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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

No. 50 Joel Jr: "The Day I Saw Mike on the Roof"

My father tells me my grandmother had a specific and peculiar way of describing hotter-than-usual weather. She would say "it's as hot as the summer Joel (my father) was born." Similarly, when he wants to describe a person's look of confusion, shock or genuine disbelief, he says that the person looked "like Joel (me) when he saw Mike on the roof." This is the story behind that saying.

When I was in high school Pa bought a pitching machine for my brother and me. Mike and I wanted this particular machine because unlike traditional pitching machines that can only throw fastballs with those dimpled, yellow rubber balls, this machine threw soft foam balls and could be adjusted to throw curve balls. The beauty of the soft foam balls was that they maintained the same flight as a real baseball for pitching purposes, but they wouldn't carry like a real baseball after you hit them. This made the machine ideal for practice in our front yard. (As a side note, I was a much better curve ball than fastball hitter in high school, and each of my home runs--which were so few that I can still remember them all--was off a curve. I'm sure this pitching machine had something to do with it.)

And so, one day as Pa, Mike and I were out in the front yard hitting curve balls, Mike learned the hard way that the soft foam balls still hurt if they hit you just right. Mike got jammed with a curve that didn't quite break enough, and the ball hit him right on the tip of his thumb. Much like stubbing your big toe, jamming or hitting your thumb can be quite painful. Mike's thumbnail quickly turned black and he ran inside, obviously in pain.

Pa and I knew Mike was done for the day, but we stayed out in the yard and continued to hit. A few minutes later, Pa stopped the machine and pointed to the top of the house. When I turned around, I saw my brother, mi hermano, my best friend, my partner in crime, standing on the roof with his thumb stretched high towards the heavens. I'm not sure which of us asked Mike what in the world he was doing, but his answer is what drew a look from me that is now the standard for befuddlement. "Mama said my thumb wouldn't throb so bad if I held it above my heart, so I figured I'd try and put it as high in the air as possible."

Confusion. Shock. Genuine disbelief. "Like Joel when he saw Mike on the roof."

Sunday, June 26, 2011

No. 49 The Day They Started Tearing the Old House Down - Lillian Hancock Michels

[Last Sunday night's windstorm knocked over the tree that had stood so long beside my parents' home. The house itself was removed eight years ago and replaced by a new one belonging to my niece, Lisa Guthrie. But the tree had remained a reminder of many happy moments in the yard and on the porch. Lisa's family worked hard to save the trunk of the old elm, and hopefully it will survive as a living monument for generations to come. Seeing it laying on it's side brought back to my sister, Lillian (Sister), some thoughts that she penned when the house itself was taken down.]

May 21, 2003 will always have a very tender place in my heart. This is the day I had known for months was coming but secretly dreaded, the day the old house would be torn down, This was the home I was born and raised in. The old house was beyond repair. I knew this better than most people, because of the five years I had taken care of Daddy since mother had died.

Yesterday, I had taken the silk flowers left over from Daddy’s’s funeral out of the front room of the house before the demolition started. I took four wreaths to the cemetery at the west end of the Island. Two were put on Grandmother Agnes’s grave (his mother) and two on great grandfather Louie Larson’s grave.

My mother, Margarette, standing on the porch,
and under the shade of her elm tree.
This morning at 6:00 am I went walking by myself. Mike usually goes with me, but had a restless night, so I didn’t wake him to go with me. I stopped by the house around 6:30 and took one last walk through. The windows had all been removed, but a few of the old knobs that Daddy had made to them up were still there. I told the old house goodbye and come home. I wanted the bottom stair step because it was the one Daddy had painted a different color than the others so mother would know it was the last step of the stairs when sh walked down them.

Around 9:00 I saw Ski Robinson and his workers starting the job. I walked down the path to the old house and asked if he would save stair step for me. By the time I arrived they had already pulled up vinyl from the kitchen floor to remove old vinyl from years past. As I was standing there looking down at the old torn up kitchen, a flood gate of memories came rushing back. I remembered cold winter mornings coming down stairs and getting ready for school in that old kitchen by the heater. Mother always had a hot breakfast for us. I also remember summer morning when mother would fix shrimp that Daddy had caught the night before and put them on hot light bread with mustard on them.

