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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

No. 65 "I've got two lists ...," My brother Mike's fishing boats

My brother Mike was a jack of all trades. In the villages of Eastern Europe he might have been called a "fixer," because he could fix just about anything. Home appliances, large and small engines, electronic equipment, and anything having to do with an automobile were all just putty in his hands. He could  fix them if they were broke, change them to make them better and more useful, and even build most of them from scratch if the need arose, or if it somehow struck his fancy. Especially, as a carpenter he could envision something in his mind and then use a hammer, saw, plane and rule to bring it to life right in front of his and your eyes.
My brother, Mike, jumping aboard the "Seven Brothers" at our family dock

Nowhere were his special talents more in evidence than in building boats. His first one was a small speed boat that he built as a teenager. Later on he focused on open fishing boats that he used as a commercial fisherman to supplement his income. Over the years he built boats of various styles and sizes, ultimately selling each of them for a handsome profit, and then using the money to buy materials to use in building a bigger and better model.

One of his last boats, and the one that was the culmination of his aspirations both as a boat builder and a fisherman, was called the "Seven Brothers." It was a forty-two foot long trawler that was state-of-the-art when it came to the latest mechanical and electronic fishing gear. He chose the name in honor of his six male siblings, and each of us considered it a great tribute to be represented on the stern of one of the handsomest trawlers ever to work the shores of Cape Lookout and Shackleford Banks.

Mike built his boats in his own back yard. He had a large barn-shaped shed where he kept his tools and equipment. But the boats were set up under the open sky where he spent his Saturdays and most evenings after getting home from his work as a welder. The process moved steadily along from the heavy wooden skeg, to the intricate framing, and to planking the deck, sides and bottom with small strips of juniper. Eventually, after the vessel had taken its final shape, Mike would install the engine, the shaft and the propeller that would turn his wooden handiwork into a functioning fishing boat. Then, just before a launching the new boat in the Sound, he would paint it a brilliant white, except for the bright red anti-fouling “copper” paint that covered the bottom. The bottom paint was sometimes separated by a thin trim line, usually blue, that offset the primary colors with a beautiful patriotic theme.

The final, and most personal, part of the building process involved imprinting a name on the freshly painted stern. Early on Mike would hire Samuel Davis, a local artist, to paint "Lisa-Deena," the names of his two daughters, on his boats. Subsequent editions were called the Lisa-Deena II, III & IV. These were open boats, less than twenty-five feet long, with gas engines that had been salvaged from wrecked automobiles. Later on he built his first trawler, a thirty-five foot flare-bowed vessel called the "Captain Charlie." It was named for our father, who after his own retirement loved to pass his time "piddling," as he called it, in helping Mike with his latest projects.

Even with his trawler in the water, he determined that he still needed a smaller boat for some of his recreational and fishing needs, and so he built another open boat in the style of the original “Lisa-Deena”s. This one was hastily built for function more than form. By then my first son, Joel Jr., was old enough to want to spend his days with his uncle as he worked away at getting the boat ready in time for crab-potting in the Spring. As ever, Mike was patient and understanding with his nephew, even taking the time to teach him how to use a hammer. Eventually Joel Jr would run up to the work area and repeatedly beg his uncle for a "knock knock," as he had grown to call his new found toy. This scene was repeated so often, that when Mike finally got the new boat ready for launch, he named it the “Knock Knock.”
The "Seven Brothers" at Clayton Fulcher Seafood Dock

The Seven Brothers, Mike’s last true fishing boat, was so big that it took almost a year for him to finish. Because he was so successful as a fisherman, and since he was so easy, even enjoyable to work with, there was a long line of hopefuls wanting to be part of his fishing crew. Most often he would take our father along, but by that time Daddy due to his advanced age was more a passenger and observer than a true helper in the strenuous labor of handling a net and rigging. Depending the time of year, and our situation, Mike would call on Tommy, Bill or even me to go with him. More than once I was able to pay for a Christmas order or some other special purchase with money I made working on Mike's boat.

When Mike started building the "Seven Brothers" and it became obvious that this was going to be a full-fledged trawler and would need a team of several men to handle the work load once it was put into service, several neighbors approached Mike about becoming a part of that crew once the boat was ready. Not all of them however, were of the type that Mike or any other trawler captain might have wanted as a partner in their labors. So it was that he came up with an explanation that he gave to one of the applicants whom he felt did not measure up the standards he had for his crewmen.

The "Seven Brothers" moored at the family dock at Hancock Landing
When Mike was asked point blank if there were any openings still available for a place among those who would be sink-netting on the Seven Brothers later that Fall, my brother offered a response that has been part of the family's lore ever since.

