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Sailors gather for spring ritual burn

Here in Eastport, as the shadows lengthen across a gravel boatyard parking lot, the breeze bends southward a small column of smoke rising from a fire of winter twigs burning in a galvanized washtub as, by ones and twos, men, women and children approach the tub like acolytes bearing sacrifices.

The sky over Annapolis is true blue, unsullied by a single cloud, and the afternoon wind from the northwest billows with force the spinnaker of a NavalAcademy sloop over on the Severn River to the east. Here in Eastport, as the shadows lengthen across a gravel boatyard parking lot, the breeze bends southward a small column of smoke rising from a fire of winter twigs burning in a galvanized washtub as, by ones and twos, men, women and children approach the tub like acolytes bearing sacrifices.

It’s a pretty funky contribution that they deposit in the fire: sweaty socks. In four hours, 4,000 miles to the south, the sun will cross the equator on its annual northbound voyage, and the socks are meant — on this, the vernal equinox — to hasten the arrival of spring.

Moments earlier, a 70-year-old gentleman called together the scores of spring worshipers who have gathered at the Eastport Yacht Club for the annual sock burning.

“Many of us ... believe that winter is an error in programming,” intoned Frederick Hecklinger, “and feel that any opportunity to discourage winter should be pursued.” With only a few more words, he sat down on a chair near the washtub, removed his boat shoes and then his socks, which he flung into the flames.

Over the next couple of hours, perhaps 200 pairs of socks will be consumed in the washtub as a spectrum of ankles, from well-turned to worn-down, are exposed in the shrinking sunlight.

On this particular occasion there is a celebrity in the crowd, a three-month-old infant, the new son of the first man to burn a sock — at least in Eastport and perhaps in the world. Exactly one year before today Dane Turner’s mother, Becka, discovered she was pregnant just before she headed to the sock burning. Now Dane’s father, Bob, cradles the tyke while balancing a beer. Why Bob Turner sees sock burning as an important milestone for his baby boy can be dealt with later. What inspired him nearly 30 years ago to torch his hose bears some serious examination. So here, from the prophet of sock burning, is the explanation.

“No one before me came up with this lame excuse for having a beer,” Turner, who is 58, begins. “There was a winter down there — I think it was 1977 — it was extraordinarily brutal.” Turner is a South Carolina native. His move north seemed, on that winter, to have been a “brutal mistake.”

“The entire month of January — from Dec. 31 to Feb. 1 — the temperature never got above freezing,” Turner recalls. “So the [Chesapeake] Bay froze over, all the way across. You could, if you were really stupid, you could have walked across the Bay. People drug out ice boats that hadn’t been used in 15 years. People learned to ice skate.

“At the time, I was working ... building masts” out of aluminum, Turner continues. “All that winter I think I remember some aluminum shavings getting down in your socks. It was miserable. The socks and I came to a mutual understanding that they were no fun.

“So somewhere right bout the very first day of spring, it turned out to be an extraordinarily nice day. That particular day I had taken my socks and shoes off several times to get aluminum shavings out.” It was such a nice day that in the afternoon he left work, bought a case of beer and brought it back. He invited his employees to join him on the dock on Spa Creek. They had a roller pan for painting that they brought out to the end of the dock, along with their beers. Some naptha was poured into the pan and, “one by one, we gradually threw our socks down in a paint pan ... and managed to get [them] lit off. A few people walked by and asked what we were doing and we were flippant and said: Of course, we always burn our socks the first day of spring.”

Three decades later — a span during which Turner moved back to South Carolina, only to return as a partner in Kelsey/Turner & Associates, a marine surveying firm — Turner’s brilliant idea has been taken over by Eastport Yacht Club, whose members like to present themselves as the city’s informal boat club on the opposite Spa Creek shore from the historic Annapolis Yacht Club.

Earlier, before Turner took his sabbatical back in Dixie, a newcomer to Annapolis happened upon a sock burning and was sufficiently intrigued to return the next year. Jefferson Holland, a Garrison Keilor-esque poet and musician, eventually was moved to write Ode to the Sock Burners. He started his thinking on the subject with the observation that equinox and socks rhyme.

At the time of Holland’s first sock burning, “It was five guys standing around with a six-pack of beer. But it was a great inspiration,” he says. A couple of years later, “I knew the sock burning was coming up” so he composed the ode. It begins:

Them Eastport boys got an odd tradition

When the sun swings to its Equinoxical position,

They build a little fire down along the docks,

They doff their shoes and they burn their winter socks.

When he recited his poem for the gathering that year, says Holland, 53, the director of the AnnapolisMaritimeMuseum and a traveling musical folklorist, “someone nominated me as poet laureate of Eastport.”

On this equinox afternoon, Fred Hecklinger, a beer in hand, quietly asks Holland if he will recite the ode. Holland assents, and Hecklinger, also a marine surveyor and the self-appointed historian of the Eastport Yacht Club, stands beside the blazing washtub and makes an introduction, unaided by mechanical amplification. Holland recites his ode, which ends:

So if you sail into the Harbor on the 21st of March,

And you smell a smell like Limburger sauteed with laundry starch,

You’ll know you’re downwind of the Eastport docks

Where they’re burning their socks for the Equinox.

Aside, later, Hecklinger says this year’s gathering is the largest he has seen at a sock burning. “My experience is limited to Annapolis,” he admits, but adds importantly: “To my certain knowledge, it all started here.”

Indeed, Turner says there are now ceremonies across the nation. When recently he did an Internet search of “sock burning,” he says, “I was amazed at the different yacht clubs and facilities and boatyards and marinas that had come up with their own sock burnings.” On the Chesapeake, he says, “It’s gotten quite far-reaching, Hampton to Havre de Grace and eastern shore and western shore.”

There are certain expectations at the Eastport sock burning. “The beer is essential but the drinking isn’t,” Turner says. “Somewhere there are some rules established that the idea is not to get shnockered, but sit around with a Budweiser long neck. It’s just a good way to come out and see people you haven’t seen in two or three months. It’s not a Saint Paddy’s Day approach, not New Year’s Eve.”

There are other critical elements in an authentic, Bob-Turner-inspired sock burning. One is dogs. This year, in addition to the basset hound that strained on his leash tied to a boat trailer near where his owner was shucking raw oysters for the crowd, there were poodles, an Italian greyhound and uncounted retrievers and mutts.

The other element is children. This, Turner says, is important.

“I’m a firm believer that if you can get your kids to somehow identify with every single age group out there, they will be less susceptible to peer pressure,” says Turner. “If they grow up around fun-loving adults, they won’t have so much pressure to hang around with their fun-loving peers.” He thinks it’s healthy to “show kids that adults can be a little crazy, too.”

So on this equinox, Turner arrives just after Hecklinger has cast the first socks into the fire. In Turner’s arms, dressed in blue, is young Dane Turner, whose father realizes the son is “a little young to recognize that issue” of peer pressure. But he has on a pair of white socks over his white onesie.

Becka Turner is late arriving. The shadows have nearly overtaken the still blazing washtub as she circles the crowd, looking for husband and child, finally spiraling around the smoke column and giving her baby a kiss. Then, with her husband, she turns toward the washtub and begins removing her infant’s socks.