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Monday, February 28, 2011

No. 7 "... if you wait until tomorrow morning, most of 'em will be gone!"

This is another of the classic "Charlie Claude" stories, as related by him to my brother Mike and me one evening while we were clearing fish at Clayton Fulcher's fish house.

Beginning each spring at and around Easter, and speeding up rapidly after Memorial Day, the population of the Island can sometimes double on weekends and holidays. The infusion begins at mid-day on Friday, reaches its peak from Saturday to Sunday afternoon, and then all but disappears between Sunday evening and Monday morning.

Most of the visitors here expect and appreciate the low-keyed and sometimes even “slow motion” way of life that native Islanders maintain. But for some of them, especially when lines are slow and the temperatures are high, the slower pace of the natives can be frustrating and even annoying.

Such was the case one hot August Sunday afternoon at the checkout counter of Cab’s (The East’ard Variety Store). Most likely having been delayed at the marina, in the gas line, and then while waiting to check out, one exasperated visitor shouted loud enough for everyone to hear, “There are the most ignorant people on this Island that I have ever seen at one place and at one time!”

Just a few steps away, leaning against a drink cooler, Charlie Claude (Jones) both saw and heard the weary and impatient visitor to the little Island that had been his lifelong home. In a feigned effort to calm the irritated vacationer, Charlie slowly approached him with the consoling assertion, “You know you are probably right. But if you wait until tomorrow morning, almost all of ‘em will be gone!”

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

No. 5 "That ball was high!"

My cousin, Creston Gaskill, called “Sno’Ball” by almost everyone, loved to tell a story of a memorable game of baseball played between Harkers Island and it’s sister community of Salter Path. I call Salter Path a “sister” to Harkers Island because like the Island, it was settled mostly by families who migrated from Shackleford Banks after the great Hurricane of 1899. Even as late as the mid-point of the last century the two villages shared not just their history and family surnames, but also a taste for stewed loon, a knack for catching jumping-mullets, and an absolute hysteria for the game of baseball.

Given their mutual love for the sport, it was little wonder that ball games played between the two were always a family squabble, and sometimes, to borrow a phrase from Ty Cobb, “something like a war.” This was never more so than on a late summer afternoon, sometime in the late 40's when the two teams met on the sandy field of Salter Path. The game was tight until the very end, and came down literally to the very last pitch — even if it wasn’t a pitch.

As related by Sno’Ball, who was catching for the Island team, the Islanders held a one run lead going into the last half of the ninth inning. But even after giving up two outs, the home squad was able to load the bases and put the tying run within just ninety feet of home plate. The Salter Path batter then worked the count full so that everything, yes “everything,” would came down to one last throw to the plate.

By this time, the sun had begun to set behind the sprawling oak trees that bordered the first base line of the ball park, and the late summer shadows had already extended onto the field and beyond the pitchers mound and home plate. Realizing that the game, and the pride of both communities hung in the balance, Moe Willis, the pitcher, called his catcher out to the mound for a conference.

Moe was young and strong, and was one of the best pitchers ever to play for the Island team, but by that time he was spent, and realized his best stuff might not be enough to close the matter out in the way his family and friends hoped and expected. No one is sure exactly how or when he came up with the idea, but when the catcher joined him to discuss what the last pitch might be, the pitcher suggested that they just “fake it” and go on home!

“What do you mean,” Sno’Ball  inquired, “how can you just fake it?”

“Easy,” the tired but ingenious young Islander responded. “It’s getting so dark, and everyone is so excited, I’ll just wind up and pretend to throw, while keeping the ball in my glove. You (the catcher) set-up your target right in the middle of the strike zone, and just pop your mitt really hard. If we act it out good enough, the umpire will never know the difference. Since he’s the only one that matters, we’ll just go on home and chalk this one up as a win!”

So, that’s exactly what they did. After a long, long glare at the plate (to allow the sun to dip a little lower), Moe Willis curled into a full windup and let loose toward home with all his might, but without a baseball. In less than a second, Sno’Ball banged his right fist into his closed mitt with a mighty thud and the umpire (who was said to be from Morehead) jerked his right hand into the air and screamed “strike three!”