These stairs seems three stories high on Christmas mornings when I hurried down to see what Santa had left for me. I was always happy on Christmas morning with my doll; she was perfect. I never did get a bicycle but bought myself one when I was thirty-five.

My brother Ralph, my sisters Lillian (Sister)
& Ella Dee, and my brother Tommy.
So now the time has come to say goodbye for he old house as I have to those I loved so much who lived there. First, my brother Denny in 1953, when he died with leukemia. Denny was as nine years old. Then my oldest brother Ralph was 65 years old in 1994. Ralph had been home for one year after living away for forty years. He was killed in a boating accident. The came mother, eighty-five years old, was killed in a tragic car wreck in 1999. Daddy was driving and never forgave himself. Two months later in 1998 my brother mike, fifty-five years old, was killed in a truck wreck. He had established Hancock and Grandson as a thriving welding business.

Daddy survived five years and one day after mother died. He died the Monday before Thanksgiving as mother did. He never really lived after mother died. He died in November of 2002 at ninety-three years old. All of these people I loved with my heart and soul.

I am happy Lisa bought the old home place. I am glad it stayed in the Hancock Family. I know I will always be welcomed there to think about the happy childhood I spent there. I hope the old tree stays in the front yard.

So goodbye old house. I knew it would hurt, but I didn’t think it would hurt this much.


Sunday, June 19, 2011

No. 48 "Billie Hancock's Dream"

Back in 1973 my brother Bill (Robert William Hancock) was a recruiter for the United States Coast Guard. While stationed in Salt Lake City, and probably a little homesick, he wrote and asked our father (Charlie William Hancock) to pen for him an account of a story that I and my brothers and sisters had heard him tell many times. It was of my father’s grandfather and their mutual namesake, Billie (William) Hancock, and a dream he had one late Spring evening about a whale that had washed ashore near Cape Point. He also told about how responding to that dream helped to save the people of Diamond City from a winter of privation.

My great-grandfather, Billy Hancock
My father's narrative was based upon the story he himself had heard often from his own father. Only two generations removed from his legendary grandfather, he delighted in recounting for his own children in so far as possible, the same stories and using the same words that had been a staple of his own education as one of Billie Hancock descendants.

According to my father's written account, the spring whaling season of one year in the 1870's had passed without the sighting of a single whale. Finally, in mid-June, a whale was spotted far off of Beaufort Inlet and Billie Hancock's crew set out to bring it in. The story that follows is from my father's letter:

… They floated the boat out until they put a lance into the whale. They started shooting it, but the whale was so big that shooting it didn't do any good. The moon was shining bright, so they hung with the whale until after the night had fallen. Then the whale headed out toward Cape Shoals. The line on the whale finally broke and they lost it. Everybody was so worn out that they rowed back to shore very discouraged.

They were so tired when they got home that my grandfather went right to sleep and had a dream. His dream was so real that he got out of bed and went and called two more men from the crew and told them what he had dreamed. He had dreamed that the whale had died and had grounded at Cape Point. After telling the others, he began to run to the Point (approximately six miles) to see for himself if the whale had, in fact, washed ashore. The other crewmen must have accepted what their Captain had told them for they soon followed him to the Point.

My grandfather ran straight along down the beach because there were so many trees back then. He said that when he got to Cape Point the tide was so low and the moon was shining so bright that he could see something out on the reef. He said to himself, "That's got to be that whale! We need it so bad!" So he waded off and soon saw that it was the whale.
The whaling harpoons used by Billy Hancock

Now came the big problem. On high tide the water would get so high that the whale would float off the Point and they would lose it. He thought that if only he had enough rope to run off and tie it to the whale they then would be able to hold onto it even after the tide came in. 

