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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

No. 41 "Are you now or have you ever been ...?"

Online Dictionary: common - an adjective (commoner, commonest) ...  showing a lack of taste and refinement supposedly typical of the lower classes; coarse; vulgar ...

For my generation, turning eighteen meant something more than just filling out a card at the post office. It meant having to go to the selective service office in Beaufort and really “registering for the draft.” At the heart of that procedure was an interview with Mrs. Ruby Holland of Smyrna who had been secretary for the local draft board for as long as anyone could remember. And, “if your number came up,” the letter you got inviting you to a physical and then to “join the armed services,” was signed by her.

By the time I turned eighteen the selection method had been changed from a “selective service” to a lottery system based upon your date of birth. “July 28" was number “127” in the lottery of 1971, and that was high enough up the list that my number was never chosen. Several friends were not so “lucky” as me, including my college roommate from Beaufort, Ben Willis, whose number “three" left him little option but to enlist. But prior to 1970 each young man was evaluated based upon several criteria and the local board made a decision as to if and when he might be “selected.”

So it was that one of my older friends from the Island went to register a few years earlier than me and was interviewed by Miss Holland to determine his eligibility. All proceeded rather normally until Ruby came to a question that was a required portion of the examination since the “Red Scare” of the previous decade..

“Are you now or have you ever been a Communist?” she asked the young man as he sat attentively across from her desk. Pausing to ponder on the question for a few moments, the boy finally summoned up what he thought to be the best answer he could offer. “Now, I’m ‘common,’ I’ll grant ya. But I’m not the ‘commonest’ person I know. I think that would have to be [name withheld]. He’s a whole lot commoner than me. Just about anybody on the Island would tell ye that.”

It was then that the local draft board secretary was given to an extended pause. Finally, without so much as a single follow-up question, she thanked the young man for his time and allowed him to be on his way. Just a few weeks later he got his notice of induction.

Friday, May 27, 2011

No. 40 "Dack" and the Eggman

At Dallas' store, especially when "Dack" (Dallas Daniel) was behind the counter, neighborhood boys would gather in packs. On one memorable hot summer afternoon, as many as a dozen boys were wasting away the afternoon on the benches and in front of the window fan when we saw Dack put on a show that none of us would ever forget. One of the regular visitors at the store was the “eggman” who brought by several dozen fresh eggs each week to be resold. On this particular day there was a new eggman, perhaps subbing for the regular vendor who could not make that day's rounds. Recognizing his wares, if not his person, Dack decided to greet the newcomer in his own special way. At first he proceeded to welcome him as if everything was normal, but then, without any warning, he began to scream, “I feel one coming on me!” and a little louder each time he repeated it.

Then, in a flash he had rolled across the counter and landed laying on his back on the main floor of the store where he commenced to kicking, screaming and hollering – seemingly uncontrollably. Seconds later the eggman, leaving behind his cartons, had bolted from the store, jumped into his car, and headed toward the westard. Almost as quickly, Dack was back on his feet and behind the counter acting as nothing out of character had happened while, we who had been witness, recovered not from our fear but from our laughter. According to Dack, no one heard from that same eggman ever again.

[This one is true -- ask Larry "Jose" Guthrie.]

Thursday, May 19, 2011

No. 39 Louie Larson's unfinished story

My grandfather Charlie, eventually called Ole Pa by his children and grandchildren, arrived at the Island on Christmas day of 1900 with his wife, Agnes, and several children. He set up his family in a large two story house that was directly beside the home of his mother in-law. From that same spot he eventually laid claim to a swath of land that was several hundred feet wide and extended all the way from the south shore of the Island to the marshes of Oak Hammock on the Island's north side. He probably felt that he had reserved enough land to last his children and theirs for generations to come. By the time he passed away in the mid 1950s, it was obvious that he had been mistaken. He and his children, and then their children, used up the land faster than he could have envisioned.

