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Friday, April 15, 2011

No. 28 “... we ain’t gonna get nowhere if you keep stopping ...”

One of the most colorful, and best-loved characters of our neighborhood was a distant cousin, Donald Guthrie (b. 1923). Some folks called him by both his first and middle names, “Donald Eukirk,” but even more referred to him as “red-headed Donald.” By the time he reached middle age his red hair had turned mostly white, but even then he was known by the color of his youthful hair.

Donald’s parents, Willie and Carrie Guthrie, lived just a few houses up the path from us, but his paternal grandmother, Evoline, was our next door neighbor. For whatever reason, Donald spent as many nights with her as at home, and thus he was very much a part of my family’s everyday lives.

He was one of the generation of Island boys that had the privilege of running horses on the Banks (see Post No. 25 “Horsepenning”) and it was said that no one was better at it than he. He had a reputation for being able to run fast and for long distances without rest. Beyond that, he had acquired a keen sense of how to think like the horses as they galloped freely along the Banks. So it was that as he chased behind them, he was often shouting out directions to others, and was able to herd the galloping ponies in exactly the direction he wanted.

His running came in handy for more than horses - he was equally adept at herding sheep. On one occasion he was put out of a sailskiff at Drum Inlet, almost twenty miles north along Core Banks from Cape Lookout. His job was, by himself, to run a small herd of sheep along the beach towards the Cape. The plan was for another runner to meet him off Davis Island, the mid point of the journey, and there relieve him and pick up the chase. But Donald was so good at moving the sheep that he reached the juncture even before the boat and crew, and thus just kept on moving to the south'ard. When the rest of the group finally got to their destination near the Lighthouse, they found the sheep already safely in their pen. Donald was sitting alone on the railing, his feet swinging in the wind, and nothing left of the shoes he had been wearing but the strings still dangling around his ankles.

Even more endearing to most of us than his speed afoot was his flare for saying some of the funniest things you could ever imagine, even when it was not intentional on his part. An oft-told story is of the summer morning when he went to his father’s small boat (“The Ram”) that was moored close to the shore at the landing. In those days, the late 1930's, battery-powered starters were not yet available for the gasoline engines that had all but replaced sails and oars. In lieu of mechanical starters the boaters used metal hand cranks and jerked the crankshaft of the engine to cause ignition. On this particular morning, when Donald reached for his crank and prepared to head out on the water, it was nowhere to be found! He searched all over his boat to no avail, and the harder he searched the more annoyed he became.

Finally, reasoning that further searching was useless, and assuming that someone had pilfered the crank, his frustration reached a boiling point. In the southerly breeze, the stern of his boat pointed directly at the shoreline where it was not unusual for scores of people to be gathered as they worked away on the boats, nets, and net-spreads. Hollering to get their attention, he climbed on the gunwale of his boat and screamed at the top of his voice, “Whoever stole that crank is a dern liar, ... and I can do it too!”

When he was drafted into the US Army shortly before the invasion of France in 1944, his talent as a runner was immediately made evident. And it was also clear that he carried with him his penchant for making others laugh. Donald loved to tell that after the first week of basic training, as his company set out on a twenty mile hike, the drill sergeant called his boys to a halt at the midway point to give them a rest. When Donald, who was leading the company and setting the pace for the march, heard the order to stop, it is said that he ran up to his sergeant. Then, while pumping his arms and legs to remain in motion, he exclaimed, “I’ll tell you sergeant, we ain’t gonna get nowhere if you keep stopping every ten miles!”

Because of his experience as a waterman, after basic training Donald was deployed on the coast of France and assigned to a unit that ferried soldiers back and forth from the staging area. An important part of that job was keeping the boats running by servicing and repairing mechanical equipment. His sergeant there was not nearly so experienced in working around the water, and Donald grew increasingly frustrated at having to be instructed about things he already knew. Eventually, he went over the head of his sergeant to the commanding officer and asked to be transferred to the infantry,

“Why in the world,” he was asked by a startled lieutenant, “would anyone want to leave the safety of a motor pool and ask to be sent to the front lines of battle?

“Because,” Donald replied, “I can’t stand to stay in a job where I know more than the one who is giving me orders!”

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