Fortunately, his crew had followed him and together they were able to save the whale from drifting off … I don't remember what they got for the bones, but they got forty barrels of oil and they made $40.00 a share. I was told that after it was all over they came back to Diamond City and had a big square dance.

Sixteen years and two generation after my father's letter, his granddaughter Joella (my daughter), who was then twelve years old, decided to put into verse her own version of her grandfather's story about his grandfather's feat. The result was a poem that has been a family staple ever since.

Billie Hancock's Dream 
Joella Hancock 1989

The spring had fled too fast that year in eighteen seventy-four,
And not one whale for Diamond City had been spotted from the shore- 
Until mid-June when Billie's eyes were cast upon the sight
Of a giant's spout that pierced the sky as day turned into night.

Upon the dorey the crew set out to spear the whale's side,
But fate conspired and the line broke free before the fish had died.
The dreams and battles seemed all lost as the whale swam far away,
And as it fled their hope sank too, before night could turn to day.

Exhausted and drained the men returned and slumber soon was found
When a dream came to the captain's mind: The whale had come aground!
Under moonlit skies he called his crew, then ran on winged feet
Along the beach towards Cape Point where all were told to meet.

And as the Cape came into view, a lump upon the reef
Assured the runner his dream was true, and to his great relief
Before the tide could wash the catch back out upon the sea,
The crew arrived with ropes and spears as hearts broke forth with glee.

O'er forty barrels of oil were sold and bones brought even more
And forty dollars a share was given according to the lore.
T'was providence that smiled that night to bless the needy folk
When Billie Hancock ran forth in faith as from his dream he woke. 

A long and hard day on the water followed by a late night dream that welled into a vision. A story told to his children and to theirs. A letter written by a father to his son who shared it with his brother. A daughter who was allowed to see it unfold yet again in a vision of her own, so much so that she described it in a verse that is now read by her own children. One story spanning seven generations (for now), combined with a hundred other stories, to knit the fabric of a family and to bind them across centuries as well as generations.

Friday, June 17, 2011

No. 47 Annis & Mississippi

Geographically, Harkers Island is part of the South — even the “Deep South.” But to the extent that such applies to race relations, the Harkers Island of my youth was a world apart from the tobacco and cotton crescent that stretched from the tidewater area of Virginia to the piney woods of eastern Texas. Racial stereotypes and attitudes may have been as deeply seated here as in Beaufort, New Bern or Raleigh, but at the Island there was a distinction that was also very much a difference.

It was as simple as it was historical. The economic patterns of the antebellum period kept the Banks communities in general, and Harkers Island in particular, apart from the plantation culture that dominated social relations before and after the Civil War. In short, the absence of those plantations also meant the absence of the Black communities that sprang up in and around them. The demographic patterns that had been established before the war continued, and even hardened in the decades that followed.

In some places, Harkers Island included, there were virtually no black families at all. An exception that all but proved the rule was next door to our house. In the home of Tom Martin Guthrie and his wife Evoline lived an old “colored lady,” Annis Pigott. She had spent her entire life as part of white families and was as much a stranger to the harsher aspects of the racial barriers that prevailed in inland communities as anyone and everyone else on the Island. Annis died an old and “wrinkled” woman  before the time I could remember. It was said that her appearance was more typical of her gender and age than of her race. In fact, according to my mother, she did not know that Annis was “black” until she was one day visited by her brother from “town” whose color revealed both his race and that of his sister.

Annis Pigott with the family of Cleveland Davis
Her death certificate indicates that she was over a hundred years old at the time of her passing in 1952. If true, it means that she would have come of age even before the outbreak of the Civil War, and, just as importantly, lived most of her life during the turbulent times of Reconstruction and Jim Crow segregation. Tracking her on the census data from the late 19th century until she shows up near Hancock Landing in 1950, indicates that her home was always on the Banks or one of the other Core Sound communities. Hopefully, that distinction may have shielded her from the more stereotypical images of what life was like for a domestic black woman of that era.