My grandmother Agnes, whom everyone called Aggie, was worried less about the future than about finding a place to raise her own growing nest of small children. By then she already had three, and three more were soon to join them. Aggie’s real father had died before she celebrated her first birthday. Along with her sister, Lilly, who was two years older and blind, they had only the stories of their mother to remind them of the Norwegian sailor who had come to America as a stow-away on a ship from Europe. Despite the advances in genealogical records research of the last few decades, no more is known about the lineage of Louie Larson, my father’s maternal grandfather, than the small bits my great-grandmother related to my father when he was still a young boy.

His entire life is summed up in a few sentences that leave as much to the imagination as they tell about who he was, and what he might have become. Sometime before 1869 he arrived and made his way to Wilmington, NC, along with a Swedish friend, Charles Clawson, with whom he had crossed the Atlantic. The two immigrants had made friends with Eugene Yeomans, a fish-dealer from Harkers Island, who soon brought them home with him to meet his family. While here, Charles met and married a young girl from Beaufort and eventually had his own store that took his name, a name that still is used by a local restaurant that sits on the very spot where the old store once did business.

At about the same time, Louie met my great-grandmother, Emeline Brooks, a direct descendant of the Harker family from whom the Island takes its name. Married in 1869, they settled on a one acre plot on the northwest end of the Island, a spot that to this day is known as Harkers Point. Louie provided for his family by running a grist mill that ground the corn brought to him from local gardens and some of the farms on the mainland across Straits channel. But before he could establish enough of a presence to preserve a full picture of where and who he had come from, he was gone; the victim of any of a hundred diseases that were grouped together as “natural causes” in late 19th century post mortems.

It was said that he had named his daughters Lilly and Agnes after his mother and sister. But these names, like his, are almost certainly Anglicized, either by him or by his family after he was gone. Other than these morsels, all that remains of Louie is a gravestone with his own Anglicized name, the grindstone that had been used in his mill and that still serves as a yard ornament for the plots current owners, a small photograph kept by my great grandmother and passed to her children, and a short letter he sent to her from Wilmington before they finally were married and his move here made permanent.

It would be almost ten years later, in February of 1881, that Aggie’s mother, Emeline, would remarry to Calvin Farr Willis. From then on she and her girls were mainstays at the south shore homestead that would encompass those few acres that would be my childhood world, even though I was still seventy plus years from coming onto the scene. It was while living there that Aggie met and married my grandfather Charlie, who would later become Ole Pa ...

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

No. 38 More than just a store!

Every neighborhood had a store, some more than one. In ours we had three --- four if you add in Miss Georgie's cafe. Most of these were so small in size and scope that they might not even be counted as a store today, but small as they were they were a vital part of our community. They were open Monday thru Saturday, but almost all of them were closed on Sunday. Most of them were ready for business on or before 7:00 in the morning, but only a few of them were open after 7:00 in the evening. None of them sold beer or any alcohol products until late in the 1970s.

Some of them may have had a few unique specialty items or services, but all of them had to have the basic offering of soft drinks (just "drinks" to us), bread, eggs, sugar, canned milk, canned beans, bologna, candy & gum, pickles in a jar, sweet cakes and nabs, potato chips & peanuts, and at least some coffee & tobacco products. Even the gas and service stations had to offer the drinks, potato chips, peanuts and cakes.

The drinks and meats were kept in a refrigerated chest with a sliding door. There was, either on the chest itself or fastened to the counter, an opener for removing the "ale stoppers" that were collected and then used to fill potholes near the road. Everything else was kept on shelves that lined the wall or on the counter that separated the shoppers from the one whose name was on the door. The entire inventory was open to view and if you did not see it, it wasn't available. I can't imagine that anything was financed by the store owners --- they had to pay for their stuff before they could show it or sell it. But there were a steady group of "drummers" (I assume they were called that because of their efforts at “drumming” up business) stopping by to take orders for store supplies.

