Follow by Email

Sunday, July 31, 2011

No. 59 (Part 3) Neighborhoods, Families, Homes & People


Typical of the time and place, most adult women were both wives and mothers, and worked only in the home. Add to that their assumed role at helping their husbands as watermen, and that was usually more than enough to keep them busy. But busy as they were, most of them were actively involved in our lives, at least within a radius that was close to their home and family.

Men and fathers had a broader reach that usually extended throughout the neighborhood and beyond. And because of that, at least as a group, their influence was more profound on what everyday life was like. My mother was at the center of everything that happened in our home near Hancock Landing. But, collectively at least, my father and the men who lived and worked beside him, many of them older than even him, were much more a part of my boyhood experience, and my lasting memory.

This does not mean that the women did not congregate outside their homes, especially in their churches. One  memorable gathering place for women was in the sound on some hot late summer afternoons. I don’t recall how the occasion might have been organized, but it was not unusual for the women of the neighborhood sometimes to come and join us as we were swimming. Still wearing their long skirts and dresses (frocks), they would walk out to where the water was waist deep, and then kneel down so that only their head and shoulders were above the surface. Usually in a large circle, depending on how many were there at a given time, they would escape the “dog day” heat while visiting with their friends and family. Eventually, en masse, they would head back towards the shore where they and we would wash off the salt with hoses that spouted well-water so cold it always left me shivering.

But such a gathering was so much the exception that it stands our in my memory. On the other hand, groups of men were very much the rule for the grown-ups of my world. Indeed, they usually had either already spent their day working somewhere in the water, or were preparing to spend their evening trawling or channel-netting for shrimp. Especially in mid-summer heat, most commercial fishing was done at dusk or dawn. Clamming on the shoals off of Shackleford was the only exception. Other than that the grown-up men spent their daylight hours preparing or repairing their boats, nets, and rigging for the night of hard work that lay ahead of them.
Neighborhood men working their nets on spreads at the landing.

Since most of this was done at or near the landing, the very place where we children spent most of our time, we were around our fathers and their friends as much or even more than our mothers between May and September. It was in this setting that I came to know, love and appreciate the “old men” who were at the center of the neighborhood that gave shape to my world. They told the stories that gave meaning to the lessons I was learning. They taught the skills that allowed me to appreciate how arduous the life of a waterman could be. And most of all, they helped me to understand that I was part of something bigger than myself or even my family. They never used those precise words, but they didn’t have to. The lived out their part in a way that I would never forget it.

Of all the things that I miss about that way of living, that dynamic relationship of men and fathers with boys and sons may be among the most profound. As I compare it with the life style that has taken it’s place, I sense that something important, even vital, has been lost.

My own life is my example. Outside of our home, interaction with my children and now with my grandchildren has most often been in the context of "their" world. Like other parents and grandparents I go to their ball games and recitals, their awards ceremonies and graduations, and even their parties and parades. I see them as they go about their routines and rituals, and if I am involved enough, can have some influence on what and how they learn from those experiences.

That stands in sharp contrast to the world of my youth that evidenced a pattern that was almost totally the opposite. I got to know my parents, and especially my father and other men of our neighborhood in a setting that was almost entirely theirs. I watched and learned as they prepared for and worked in the water, maintained their houses and boats, and especially as they gathered to share life stories and experiences. I was lucky! I came to know many of them in a way that was exponentially more intimate and formative than what today's prevailing model will allow.

Perhaps for mothers, or at least for those fortunate few who have the privilege of staying at home with their children, the change has been less dramatic. For fathers the role reversal has been as stark as it has been irresistible; for them and for their children - and  especially for their sons.

Perhaps I have as many contemporary friends and associates as did my father, likely even more. My children and grand kids know them only by name and a few anecdotal accounts that they might have overheard through the years. But for me and my generation of Island boys, our fathers and their friends were not just spectators as we played games and learned to sing, dance or even work. They were our teachers and mentors who helped us sense that we were part of something wonderfully special that was more than we could see with our own eyes or hear with our own ears. And, as we watched and heard them, we came to appreciate all the more how they became who they were, and, just as importantly, why and how we might carry on that tradition.

No. 58 (Part 2) Neighborhoods, Families, Homes & People

The Children

"All the summer world was bright and fresh, and sun rose upon a tranquil world, and beamed down like a benediction.” Mark Twain

A popular cliché’ of recent years has been that “it takes a village to raise a child.” I’m not sure if our neighborhood would qualify as a village by itself, but I am comfortable that for the most part it managed the task that a village might be assigned.

The young people I grew around and with were familiar with not just the exterior, but also the “inside” of all thirty-seven homes in our neighborhood world. If we had not spent the night or enjoyed full meal at the table, we had at least shared a light roll or biscuit, or maybe a mullet roe or boiled egg, that had been prepared in the kitchen.

Our playgrounds were the fenced-in yards, along with the spaces around and in between them. Unless we were at the landing or in the sound, we were always within earshot of some grown-ups, as they were with us. Most of the grown-ups, especially the women, assumed at least some parental authority over making sure that we children “behaved.” And even those that didn’t would “tell our mamas” if they thought we had said or done something that we shouldn’t. “Do you want me to tell you Mama …,” was a frequent reminder that we always being watched.

A frequent refrain heard whenever it seemed to an adult that we children were not getting along as we should, or maybe even were just a little too loud or aggressive, was to “play pretty!” We came to accept that “play pretty” meant that we had to change what we were doing, even if it was not immediately evident as to what or how.

In the days before air conditioning, doors and windows were always open so that merely by walking by a home you might hear what was being said, or even smell what was being cooked. But usually, a little before the time for any meal, most children were signaled to head for home by the sound of their mother “hollering” to let them know that dinner or supper was ready. Thinking back, it seems remarkable how far and clear a female voice could ring and echo in our neighborhood. Each mother had a distinctive sound and cadence. Like fledgling birds, we grew to recognize and respond to the pitch and tone of the sounding voice even more than to the words or instructions that were hollered.

In summer months most of the children, boys and girls alike, would spend the largest portion of a day at the landing and in the sound. With almost no parental supervision we took care of each other to the extent that the most serious injuries I can recall were feet cut on oyster shells or the remains of a broken bottle or jar. Besides being a respite from the summer heat and humidity, playing on the shore and in the sound was such strenuous exercise that we children were all “fit a fiddle.”

Danky's (Willis) Dock, called David's (Yeomans) Dock in my time.
David’s (Danky’s) fish house dock was our gathering spot, and the scores of boats that swung at their posts and moorings nearby were our bases. There was always a deep “steamer hole” to the east of the dock that was maintained at about six feet or more to allow boats to get in even on an ebbing tide. Just inshore of was a high “white sand shoal” that often was out (dry) when the tide was at its lowest during a strong sou’wester. That was when we would get into a running start from atop the shoal to plunge headlong into the adjacent hole. Other times we used the bone that swung out from the dock to propel out over the hole and the fall to the water below. But most often we just dove from the dock or one of the pilings straight out towards the deep. By mid-morning as many as a dozen youngsters would have gathered in the area, and we would play games around the dock and on and around the surrounding boats.

But even when the weather was not just right for swimming there was always something to do. Try as I may, I cannot recall ever hearing or using the word “bored” to describe anything about life as a child on the Island. In fact, I may have been in high school before I came to understand that there was a homonym for the usual word that made that sound; “board,” you know, then one that I could use interchangeably with “plank.”

The butt end of those planks often became toy boats that we pulled along the shore. Tin cans were filled with sand and dragged by a string along the roadway. Slits of rubber from worn-out tire tubing became “rubber bullets” that were shot from wooden pistols rigged with a clothespin trigger. Smaller pieces of that same rubber were fashioned into slingshots that propelled chaney berry bullets almost as fast as the real thing. Slithers of cloth torn from old clothing were hung as tails on kites that could stream wildly in the southwest breezes that blew constantly on summer afternoons. In short, almost anything that was no longer of any practical use could be made into a toy of some sort for and by us children.

