William Claiborne established the first permanent European settlement on the island, which he named for his own hometown of Kent, England. It was the first permanent settlement within the borders of the present-day state of Maryland, though (and this will get you extra credit in fifth grade social studies), not the first permanent settlement in Maryland (That’s St. Mary’s City, est. 1634): Kent Island was considered part of Virginia Colony until 1658, and Virginia didn’t give up its official claim to the island until the revolution. The original settlement no longer exists, on account of the ground it stood on no longer existing, on account of the island’s habit of occasionally losing bits around the edges to hurricanes.

Traditionally a farming and fishing community, the island became a transport hub in the middle of the nineteenth century with the building of a causeway and later a railroad bridge across the Kent Narrows (A tiny little waterway leading to the Eastern Bay, which makes Kent Island an actual Island, unlike the nearby and geographically similar peninsula of St. Michaels) to the Eastern Shore. Convenient to Baltimore and Annapolis by water, the town of Stevensville was founded in 1850 to serve as a steamboat terminus, displacing the older town of Broad Creek, now extinct. The unincorporated town of Stevensville is now the most populous Census Designated place in Queen Anne’s County. In my time, its official limits contained virtually all of the island’s commerce and retail. Beyond its official limits, its ZIP code, 21666, services the bulk of the island. The neighboring unincorporated town of Chester, 21219, seems like it’s where most of the commercial growth has been in the twenty-first century, the other side of the island being, y’know, full.

Kent Island, MD

Kindly ignore the horrorshow that is my thumbnail. I damaged my cuticle.

Viewed from the air, Kent Island vaguely resembles a crude, weathered drawing of a mittened right hand on its side, fingers pointed south. Stevensville proper occupies the end of the metacarpals, Chester the base of the thumb. I grew up somewhere along the second finger-joint.

My parents moved to Kent Island in February of 1979, part of the leading edge of a wave of migration touched off by the addition of a second span to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in 1973. That wave would eventually see the island transformed into an exurb for the Baltimore-Washington corridor, but back when they moved, there were maybe nine houses on their quarter-mile street, which now has, I think, twenty-two. My parents didn’t have family or friends in the area, and aren’t especially outgoing to begin with, and I’m no better. Besides, they were city folk and not especially attuned to whatever excitement there was to be had with country living. The only really geographically grounded stuff I remember from my childhood was going for explores in the woods behind our house. Dad found a nineteenth century midden once. I found a little lea full of shrubs that looked like foot-tall Christmas trees. The woods are gone now, cut down for wood around the turn of the century. The scrub that replaced them went up in a 7-alarm fire back in 2012 and nearly burned my parents’ house down due to Kids These Days smoking pot back there during a drought.

Things from my childhood being gone is basically the story of going back to my home town now. I imagine it’s the same for everyone. I went off to college in 1997, and spent about nine more months living total over the course of the next four years until I bought my first home in 2001. Things had changed a great deal over the course of my life there, of course, but it had always felt predominantly constructive rather than destructive. The overpass on MD-8 that eliminated the traffic signal at US-50/301 and made it so that a trip to the grocery store during beach season wasn’t an all-day affair. The “new” shopping center in Chester, with the island’s second grocery store, a Safeway. The new “new” shopping center at Thompson Creek with the island’s third grocery store, a Food Lion. The industrial park at the end of Main Street where the Paul Reed Smith factory is, identifiable by the large water tower the kids nicknamed “The Eiffel Onion” for its distinctive spheroid shapeonion. The first big-box store, that made it possible to buy home goods without crossing the bridge. The McDonalds. The Burger King. The first non-chain pizzeria, whose phone number I can still remember. The Friendly Computer Store, where my 486 came from, located above the Friendly Chinese Take-Out in the building behind the Friendly Gas Station. The evangelical Christian video arcade (Basically an ordinary video arcade, with the implicit mission to give kids a more wholesome zombie-shooting-based alternative to smoking in the Acme parking lot). The evangelical Christian ’50s-style malt shop (“JitTterbugs”). The public library branch, where my sister’s mother-in-law works. The new elementary school. The new new elementary school. The gourmet carry-out and gas station.