All sales were cash-n-carry, or at least were intended to be. But almost every store had "informal" charge accounts that were supposed to be paid up every week, or every two weeks if someone was lucky enough to have a real job with a regular paycheck. There was on the Island an expression for using credit to buy things, from small items like candy to major purchases like a car or even a house that I am unsure was used anywhere else. It was "run in debt," as in, "did you pay cash for that or did you run in debt for it?" I don't recall that I have ever heard that phrase used anywhere else but here, but I can assure you that it was used by almost everyone I knew growing up.

With some credit customers, weeks sometimes stretched into months and even years. I recall being there one morning when a patron who carried a long overdue account explained to Edith Lewis that because she had "been saved and forgiven of her sins and her debts, she no longer felt obliged to pay on her account." "That's good for you," Edith responded with her signature raspy voice, "but how am I supposed to pay the drummer when he wants his money?"

Taken together, the various stores served to make the Island a self-sustaining community for well over half a century. Trips to “town” were reserved for those very few things, mostly clothing and hardware, that were unavailable on a local shelf. Thus it was that many Islanders, including my father, got along nicely without a car until as late as the early 70s.

Counting and naming the stores is a moving target, since many of the stores of the 40's and 50's had closed by the time I became aware, and others sprang up in the early 60's, spurred by the relative prosperity of those years. So my listing is based mainly upon my own personal recollections and experiences.

Coming on the Island, about half a mile from the bridge on the right, was Claude Brooks' store. His was loaded with all kinds of stuff inlcuding groceries and some basic hardware. It was known for having the coldest drinks — with maybe even a sliver of ice at the cap. Claude stayed in his store till late in the evening, sometimes until after midnight, and was a place to go if you needed anything much after the sun went down.

Also at the "westard," right at the bend of Red Hill, Luther Yeomans had one of the larger stores. Made of concrete blocks, with a high ceiling and big shelves, it had closed its doors by the time I came of age, but remains until today as a landmark place when giving directions in that vicinity.

Fammie Lee Willis had a small shop just past Luther's that was known for her ice cream cones, even as late as when I had children of my own. But Clarence Willis' store, half a mile between Red Hill and our house was a focal point of that neighborhood for several generations. Clarence had sno' cones (snow balls) in at least ten different flavors.

Once past the three stores in our neighborhood (I tell about them later) there was Carl's store. Owned by Carl Lewis, it was in its day the largest and most multi-faceted business on the Island. It even had a bowling ally with hand-placed pins, as well as supplies and equipment for both fishermen and boatbuilders.

At the ferry dock intersection there were three more stores and the showhouse (movie theater) on the southeast corner. One of the Island's landmark places, Cleveland Davis' store, had been on the south end of the road and next to the original post office, but all that was left by the time I came along was the fish house still run by his son, Henry. Yet at the crossroads there were three shops that peddled general merchandise. Henry ran one of those (NW corner) that was later expanded into a Richfiled gas station run by Fate (Jones) Jr. Garfield Emery's store (NE Corner) eventually became the full service gas station of R. J. Chadwick and Perry Guthrie (later just E. B. Gillikin's).

But it was Fillmore's (Lawrence) store at the southwest corner that was a true gathering place in my youth, especially for young boys and men. There were two pool tables in the back, and two gas pumps out front, and a heavy-set and friendly man behind the counter who had the inside scoop on everything that was going on from Red Hill to Shell Point. Groups of a dozen or more would loiter in and around his tables, on his drink boxes, or leaning against his front facade. On Friday and Saturday night, if anything was happening at the Island, more than likely it was happening there.

