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Sunday, December 18, 2011

No. 93 An unexpected Holiday Visitor

The man at the door was wearing a suit and tie; a really nice one, and his shirt was starched and almost shining. It was obvious that he was a stranger not just by his looks, but by how he acted, like he knew he was on unfamiliar ground, and maybe even a little lost. It was just after sundown on December 23rd, more than thirty years ago, and it was highly unusual to see anybody, even a traveling salesman, working on that day and especially at that hour. Even more ominously, the stranger had pulled out and opened his wallet, and held an identification so as to show who or what he was.

As my cousin opened the door of his small rented mobile home, what we then called a trailer, the visitor stretched out his hand with the picture showing and announced, “Good evening. I am special agent Taylor* of the I.R.S.”

Within no more than a few seconds he would explain who he was looking for and why he was there. But in those seconds, and before he could utter those words, my cousin’s whole life history passed swiftly though his mind.

He was reminded that he had dropped out of school even before finishing the eighth grade, (and thus avoided having to leave the Island for High School). He recollected that he had never held a job other than working in the water, and that unlike most of his family he had never owned a boat of his own. He had instead worked as a crewman for any of ten or more friends or family who took him along for a share of the catch. Like almost everyone else he had been paid strictly in cash, in a barter economy that kept no records and reported no earnings.

He contemplated that he didn’t even get a social security card until he was in his thirties, and then only because he had been told that this was the only way he or his wife would ever be able to draw any kind of pension. And most of all, he thought about how he had never once filed his taxes – either federal or state, since as far as he was concerned he had never earned a real income.

In only a second or two all of this came back to him, and not just that. He assumed, it had come back to haunt him!

As my cousin struggled for what he might say or do, at first pretending that he did not hear or understand what he was being told, the stranger at the door tried to continue his introduction. He wanted to explain that he was there only to ask for directions. You see, in the days before 911 identification, homes and even streets on the Island were not marked, except for an occasional mailbox with a “Star Route” number that had absolutely no order or sequence. The agent was looking for a recent newcomer to the Island, one who had appeared to be a successful businessman searching for a quiet place to retire. But he obviously had some unresolved tax issues or else a government agent would not have been seeking him out in person only less than two days before the most important holiday of the year.

But before he could, my cousin gave way to both the fear and the resignation that had overwhelmed him. Stretching forth his hands so as to easily be shackled or cuffed, he looked the stranger in the eye and asked, “How come you waited until this close to Christmas to come get me?”

Saturday, December 10, 2011

No. 92 Christmas Traditions (old and new)

Christmas Traditions 1992
(originally published in ©The Mailboat Christmas 1992)

Christmas Eve has always been the biggest day of the year for my parents. All of their children, with their families, would gather at Mama and Daddy's for the big Christmas party and to retell the story of the Nativity. When I was younger, the brothers and sisters, there are ten of us, would exchange our gifts, but as we grew older and the crowd grew larger, that became impractical. So eventually we just enjoyed each other's company for a while before watching Mama and Daddy as they opened the presents they had received from their ever expanding number of progeny.

Hancock Girls -Christmas 1981

Eventually the group grew so large that neither my parent's home, nor any of their children's, could accommodate us all. With spouses and youngsters, our group has surpassed one hundred persons. So for the last several years we had met at the Rescue Squad Building or at the Church. Then the great Christmas snow storm of 1989 caused us to miss our "Night before Christmas” for the first time since my parents started their family. Though it was still enjoyable to be with everyone two days later than usual, one of my sisters observed that a party held four weeks early seems to have more of the Christmas spirit than one held a single day afterward.

Then again last year, my niece had a baby just a few days before Christmas and we decided to wait until she was able to come home with her "Christmas present" to have our party. (Susan and I could sympathize with how she felt, having had three of our children born in December, and another in late November.) Again, the gathering was fun, but something was missed in waiting until after the traditional time.

But if something was lost, something also was gained. After meeting together with my parents' family it would usually be 10:00 pm or later before we could all make it back to our own homes. Only then could we gather in our own smaller groups for a final portion of that day's Christmas spirit. That was too late to do much more than say "goodnight" to our younger children. But these past two years I have enjoyed being at home for the entire evening with just my wife and our six children, and starting our own Christmas traditions.

Just after sundown, Michael, our youngest, began to ask how much longer before we could begin to open presents. He asked the same question at least fifty more times before we finally satisfied his impatience. But before we did, we gathered around the dinner table for a candle-lit Christmas Eve dinner. With beautiful music playing in the background, each of us took turns in giving thanks for the blessings we enjoyed, the most special of which was the birth of the Savior. Thankfully, not very far down each one's list was their appreciation for being a part of our family, and for the love and happiness we share in our little home.

After dinner we went into the living room, around the tree, and shared in reading the Christmas story from the scriptures. Finally, before going to bed, each of the kids was allowed to open some of the presents that had enticed them for a week or more under the Christmas tree. Then began the long process of trying to get six children asleep in time to allow Santa to position what they all had been awaiting since even before Thanksgiving.


As we watched them sleeping on Christmas Eve I was reminded of what my mother has told me repeatedly in the past several years; "You're eating your white bread now, and you'd better enjoy it!" She is trying to impress upon me that NOW is the best part of my life. I suppose she is right. The kids are all still at home, and even though the two oldest are in high school, I'd like to think that our family remains the center of their lives, if not of their expectations. Others warn us that everything will get much more complicated once the children begin to fashion lives beyond the confines of our little world.

I'll worry about that when I have to. As for now I am content to enjoy the gifts I have been given. And as I do I will have a better understanding of why my parents are so insistent that Christmas is not the same without their children close by on Christmas Eve. After just two years of being alone with mine, I can appreciate how the tradition became what it is. Understandably, I enjoy those things that remind me of Christmas past and how it used to be. But at the same time I recognize that what happens here and now can become equally as special in our hearts and minds. As early  as next winter, this year's Christmas will be just such a memory, and part of a tradition.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

No. 91 "No good deed goes unpunished!"


Just before Christmas, a few years ago, my brother, Tommy, and Thelma, his wife, were sitting around the supper table when they heard a knock on the front door. Most people just come on in, so the fact that the visitor didn’t meant that it was something out of the ordinary. When he got to the door he saw the familiar face of a distant cousin of who lived in a mobile home down the road. He had come to tell Tommy that his refrigerator had gone out, and that since it was the middle of the month, two weeks before his next check would come, he had no way to get it fixed.

My brother, Tommy, delivering supplies after Hurricane Irene

In situations like this, the one place that most people on the Island knew to go was to Tommy. He gives more charitable service than anyone I know, or have ever known. He has combined his love of tinkering with his concern for the less fortunate. His generosity is so well known that hardly a week goes by that he is not called upon to fix or replace a household appliance. That is why he can often be seen at the local dump, scavenging for parts, or in his backyard shop putting those parts together.

He generally works free of charge, always offering his labor, and usually the appliances as well unless it is something that he has to order from a shop or factory. Even then he sometimes absorbs the cost for those he feels are unable to come up with the money. In a given year as many as a hundred refrigerators, water heaters, ranges, washers and dryers will either get his attention or pass through his hands.

So the visitor at the door that evening had come there not just because he needed help, but also because he knew he had no way to pay for it.

“Wait just a minute,” Tommy told him. “Go on home and I’ll be there in a little while to check it out.”

And so he did. Within less than an hour he had determined that the compressor on the refrigerator had gone bad and would have to be replaced. Then, the very next morning, he drove into town and found a replacement for it that cost almost a hundred dollars. A little after noon, the part had been replaced and the refrigerator was back up and running.

As Tommy shoved the appliance back in its corner and reassembled his tools, he explained to our cousin what the repair part had cost, but that his labor was free. With some embarrassed hesitation the man apologized that he really appreciated the work, but that he just didn’t have the money to pay for it now, and might not for quite a while to come.

“Its Christmas,” he explained, “and we’ve spent every cent we’ve got and run in debt for a whole lot more, just trying to get something for our grand youngerns. I don’t know when we’ll get that kind of money again.”

Tommy had anticipated the situation and immediately responded to calm his anxiety. “Don’t you worry,” he said, “you just consider that compressor my Christmas present to you and your family, and you crowd have a Merry Christmas!”