"I've got two lists of potential crewmen I am keeping ," he explained to his friend, "and you can rest assured that you are on both of those lists." Seemingly satisfied to know that he was in the running, the man began to walk away, before suddenly turning back towards Mike and asking, "what kind of lists do you mean?"

"Well," my brother responded, "the first is a list of those that I might be asking to go with me. You need to know that you are on that list, but that you are the very bottom for the moment. The other is a list of all of those that I’m thinking are not gonna go with me. You are on that list too, and you are at the very top!"

"Great," the man responded as he turned and continued on his way. "I'm just glad to know that I'm in there somewhere."

Monday, August 22, 2011

No. 64 Aunt Gracie's scrambled eggs

Everyone called her “Aunt Gracie.” Actually, her children and grandchildren didn’t, but nearly everyone else did. Perhaps it was because there were so many nieces and nephews - Hamiltons, Willises & Hancocks - or more likely because she just perfectly fit the mold of what an ideal aunt was supposed to be. She just seemed like she should be everybody’s aunt.
Aunt "Gracie" Hamilton Willis, holding her
great grandson, Adam Guthrie in 1971

She had nine children of her own; eight who grew to be adults. They all lived within a short stone's throw of their mama’s  porch and two of her boys, Calvin and Neal, remained in the same house they were born in all of their lives. But it was the many offspring of her eight siblings, and the siblings of her husband, Rennie, that grew in numbers so large that may have caused her to be identified in the community as everyone’s “aunt.” Add to that her kind and gentle nature, the nurturing attention she offered to everyone who caught her eye, and the way she shared her home and food with anyone who passed her way, and you can better understand why she was considered to be family by everybody who knew her.

Aunt Gracie’s house sat on the Island’s south shore, facing the Banks. Her husband, Rennie Willis, had been born just a few feet to the west in house that was built by his parents, Calvin and Emeline. There was a small stoop porch facing the Landing and from her kitchen window she had a view of Danky’s dock, and the many boats, large and small, that dotted the shoreline. On the north side of her home was a long porch, with a swing and several rockers, that looked out on a small pasture, called “Rennie’s Field,” and in every direction she could see the homes of her immediate and extended families.

The north facing porch of Rennie & Gracie's house, looking from Rennie's field.
A dirt path, at various points cobbled with clam, scallop and oyster shells, led directly from the porch to the Island’s main road that was no more than two hundred feet to the no’thard. Beside the path was a drainage ditch that sometimes was maintained by prison-workers but that was usually so full of brush and vegetation that it was more a lengthy mud pond than an outlet for run-off water. There was an almost constant stream of traffic up and down that path of people headed to and from Aunt Gracie’s porch. Some may have been on specific errands, but most were just part of the daily flow of friends and family who viewed her home as a gathering place.

Among those frequent visitors was a neighbor from Marshallberg, Julian Brown. Mr. Brown was known by almost everyone, not just at his native Marshallberg, but anywhere from Beaufort east to Cedar Island, and especially at Harkers Island. Browns Island, the uninhabited island that sits between the mainland and Eastmouth Bay on Harkers Island, took  its name from his family who had owned it for as long as anyone could remember.

Julian Brown (Photos courtesy of Becky
Brown Paul, his grand-daughter)
Julian Brown was tall and heavy set, what his generation called “stout,” with a full head of graying hair. He was an “entrepreneur,” at least in the early 20th century connotation of that title. He did some farming and fishing, raised livestock on his aforementioned private island, and marketed his crops, catch, and other assorted wares up and down Core Sound. He was renowned for several things, including his skills as a trader, his thriftiness, his generous heart, and most especially for his prodigious appetite. In short, his personality and his reputation were much larger, relatively speaking, than the small Island he used to pasture his herds of sheep, goats, and cattle.

It was said that Julian Brown would open up his home, and especially his kitchen, to anyone who needed it or him. Probably for that same reason, he expected and assumed others should be similarly charitable to him should he ever need it. As he worked his way along the shores of Core Sound, when mealtime arrived, he was not at all unwilling to drop in on whatever friend was nearest by, and then join them at their table. His impromptu visits were so commonplace that, eventually, they were expected and taken for granted.

So it was that early one summer morning, while peddling his wares at the Island, Julian Brown made his way up Gracie’s path and to her kitchen as she was preparing breakfast for her children. Treating him just like she did her own, she continued to crack and fry egg after egg, as many as her skillet could hold, and kept dropping them onto the plate of whomever seemed ready for another serving. Eventually, all of the children had left the table, but Julian Brown remained in his seat and savored every new portion his hostess placed in front of him.