Pandemonium immediately broke out on the field and especially in the bleachers and among the crowds who had lined up three deep all the way down both foul lines. It was all the Island team could do to get to their cars without being trampled, but in short order they had made their escape and were headed to Atlantic Beach. This was where they planned to gather and celebrate before heading home to tell their story to the pitiful few who had not been able to see the game in person. But as the gathering commenced, it soon became obvious that their group was one player short. Sno’Ball it seemed had been caught up in the tumult at home plate and was unable to extricate himself in time to get with the rest of his team as they hurried to their departure.

It was not until almost an hour after the others reached their rendevous spot at Atlantic Beach that their catcher, and their hero, came straggling in looking even more spent than when the game was being played.

Anxious to know what had ensued in the aftermath of the final out and their rapid escape, everyone gathered around him to ask, “What happened, were they mad at you, what did they say?”

“You’ll never believe it” was all he could get out before pausing again to catch his breath. “I wasn’t even noticed,” he finally explained. “They were mad at the umpire and not me. Everyone of them swore that the last pitch was high!”

Monday, February 21, 2011

No. 4 “Billy Hancock ‘soaks’ Sam Windsor” (c. 1870)

... my father’s favorite story about his legendary grandfather, Billy Hancock, was of when Billy was recruited to play “cat” (an early version of baseball) for Diamond City against a team from Beaufort. The squad from the “town” sported a player considered to be the fastest man in the whole county. Sam Windsor was a former slave who had made a name for himself as a ball-player, and would later move to Shackleford Banks where to this day a clump of cedar trees and yaupon bushes still are known as Sam Windsor’s Lump.

In cat, in order to make an out, a runner had to be touched with the ball while it was still in the hand of the fielder. Thus fielders had to catch the ball and then try to run-down the hitter before he could reach the base. According to the legend, no one had ever been able to run-down Sam Windsor – no one that is until Billy Hancock caught him on his very first at bat against the team from the Banks. My father’s voice would rise and his cheeks would grow flush as he would try to act out for those who were listening how his grandfather had held back his hand and the ball until the very last moment so as to decoy the over-confident runner. Finally he would throw out his own clinched hand to show how Billy had gleefully outstretched his arm with the ball to “soak” (put out) the runner just before he reached the base.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

No. 3 "A mattress made of seaweed"

Sometime before the mass exodus from Shackleford Banks that followed the great storm of 1899, a property tax collector visited there in an effort to collect money for the county. None of the "Bankers" had any money with which to pay, so the tax collector began to seize their personal property in payment. At Tom Styron's house they took his mattress. Since all mattresses were then filled and stuffed mainly with the seaweed that was readily available all along the shore, Tom hollered at him as he left, "Don't make no difference. I'll get me another one as soon as the tide goes out!"

No. 2 "Have you ever been to Chicago?"

A classic Charlie Claude Jones Story:

One day while at the East'ard Variety (Cab's), he noticed a man whom he sensed that he might have met before. He stepped up to the man and asked, "Sir, have I ever met you before?" The stranger responded, "I'm sorry, Sir, but I don't know that I have ever seen you before." Charlie then continued, "Well, have you ever been to Chicago?" "No," replied the stranger, "I have never, ever, been to Chicago." "Well, Charlie concluded, "I ain't either. It must have been two other people!"

No. 1 "You'll freeze to death this winter!"

My Uncle Teff (Telford Willis) was, like so many of his neighbors, an avid hunter of loons. The fact that loons eventually became a protected species only seemed to enhance the excitement of bagging one of these migratory birds. In early Spring of each year, hunters would line the south shore of Harkers Island to prepare a one-sided gauntlet that stretched at least two miles long. Each hunter would in turn take their chances at shooting the birds as they flew just beyond the tide-line each morning looking for food.

On one particular morning a gallant loon made his way eastward along the shore as hunter after hunter fired their shells in his direction. But because the tide line had formed a bit farther out than usual, most of them would either miss the bird entirely, or else their shot would break only a few feathers that would flutter out, but failed to pierce the skin, as the loon continued his path towards Shell Point. When eventually it came abreast of my Uncle Teff, he arose from his perch and fired two shells that he was confident would hit their mark.

But, just as with the other marksmen, a few feathers flew out and down, while the bird kept flying as if nothing had even touched him. Greatly frustrated by his failure to bring down the loon, Teff finally jumped up and raised his fist in the direction of his prey and shouted, "Fly dern ye, you may live now but you'll freeze to death this winter!"