Our cousin was so moved by Tommy’s generosity that his eyes began to moisten and his hands began to tremble as he grabbed my brother by the shoulders and gave him a giant hug. Then, looking towards his wife who was seated in the corner, dipping a stick into a can of smokeless tobacco, he spoke as if to give her an order.

Calling her by name he demanded, “Spit that snuff out of your mouth and come over here and give Tommy a kiss!”

Before she could, Tommy had closed the door behind him.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

No. 90 Christmas with Kinfolks

"Christmas with Kinfolks"
(originally published in ©The Mailboat Christmas 1991)


    Gramma's name was Bonnie Bee. I knew that when I heard him (Granpa) late at night say, “I kin ye, Bonnie Bee,"he was saying, "I love ye," for the feeling was in the words. 
And when they would be talking and Gramma would say, ''Do you kin me, Wales?" and he would answer, "I kin ye," it meant, "I understand ye." To them, love and understanding was the same thing. Gramma said you couldn't love something you didn't understand; nor could you love people, or God, if you didn't understand the people and God. 
Granpa and Gramma had an understanding, and so they had a love. Gramma said the understanding run deeper as the years went by, and she reckoned it would get beyond anything mortal folks could thing upon or explain. And so they called it ''kin.'' 
Granpa said back before his time ''kinfolks'' meant any folks that you understood and had an understanding with, so it meant “loved folks." But people got selfish, and brought it down to mean just blood relatives; but that actually it was never meant to mean just that. 
Forrest Carter, "The Education of Little Tree" 

It's no wonder that the holiday season is the busiest travel time of the year. In late December, some sort of primeval magnet begins to tug at the heartstrings of almost everyone. They are pulled, drawn back to where their roots are.

Somehow spending Easter, Independence Day, even Thanksgiving, away from home is tolerable. But when mid-day sun hangs low in the Southern sky, when the days get short and the nights seem to last forever, when fall finally gives way to winter, something seems to pull each of us back home.

I wonder what Christmas means to folks who can't be with their kinfolks. No, I'm not talking about relatives and blood relations. I mean all the other everyday people who make life and living so rich an experience.

And just as with Little Tree, home and kinfolk suggest much more than just an immediate family. In my life, home has been the people of the Island, those from whom I heard the stories and learned the real lessons of living. Even though I still live on the Island, at Christmas I am drawn to the neighborhood where I grew up.

Looking up the path from Ole' Pa's House
I love to walk down the paths, across the ditches, and through the vines that still feel so much like they did a generation ago. And as I do, most often with one or more children tagging along, I am again one of “Charlie William's boys”,  just making my daily rounds. Sno' Ball asks me something about ball, Leslie tells what it was like to charge ashore on the beaches of Normandy in 1944, Kyle and Theresa show off their menagerie of pets, Ollie asks about Mama and Daddy, and Clara always declares that she wishes it could stay just as hot as it was last July. David gives me the latest scoop on local politics and asks if I know of anyone who might need help this Christmas.

As I walk around the neighborhood I feel again the feeling of "kinship" that brings me so much peace and comfort, especially during this season. I think quite often of how cheated I would have been if my circle of kinfolks had been limited to my blood relatives. Not that they weren't plentiful and cherished in their own unique way. It's just that all those others played such a special part in giving me a happy childhood and in shaping my character. Obviously, many of the "old people" of my youth now are gone. But their influence is still real, and as I walk by the porches and shady spots where they once taught me the lessons of life, they live again in my memory. I try and repay their gifts to me by narrating to my children some of the stories I once heard and learned.

I tell them about Cliff & Cottie, Polly & Hinkley, Gracie, Big "Ollie," Calvin, Cecil, Weldon, Hilda, Dallas and Terrell. I try to make them understand how my Aunts Lurena, Aggie, and Ezzer, and my Uncle "Big Buddy," instilled in me a feeling for what it was like to have lived at the Banks. I feel fortunate that rest homes and suburbs were not around to keep children away from the older people who seemed so prevalent when I was growing up. On the contrary, seniors occupied a position of honor wherever they went, and we children were obliged to listen and learn as they reminisced about what life really was all about. I am better today for having had a chance to know them.

These" old people" of my neighborhood, and some not so old, gave me a sense of kinship that was just as real as the genetic ties that bind me to my siblings.

That same path after a winter storm
I don't recall that I ever got a Christmas present from the kinfolk of my neighborhood, at least not one wrapped with bows and colored paper. Rather, they gave me gifts that have lasted all my life and that mean even more today than when I first received them. I have heard it said that "you make a living by what you get, but you make a life by what you give." If that is true, the old folks of my youth amassed a good portion of the latter.

And at this special time of year, when hearts are full and emotions close to the surface, I can enjoy again the very same gifts I received as a child. Unlike the more material presents so popular today, these gifts grow in luster over the years and escape the tarnish of time.

So when folks come home for Christmas from far away places all over the globe, so do I. But for me its just up the road a couple of miles to the place where my childhood memories are rekindled just by walking down the path to where my kinfolk once lived, and many still do.

I have spent only one Christmas away from home. That was in 1975 while I was teaching at Greenville Rose High School. Susan was expecting our first child (Emily was born on December 31) and the doctor advised against being more than a few miles from the hospital. Since then I haven't even come close to being anywhere other than here with my family and kin during the Holiday Season.

Once while driving across the Island bridge on Christmas Eve, "coming home" for Christmas, I commented to a friend, only partly in jest. "Life isn't fair, you know!" I lamented. When someone in the car pool asked what I meant I explained as follows, "There are well over 3 billion people in the world, and it just doesn't seem fair that only eighteen hundred or so of them get to spend Christmas on Harkers Island."

 Lucky me, I'm one of that eighteen hundred!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

No. 89 Wades Shore Christmas Trees


“Wades Shore Christmas Trees”
(originally published in ©The Mailboat Christmas 1990)

Among the most happy and lasting memories of my youth are those of the brisk December afternoons when my father would take my brother Teff and me to Shackleford Banks in search of Christmas trees. We would head to Wade’s Shore, at the west end of the Banks, and the last place on Shackleford where cedars still could be found in abundance. Daddy had gotten the family’s Christmas tree from there since before any of us could remember and there was no reason to go somewhere else. In retrospect, a Wade’s Shore tree was pretty much a family tradition.

We would anchor our skiff far enough from the shore to make sure that the outgoing tide couldn’t leave us high and dry. Then Daddy would take me and Teff on his back, together at the same time, as he waded to dry land. Carrying only a big-toothed saw and a hatchet, he would lead us through the first row of the tree line into the thickest part of the woods. Once there it would take only a few minutes for Daddy to pick out what was going to decorate our living room for the next two weeks or more.

Just to make sure that Mama wouldn’t be disappointed with his selection, Daddy usually cut a couple of extra trees. The others could be shared with any of several families in our neighborhood after Mama had exercised her preference. We would haul the trees through the woods and over the sand hills back to the shore. Daddy then would take turns delivering the trees, and finallyTeff and me to the skiff of the trip back home.

Although fall northwesters blew squarely in our faces as we crossed Back Sound, the trip home seemed to last but a few minutes. Almost before we knew it we were back at our landing, running towards home, and inviting Mama to come to the shore and inspect our harvest.

Sometime that same evening our home would radiate with the smell of fresh cedar as Mama and my sisters began the trimming. My sister, Ella Dee, would make special concoction from Fab detergent that rendered a garnishing of “snow” to several of the higher branches. A few ceramic bulbs, two strings of lights, and a big star to adorn the top where all that were needed to finish off the highlight of our Holiday decorations.

By the time I was a teenager, in the late 1960s, our family had abandoned the practice of cutting trees at the Banks. We began to purchase fir trees from the Colonial grocery store in Beaufort like most of our neighbors. A couple of years later found us with a synthetic tree so void of fragrance that Mama had to buy aerosol cans of “evergreen” scent to try and recapture some of the holiday flavor that had been lost with the advent of our more modern Christmas observance.

But two decades later I still recall with a special fondness the pleasure and satisfaction of the Wade’s Shore trees that once were a part of every Christmas. My family now always has a “real” Christmas tree that smells much the same as the ones that we used to cut with Daddy’s saw. But even if the fragrance is the same, I still miss the other sensations that were a part of felling our very own tree. It was like many other aspects of life that take on a meaning beyond the tangible sum of its parts. It was the process itself as much as the results that made it special.