Eventually, both he and Aunt Gracie noticed that along with the biscuits, bacon, and potatoes, Julian had finished off the last of the eggs still evident on her table. Uncertain if anything else was wanted or expected, Aunt Gracie got his attention and asked if he was aware that, so far, he had eaten a full dozen eggs? Washing down his meal with a cup of coffee that had been refreshed several times, the grateful visitor took stock of the situation and then responded to his host with a compliment and a simple request.

“They were real good, Aunt Gracie,” he offered, “but if you cook any more eggs, would you please scramble ‘em?”

Saturday, August 20, 2011

No. 63 To my dear friend, Libby Jean

(Today, 20 Aug 2011 I spoke at the funeral of my friend and cousin, Olivia Jean Yeomans Shipp. This is a printed copy of my remarks. It is largely unedited, so please overlook any obvious grammatical or spelling errors. I rushed getting it ready as I wanted to make it available to her friends and family who were not able to attend the service.)

The cover from her funeral program
Along the shoreline at the landing there were lots of boats, and most of them looked alike. Whether skiffs, open boats, or even trawlers, they all seemed to be different sizes and shapes of the same design.

But at the foot of Danky’s (David’s) dock there was one boat that was noticeably different.  Rather than smooth sanded sides, this one had planks that were attached to the frame and to each other – call lapstrakes.  Rather than a white painted juniper stern, on this one the transom was varnished mahogany. It had vinyl covered seats instead of a “thawt - thwart” and the motor was so recessed as to be almost hidden, both from view and from sound. And unlike all the other boats, it didn’t swing at a stake or mooring. It sat on a metal trailer so it could be moved over land as easily as it could float over water.

In short, this was a “fancy” boat, at least fancy when compared with the others that stretched as far as you could see to both the east and west.  It was made for riding “on” the water more than working “in” the water.

There was something else different about it. I knew all the other names that were painted on sterns; whether Barbara, Ralph, Francis, or even “The Ram.” This one had a name that I just didn’t quite get.

You see, it was named the “Olivia.” I would be almost a teenager before I came to realize and the person in whose name the boat had been christened was “Lib,” our “Lib,” “Libby Jean.”  I can still remember thinking when finally told of the connection, “so that’s who that is!”

Like the pleasure boat her father named in her honor, there was something fancy, even a little elegant, about “Olivia Jean”. She could rub shoulders with the leaders in the community & politics, as well as school and church officials, and not seem at all out of place. She could talk their talk and walk their walk without missing a step.  That world of movers and shakers has lost a good friend, and many of them are here to honor her today. We thank you for your friendship and kindness to her and to “hers” and for the many wonderful moments she knew and enjoyed as part of that world.

But I am here to represent the people who knew her as just plain old, “Lib,” or “Libby Jean” if it was something urgent or important that needed her attention. You know who I’m talking about, that little girl of David and Clara Mathelda’s, Danky & Ollie’s grand-daughter, Ashlyn & Brandon’s Mama, and most of all in recent years, Bob’s wife and sweetheart. That’s the one I’ve been asked to remember. I’m here to speak for and about just plain old “Lib.”

When I was thinking her and who would be here today, I was a little amused that “Dallas Daniel” is her only “1st cousin”. But when the cousins list is expand that to include 2nd, 3rd, or 4th relations, then it would include just about everybody here today. Certainly there is all of “Rennie’s crowd,” and her father’s extended family. But there is also the crowd of Moores, Guthries, & Hancocks, and others that knew and loved her – we were family too. And then there an even more distant blood relative who was the closest thing she ever had to a baby brother, Howard Craig Lewis.

Perhaps there is a need to explain why I, one Charlie William and Margarette’s boys, am standing here today, speaking about her, but representing many of you who have similar blood lines and similar memories.

First, let me thank Bob, Ashlyn & Brandon for this opportunity. They know, and want you to understand, that it was Lib herself who requested (demanded) that I fulfill my obligation to her by being here. You see, Lib and I shared something that she considered important, almost sacred. We were part of the world she was born in and never left. Oh, she was prone and even eager to travel, explore, shop and hang out. But it was always with the understanding that she would eventually come home -- not just to the Island, but to our neighborhood and her world.

Some of us when we were younger, could throw a baseball from the house where she spent her first night as a little girl, to the home where she spent her last evening as mature woman. She didn’t complain about the compactness of that little world, she bragged about it!

I asked Bob if the question ever arose between him and Lib of moving and living somewhere else. Without hesitation, he responded, “Never.” We didn’t answer it because it never came up.

On a personal note, let me continue by asserting that I don’t remember a world that Lib was not a part of. There were two houses and eight years in between us. But her grandma, Ollie, was about as close as I ever came to having a grandma of my own. Beyond that, Ollie was the nurse maid and doctor to our whole community.

[Lib was close enough to me to tell me the truth, sometimes even when I didn’t want to hear it. But I told Bob there is one thing I’m not sure she was completely honest with me about. It can be summed up in two words, “Black Salve.”]

Lib had something besides a pleasure boat that set her apart from almost everyone else in our neighborhood while growing up. She had a telephone. That heavy black headset that sat on an even heavier base with a dialpad was both a burden as well as a blessing to her. She was the one who had to run all over the neighborhood to let someone know that there was a “person to person” phone call waiting for them at David & Clara Methelda’s.

Another distinguishing aspect of her childhood was that Lib’s Daddy, David, was everywhere – at the fish house (David’s dock) in the evening, at the polling place on election day, and the post-office every single day.

Because her family was involved with so much and so many, Lib was a part of just about everything. She was not just David’s little girl, she was his little boy too, with and around him in everything he did.

One distinction she owned, that most of us never knew, but that is still remembered by some, is that she, along with Dwight Willis, was the mascot for the last ever (final) graduating class of Harkers Island High School in 1951.

Consider for a moment some things about her childhood. She was around fishermen and boatbuilders every day, just like the rest of us. But it was not at all unusual for her to come home and find a judge, legislator, congressman, or even the lieutenant governor sitting on her porch or eating at her mama’s table. She came to be so familiar with such occasions that she was comfortable and poised while making her way around the rich and powerful.

It was quite probably fore-ordained that her career was to be in public service. In working at the courthouse she was doing in a structured way what her father, David, and her grandfather, Eugene Yeomans, had done for several generations. Lib was at her best doing things, “little things” but not unimportant things, for “little people.” Rearranging a jury assignment, help with a traffic ticket or fishing citation, tracing a social-security check, or explaining why a local coast guardsman needed to be stationed closer to his home – these were the things that Lib knew how to do and was willing to help with.

She was good at what she did at work, and she was successful. But that stuff she did at the courthouse was a way of making a living, it was not her life.

Her life was centered seventeen miles down the road (or about six miles as the crow flies) almost due east, and in a patch of houses and families that she loved and appreciated with all her heart, might, mind and soul.

Lib and I, and some of you, were part of a the last fully “captive” Island generation, one that evidenced a world that she loved with all her heart. In truth it was just a neighborhood, a family, an extended family, or a group of extended families to some people. But to Lib and some others, it was a world that had been stamped our consciousness as children and that we have found it difficult to say goodbye to.

In asking [requiring] me to eulogize her today, Lib expected that I would tell you, for her, where and what she came from and was a part of. I will attempt to do that understanding that some of you already know this story, or have at least heard it before. Please bear with me as I repeat it, because it was what Lib had wanted.

From before I can remember, Lib and her family were a part of my life. Technically, Lib and I were 2nd  cousins. But just about everybody on this Island is some kind of cousin to everyone else. Indeed, there was something about this relationship we shared with the others in our world that went beyond blood lines, and that had as much to do with time and place and other people, as with any simple genealogical connection. As I honor her, I want you to know, or to remember, what that world and place was like.

Our common ancestor was Emeline Brooks, and that is where our story should begin. To really understand Lib, or me, or Barbara or Veta Ann, and lots of others, I want to tell you something about Emeline and how what happened to her has affected us,

Emeline Brooks was the 5th great granddaughter of John Shackleford, from whom Shackleford Banks got its name. As a very young girl, she married Louie Larson ( a stowaway from Norway and the traveling companion of Charles Clawson), and settled up at Harkers Point. It is poetic that Louie was first brought to the Island by a local businessman he met in Wilmington. His name was Eugene Yeomans, and his son David would later become a part of this story in an important way. But that was on a distant horizon when Emeline and Louie started their lives together.

Soon after comint to the Island Louie built a grist mill to try and make a living. But Louie died less than four years into their marriage, leaving Emeline with two small girls; Lilly, who was blind, and Agnes who would be my grandmother. After having been a widow for seven years she married Calvin Farr Willis and moved to his place along the south shore of the Island, where they soon had two sons of their own, Rennie and Danny, whom everyone called, Dankie. By the time my father was born in 1909, there was no distinction between the children of Louie Larson and the children of Cal Farr. There were all one family. They were all Emeline’s.

Eventually, Agnes married my grandfather, Charlie Hancock from the Banks, and after the hurricane of 1899, he moved with her next to the home of Emeline & Cal Farr where they were raising “Blind Lillie,” and her new brothers, Rennie and Danky.