After Annis died a few months before I was born, the nearest Negro families to Harkers Island were at North River. Except for Saturday trips to “town,” I lived almost my entire life as a child without interacting with anyone of another race or color. The Island that I knew was about as “lily white” as one could ever imagine. In fact, until the troop deployments of World Ward II brought soldiers and sailors from elsewhere who met and married local girls, almost every surname on the Island was either English or Scotch-Irish in origin. Willis, Guthrie, Lewis, Moore, Chadwick, Davis, Gaskill, Hancock, Brooks, Nelson, Rose, Fulcher, Yeomans, Hamilton, Styron, Salter, Russell, Fulford ... all of them thoroughly British or Gaelic.

But when I was about eight years old, and growing into an intense love for baseball – watching it, playing it, reading and talking about it – I came to know the very first black man that I can remember. His name was James Archie, but no one called him that. Rather, he was known to everyone simply as “Mississippi,” the same as the state he called home. (According to Stacy Davis, he was from Hattiesburg, MS and was born around 1936.)

He worked in Henry Davis’ fish house, and lived in a small one room frame office at the foot of the dock that had been built as a market for Henry’s oldest son, Wayne. It was no more than ten feet square and had no facilities other than a cot to sleep on. Mississippi loaded fish into boxes and the boxes onto and off the carts that ran on a short makeshift railways that ran to and from the two docks — one out on the water for loading from boats and the other at the shore for loading onto trucks. He had originally been with a crew that manned a larger fish house at Atlantic. While there he made friends with Wayne who invited him to come work for him and his father. During his time at the Island he ate at the Davis family table and was treated as  a part of their family.

With a large round face, closely cropped hair, and a deep bass voice, he could have been cast as a character in the popular Broadway play of the era, “Showboat.” In fact, it’s not too hard to imagine him entertaining himself while sweating on the docks by belting out a chorus of “Old Man River.” But it was his sinewy physique, from his neck and shoulders down through his arms and chest and all the way to his hips and calves that made him so well suited for his job of lifting boxes of fish, shrimp and clams that weighed well over a hundred pounds. He would jerk them with a hook, or even his bare hands, and hoist them above his head as he stacked them on the cart or into the truck. All the while he was singing, whistling or talking constantly to anyone who could hear him.

Those same strong arms that lifted the fish boxes could do wonders with a 36 inch baseball bat. In what some have called Baseball's Golden Age, and the heyday of Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, who were from his neighboring state of Alabama, this man called Mississippi became our very own Negro League All-Star. And with this one we could actually watch him play rather than just reading about him in the Sporting News or hearing about it on the radio.

Fish house work was mostly in the early morning and late evening, when boats came in with their catch. During the day Mississippi usually had time to come with Wayne, or Wayne’s cousin “Corn Cobb,” to the baseball field we had fashioned on some vacant pasture land behind the home of Johnnie Willis. It was the property of a retired Methodist preacher, “Mr. Johnson.” (Because cattle once grazed there, after the 1964 Republican National Convention held in San Francisco's “Cow Palace,” some of us started calling our field “Johnson’s Cow Palace.” We even posted a hand made sign to that effect.) No matter where we were in our games, when word arrived that Mississippi was on his way, the excitement was palpable and we quickly reconfigured our teams to make sure he had a place.

Our field had been fashioned to dimensions meant for lanky young boys who were still filling out their bodies. Those distances proved woefully inadequate when Mississippi came to the plate. He would hit the ball so hard that infielders always moved back several steps to protect themselves for those few occasions when he hit anything other than towering fly balls that had to be retrieved from deep in the pines and yaupon bushes that were our fences. Since we had only one ball, and it was usually taped and dirty, searching for and finding it in the green thickets of early summer was not always easy. But that distraction was well worth the trouble because of the excitement of watching this enormous “colored man” hit the ball farther than anyone we had ever seen.