So it is that Christmas memories always will be more of doing and being than or getting any particular gift. That’s what makes them so special, the fact that they are suspended in time and cannot be bought or sold. I can buy a fir tree many times larger and much more shapely than the stunted cedars that Teff and I used to pull through the sand hills of Wade’s Shore. But none could every buy, or sell, the special place in our hearts reserved for this and the many other of our Christmas memories.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

No. 88 "You can ruin a trawl with that many shrimp!"


By the mid 1940s shrimp had become such a popular item that trawling for them was one of the primary ways for Island watermen to make a living. Usually they were plentiful in the Island Channel of Back Sound, but sometimes they thinned out so much that men like my daddy had to go looking for them. Now and then things would get so slow working in the sound that Daddy was obliged to take the “Ralph,” his thirty-five foot trawler, and head to the no’thard.

Shrimp Trawler headed to the No'thard on a Fall afternoon
One place where they were always plentiful was in Pamlico Sound, about thirty miles away. As far as I can remember, those trips were the only times my father was away from home for so long that he was not back in his own bed by the evening. Working out of Cedar Island, and sometimes as far north as Englehart, he might stay for several days at a time, selling his catch to the local dealers, and then heading on home --- usually an all-day trip.

Once, while roaming around off Portsmouth Island with my brothers Ralph and Tommy on board, Daddy decided to put out his trawl near the mouth of Ocracoke Inlet. He wanted to see if there might be some shrimp there in the deep channel between the sound and the ocean. Just a few minutes after beginning his drag he noticed that the lines to his net had begun to pull tight and run together. Assuming that his trawl or the boards had been snagged on something, maybe even an abandoned anchor, the turned off his engines and began to pull back to his rig and try to get it back on board the boat.

Much to his surprise and delight, as the trawl got closer he could see that it was filled to the brim with nothing but big green-tailed shrimp --- the kind that were easy to cull and that earned the biggest possible price at the dock. The net was so full in fact that he had to let down buckets into the mouth of the trawl to pull up some of his catch before he could even manage to get the rig back onto his stern.

While thus involved he hardly noticed as another boat from home, this one, the “Gannett” belonging to Milton O’Neal and his brother Luther, pulled up beside him. Few boats at that time had gears that allowed them to idle, much less go in reverse. So, short of stopping the motor and anchoring or floating free in the tide, the only alternative was to slow down as much as was possible, and to circle the spot you were checking out. This was how Milton O’Neal maneuvered his thirty foot trawler that morning, in a slow and tight circle around the Ralph, as he tried to learn what Daddy was doing. Specifically he wanted to know if there was enough of a "sign" to justify his letting out his own trawl for at least one drag.

Milton was, like my father, a "progger" who followed the schedule of the seasons to determine how and where to make money in the water. And, even more than most, he was not at all concerned with making any more than was necessary to support his family and his habits, and not always in that same order.

"Charlie, what ya got?" he hollered over the drone of his engine as got close enough to the stern that he could look at the evidence even as Daddy responded to his question.

"I'll tell ye Milton," Daddy responded, "I wouldn't be surprised that there ain't twenty bushels or more in there. It's about as much as I've ever tried to handle."

Milton was impressed with what he saw and heard, but not in the way that Daddy had assumed. Waving his arms, as if to dismiss the chance that he might try to join in the bounty, he turned and headed back to his wheelhouse to get on his way.

"I don't want none of that," he hollered as he straightened the rudder and headed to the south-west. He then added in a voice loud enough that everyone could hear him, "you can ruin a trawl with that many shrimp!"

The last Daddy saw of Milton that day was the Gannett's stern as it headed on to Cedar Island, where hopefully, there wouldn't be so many shrimp!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

No. 87 " ... a goat in the bed with me!"


What Daddy said he heard that morning was the succession of a clap of thunder, the shattering of glass, and the hollering of my Uncle Louie ...

After the passing of his wife, France (Rebecca Francis Guthrie b. 1895) in 1941, my Uncle Louie was left alone at home with his young son, Louie Hallas. His three older boys, Linwood, Guyon, and Norman by then were married and on their own. My uncle, called “Big Buddy” by us, was more than sixteen years older than my father, and their relationship was more like father to son than brother to brother. Since our houses were adjoining, and less than a hundred feet apart, it was almost as if the two families were one.

A 1935 Ford with a "rumble seat" in the back like the one
used to get and bring home the goats for the boys.
My older brothers Ralph, Tommy and Bill were close in age to Louie Hallas, and the four of them did almost everything together. Once, the four of them decided that they wanted a “billy goat” for a pet, and so their fathers conceded to buy a pair from a farmer in North River, at a place called “Thomases Turn,” near what is now East Carteret High School. Early one Spring morning  Daddy and Louie, along with Tommy and Bill who nestled together on the rumble seat in the rear set out to make the purchase. By dinner time they were all home, including two young goats that the boys held in their arms all the way back to the Island.

For a while, the whole neighborhood was excited and the goats were the focus of almost everyone’s attention. But after that brief period, as so often happens, the boys soon lost their interest. The much-desired pets became simply another part of the neighborhood menagerie that also included pigs, chickens, dogs, cats, and sometimes a horse (see post no. 60 “Harkers Island Cowboys”).

Because Uncle Louie always maintained a large garden, the goats passed most of their time there and amid a grove of fig and persimmon trees. They usually spent nights on his back porch, next to a hand-pump and a tin can full of water used to prime the pump when it was empty.

That’s where the goats were resting one summer morning when a pre-dawn thunderstorm ended with bolt of lightning and a loud clap of thunder. In less than a second, one of the goats bolted away from the light and noise, and directly through a window pane that was beside the bed where Big Buddy and his son were sleeping. The whole neighborhood was awakened by the clamor, including my father, who jumped from his own bed and hurried to see what had transpired.

He found Uncle Louie still in his underwear and standing on his back porch while trying to clean up the glass that was strewn almost everywhere. Before Daddy could even ask him what had happened, his older brother blurted out to tell him.

“I don’t really know other than I woke up and found a goat in the bed with me!” By the next weekend, both of the goats were gone.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

No. 86 "Pickin' Mule Hairs"


One of my older cousins was really into “rooster fighting;” not the “dances” that we had on the Island (see post no. 77, My Rooster that was “Chicken”), but the real ones that even then were illegal. Several times every summer he would borrow his father’s car and be gone for a day or more. Traveling to places as far away as western Virginia and central South Carolina, he would come back home with a set of stories that would entertain his friends for weeks to come. How he learned about these covert events in the days before modern mass communication remains a mystery.

One time, while headed to South Carolina late one evening, he had the misfortune of hitting a stray mule that had wandered onto the highway just outside of Whiteville.

He was not badly hurt, but the mule paid the ultimate price, and his father’s Plymouth was totally ruined. The car’s front end was smashed from the bumper to the steering wheel, and the mule itself crashed through the windshield.

The next day, my cousin was back at home, but with a story much different from the ones he usually related. And this time, for a long time after the accident, my cousin was constantly spitting, seemingly for no reason. Eventually, when asked why, he laid the blame directly on the car wreck as he explained, “It seems like all I’m ever doing is pickin' the mule hairs out of my teeth.”

Saturday, November 12, 2011

No. 85 "kickin' for clams"

My older brothers, by the time they were teenagers, had assumed responsibility for helping to support our family. Usually this involved working in the water beside Daddy, but sometimes they were on their own or just with each other. Especially Tommy and Bill, only two years apart, were most often together as they set nets, picked up oysters, dredged for scallops, or kicked for claims.

Set-netting and oystering were fairly routine and mundane. But dredging for bay scallops was something that many watermen dreaded. In and of itself it was not that hard; pulling a metal dredge behind the boat and then culling the catch on the stern. It was the conditions for doing it that could break your heart as well as chill you soul.

Scalloping was done in the dead of winter, and the cold water and high winds combined to make a “drudgery” out of “dredging.” Working in the open, on the aft of a boat, facing the wind, with the sea (waves) often breaking against the stern and splashing into your face, with hands aching from the cold and muscles aching from the strain; all this combined to cause one waterman to assert that “a scalloper was a fisherman with his brains knocked out.”
Tommy & Bill, not long after their venture to Banks Bay

Kicking for clams could be almost as strenuous, but since it required some clarity in the water, it was not so tied to “bad weather” as scalloping was considered to be. To set up for kicking, a stake or anchor was positioned on top of a shoal and lashed to the transom. The motor would then be revved-up to create a wash that “kicked-out” the clams from beneath the surface. Once the propulsions had stopped and the water cleared, you could see and then scoop up the clams. When the process worked it was much less tedious than pulling a hand rake along the bottom all day long for a very similar harvest.

One clear and calm February morning, Tommy and Bill started out in my father’s seventeen foot long open boat called “The Waterspout.” They headed towards Banks Bay off of Diamond City on the Banks. They planned to kick enough claims to help Mama buy groceries that Saturday. As told by Tommy, they skipped school since it was rare to have such a nice day in mid-Winter, and could not be sure when they might get another chance.

Tommy, who was the older of the two, took charge of running the engine and once they were there, setting the stake and lashing the boat. By the time they got to the Bay the wind had breezed up – sudden changes in conditions being one of the hazards of winter fishing. According to Tommy, Bill was less enthusiastic than he had been about the whole venture, and when it started blowing Bill found shelter under the bow of the boat where he was protected from the chilly breeze.

As the engine started-up and began to roar everything seemed normal at first. But after just a few minutes and a loud clang from the motor the roaring stopped and within a moment silence settled on the boat, the crew, and the water that surrounded them.

Tommy was the “mechanic” and so he immediately began trying to determine what had happened. Taking the lid off the engine box he couldn’t see a problem, so he next removed the whole wooden frame from around the motor for a more thorough inspection. While Bill looked on from his perch under the bow, Tommy bent over from on his knees to see under the block of the engine. What he found was that a piston rod had broken through, effectively rendering the motor as a total loss. As he returned erect, with exasperation showing in both his expression and his movements, Bill spoke up to find out what was going on.

“What is it?” he asked as Tommy went about pulling the boat back to the stake to unlash it. “What’s the matter with the engine?”

“It’s throwed a rod,” Tommy responded curtly and then continued about the business at hand.

Unaware or uncertain of the exact meaning of what his brother had announced, Bill continued his question by demanding, “Just what does that mean?”

“I’ll tell you what it means,” Tommy said with more than a little frustration. “It means that if you get home today, you’re gonna have to shove!”

Friday, November 11, 2011

No. 84 "Mike, Brent, Manley, Sno'ball & me"

“A dragon lives forever, but no so little boys.” Puff the Magic Dragon


“Do I go back in now?” Mike asked more as a plea than as a question?

My youngest son was playing on a pee-wee basketball team and his coach, my cousin Manley [Gaskill], had ushered the little boys in and out of the game on a regular basis to give everyone an equal chance to play. Keeping track of the coming and going of a dozen or more six-year old boys can be hectic at best; and sometimes very frustrating. Some of that frustration was evidenced in Manley’s response to Mike.

James (Dixon), Mike, Joel, & Brent

“Listen, Mike,” he responded, “you’ve played a whole quarter already, and everybody wants a chance to play.”

Manley was like a second father to my son, his being the same age as Manley’s son Brent, and living close beside him. The boys were together so often that both Manley and I were as comfortable and familiar with one as we were with the other. So Mike took no exception to the direct response that his question brought. Still, it was obvious to his coach that Mike was unhappy with the response, even if not the tone.

He was right. Unwilling to give up on his hope to get back on the playing floor, Mike replied almost as directly as he had been answered.

“I know they do, but they don’t want to play as much as I do!”

Taken aback just a little by how Mike had persisted, Manley stood still for a moment as if considering just how to proceed now that his decision had been openly questioned. Then, only a few seconds later, the wisdom of his years combined with the feelings of having himself once been a young boy who loved to play ball more than almost any of his friends; that wisdom was evidenced in a response that was as reasoned as it was resounding.

“You’re right.” he relented, “You go on back in there and play your heart out.”

Manley, "Brother" (Walter Gaskill),
Anthony (Davis) & me in the front
yard waiting for Sno' ball to get home
Manley was technically my first cousin, once removed. His father, Sno’ball [Creston Gaskill] was my first cousin. But Sno’ball was older than my oldest brother, and thus was of a “whole ‘nother generation” than Manley and me. Manley lived next door, with literally less than twenty feet between our bedroom windows, and just five months my younger, so he and I came of age together and at the same time.

And together, we measured the steps in that process almost entirely in terms of ball; football, basketball, and especially baseball.  Sno’ball had loved those same games as much as we did, and because of that we had a mentor who was with us all along the way; from rolling a rubber ball in the grass, to suiting up for high school teams that represented our school and community.

As we matured Manley and I developed a routine of playing ball in the front yard every afternoon, especially as supper time grew closer. Actually, it was not unusual for us to play all day long. But we were sensitive to the hour when Manley’s father would be getting home from work. We knew that he would never venture to walk past us without stopping for at least a while to engage in whatever the game of that day happened to be.

Then, every evening after supper, he would come out again to hit us grounders, throw us passes, rebound our jump shots, or catch our best fast balls. Through it all he was telling us stories about the games he had played and the players he had watched or known. Those late afternoons were as much skull-sessions as practice. He made sure we knew how to think and talk about the games he loved as much as how to the field a grounder or run a pass pattern.
Son'ball (Creston) Gaskill just back from World War II


Later on, he would be our coach on the first “little league” baseball team ever assembled on the Island (See post no. 52 “A League of our Own.”) Beyond that, he would continue his mentoring as we left the practice field and got back home. It was not unusual to get there just to start playing again, and to keep playing ball until darkness made us stop.

Even after Manley and I had grown into high school sports, Sno’ball was always there. He was careful not to interfere with our coaches while we were in their care, but both the coming and going to practices and games included extended conversations about what we had learned, or still needed to know. He loved us and he loved our games, a he was never tired of talking with one or about the other.

As Manley and I grew older, especially after we had boys of our own, we better appreciated the stories and even the lectures that had been part of Sno’ball’s tutoring. That “feel” for the game, and especially for those who played it, was what came out a generation later as Manley contemplated on how to respond to my son’s asking that he be put back in the game as soon as possible; even when it was not “his turn.”

Mike and Brent 
Having been a young boy who loved the game with that much intensity, or even more, and understanding that not every boy on the team had that same passion for playing, Manley decided that treating them all equally was not necessarily treating them all fairly. On the spur of the moment, he chose to nurture desire even if at the expense of treating all his charges exactly the same.

Seeing some of himself in the pleading of his second cousin to get back on the floor as soon as possible, Manley proceeded to reply in the way he thought, even if unconsciously, his own father would have responded.

“You go on back in there and play your heart out,” he repeated. “And when we get back home, remind me to explain something to you about …

Thursday, November 10, 2011

No. 83 “Oh, it was a blowing ..."

Fall nor’easters signaled several things for the fishermen of the Island. Among them was that it was time to for “set nets,” on the north shore of the Banks. Wooden stakes, usually young gum trees cut somewhere in the woods of Straits were positioned every twenty feet or so, and a large mesh net was lashed to them along a line of one hundred yards or more. At the end there was a “bow” or hook that eventually pointed back to the shore.

The strong north winds of Autumn would cause schools of spots, trout and bluefish to move steadily along the tideline. Once they approached the net they would head offshore until they reached the bow. There, feeling themselves trapped, they would hit the net and “marsh” where they would remain ensnared until the fisherman returned to “fish the net.”

The same strong wind that caused the fish to school could make it really hard to negotiate the channel and work the nets. So it was when Weldon Edward [Willis], often called “Mr. Big” or just “Peter,” headed out one late October afternoon to work his group of “set nets” that were placed off of Banks Bay.

The especially strong northeast gusts turned what could have been a one hour job into a four hour ordeal. By the time he had finished, the sun had set and it was pitch dark as he approached his mooring on the Island’s south shore.

The next day, a friend asked him how the wind had been the evening before as he fished his nets.  “Oh, it was a blowing,” he responded, and then continued, “ it was blowing so hard that I had to shine my spotlight at a 45 degree angle to see the dock!”

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

No. 82 Shrimp Trawling, North River, & the Politics of DST

Trawling for shrimp was something done by almost every Islander who had a boat. Even if he had a full-time “day job,” he usually had a small trawl that could be pulled for an hour after sunset to catch enough shrimp to eat or to supplement his income.

There are two channels that lie between the Island and the Banks. The main one, the “Island Channel,”  runs the entire length of Back Sound from Middle Marsh to the Inlet. Another much deeper and shorter one is closer to the Banks and is called the “Gull Island Channel.” It runs from “Botta Rum Bay” in the west to off against Bells Island at the east. From May to September, depending on the wind and tide, everything from skiffs with outboard motors to large trawlers could be seen and heard in either channel from sundown to sunrise on any day but Sunday.

That schedule was interrupted briefly each summer when the North River channel, about five miles north of Rush Point on the Island's east end, was opened for shrimping. It was close to a spawning ground and was usually full of shrimp. Full that is until it was besieged with a fleet of upwards of fifty boats when it was opened for the season. Within just a few hours, it would be swept clean and the shrimpers, mostly from the Island, would return back home to and their normal routines and venues.

To regulate this annual ritual, the state fisheries department allowed that trawls could not be used in North River until 6:00 AM on the date set for its opening. For most of the sixties, that date was July 4, Independence Day, and a day on which even the part-time shrimpers would have a day off to take advantage of the event.

Long before sunup on that morning a parade of red and green running lights could be seen headed down the Island Channel towards Rush Point where they would turn to the “no'thard” and a maze of narrow channels that led to the mouth of North River. Since they were negotiating their way trough a veritable obstacle course of shoals and oyster rocks at night, the line of boats was often a convoy led by a designated captain who was familiar with the route. Once there, they would gather in a make-shift circle and turn off their engines to await sunup and the sound of a whistle blown by the state officials who would supervise and patrol the exercise.

When the whistle sounded, the engines would start up almost in unison and the silent waterway would become a din of combustion, and the air would be filled with the fumes of both gas and diesel motors that were igniting together. The first drag, usually about an hour, would be the most bountiful by far; often bringing in more than an hundred pounds of the gray-brown critters that are on many people's lists of favorite seafood. Each subsequent haul would yield no more than half of the one before it, and by mid morning most of the boats would be headed back in the same direction they had come from.

But there was one obstinate fisherman who refused to harken to the starting whistle in spite of the fact that he was missing out on most of the very harvest he had come to get. And, hard as it may be to fathom, his stubbornness was based solely on his antipathy for “anything having to do with the Democrat party.”  Long before, in the days of Al Smith and FDR, he had come to detest everything that had to do with the Democrats, and he swore never to do anything that would even suggest support for either their candidates or their programs. Among them he included the “daylight savings time” that had been instituted during World War II, supposedly as an energy savings measure. But because it was done at the urging of FDR, to this Island shrimper it was just another “Democrat mistake.”

Since the whistle that sounded the opening of North River for shrimping was set to blow at 6:00 AM “DST,” as far as he was concerned, responding to the signal would show his acceptance of the program that by then had been in practice for more than two decades. Standing on the stern of his boat, his arms folded in front of him as a show off his firm resolution, he watched as every other boat headed out into the channel to drop their trawls and begin the morning's work.

“What's the matter,” my Daddy hollered as we passed within just a few feet of the old man's boat, and close enough to be heard over the screaming engines. “What ya waiting for? Do you need any help?"

“Go on,” he responded, proud to show off his zeal and his determination. “I ain't gonna do nothing on that d*** Democrat time!”

Monday, November 7, 2011

No. 81 "I woulda sent ya some money," or "Where have all the scallops gone?"


When the off-shore sea scallops all but disappeared after having been over harvested for most the decade of the sixties, some fishermen followed their trail down to the east coast of Florida. New and even larger beds of the large calico scallops were found there at almost the very time that the local ones were depleted.

Going that far away, even to make a living, defied the widely held assumption that a Harkers Island fishermen refused to work anywhere that he could no sleep in his own bed every evening. Their brothers from Lennoxville and up Core Sound might spend days or even weeks away from home, but it was assumed that an Island fisherman would cut loose his net or trawl in order to get home before midnight.

But the lure of the large paychecks being reported by those who were working the new found beds off Florida proved too much an enticement for some, especially after the boom times of the previous decade had made them accustomed to the bigger incomes. Eventually more than a dozen boats with crews and captains from the Island were gathered in the Florida harbors. Most of them eventually came back, some very early due to homesickness, and some after they learned that the more money was being eaten up by the added cost of living away from home. And some because the free-wheeling lifestyle they lived away from their homes and family eventually stole most of their money even before they could use it.

But there was one Island fisherman who grew so comfortable in his new environment that he eventually decided that he would stay there forever. A major problem for him was that he had left behind a wife and family that was still counting on him for support. And unlike him, they were none so willing to pull up stakes and head south for forever.

As that relationship deteriorated, the fishermen began to make excuses; first for not coming home and later for not sending the money that had been expected. Still he could not bring himself to confront the issue of his life decision directly. Instead he gave ever more bizarre reasons for his behavior.

Finally, he attempted to bring the matter to a close by sending a letter that would explain everything and allow him to turn his attention entirely to the new life he had chosen. After telling his wife that it was his intention to stay in Florida forever, and never come back to the Island, he closed his letter with a final exclamation.

“I woulda sent you some money, but I'd already closed up the envelope. And, don't write me no more 'cause I am dead!”

Saturday, November 5, 2011

No. 80 "I didn't have a dime in my pocket, so I ..."

There were several auto mechanics on the Island, some of the very good; Johnny “Boo” (Willis), “Blacky” (Louie Caffrey Willis), and Thomas Lee (Willis) to name just a few. But there was just one garage and full service station, and that was what we called R' J.'s.

R. J. Chadwick's little shop and store, just a stone's throw to the west of the intersection of the main highway and Ferry Dock Road, was the one place that had service bays, a hydraulic lift, a tire machine, and basic repair parts on hand. It was right smack dab in the middle of the Island and it was where owners who could afford it, or didn't trust themselves to do the job, took their cars to get serviced, repaired, or just “worked-on.”

The number of vehicles on the Island mushroomed in the boom years that followed the end of World War II. There were “filling stations” at several points from Tommie Lewis's store at the east'ard to Claude's store at the west'ard. But gas, and maybe a quart of oil or a gallon of anti-freeze, was about all they had to offer in terms of service. R. J. and his parade of mechanics or helpers could do anything from changing a set of spark plugs to overhauling an engine. It was while doing the former that something occurred that has remained a part of the folklore of the Island ever since.

R. J. reserved most of the difficult jobs for himself, but he usually relegated the more routine stuff to one of the several helpers that he employed over the years. One of those was a veteran of the war who had met and married a local girl and then made the Island his home; quite possibly because that had been part of the “pre-nuptial agreement” that almost all Island natives make with their future spouses.[Just ask my wife Susan.]

The helper-mechanic had worked in an army motor-pool while on active duty, and he appeared to have had ample experience at all the standard service jobs. Such was the case when a local driver bought in his late-model sedan for a tune up. The car was driven around back, to the main service bay, and in short order the oil was changed, brakes were adjusted, and a new set of spark plugs was installed. But when the car's owner started it up to drive away, the engine was “missing” so badly that he was unable and unwilling take his car out on the road.

R. J. himself decided to check out the situation to find out what was causing the problem. After more than an hour of troubleshooting everything from the carburetor to the vacuum pumps he finally was able to pinpoint the issue as coming from the new set of spark plugs that had just been installed. Pulling them out one at a time, he found that each of them had an improper gauge; the miniscule distance between the tip and the base of the plug. When he asked his mechanic how such a mistake had happened, the young worker seemed a little dumbfounded himself. He had followed the standard procedure for setting the plugs; specifically he had used a dime, a standard 10¢ piece, as the template for measuring the proper spacing.

It was only after extensive questioning that the new mechanic volunteered that he had not adhered exactly to what was the accepted norm for measuring the gauge. “I knew you were supposed to use a dime to set the thing,” he admitted, “but I didn't have a dime in my pocket, so I used two nickels.”