The Willis and Hancocks families and homes soon stretched northward from the shore, and joined with the family of Hardin Guthrie (Louie and France). France's brother, Tom Martin, had a son (Willie) and daughter (Annie) who married two of the Moore crowd (Aaron & Carrie). The Guthrie houses ended where the Moores began. Two of those Moore-Guthries married the Willises (Leslie married Vivian and Cecil married Esther), and the circle was made complete.

Willises, Hancocks, Guthries and Moores (along with Scotts, Irvines, Fulchers, Cravers, Salters, and Gaskills who had married and become a part) lived in an area of not much more than a city block, all of us related in so many ways that they stopped keeping count even before I came along. We just knew we were part of a special group, a neighborhood, a family, and a way of life where we did almost everything together from fishing, running horses, killing hogs, building boats, swimming, playing, cutting down Christmas trees, and making a living.

That was the world of which Libby Jean was so happy and proud to be a part. As I have mentioned , she was very close to her father David. But she would explain that when her father married Clara Mathelda, he became part of her world and not the other way around. Just as Bob would admit, and ever brag about, that when he married Lib, he became part of her world, and not the other way around.

The Apostle Paul, writing to the Ephesians, observed that , “for this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh.” (New Testament | Ephesians 5:31)

Over the centuries this has been taken to mean that in a true wedding, two people become one. I can’t think of an example where this has been fulfilled more clearly than in the union of “Lib & Bob” or “Bob and Lib.”Think for a moment, in the past twenty-five years or so, have you ever said one name without at least thinking of the other.

For quite a while now, Bob has been a good friend to me and to all of my extended family. He has a talent of making us all, individually and as a group, feel that we are his best friend and the most important person in his world — at least for the moment. He is probably known by as many people in this county as any other single individual, and is loved by just as many — and deservedly so. But Bob would be the first to admit that he is not “perfect.”

But at least from what I saw, and what I heard, and what I felt, he was perfect in the loving care and friendship that he displayed to my dear friend Lib. I asked if in his heart of hearts there was anything he might have done differently — but without giving him the chance to respond. I know he might look deep enough to find something. But whatever that is, I don’t think it will ever matter — for in a very real sense he opened up and gave all of that giant heart of his to Lib, to Libby Jean, so that we were all exactly right in calling her and him Lib & Bob, Bob & Lib.

So it is in his honor, as well as hers, that I say goodbye to my childhood and life long friend, Libby Jean. Goodbye and God Speed. It was good, and the next time will be even better.

Joel Hancock
20 Aug 2011

Monday, August 15, 2011

No. 62 An Island that was part of the World

"We do not remember days; we remember moments.' Cesare Paves

From "Livin' & Leanin', the 25th Anniversary of Harkers Island Elementary School," remarks given by me in 1982

One beautiful Indian Summer afternoon in 1963, soon after recess, our Principal, Miss Wade, came to the door and beckoned our teacher, Miss Sudie, to speak with her outside the room. We could sense that something out of the ordinary was being discussed, both from the urgency in the gestures of Miss Wade as she summoned our teacher, and especially by the concern that was evidenced by Miss Sudie as she returned. In short order she stood at the front of the class and demanded our attention. Little could we have anticipated how much what she then announced would change us and our world in the years that followed.

Though we grew up on an Island, we were not completely isolated from what happened in the world around us. Important and often tumultuous events were taking place quickly in the 1960's and they were reflected within the walls of Harkers Island Elementary School. Almost half a century later I  recall most of them as still images of how I first experienced them. Years of study in the social sciences continue to dim in comparison to the influence of those images upon my political and social consciences.

In 1960 John Kennedy, a Catholic, ran for President. He hoped to end forever any suggestion that a man or woman's political opportunities as an American citizen might be limited because of his or her religious beliefs. That effort caused shockwaves to run throughout our country, especially in the South. And not a few of those shockwaves were felt as we third graders in Miss Daniels' class discussed and even argued whether Kennedy's election might mean that all of us would have to “swear allegiance to the Pope.” Then as now, children reflected the side of any debate they had heard championed in their homes. Already acutely aware of how my family’s peculiar faith (Mormon) was viewed by many of our neighbors, I was especially sensitive to the question and to its outcome.

Two years later, in October of 1962, our fifth grade class, like every other class in the country, rehearsed together how to seek shelter under our wooden desks if a nuclear attack resulted from what was happening in Cuba. As if it were only yesterday I can recall my teacher asking a visiting official what he thought might happen as Russian ships approached the limits of the American Navy's blockade of the island nation. My heart sank to my stomach as I heard him suggest, though only in a whisper so that we children might not be alarmed, that he felt there was going to be a "war." Though we were only ten years old, we were sophisticated enough to sense that war in 1962 suggested something quite different than it had meant to our parents. We had read enough “Weekly Readers” to know that in this "war," school children as well as soldiers would suffer from the "ultimate weapon." Seldom in the years since have I felt the relief that I sensed later that week when our teacher joyfully proclaimed to the class that, "The Russians have turned back!"