Just as when he was working on the dock, he was as jovial and happy as anyone you could ever imagine. He laughed just as loud and hard as he played and worked. Unlike Annis, given his age and background, he must have known firsthand the sting of the racial prejudices that were the norm of that era. But he never let on even the faintest sensitivity that he was in any way different or apart from the rest of us, either at the fish house or on the ball field. Perhaps it was for that very reason that we came to feel the same way – that he was just another bigger and stronger one of us. After an initial consciousness of his distinctive color, at least in regards to everyone else in our finite group, that difference inevitably gave way to an appreciation of his person and of his character and talents. After a while he went from being Mississippi the colored man, to Mississippi the hard worker, the ball player, and the friend.

I’m glad I had that lesson as early and as profoundly as I did. I think it made me a better person then, and especially in those later years after integration when I would come to sit with, play beside, be taught by, work together, and be friends with black men and women in every aspect of my life. The lessons I had first learned at Henry’s Dock and at Johnson’s Cow Palace have served me well and often.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

No. 46 “Lying Willie”

One of the storytellers I came to know best while waiting in line at Louie’s Barbershop (post No. 35) was an old man whom everyone called “Lying Willie.” As might be assumed, there was a reason for the name. He would have been well into his seventies by the time I got to hear his stories. He lived in the same neighborhood as Louie’s shop, and would stop by to visit and  share with others the exciting events he had seen or heard of — if only in his own mind. Beyond that I don’t ever remember seeing him take his place in the barber’s chair. Wearing ragged bib overhauls and worn out canvas shoes, he would discourse on the issues of the day. Pausing only for a chronic cough that sometimes had him bending over in his chair, he always, always, made his point by recounting something fantastic.

Willie was as mild mannered and gentle a person as I ever knew, and was just one of the many men and boys who shared their tales to the group who waited in line for a haircut. But his stood out from all the others for two reasons. First, they were so outlandish that there was hardly any way that they could ever be true. Lots of folks told stories that might have been a stretch or an exaggeration, but with Willie’s yarns each twist and turn of the plot made them more and more bizarre.

The second reason why Willies’ stories were so unique was even more significant. They were told without his ever betraying their implausibility. Willie rattled of his accounts with the same demeanor as if he were describing something as real as the rising of the tide or the setting of the sun. His stark and sullen expression never changed, even when he delivered the final punch line that rendered his tale as totally unbelievable. Then, with only the hint of a smile that must have hidden a bulging internal belly laugh, he would move on to the next story. Usually, that one would turn out to be just as incredible as the one that preceded it. “It may have been a lie, but it was told for the truth,” someone would say as he recounted one of Willie’s many yarns, no matter how outlandish. Almost always it was the former.

Reflecting back on his stories through the prism of almost half a century, I have determined they all had a common strain and message. Willie’s tales seemed always to be about how a poor and simple man can, with enough imagination and ingenuity, turn almost anything to his advantage. Just two examples might illustrate these qualities.

According to Willie, one Spring day he was sitting on a marsh in Banks Bay hoping that a loon might fly by close enough that he could venture a shot. After several hours of waiting without a single sighting Willie was just about ready to head home. Just then he caught sight of a loon flying along the shoreline of Bell’s Island towards the horse pen on the landing of Diamond City. The bird was so close to the shore that Willie knew he would never be able to reach it with the small birdshot he had loaded in his shotgun. But rather than give up on his chance to carry home something for supper, Willie quickly came up with a plan.

In the blink of an eye and in rapid succession, he pulled his pocket knife, broke off the blade, peeled open a gunshell and poured out the shot, and then placed his knife blade in the shell and sealed it before loading it into the barrel of his gun. With hardly a second to spare, he took aim at the loon that was now almost directly between him and the waterline. Still thinking, he waited for the exact moment that the bird came in line with an oyster rock that was just off the shore and pulled the trigger. Then, according to Willie, the knife blade he had used to replace his birdshot sliced cleanly through the neck of the loon, killing it instantly, and then smashed on the exposed rock where it opened a half a peck of oysters before lodging into a stray piece of driftwood! By using his head as well as his talents, rather than going home empty handed he had both some meat and some shellfish to share with his family.