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Posts so far (3 Nov 2011) No. 1 - No. 79

Posts so far (3 Nov) No. 1 - No. 79

No. 1 "You'll freeze to death this winter!" (Telford Willis)
No. 2 "Have you ever been to Chicago?" (Charlie Claude Jones)
No. 3 "A mattress made of seaweed (Tom Styron)
No. 4 “Billy Hancock ‘soaks’ Sam Windsor” (c. 1870)
No. 5 "That ball was high!" (Creston “Sno’ Ball” Gaskill)
No. 6 "The closest I ever come to having a job." (Louie Hancock)
No. 7 "... if you wait until tomorrow morning, most of 'em will be gone!"
No. 8 "Prince" and the fudgesicles" (Calvin Willis)
No. 9 Ole Pa's House
No. 10 "Has there been a blow or something?" The Storm of '33
No. 11 "We didn't even get a chance to bat!" (Charlie Claude Jones)
No. 12 You ain’t gonna ‘mount to nothin’ (Charlie “Ole Pa” Hancock)
No. 13 Manus Fulcher was headed home ...
No. 14 "The sweetest sound in the whole world"
No. 15 Danny Boy Lewis, "I know twice as much as my father!"
No. 16 "... I want one so bad, I’ll take a pack of them.”
No. 17 "Mullet fishing, an old man, and World War I" (Luther Willis)
No. 18 The "Booze Yacht," a journey, and the "sweetest fumes I ever smelled."
No. 19 "Bittersweet Memories of Grade School on the Island"
No. 20 "Miss Ollie & Dr. Moore"
No. 21 "... as much as anybody else in this graveyard!"
No. 22 "What about that oak tree over there ..." (Ed Russell)
No. 23 Some unforgettable lines that may someday be forgotten ...
No. 24 The Boats that lined the Shoreline
No. 25 Horsepenning
No. 26 “All I wanted was a chance.”
No. 27 The Silver Maples are Turning (Ralph Hancock)
No. 28 “... we ain’t gonna get nowhere if you keep stopping ...” (Donald Guthrie)
No. 29 "It just weren't meant ... to see no mountains!" (Tommy Hancock)
No. 30 How Sea Scallops changed the shoreline forever
No. 31 ... disappointed at her proofs ...
No. 32 “Just look at you crowd ...” (Mary Willis)
No. 33 “They grew so fast ... they were keeping me awake at night.” (Louie Hancock)
No. 34 “Why don’t you fly somewhere before somebody shoots you?” (Cletus Rose)
No. 35 Barbershop Lessons
No. 36 Loke & Lemmis — stewed loon & tied-up chickens
No. 37 Dallas Rose "... in two hours we'll be headed out again."
No. 38 More than just a store!
No. 39 Louie Larson's unfinished story
No. 40 "Dack" and the Eggman
No. 41 "Are you now or have you ever been ...?"
No. 42 "... Wouldn't that be an unsafe movement?"
No. 43 "Somebody might see us!" Joel Hancock, Jr.
No. 44 The Dredge Boat Captain from Lennoxville who was my Grandfather
No. 45  "... something that no true waterman could do without - a skiff."
No. 46  “Lying Willie”
No. 47  Annis & Mississippi
No. 49 The Day They Started Tearing the Old House Down - Lillian Hancock Michels
No. 50 Joel Jr: "The Day I Saw Mike on the Roof"
No. 51 "I love you just as much as I love Tommy!"
No. 52 A League of Our Own (with apologies to Cindy Marshall, Tom Hanks & Gina Davis)
No. 53 A Winner’s Cup and a Loser’s Lament
No. 54 "... do you wanna cut the grass, or do you want ..."
No. 55 "The Wild Chicken"
No. 56 Thoughts On My Island Home (Joel G. Hancock, Jr.)
No. 57 (Part 1) Neighborhoods, Families, Homes & People
No. 58 (Part 2) Neighborhoods, Families, Homes & People
No. 59 (Part 3) Neighborhoods, Families, Homes & People
No. 60 Harkers Island “Cowboys” - Mike, Bill & their horses
No. 61 The "Tiny World' of Cecil Nelson
No. 62 An Island that was part of the World
No. 63 To my dear friend, Libby Jean
No. 64 Aunt Gracie's scrambled eggs
No. 65 "I've got two lists ...," My brother Mike's fishing boats
No. 66 My daddy’s very personal “GPS”
No. 67 Video of Hurricane Hazel on Harkers Island as recorded by Vernon Guthrie
No. 68 A long ago visit to the Cape
No. 69 Remarks at "A Taste of Core Sound" event on Harkers Island, 25 August 2011
No. 70 The Island “Showhouse”
No. 71 Some things are even worse than a heart attack!
No. 72 Ridin' the School Bus
No. 73 "Blind Lilly"
No. 74 “Standing on top of a Whale”
No. 75 Dr. James A. Morris, Jr., Presidential Award Winner
No. 76 "The Seasons of My Youth" by Ralph Louis Hancock, born 17 Oct 1928
No. 77 My Rooster that was a "Chicken"
No. 78 Workin’ the Wayz (or, gettin’ a boat out of the water)
No. 79 Cliff's mama at the fence

Thursday, October 27, 2011

No. 79 Cliff's mama at the fence

(As related by Cliff, himself, to my older brother, Ralph, when the latter was a young boy)

Cliff Guthrie was a mama's boy. Born on Shackleford Banks in 1886 and the youngest of Eugene & Mary Guthrie's eight children, he was his mama's favorite. Like almost all children of his era, he was nurtured as a child on genuine mother's milk. And like at least some of his contemporaries, his diet continued to be supplemented by maternal nourishment even beyond his years as an infant and toddler.

In fact, when he was already old enough to be playing shortstop on his neighborhood ball team, his mother would sometimes respond to her own biological signals by going to where the boys were playing and calling her little boy over for an afternoon snack. Positioning herself beyond a tall latticed fence, Cliff would stand erect on one side, and she on the other, and within a few minutes, both he and she were content and ready to go on.

Eventually, however, even her “Cliffie Boy” had to be weaned and assume full responsibility for his own sustenance. But because he had been nursing for so long, he was forced to break not just a routine, but also a habit. As with other long-term habits, there were times when it was harder than at others, and certain activities served to trigger an intense longing for the old routine. In Cliff's case it was playing baseball that caused him to remember and miss his mother's affection and attention.

So it was that one afternoon, well into a baseball game with his friends, that one of them noticed that as Cliff leaned over in his fielder's position, ready for the next ball hit in his direction, large tears flowed down his cheeks. His face evidenced a deep sadness and sorrow so much that his playmates were concerned.

Running over to see what was wrong, one of his friends put his arm around his shoulder and asked, “Cliffie, what is it? What's the matter?”

“Just leave me alone,” he responded, “I'll be alright. I just wish I could see my mama standing at that fence waiting for me just one more time!”

(This story has been edited from the original as told to and by my brother, but only a little. Remind me sometime to share the original.)


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

No. 78 Workin’ the Wayz (or, gettin’ a boat out of the water)

Why are they called a wayz ,” I asked. Daddy was too busy and too concerned that something could go wrong to pay much attention to my question. He just kept pulling and pushing on the sides of the ”Montgomery” to get her as straight as he possibly could.
Full view of the wayz that belonged to
Calvin, Neal, & WeldonWillis.
After Daddy sold his thirty-six foot trawler, the “Ralph,” he bought a much smaller twenty-two foot open boat from our neighbor, a Baptist preacher who had remained at the Island even after his pastoral calling was over. The preacher’s last name was Montgomery, so that’s the name he used for his new commercial fishing boat. This morning, he had Mike, Teff, and me to the landing to help him get the Montgomery ready to be “copper-painted.”
Once he got his boat in the right place, directly atop two strong wooden timbers that ran perpendicular to the bottom of his boat, so as to distribute the weight evenly on the beams, he positioned Teff and me to hold her as steady as we could so that he and Mike could start the lifting.

