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The cruising life of JJ Talman

Davis’ Pub regulars gathered in early March to remember one of their own —

JJ Talman III, a colorful character of the Maritime Republic of Eastport in Annapolis. JJ, as he was known to all, died of emphysema this winter at the age of 77.

JJ and would-be first mate Kathy Prati

Artist and woodcarver Howard Rogers was at his bar stool by the front door, next to retired truck driver Fred Gunn. Scattered about in the back were friends, relatives and other late-afternoon habitués known for their willingness to answer almost any question relating to boating, fishing, carpentry, home remodeling or trucking.

I have been patronizing this club-like establishment since the mid-1980s, when Lee Troutner, a photographer of elected officials at the Maryland State House, took over the lease and turned the bar into a trendy joint. On summer weekends, the crowd spills over onto sidewalk picnic benches crowded with smokers, sailors and dogs. Once, a woman riding bareback on a mule tied up her steed there and came in for a beer.

JJ (for John Junius, although he said it was “Jesse James”) appreciated an attractive woman, and they, in turn, were attracted by his friendly personality and ever-smiling face. Missing, however, were two bartenders — Kathy Prati from the old Marmaduke’s Pub and Linda Larson, who dubbed regular Fred Tomaro “Poor Fred” because he was always moaning about something. British Eddie, a varnisher who wore his spiked hair in disarray long before it became fashionable, was not around either, nor was Happy Buddy, the Carroll’s Creek Café parking lot attendant who has had a couple of strokes. Fred, who used to bicycle from Eastport to Florida in late autumn, now resides in a local convalescent home.

Also missing in action were “Alden (Old and Ugly) Bugly,” who has reverted to being plain old John Potter again, and Budweiser Dave Sells, who was excused because he works hard as a Travelift operator at a local boatyard and hits the saloons only on weekends.

I have always taken a liking to such quirky people, and one of JJ’s quirks was the habit of flicking out his tongue like a lizard when he imbibed a bit. I came to know him in the late 1980s when he lived aboard a pop-top 23-foot sailboat. I was managing editor of a now-defunct free sailing rag named Rags, which evolved into the current free sailing rag SpinSheet. This magazine had moved into the Pier 4 marina building in Eastport, where there was a front-seat view of JJ’s comings and goings.

Mary Iliff Ewenson, a founder and now president of SpinSheet, remembers looking after JJ and JJ looking after her mostly female staff. “He was very protective because we were young girls, worked late hours, and often slept there during deadlines,” she recalls. “On the other hand, we looked after him, too.”

He also was a maintenance man at Pier 4 and rigidly controlled the limited parking spaces. If he didn’t like the looks of someone lurking about, he would order them to leave.

JJ was a thin, youthful-looking fellow who slicked back his dark hair on the sides and topped it off with a 1950s-style pompadour flip. He had an adventurous nature and once cruised the Bay in a canoe, during the 1980s, taking photographs and searching out local pubs when he landed near a settlement. “I used the canoe as a tent, flipping it over as a shelter and sleeping on beaches,” he said.

By the early 1990s, he was living on a sailboat given to him by Mitch Nathanson, the president of Coastal Properties, which owned a series of Bay marinas. “I just took a liking to the guy and gave him a couple small sailboats when he needed a place to live,” says Nathanson. “His job for me was to look after the Pier 4 property in Eastport and, later, the Town Center Marina in Solomons, where he had a cozy apartment above the ships store.” JJ’s second sailboat there was a 23-footer without a mast, which was no problem for him because he didn’t know how to sail.

JJ had long planned to go cruising again in the comfort of a donated sailboat with a small cabin and a dependable outboard. In the early 1990s, he talked and talked and talked about this dream cruise after he and best friend Fred Tomaro delivered a sailboat to Maryland’s lower Eastern Shore one summer.

“Fred stayed up in the bow as a lookout during the whole trip and never once offered to relieve me at the helm,” he told me of the event-filled cruise, which had them running aground frequently in skinny water. “We never raised the sails and finally had to be towed in to Crisfield,” he recalled. “I tried to communicate with Fred by shouting at him in the bow over the noise of the outboard, but, along with having poor eyesight, he could not hear very well either. A helluva lookout and navigator.”

Back to the dream cruise, in which he envisioned barmaid Kathy Prati as his first mate. The maintenance crew at Northeastwind Yacht Charters at Pier 4 befriended this quixotic character and began assembling discarded equipment to outfit his boat for the adventure. Engine mechanic Harry Rose got the outboard running, and manager John Barry replaced the standing and running rigging. The centerboarder was neat and tidy and well-stocked with bourbon and Coke, his favorite mix.

After many weeks of talking up the cruise, JJ was ready to cast off in mid-September. I recruited Kathy to show up in a bikini as a fantasy send-off, which left JJ hoping she actually might join him. After a photo session, wearing his favorite white polo shirt with blue stripes, he slipped the lines. We all waved goodbye at the dock.

The next day, to my surprise, he was back at Marmaduke’s and chatting with Kathy. “What happened to the cruise?” I asked.

“There was too much wind,” he said. “Why didn’t I sail the boat, you ask? Because I don’t know how to sail, that’s why. But I still want to learn how to sail, get it?”

It turned out JJ got as far as Back Creek and the little pier in front of Davis’ Pub, where the cruise ended. “I said I wanted to go cruising, not to kill myself!” he explained, laughing as always.

As his health began to decline, he moved in with two sisters, Ibra Bragg and Martha Brown and her husband, Jim Brown, who tried to get JJ interested in gardening. JJ, however, preferred sitting on the front porch with the family dog, and he yearned for a friendly establishment within walking distance of the Davidsonville, Md., home. JJ is also survived by a son, John J. Talman IV of Annapolis, who hopes to organize his father’s huge collection of photographic negatives from the 1960s and ’70s.

Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.

This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue.