At Work “” Don Benefit


At Work is about our neighbors and how they earn their livings. It doesn’t matter what the job is, whether it’s a big job or a small one, has a title or doesn’t. We’re interested in what you do every day and what you think about it. If you think your line of work is interesting, or if you’d like to suggest someone for At Work, please contact Nelson Sigelman or Whit Griswold, at The Times.

There’s no quit in Don Benefit. He shows up as eager for life. That’s good, because the 52-year-old Islander is a perpetual motion machine.

He recently had both hips “shaved,” a semi-replacement process that’s still settling in and hobbles his gait during the healing process. Most people have joint surgery one knee or one hip at a time. Mr. Benefit did them together. To save time.

At his Edgartown home last week, Mr. Benefit demonstrated his increased mobility. He can bend halfway to the floor, something he was unable to do for eight years with locked-up hips. Despite the disability, he worked normally at several jobs, each one according to the season — conch fishing from early spring up to their mating season, then ocean fishing in the summer, dredging Island ponds in the fall, making intricate wampum jewelry during the harsh winter months, and working on his house whenever there was time.

In many ways, Mr. Benefit is a throwback to the days when people had to make do and figure things out. For example, bad hips and all, he installed hundreds of feet of oversized PVC pipe that serve as exercise runs for his seven-year-old daughter Michela’s pet ferrets in the backyard. He constructed an outdoor wood-burning furnace to supplement the heat and hot water in the home he shares with Michela and his wife, Jennifer Everett, an Island veterinarian.

Q: Tell me about your job?

A: Well, I’m a commercial fisherman and a dredge operator, and I fish conch regularly. I fished the Grand Banks in Newfoundland with Roy Scheffer for many years and a lot of miles around Flemish Cap and Tale of the Bay. I used to do a lot of scalloping, but that’s not so good any more, so the dredging is good.

And I do the jewelry. But wampum’s not my job, it’s my hobby. I won’t let it be my job. I enjoy working the shell until the true color comes out.

Q: How did you get started in this type of work?

A: I’m part Micmac [a native American tribe] otherwise mostly Portuguese. My father was a fisherman and his father before him. I have got to be around the water. I need to be around the water. Even with these hips I could still work 11 hours a day. Stood up all day. I do all the dredging for the town, move all the dirt. We’re just finishing up Sengekontacket. Working the dredge is all hands and arm work once you get in the seat. The town picked a few of us to do it.

I learned dredging from a guy who’s dredged all over the world — an old-timer. Most of my friends are old-timers. I learn so much from them, talking to them and watching them. I worry that all they know is going to be lost. We need that knowledge, particularly the way things are going.

The way my hips were, I wasn’t able to clam and quahog for years but I want to teach my daughter things like that. She needs to know those things.

Q: What is the best part?

A: Oh, the dredging. I can help save the ponds, Sengie and Great Pond especially. Mother Nature can do her job if she gets the right flow of water. Flow of the water is most critical thing. Lets the ponds breathe. You have to dredge right, get the openings and maintain them four or five times a year. Get the right quantity of water in there. You know, a pond can create 300 jobs in a summer. Fishing can’t do that any more.

Q: What is the toughest part of your job? What do you like least?

A: (Pauses) Well, my hips are screwed up, other than that, nothing. If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t do it. Or I’d change it so it worked better for me.

Q: What would you rather be doing when you think that you would rather be doing something else?

A: Digging up fossils and stuff. Did it a little in the Badlands years ago and a little on the Island. Followed a former Edgartown cop who did it, learned from him. I found a little tin can on an old cart path out here with a two-dollar bill and a one bill. Real old. Someone’s pay for the week, probably. I wonder how it came to be there.