Mike was already standing on the wayz. He was holding one end of a ten foot long pole made of solid oak. Daddy climbed hurriedly up the ladder built onto the pilings and to the other end of the pole so he could fit the forked end of the pole atop a small platform and under the lower of a pair of ten-inch long iron spikes. Each of the spikes was fitted inside one of a series of holes that had been drilled exactly three inches apart along the entire length of an iron slat. The slat was at least eight feet long and maybe longer.
There was a corresponding platform that included the same kind of slats and spikes and positioned at each corner of a wooden structure that was about sixteen feet long and maybe ten feet wide. This larger platform had been built well out beyond the tide line, no more than twenty-five feet from the shore.
video

With Mike at one end of the pole, using his muscles and weight to maneuver it up and down, and Daddy at the other end repeatedly moving the forked end of the pole under the lower of the two spikes, the two of them used the pole as a lever and were able to raise the boat slowly out of the water. They would work one corner, and one end at a time, usually for about a foot, and then move to the other end, and finally to the other corner. The fourth and final corner would then become the first corner as the process continued and repeated for at least another foot beyond the level at which the cornering process had begun.
Eventually, after as many as four of the cornering routines, two men, this time with two young boys helping to keep the boat in place while it was still floating, were able to lift a two thousand pound boat completely out of the water. By the time they had finished they had set it in position where the same two men, and boys, could clean and paint its bottom, repair a shaft or wheel, or even replace a plank or skeeg.
If and when a wayz was unavailable, fishermen had to be creative in finding ways to get their boats high enough out of the water to paint their bottoms. Because of the high salinity of the water, barnacles and other marine life were quick to attach at and below the waterline of local boats. Even with the best available anti-fouling paint, always called “copper paint” by the people I knew, boat bottoms had to be repainted several times each year. If not, the growth would be so thick as to make it all but impossible to move the boat through the water.
Aerial view of the boats that lined the Island shoreline. Notice
the trawler on a wayz near the center of the photo, just to the
west (bottom) of the fish house extending from the south shore.
There were hundreds of boats of all sizes, from eight foot skiffs to forty foot trawlers, along the shore that stretched from Red Hill to Shell Point. At any given time, as many as a quarter of them might be undergoing some kind of re-working that required that they be dry-docked; meaning they had to be out of or above the water.
One alternative was to run your boat aground in the hook of the Cape on high tide, and then wait for the ebbing tide to leave it high and dry. This allowed the waterman a few hours to clean the bottom and then paint it before the rising tide floated it again. As with the wayz, a long oak pole placed under the boat and used as lever allowed even a single fisherman, with a strong back, to pivot the boat from one side to the other as he worked on the bottom and keel.
Yet another way, at least for the smaller boats, was to pull the boat up and out of the water, usually with the help of wooden rollers and a block and tackle or wench. Again, taking advantage of the falling and rising tide, this could be made much easier than it otherwise would have been. But it was the most labor intensive of all the methods, and usually required several strong men and boys to position the rollers and help in shoving the boat up onto the shore.
It was also the most dangerous for the men involved since the boat was prone to shift its leaning from one side to the next with no warning, sometimes leaving a single worker beneath the full weight as it titled. Often, the only alternative was to scurry out and away as fast as possible, even if it left the boat laying on its side. Another risk was that the rope in the pulley or wench might break and spring back in both directions and towards unprotected workers. I never saw anyone get hurt really bad, but I did see some people who got scared so bad that they quit the project.
Since this was usually done at the shore of your own landing, there was not the same rush to complete this process as when ebbing out at the Cape. Indeed, some boats were left on the shore indefinitely and so long that the wooden planks would draw open in the heat and sun.
When that happened, water would leak freely as the boat was lowered back into the water, at least until the planks swelled back into a tight fit when the moisture returned.
Calvin, Neal, & Weldon Willis working the wayz and raising
 Weldon's boat out of the water so it could be serviced.
There was a time when Daddy had a wayz of his own but it had fallen into disrepair by the time I could remember. After giving up on trying to maintain it he made use of the ones that belonged to Calvin and Neal Willis. They were his cousins and closest friends and lived on the shore just two houses and directly to the west of our landing. Both Calvin and Neal, along with their brother Weldon, are shown in the video that accompanies this post.
On the morning of my question about how it got its name, he was working the wayz like he had done many times before, and just like it was his own. After he had his boat, and next to his house his most valuable physical possession, securely in place, he was able to turn his attention to the question I had asked as the exercise was beginning.
I don’t know son,” he muttered, still wading around and beneath the boat to make sure everything was just as it should be. “I guess it’s because it’s something we use instead of a real railways.” That’s what was used on mainland harbors to pull big boats up and out of the water so they could be worked on. “We can’t afford none of that, so we use this instead. Maybe that’s why we call it a ‘wayz.”
I know another reason,” my brother Mike suggested as he too continued working to secure the Montgomery as it sat up, out and above the water. “It’s the best wayz we know of to get this thing done!” 

Monday, October 24, 2011

No. 77 My Rooster that was a "Chicken"

“What ya looking for?”

That was not an unreasonable question to be asked in this situation. Here I was bent over on my hands and knees with my head almost on the ground peeking under our neighbor’s house. I was trying to find an angle where some of the morning sunlight was bright enough that I could maybe detect if anything moved.

My older cousin, Sno’ball (Creston Gaskill) whose house it was, had stepped outside not expecting to see me, especially not there, so he was wondering just what was going on.

“I’m looking for my game rooster,” I told him. “He’s run away and he’s camped under your house and won’t come out for nothing, not even some corn pellets.

“I think he’s scared I’ll try to get him to fight again.” I explained. “He’s not much of a fighter, and he’d rather play hide-n-seek with me than risk having to 'rassle with another rooster.”

I was only ten years old but I had learned enough about chickens, at least this one, that all these years later I’m still convinced that I was right. That rooster stayed under Sno’ball’s house for another two weeks. He must have come out some at night, waiting for everyone to go inside, so he could eat the handful of feed that I used each day trying to lure him out in daylight. We could hear him under the house, and once in a while he would peek out around the block foundation that lined it. But he was determined not get anywhere close enough to the outside that I, or anybody else, might reach or retrieve him.

Finally, acting on a tip from my cousin Paul who lived across the road, we pushed another fighting rooster into the same space my bird was using, and sure enough, my game rooster ran out a cacklin’ to where my brother Teff was able to fall on and hold him. A few minutes after that he chicken-rooster back in the coop in the corner of our yard.

Later that same day we took the bird back to Mike (Lloyd Nolan) Rose, who had sold him to us just a few weeks earlier and told him to keep the bird and the four dollars we had paid for a full-blooded “War Horse” fighting rooster.

A photo of me with my "Fighting Rooster," taken by my
my brother Tommy the same day he bought it for me.
He invited some of my neighborhood friends to join me
and my dog, Dash, in the picture taken in our front yard.
Thus ended my days as a chicken-fighter. Don’t get the wrong idea. The chicken fights that were orchestrated by a small group of Island boys was far removed from the “cock fighting” that remains an ugly part of some cultures. And though our version may not have been pretty, at least by today’s standards, it was more an exercise in showmanship than in fighting.

We would stand in a circle consisting only of the boys who were watching and launch our birds into the middle. The roosters would then raise their wings and spread their feathers and ready themselves either to attack or defend, depending on their temperament. After just a few seconds, one of the roosters would begin to lunge at the other and the two birds would bounce off and start again. As they did, we would grab the ones that were ours and that was it. The parade that preceded the contact was what we loved to see. Once the fighting had begun, for us at least, the show was over!

For one thing, genuine fighting roosters cost money, sometimes lots of money, unlike the laying hens that everyone had in abundance. Two dollars, five dollars, sometimes even ten dollars may not seem like a lot now, but it was a small fortune then, especially if it had been earned picking up bottles out of ditches or opening scallops on the dock. No one was about to see that investment go to waste in an exhibition that offered neither money nor rewards, other than the excitement of watching two birds dance in circles.

There were dozens of adolescent boys in our neighborhood, and several of them had taken to the sport of roosters. The aforementioned cousin Paul (Hancock), Rennie (Moore), Billy (Beaman), and especially Dallas Daniel (Guthrie), each had at least one prized bird that they loved to show off against the other’s. Watching them perform I came to marvel at both the beauty and grace of the large birds. Sensitive to my interest, my daddy found me a small bantam rooster that had the same traits, if not the size, as the larger roosters. But “Junior,” that’s what we called him, soon became so much a part of the family that I couldn’t risk even a “show-dance” that involved the chance of his getting hurt.

So it was that I started hinting that I was anxious for one of the bigger and more storied fighting birds. Because of my young age and my family’s finances, I remained an onlooker until my brother Tommy came home for a visit from his Coast Guard assignment in Louisville, KY. (We used to say that he was stationed off the coast of Kentucky.) When he learned what was going on he offered to buy me a “game rooster” if I could find the one I wanted. Mike Rose was a few years older than me, and lived more than a mile to the east’ard, but he was recognized as having the best birds that could be found anywhere on the Island. One Saturday afternoon Tommy drove me to Mike’s house and a few minutes later we were headed home with a my chosen rooster nestled under my jacket and arm, and for less than half of what we had expected to pay.