Abandoned Stevensville Acme Market.The Acme closed in November, 2012. The building is currently unoccupied. The hardware store that had taken over their previous location (and for that reason, had an otherwise inexplicable supermarket-style airlock foyer) moved out, that entire strip mall having priced itself most of the way out of business by undergoing an expensive renovation right before the anchor store closed. The Safeway built a new store which seems perfectly normal to me, but my dad still speaks of it in hushed, reverent tones as though it’s some kind of grocery Mecca. My dad, of course, has lived on Kent Island since long before it was perfectly normal for supermarkets to be that big or carry exotic, otherworldly produce like Swiss Chard or Chayotes. They tore down the McDonalds and built a bigger one. The gas station still exists, but it’s neither a Chinese carry-out nor a computer store any more. The independent pizza place and its entire strip-mall was bulldozed in favor of a Cracker Barrel. The motel that used to stand at the intersection of MD-8 and US-50/301 didn’t survive the loss of the intersection. It stood abandoned for a decade then turned into a Park-and-Ride.

Chesapeake Bay Model

We’d always assumed they moved the model out when it was shut down. But the model itself was made of concrete and effectively part of the floor. Had I know, I think I would have broken in to take a look at it at some point, rather than just wandering around the outside that one time until I saw a spider as big as my fist and ran away in terror.

The Bay Model, an enormous scale model of the Chesapeake Bay for scientific research, had been closed ever since computers rendered it obsolete in 1981. The building collapsed from storm damage in 2006 and is a business park now. The Pac-Man tree, a big tree by the side of MD-8 that had been distinctively groomed to accommodate overhead power lines, fell down in a storm. An ancient abandoned store on Batts Neck Road, which had probably shut down when MD-8 was widened and rerouted in the ’70s but which inexplicably still featured a working Coke machine in front of it as late as 1996 is now just a weed-encroached concrete slab. Tidewater Bank is now a Bank of America branch, and at some point in the 21st century, they replaced the 8-track player (Literally the only 8-track player I have ever seen in real life) that had sat on top of the night deposit vault playing background music dutifully for as long as I can remember. They tore down the Pizza Hut last May, I think. There’s a Dunkin Donuts there now (The island’s second attempt. One opened in the late ’90s, but was run out of town to defend the business of a local non-chain donut shop. Which closed a year later anyway. The first one is a Dairy Queen now). The Hardee’s is still there, but not really, because Hardee’s was bought by Carl’s Jr. back in ’99 so the modern place bears basically no resemblance to the place I remember from my childhood.

Over and over again, I go looking for my past and find that they’ve torn it down and replaced it with something that’s just like everywhere else. And, I mean, of course it is. I’m looking for the past, and someone’s gone and replaced it with the present. Duh. Still, I’m disappointed, and it’s not the disappointment of nostalgia exactly, because I’m not just looking for my own past.

When you’re a kid, and your parents drag you off on a long trip, where do you want to eat? If you’re every child I have ever known, including my own younger self, the answer is that you want to go to McDonalds. And this is, once you are no longer a child, stupid. Because, come on, you can eat at McDonalds any time you like (In my own personal defense, when I was a child, McDonalds was exotic, since you had to cross the bridge to get to one). There’s like 10,000 of them. There’s an intersection in Ellicott City where, if you go up to the parking lot of the car dealership on the hill there, you can see six of them. You’re going somewhere new and exciting, and you should try something you can’t get at home. (This has, in recent years, become a source of all-consuming angst for me, to the point that it makes it really hard for me to have a decent meal when traveling)

The past is a foreign country. That’s the actual problem here. I don’t actually mind the past being a foreign country. But I find travel stressful. Kent Island, my home town, is an hour’s drive and thirty years away from the father of one and a half who lives in central Maryland and has a wife and a job and two mortgages. If, as I do roughly twice a year, I’m going to drive down to Kent Island on a weekday when I’m neither bringing nor visiting my family, I want to have something to do when I get there to justify the trip. Something more than a dentist appointment. I never find anything. At least, not anything I couldn’t do just as well at home. If I’m going to put in the effort to go visit a foreign country, I don’t freaking want to eat at McDonalds.

Which is why I always go to Hardee’s.

Even if the burgers are kinda bland. Chicken’s good though.

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