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Pitching shoes with a new friend

Some friendly boater decided somewhere at some time to hail a stranger on the water.

When that stranger returned the wave, a nautical tradition began that is now considered de rigueur.

Jack Sherwood

I am selective with this custom, usually reserving it for fellow sailors, but sometimes I acknowledge a considerate powerboater who exhibits a sense of maritime manners and responsibilities. With those inconsiderate ones who look back and laugh at the turmoil created by their wakes, I retrieve my invisible heat-seeking rocket launcher and blow them out of the water.

Heck, I even wave at folks on land. For more years than I care to recall, I have been waving to an elderly stranger as I come and go on daysails in and out of Eastport in Annapolis. As I pass his waterfront cottage on Wells Cove off Spa Creek when leaving, I’m usually busy raising the mainsail and sometimes miss him, but on returning, with sails furled, I always look for him and wave.

In the summer, he often sits at a wooden picnic bench next to a tottering boat shed on his small but valuable waterfront patch. Sometimes I interrupt him pitching horseshoes in late afternoon as the sun begins to lower in the west and warms his front yard.

I have come to regard him as the Last of the Mohicans on this small branch of water occupied by one Chinese swan (its mate died last summer), a gray heron and many ducks. Along Creek Drive, the neighborhood where he has lived for more than 60 years, his one-bedroom cottage is the last survivor of its kind, as almost all of the others have been razed and replaced by new, expensive homes.

On the point, to one side of his cottage, is a multimillion-dollar, three-story New England-style clapboard home. It was built last year by movie producer Barry Levinson, famed for his film “Diner” based on his days as a youth in a Baltimore suburb. One house on this drive was listed at $1.8 million last year.

Just before leaving for my boat’s winter haulout quarters at Casa Rio Boatyard on Cadle Creek off the Rhode River in Mayo, I decided to try and meet the old-timer. I called Phil Carr, his next-door neighbor (I wave to him, too), and asked him to put in a good word to Harry E. Lewis Jr., a childless widower who turned 92 last June and has no telephone. I got the OK and walked to the end of his street, past an old garage where he stabled a 1968 Pontiac Firebird (purchased new in ’68) that he traded in recently for a “brand new” two-door Chevy with crank-up windows. At the gate, I was greeted by Sable, his 9-year-old dog. I tapped on the side door window, and Lewis came out.

After introducing myself, I told him I’d like to interview him for a story, and he seemed a bit apprehensive. But I have learned to be persistent and pressed on, asking him to point out where the watermelon patches and cornfields were in the olden days, when packets sailed into the creek to pick up cargo destined for Baltimore. I quietly brought out my digital camera but not my tape recorder.

At 92, Lewis still pitches a mean horseshoe. He has lived on his modest - now valuable - waterfront tract on Wells Cove since 1946.

As I understood him to say, he was born on the Eastport waterfront in 1917 to a family of nine children. He worked at an old boatyard owned by his father, Harry E. Lewis Sr., nicknamed “Plug.”

A four-page spread in “Over the Bridge: A History of Eastport at Annapolis,” by Ginger Doyel, features members of the Lewis clan and their boatyard. Three photos of Harry Lewis Jr. show him as a 7-year-old, a swarthy handsome buck in 1936, and a newlywed in 1946 with bride Anne Whorton. After serving overseas during World War II, Lewis worked as a painter at the Naval Academy. He bought his honeymoon cottage on Wells Cove for $4,500 the year he was married and has lived there ever since. They had no children.

In the coffee-table book of 700 photographs, published by the Annapolis Maritime Museum in 2008, Lewis recalls those old days. “My dad was actually a carpenter but built workboats,” he says. “We had a railway down there at the yard [on Severn Avenue]. … I used to haul boats the hard way, the rugged way. Sometimes we would haul them out by hand. … We would pull a deadrise up for $3 and roll it around the yard on rollers and work on it for a week or two for a dollar extra.”

He smiles when he calls himself a “recluse” and his modest home “my castle.” He has no idea whatsoever of the property’s worth and doesn’t care. It will go to nieces and nephews, he says. “People have asked me to sell, but that’s where the conversation ends.”

In the meantime, neighbors look after his well-being, including Carr and his wife, Ann, who put up a fence for him and gave him a new flat-screen television and installed it. Lewis drives his low-mileage Chevy every Sunday to church at St. Anne’s in downtown Annapolis, but he mostly stays in Eastport. He can still toss a mean horseshoe, and he sprightly negotiates a steep flight of cement stairs two at a time.

At one time he had an old wooden skiff powered by an outboard, which is stored in the shed. “I used to crab and fish but had to give that up the way I have almost given up pitching horseshoes,” he says.

One year I’ll look for the castle of Harry Lewis, and it will be no more. I’ll miss waving to the Last of the Mohicans during my winter hiatus, but I hope to resume the friendship when I return in the spring.

Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.

This article originally appeared in the January 2010 issue.