Just past the theater was the post office, at least until I was a teenager, and then a store run and owned by Billy Best. It could be said that this little patch of businesses was the closest we had to a real "downtown." Billy's store was adjacent to where Charlie Davis' store had once been. In fact, Billy started out in that same building  but later built a new one of his own, levelling the old one and using that space as a parking area. (It is worth mentioning that none of the other stores until Billy's ever had a designated parking area other than just their immediate road front. Since so few families even had cars, I assume that there were better uses for the spaces that latter became an absolute necessity.) With his new building completed, early in the 1960's, Billy's became the Island's first true grocery store. Billy had worked with a grocer in Beaufort before marrying an Island girl (Dawn Willis) and moving here more than a decade earlier. His new store had freezers as well as refrigerators, and even a butcher shop in the back. Billy worked the counter all day long, and well into the evening, and it could be said that he was the one man who knew of, and about, almost every single person on the Island — even most of the visitors.

Not far past Billy's and adjacent to his wife, Myrtle's cafe, was Donnie Yeoman's store. Because the two buildings were joined, and had a connecting door, Donnie's place and Myrtle's were considered as one and the same. The hamburgers and milk shakes that were always on the menu at the latter, and the special smells that came from her window, meant that you were always hungry any time you passed by, even if in a car.

The final store at the Eastard was run by Tommie Lewis, and it was almost all the way to Shell Point. It closed before I came to know very much of it. My only memories are of the long aisles that I walked down when I spent a Saturday morning there with my father. As Tax Lister for the Island, he would camp out in the various stories on Saturday mornings each January to give locals a place to declare their property. Once in a while he would take me with him.

All of these local shops played some part in creating the community enviornment in which I grew up. But it was the three stores between the REA building and Georgie's cafe that were an actual part of our neighborhood and were the only real "shopping mall" of my youth. All were on the north side of the road, but were close enough that you could hear conversations there while sitting on my Mama's front porch. (see post no. 8 about “Prince and the fudgesickles.”)

Dallas Guthrie's store, just a little to the west of our house, was a wood frame building with one long wooden counter that stretched almost the entire length of the room (maybe thirty feet). Along with his wife, "Little" Ollie, and his son, Dallas Daniel (see post no. 14) he served up only the very basic staples of life, and did it as both family and friends. Especially when "Dack" (Dallas Daniel) was behind the counter, neighborhood boys would gather there almost in packs. Among the specialty items that Dallas carried was one that was especially important to me — baseball cards.

Headed east from our house, less than fifty yards, was Edith Lewis' store. It earlier had been run by her cousin, Raymond, but by the time I came along it was the property of Edith and her husband, Mart. When Mama sent me "to the store" for something, unless she told me otherwise, I knew she meant that I should be headed to Edith's. Her inventory was almost entirely the same as Dallases, but her buildng was smaller and made of concrete blocks. It was here that we gathered to meet the school bus every morning, and where we were dropped off by the same bus each afternoon.

The final store that was imprinted on my memory as a boy was that of my cousin Norman Hancock, directly across the road from our house. It was in the very same location where my grandfather Charlie (Ole' Pa) had run a store for almost half a century. When our grandfather died, Norman eventually demolished the old building and opened what he at first called "The Hobby Shop." For a while he sold hunting and fishing supplies, including decoys & ammunition and rods, reels, and tackle, He even had a franchise for Chrysler power boats and motors. But after just a few years he gave up on the sporting business and reverted to the general staples that were the life blood of every other Island store. By then it was called just "Norman's,” and like the others, offered just the standard fare of basic staples and hardware, plus a sno’ ball machine that rivaled Clarence’s for its variety of flavors.

At Dallases, Edith’s & at Norman’s, the people of my small world would gather not just to shop but to talk. It was in the talking and listening that people kept in touch and remained as much friends as they were family and neighbors. Stories heard there were relayed around the dinner table or on the porch. Later they made their way to the fish house, or the net spread, or the long-haul set. Then the same stories bounced back again, maybe with some different or added details, to the circle of chairs that sat around the heater or in front of the counter in the store. The vitality of the stories added a similar vitality to the very lives they described and told of. Thus it can be said that these little stores offered much more than just bread and beans, and a few other staples of life – they conveyed the very fabric of what made us a community — our shared experience!