There were no curfews or schedules. It seemed that the setting sun was the primary thing that signaled an end to our daily routines. Sometimes, that alone was insufficient to send us home. But even when the approaching darkness failed to end our games, sooner or later there would begin a chorus of voices calling us home for the evening. Then, early the next morning soon after roosters began to crow and hens started to cackle, the daily routine of our summer would begin again; and not a minute too soon.

Note: Just as a note of interest, using 1962 as a benchmark, and my own memory as a reference, I have tried to estimate the number of children that were of teenage years or younger and who lived in the 37 houses that I have circled into our neighborhood. My count was 43, although it I may have been off by a few who were already past their teens or who had not yet made their presence felt.

(Next: "The Grownups")

Saturday, July 30, 2011

No. 57 (Part 1) Neighborhoods, Families, Homes & People

The Neighborhood

The Harkers Island of my youth was a series of adjoining circles that in one way or another were connected to every other circle on the Island. From Shell Point to Rush Point the entire community could have been divided into neighborhoods, and the neighborhoods into extended families.

From the Yeomanses at the east'ard to the Brookses at the west'ard, every home might have been assigned to both a neighborhood and to one or more extended families. Even within the latter there lay still smaller circles that were the nuclear families, almost always housed under a single roof, but still nestled within both a larger family grouping and one of the many neighborhoods that filled the whole Island.

My family’s home was situated amid a dozen or more similar sized and shaped houses belonging to the “Charlie Hancock crowd.” That enclave was surrounded by three other extended-family groups, the Willises, Guthries, and Moores, to whom we were blood related in at least one way, and often two or more.

Envisioning a snapshot of that neighborhood focused at about the time I was ten years old would show a group of thirty-seven houses, give or take only a couple. They stretched from the south shore of the Island on Back Sound northward at least half way across the Island toward Westmouth Bay. On the south border it ran east to west from the homes belonging to Harding Guthrie and his children to the homesteads of the families of Rennie and Dankie Willis.

On its northern end it was flanked by the families of Willie Guthrie and Aaron Moore to the east, and the assembled Hancock and Moore children and grandchildren to the west. In between, each and every home housed at least one of these four primary family names. Many had two, and some even three of those surnames represented. As for the scores of cousins who were the grandchildren of those patriarchs, our relationships were sometimes so complicated that we just knew we were “kin,” even if we could not explain exactly how.

(Next, “The Children”)

Friday, July 22, 2011

No. 56 Thoughts On My Island Home (Joel G. Hancock, Jr.)

I've heard that you can tell a Harkers Island fisherman apart from others because a Harkers Islander will never go far enough from home that he won't be able to sleep in his own bed that night. My wife Lauren's grandfather, uncles and brother (all from Beaufort) spent months at a time fishing off Mississippi and Louisiana. By contrast, if my grandfather Charlie caught enough fish on Monday he'd stay home the rest of the week, only returning to sea when the money from Monday's catch ran out. 

I'm certain this attachment to home is not unique to Harkers Islanders, but it also wasn't unique to my grandfather's generation. My father tells a story about almost moving to Kentucky for a PhD in history. If I remember correctly, he and my mother made it some considerable distance down the road before deciding that the risk of permanent relocation to Kentucky was too severe for them, so they turned around and went back home. Years later, my father was offered a significant promotion in a different state. He said he might have taken the offer if not for the long drive to and from his Island home every morning and night! 

Whether it's genetic or environmental, home has a very strong pull on this Island boy, too. I lived in Brazil for two years after high school as a missionary for my church. I was always perplexed when my American peers, many of whom were from the Western United States, daydreamed about returning home so that they could eat in American restaurants, or shop in American stores, or return to some of the conveniences of American life not shared by our Brazilian brothers and sisters. Not that I didn't look forward to those conveniences, or that they didn't look forward to being surrounded by family and friends, but when I daydreamed about home I was thinking about eating my mama's light bread rolls with my family on Sunday nights, or driving up to my aunt's house with my dog for some stewed conchs. I suppose when the nearest Wal-Mart or McDonald's is almost an hour away, convenience isn't high on the list of things you remember about home. 

Today I'm writing this from my home in Pennsylvania. For me, home has at least two different meanings. First, and in the short-run, home is wherever Lauren and Calvin (our son, joining our home in September) live. I can't imagine a version of home without them. Second, home is a specific physical location where I want us to end up in the long-run--which doesn't necessarily have to be in my mama's house, but the nearer the better. As such, every discussion about where my family and I go after law school is had within the parameters of whether the next stop is literally or figuratively closer to home. If it's neither, it's just not an option. The thought of moving somewhere else permanently makes as much sense to me as asking my grandfather to fish on Tuesday morning after a big catch on Monday. 

Eventually, my two definitions of home will merge together. Hopefully Calvin will have stories to tell about his experience as an Island boy (or something very similar to it). I just hope that I can afford the drive to and from work every day.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

No. 55 "The Wild Chicken"

Chickens of many breeds were always in evidence (see posts no 33 & 36) in our little Island world. Chicken coops, chicken eggs, chicken feathers, chicken biddies, and even chicken smells could be found in almost every back yard or thicket.

Most of the adult birds, even the laying hens, eventually ended up in a pot or frying pan. The usual routine for having a chicken dinner was for someone to go to the coop, trap & catch a chicken, and then see that it was prepared for the table. The first part of that process actually was “to kill” the bird, and that was something I never got used to watching. When Mama, or more usually, Daddy, would head out from the coop with a hen or rooster under their arm, I would run far enough away that I could not witness, or even hear, what was about to happen next.

Inevitably, however, when I made my way again to our back porch, I would find my mother preparing the chicken by removing its feathers. This was done either by “picking it with her fingers” or “singeing it near a fire." To have reached this stage meant that she or my father had begun the process either by “ringing the neck” or “cutting off the head.” of the unlucky bird. If you’ve ever seen either of those unfold, you might appreciate why I had avoided watching it whenever I could. I was not so naive that I did not understand where the fried, baked, or stewed chicken that we ate almost every week had come from, or how it made its way to our table. I just didn’t have the “stomach” to watch or be part of that process.

In this photo, taken when I was seven years old, I am
holding my pet Bantam rooster, Junior. It was one of
the few chickens that did not end up in a pot or pan.
I guess it’s the same as what I’ve often heard about pork sausage; specifically that if you see it being made, you won’t enjoy eating it nearly as much. But this was the inevitable fate of nearly all the hundreds of chickens that were always in evidence in my boyhood world.

I offer this as prelude to a simple story told about one of those chickens that ended up as the main course of a Sunday feast. It was said to be a rooster, and had been so wild as it ran free, and had been so hard to catch, that even after having been slaughtered and dressed, the cook was forced to put a brick atop the boiler as it was cooking in order to keep it from jumping out of the pot and escaping yet again.

The next time you hear or see mention of a wild bird, it might be well to remember the rooster that was just as wild dead as when it was alive.

Monday, July 18, 2011

No. 54 "... do you wanna cut the grass, or do you want ..."

An oft-repeated question heard around our home was directed by me to our children and went something like this, “Do you want to (do the dishes, wash the car, mow the lawn, etc), or do you want me to ....?" Each of my children knew how the question ended and the desired response, and so we never had to complete it, or at least, hardly ever. The statement had its genesis in a story told of an Island father and his relationship with his teenage son.

Many of his friends and neighbors had observed how the son was always hard at work around the home, keeping busy with helping his parents in routine chores, or even working at specialized tasks like painting a porch or trimming the hedges. While sitting around at a store one evening, his father was asked what special parenting skills he had that had caused an adolescent son to be so helpful and industrious, especially at an age when many young boys shy away from even the most menial of household jobs.

“Well,” the father affirmed, “I am of the opinion that you shouldn’t force children to do things against their will. I feel it is best to reason with them, and help them understand the necessity of the task at hand — as well as the consequences, now and in the future, if the job is not competed. Then I allow my son to decide for himself if he wants to help his mother and me or if he would rather be lazy and take advantage of his parents’ good will.

“For example, I might say to him, ‘(calling him by name) do you wanna cut the grass, or do you want me to beat the hell out of you?

“Then he makes his decision, cuts the grass, and I sit back and drink a cup of coffee.”

Point made. Point taken. So, whenever one of my conversations with my children about their intentions reached the point that I asked, “Do you want to ..., or do you want me to ... there may not have been an agreement, but there was never any misunderstanding!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Posts so far (16 July 2011) No. 1 - No. 53

No. 1 "You'll freeze to death this winter!" (Telford Willis)
No. 2 "Have you ever been to Chicago?" (Charlie Claude Jones)
No. 3 "A mattress made of seaweed (Tom Styron)
No. 4 “Billy Hancock ‘soaks’ Sam Windsor” (c. 1870)
No. 5 "That ball was high!" (Creston “Sno’ Ball” Gaskill)
No. 6 "The closest I ever come to having a job." (Louie Hancock)
No. 7 "... if you wait until tomorrow morning, most of 'em will be gone!"
No. 8 "Prince" and the fudgesicles" (Calvin Willis)
No. 9 Ole Pa's House
No. 10 "Has there been a blow or something?" The Storm of '33
No. 11 "We didn't even get a chance to bat!" (Charlie Claude Jones)
No. 12 You ain’t gonna ‘mount to nothin’ (Charlie “Ole Pa” Hancock)
No. 13 Manus Fulcher was headed home ...
No. 14 "The sweetest sound in the whole world"
No. 15 Danny Boy Lewis, "I know twice as much as my father!"
No. 16 "... I want one so bad, I’ll take a pack of them.”
No. 17 "Mullet fishing, an old man, and World War I" (Luther Willis)
No. 18 The "Booze Yacht," a journey, and the "sweetest fumes I ever smelled."
No. 19 "Bittersweet Memories of Grade School on the Island"
No. 20 "Miss Ollie & Dr. Moore"
No. 21 "... as much as anybody else in this graveyard!"
No. 22 "What about that oak tree over there ..." (Ed Russell)
No. 23 Some unforgettable lines that may someday be forgotten ...
No. 24 The Boats that lined the Shoreline
No. 25 Horsepenning
No. 26 “All I wanted was a chance.”
No. 27 The Silver Maples are Turning (Ralph Hancock)
No. 28 “... we ain’t gonna get nowhere if you keep stopping ...” (Donald Guthrie)
No. 29 "It just weren't meant ... to see no mountains!" (Tommy Hancock)
No. 30 How Sea Scallops changed the shoreline forever
No. 31 ... disappointed at her proofs ...
No. 32 “Just look at you crowd ...” (Mary Willis)
No. 33 “They grew so fast ... they were keeping me awake at night.” (Louie Hancock)
No. 34 “Why don’t you fly somewhere before somebody shoots you?” (Cletus Rose)
No. 35 Barbershop Lessons
No. 36 Loke & Lemmis — stewed loon & tied-up chickens
No. 37 Dallas Rose "... in two hours we'll be headed out again."
No. 38 More than just a store!
No. 39 Louie Larson's unfinished story
No. 40 "Dack" and the Eggman
No. 41 "Are you now or have you ever been ...?"
No. 42 "... Wouldn't that be an unsafe movement?"
No. 43 "Somebody might see us!" Joel Hancock, Jr.
No. 44 The Dredge Boat Captain from Lennoxville who was my Grandfather
No. 45  "... something that no true waterman could do without - a skiff."
No. 46  “Lying Willie”
No. 47  Annis & Mississippi
No. 49 The Day They Started Tearing the Old House Down - Lillian Hancock Michels
No. 50 Joel Jr: "The Day I Saw Mike on the Roof"
No. 51 "I love you just as much as I love Tommy!"
No. 52 A League of Our Own (with apologies to Cindy Marshall, Tom Hanks & Gina Davis)
No. 53 A Winner’s Cup and a Loser’s Lament

Friday, July 15, 2011

No. 53 A Winner’s Cup and a Loser’s Lament

A picture of my grandfather, Charles
Hancock, called Ole' Pa by almost
everyone, at about the time he moved
from the Banks to the Island (1900).
The newcomers at Harkers Island who came from Shackleford Banks after the storms of the 1890s brought with them most of their customs and pastimes. Understandably, one of those was sailing. So it was that soon after thei
r arrival in 1900 there began an annual twenty mile race of sailskiffs from Shell Point along Core Sound, northward to Davis’ Island, and back to Shell Point. A Mormon missionary who served at the Island in the spring of 1903, recorded witnessing that event, and that it was won by the “Twilight,” a twenty-two foot, single masted sailskiff. He noted that the boat was captained by “one of the prominent men of Harkers Island, Charles Hancock.” That man was my grandfather. The trophy for winning the competition was a large silver cup that thereafter adorned the mantle of his home, and that his son, my father, fondly and vividly recalled .

According to my father, Ole’ Pa, as my grandfather was called, was interested in more than just mini regattas, and would frequently join in impromptu races with the other sail skiffs that, by then, lined the south shore of Harkers Island. But not all of his sailing ventures were so successful as the one witnessed by the visiting missionaries. According to my father, Ole’ Pa was one day maneuvering the Twilight in Back Sound when he encountered a small fleet of dories (round bottomed skiffs) that had been fishing to the "noth'ard." They were hurrying back towards "Town," as Beaufort was then called, and were making their way westward between the Island and Shackleford Banks. Itching for a challenge, he invited them to a race from there all the way to the Beaufort Bar where the dories would turn for home. He was not nearly so proud of how that one turned out.

In a favorable wind, the smoother bottoms of the dories made them swifter than the flat-bottomed skiffs used by most of the local sailors. But favorable winds were the exception rather than the rule for vessels that had a stated destination and an appointed time, and often had to “tack their way” around or even into a constant breeze. In this environment, the deeper skegs and centerboards of the flat-bottomed skiffs were far better able to negotiate the many turns needed to maneuver through the marshes, shoals and channels that separated the Island from "Town", as Beaufort was then called. Facing a strong southwester, Ole Pa knew he could easily outrun that day’s competition in spite of their having much larger sails and crews to man them.

A single masted sailskiff, similar to the one used by my grand-
father. This is a 17' model built by Heber Guthrie, and being
manned last summer by me along with my sons, Mike and Joel
But fate turned against him once he made his way to Wade’s Shore and the wide channel that headed straight to the Bar. The wind suddenly shifted to the northeast and gave the crew of the dory the only advantage it needed to quickly overtake the sailskiff that until that moment had them in its wake. Less than half a mile from the breaking waves that marked the entrance into the Bar, a dory seemed to “fly past him” as the crew shouted out hoots and jeers to the erstwhile leader. So intense was his humiliation that after that, according to my father, Ole’ Pa never again challenged anyone else to a boat race.

Monday, July 11, 2011

No. 52 A League of Our Own (with apologies to Penny Marshall, Tom Hanks & Gina Davis)

Baseball has been played here since shortly after the Civil War, and maybe even before that. My father often told stories of his grandfather, Billie Hancock (see post no. 4), and of old-timer Cliff Guthrie playing ball long before he came on the scene in 1909. (A story about Cliff included details too graphic to be recounted here, so remind me to tell you about it the next time you see me. You won’t be disappointed.) But when it came to organized teams and leagues, that was something reserved for grown-ups, or at least teenagers old enough to play with grown-ups, who could represent their community on the field of honor – or shame, depending on the outcome. But that all changed in 1963 when I was still ten years old.

The various communities that lay east of the North River Bridge may have appeared to be quite similar to casual visitors, but they were fiercely independent in most matters. Until the County Board of Education mandated a consolidation of the high schools after Word War II, each of them had their own fish houses, their own churches, and even their own schools. I can’t recall any united activities before the school consolidation and only a very few since.

An exception to that rule was the “Downeast Little League” with four teams that were loosely representative of several downeast communities, or at least those that were south and west of Nelson Bay. Its geographical boundaries were roughly a triangle that reached from Harkers Island on the southeast, to Bettie in the northwest, and to Davis Shore in the northeast. Harkers Island and Otway had teams of their own, but Marshallberg and Bettie joined with other communities to field a team, and not always  neighboring ones. Marshallberg was joined with Tusk and Gloucester, and Bettie also had boys from Davis, Williston and Straits.

The league had its genesis in the care and concern of a cadre of young fathers. Each of  them had played baseball, and they all had sons for whom they wanted something more than the mere sandlot games that their fathers and uncles had enjoyed. Sometime in the Spring of 1963, Dallas Arthur from Bettie, J. C. Dickinson from Otway, J.D. Lewis and his brother, “Wump,” from Marshallberg, and especially my older cousin, Creston “Sno’ Ball” Gaskill from Harkers Island, pooled their energies and resources to organize and then oversee what became for me and my age group “a league of our own.”

I can still recall how excited I was when Sno’ Ball’s son, and my next door neighbor and closest friend, Manley, told me that there was “gonna be a little league and that we were gonna have our own team.” As the school year came to a close, Sno’ Ball, assisted by his good friend, Lomus Jones, began practicing with our group of about fifteen boys, most of us either ten or eleven years old, in the makeshift ballfield that sat behind the Mormon Church. It was mostly just a vacant lot, but with a wire backstop at the northwest corner. But for us it was our Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park rolled into one. After just a couple of weeks of practices there we became a real “team” that was ready to take on the best that the rest of the world could throw in our direction.
By our second season we even had uniforms

The league itself had no official rules or by-laws, no regulation fields, and no paid umpires. That first year we didn’t even have any uniforms. But we did have what Sno’ Ball loved to call the three “B’s”; balls, bats & boys. Seven years later the final piece of that puzzle, the boys, who had started out in this “disorganized” league, were together at East Carteret High School. Before we finished we had won the regular-season championship of the Northeastern High School 3-A Conference, a league that included the largest schools in this part of the state. At closely-cropped ball parks of Greenville, Kinston, New Bern and places in between, and in places as far away as Roanoke Rapids and Elizabeth City, we were able to use the skills and talents that a small group of caring fathers had first helped us develop  and hone amid the sand spurs, crab grass, and yaupon bushes of the original "down-east.".

Even now, almost half a century later, it is hard to express how exciting it was for me and the others to play baseball in a real league, even if it was not a “real” one by some standards. Perhaps an incident that had occurred just one year earlier might help convey that feeling. One Saturday afternoon, while leaving Beaufort after the regular Saturday shopping trip with my family, we stopped by Huntley’s Hardware, a building supply store that was adjacent to the Little League Stadium for the town of Beaufort. While waiting in my sister’s car I saw a ball player, just about my age, walking away from the park wearing an authentic baseball uniform, the whole thing, including a cap with a raised letter, a pin-striped shirt with a number on the back, matching peg-legged pants with colored socks and black spikes (that’s what we called cleats in those days.)

I could not have been more impressed if Willie Mays himself had paraded in front of me in all his glory. That’s the first time I ever remember seeing in “real time” a real “baseball player” uniform. To this day I still can recall and even feel some of the excitement I felt that summer afternoon. The idea that I might someday be able to wear a similar type garb was so foreign to me that it was more fantasy than hope. Then, from out of nowhere it seemed, came the opportunity to be part of a team just like the one the boy with the real uniform had represented. Even if I didn’t have such a uniform (our second year we did), I had the “real baseball” and that was what mattered most anyway.

As to the game we played, everything was based upon the “un-official” baseball rule book, both written and not, that our coaches had grown up with. No effort at all was made to adhere to the modified rules used by the nationally organized youth groups.  All games were played at the field used by the Smyrna High School. It had the dimensions of a park for grown-up players, so to make it work the coaches simply shortened the bases by thirty feet and placed a pitcher’s rubber fifteen feet in from the regular mound.