A final tale is less far-fetched but evidences just as much ingenuity. Willie once told of an especially thrifty farmer from Straits who had a favorite “white mule” that had served him well for over twenty years. (I’ve never been sure what the color of the mule had to do with the story, but Willy took great pains to emphasize that every time he mentioned it.) One morning, as he inspected his barn, he found out that his mule had unexpectedly died during the night. Rather than just dispose of his animal, the farmer came up with an idea to use the mule for a “final service” to his master. He decided to raffle off the mule for 25¢ a ticket.

When his wife learned of his plan, she begged him to give up his ruse rather than run the risk of angering his friends and neighbors when they learned that their intended prize was not just useless but dead. “Not to worry,” the farmer explained, “the only one with a reason to be mad will be the one that wins, and I’ll give him his money back!”

So it was with Willie and his stories. Even if you didn’t believe them, because you had been so entertained, you had nothing to complain about.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

No. 45 "... something that no true waterman could do without - a skiff."

... The boats that lined the Island shore were generally moored between one and two hundred feet offshore. For that reason they required something that no true waterman could do without; a skiff. Twelve to fifteen "foot" skiffs were pulled up almost everywhere along the south shore of the Island. There probably were more skiffs than there were real fishing boats. Not everyone could afford a big boat, but almost anyone could have his very own skiff.

Despite how many there were, skiffs pulled up on the shore were considered to be almost communal. It was assumed that, in a pinch, you could use any skiff you could get to, so long as you returned it where and like you found it. This view was not shared by everyone as evidenced by a story my Daddy used to tell of noticing someone along the shore to the eastard actually setting fire to his skiff and watching as it burned into ashes. The man was often ill tempered, and it turned out that someone had borrowed the skiff without asking, and then returned it full of sand and seaweed. When my father inquired as to why he was now burning it, the response was quick and simple. “Spite!”

Fishermen used skiffs to get from the shore to his boat. It generally was light enough to enable one man to pull it up on dry land all by himself, especially if he used rollers. Others left their skiffs tied or anchored only a few feet beyond the tidal line so rolled-up pants were all that were needed to wade to the skiff, even at high tide.

Skiffs also served as readily available "pack horses" that could be pulled behind bigger boats to carry nets, drags, or rakes used by the commercial fishermen as well as the fish, clams, oysters, or scallops that they might catch. It could even be used to ferry a banks pony back and forth between Shackleford Banks and the Island if a young boy's pleading yielded the desired results.

Harkers Island skiffs were all pretty much the same. Some were just a little bigger or smaller than others. The had no flare or deadrise, being the truest of "flat-bottomed" boats. Each one had at least one oar, generally from about eight to ten feet in length; just enough to push off the bottom anywhere on this side of the channel. They were outfitted with an iron anchor and fifty feet of sisal rope that ran through a small hole cut into a little front deck.

The skiffs almost always were made of juniper, the lightest native wood available, to make them all the easier to pull ashore or back into the sound. For convenience in building, they generally were "cross-planked," a construction method much simpler than the length-wise planking used in bigger boats. They generally had at least one thwart seat, which everyone called simply a "thaught." This "thaught" also strengthened the sides of the boat by serving as a cross beam.

There was at least one other feature common to every Island skiff; a bailer. Long ago they were made of wood with a protruding handle. Beginning in the mid 60's the wooden bailers were replaced by plastic containers, generally Clorox bottles, with the bottom and part of one side cut out.

Bailing involved much more than just scooping up water and pouring it over the side. Experienced bailers (the men or boys who used bailers were themselves called bailers) could remove water from a skiff much faster than the modern bilge-pumps that since have taken their place. A fast and steady sweeping motion kept at least one bale of water suspended in air all the time. From a distance it might have appeared that a large suction pump was spitting a steady stream of water from the bilge of the boat.

One trick that every bailer soon discovered was that bailing was much easier, and more efficient, when done with the wind. It didn't do much good to throw a gallon of water into the air if a blustering southwester returned most of it to the boat (and the bailer's face.) Oaring, or "poling" the skiff was another art that was much refined by those who used skiffs on a regular basis. Working from the leeward stern, the oarsman could move a skiff fast enough to throw a real wake. Two oarsman working together could raise a "cattail." Before gasoline powered boats became more common, local watermen poled their skiffs everywhere along the Island shore. Some even "shoved" as far as Beaufort or Davis' Island. Luther Willis became renowned for his oaring skills and speed. It was said that he could pole to Beaufort faster than others could go in a sailskiff.

Most Island boys, including me, got their first real exposure to boating in a skiff. The skiff became their training ground for setting nets and raking for clams as well as for polling itself. Being able to shove a skiff in four different directions without ever changing places was very much a right of passage for any youngster who hoped one day to be real waterman.

Friday, June 3, 2011

No. 44 The Dredge Boat Captain from Lennoxville who was my Grandfather

Shortly after moving to Harkers Island from the Banks,[my grandmother] Bertha met and married [my grandfather] Richard Lewis, a dredge boat captain from Lennoxville (near Beaufort). Dick, as he was called, was never quite certain as to who was his own father, at least officially. His mother, Charlotte, had three children that included him and two sisters, but she was never married. She would later relate to her son that his father was a well known doctor who was much revered throughout the county. In fact, Dick would later confide that it was the same doctor who provided him with the financing he needed in order to get started in the dredging business and eventually to become a captain.

Richard Lewis, the Dredge Boat Captain from
Lennoxville who was my maternal grandfather.
Charlotte was much loved by her new daughter-in-law, and most especially by the large group of granddaughters that Dick and Bertha soon presented. My mother would often explain that her favorite month of every year was August. That was because when she was a girl, her grandma Charlotte would spend every August with them and help her mother sew new clothes for the upcoming school year.

Immediately after marrying, my grandmother Bertha began having daughters, a total that eventually reached nine, although only seven grew to maturity. My mother, Margarette, was the second of those girls. Grandpa Dick, as he later was known, was successful as a dredge boat captain  and provided his large family with a spacious home and a relatively comfortable standard of living; so comfortable in fact, that often, and for extended occasions, Bertha was able to take in orphans or other children that, for whatever reason, could no longer be cared for by their parents. At various time she had in her home as many children who belonged to others as she did of her own. Eventually, one of those would become the son she had always wanted.

Captain Dick’s work responsibilities caused him to be gone for extended durations, usually several months or more, without ever returning home. It often was said, and not entirely in jest, that he came home only often and long enough to father another child. When he did come home, his long absences served to make him very remote from his children. My mother would sometimes lament that she could not recall that he ever kissed or told her that he loved her. She related how on one occasion when her father was expected home later that evening, she and her twin sister, Helen, made a pact that “this time they were going to run up and hug him, and kiss him on his cheek.” But in spite of their pledge, she lamented, when he presented himself to his children, his attitude was so aloof that neither of the twins, or any of their sisters, could muster the courage to ask for his affection ...

Thursday, June 2, 2011

No. 43 "Somebody might see us!" Joel Hancock, Jr.

Play it forward one generation. My oldest son, Joel Jr., shares some of his experience as an "Island boy."

Though several of my friends from the Island and Downeast continue to make their living on the water, for most of the boys of my generation a boat symbolized play more than work. I got my first boat when I was 13 or 14. It was a 16ft flat bottom skiff with a 40hp outboard motor. It was built by some men on the Island--commercial fishermen--who had used it for flounder gigging. The transaction that saw the boat leave their hands so I could use it for joyriding was somewhat emblematic of the differences in the "Island boy" experiences of my father's generation as compared to mine. 

Those differences aside, the boat was special to me. It was big and safe enough that I could use it to take myself and a couple of friends to the Cape, but small enough to keep me from going to the more dangerous waters offshore. More importantly, it was something I was to take care of. I was responsible for keeping it clean, making sure it had enough gas, making sure the right amount of oil was mixed with the gas, and making sure it didn't end up in a million pieces on top of a shoal somewhere between Harkers Island and Wade's Shore.  

My sons, MIchael & Joel Jr. at the  Landing
One of my favorite things to do with the boat was to go knee-boarding with my friends in the channel between the Island and the Straits. None of us were any good; the height of our achievements usually involved making it from our bellies to our knees without falling off, or occasionally moving off the wake behind the boat out into the calmer waters. Sometimes we tried to jump the wake as we cut back behind the boat, but that usually ended badly. Our equipment was as pitiful as our lack of skill. Our ski rope was just a piece of yellow nylon rope tied to a wooden stick. It didn't float, so if you lost your grip you had to swim back to the boat and follow the rope back out until you found the handle. I never did find out where or how we acquired the board. 

We spent hours and hours riding around in circles, pulling ourselves up to our knees and then falling off. We didn't have to go home until we got low on gas or ran out of daylight...or until the outboard motor stopped working, as outboard motors are wont to do. The 40hp motor on the skiff gave me plenty of headaches, and every outboard motor I've had since has been equally frustrating. I had to call my dad more than once asking him to send someone out to tow me in. It was always an embarrassing thing to do, not least-of-all because I was the one that was supposed to be taking care of the boat, and breaking down was a sign that I had failed. The men my dad bought the boat from surely wouldn't have called for a tow, they would have popped off the cover and fixed the motor!

The embarrassment associated with breaking down was not unique to me. One summer evening I was out knee-boarding with my brother Mike and our friends Brent Gaskill and Ryan Lilley in Brent's boat. The two things I remember most from the outing are first, Brent somehow lost his shorts while trying to pull his 6 foot 5 inch frame up onto his knees, and second, we broke down. While we managed to find Brent's shorts floating in the channel, we had less luck trying to restart the motor. After what must have been a couple of hours trying to get it running, we noticed the sun beginning to set. Worried we might not get the boat started before dark, I grabbed a flare gun and got ready to signal for help from other boaters. Before I was able to shoot off a flare, Brent looked at me in disbelief and pleaded, "Joel, are you crazy? Don't shoot that, somebody might see us!" 
Joel G. Hancock, Jr.
The Penn State Dickinson School of Law

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

No. 42 "... Wouldn't that be an unsafe movement?"

Most of the downeast communities had something that the people were known for or by. Harkers Islanders were called “loon-eaters,” folks from Marshallberg were called ”hard crabs,” and the people of Williston were called “beantowners.” And for Otway it was accepted by everyone that they drove their vehicles harder and faster than anyone else! Hardly a weekend went by that there was not a wreck, many of them serious, in or around Otway.

In the days before safety inspections required effective mufflers on all vehicles, whenever someone heard a howling or roaring engine streaking down the road, the most common speculation was that “... it must be somebody from Otway trying out their car.”

It was against that backdrop that an older man from Harkers Island went to the motor vehicles office in an effort to get a drivers license for the first time. He had driven cars all of his life, but had never ventured to get a license. He had kept putting off any suggestion that he avoid the risk of driving illegally until he finally admitted that he could not read nor write, and knew he would never be able to answer the questions on the driving test.

Eventually one of his friends worked out an arrangement with an examiner to allow that he take the test orally. So after almost forty years of driving without a license, the aged Islander sat across from a kindly lady who read aloud to him each of the required questions. All proceeded fairly routinely in terms of his responses until there arose the subject of “unsafe movement.”

Sensing that the man was puzzled, the examiner sought to explain her question further to make sure that he grasped what was being asked. When he still seemed confused, the lady zeroed in by directly asking if he understood the term, and finally requested, “can you give me an example of what is meant by an unsafe movement?”

When finally he made up his mind as to what was being asked, the man from the Island responded, “How’s about this; a pulpwood truck being driven by a drunk Otwayer and passing somebody on a curve? Wouldn’t that be an unsafe movement?

The examiner must have agreed, because a short time later the Islander was home and had an official drivers license for the first time in his life.