Friday, May 13, 2011

No. 37 Dallas Rose "... in two hours we'll be headed out again."

Not all fishermen were created equal. Some were more successful than others, and some worked harder than others. Dallas Rose may not have been noticeably more successful, but no one could fail to notice that he worked harder than just about anyone.

If most other fishermen left home just as the sun was rising, Dallas was already out the Inlet and waiting on a set. If other boats headed home in time to reach the dock by sundown, Dallas' boat was still offshore when the sky grew dark. And even as he worked longer, he also worked harder. While others would put out only a few hundred feet of net to "try a sign," (test to see if fish were present), Dallas would put out a full thousand yards.

Understandably, it sometimes was hard for Dallas to keep a regular crew to work with and beside him. Not that he was unsuccessful, for Dallas crew shared out more than most. But there were very few others who were willing to go at it as hard as he did. Usually he depended on his family; his brothers, cousins and nephews. Later on he had sons and a son-in-law. It was one of these family helpers who told a story that better than any other illustrates what it was like to fish with Dallas Rose.

One fall evening, as his boat, the "Wasted Wood," approached the dock, he asked one of his crewmen to get on the bow and catch the "mooring stick" that was tethered to the anchor securing the boat. As the young man reached in the night air for the stake, Dallas noticed that his eyes were watering, but not due to the wind or the evening mist. He was actually crying and shedding tears as he struggled to hold onto the rope and secure the boat.

"Why are you crying?" Dallas asked as he looked into the face of his tired helper. "We're almost home, and then you can rest."

"I know," his young but worn out crewman responded, "that just means that in two more hours we'll be heading out again."

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Posts so far (10 May 2011) No. 1 - No. 36

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

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

No. 36 Loke & Lemmis — stewed loon & tied-up chickens

A little to the east of us, just past the Guthries, was a large flock of Willises. As usual, some other family names also were represented — Guthrie, Moore, and Lewis — but it was mainly made up of Willises who were distantly related to the Willises of our neighborhood. One of the Willises from down the shore, Lemmis, was gone long before I came of age, but he was mentioned so often that I felt that I knew him. A little farther to the eastard, on Ferry Dock Road, were several families of Roses. Tom, Danny, & Joseph all had families in the same neighborhood. But it was their brother “Loke” (John William Rose b. 1879) whose life and “loves” became the stuff of legend.

Loke Willis — “lover of loon”

When I was a boy I learned that other folks downeast, and especially people from “town,” referred to people from the Island as “loon eaters.” This came as no great surprise because I knew how that name got started (see post no. 1). Before I even learned that shooting loons was illegal, I was aware that many people in our neighborhood enjoyed eating ‘em.

Among those was my father. Because of the pungent smell, Mama usually cooked loon outside in a large pot and over an open fire. She preferred the younger birds, what she called “eel trikkers,” because, she maintained, the meat was milder and more tender. But Daddy made no such distinction. All he cared about was that there also be dumplings and gravy in the pot.

Not everyone shared a fancy for this bird, especially my sisters who still grimace when asked to explain what eating it was like. But many folks considered it a delicacy, and some even demanded that it be served on special occasions. One of those was Mama’s cousin, Bertie Clyde Willis (b. 1918), whom all of us called “Uncle Bert.”

He had a long career in the Army that kept him away for more than two decades. After he retired he settled his family in Kinston, almost a hundred miles west of the Island on Hwy 70. But every time he returned for a visit, his sisters made sure he had at least a portion of “stewed loon” to make him feel welcome. Once, while watching him savor a bowl of loon prepared in his honor, I mentioned to him that he “... loved loon more than anyone I’d ever heard of.”

“I love it,” he responded, “oh, I do love it, but not as much as Loke did!” He went on to tell about an this same old-timer that I had heard my father mention so often, who loved it even more than he did. “How,” I asked, “could anyone love it more than you?”