But events moved quickly then as now and there was little time for exultation. It was only one year later, on that memorable Indian Summer afternoon, that we sat together again as Miss Sudie announced to us that our President had been shot and killed in Dallas, Texas. In the coming days she would try to explain many other things to us, such as why our flag was flying at half-mast. Unfortunately, there were some things she was never quite able to make clear. It took only a few hours for some and days or weeks for others, but we soon returned to the games and pleasures of childhood. Still, more than we realized at the time, at that early point in our lives we had been shocked into reality; the reality that even in the fairy tale land of America we were yet to overcome ignorance, bigotry, and violence.

Because of our special situation on this Island that really is an island, we were spared from having to witness first hand the cataclysm that was called "integration" (see Post No. 47). But we had ears to hear and eyes to see the televisions to which by then almost all of us had access. Perhaps because of our isolation from the main battlegrounds of that struggle, I recall that many of my classmates and teachers had a deep sympathy with the plight of Blacks in the South. Names like James Meredith, Medgar Evers, and Dr. Martin Luther King were not the anathema to us that they were to some other white school children throughout our region.

And finally, by the time I had entered the later years of graded school on he Island, some of my classmates were beginning to see brothers, uncles, cousins and nephews drafted and shipped off to fight in places whose names most of us had never heard of. But by the time we graduated from High School nearly all of us could reel off names like Saigon, Hanoi or DaNang as easily as if they were situated just across the Bridge. Obviously, none of us questioned then as some later would, the reasons for America's latest effort to "make the world safe for democracy." But when those same relatives began to come home wounded, scarred, and sometimes not at all, we realized that the toy soldiers of our childhood were all too rapidly giving way to the realities of a grownup world; harsh realities that could not be swept away merely by deciding it was time to go home for supper.

But those distractions were very much the exception to the normal routine of life we knew and enjoyed on the Island of my youth. For most of us, most of the time, life played out in a splendid slow motion – slow enough to be savored and enjoyed, and then to be remembered. As the years have passed those memories have loomed larger and larger. Rather than fading them into the distance,  the prism of time has actually brightened  their luster.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

No. 61 The "Tiny World' of Cecil Nelson

"I would prefer not to," said he. I looked at him steadfastly. His face was leanly composed; his gray eyes dimly calm. Not a wrinkle of agitation rippled him., ...not the least uneasiness, anger, impatience or impertinence in his manner ...” Herman Melville, Bartleby the Scrivener

One summer morning my father was working on his boat, “The Ralph,” at the landing when he called for my youngest sister, Lillian. He didn’t call her by name because, he like everyone else before and since,  just called her “Sister.” He gave her a dollar bill and sent her along the shore to the west’ard on an errand. She was to go to a store, almost half a mile away, and get a quart of “copper paint” that Daddy would then mix with kerosene to make sure he had enough to cover the bottom of his vessel.

“It should be less than a dollar, and you can keep the change,” he promised her, knowing that the prospect of even a few pennies as a reward would cause her to hurry on her way.

Within a few minutes, Sister, who was yet to reach her teens, was standing in front of the counter of a small wooden frame store and was doing just what her father had asked. A middle-aged man listened to her request and reached to the shelf behind him where he found the item my father had wanted. He explained to Sister that the cost was 95¢ and that he would have to get full payment before he could give her the paint. She immediately laid out the dollar that she had been carrying and waited anxiously for the change.
My sister, "Sister," holding a baby at
about the time of her errand.

“I don’t have any change in my pocket right now,” the store clerk stated, “but I’ll drop it by your house the next time I’m in your neighborhood.”

“No you won’t,” Sister quickly responded, “because you don’t ever leave your yard, much less come all the way to our house.”

“You’re a smart little girl, ain’t ya?” the man replied, as he reached under the counter and found a nickel. He handed the coin to my sister who, as soon as she held it in her hand, grabbed the small can of paint she had been sent to secure and ran all the way back to our landing.

The man behind the counter at the paint store was the store’s owner, Cecil Nelson. For him that store, and the dock that ran from it into the Sound, and the frame house that lay a few feet farther inshore toward the road, were his whole world – not just figuratively, but literally. Cecil suffered from what is often called “agoraphobia,” a common symptom of which is an unwillingness to leave home, and sometimes even a room.

