Like the rest of the deckhands at Fisherman’s Wharf, Parker Powell came off the big, white-hulled fishing boats with his arms full. He carried rods in bundles; he helped lug coolers full of ice and dead croaker for out-of-state recreational anglers. With his Sunday-school smile and his yes-ma’am, no-ma’ams, one might think he was just trolling for tips.
That wouldn’t give him enough credit. More often than not, Powell loved being there. Something about him is more at ease being near the sea; someplace like Lewes, where you can clock life by the ebb and flow of the tide.
These days, Powell has traded the wharf’s signature red polo for mottled camouflage and a corporal’s chevrons in the U.S. Marine Corps. On leave from Okinawa, his regulation high-and-tight haircut has grown a little unkempt, curling naturally, making him look boyish and civilian. He hadn’t even been home a week but he cut through the fog of jet lag with the ease of a fish returned to water. “Lewes is always going to be home for me,” he said, “no matter where I live.”
Powell was born in Reading, Pa., but he quickly dismisses his birthplace. He grew up in Lewes, where his grandfather, Dale Parsons, owns Fisherman’s Wharf, one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks.
Powell’s worked the boats for longer than he can remember.
“I’ve been pestering people on the boats since I was tiny,” he said. When he was old enough to turn his cultivated charm into tip revenue, Powell learned the knots necessary to rig a fishing line and secure boats to dock pilings.
“You do whatever Dale tells you to,” he said. Some days, that means fishing; others, it means sweltering in an engine room, emerging covered in grease and smelling like diesel fuel.
The normal day – if one could call any day at the Wharf normal – starts with Powell crawling out of bed at 5:30 a.m., dragging himself to the docks and getting yelled at for wearing flip-flops. After a game of musical boats, the crew settles on a vessel and loads the day’s anglers. Then they get underway, the diesel engines grumbling below deck, dawn breaking slowly over the sleepy canal.
When they clear Roosevelt Inlet and enter Delaware Bay, something generally breaks or malfunctions. Unworried, the mates fix it with duct tape.
Under the rising sun, families would drop lines in the water and pull up the bay’s bounty: croaker, weakfish, flounder, oyster crackers, skates – fish. The mates use pliers to unhook the fish and drop them in coolers and buckets, or, if undersized, back in the bay.
“The families make it fun,” Powell said. “You get everything from someone who’s never seen a fish, to the tree-hugger who fishes, but doesn’t like to, you know, catch fish. You get a variety.”
Tips are appreciated, he said, and sometimes help justify a long day under the sun. But really, he said, it’s about the company.
“It’s about being out on the water,” he said, “and working with your best friends. We get paid to catch fish, make people happy and play with kids.”
With such an idyllic setup, one might wonder why Powell ditched it for the Marine Corps. He shrugs it off.
“I joined so my kids could drink at the Legion,” he said, smiling. “Really, I think if you want to have any say in things, you have to fight for what you believe in.”
He realizes his mission statement – which his fellow Marines might rib as “moto,” slang for overly motivated – is a far cry from the kid he was four years ago, a disorganized student determined to flunk out of Massachusetts Maritime Academy. He didn’t gel with the strictly regimented ethos. He recognizes the irony. “I didn’t like the military aspect of it,” he says, smiling tightly. “I’m not lying.”
The difference between the regimented lives of a Mass Maritime student and a Marine, he said, is he couldn’t see any purpose in the former.
“This doesn’t apply to me,” he said. “I mean, I’m not getting shot at.”
Rudderless after finally parting with the academy, Powell mulled the Marine Corps. Helping out at the Wharf was fine enough, and he loved Lewes, but where was he going? When a Marine friend offered to take Powell to a recruiting station, he acquiesced.
He doesn’t necessarily believe in fate, he said, but this was as clear a sign as any.
“When I got there, I said, ‘Just give me the papers,’” he said.
Boot camp sucked, he said, but it could have been worse. The physical punishment and psychological stress a recruit endures at the Marines’ Parris Island, S.C. training grounds is a mind game.
“It’s all mental,” he said. “I kept my mouth shut, learned to laugh at everything and not smile while I was laughing.”
He was selected for Military Occupational Specialty 2887 – Artillery Electronics Technician. Powell can repair nearly anything, he said, but he specializes in a radar system that tracks hostile artillery fire. Within seconds, combat Marines can know where incoming mortars are being fired from, and respond in kind.
He’s a POG, he explained – a Person Other than Grunt, the derisive term applied to anyone who isn’t an MOS 0311, or rifleman.
But every Marine is a rifleman, Powell said, and he proved the point during a live-fire exercise before he left Okinawa, qualifying as expert with a 237 out of 250 on the rifle range.
The score gives him a certain peace of mind – within a month, Powell deploys to Afghanistan, far away from the sea indeed. Surprisingly, he isn’t worried. Like all Marines, he trains for combat, and the promise of danger might be a welcome break from the tedium of Okinawa. But the island was, at least, close to the sea.
“It’s beautiful, dude,” he said. Whenever he had a chance, he’d slip into trunks, strap goggles and a snorkel to his head and slide into the topaz sea, warm as bathwater.
He’d bring a 6-foot long spear, but he never used it. He was fascinated by the reef far below and the way the island shelf plummeted like a canyon into the Pacific. When the whales migrate, he said, you can see them swimming below you, big as submarines.
“I’m good at what I do,” he said. “I like what I do. But it’s not me. I need to be out on the water.”