“Well,” he explained, “Loke was partially blind and depended on his sense of touch and feel to compensate for what his eyes couldn’t tell him. He wouldn’t just eat the loon and dumplings. When that was gone, he would lift the pot to his mouth and drink the gravy. But even that wasn’t all,” Uncle Bert added. “Once he had drunk all the gravy, he would wipe his hands inside the pot and moisten them with what was left. Then he would run his hands and fingers through his hair.”

Hearing that, I agreed that, “Loke loved loon more than anybody I’ve ever hear of,” including my Uncle Bert.

Lemmis Willis and his chickens

Loke’s cousin, Lemmis Willis, worked the water with his extended family and the other men of the neighborhood. He was one of those who was called a “progger.” He didn’t have his own boat, but instead worked in the crew of someone who did. Between the fishing seasons, and even during them, he and others like him would, on their own, rake & sign for clams, bend over for oysters, scoop for scallops, pot for hard crabs, or shed for soft crabs. They progged the sound to make a living. Like so many others, his everyday life was tied closely to the season, the tide, and especially the wind. Those three things, taken together, told a progger what he would do on any given day.

For Lemmis, and others like him, life was simple, and fortunately did not require much in terms of money. Food and shelter weren’t just the beginning of their concerns, to a large extend, they were the end as well. After visiting and coming to know people on the Island at the turn of the 20th century, a Mormon missionary characterized this group of Islanders as “... good, humble, but very poor people. All they lived on was a few fish they would catch, then sell them, and not worry any more until all the money was gone.” A later observer would question and take exception to this characterization, but it did apply to some of the Island people, even when I was a boy.

In spite of anyone's relative poverty, because their home was surrounded by fish & shellfish and an abundance of both domestic & water fowl, and because they lived in the midst of a large extended family, real hunger was seldom a concern. Yet, shelter sometimes was. This was true even though almost all Island people and families are and were sedentary in a way that remains surprising to most visitors. Still, there were a few families that, although they always remained within the confines of the Island, never really had a place of their own.

Even the poorest of families, including that of Lemmis Willis, maintained a small flock of laying hens (see post no. 33). On those occasions when a family was obliged to pull up stakes, the accepted way to transport the chickens was to tie their legs with a soft string, lay them on the backs, and place them in a wooden fish box until they could be “cut loose” at their new home. After a while, Lemmis had moved his stuff so many times that even his hens grew sensitive to how often it occurred. So sensitive, in fact, it was said that when his chickens saw him coming, “ they rolled over on their back, and crossed their legs!”

To this day, when we hear of someone who has frequently changed locations, it is common for someone to ask if it has reached the point that, “his chickens have crossed their legs?”

Saturday, May 7, 2011

No. 35 Barbershop Lessons

Long before there were any beauty salons on the Island, there were Barbershops. Some were family endeavors, like the one that my daddy’s Uncle Danky ran from inside his home. But there were at least three barbers who had dedicated shops that included a barber pole beside the front door.

Starling Lewis (b. 1898) had a business next door to his home, and beside his brother Carl’s store. Before Paul Wade opened his shop across from the postoffice in the mid 1960s, Starling’s was the closest to our house. He also offered the cheapest cut, 75¢ when I was a boy. Sometimes Daddy would take my brother, Telford, and me there on a Saturday evening. Within less than an hour we would be headed home, with our “ear’s lowered,” and what I remember most of all, a very sore and stiff neck. Starling’s way of cutting hair was to force your head down almost to a 90° angle, while he pressed his clippers up and down your neck and around your ears. By the time he finished and had whisked away the towel on your shoulders, you could hardly stand or walk upright. Eventually Teff and I would plead with our father not to make us “go to Starling’s.”