By the time I came to know him hardly anyone could remember ever having seen Cecil anywhere other than on the small spot of land that held the home he shared with his wife, Myrtle. My father, just four years younger, could recall seeing him at the Banks when they were boys. He often mentioned that he had been so pampered as a child that his father, Sam Nelson, would carry him on his back as they walked across to the beach side of the Shackleford so that young Cecil would not have to strain while walking in the soft sand. And the fact that he was married suggests that he earlier must have had at least a some sort of social life outside of his own home and family. But those days were now long gone, and almost forgotten.

His little store sold only paint (Wolsey was the preferred brand of the day) and nails, two staples of life for everyone who worked with boats. Both suppliers and shoppers were obliged to come to him if they wanted to do business. He was not one to make a sales or buying call. The counter of the store was stacked with the magazines and newspapers that he got by mail, and that he read from cover to cover while passing what must have been long and frequent intervals between customers.

Some people still talk of how “smart” he was about news and affairs, and how he was often the first to know about most of the important things that were happening in the world. They also mention his beautiful penmanship, and how he wrote out receipts and signed his name as if he were preparing documents to be displayed behind glass or on a wall.  But more than anything, they recall about how he absolutely refused ever to leave his yard. They lament that near the end of his life, he grew increasingly more reclusive and it was said that he would not step off of his own front porch.

In addition to the store, he supported himself with a small clam house situated at the offshore end of a short dock that jutted out from his shop. There was a high white sandy shoal on both sides of the pier that was used as a bed for smaller seed clams until they were big enough to sell. Jimmy (Fulford), Roosevelt (Davis) & “Cooter” (Ernest Davis) were his usual suppliers. They would dump their smaller clams on the shoal beside the dock and then wait for them to grow. Then, months later, using a forked rake on a wooden handle, they would dig them back up. Cecil would buy their harvest and then resell them to a dealer in Otway.

For a while he even had a truck of his own that he used to carry the harvested clams to the market. He would be seen sitting behind the wheel steering it in a circle around his house, and especially near his front fence, but not once venturing as far as the paved road that was less than fifty feet from his door step. Instead, he had someone on hire that would drive the truck for him, and then return with empty baskets to restart the cycle.

One story, as poignant as it is revealing, is told by one of his younger neighbors, who upon getting his first car was eager to show it to “Old Cecil” as he was by then called. He drove it directly into the yard and in front of the porch and honked down hard on the horn. Within a few seconds both Cecil and Myrtle were standing in front of him, smiling broadly at the new automobile they were being shown. Cecil came down and looked into the window at the shiny leather, and even sat behind the wheel and tugged it in both directions, pretending to steer it as if it were moving. When at length he arose from his seat to look more at the bright finish and the chrome bumpers, his young friend asked him in a pleading tone, “why don’t you jump in and let me drive you to Shell Point? It won’t take five minutes. I want you to feel how she does when she goes into passing gear.”

Without the slightest hesitation Old Cecil just smiled and shook his head and stepped back up on the porch. “I don’t think so,” he said, but apologizing only for his friend’s obvious disappointment; not for his decision.

Not unlike Melville’s Bartleby, “... his face was “leanly composed, ... [with no] anger, impatience or impertinence.” He was comfortable in his own little world, and only in that world. He didn’t ask you to join him in it, only to respect its boundaries.

Monday, August 1, 2011

No. 60 Harkers Island “Cowboys” - Mike, Bill & their horses

A recurring fantasy, even a dream, among boys of my age on the Island was that we have one of those much touted Shackleford Banks ponies for our very own (see post no. 25). For most of us that was all it ever was, but for some of us, including two of my brothers, it became a “dream come true.”

The horse-penning that occurred at the height of each summer, and that most everyone on the Island got to witness, could not help but arouse the interest of a generation that was fed a daily dose of TV westerns. Several times each evening we watched in our living rooms as both Cowboys and Indians rode their horses gallantly into town, into battle, and even into the sunset. Knowing that there were large herds of seemingly free and wild ponies for the taking just across Back Sound was constantly on our minds and in our conversations.

Actually, the wild ponies were wild but they were not really “free.” Almost all of them were claimed by owners from the Island and the mainland, and one of the main reasons for the annual penning was to identify young foals so they could be claimed and branded. My father even owned a few, and when I was about five years old he allowed my brother, Mike (son number four), to bring a young, roan colored mare over to the Island to spend a summer. After just a few weeks, and before the horse was fully “broken” for riding, the pony sustained a serious cut on its hoof while grazing in a wooded area between our house and Cliff Guthrie’s. 

