On the brink of Memorial Day weekend, the maintenance department-of-one seemed surprised to be ahead of schedule. The town’s lifeguard stands, sporting a fresh coat of white lacquer, stood at the street heads, waiting for Dewey’s guards to drag them onto the sands and formally commence the sunbathing season.
“I really enjoy my job,” said Huffman, catching a breather behind Town Hall on Rodney Avenue. “You get to meet lots of people.”
Dewey’s population dwindles in the colder months, but Huffman never lacks for work.
When twin blizzards buffeted the town last February, he spent dozens of hours plowing out the streets, hunkered in cold-weather clothing as feet of snow buried the streets outside his windshield. He ran his truck from the narrow streets of Dewey’s north end to the wider avenues to the south; by the time one sweep was completed, he said, the streets behind him would be impassable once more.
The flood tides that worry Bayard Avenue during warmer months became disastrous in the cold – the tide would rise, freeze and recede, only to rise and freeze again.
“You couldn’t put down salt fast enough,” he said.
Town Manager Diana Smith lauded Huffman’s diligence during the storms. While most towns were crippled by February’s blizzards, Dewey’s roads were, for the most part, clear.
Huffman blushes at the praise.
“I didn’t get every street,” he said with a wry grin.
Huffman himself is new to the area. Born in Morehead City, N.C., a seaside community north of U.S. Marine Corps hub Camp Lejeune, he cultivated bonds with the ocean early on. He says one can see the Bogue Sound from the hospital where he was born. Morehead is like Dewey Beach, he said – sleepy in the winter, bustling in the summer.
“I knew I wanted to be on the water,” he said. He began working at the Morehead docks pushing a handcart loaded with fish. He soon started working on the charter boats themselves, baiting hooks and rigging lines for tourists. Professionally, it wasn’t quite what he had in mind. So he joined the U.S. Navy.
Huffman learned to drive landing boats, long-hulled vessels like an open shoebox designed to deliver Marines to hostile shores. After spending three years billeted on a troop ship, Huffman left the Navy and joined the U.S. Coast Guard.
“They encouraged you to do different things, to move around in your career,” Huffman said. He advanced quickly, spending nine years directing search-and-rescue efforts from Little Creek, Va. Finding missing boaters required the ability to coordinate multiple agencies, setting boat and aircraft search patterns to quickly and effectively locate the distress signal. Most of the calls came from weekending boaters who neglected to top off their fuel tanks, he said – and there were many. In his first year, he handled more than 400 cases.
“You’d head out Friday night, and you wouldn’t get back until Saturday morning,” he said. In the best cases, he said, the sheepish boater would be located and towed to safety. Some boaters were less fortunate.
“I’ve seen hulls separate in rough weather,” he said.
He ended his 19-year career as officer-in-charge at Station Coinjock in North Carolina. After retiring, he took a job in Nag’s Head, where he met his partner. He moved with her to Lansdale, Pa. When she got a job in southern Delaware, he followed her to Long Neck. He soon became Dewey’s first and only full-time maintenance worker.
Huffman said he feels perfectly at home in Dewey – but a good day at work still isn’t as good as a day spent fishing. An enthusiastic angler, Huffman said he hunts for anything with gills, from freshwater species like largemouth bass to saltwater predators like bluefish. He’ll spend days off in his bass boat on the Delaware Bay, or when that’s too rough, on the Nanticoke River.
When he’s on the job, he said, his task is to make life as easy and scenic as possible for Dewey’s visitors. He does light carpentry where needed. He picks up trash. He uses a putty knife to peel stickers off road signs. His labors do not go unnoticed – Dewey Beach Patrol Capt. Todd Fritchman, chugging by on an all-terrain vehicle, stopped to praise the maintenance chief.
“This is the man, right here,” Fritchman shouted above the engine. “Nobody works harder than this guy.
Huffman grinned and shrugged it off. He just wants to do a good job, he said – there’s little more satisfying than receiving a list of tasks and checking them off, one by one.
“At the end of the day, you can look back and say, hey, I really accomplished something,” he said.