So it was that after that and until Paul Wade’s opened up, getting a haircut meant going to “Louie’s.” Louie Guthrie’s (b. 1904) barbershop was a small wooden hut, no more than two hundred square feet, that was past our church but before the schoolhouse — just beyond Myrtle’s cafĂ©. Because of all that a barbershop was at that time, Louie’s was a nerve center of the community. Especially on Saturday mornings, a line would form that often extended outside the door. Indeed, my brother Ralph was sometimes able to finance his own haircut by selling his place in the waiting line to others who preferred “paying” to “waiting.”

There were at least two things about getting a haircut at Louie’s that those who went there have never forgotten. The first is a lasting mental image of  a large framed picture that depicted a ghoulish scene of a ghost chasing a frightened farm boy down a country road. Ask anyone who ever went there, and they will be able to describe it for you, in vivid detail.

The second was of listening as the older men, especially Louie, expounded on the issues of the day. Beyond his unique insight, drawn from daily conversations that within a few weeks would have included almost every man of the community, there was the barber’s special voice pattern that resulted from a life-long speech impediment. The more excited he became, the longer it took him to express his point. But rather than a distraction, his stumbling words were as endearing as they were either humorous or insightful.

By the time I became a teenager, and the Beatles had ushered in a seismic change in how boys and young men wore their hair, Louie had closed his shop and settled in to a life of retirement. But several decades removed from waiting and listening while getting a haircut, I still remember warmly what is was like to be there, and to learn from him and his patrons some lessons that a young boy of those years could learn only in barbershop.

As elsewhere, getting a haircut at a barbershop, especially a first haircut, was an early initiation and rite of passage to maturity. Eventually, as a boy grew older, he could go to get a haircut without his dad or a bigger brother with him, yet another step towards the gates of real manhood. That’s when the barbershop became as much an educational as a grooming experience. Setting on the metal chairs of Louie’s Barbershop, with vinyl-padded seats and arm rests that were made of tubing, I learned some of life’s most memorable, if not profound lessons — and sometimes with words and expressions that would have made my mother cringe.

Politics, sports, and even religion were explained in terms that exposed me to a vernacular I had not heard on my father’s front porch. But it was the relations of men and women and other personal relationships I heard discussed in ways that, even at that early age, I knew I’d best not share when I got home. I also learned about who on the Island was most honored and respected, disliked and even feared. I gleaned from detailed, often humorous, stories whom I could trust, and just as importantly, whom I should avoid.

It also was there that I came to sense that most Island stories, no matter their topic, ended with a punch line, or some memorable phrase that weeks, years, or even generations later could be repeated and understood without ever having to tell “the rest of the story.” Some of them cannot be repeated here, but time has softened their edges in my memory so that I recall them now with as much fondness as I once did with amusement.

When I later took my own sons to Paul Wade’s, long after both Starling’s and Louie’s were left only to memory, there was still a sense that my boys had reached a milestone in their lives and in mine. By then the Island was less communal than it had been a generation earlier, and as a result the conversation was much more circumspect. But there was still a sense that they had just made their first visit to a place where a boy could start to learn more of what it was like to be a man.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

No. 34 “Why don’t you fly somewhere before somebody shoots you?”

Cletus Rose, standing in front of a drawing of his parents.

Cletus Rose was a “renaissance man.” He could do almost anything, and some of those things he did exceptionally well. He was a carpenter, painter, plumber, electrician, roofer, cabinet maker, architect, engineer, and boat builder. He designed and built houses and shops from the ground up, including cabinet work that was as much artistry as carpentry. He worked side by side with Brady Lewis in building some of the Island’s most distinctive vessels. But he was a boat craftsman in his own right, building everything from large trawlers to small skiffs.

He was a musician and singer, and with a chorus of his girls, could entertain and inspire an audience or a congregation. He was a devoted family man, close to his parents and siblings, and idolized by his wife and daughters. He was a leader in his community and church. Rather than relying only on group and community efforts, he frequently took the initiative to do things on his own. Like his father, George, before him, he often took upon his own shoulders to help a man or a family that had fallen on hard times.