Seeing how grave the injury was becoming, and knowing that veterinary help was out of the question, my father decided to transport the filly back to the Banks so it could heal itself in the salt marshes that until then had been his home. He wrapped the wounded heel with strips of a bed sheet and tied it up with string, and then turned it loose in Cab’s Creek, a section of marshes that lie directly across the Sound from our house.

My brother, Mike, as a young teenager
My brother Bill (son number three), however, had a much more fulfilling experience as an Island cowboy. In the Spring of 1953, when he was fifteen years old, he was rewarded with a gift of fifty dollars for the previous summer of helping my father in the water. They had agreed to use the money to buy a Banks pony from an Island neighbor, Joe Neal Davis. ‘Joe Neal’ had a two year old stallion he was keeping at East’ard (Core) Banks that was both bigger and more lightly colored than most other feral horses. Needing some immediate cash, he sold the pony for approximately half of the going price that similar stock would bring had he waited until the auction that accompanied the summer penning.

Daddy and Bill pulled a skiff behind the “Ralph,” my father’s boat, to the Banks where the horse was captured, and then hobbled so he could be carted in the skiff back to our landing. The pony proved so spirited that both the capture and the fettering were much more difficult and time consuming than my father had anticipated. Memories of that experience would resonate with my brother and would be evidenced when the time finally came to move his pony back to the Banks for the Winter.

Bill stabled his new pony, that he named “Samson” after the long-haired Biblical strong man, in the grassy yards that belonged to our father, our Uncle Louie, and our grandfather, Ole’ Pa. He soon had Samson gentled enough to ride, but when Daddy realized that Bill had begun a pattern of mounting on the horse’s right side, Indian style as it was called, he demanded that his son retrain both him and his ride to the more traditional “left-sided mount.” That was fine with my brother, but the horse, now used to the original routine, began to bite at Bill’s arm every time he approached from what Samson assumed to be the “wrong side.” Eventually, my brother grew weary of the “snipping” and in a reflex punched his horse squarely in the jaw. “After that,” he said, “Samson never snapped at him again.”

My oldest brother, Ralph, was already married and living in Idaho when he heard about Bill’s new venture. As an expression of both love and admiration for what was being done, Ralph purchased a used saddle from a military surplus store and had it shipped all the way to the Island so that his younger brother would not have to ride bare-backed. Bill kept and cherished that saddle long after the horse it had straddled was gone.

The Island in 1953 might not have been thickly settled, but it was still thickly wooded, meaning that there were few open spaces for riding, especially running, a new pony. Bill made use of a north-south path that stretched from the landing, ran beside our house across the main road, and then back to the “old road,” roughly a quarter of a mile, as his riding circle. After a while the rider and his horse extended their range all the way to the Sand Hole at the west’ard; more than a mile each way. The horse loved to gallop in the soft white sand that interspersed the dunes and bushes, and they were often joined there by Bill’s good friend, Jim Sparks, who also had a pony of his own. While riding there alone among the hills one day Samson was “spooked” and threw off his rider. Startled by the event, the horse ran all the way home without Bill, while my brother, who had punctured his side on a tree limb, had to make his way home using only his own two feet.

By the end of that summer the sight of Bill riding his horse was recognizable to almost everyone close to our home. Samson had been fashioned into a dependable mount and was much loved by his rider. But the financial realities of the era did not allow for anything other than grazing for sustenance. Purchasing hay was out of the question, so Bill knew he would be able to keep him only until the grass began to die in late Autumn. After that he would have to carry his horse back to the Banks so that he could forage the same shrubs and grasses that had sustained the herd for almost three centuries.

As the sun moved farther south in the evening sky, and the summer grass quit growing, Bill realized that the time had come to retrace the same journey that had brought Samson to the Island six months earlier. At least this time he would be able to deposit his horse on Shackleford, much closer and easier to get to than Core Banks could ever be.

Anticipating the problems that had been evident when his horse had first been captured and transported, Bill began to prepare his horse and friend for the journey that awaited them both. More than a generation later, my mother and sisters would still wax emotional as they described my brother training his horse to get into the skiff; not just to make Sampson more comfortable, but also to avoid the frustration that my father had shown a few months earlier when the routine had first played out. Day after day, Bill would walk his horse to the landing so he and Samson could practice getting in and out of the skiff. Finally, the day arrived for departure, and, much to everyone’s relief and satisfaction, Samson comfortably climbed across the gunwale and stood erect, where, being held by my brother, he was towed across Back Sound to his winter home.

Teenage boys grow up much faster than horses, and by the next summer, just like Mike a few years later, Bill had turned his attention to other more “normal” interests for a sixteen year old boy. But he did so having lived out a fantasy that only a very few boys, even Island boys, ever got to experience.