Other than that we played baseball the way, according to Sno’ Ball, it was meant to be played. Runners took leads before the ball was pitched, stole bases when the situation called for it, and broke up double plays with both feet and arms spread in every direction. There were no “free” substitutions that allowed for everyone to get a chance to play. We played hard and we played to win, just like our coaches said we should. There was no such thing as a “mercy rule” to save the losing team from greater embarrassment. With a group of coaches who had come of age in boot camps preparing for wars in Europe and Asia, little attention was paid to sparing the feelings of players or even teams that did not measure up. In their minds, the best way to avoid embarrassment and humiliation was to play good enough baseball that those emotions were never aroused.

Umpires were drafted from both adults and adolescents who happened to show up before the game got started. Sometimes it was even the parents of the players who were calling bases as well as balls and strikes. Despite the apparent conflict of interest, I do not recall there ever being a contested call that was serious enough to interrupt the flow of the game. Even the accepted age limits for players mandated by the national organizations were not strictly enforced. Several boys, who technically were old enough for the “Pony League, ” and thus too old for our teams, instead became the oversized heroes of their “Little League” squads.

Coaches in the back are Creston Gaskill, Lomus Jones & Curtis Salter
Two, and only two, new baseballs were unwrapped for each game. When one of those was fouled into the thick woods that lined the field, play was stopped until it could be found and returned. Other than just a few fathers and older brothers or cousins, there were very few people there to watch us play. But that didn’t matter. It was what was happening on the field that really counted, and as long as Sno’ Ball and Lomus were satisfied, and our teammates were not disappointed, we could not have cared any less for who was or wasn’t cheering from the sidelines.

Once the season had begun, and we started actually playing ball rather than just practicing and getting ready, it was all over it seemed almost before it started. We had just one game a week played on Saturday mornings. We matched-up against the other three teams four times each, so it was a long season by today’s standards. But our Harkers Island team was so good that by the mid-point of the season we were undefeated and the only real contest was for which team might finish in second place. We finished the first season with only one loss, and in my second year we were undefeated. In fact, the most exciting match of both seasons was when as part of the closing celebration the “Harkers Island Sharks” matched up against “all-stars” chosen from the other three teams. Even then the excitement was only in making out the lineups, since we beat the all-stars as handily as we had the regular squads.

After just a few more seasons, the original league gave way to one sanctioned by a national organization. By then each team had matching uniforms, certified umpires called the games, and legions of parents eventually sat on metal bleachers or on lawn chairs to cheer for their sons, grandsons, cousins and friends. At the end of the regular schedule, the league chose an all-star team that went on to tournaments with the hope of competing at the state and national levels.  But in our league, this league of our own in the strictest sense imaginable, when we won the regular season title, we were “world champions,” at least of the small world which we knew and were a part of.

We had no misgivings about not being able to play against other teams from other places. For most of us the world we knew was all east of the North River Bridge. At least when it came to baseball, that world was our oyster, and we were eating it raw!

Saturday, July 9, 2011

No. 51 "I love you just as much as I love Tommy!"

Thelma and Tommy soon after their marriage
My mother’s life revolved almost completely around her ten children – seven sons and three daughters. Then, as we acquired spouses, they became like children of her own in almost every way. Especially as she grew older, and came to depend on us more and more, her daughters-in-law in particular were just as much her care-givers as were her own children.

Once, after a period of extended illness when Tommy’s wife, Thelma, had been with her almost constantly for several days, Mama sought to express to Thelma how much she loved her and appreciated all she had done.

“Thelma,” she said, “I love you just like and just as much as I love Tommy. As far as I am concerned there ain’t no difference at all in how I feel about him and how I feel about you!”

Then, wanting to express that in spite of what she had just said, Thelma needed to understand that, even with all that, blood is indeed thicker than water. Quickly she added in profound conclusion, “But, if one of you had to die, I’d rather it be you than him!”

That was her way of emphasizing that even if it were just a small difference, it was a real one.