But what was most memorable to many about “Brother Cletus,” as he loved to be called, was his essential kindness and goodness. Everyone who ever knew him has their own stories that are a “window to the heart” of his unbounded compassion.

Clem Will Jr. (Bud), his nephew, often tells that while working with his uncle on a job site in the western part of the county, he chose “not” to ride with him back and forth to work. This was not because he had his own car, and not because of any scheduling conflict, per se. Rather, Bud eventually determined that he could get to and fro quicker on his own, even if he himself had to hitch a ride. His uncle Cletus, he learned, would pick up every hitchhiker he saw, and then take them wherever the “bummer” was going, even if it was far off the path to their job. “I would be back and eating supper,” Bud remembers, “long before Uncle Cletus would ever make it home.”

In the heyday of his time as a carpenter and boatbuilder, Cletus acquired a collection of specialized tools that was the envy of other less successful journeymen. Knowing of Cletus’ good nature, his friends often prevailed upon him to borrow one or more of those tools to work on some temporary project. But, many times, temporary turned out to be permanent and the borrowed items were never returned. Eventually, feeling shame or guilt about their failures, some of the borrowers seemed to avoid being with or even greeting Brother Cletus when they approached him on the road or at the store. Even though the knew full well that he would never mention it, they preferred not having to come face to face with a reminder of their own failure to keep their end of what had been a very one-side bargain to begin with.

Just sensing their hesitation even to greet him was more than Cletus could bare. To remedy the situation he made a preemptive gesture of forgiveness that, he hoped, would remove any misgivings among his friends who had “borrowed without returning.” He posted a sign in the local store, telling everyone who still might be holding on to any of his tools, that the items were henceforth theirs to keep, with no hard feelings, but on one simple condition. He asked that they be his friends again when and wherever they saw him. He couldn’t bare the anxiety of feeling that anyone would not want to greet him over something as menial as a drill or router.

My own personal favorite story of Brother Cletus’ personality, and one that combines his talents, his attention to detail, and especially his gentle nature, is of the time he tried his hand at duck hunting. Having heard his friends extol the joys of stalking and bagging waterfowl in the marshes off the Banks, he determined one summer to be ready that fall to become a hunter with the best of them. He built himself a “duck blind” on the edge of a marsh that, according to those who saw it, was more like a home than a blind. He acquired  different shotguns that could be used for the various types of shooting that he planned. He carved and painted several bags of working decoys, of many different species of birds, to make sure he had the right ones when the time approached. He acquired the necessary licenses and permits, and outfitted a skiff so that he could transport his equipment to and from the Banks.

Eventually, all that was left was for the season to open and the hunting to begin. On the very first day, as the sun rose over Core Banks, Brother Cletus was sitting alertly in his decked-out duck blind, shotgun on his shoulder, decoys on the water, and with his skiff hidden in the marshes. On the break of day a “paddywack,” one of the smallest of the duck species, landed at the very foot of his blind and began to swim among his decoys. Very gently Cletus steadied his gun on his shoulder and looked down the barrel at what was going to be the first prize of his career as a hunter. But, according to the man whose hand was on the trigger, the small bird turned and looked him squarely in the eye, and then even tilted his head ever so slightly to the side. As the hunter gazed into the miniature eyes that were staring into his own, the finger he had on the trigger began to go limp. Within another moment he had dropped the gun from his shoulder and just stood up and stared back at the bird for a few seconds. Finally, his inner self having overcome his desire for the sport, he started waving his arms and hands and shouted, “Why don’t you fly somewhere before somebody shoots you?”

Within a couple of hours, the decoys had been gathered, the blind had been dismantled, and along with his guns and equipment, all that he had was loaded on his skiff and headed back to the shore at the landing not far from his home. He never again ventured to hunt for birds. More importantly, he never lost the caring compassion that made him a failure as hunter, but a “Prince of a Man.”