After just a couple of days, Tommy had arranged for Paul to bring over one of his bevy of fighters so we could see just how willing my new pet was to be part of the combat dance. It was then that we learned why Mike had been willing to part with this particular bird for such a low price. He was pretty, and he was loud – you could hear him crow from anywhere in the neighborhood, but it was immediately evident that he was more a lover than a fighter. He refused even to make the stance of a fighter. He just turned his back and ran for any opening he could find to get out of the fighting circle. And not only did he leave the circle, he kept on running until he had found safe haven under Sno’ball’s house. And that’s exactly where he spent the next two weeks.

By the time we finally got hold of him again, Tommy was back in Louisville, and I was too ashamed even to watch another chicken fight. So my “War Horse Game Rooster” ended up where he had started, and I moved on to some of the thousand other things that made being a boy on Harkers Island such a never-ending adventure.

Monday, October 17, 2011

No. 76 "The Seasons of My Youth" by Ralph Louis Hancock, born 17 Oct 1928

The Seasons of My Youth
Ralph Hancock

The cold and rainy days of January give way to the signs of spring in February. Everything is bleak - no fish in the sound. Boats swing at their stakes and moorings with no place to go. Suddenly a warm spell, and hard-shell crabs appear at night.

In March, sea mullets begin to appear at the Cape as the warm south winds blow. Early in the morning, very high above, a loon can be seen flying north.

April brings more evidence of spring. More fish are now at the Cape and warm days suggest summer is not far away. Easter is here - new dresses and white shoes for the girls.

It's May now - school will end soon. All summer - an eternity to enjoy before school starts again. I caught some soft-shell crabs just yesterday. Big sea mullets, blue fish, and sometimes a sturgeon appear. Big shark holes mysteriously are found in the nets.

Sometimes hot days - other times fresh north winds reverse the season. The fish are gone - nights are cool. Only for a little while - winds swing to the west and become calm. It's summer again - waters show signs of fish. The clear waters of winter now become colored as when fish are swimming in the sound. The first pony penning of the year is in June. Hog fish in that first hole in Cab's Creek. Maybe someday we'll catch those three mullets, those wild ones up at the next landing. Maybe there will be some shrimp next week, when the tide makes better.

It's the Fourth of July - maybe if we go to the landing, we can see the fireworks from Atlantic Beach.

The warm winds of August blow across the banks and the smell of salt water fills the air. Clamming causes my back to ache, but I feel great after catching my first bushel.

Old Pa wants to catch those mullets at Ephraim's Camp Bay. The grass makes the lead lines roll, but we'll catch more next time. Old Pa's "Ole Ben" had to be bailed out. Someone took the centerboard stick and it's so hard to step the rudder with the sails up.

By the smell of the pines and feel of that northeast wind, it must be September. School begins soon - where did the summer go?

It's October now. I'll get to wear my new shoes and jacket to school.

It's November - and it's better to stay in bed this cold morning. I hear Mama and Daddy starting a fire in that old three-legged stove. The kitchen will be warm soon. That light bread smells good - maybe we have some mullet roe left.

Christmas comes this month. I hope those orders from Montgomery Ward and Sears get here in time for Christmas. The lines are long at the post office window.

The tree is up in the corner of the living room. Those red and green rope-like decorations hang from the ceiling. A big red ball hangs from the center of the room. The smell of Christmas pies make me hungry. I got a cap pistol and a box of fireworks from Spencer's - smell that powder, see that flash - that one almost went-off in my fingers.

There is a Christmas party at the church. Santa will hand out bags with fruit and candy. We'll have ham and eggs for supper. It think it's Daddy's favorite. Christmas is so much fun. The "Silent Night" feeling makes me feel so good. I can just see the Christ Child and the Three Wise Men on that quiet night, with that big beautiful star up above.

All the seasons of my youth were good ones. I loved my people and I know they loved me. My family was the greatest and Mama and Daddy made me feel good just to be near them.


(These writings are dedicated to my parents, brothers and sisters, relatives, and all the good people of my youth. RLH)

Saturday, October 15, 2011

No. 75 Dr. James A. Morris, Jr., Presidential Award Winner



Page forward one generation from mine – make that one and a half ...

Science awards, White House honors, research grants; these were totally foreign to the world I knew as a boy. A few days ago, they all came together when I was able to watch as my son-in-law was one of a select few who received a Presidential Award for "Scientists and Engineers.” Sitting between him and me was his wife - my daughter Joella, and as she looked up towards her husband, I could tell that she was the least surprised of anyone that he had earned such a signal honor.

First and foremost James is Joella's husband, and as much as that he is Jacy's, Riley's, Zoey's & Charlie's dad. But in addition, he is a widely acclaimed research scientist; and that was pretty much accepted even before he received this award. He travels the world (yes, the world) speaking to groups who want to learn from the work he is doing. He has been interviewed on national news shows, including the “Big Three” network stations and Dan Rather did a feature program last year in which he played a prominent part.

Seeing and hearing him as he accepted a National Science Award, standing at a podium ensconced in velvet with the D.C. monuments clearly visible from the window behind him, accepting a stipend funded by Congress, feted in the heart of the Nation’s capital, then meeting and shaking hands with the President himself in the East Room of the White House, I could not help but reflect on two unrelated themes; one sublime and the other now seeming more and more ridiculous.

First, I was sensitive to the path he has followed and that started as the son of a commercial fisherman in Sea Level; learning early on what it meant to work long and hard in the water, and growing to appreciate the traditions into which he was born. In more ways than one he was a prodigy. His love for the life of a waterman was augmented by an aptitude and a fascination with understanding the biological bases for the natural world that was both his playground and his workplace. And perhaps even more especially from his father, Jimmy, at a very young age he came to accept the importance of thrift and work; so much so that by the time he graduated from high school he owned not only a car, but also a boat and a house – yes, a house!

Later on, while supervising the building of another home for his growing family, he and Joella lived with us for several months. During that entire time I hardly ever saw him in the morning. All of my life I have loved the mornings and been an early riser. But even though I was up and about each day by the time that the sun broke the horizon, James was already out of the house and making good on his plans for the day.

The other stream of consciousness that kept popping into my mind as James spoke that morning was of the first time I met the boy whom I had heard was interested in dating Joella. Early one Saturday evening in 1993 he came to the home where Susan and I had nurtured our family of six children. He was there to pick one of them up for a ride into town. I was somewhat amused, and more than a little nervous, when he pulled into our driveway behind the wheel of a rough-looking mid-sized pickup, jacked up several inches for off-road adventures, and making noises so loud that our dog came out barking at the disturbance.

Getting out of the car I saw a tall and lanky boy, whose blond and curly hair made him look more like a surfer-dude than the budding gentleman I had long anticipated for my second daughter. There was a part of me that wanted to tell him “no thank you” and send him on his way, but another part of me had confidence in the choices of the one of my girls who was most like her mother. Still, I could not help but feel a little chagrined as the two drove off, so much so that I have been reminded of that feeling many times since; especially when confronted with just how mistaken my first impression had been.

One of the greatest blessings from my daughters has been the sons-in-law they have given me. Each of them has become much more than that – so much so that I consider them not as in-laws but as sons. Kevin, James, Kyle and Rodney have each, in a unique way, filled voids in my world; usually one that I was not aware of until they made it evident, and they all are now both my friends and my confidants.

Because of his love and appreciation for the disappearing world of the waterman, the one that I knew as a boy, James has become for me a forward-facing link to my past. He keeps his and our boats – so far we have owned three together – and he is always doing something fun and interesting in the water. He cultivates both oysters and clams on leased bottom, and keeps the entire family stocked with all types of seafood. More importantly, he loves and appreciates the stories that are so much a part of the local maritime tradition, and often adds some of his own to my growing collection. In an important way, at least to me, he helps me feel that both the stories and the tellers still matter.

These were some of the thoughts that flooded my mind as I sat in the audience for his recognition and award. I wondered if he knew just how proud I was of him and for my daughter and their four children – my grandchildren. I wanted others who knew him, especially his close friends and family, to better appreciate just how significant that day was for him, and even for them. And most of all, I wanted somehow to capture that moment when all the work and worry of being a father are swallowed up in the look on the face of my daughter as she senses that everybody else, including her papa, had caught a glimpse of what she had been seeing all along.